This chapter contains graphic sexual content.
In one of the few meeting rooms on the Brigand not yet torn into by sailors, an automatic kettle filled with coffee had been set on a table, along with creamer, sweeteners, and some sweet-glazed biscuits. Only two people occupied this meeting room today. On one side of the table, Lieutenant Murati Nakara sat with her back up straight, her hands on her lap, and a somewhat tense and serious look on her face. Her eyes wandered frequently.
Across the table, Premier Erika Kairos sat casually back, sipping coffee from a plastic mug.
“I’m glad I was able to catch you today, Lieutenant. You’ve been quite busy!”
“My apologies! There’s been a lot of work to do. I was planning an outing too.”
“Ah! Then I won’t keep you long, don’t worry.”
“No! It’s perfectly fine. I have a lot of time still– and I’d make more time for you!”
Erika put her cup of coffee down for a moment and leaned forward with a friendly smile.
“I’ve been informed of your indefatigable work ethic, but this is not that sort of meeting.”
“Oh! I thought you wanted to go over procedures and such, maybe talk about the pilots–”
“Not today! Right now, I just want to get to know you personally, Murati Nakara.”
Murati felt her heart accelerate in her chest.
Due to the circumstances, she had not yet been able to have a one-on-one meeting with the Brigand’s new political leader, Erika Kairos of the Nationale Volksarmee. Of course, she was well informed of the situation, she was there to listen to Erika’s speech. But they had not gotten to actually talk to one another. Murati’s duties as first officer intensified recently due to the messiness with the Brigand’s refit, and the Captain’s participation in United Front discussions. While the Captain and Commissar were occupied, Murati had tapped into that ‘indefatigable work ethic’ to cover every second that they were gone. She had signed off on workgroup tasks, rejected dozens of foolish inquiries and requests from the sailors with an iron fist demanding strict adherence to code, and maintained operational security.
Then, Murati was swamped with additional shore leave preparations.
So she had been denied the time to meet Erika again and again. Even as Erika made the rounds and visited the engineers, sailors and other pilots, Murati had been absent.
While she was busy, she hadn’t thought about it as much, but in her presence–
Murati felt almost desperate across from this woman. She was completely struck by her.
That speech– it had shaken through Murati and filled with her burning determination!
Erika’s words bore the weight of history; every sentence swept through Murati like a hurricane. She was left wondering if this is what the original revolutionaries felt listening to Daksha Kansal declare the Union upon the First United Front’s liberation of Mount Raja. Ever since hearing that speech, in the back of her mind, she thought about what she would say, what she would ask, how she would make a first impression on Erika–
“Lieutenant, you haven’t touched your coffee. Is everything okay?” Erika asked.
“Yes! Ma’am! May I ask something about you?” Murati said.
“Of course! This is a conversation. No need to be so stiff, Murati!”
“Ma’am–” Murati’s eyes brightened. “May I ask about– your bibliography!”
Erika blinked her eyes, in the middle of lifting her cup for a drink of her coffee.
“My bibliography?” Erika asked, cracking a little grin.
“Yes! I mean– I want to know about your theoretical grounding! I’m– I’m not questioning you of course. I am someone who greatly admires the Katarran people and sympathizes with their history and plight; and to see a scholar such as yourself who is fighting for their dignity and that of others, it gives me such wild hope for the future! In so few and yet carefully chosen words you demonstrated such a vast and strong grounding in the status of internal nationalities in the social order of the Imbrian Empire, but not just in theory, but with concrete experiences gleaned from local insight! Through your speech, I glimpsed the rich history of the Shimii in Eisental and the economic advantage Imbrians glean from the direct exploitation of Katarrans even as they try to drive them to the margins of society! My eyes were opened– I am deeply, poorly read on the specifics of regional cultures in the Imbrium. I must update my theories too! I would read any number of books that you suggested!”
Murati’s wild hand gestures and sudden eagerness seemed to surprise Erika.
Who still had her cup of coffee hovering near her face while she stared at Murati.
“I’m afraid I don’t have an exact book list.” She said gently. “I’ve read the elemental works, like Mordecai, von Haar, Kansal’s early work, Jayasankar’s treatises on inter-ethnic alliances in the Union’s struggle, such things. I’m afraid there’s not really anything that’s written with a critical eye about Eisental’s history. I was actually thinking of writing about it once–”
Upon the mere suggestion that Erika might write a book, Murati’s entire soul quaked.
“Ma’am if you wrote a book, I’d love to read your manuscript! Maybe I could help edit! It would be my honor to do anything I can to bring your insights into the broader academic discussion on communist governance and nationalities policy! You are definitely worthier of being read in Union scholarship than some of the doggerel that passes for socialist education at the Academy!!”
Murati spoke breathlessly and had started to lean closer across the table.
Erika blinked and finally sipped her coffee again after several minutes.
“My, my– it looks like it’s not just your work ethic that is impressive!”
She started giggling. Murati started to wonder if she had misspoken somehow.
“I am flattered Murati.” Erika continued. “Perhaps in the future, we can do so.”
“Yes, of course.” Murati said. She thought she inferred the Premier’s intent.
Right now wasn’t the time to be thinking about theory-craft.
Erika looked upon Murati with a fondness and softness in her eyes.
“Captain Korabiskaya spoke glowingly of you. She told me you are not only skilled in combat and in tactical planning, but are also exactingly responsible towards your duties, and the most ardent communist of the crew’s officers. Even in this short span of time, I can already feel your– unique– passion and energy, Murati. I may just concur with the Captain.”
She set down her coffee on the table and reached a hand across.
Murati reflexively saluted, realized she had done so, and immediately reached out herself.
They shook hands, with casual courtesy.
“I am not much older than you; I am hoping that both of us can have bright and long futures ahead. For now, Murati, let us do this. You live your theory with that passion you possess and speak your mind candidly to advise me and our course of action. And I in turn will live my theory and impart on you what I’ve learned from my years here in Eisental. I think this will be more instructive to both of us for now than writing my seminal work of theory.”
“Yes, of course, Premier. Thank you kindly.” Murati replied.
When Erika spoke seriously, she had a decided charm Murati could not avoid.
She had an easy, unremarked charisma; something Murati felt she herself must have lacked.
Maybe if it was Erika, all her petitions for captainship would have borne fruit.
But when they talked just like this, she also seemed approachable and easygoing too.
It made Murati feel a bit less mature than she once believed herself to be.
Erika was someone, like the Captain, who had demonstrated enormous merit in the field.
Murati hoped she would have an opportunity to prove her own convictions as well.
“But like I said,” Erika continued, “I wanted to talk about you personally.”
“Of course! You can ask me anything, ma’am!”
She hoped her enthusiasm wasn’t too annoying– but Erika was just so cool.
Almost like speaking to a real Katarran warlord– but a communist!
“What are your ambitions for the future, Murati?” Erika asked. “One thing I’ve always been curious about, is what children of a real socialist nation grow up wanting to become. Here in the Imbrium, no Katarran child can dream of anything; and the Imbrians are pushed to think of themselves as money earning machines who need waged labor. If I might be allowed an assumption, it seems like you are on track to be a wonderful scholar. Am I wrong?”
Murati smiled. “Actually, ma’am, I want to be Captain of a ship in the Union Navy. Of course, you can’t do that forever– someday I may become a Kommandant and perhaps even a Rear Admiral, I’m sure. But I feel that a Captainship is a reasonable goal within a few years.”
Erika looked surprised for a few moments and then smiled again.
“A career soldier? How interesting. I shall evaluate your merits over time then.”
“Ma’am!” Murati stiffened again. “I would welcome any criticism you have!”
“Oh dear, I’ve made her go solid as steel again.” Erika said, giggling.
“Nothing, nothing~ Murati, please don’t be so formal.”
Murati let out a long-held breath and tried to loosen up at least a little bit.
She finally reached for her coffee and took a sip.
It was still warm, thanks to the design of the mug. She hoped dearly she was not looking like a fool in front of Erika– she was committed to impressing her new ally. Erika was not only a Katarran, whom Murati was fascinated by; nor just a successful leader of insurgents; she was a communist, excellently read, eloquent, and with easy confidence. It felt like Erika had achieved so much of what Murati strove for, and Murati wished to earn her respect as a peer.
But she couldn’t hurry to that goal. She just had to do her best, over the course of things–
–those things, being, war. Murati then felt the totality of her foolishness hit all at once.
Probably, she looked like a monumental idiot being so excited about going to war.
“How has life been for you aboard the ship?” Erika asked. “Do you have any hobbies?”
Murati blinked. Erika’s casual inquiry brought her out of her dark, spiraling mindset.
“Um. It’s been more than acceptable. The Brigand is very comfortable and full featured. As for hobbies, I– I like music. Electronic music. And I like to read of course. I have been reading about local establishments– I have my fiancée aboard and I am planning a date.”
“She is quite a lucky woman! I hope you have a fantastic evening.”
Erika sipped her coffee again and Murati tried to think of what else to say.
“Um– yes– hobbies– let’s see–”
Hobbies were not a particular strong suit of Murati’s– being asked that question by Erika made her realize how much her work and her ambition had become her entire life. Having to furnish an answer to someone she wanted to respect and desired esteem from made her wrack her brain and realize she didn’t do much ‘for fun’ around here, or even back at Thassal. She had always been doing work for Naval HQ or fighting them about getting more work or a Captainship, and she only ever went out to have fun if it was with Karuniya. In her room, she mainly read history books and treatises on war, logistics reports, strategic reviews of forces. She rarely watched films, and was only familiar with video games through her advocacy for combat simulators. In fact, she only really liked music because it could provide ambiance while she was reading or working– she didn’t have any hands-on sort of hobbies.
“We could listen to some music sometime. I could show you my favorites.” Murati said.
“That would be lovely. We shall make a time of it at the next opportunity.” Erika said.
“Ma’am– Should I have a real hobby?” Murati felt compelled to ask all of a sudden.
Mainly out of reaching a peak of nervousness about whether she looked too foolish.
Erika gave her a gentle smile, reached across the table, and patted Murati’s hands.
“No, Murati; you should be yourself, and I think you are very good at that.” She said softly.
Murati smiled back. She felt a shot in the arm of confidence.
For the rest of their conversation, her wild gesticulation and verbal energy fully returned.
“My girlfriend is the absolute coolest! She’s the coolest of the cool!”
Maryam clung closer to Shalikova’s arm, rubbing her cheek up against the shoulder.
“Ah– Thanks– Maryam–”
“I told you! You look amazing on the street like this! I’m so happy you wore the outfit!”
