Bandits Amid The Festival [11.7]

Kreuzung’s Tower Two was an enormous supplemental seaport.

It was one of Kreuzung’s oldest support towers.

Even from the exterior one could tell apart the numerous seams for the closed steel doors to its berths. Originally it had been designed to accommodate a dozen cargo super-haulers that had become the Empire’s workhorse transport ships during the colonization period. Each of these vessels was almost the size of a station tier, so an entire tower was needed to accept them, unload their cargo, repair and maintain them, and send them back on their way.

Gradually, super-haulers began to disappear from the oceans around Kreuzung.

Not only because of the recent turmoil– since the Fueller dynasty took power, the Newtype Tower V station, much smaller and humbler than its predecessors, had become the leading form of architecture in the Imbrium. Any new station was a macro-stitched Newtype Tower V with an adjacent Nautilus II Separated Seaport block attached to the tower by tube trams. Sometimes a few small towers were linked to the seaport block, expanding capacity and creating a station complex. Each of these towers was roughly 2/3 the size of one of Kreuzung’s supporting towers, but depending on the interior configuration, they could squeeze almost as many people in poorer accommodations that were cheaper to maintain.

Huge stations like Kreuzung would never be built again. Perhaps in time only the rich would afford living in them, with all the poor segregated to smaller towers. At any rate: massive ships with the capacity to carry mind-boggling quantities of materials to a remote worksite were largely unneeded. This shift then led most current high-capacity seaports to convert many of their enormous berths to support the docking of multiple smaller vessels, increasing capacity for cheap to achieve greater profit on space they already had. While this came at the expense of the quality of service and safety at those berths, there was no turning back. Tower Two still hosted much of the Kreuzung Complex’s freight processing, but it was now also the most accessible seaport for private yachts and luxury cruise ships, ambulant resorts, and other kinds of pleasure vessels unwilling to deal with security in the Core Station.

On the tower’s northeastern side, a berth opened to allow a simple cylindrical vessel to exit the seaport and begin its journey. It was a workhorse private transport craft about fifty meters long and thirty wide, built for endurance and safety over looks, like a metallic-blue crate with hydrojets leaving streams of bubbles and distorted water in its wake. It climbed out of the Kreuzung crater and maintained a stable course close to the ground, over the rocky, sandy surface of the surrounding seafloor. It navigated away, bound north-west.

On its side, there was a stylized logo, depicted as if long beams and bolts of blue could be seen shining at acute angles across the cursive lettering that read: Raylight Beauty.

“Once we’re out of Kreuzung’s jurisdiction, set up an encrypted line to Aachen.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Use the Gladbach relay, not Kreuzung’s. Monitor the connection closely.”

“Understood.”

Kremina Qote left the crew behind and retired to her VIP quarters in the middle of the ship. Like the ship itself, it was not anything too extravagant. But it was private; she had her own bed, a door she could lock, her own desk, her own monitor to work with. She could be reasonably certain that nobody would interfere with her affairs, and she could shut out the world outside. Nobody would hear her. There were no adjacent accommodations.

She sat down on her bed and looked down at her own shoes.

Her jaw tense. Fist opening and closing.

By all rights, she had completed the mission that she had been given.

She had been sent to Kreuzung to meet with Solarflare LLC, but upon discovering the presence of Nagavanshi’s little guerilla mission, she was instructed to send them to Aachen, to join the United Front against the Volkisch. Redirecting them away from their suicide mission to Buren was necessary and useful, and their mission profile already included helping any resistance movements they found along the way. After all, that originally had been Daksha’s desire which Nagavanshi just twisted out of shape under clauses and subclauses, as she always did. No one could judge Kremina derelict on the basic facts of her mission. Not Gloria; not Daksha herself. Kremina had secured their assistance as instructed.

However, she had failed in her own personal goal.

As soon as she heard of the Brigand, she both feared and coveted their assistance.

She was of two minds approaching them, and she tried her best to navigate it– but–

Kremina did not account for the stubborn desire of the Brigand’s officers to remain free of Daksha’s command at any cost. Then she was completely blindsided by the nature of their alliance with that upstart Erika Kairos. She was not satisfied with simply putting them on course to Aachen. Kremina had wanted to either control them or sideline them politically. After they made their intentions not to join Kansal clear, diverting them to the Rotfront should have been the end of all her problems. But now Kremina was not sure about the rigor of her previous logic anymore. The Rotfrot was perhaps more ascendant than she thought possible. They had managed not just to ally with the Brigand, but to completely annex them.

