Sinners Under The Firmament [9.3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, it was incredibly silly to discuss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was one of the senior mechanics, Gunther Cohen.

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

“I’m fine.” Murati said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After everything that happened, Elena Lettiere was dreadfully hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Elena looked up, the woman smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a moment, Minardo dipped under the counter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Homesick?” Ulyana asked.

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

“Only a little.” Ulyana smiled.

Elena bowed her head, staring at her empty plate.

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

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

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

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

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

Not just the communists whom she lied to and endangered–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody seemed interested in escaping, however.

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

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

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

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

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

And the prisoner in question was Sieglinde von Castille.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–and heard something serendipitous.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Were her own twenty years since then wasted? No–

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

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

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

Stop it. You were just a fucking kid.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking. Alone. Step by step over the dust.

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

Walking over the dust, alone.

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

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

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

In time they would all return to the dust.

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

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

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

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

You are not here to save anyone.

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

Those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility

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

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

I made the same mistake that you made with


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

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

I didn’t want responsibility for the world.

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


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

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

Feelings that she had to force herself to reject.

You are here– to defray responsibility.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything around her crumbled but–

Her own pieces inexorably picked themselves together.

Continuing her eternal march.



Because she had to be.

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

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

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

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

Euphrates stood unsteadily atop the dust and walked.

Step by step over the dust. Alone.

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

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

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

She smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina let out a long sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana assumed a lot happened during all that laying low.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One moment please, Captain.” Zachikova said.

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

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

Zachikova reached into her jacket and produced an object.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomb collars were torture and control devices.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of relationship did these two have?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana sat back and crossed her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my– Braya are you jealous again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nine hundred?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seemed like she really was interested in Zachikova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About everything that had happened.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“–Shut up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is the Sunlight Foundation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing was truly free under capitalism, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tigris turned back to face the rest of the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmph. Korabiskaya.”

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

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

Ulyana narrowed her eyes at her in annoyance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tigris turned her back around fully on Euphrates once more.

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

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

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

“Would the HELIOS system have anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murati looked briefly surprised at this.

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

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


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

“How can I rebuild our trust, Captain?”

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

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

Euphrates silently nodded her acknowledgement.

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

Tigris looked over her shoulder suddenly.

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

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

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

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

“Arbitrator I.” Ulyana said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A solid assessment by the good doctor.

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

This was good information, but nothing immediately actionable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh boy.” Tigris cried out with exasperation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ulyana looked up at Euphrates–

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

In front of her

a digital pen for writing on portable terminal LCDs

lifted in the air

and turned over itself,

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

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

“What the fuck?”

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

“Captain, orders?!” Illya shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looked almost–


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Euphrates, what are you–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colors erupted from behind her like a smoke projection–

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

As the colors around them became stronger–

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

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