“Yeah–? Well– As long as you like it–”
They’re the worst. They’re the worst. Those two– they’ll be the death of me–!
Everyone was staring.
Literally everyone on the street was staring directly at the two of them. Right? They must have been. Shalikova was almost scared to try to catch the direction of anyone’s gaze in the crowd. Maybe they weren’t looking– but she felt so exposed. She was so red. Not just her face, but her suit was so red and gaudy– and the sunglasses— it was insane to be wearing it, she felt like an ambulant semaphore. No– she was more like a living Yule decoration!
It was insane. And it was all their fault.
“It’s been a long walk, but I’m really looking forward to the carnival!”
“Ah– yeah, definitely–”
“We’re gonna eat junk food and play games all day! The perfect station date!”
“And we look like such a power couple, don’t we? It’s everything I dreamed of!”
“Uh huh? Well– I’m happy if you are–”
THEY’RE THE WORST!
Several hours before she set out on her date with Maryam, Shalikova had gone to Illya and Valeriya’s room. They had insinuated they had something to give her, and she wanted to get whatever filial nonsense they thought they had to do for her sake, over with as soon as possible and then get on with forgetting it. She figured it was some ill-considered thing relating to her date, like cologne or erection pills. She paused in front of their door, wondering if she might be able to make out a sound. Neither one of them had told Shalikova what their schedule was like, so she looked for them as soon as she woke up.
She thought that she could hear a vague whiny noise through the door.
“Ugh. What if I walk in on them? Damn it.”
Shalikova stood frozen in front of their door for three or four minutes before knocking.
“Forget it, it’s not my fault if I inconvenience them–”
Mere seconds after Shalikova’s fist raised off the steel door, it unceremoniously slid open.
Though Shalikova immediately feared a dramatic unveiling, Illya and Valeriya’s room was nothing out of the ordinary. Two bunks, a pull-out desk, bare metal walls and floor, like the rest. Unlike most of the officers, who lived alone until circumstances starting shrinking the number of available accommodations, Illya and Valeriya were roomed together. Valeriya was lying in bed, whether sleeping or not, Shalikova did not know. From the glimpse of a pale shoulder, she was naked in bed, her back turned, barely wrapped in blankets.
Illya was seated in the middle of the back wall, with a portable computer laid on the pull-out desk surface. She was wearing a tanktop and shorts and looked bored scrolling through pages. It seemed the two of them had their fun before Shalikova stood at their door.
She felt a sense of relief lifting the tension in her chest.
“Sonya.” Illya said, by way of greeting. “Anything I can help with?”
“You wanted me to come get something.” Shalikova said, barely above a whisper.
“You can raise your voice. She’s awake. She just doesn’t want to look at you.” Illya said.
From the bed, Valeriya raised a hand, waved half-heartedly, and then put it back down.
Shalikova noticed as her hand came down, she gestured like lifting a mask over her face.
Which she was not wearing to bed– Valeriya was really a prisoner of her habits.
“Fine.” Shalikova said. “Look, you said you had something for me if my date got approved. Well, you saw it from your monitors, I did give the form to Murati, and she did approve it.”
“Ah, yeah. I have something that’ll upgrade you from ‘our little sonya’ to a real playboy.”
“Yeah? I don’t want to do anything like that. But I’ll take it just so you’ll shut up.”
“You’re so cold to me. But you’ll be hot as fire if you wear this to your date.”
From under the room’s second bunk, Illya withdrew two plastic gift boxes.
“Back before we learned about this mission, we got you a gift and tried to make plans to see you again. We thought bringing you something fancy might break the ice after a long time apart– but you know, circumstances conspired against us, and we broke the ice in much shittier ways, on this boat, instead of in the Union. Regardless, it’s yours. We got you an outfit and some accesories. Mount Raja chic stuff– not the easiest shit to get without the sort of connections we have. You can wear it or not, but you really ought to.”
She deposited the boxes on Shalikova’s awaiting arms with a self-assured grin.
Shalikova was not even going to bother to open the boxes much less wear the contents.
Maryam was just going to wear a uniform, and so was she.
“Thanks. Are you and Valeriya doing anything special?” She asked out of courtesy.
Illya cracked a grin and cracked her knuckles too. “Every night is special for us.”
Shalikova crooked an eyebrow. “Okay. Well. Whatever. Have fun I guess.”
She turned sharply around and marched back to her room and put all of that behind herself.
Back in her room, she threw the box on her bed and stripped her clothes.
On the opposite side of the room, a strobing purple marshmallow indicated that her girlfriend was still solidly asleep and Shalikova had no intention to wake her. She had an idea of how she wanted everything to go. She would go catch a shower, come back, dress up, and if Maryam was still asleep, she would go pick up food for the both of them.
They would eat in their room, and then set off together.
Maryam slept like a boulder most of the time, so she didn’t have to fear waking her.
She left the room in her vinyl bathrobe, marched to the bathroom, ignored Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa being there together while washing up, marched out of the bathroom. With her hair wet and dressed only in her vinyl robe, Shalikova still felt, for once, bold enough to go to grab a breakfast box from the under-reconstruction cafeteria.
Appearances be damned– this was her big day.
Raising her head, straightening her back, smiling to herself like she owned the ship.
Even if it was a little cold to be out and about like that, the fire in her heart was enough.
Shalikova grabbed some breakfast and took it back to her room.
In her mind, she would stride through the door to the adoring eyes of her girlfriend.
Looking oh-so considerate, responsible, and put together, for bringing her breakfast in bed.
She stood at the door. In her mind– it was going to be a perfect start to a perfect day.
Reality punched her square in the sternum just a moment later.
“Sonya! Take a look at this! It’s so cool!”
Shalikova found Maryam was awake and sitting on her bed instead; holding up some bright red thing at her with an enormous beaming smile like a little girl with a birthday gift. Illya’s boxes and their wrappings lay discarded behind her. Maryam had helped herself to whatever Illya had gotten for Shalikova– which was mortifying enough to think about.
But the actual contents–
“I bet you would look really cool in this! And now I can wear my nice dress too!”
–inspired even greater fear.
Unable to bear the disappointment it might cause her girlfriend, she went along with it.
And now, they were walking down the street, in public– and Shalikova looked–
“Who gave you that dress anyway?” She said, trying to deflect.
“It was McKennedy! She said she wanted to make up for ‘the inconveniences.’”
“She must have realized how racist she sounded with you.”
“Well, it’s quite cuttlevenient for me, whatever the intention.” Maryam smiled proudly.
Illya’s gift for Shalikova was a set of track clothes.
There was a bright red zip-up jacket with gold stripes, emblazoned with the word “ACE” on the back in gold-bordered black, which Shalikova wore half-unzipped over a plain white tanktop and sports bra for lack of anything else to pair with that. Along with the jacket she received matching red pants with a gold stripe. They were exceptionally tight in the back– a place where Shalikova was a bit lean anyway. She got new black and white sneakers too, with actual laces and layered material that must have been a boutique synthestitch job.
And then, she had the sunglasses.
Big light-blue lenses that perched heavily on her nose and barely concealed her eyes, on a thin frame from translucent blue and black materials. These were typically known as “pilot” style glasses despite the fact that Diver pilots didn’t wear things like this— or at least Shalikova did not. They were extremely showy and so they went with the rest of the showy outfit, which made Shalikova feel like she must have come off monumentally insecure.
Does Illya think I’m a delinquent?! Is she just fucking with me?!
There was a bright side, keeping the situation from being completely intolerable.
While Shalikova looked, in her mind, ridiculous, at her side, Maryam was jaw-droppingly, stunningly beautiful. McKennedy, as rude as she was, definitely had an eye for fashion.
Maryam had been gifted a long-sleeved dark blue dress that flattered her figure, with a high collar and white seams and accents. The sleeves flared into little ruffled cones at the wrist, and the skirt had a similar ornate, ruffled design. White leggings and black shoes added a bit of contrast. By far the cutest touch, however, was a floppy beret perched atop her head.
“You look stunning too, Maryam. Forget about me– you’re incredible. You’re beautiful.”
“Ah! Sonya, thank you so much! But don’t sell yourself short! You don’t let me talk down about myself, so I’m not going to let you either! You’re my super cool girlfriend, so chin up!”
“You’re right. I’ll try– but you really are very beautiful Maryam. I wanted to say that.”
There was one small note of sadness in Shalikova’s heart– because Maryam was not her entire self that day. Her skin was a creamier color, and her hair was still long and silky and dark– but it was not purple. And her eyes were no longer the cute little W’s that Shalikova had come to love either. Maryam was hiding her identity as a Katarran.
Her tentacles and fins shrank and hid within her hair, she wore lenses provided by Cecilia Foss that covered up the shape of her irises. She was pretending to be a black-haired, fair-skinned, blue eyed Imbrian. Of course, no matter what Maryam looked like, Shalikova would still love her– but she wished that Maryam could have been the crayon-pink skinned, purple haired, W-eyed, tentacled and finned purple marshmallow that she knew.
Regardless, she was beautiful, and she was right. This was her special, promised day.
Shalikova had bowed to make it perfect. Illya’s stupid tracksuit was now just part of that.
If Maryam thought she looked cool, Shalikova could try to silence her anxiety for now.
Arm in arm, the lovers strolled through one of C-block’s lower modules.
Ordinarily the purpose of this module was commercial space. Sans accoutrements it was essentially a box wider and taller than a typical “indoors” module in Kreuzung. It played host to conventions and exhibitions, athletic events, and festivals and fairgrounds. For the lovers’ visit, it had become the latter. Now playing host to various rides and mechanisms that had been erected for the festivities, surrounded by a deep cluster of kiosks, tents and plastic buildings, easy to put up and take down. Fairy lights strung up around every structure and overhead pulsed with itinerant colors. There was a sizeable but not overwhelming crowd. And the walls and ceiling of the module had taken on a wine-red and orange-pink color and lighting that stirred something in the most ancient recesses of Shalikova’s brain.
Dreams of the sunsets that their world now only saw in fiction, briefly crossed her mind.
She pulled Maryam in closer, her soft face lit in those dark and evocative colors.
“Whatever you want to do. I’m all yours. Just like I promised.” Shalikova said.
“Back then, did you think we would be this close when I received my reward?”
They had agreed to go on a station date weeks ago, after Shalikova lost a game to Maryam.
Back then, Shalikova heard the word ‘station date’ and imagined several romantic cliches.
Now– they had different cliches entirely. But they were better ones, by far.
“Some part of me was hoping for it.” Shalikova said, with a bashful smile.
Maryam beamed back at her, and pushed herself onto Shalikova, rubbing cheeks with her.