Ulyana Korabiskaya could introduce new possibilities into the ecosystem at Aachen.

Erika Kairos could become more than a junior partner in the United Front.

Daksha Kansal’s influence could be explicitly upset by the Brigand’s actions.

And in fact– it could even be Ulyana Korabiskaya’s aim to overthrow her entirely.

“Daksha– what are you thinking–?”

When Daksha left the Union in the hands of that insipid idealist Ahwalia and that utilitarian brute Jayasankar, Kremina had followed dutifully because she believed in her. She owed her life and allegiance to Daksha Kansal. Only Daksha Kansal had the correct line– only she had the vision to save these troubled seas from themselves. Leaving the Sunlight Foundation had been the right move. Leaving the Union could have been a smart play as well.

Now though– Kremina was not so sure what Daksha was trying to do anymore.

That doubt, which she was so unfamiliar with, scared her utterly.

It scared her so much, that it made Ulyana Korabiskaya’s words feel like a threat.

A threat to an edifice that should have been impregnable, indestructible.

“Kremina? I’m glad you called. I’ve been worried about you. Gloria’s been saying things.”

At the appropriate time, the crew connected their vessel via laser to the Gladbach relay. Rhinea had the most developed inter-station network in all of the duchies. In addition to direct connection to the relays, there were many relay buoys that could be used to develop stable connections to the inter-station network even while in transit. Therefore, the ship could continue to travel at a relatively breezy speed, while the picture of Daksha Kansal, speaking in real time, hardly ever shifted in quality on Kremina’s screen.

She was beautiful– the most beautiful woman Kremina had ever seen.

Her long brown hair, even as it began gently fading to white; the sharpness of her eyes, even as the crow’s feet began to form in the corners; her easy smile, the warm color of her skin, even as the wrinkles had begun to appear; the figure of an adventurer, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, yet looking professor-like in her mock turtleneck and synthetic jacket. These days she wore bell-bottomed vinyl pants and heeled shoes, perhaps the influence of the fashionista now under her wing. These weren’t visible on the call, but Kremina knew.

Daksha was always visible in her mind, and in her mind she was always perfect.

She was beautiful– but she was also aging. Another thing Kremina did not understand.

Kremina never achieved immortality. She only delayed her own aging by a feeble amount through the use of exotic chemicals she no longer had access to. She was growing old too.

Daksha Kansal did not have to grow old, like her.

Daksha Kansal was one of the Immortals, and yet, she threw it all away too.

“How are you? Gloria is not upset with you, but I’m not happy about what she’s told me.”

Kremina’s eyes snapped out of the dream-like reverie of seeing her old master once more.

“I am not here because I value Luxembourg’s esteem.” Kremina replied. “Look, Daksha, I did what you asked. Nagavanshi’s pawns are now on their course to Aachen. Whatever else– was a product of their choices. All I did was give them information and set up contacts for them.”

Daksha smiled. “You can’t pretend as if that last episode with them didn’t happen.”

“I lost my temper. It’s irrelevant. They were never going to join us anyway.”

“I was never concerned about whether or not they would join us.” Daksha said. “I’m happy if it’s just you and me and then our allies. Now I’m afraid they might have the wrong idea and think that we set out to antagonize them. That might lead to unnecessary friction later.”

“Daksha, they should join you! You should throw your weight around more!”

Kremina was in a mood– so she let slip a little more than she usually would.

“Ah. I think I see what’s going on.” Daksha said. “Kremina–”

She felt like she had been scolded and it embittered her. “I know– I know–”

“Clearly you don’t.” Daksha said. She was not mad. She was giving Kremina a fond look, like long distance lovers catching each other’s gaze. Despite this, her words were firm. “Kremina. I deeply treasure you. This is why you’re the only person who is indispensable to me and the only person I trust to represent me. But this time, you went out of line– it is my fault, for not giving you a clearer vision of my goals. But the fact remains. You cannot conquer the Ocean for Daksha Kansal by yourself, in my stead– I don’t want you to do anything like that.”

Despite the soft delivery, Kremina still felt so stung. She couldn’t understand it!

“Daksha,” she was almost tearing up, “Why– why are you choosing to die?”

Any foolish or vain action on Daksha’s part was excusable if she was immortal.

That she was aging, that her time in the world was limited, made everything more urgent.

Kremina’s conversations with Ulyana Korabiskaya finally laid bare feelings of grief and anxiety that she had been burying for so long. Ulyana dared to say she could challenge Daksha Kansal. Because Daksha was no longer as powerful and invincible as she once was.