“Let’s go play some carnival games! Then we’ll get some food and get on the rides!”
“Maybe we shouldn’t ride anything with full stomachs–”
Shalikova often forgot about Maryam’s monstrous strength, so she was taken completely by surprise when her pouty girlfriend easily silenced her protests by pulling her helpless along by the arm to wherever she wanted to go. It became funnier than it was distressing very quickly; the two of them entered the crowd winding its way through the festivities.
The clamor of dozens of chatting festival-goers drowning out the chords and brasses of the streetside bands; the smell of frying oil and sweet caramel and cheese predominant among the snack shops; the colored lights playing about their faces and bodies from the shopfronts around them and the struts above them; soon, Shalikova could hardly tell she was wearing her gaudy red tracksuit amid all of the gaudiness and cheer around them.
There was so much energy around her that Shalikova started to feel more comfortable.
Nobody could possibly look at her in the middle of all this–
Except the girl whose eyes she did want.
“Sonya, look over there! You can win me a prize!”
Maryam pointed at a tent playing host to a shooting gallery.
On the front counter, there were a few air guns, carbine-length with a simple stock. Behind the counter, there were several targets of different sizes and at different ranges.
Some targets were platters, others were small cylinders, and the very smallest target was the width of a finger standing on a pedestal. Targets had scores depending on how close or far they were and what size they were, and there was a wall of prizes you could pick if you had the corresponding amount of points. Among the valuable items there was a neon techwear cap, a set of cat-eared headphones, and a large plush cuttlefish.
As they approached the tent, the operator clapped his hands.
“Step right up! Ten marks for three shots! It’s easier than it looks!”
Slightly nervous as the man began appraising her, Shalikova reached into the wrong pocket. She had put her money in her jacket pocket to have it closer in reach and to make it harder for anyone to see the bundle; but she actually reached into her pants pocket out of habit, because the TBT uniform half-jackets usually had no pockets on them.
Her fingers mindlessly closed around something round that was wrapped in a plastic foil.
Briefly speechless, she retracted her hand and took the money from her jacket.
Was that a condom?! Illya?!
“I’ll try it. I want the plush.” Shalikova said, hiding her surprise.
“Well, if you get the points little lady.” Replied the man behind the counter.
He handed her a rifle and stepped aside to allow her to shoot.
At her side, Maryam smiled wide, her shining eyes awaiting Shalikova’s next move.
Shalikova hefted the rifle, feeling the weight. She looked down the sights.
Feeling around the body of the rifle. No safety. Semi-automatic. A small box magazine on the underside. Probably packed with pellets. Had to be more than the three she was allowed to shoot per round. Like Union training guns, it used an electric gear to fire– she realized the man in the tent was staring at her as she examined the gun, and she might have looked briefly suspicious for having insepcted the gun before shooting it.
Without further delay, Shalikova aimed the rifle at the smallest target.
She fired her first shot, falling short.
Fired a second, going wide.
And quickly let loose the third, overshooting the tiny ceramic target.
“Hey, you missed, pal.” Said the operator, a tad bit too cheerful.
Shalikova put another ten marks bill on the counter and looked at him.
There was fiery determination in her eyes which put him to pause.
Perhaps, he was deliberating on whether to allow her another go at all.
From what he saw before, he might have suspected she was familiar with weapons.
At her side, everything had happened so fast, Maryam was still processing.
She looked between the targets, all still standing; and the confident Shalikova, cracking a grin, rifle still in hand, money on the table. Shalikova was sure of herself now. This booth was a scam for civilians, but she knew the exact errant behavior of her rifle now.
Staring down the operator, with the rifle still in hand, finally caused him to relent, take her money and allow her to shoot again with the same rifle. This was his mistake.
Had he made her swap, he would have gotten another ten marks for free.
Wordlessly, Shalikova lined up the small target in her sights.
Under the watchful eyes of the operator, she shifted her aim a few degrees up and left.
He knew immediately, and she heard a low groan escape him.
Trigger pull; the fwip noise of a shot.
Immediately, the shattering crack of the finger’s-width plate worth the most points.
Knocked off its distant pedestal and smashed to pieces on the floor of the tent.
“Alright miss. You wanted the cuttlefish plush right? You earned it.”
From behind the counter, the operator picked up the round, fat fluffy cuttlefish toy.
He put it in a bag, and with a nervous smile, reached the bag out to Shalikova.
As if to say, ‘put the gun down and leave with this.’
Shalikova grinned even wider and cockier than before.
With the rifle she had in hand, she could have taken every high points target.
That would have given her more winnings than the plush– but the operator had to cut her off to cut his losses. He was trying to weasel out of the rest of the shots Shalikova had already paid for, which was rather dirty of him. Shalikova had thought about demanding to play the rest of her round, with its two remaining shots. But Maryam was watching with stunned elation, and they didn’t want to rock the boat anyway.
Graciously, she put down the gun to accept the plushie.
“Sonya! You’re the absolute coolest! A stone cold killer!” Maryam cheered.
“Thanks, but uh,” she started to whisper, “tone it down a little!”
Shalikova pulled Maryam away from the tent and back into the path.
“Look Sonya, it’s me!”
Maryam half-unbagged the cuttlefish plushie. She pointed at it, and back at herself.
Shalikova looked at the plush. It bore little resemblance, due to the Imbrian disguise.
It was basically a blue blob with a suggestion of tentacles, but it had the silly little head fins.
“I can see it.” Shalikova replied.
“Thank you Sonya! This is already the best day ever!”
“I told you, you’re so strong. You’re like a Katarran warlord!”
“Let’s– let’s not push it– okay?”
“No! We’re gonna push it! Let’s play more games!”
“Okay– That’s not what I–?”
Maryam grabbed Shalikova again and rushed to the next attraction that caught her eye.
There was another tent game nearby that had a long board that sloped against a backing board. On the peak of the board there were several holes that were worth points. Along the length of it, there were obstacles that served to funnel a ball thrown by the player toward the backing board. Each of the obstacles and holes was marked with the points, with the objective being to slide the ball into the center-most of the holes for the most points.
Just like before, there were prizes up on a wall. There were novelty glasses with swirly colored lenses, a very intricate toy Marder-class, a replica vibrocutlass, and a bag of novelty game dice, with a twenty-sided dice out of the bag to demonstrate the contents.
Judging by the prizes, this game was for a younger set than the last one they played.
“Maryam, do you really want any of this stuff?” Sonya asked.
“I want the game dice!” Maryam said. “Good dice are invaluable, Sonya!”
“These don’t look good to me, but I’m not an expert.” Shalikova said.
“You can run all kinds of scams with dice, they’re an amazing survival tool.”
Shalikova blinked. “Um. But you don’t need to run scams anymore. You know?”
“Oh. I suppose that’s true! But I still want them!”
She puffed up her cheeks just a little– couldn’t do it too much without attracting attention.
At Maryam’s petulant insistence, Shalikova walked up to the operator–
“Oh no Sonya! You misunderstood! I want to play this one! I just need some money.”
Shalikova reached into her jacket for the spending money the Captain had given them.
Then she had a sudden and worrying thought.
This game did not look particularly sturdy. It was a bunch of plastic boards and small parts slotted together. For the average carnival-goer that wouldn’t be a problem, but she began to think of what would happen when Maryam’s abnormal strength acted on that ball. Could she just punch through the backing board? Would she send all the obstacles flying?
She stood for a second with her hand picking through a bundle of bills.
Staring at Maryam’s smiling face the entire time without an expression to match.
“Maryam, I think– I should play–”
“Sonya, you shouldn’t get to have all the fun you know.” Maryam said gently.
This is her special day. You just have to deal with the broken plates Sonya Shalikova.
With a sense of looming dread, a defeated Shalikova handed the bills over to Maryam.
Cheering, the not-so-purple marshmallow danced over to the ball game with great vigor.
“How much for a game?”
She put a bill on the counter, and the operator handed her three balls.
Maryam’s face lit up.
Shalikova’s face darkened.
She partially averted her eyes.
“Here I go! Cuttle-shoot!”
From the shadow at the edge of her eyes, Shalikova could tell Maryam had reared up to throw the ball– but the motion that resulted was much less aggressive-sounding than she imagined. In place of the raucous crash she was expecting, Shalikova heard rubber sliding on textured plastic. There was a soft thud and a chunky noise–
–and then the game board made a happy, chirpy noise.
Shalikova turned to look and saw nothing had been destroyed.
Maryam had simply put a ball into the center-most hole on her first try.
“Lucky girl eh? Pick a prize and give me those back.”
Like the other proprietor, the vendor for this game moved to quickly cut Maryam off.
He quickly handed her the bag of dice she wanted with an awkward grimace.
Maryam pocketed them with a smile and prompted Shalikova to walk away with her.
“Sonya, I can already spot my next target!” She declared happily.
Across the bend from the ball-throwing booth there was a test of strength game set up on a cleared patch of festival ground. It constituted a gaudily decorated pressure plate attached to an LED tower that would light up when the player struck the plate with a mallet in order to measure the strength of the player. Shalikova had little to fear with this one.
Everything was digital, the mallet head looked like rubber rather than metal, the pressure plate was a thick and pretty solid-looking object, and there did not seem to be any moving parts. It seemed unlikely Maryam’s strength could physically destroy the equipment.
Next to the play space, there was a set of plastic shelves with prizes.
Maryam quickly honed in on a pair of sunglasses with big blue lenses and a sleek frame.
“After I win those, we’ll match, Sonya!” She declared happily.
Shalikova stepped aside, simply relieved that there wasn’t an obvious problem for now.
Seemingly amused at a slight-looking girl trying her luck with the game, the proprietor took Maryam’s money and watched attentively from the side, chuckling as Maryam bent down, picked up the mallet and raised it. He must have thought it would be easy money.
Then the magic that was Maryam came into play. Shalikova felt the air rush as Maryam threw everything she had into a titanic swing, smashing the pressure plate such that it made a sound like a gong, and sent a vibration into the earth that stirred up Shalikova’s feet. The proprietor must have felt it too because he reacted like he wanted to jump away.
On the LED tower, the display lit up with a red NaN at the very top.
From Shalikova’s vantage, there was a hairline crack on the side of the pressure plate.
Thankfully, the proprietor was standing opposite them, so he didn’t see it at first.
Having borne witness to Maryam’s brutal power, he rushed to get the prize she wanted.
“Take it and go.” He said sternly.
Shalikova urged Maryam not to complain.
She put the sunglasses on Maryam’s nose and pushed her away into the crowd.
Putting as much walking distance between herself and that proprietor as she could.
Meanwhile, Maryam’s cheeks puffed up to a somewhat reasonable extent for an Imbrian.
Wearing the sunglasses, her consternation looked even more silly.
“Hmph! Hmph! Sonya, it’s not fair! We could have won a lot more prizes!” She whined.
“Maryam, that’s the point.” Shalikova sighed. “We weren’t supposed to win anything.”
“But that’s unfair!” Maryam cried out, crossing her arms as she walked.
“Uh huh. All the games are rigged Maryam. We won because we’re not normal. Normal people just pay to lose. By the way, weren’t you just saying you were a scammer too?”
“Hmph! I’m different from them. I won money with games of chance. It’s– it’s totally different if you get scammed by that. Games of skill are supposed to be fair. It’s not the same!”
“I’m sympathetic because you’re my girlfriend, but the rational part of me is yelling.”
Maryam stopped Shalikova in the middle of the street.
Her eyes narrowed, her gaze hard.
“Sonya. What if the food is also a scam?” She said, in a grim tone of voice.
“I don’t know how it could be.” Shalikova said. “It’s not like you can rig food.”
Soon the two of them would discover how it was possible to scam people with food.
Their eyes widening and their faces paling at the tremendous prices on display.
Across a long aisle full of different vendors, there was nothing worth less than 10 marks.
One sausage? 10 marks. A carton of popped corn? 10 marks. One cheese bread? 10 marks.
Aside from the limited selection that Shalikova could eat, the prices were out of control.
“Sonya. Let me handle this.” Maryam said. A mischievous little grin on her face.
Over Shalikova’s monosyllabic and nebulous objection, Maryam skipped toward the little kiosk selling cheese bread for ten marks a piece. With an enormous smile she waited for her turn in a small line of people. The vendor was already prepared with a piece of cheese bread in a wrapper when Maryam’s turn came up, and was already holding their hand out to collect the ten marks. Maryam, however, had her hands behind her back. Casting glances about herself. There was no one behind her in line except for Shalikova who had followed her.
“How about you give a discount for Kreuzung station’s biggest cutie?” Maryam asked.
Shalikova felt a shiver running down her back and across the lengths of her limbs.
In an instant, her eyes glowed with the power of psionics.
She heard a voice whisper in her mind; or perhaps, she just knew something was happening.
From Maryam, a colored cloud seemed to waft toward the vendor, like a visible breeze.
Green and blue in equal amounts, at first, but the blue quickly overwhelmed.
And the vendor’s own blue, green and slightly yellow aura completely shifted as well.
Maryam and the vendor held gazes for a few seconds, before the vendor’s apathetic expression became a smile almost as comically pleasant as Maryam’s. They leaned over to hand Maryam the cheese bread they were already holding and retracted the hand with which they meant to collect payment. Instead, they reached for a second cheese bread in the oven in which they were cooked. With seemingly great pleasure, they wrapped the bread, and handed it to Maryam as well. All the while, their aura looked shiny and serene.
“Of course, miss! Cute couples gets free bread around here! Have a wonderful outing!”
Shalikova blinked with confusion as the vendor reached out to hand her a cheese bread.
Maryam made a cutesy gesture, making a V with her fingers, and turned around.
“Alright Sonya! Let’s eat and go somewhere!” Maryam cheered.
Shalikova glanced at the vendor and back at Maryam.
“Right.” She said. “Maryam. Follow me.”
“Oh– Okay Sonya.”
Her voice trembled. She definitely noticed the shift in Shalikova’s attitude.
But she wasn’t angry.
It wasn’t helpful to be angry about it. Shalikova felt something else.
On the edges of the module space, red plastic fences had been set up to prevent anyone from accessing the wall panels, which were projecting the same colorful horizon and sky as the rest of the module and looked like invisible walls surrounding the carnival space. There were no vendors here, just plain floor with false turf, and there were a few perfunctory tables stood up so people leaving the crowd could sit around in the empty space.
There were a few people there, but it was the emptiest place in the module nonetheless. Shalikova took Maryam there and stood a few dozen meters from the nearest visitors. They had eaten their ill-gotten cheese breads on the way. Shalikova’s heart pounded.
Shalikova reached out and grabbed hold of Maryam’s two hands.
Maryam’s face turned slowly redder. She averted her gaze a little.
Shalikova bent forward and put her forehead gently on Maryam’s own.
Truly hoping Maryam would understand her. She could not hold back her words any longer.
“You don’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore.” She said, whispering close to Maryam, brow to brow and nose to nose. “You don’t have to use your powers or the skills you picked up on the street to steal from people. Even if they’re being unreasonable– it doesn’t matter. Please rely on me, Maryam. Don’t take advantage of people anymore like you did to that vendor. I don’t like it– and you don’t need to do it. I don’t blame you– but please stop.”
“Sonya– I– I’m sorry– I thought you must have hated me now.” Maryam whimpered.
“I don’t hate you.” Shalikova said. “I’d never hate you at the drop of a hat like that.”
Maryam sniffled. “I’m sorry. I’ve been hiding things from you– like that power–”
Shalikova could feel the contrition in Maryam’s voice, but it was not contrition she sought.
“Maryam, I don’t need to know everything. People can’t know everything about each other. I am not asking you to come clean with anything or to explain everything. I trust you, I want to trust your judgment. I trust that you will understand me now and understand what I want. Please don’t use your powers to manipulate innocent people. You have a support network now– and you have me. You have me, and you have your dreams. I will help you realize your dream, Maryam, but as part of that, you have to stop abusing your gifts.”
She lifted her forehead from Maryam’s and looked her in the eyes.
Not with sternness or conviction, but gently, with love. She loved Maryam so much.
Maryam was a sweet girl who had a hurt in her that had yet to heal. She wanted to help her.
She squeezed Maryam’s hands more firmly. “No more ‘scams’ okay? Promise?”
Maryam smiled, weeping, and nodded her head. “Yes, Sonya. Thank you.”
Shalikova leaned forward again, and lifted one hand from Maryam’s.
With those fingers, she tipped Maryam’s chin up just a bit. She kissed her.
Gently but without hesitation. Communicating her feelings and convictions.
“I love you, Maryam!” Shalikova said, raising her voice right in Maryam’s face, much to the latter’s surprise. “I know we’ve only been together for a bit now, but I’m really serious!”
“Sonya– you don’t have to shout.” Maryam said, chuckling at Shalikova’s passion.
“I know! But I feel like if I don’t say it loud enough, it’ll sound unserious!”
“Oh trust me, Sonya, it’s very obvious when you are being serious!” Maryam said.
Shalikova started to feel a little silly again. But Maryam’s laughter was worth it.
The two of them stood off to the side of the carnival for a bit, holding hands and hovering in each other’s space. Leaning their heads into each other, sighing together. It was just a little bit awkward, but Shalikova could feel the warmth of Maryam’s gentle affection throughout. Maryam was scared Shalikova would hate her; but Shalikova was also scared Maryam would react badly to being essentially scolded by her girlfriend.
Their love weathered the stiff breeze, however.
“I guess you do have that ‘King’s Gaze’ gift after all, don’t you?” Shalikova said.
“No, I actually don’t. What you saw is a special trick.” Maryam said.
“Maybe I’ll ask you to teach it to me someday. I need to get stronger.” Shalikova said.
“Ah– that one can’t be taught. But I’ll teach you everything else– I promise!”
“Yeah. I’ll need it if I’m going to help you reveal the truth of psionics to the world.”
Shalikova said it off-handedly, but the words made Maryam cling even closer to her.
“Thank you, Sonya. I’m lucky to have you.” Maryam said.
“I’ve never been so lucky with my life as when I met you.” Shalikova replied.
It felt corny to say, but it was also how she felt, and there would be no better time to say it.
Hand in loving hand, they made their way back to the carnival.
Because of that love, Shalikova would not stand letting Maryam’s special day end so early.
“We can do anything you want. Play more games, eat more food. I’ve got the marks.”
Maryam smiled and squeezed Shalikova’s hand.
“It’s already been a perfect day, because I’ve been with you, Sonya.” Maryam said.
Shalikova smiled and averted her gaze, just a bit embarrassed.
“But– There is something I’d like to do. Let’s ride those spinny cups!”
With a bright and innocent smile, she pointed at a ride at the end of the street.
Cup-shaped couples’ vehicles attached to a broad spinning base, with each cup also spun on its own axis, for twice as much intimidatingly kinetic spinning action on its occupants.
It was a stunning chimeric blur of a machine.
Shalikova felt her stomach churn.
“Of course, Maryam. Anything for you.”
Though she would come to regret the consequences, today, everything was for Maryam.
Commence Operation “Bottled Ship.”
Murati grinned a little to herself with unflagging confidence.
Meticulous plans had been laid; now it was time to pay them off with flawless execution.
“After you, madam.” Murati said, holding a door open for her vibrantly-dressed companion.
“Oh ho! Look at you– in full hubby mode tonight. I’m a lucky gal!”
“You’ll see just how lucky, Karuniya.”
Everything had been accounted for. Everything was in her total operational control.
Karuniya would dance upon the tips of Murati’s fingers until she was sick of the pleasure.
For this date, the most crucial factor to begin was to choose the venue.
In this case, Murati had searched high and low to find something to Karuniya’s taste.
Her face lit up with a radiant smile as she realized where she was.
“Oh! It’s an aquarium? I’m so surprised– I had no idea this station had one!”
Walking through the doors, they found themselves in the middle of an atrium connecting many seemingly massive containment chambers to a series of a walkways astride thick glass, by which visitors could behold the exhibits. Vast recreated ocean vistas teemed with life well-lit enough for the visitors to enjoy, with carefully considered biomes and species pairings. However those exhibits themselves were quite special– certainly, Kreuzung itself did not have the space to host all of the entities in these grand spaces by itself.
Murati led Karuniya straight ahead and demonstrated the illusion on the glass.
When her hand touched it, the exhibit was revealed to be an LCD display, and a menu appeared that allowed for the perspective of the glass to be shifted in a small window just for her and Karuniya– so that it would not disturb the broader view that all of the guests received. Upon seeing the trick play out, Karuniya laughed to herself.
“Of course they wouldn’t have the animals here, there’s no space. This is pretty clever though. But where are they broadcasting these animals from?” She asked.
“Thuringia Research Complex.” Murati said. “It’s apparently a big deal.”
“Well, let us judge the scope of their collection then.” Karuniya said.
“Anything you want to see first?” Murati asked.
“As a matter of fact, I’d love to see what kinds of jellyfish they have.” Karuniya replied.