That open wound the audacious Captain unknowingly ripped open, now bled profusely.

Onto that room on the UNX Brigand, onto this ship and onto the screen.

“So that’s what this is about then.” Daksha said.

“Of course it is. Nothing makes sense because of that.” Kremina replied.

Daksha smiled again and took the tone of a professor delivering a lecture.

Kremina was left so speechless by the sudden turn in their discussion, she did not interrupt.

“Do you really know about the Immortals, Kremina? You never were allowed to be part of the inner circle, even though you were so devoted to me. You don’t know how each of them found their own immortality. Yangtze, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Potomac, Hudson and myself, formerly, Ganges. All of us are esteemed as geniuses who defeated death, but that is entirely empty techno-utopianist rhetoric. You don’t know the truths; I’ll tell you.”

When she spoke of them, Daksha betrayed a certain fondness as if telling old war stories.

“Yangtze cheated death by combining biomechanics with the Pelagis Process, allowing her to grow backup bodies in vats which receive a digitized education in the form of her memories, implanted into the biomechanoid brain of the new body. When I saw the results, as much as I wanted to work with her– seeing a new Yangtze born– it horrified me so much.”

She averted her gaze. “Meanwhile Potomac keeps herself eternally youthful and alive through her discoveries in pluripotent stem cell therapy and surgery. She grows and discards organs as needed. I can’t fault her for it– but it did make me question things. Same with Hudson. Hudson doesn’t purge her body of unwanted organs with new ones; rather, she has replaced her entire body with immortal cybernetics. And yet, she still longs for even more.”

Kremina continued to listen, her heart shaken and reeling with the weight of those words.

“Nile is infected with a cocktail of horrific and rare diseases. She did not choose to be infected with them, but the end result has kept her body alive for over a hundred years and counting; but if they are not controlled, she is a living apocalypse waiting to happen. Being infected with one of the diseases and not all would result in excruciating death, not immortality. She knows this and is ready– to take steps– should it ever be required.”

A dire and clumsily put insinuation.

“As for Euphrates herself,” upon mentioning her, Daksha sighed openly, “Euphrates is the only really Immortal person out of all of us. But she didn’t ask to be that way, Kremina. She was never so power-hungry. She was just born with some kind of condition. People, when she was born, where she grew up– they didn’t understand it. She was a medical guinea pig. It took the collapse of the surface world for her exploitation to end. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen her really vulnerable– I saw it when she baptized me with aether– an insinuation of the things they did to her.” Daksha kept pausing every so often and kept hanging on her words. Kremina knew this was all difficult for her to say. She sat astonished by it.

“Because of what I saw, I never asked her about the surface and I never will. Meanwhile, Tigris, she was a miracle for Euphrates. She imperfectly inherited Euphrates’ disorder through a spinal fluid transfusion. Her regeneration was enough to save her life. It was also the only time I have seen Euphrates so quickly disavow her own ethics. She must have really been madly in love. I thought, back then, we needed Immortality to safeguard our goals.”

Daksha shut her eyes. “So finally, there is me. You’ve extended your life a little bit, Kremina, but never found immortality. You don’t have Potomac or Yangtze’s technology, so all you could do is make yourself a little healthier. I don’t judge you for that– we influenced you after all. I influenced you. I was an Immortal. I found a way to prolong my life.”

Kremina hung on every word, eyes drawn wide, lips shut tightly together.

“Kremina, pay attention to the wages of my sin, and my greatest shame.”

She watched Daksha Kansal raise her hand in front of the screen, palm up.

King’s Chalice.

With trained precision, Kremina reacted, faster than thought.

Oracle’s Voice.

Red rings around both their eyes, as Kremina began to see in terms of auras, vectors, and other psionic phenomena in response to Daksha’s invocation. Kremina had never achieved the second and third gifts, but she knew about psionics and knew enough to protect herself as best as she could and dissect attempts to influence her. She could see that Daksha’s palm was not barren as it would be to the eye of an untrained person.

Instead, there was a flame dancing on her palm.

White and black flame that flickered with an eerie warmth.

From multiple directions as if drawn out of the walls, the little flame coalesced in her hand.

It had a soft texture, to Kremina’s eyes, and it gave her an almost nostalgic feeling, as if it was a pitiable little thing that deserved coddling. For Daksha to hold it, she had to focus black and white aura in halves over her own palm. Manipulating these types of aura was a skill that required a lot of emotional control. Black aura was the aura of death, the despair of mortality or the desire to kill, and trying to deliberately channel it could cause the user to lose control or succumb to perverse intentions. Meanwhile, White aura was often associated with the sublime, or the eldritch, or even with pure insanity. It was a sight beyond human that very few could actually experience. Daksha was unequaled when it came to Aetherics.

As Kremina observed the little flame, she also thought that she heard–

–voices, voices that sang of memories, and a glow in which Kremina could see figures,

and Daksha’s skin, illuminated by the ghosts,

lightening, hair brightening, crow’s feet softening, appearing as herself of yesteryear

beautiful, angelic until

her palm closed snuffing out the little life

aging and weakening again before shock-wide eyes–

Kremina teared up, her voice trembled. “Daksha. That is– is that–”

“It’s human life, Kremina. I used Aetherics to steal life from others for myself.”

When Daksha’s psionics dispelled, Kremina watched as the little flame of humanity she had gathered, presumably from people outside the room she was in, from people in the halls, maybe even from Gloria somewhere in the distance– all of it dissipated and began to trail back to where it was taken. Daksha had refused to absorb it into her own aura, and therefore she aged again, and again lost the gift of immortality, those black and white traces of life.

“Do you understand now, Kremina? Do you understand my change of heart, why I had to let go of the Union, of my power? Do you understand why, for my convictions, for the things I want others to believe, it is necessary that I became mortal? That I stop pursuing the same path that Yangtze and Potomac are on? That I age and die? It is important to me, Kremina, to be humble now. To lower my head to others. I became mortal because I must die. Clinging to the world has had perverse effects on my life. I have to let go in order to let others rise up.”

Kremina laid a hand over her mouth and shut her eyes, weeping.

“I know that this is galling to you. I’m sorry that I can’t be all-powerful for you.”

“No, Daksha.”

She stared into the eyes of her mentor, her lover, the colossal figure of all she believed in.

“I’m sorry.” She said. She didn’t try to equivocate it. She didn’t say anything more.

She was sorry. She understood. She had been wrong. She had been completely wrong.

All this time Daksha had carried such a horrendous burden, and Kremina never knew.

“We’ll talk more when you come back.” Daksha said. “I esteem you greatly, Kremina.”

Kremina nodded silently. She felt unbearably foolish and short-sighted.

“I’ll smooth things over with Ulyana Korabiskaya and her crew, and with the Rotfront. Don’t worry about that now. Please think about what I told you and reflect.” Daksha said.

“I will. Thank you. Please take care, Daksha.”

“Of course. I will be here for you.”

Daksha disappeared from Kremina’s screen, leaving a void reflecting Kremina’s face.

She stared into her own darkened eyes, feeling like a storm had swept by her.

Daksha–

More than ever, she needed Kremina’s protection, even if she didn’t realize it.

She needed Kremina to be smarter; to be craftier; and to fight harder than ever before.

Daksha Kansal was mortal and vulnerable. She could never be an Immortal again.

In her finite time in the world, it was her work that had to become immortal.

Kremina had to do everything in her power for Daksha’s revolution to succeed and spread.

For now, that meant that Gloria Luxembourg’s social-democrats had to either control the United Front or be the ultimate survivors of its near-inevitable breakdown.

Those upstarts with the Rotfront and their Jayasankarist allies could not be allowed to derail everything. Daksha would disapprove of this line of thinking, but Kremina was not going to openly act against anybody. Yet. For now she would be well behaved and demure.

She just had to control her temper; bide her time; and await the opportunity to intervene.


“Oh my! Such a fantastic cup of coffee. This is starting to feel like a vacation!”

Erika Kairos raised her plastic mug and cheered. The mug was full of plain, black coffee.

“Might a lovely maiden dream of a sweetener? Perhaps even creamer?” She asked.

“Let’s not get too greedy!” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied, smiling. Erika’s eyes drew wide from behind the steam coming from her mug. “I’m joking! Of course we can get you some.”

Olga took a sip of the coffee herself and nodded her head in approval.

“It’s a sight better than the cheap stuff in our rations. The grounds were not adulterated.”

Aaliyah looked down at her own mug, the coffee having been brewed by a very standard Union Soyuzkofe machine in the cafeteria. Her furry ears twitched slightly, and she took a sip.

“I knew living in the Empire was harsh; but I’m surprised in the ways that manifests.”