“Jellyfish, huh? Well, you’ll be pleased by the variety, judging by the ads I saw.”
Murati reached out her arm, so that Karuniya could hook around it.
“My, my, you’re so gentlemanly today.” Karuniya said, taking ‘hubby’s’ arm with a grin.
“Just for tonight, I’m making every possible effort.” Murati said, grinning herself.
Both of them had donned their best set of clothes for the date.
It was the same pair of outfits they had worn once before; their ‘date’ back in Thassal. Owing to events best left unremembered, the two of them had not gotten to debut these outfits in public back then– though they had certainly made an impression on each other.
Now, however, they lit up the halls of the digital aquarium.
Murati wore a slick button-down shirt with bronze cuffs and a fit so flattering to Murati’s lean body it must have looked as if it was tailored for her, and not picked out of a rack at a station plaza in the Union. She wore it just how Karuniya had once advised her, tucked in and with a few of the top buttons undone. Because the shirt was white, there was a tantalizing impression of Murati’s black brassiere beneath. Besides the shirt, she had put on a tight pair of pants that had also once caught Karuniya’s eye, along with black shoes. To finish her look she took an extra effort in grooming herself, washing and styling her short, dark hair and applying a hint of borrowed lip gloss and skin toner to make her face look more special.
Karuniya had once called her tall, dark and handsome when she first tried out this look.
That affirmation accounted for a significant boost to Murati’s confidence on this date.
Another force multiplier, however, was the absolute desire Karuniya’s look inspired in her.
With a woman like this on her arm, Murati could have never let herself fall short.
Under the bright white lights of the aquarium’s atrium and in the connecting halls of the exhibits, Karuniya was like a techwear runway model. Most striking was the off-shoulder crop top with translucent sleeves, effectively bearing Karuniya’s shoulders and some of her neck and collarbone, because the leotard she wore beneath cut at the upper chest.
High-leg stockings and a short skirt with intricate hip cutouts and leg slits, of the same material as the top, finished off the look, showing off several spots of Karuniya’s perfect, honey-colored skin. Both the top and skirt clung to her figure perfectly, highlighting the smooth and plentiful curve of her hips and chest. Her hair was collected into a ponytail and had a glittery sheen like tiny constellations playing about the rich dark strands.
Her face was always beautiful– but with a touch of glossy, dark red lipstick and eyeshadow she looked remarkably glamorous and mature. Both her and Karuniya had their selves they wore around the ship, playing around and hurling good-natured teases at one another– one hurling far more than the other. But arm in arm like this, they looked like the married power couple they had not yet been able to be, serious, sexy and clearly into each other.
Seeing her like this made Murati’s heart soar, but she had grown just enough over the few months of their relationship, to be able to wear a conceited grin on her face and play it cool.
No longer would her mind ask the question, ‘do I deserve her’? ‘Can’t she do better’?
Murati didn’t just deserve Karuniya; she desired her with all the little greed she had.
And she would more than make up for the interruptions and miscalculations of the past.
“Have I ever told you your ass looks amazing in those pants?” Karuniya winked.
“I could stand to hear it more often.” Murati said, playing coy.
In silent response, Karuniya grabbed a handful of her hubby’s rear.
Holding hands and clinging close, the pair stopped in front of the screen for the jellyfish exhibit. Unlike some of the other halls, the lights were very dim, only bright enough to keep the visitors from bumping into a few benches laid opposite the screen. In the dark, the only light was provided by the screen and by the wide variety of colored jellies. Hundreds of deep-sea jellyfish streaked across the screen like a storm, their bioluminescence exaggerated by a post-processing effect just enough so that they would provide alternating colors across the faces of the visitors gazing at the great swarm arrayed before them.
“Pop quiz Murati, are jellyfish community organisms or single organisms?”
Karuniya looked at Murati after delivering the question and smiled one of her characteristic little grins. The way the lights played about her face, cast her glossy lips and slightly glittery cheeks in contrast– it was arresting enough to delay Murati’s answer for a moment.
“Single organisms.” Murati said.
“Correct. I thought I could trick you. For your basic biology knowledge, you win a prize.”
Karuniya began to tiptoe and planted a quick little kiss on Murati’s lips.
“Now though, tell me this: how do Jellyfish mate?”
She leaned forward again with a self-satisfied cutesy little look, hands behind her back.
“Sorry Karu, I can’t even imagine them having genitals.” Murati replied with a laugh.
Her fiance’s lips curled into a perverse little expression, and she waved one index finger from side to side in a teasing fashion. “Male jellyfish release clouds of sperm and females release unfertilized eggs, and babies happen from the mess– but in some kinkier species, the sperm will actually travel directly inside the female through her mouth to fertilize her.”
Karuniya licked her lips after delivering her explanation, locking eyes with Murati.
“So, had I gotten it right, would I have won more than a kiss?” Murati asked.
“May~be~” Karuniya replied, in a little sing-song voice.
She gave Murati a smoldering gaze before turning and walking away down the hall.
“I can barely keep up with her sometimes.” Murati muttered to herself, smiling.
From the jellyfish exhibit, Murati imagined Karuniya might want to see some of the more grandiose animals of the collection. She had looked at the catalog and memorized the locations of the exhibits and was ready at a moment’s notice to make suggestions– but Karuniya continued to surprise her with what she was interested in.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, due to Karuniya’s character and what interested her about the sea in her own profession– but Murati couldn’t help but feel a bit blindsided to be holding her fiance’s hand while looking at manicured algae through a fancy LCD.
Painstakingly recreated in a controlled environment, the “marine forest” exhibition hosted a vast forest of tall yellow-green macro-algae and an underbrush of moss overgrown on the rocky artificial seafloor. Animals lurked the vegetation, like shrimps and small fish.
“Look at that. So much primary production!” Karuniya declared cheerfully.
“Primary production?” Murati asked.
“Algaea are able to capture chemical energy from the environment.” Karuniya replied. “In essence, they create the prerequisites for a food chain. All they need is whatever amount of sunlight can penetrate the surface of the water, and the right chemical balance. But smaller animals can feed on them, and those animals feed larger predators, and so on.”
She spread out her arms as if she wanted to embrace the algae in the tanks.
“You’re looking at life itself, Murati! An environment that has primary production is one that is still sustaining life. Our world is not so dead after all, is it? Maybe it’s not in the best shape for us to live in, but as long as algae grows in the photic zone, life will go on.”
Rather than say something sarcastic or contrarian in return, Murati simply looked at the algae and tried to quietly imagine that chain of living. Algaea begot as if from nothing, feeding the bottom dwellers that would be eaten by free floating fish. Fish eaten by whales, sharks, and even leviathans. Insuring that something with a nervous system continued to roam the world, even as humans killed each other hundreds of meters farther below.
She smiled at Karuniya’s girlish enthusiasm and her optimism.
Even if she didn’t quite share it– to Murati, there was no point if humans didn’t live too.
To Murati, humans were life. However wrong it may have been– she put humans first.
“Did I successfully troll you by placing animal life over human life?” Karuniya asked.
“Complete failure. Not mad at all.” Murati said, smiling placidly.
“Darn. You’ve actually bettered as a person. That sucks.”
“Actually, you were just so cute delivering your speech.”
Both of them laughed in unison before moving on from the macroalgal forest.
“Alright, you must be going nuts from all this oceanography crap, let’s see a big shark!”
“I’ll never get tired of your ‘oceanography crap’ Karu, I mean it.”
“Ah hah, then let’s go see some dolphins! They’re awful little guys!”
“Unfortunately, there is no dolphin exhibit.”
“Aww. That’s too bad! I could’ve told you all kinds of horror stories.”
“Really? Horror stories about dolphins?”
“Oh ho! You have no idea!”
Karuniya raised a hand to cover her laughing mouth, narrowing her eyes in a sly expression.
Murati remained ignorant of whatever Karuniya was mugging at, however.
Despite Karuniya’s disappointment at the lack of dolphins, she was enthusiastic during their visits to several other exhibits. Thuringia had built quite a collection of habitats, including an abyssal exhibit in a fully dark hall where eerie bioluminescent fish roamed, a bit too close to home; a school of colorful tropical fish in a well-lit habitat without predators; a tank that was home to a vast blue whale, though Karuniya noted it was cruel for the whale to be alone, even if it was for the scientific observation of humans; and a tank of various crustaceans with gleaming shells; and a small sunken vessel overgrown with barnacles and other creatures.
“Crustaceans are like nature’s Diver mecha.” Karuniya declared confidently.
“What? Really?” Murati asked, swayed and drawn in by her tone. “How so?”
Karuniya cracked her same grin once again.
“I was just jerking your chain. Totally meaningless and random thing.”
“Maybe I could stand to be more frigid to you.”
“But I love this Murati who is trying sooooo hard!”
Karuniya squeezed close against Murati’s chest as if trying to nuzzle her.
Murati averted her gaze, slightly embarrassed. Was it that obvious?
But she really wanted to succeed.
Throughout, Murati carefully studied Karuniya’s responses and expressions.
Everything seemed to be going well. Her fiancé was still seemingly engaged and happy.
Murati neared the end of the first phase of the operation.
“Let me lead the way now. There’s something I want to show you.” Murati said.
“Oh? Exciting~ is it your favorite fish, Murati?”
It was only tangentially related to fish, but Murati was counting on the spectacle of it.
And also on Karu having built up some appetite over the course of the night.
Rather than a food court or vending machines or any other sort of cheap and quick meal, the Kreuzung Aquarium had a bespoke high concept restaurant inside its premises and offered a ‘dining experience’ for two. During planning, Murati had feared that finding a nice place to take Karuniya to eat would be difficult because of their diet, but the Aquarium was a step ahead. They offered a ‘special nature-friendly set’ for that did not have meat or seafood and instead promised a plant-based four course menu.
It had been a bit pricey, but Murati managed to scratch together the additional budget needed in Imperial marks because Valya Lebedova was disinterested in going out and spending their shore leave funds; and because Aiden Ahwalia was serving a punishment and would not be allowed to spend his own.
With Valya’s blessing, Murati made reservations.
“After you, madam.” Murati said, leading Karuniya into the dining venue.
There was a very small lobby, only large enough for a front desk, that led into a hallway full of doors. Everything was dimly lit. At the desk, a hostess confirmed their names and reservation and led them into a room in the hall. Inside the room there was a small table and two chairs, surrounded by undecorated walls that were very close and a rather low ceiling– everything was exceptionally tight. Karuniya looked amused by the whole thing, it must have seemed ridiculous to her. When they sat down, her eyes began to scan around the room for any sign of what the gimmick was. She did not seem to find it at first glance.
“Since you ordered a set dinner menu, we will bring you the courses, starting with aperitifs. What kind of environment would you like to enjoy today?” asked the hostess.
“Whichever you think would suit the evening.” Murati replied.
Smiling, the hostess left the room, and the door shut.
Karuniya chuckled again. “Is this a joke? A reservation for eating in a dim metal box?”
“Just wait.” Murati said.
Outside, the hostess must have been inputting something for the room.
About a minute after she left, the walls of the room slowly brightened.
First they took on a variety of dark blues and greens.
Streams of bubbles played about the walls and ceiling. As if rising out of the depths, the projections on the floor, ceiling and roof all began to lighten. Beneath the couple, a bank of sand came into view. Above them, rays of sunlight penetrated the bright blue foaming surface of the water. Around them, on the walls, schools of fish in all colors and sizes flitted from wall to wall like a storm of bodies. Karuniya smiled and covered her mouth, as if embarrassed at how surprised and delighted she was by the illusion of the room.
Their table was now suspended in the middle of a simulated ocean.
Certainly no camera could safely capture a near-shore sandbank and all the shallow water life that existed there, but something like a predictive imager could be programmed to display a complex illusion like this one. Every fish had its own organic and variable routine, and because the graphics were not being rendered in real time from acoustic data, there was not the sort of dramatic visual noise one would get from a ship’s predictive view. Everything was rendered convincingly enough for the perspective of the diners. Seagrass and kelp dotted the landscape, there were little crabs in the sand below, and larger animals occasionally swept through the landscape as well, disturbing the many schools of fish.
“Murati I was skeptical, but this is so amazing! I don’t even know what to focus on!”
“Right? The hostess really picked an amazing environment for us.”
“It’s almost like being in a Diver, but you know, in much nicer waters.”
“And with far better cameras.” Murati added, laughing a little at the idea.
Murati knew what she was focusing her eyes on.
Not on any fish, but the woman across from her, face glowing gently as the light alternated across her features, smiling ear to ear, a girlish joy overtaking her as her eyes tracked the simulated fish and scanned the blue near-shore horizon. She was staggeringly beautiful. Being with her– more than anything, it gave Murati hope for life.
If the world really was dying, she could have withstood the end of it at this woman’s side.
But it made her fight for the remainder of the world they had, with all of her strength.
For a world where Karuniya’s dreams and ambitions could be realized.
Murati reached across the table and took one of Karuniya’s hands in both of hers.
Karuniya looked down from the fish she had been tracking.
“Murati, thank you. You didn’t have to go to these lengths, but I truly appreciate it.”
She lifted her other hand from the table and stroked Murati’s hands as well.
“You deserve to indulge every so often. We don’t know when we’ll get a chance again.”
“This reminds me of our first date.” Karuniya said. “That restaurant, back home.”
She spoke euphemistically, she couldn’t say ‘Mt. Raja’ but Murati remembered perfectly.
“That’s precisely why I wanted to have a bougie dinner date.” Murati replied.
She lifted the hand she had taken closer and kissed the back of it.
Karuniya looked, for once, to have a bit of a girlish blush on her cheeks.
After the spectacle, the food began to come in.
It was no longer the highlight of the evening having been shown up quite thoroughly by the ingenuity of the venue, but it was still pleasant. Cucumber and seaweed salad with puffed rice “coral” crackers, wheat gluten “scallops” in a savory butter sauce, heart of palm and chickpea “crab cakes,” and a “sea foam” ice cream dessert. It was all quite cute, the portions were decent, and the tastes were well considered. It helped that there was a bottle of red wine with the dinner set that complimented the meal and the evening well.
Eating their imitation seafood courses in the middle of imitation sea life.
“To simulation!” Karuniya cheered, wine glass in hand.
Murati laughed and lifted her glass to Karuniya’s own.
And with that, the merry-making portion of the operation was fulfilled.
Just as they had entered the Aquarium arm in arm, with Murati dutifully opening the doors for her fiancé, they finished their dinner course, saw all they desired to see, and as it was getting late in the evening, bid farewell, with Murati now holding the doors for a tired Karuniya. Arm in arm again, they left the Atrium and waited at the elevator bank for a ride back to their floor. It was time to retire back to the ship until their next journey.
“I had a fantastic time, Murati.” Karuniya said, settling against her hubby on a bench.
“Ah, but there’s still evening to go, mademoiselle.” Murati said, putting on airs.
“Yes, but I could use a good lie-down.” Karuniya said gently.
You’ll lie down, don’t worry. Murati laughed internally. It was time for the finale.
Some might have thought it uncharacteristic of her– but Murati could be rather lascivious.
Like any woman, she had desires, fantasies; she could be aggressive. She liked to top!
When the mood was just right, when she had Karuniya right where she wanted her–
Tonight, she had expertly crafted the mood; and Karuniya was clearly asking for it.
They made their way quietly back to Alcor Steelworks.
That night, Kreuzung was just a bit chilly, for reasons known only to the temperature control authority, but it made Karuniya cling closer to Murati as they walked. Murati hooked an arm around her and smiled. She led her fiancé, who though not drunk was clearly a little bit drowsy from the food and drink, up into the Brigand. Off to one side of the hangar, Murati could see the pair of security officers Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse playing cards to pass the time. They cast a glance at the couple climbing a ladder through the deployment chutes, and then returned to their game. Murati led Karuniya to the lifts.
At the door to their room, Karuniya yawned. She opened the door and stepped in.
Murati glanced about herself.
The hallway down the officer’s quarters was completely empty.
Every door was shut, and nobody was making a sound. Only the hum of the ventilation.
Recalling how the night of their first date had gone, Murati stepped in behind Karuniya.
She walked close to her fiancé, who was about to sit down on the bed–
And struck the wall with her palm, her arm crossing over Karuniya’s shoulder.
Murati leaning into her with a grin on her face and savoring her fiancé’s surprise.
“Oh! You startled–” Karuniya’s eyes met Murati’s own. Realization dawned on her face.
“I told you the night wasn’t over yet, didn’t I?” Murati said, with a grin.
“Ah ha, I see. You’re feeling frisky. Did you manage to hold an erection?” Karuniya whispered.
She raised a hand to stroke Murati’s cheek.
Murati took it into her own and pulled it down gently.
“Let me show you.” Murati said.
Her words came out of her lips almost like a demand.
“Yes. I’m in your hands.” Karuniya said, sounding a little surprised.
Without another word–
Murati suddenly and brusquely pushed herself onto the bed on top of Karuniya.
Never once breaking eye contact as she pushed her down with one hand to the shoulder.
While the other lifted Karuniya’s skirt–
A delectably surprised little expression appeared on Karuniya’s face.
With expert precision, Murati pulled her in by the hips until she was closer to her crotch.
Looming over with Karuniya’s legs spread around her, Murati lowered her head and blew a warm breath directly behind Karuniya’s ear that made her flinch. She was sensitive here. Murati bit on Karuniya’s ear lobe, kissed the side of her neck, nuzzled her shoulder. All the while pulling up her dress and sliding her fingers beneath the leotard she had worn under it. Those fingers lingered on her skin but did not try to slip off her clothes, not yet.
As if to demonstrate; this is what will become of you.
Murati did not even pull down her own pants yet.
She wanted her fiancé to squirm a bit first. For all the teasing she always did.
“You’re already so–!”
An excited little murmur escaped Karuniya’s quivering lips.
“Keep your peace until there’s a reason to yell.” Murati whispered in her ear.
Her fingers traced the soft, pliable skin just below Karuniya’s belly and above her groin, kneading and grazing, gliding further down, peering between her thighs and back up close to her belly. Sliding under the sides and the front of her thin bodysuit and easily lifting the fabric wherever needed. Crucially, never approaching where Karuniya’s needy clit would get an ounce of satisfaction. It was not time for that yet. Murati savored the shuddering flesh, the gentle reactive pushback of Karu subtly pressing her hips back as Murati teased her soft spots, all her favorite places gleaned from past experiences. She could see Karuniya’s flushed expression, her shut eyes; she could feel her little fits and starts of breath.
“Don’t lose your head yet, Karu. I’m not even inside you.”
Soon as a finger glided over her pussy, her body immediately quivered, head to curled toes.
Her hands which had lain at her sides now squeezed the bed. Her chest lifted involuntarily.
Transferring her emotions like a wave into Murati’s own body, pressed atop hers.
Murati’s fingers toying with her like a device. Flick the switch and feel the heat build.
Being in control was intoxicating for Murati.
Her head rushed with the feeling of Karuniya seized in pleasure, being only hers.
She felt it from the tips of her fingers to the stirring length of her dick.
That catharsis which only came with a successful encirclement, with a grand plan.
They had already negotiated before, already explored, already stumbled.
Theirs was a matured love now; and Murati savored the ripe fruit.
They weren’t in Mt. Raja, they weren’t in Thassal; they had come a ways now.
“I’ll give you what you need. I know you inside and out now.”
For a few moments, Murati lifted the hand that was moving between Karuniya’s legs.
Her reach and position emphasized her taller size.
All of her fiancé’s body lay within her lustful grasp. Tracing the leotard, across Karuniya’s belly and up to her ample, perfectly shaped breasts, squeezed beneath her crop top. Hooking her fingers between fabric and flesh, pulling down the leotard slowly to reveal more of her chest, outlined by glistening sweat in the room’s dim light.
Karuniya lifted her back just a bit to assist as Murati pulled the leotard off her hips and down her legs. Finally the underwear came off, lovingly peeled and then carelessly discarded.
“Now, the rest.” Murati ordered.
With a blissful look on her face, Karuniya lifted her top off and cast to the floor beside the bed. She hooked a finger between her skirt and hip and Murati helped her pull it off the rest of the way. Joining her crop top and underwear on the floor. A glistening honey-amber jewel, a treasure of flesh, Karuniya laid sweaty, flushed, quivering gently under the press of Murati’s clothed body. Every fold, every rise and fall in the contours of her– all laid bare.
“Are you ready?” She whispered.
Karuniya shut her eyes and held a little smile, lips quivering with the rest of her.
Murati raised herself just enough to behold her fiancé’s body in its lusty majesty.
Quickly, hungrily, she descended on her once more.
Murati’s lips moved from Karuniya’s ear, neck and jaw, down to her chest.
Feeling Karuniya’s heartbeat through the teeth gently biting down on one supple breast–
“Murati! Oh! Jeez–!”
–while her free hand pushed a trimmed fingertip over a soaked, throbbing clit.