Erika smiled. “Well, we have to take what we can get, you know? When it comes to food, we usually have to either steal it, or go to smugglers whose products are usually low quality, or go to cottage industries that don’t have the means to make quality products.”

“Turning over an Imperial cargo ship is practically a holiday feast for us.” Olga added.

Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed gently with Olga and Erika.

On that morning, the meeting room Ulyana and Aaliyah were working out of lately, had instead become a little conference room for their first command meeting with Erika Kairos. They had formally agreed to become part of Erika’s Nationale Volksarmee, and swore to follow her political command as their new Premier. This was something of a shield against other political influences on the crew– but it was not a game to anyone in that room. It was a serious endeavor, and it required the establishment of a solid working relationship in all of its various particulars. They weren’t playing pretend– they wanted Erika to lead them.

Ulyana thought well of Erika and envisioned they would have a good relationship, but nevertheless, they needed to lay out how both sides typically operated. How Erika hoped to rule them; what the capabilities of each side were and how they could work together when combined; and other such things. For her part, Erika was treating the whole thing very casually and breezily. Ulyana imagined it would be so. She had not met all that many Katarran mercenaries, but she felt they must have operated a few steps below military standard in formalities, in order to work at all. But at least she knew Erika took theory very seriously.

As she requested, Erika soon received a little tray with cubes of creamer and sweetener.

These had been powdered and compressed for ease of storage.

She picked up a few of each cube and dropped them into her coffee, stirred, and drank. She smiled from ear to ear, flushing, even her horns looked a little brighter than before.

C’est magnifique!” She said, giggling a bit.

She quietly passed the coffee condiments tray forward. Ulyana and Aaliyah both partook.

Olga smiled and looked at the Premier fondly; but continued to have her coffee black.

“Alright. I greatly value the hospitality. But, back to business!” Erika said cheerfully. “I am planning to transfer my flag from the Rostock to the Brigand. I think that will help smooth out the early stages of our cooperation. Daphne, my captain on the Rostock, is well-respected and settled on that vessel, so I have no worries that she can handle everything there while I am away. I hope I can settle in here, and observe operations first-hand.”

“Understood. I have no objections. That will simplify our operational coordination a lot, actually.” Ulyana said. “I’ll have the lads stitch you a chair while they turn over the Bridge.”

“That would be lovely. Though, worse comes to worse, I can stand.” Erika said.

“Can you provide us information on your fleet and its operations?” Aaliyah asked.

“I could do so verbally, but I did not come prepared for a detailed onboarding.” Erika said. “I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting to gain a new ship. However, as soon as we get out to sea, we can connect to the Rostock and you can sync all of its data over at your convenience.”

“That sounds more efficient. We’ll talk about fleet integration at that point.” Aaliyah said.

“That can also be when you give us some of your data in return.” Olga said.

Aaliyah bristled a little, but Erika quickly dispelled those suddenly risen fears.

“We’re not after any classified information from the Union.” Erika said.

Olga crossed her arms. “We could at least use your stitcher blueprints though. Our lives would be so much easier if we didn’t have to free-stitch small parts to repair our stuff. It’s like rolling dice every time something breaks. You can help our capabilities long term.”

“Aaliyah, I want to be open with them. Do you have any specific qualms?” Ulyana said.

She looked at her Commissar, sitting beside her, compassionately but firmly.

In turn, Aaliyah briefly avoided her gaze. She composed herself quickly.

“Old habits die hard. You’re right, there isn’t really any reason not to share our data.”

“Thank you.” Erika said. “I understand, security backgrounds require caution above all.”

“We appreciate your cooperation, and we will follow all of your data security protocols. Access will be limited; we have all the hardware controls needed to insure that.” Olga said.

Aaliyah nodded her head in acquiescence.

Ulyana was glad everything was going smoothly. Olga and Erika were professionals.

“We don’t want to overturn your existing structure. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and slowly improve our doctrine together.” Erika said. “We should do the bare minimum we need to have cohesion between the existing Volksarmee forces and your own. I want to preserve the chain of command aboard the Brigand as much as possible, but only with myself at the top. I also respect that this is probably a contentious decision for you because of your extended chain of command to the Union. I do not want to imperil your relationship to your home country. So if there’s anything you need from me, please tell me.”

“I’m sure Nagavanshi will understand when she reads my report however many months or years from now after all of this is over.” Ulyana said, with a smile. “If we live that long.”

Erika laughed. “I fully intend to live that long, Captain. But of course, I understand.”

Aaliyah finally smiled a little too. “I’m quite happy with your proposal, Premier.”