Her tone of voice changed completely– she sounded like she was melting.
Eyes shut, legs trying to tighten and failing with Murati in the way, kicking aimlessly.
Hands ripping into the bedsheets. Chest pounding amid the heat.
Murati’s lips kneaded the tips of her breasts; her fingers glided between her legs.
She was so noisy, and her squirming ever more violent, but under control.
Using her weight and position, Murati kept her pinned and she loved every second.
Karuniya was a screamer, a kicker, bucking hips and jerking arms and Murati loved it.
Her intensity increased to match. Strumming Karu’s clit, sucking on her neck, pushing her.
When Karu threw her hips up at Murati, she felt it directly on her bulging dick.
“Murati–! Mura–! Mu–!”
An explosion of wimpering and moaning, a feast for the ears.
A sudden, surprising calm before the expected climax.
Karuniya opened her eyes slowly, lifted her head to look, eyes clearly hazy.
Breathing heavy, sweating hard. Barely able to move with intention.
Murati slowly pulled back, until her body was half off the bed.
There was a sly smile on her face as she met her fiancé’s confused expression.
She knew exactly what she was doing.
Stopping every so often to kiss Karuniya’s body, on her breasts, on her navel–
–working her way down, laying a sucking nip of a bite on her mons to presage.
Spreading her legs, holding her by one hip and leg, kissing the inner thigh.
Waiting to be acknowledged–
“Murati– don’t– don’t make me wait–” Karuniya mumbled, trembling where she lay.
“Of course. Anything for you.”
With eyes full of lust that Karuniya could no longer see, Murati fulfilled her wish.
Done with the teasing, she lifted her lips off Karuniya’s thighs and kissed between her legs.
Lips closing, spreading, her tongue pressing–
Karuniya started thrashing the second Murati’s tongue slowly and gently worked her clit.
Maintaining a precise rhythm, keeping control of Karuniya’s hips and legs.
Karuniya bucked against her face, and Murati pressed further as if in challenge.
In her throes Karuniya raised up against the wall and Murati followed her back to bed.
Murati closed her lips again, and Karuniya’s hips bucked gentler, her voice dying.
Her fingers curled and stretched in rhythm, and her breathing began to steady.
Murati could feel the shift, and slowly withdrew her tongue from Karuniya’s pussy.
She lifted herself up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“You’re– so cocky–” Karuniya said, smiling, clearly wiped out.
“I think I have good reason to be.” Murati said, with a confident little shrug.
“Ugh. Fuck. You’re awful. You’ve gotten so good.” Karuniya replied, her breath returning.
Murati bent down nearer to Karuniya again and kissed her, holding her shoulders at first.
Karuniya kissed back with vigor, her tongue drawing out Murati’s own.
She still had a bit of fire in her– good.
In the middle of this passion, Murati started to unzip her pants.
For her, it was difficult to work up to an erection naturally. She wouldn’t let it go to waste.
While they kissed, she pulled her pants down, and started to push Karuniya down again.
“Another go?” Karuniya asked, her barely recovered breath leaving her again.
“You wanted me to have fun also, right?” Murati said.
“I do. Condom?”
“I told you, I prepared everything.”
Murati flashed the little packet from the pockets of her pants before she discarded them.
‘How– should I be facing–”
Without another word, Murati took Karuniya by the hips and guided her around.
Karuniya clumsily followed along, Murati savoring every brush of her throbbing dick on Karuniya’s sweaty, silken skin as they maneuvered around each other. In seconds she had her fiancé face down on the bed. One hand holding her lower belly, just above her still shivering clit; and the other on her hip, gripping tight, by which she again pulled her closer, her ass farther up to Murati’s waist, her head and back just barely straight.
“I don’t know how long I can hold this.” Karuniya replied, weakly supporting herself.
“The pillow princess doth protest too much.” Murati said, adjusting how she held Karuniya.
“Gah– You’re really getting me back for all my cheek, huh?”
“I’m just having fun.”
“Me too.” Karuniya said, with an exasperated little gasp.
Murati lifted Karuniya again, pulled her even closer, and clicked her tongue.
Pushing in, shifting her weight and position so that she could thrust into her.
“Ahh–” Karuniya put her head down against the pillow, her hands scrabbling on the sheets.
Clumsy at first, Murati finally felt like she had the balance, and began to thrust with rhythm.
Delighting in the look of Karu’s hair getting messy, her sweaty back, the way each thrust caused her rear to shake. The way Murati could hold her body so easily and use her so thoroughly, bending over her and lifting up her hips and pulling her in deeper.
Her own vision grew hazy with pleasure, and she could feel the rushing in her groin, the thrill shaking her muscles. She restrained a cry, her heart pounding, bent against Karuniya’s back. Almost falling on top of her, losing her rhythm to short, desperate, hungry strokes.
Murati barely lasted, but by the end, Karuniya looked like she could take no more.
As her dick softened and the wet rubber started to slip off, Murati felt euphoric, satisfied.
“Karu– I love you–”
“I love you– Murati–”
Out of breath, spent, and smiling.
Murati curled up behind Karuniya, crammed side to side in bed, and held her close.
Gently kissing her shoulder and the nape of her neck while they fell asleep together.
Having reached a new peak in their journey together.
Winfreda Kappel had struggled mightily against having her clinic torn up by the sailors in their frenzy to unnecessarily reimagine everything in the ship.
One thing that Alcor Steelworks could not promise them was confidential medical work– because they didn’t even have that for their own employees on their executive campus. She was finally able to impress upon the Captain the need to take care of “Treasure Box Transports’” “employees” in the “Pandora’s Box” and that to do otherwise was to potentially compromise operational security. Her clinic remained open.
She had even seen a few sailors and treated injuries incurred in the process of their frenzied renovations, which she felt vindicated her resistance. However, as usual, she did not see a lot of traffic to the medbay and to her clinic. Syracuse, the security team medic, took it upon herself to deliver medication allotments, in order to have something to do every so often.
A ship was not a place that usually saw frequent health problems.
Soldiering was dangerous work, but it was the chance of death that made it dangerous. Pilots, officers, and sailors were more likely to be killed outright by anything that could routinely injure them in a dangerous situation; or would otherwise go uninjured.
That meant Winfreda had more time to kick back and savor the ship’s ‘medical brandy.’
The Brigand’s doctor may have looked at first glance atypical for her station.
A vibrant woman in the midst of a second bloom; the edges of her eyes and lips just scarcely beginning to attain the majesty of age; with brightly dyed hair in three shades of alternating blue, precise with her makeup; a healthy figure beneath conservative dress, sweater and coat and long skirt and tights. Neither the tidiness and discipline associated with soldiery, nor the warm matronly stereotypes of women in medicine suited her at all.
Upon winning her rights in the Union’s revolution, she immediately underwent hormone therapy, dyed her hair, put on loud music and prescribed liberation every day.
Somehow, she drew the eyes of Parvati Nagavanshi one fateful day.
“My mission needs a doctor who has been through hell and back, and still looks in the mirror and wants to live her life each day. It is too easy for someone in your profession to be ground down, broken to merely fulfilling their duties. Such people will collapse under what I am asking. But I know you won’t. Because you lived the Revolution; and now look at you.”
She still remembered Nagavanshi’s conceited, cruel grin in that dreadful black uniform.
Winfreda couldn’t deny any of that. Begrudgingly.
One curious thing about Nagavanshi is it always felt like she assessed the people around her even better than those people assessed themselves, or maybe even could assess themselves. That made her deadly effective at her job, frightening to hear from, and odious to speak to.
Despite that, Winfreda was not exactly thrilled and tried to assert her right not to–
“Let it be noted I tried, and wanted, to be nice. I can be difficult.” Nagavanshi had said.
It was resoundingly unfair, but ultimately, to avoid the resurfacing of certain problems that Winfreda had made for herself in her youthful, liberated social life in the young Union, she took Nagavanshi’s offer. Now she was sailing the high seas, was frequently endangered, and had to double as counselor to a bunch of hot-shots and fools nearly half her age.
At least she enjoyed running a clinic again.
Maybe when she came back– she would actually be ready to settle down. Big maybe.
“My, my, everyone’s going to be having fun, huh?” Winfreda said, grinning to herself.
She noticed one of the “No Judgment Dispensers” she had set up so the crew could self-serve condoms, had gone from full to nearly empty almost overnight. She realized a ton of shore leave dates must have been approved by the Captain. Dutifully, she refilled the dispenser when nobody was paying attention to it.
She saluted in spirit all the folks soon to be getting lucky.
“Hmm. I wonder if Minardo or Lebedova might be down.” Winfreda said, giggling.
Her, Lebedova and Minardo, and sometimes Marina, were called “the elder stateswomen” of the Brigand by a cadre of chirpy girls who also somehow concocted the idea that Shalikova, Nakara, Geninov and Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun were the “Four Princes.” Korabiskaya was spared the gossip largely because the girls were afraid of a reprimand; and Winfreda believed the only thing keeping al-Shajara from the gossip was that her flamboyance precluded any mystery. She was simply too well-known a flirt for those girls’ imagination.
But there was some truth to it in Minardo and Lebedova’s case, in Winfreda’s opinion.
Those two were both quite suited to her taste and seemed like they would be mature about casual sex. Certainly more so than any younger women. They were both flirty and passionate about their work, and had great bodies– she could see why the sailor girls wanted some of that. As for herself, of course, she needed no explanation. Despite her many charms, however, it had been a while since Winfreda had gotten to have sex herself. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask and see if her fellow “stateswomen” were equally pent up as she. At worst they would say no, and at best, maybe she could rope the both of them at once.
Now that would be quite a sight and a sound indeed.
However, where the little faction intersected with Marina–
She was still turning that one over in her head.
Mind filling with a slew of colorful delusions, Winfreda cheerfully ambled back to her clinic to find someone waiting for her in the middle of the room.
A patient; and a most uncommon visitor as well. She was a squirrely one even for regular health checkups. Her figure and stature on the petite side; a completely deadpan expression on a pretty young face; tawny brown hair spun into a distinctive spiraling ponytail; and her characteristic antennae, the size of a human hand and installed where her ears should be, grey and solid with a series of LEDs to indicate statuses.
“Oh, Zachikova! Have you finally decided to stop running away from a blood draw?”
“Funny you mention blood. Mine’s getting a bit thin. I want a scrip for blood pills.”
Winfreda stared at Zachikova, who made no expression in response.
“Your blood is thin? How did you come to this conclusion? What are your symptoms?”
“I’m tired and grumpy. If you’ll just hand me some pills real quick I’ll be on my way.”
Winfreda put her hands on her hips and stood her ground.
Putting on a surly face, Zachikova averted her eyes.
“Zachikova, I’m sorry, but this isn’t a dispensary. I won’t give you any drugs without first knowing what effect they may have on you! If you’re feeling ill, I insist on running tests. You’ve ducked out of having even a single health checkup, and I’ve been worried this would be the result. We will get you help, the proper help, I promise– once we can pinpoint your actual condition.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be an informed consent clinic?” Zachikova grumbled.
Winfreda sighed loudly.
“Informed consent doesn’t mean you can come here asking for erythropoietin or any other thing entirely on your own whim. Some medicines can be harmful and must be administered after testing. I don’t understand why you are so against it. If you don’t want me to do it, I can get Syracuse to run the tests if it would be more comfortable– hey!”
In the middle of her talking, Zachikova simply turned around and left the room.
“What am I going to do with you?” Winfreda cried out.
She had limited avenues for problems like this.
If it got too serious she would have to tell the Commissar, but that just wasn’t her style. Winfreda hoped that any patient who was reticent about treatment could be sat down and talked to and reasoned with, in the privacy of the clinic, with no one the wiser. But Zachikova was the first time a patient was so vehement about avoiding any formal diagnostic tests, and who was aggressively against any discussion of the matter.
“I hate to say it, but it’ll have to be the Commissar then. I’ll write it down.”
Commissar Aaliyah and Captain Korabiskaya had been busier than ever, and always busy together, but it wasn’t like they were joined at the hip.
She just had to pull the Commissar aside.
While jotting down a note on her digital clipboard, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in! Seat’s open!” Winfreda said.
“Ah, not actually here for my health doc, but thanks.”
Once the door slid open, Winfreda smiled at the sight of Marina McKennedy.
“You know, I was just thinking about you.” Winfreda said, smiling.
“Me too.” Marina replied. She showed a bottle that she was carrying.
“I see where this is going. Are you sure you’re okay with it?” Winfreda asked.
“I’m positive. Aren’t you annoying seeing all the kids running off?”
“Hmm. Ah well– you only live once. That stuff better be nicer than my brandy.”
Marina winked, with a handsome smile. With a fond little sigh, the doctor locked the door.
Perhaps unfortunately, Marina was a woman quite to Winfreda’s taste also.
“Well, ultimately, it wasn’t a lot of trouble huh?”
“There were some low points, but nobody has shot at us, so I consider it a win.”
Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara glanced at each other, smiled and laughed.
Since their arrival at Kreuzung, the Brigand had been moored at Alcor Steelworks, subject to an extensive and necessary repair and maintenance program (along with the installation of a few new ‘toys’.) In a week and change, the project was essentially completed, thanks to the gargantuan efforts of the sailors, the Brigand’s friends at Solarflare LLC, and Amelia Winn’s under-the-table assistance in macro-stitching entire sections and systems using military blueprints. Most of the exterior was brand new plate, the interior was fully repaired, maintained, and rewired, and they even added a new chair for Erika in the bridge.
“They even made the armor a nicer shade of beige than before!” Ulyana cheered.
“I’d even say it’s more of an olive than a beige now.” Aaliyah replied.
Both of them stood proudly about fifty meters from the work site, beholding the ship.
In a little over three months, this idiosyncratic rustbucket had been through a lot.
Now it awaited its next adventure.
A sword and shield in the duel for the heart of Imbria. Surely it would have months, maybe even years of beatings ahead of it, but it had never been as prepared for them as it was now. Ulyana almost wanted to shed a tear for what it had come to represent for herself. She felt like it was only yesterday when they were still a motley assortment who barely knew each other’s names. Her crew had come together, pulled through when needed, and the Brigand was now not only their redoubt, their weapon– it had also become their home.
“Ah, Captain, Adjutant. I see you are taking in the sight of a job well done?”
Behind Ulyana and Aaliyah approached Euphrates, dressed as always in her blue blazer, waistcoat and pants, her short and messy blue hair combed back like always; at her side, always to be found, was Tigris, in red overalls and a white button-down shirt, her red hair in a ponytail. These were not her lab clothes nor her business clothes– and farther back, Ulyana spotted two containers being hauled by truck from the freight elevator.
“Euphemia?” Ulyana said. They were outside, so she observed Protocol Tokarev.
“Ah, yes.” Euphrates said, waving. “Our business in Kreuzung is also concluded.”
“We’ll be hitching a ride again if that’s okay.” Tigris said. “As payment, I have a bunch of spare parts and additional equipment for the Agni. Murati will love the stuff, I’m sure.”
“You are always welcome aboard.” Aaliyah said. “Your assistance has been crucial.”
“Likewise. We may well have been dead or abducted without you.” Euphrates replied.
“Yeah, the feeling’s mutual. I’ve been missing that bucket of bolts over there anyway.”
Tigris pointed at the Brigand with a grin on her face. Ulyana smiled back.
“Is your destination the same as ours, then?” Ulyana asked.
Euphrates nodded. “Aachen. Just like you, I need to talk to Ganges, about many things.”
“She’s going to be pretty in demand.” Ulyana said.
“For better or worse, Ganges’ ambitions led her to many places.” Euphrates said. “Far be it for me to criticize her for this, I’ll leave that up to you. I’d just like to get a sense of where she intends to go, and whether she has anything to do with our wayward Sovereign. And whether she might assist me in putting things right in one of the places she abandoned.”
“There’s no point speculating.” Tigris said. “We just need to storm into the same room with her and wring her neck for being too cavalier with the people she was responsible for.”
“Nobody is wringing anybody’s neck.” Euphrates declared. “We are just going to talk.”
“After Qote’s disgraceful circus, I almost want to wring Kansal’s neck.” Aaliyah said.
Despite Euphrates’ misgivings, Tigris and Ulyana were prompted to laugh.
For a moment, Tigris and Euphrates joined them in taking in the sight of the Brigand.
“Time feels like it’s moving again.” Euphrates said gently.
Ulyana did not really understand the remark’s significance, nor did Aaliyah.
They simply allowed everyone their own quiet contemplation.
Once they were back on the ship, there was work again in every direction.
Some sailors were lobbying to have a ‘goodbye Kreuzung’ shore leave party, which Ulyana argued against because she didn’t want to have to drag sailors back at the eleventh hour, and because Kreuzung was a racist hellhole not worth remembering whatsoever. There were arguments over where to put Tigris’ spare parts, since the supply pod was meticulously arranged to maximize storage and SF-type cargo crates like Tigris’ did not fit. Ulyana heard all the arguments and then decided to just leave it in a corner of the hangar, secured by magnetic anchors, since the Agni needed access to it. On the bridge, Erika Kairos wanted to talk about meeting with the Rostock and Olga Athanasiou wanted to talk about Divers.
It was not easy being in charge of this home away from home.
But finally, the evening was starting to fall, and they had only hours left of their visit.
Final checks and preparations could wait until the next morning.
Ulyana ordered everyone to rest, no night shifts.
She joined Aaliyah back at their quarters and they had a little celebration of their own.
“This time, exactly and only one drink.” Aaliyah said softly.
“Right.” She recalled the last time, with fondness, but also embarrassment.
Nevertheless, Ulyana poured out their glasses, and they toasted and cheered to each other.
Exchanging gentle gazes. Knowing hearts aware that their own next adventure grew near.
Little did they know that Kreuzung was about to stage a grand festival for them soon.
Arbitrator I turned and looked over her shoulder.
Framed in the dim white light of the Brigand’s corridors through the threshold of the door.
Slender and white-skinned, small horns on her forehead parting her long, white-and-red hair.
Rather than her uniform, she wore her robe of leviathan skin once again.
Behind her, Braya sat on the bed, working on something on her computer.
“Braya, I’m going for a stroll.” Arbitrator I said.
“Okay. Bring me back a coffee from the machine whenever you’re done.” Braya said.
She trusted her enough to let her leave unsupervised.
Assuming perhaps that she would only be confined to the halls of the ship.
This was not a new development– ever since she had taken Braya’s blood, and told her of her ambitions and desires, the surly computer girl she was so fond of had grown to trust her. They were intimate now. Arbitrator I could have hardly imagined it when she first saw Braya’s emotions reverberating within the metal shell she had used to contact her. When she herself was cavorting about the ocean as a beautiful and ignorant Leviathan, running away.
Despite her outward appearance, that aura bore the truth of a scared, hurt, desperate girl.
Yearning to be touched.
Now, Arbitrator I was going to hurt her again, wasn’t she?
“Of course. I’ll even make you my special coffee.” Arbitrator I teased.
“Absolutely no. Just go get a normal coffee from the machine.” Braya grumbled.
With a girlish giggle, Arbitrator I left the room.
As soon as the door closed behind her, that smiling expression on her face darkened.
Melting away into inexpression, with the weight of what she had to do.
Through the nearly empty halls of the Brigand, she walked down to the hangar.
Troubled– until she met another soul, and then she smiled, however briefly.
“Fancying a stroll?”
As always, the Chief of Security was patrolling the halls. Evgenya Akulantova lifted her hat to Arbitrator I, and the Omenseer performed a little curtsy in response. Thankfully, the chief was on her way quickly. She, too, had come to trust their new navigator.
Everyone had come to trust her– and she was about to betray all of their trust.
But it had to be done– or else Braya would not be safe.
None of them would be safe unless she took matters into her own hands.
Her and only her alone. It was her responsibility.
Down in the hangar, Arbitrator I found a vent that she had been spying.
Low to the ground, it allowed water that collected on the hangar to be drained out.
And in this case, it allowed Arbitrator I to soften her body and ooze through.
Like the soft things of jelly that once dwelled deep, deep underground–
Falling from one of the Brigand’s exhausts out onto the concrete floor of Alcor Steelworks.
Recovering her form on the ground, and breaking into a run.
She rushed out from under the ship, and looked straight up into the dark, false sky.
Far, far up above them, she knew she would find Enforcer I and Enforcer III of the Syzygy.
Her eyes turned briefly feral with the thought of them– and then softened.
Filled with tears.
Ripping her eyes from the ship and from the image of Braya in her mind.
She flexed fingers that became black and sharp like knives. Setting off on her grim duty.
For everything she was responsible for; for everything she did not do.
Her kin’s ravenous vengeance could not be allowed to continue.
“For the hominin to be safe– I must kill these monsters. I’m sorry Braya– goodbye.”
Her eyes became lit not with red rings but lined by a purple hexagon.
Feeling the weight of everything she wished she could have kept–
For everything she buried and recovered and could not deny any longer.