“In terms of Volksarmee personnel aboard the Brigand, Olga and I require private lodging.” Erika said. Olga’s eyes popped for a moment. “I will be up front: we are lovers. It has never been a problem, and in fact has been a psychological aid for both of us. If the Brigand has an exceptionally strict rule against fraternizing, it will have to be waived for me.”

“Um, ma’am–” Olga began, but a sharp look from Erika cut her off and silenced her.

“As you can see, I still retain authority over her.” Erika smiled with forced innocence.

Ulyana grinned a little. Aaliyah glanced askance at Ulyana.

“Oh there’s probably tons of sex going on in this ship.” Ulyana said. “I won’t stop you.”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She raised her voice above the room–

“Strictly speaking– to the regulation– ugh, whatever.” She shrugged and gave up instantly.

Olga averted her eyes, a little bit embarrassed.

One more smiling glance from Erika got her to sigh and recompose herself.

“I’m not used to her being so forward about it, especially like this.” Olga admitted. “But like– yes, when we can die at any moment, and we’re crammed in these metal cans. You really can’t expect ship crews not to get each other off a bit, every once in a while.”

“It’s maybe more common among Katarrans than in the broader world.” Erika said.

“We’ll get you a room.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s move the conversation past this please.”

Ulyana noticed the insides of her ears had flushed a very bright red.

She tried not to smile. It would have definitely upset her charmingly uptight Commissar.

Erika was not troubled at all by the atmosphere in the room.

She had an uncanny ability to look cheerful or at least centered in any situation.

Even when Kremina had been berating her openly, she was still smiling just like this.

After Aaliyah’s request, the conversation returned to matters of organization.

“Besides Olga and I, Kalika Loukia will also remain aboard. She has many skills and is someone I know I can depend on to do almost anything. I think she is all the direct support I will need on the ship aside from Olga, and you will benefit from her as well.” Erika said. “There are a few other officers of mine whom I’m used to having at my disposal, but I think they can operate from the Rostock, maybe switching in and out as needed.”

“Alright. Kalika already helped us out quite a bit. We’ll be glad to have her.” Ulyana said.

“I believe next on the agenda we wanted to lay some groundwork on logistics.” Olga said.

“We were planning to restock at Aachen.” Aaliyah said. “Are you not also?”

“I’m afraid we can’t make use of the traditional markets for ship supply.” Erika said. “Victualing and replenishment markets are off-limits. We are forced to make use of smugglers or secondary markets, as I said. We also buy raw materials and stitch needed goods ourselves. But don’t worry about us– we want to know about your supplies.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged glances, worried.

“Can you tell us more about the situation in Aachen?” Ulyana said.

“We were under the impression it would at least be neutral ground for you.” Aaliyah said.

“Aachen is quite a bit nicer to non-Imbrian persons than Kreuzung.” Erika said. “However, there are still prejudices they must abide by. There are legal prohibitions against the replenishment of ‘cartels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘privateers’. Katarrans are targeted by these laws pseudonymously. And there isn’t a Katarran ship Captain alive who can fight a legal case arguing for her innocence. Aachen follows these laws, and we’re no exception.”

“Wait– they’re following Imperial law?” Ulyana asked, rhetorically. She was baffled by this.

She had thought Aachen was open to rebellion since the United Front was convening there.

“What is Aachen’s relationship to the Volkisch movement right now?” Aaliyah asked.

“Aachen, the city, is just trying to maintain a status quo.” Erika said. “It is governed by liberals and resists the Volkisch only insofar as to maintain the liberal line. Kreuzung itself makes that sort of argument about its own rule of law– it is a purely bureaucratic argument. So you can’t take for granted that Aachen will be completely safe or revolutionary. However, Aachen’s people have a strong organized laborer movement, and it is among them that the United Front’s insurrectionists have found a sanctuary. It is a complex situation.”

“What if we purchased the goods for you? We don’t care about the law.” Aaliyah said.

Erika smiled, this time a lot brighter than before. She seemed touched by the gesture.

“I appreciate your generosity greatly, my comrades. But I must decline. The Rostock is stocked up, and the rest of our fleet is in good order as well. We shouldn’t draw suspicion at Aachen. There will be time for us to teach you the Katarran way of getting goods.” Erika said. “For now, focus on procuring your own needs. After the meeting of the United Front, we may get access to Gloria Luxembourg’s purchasing power which would solve our problems.”

“Acknowledged. I have to say, though, I’m now a bit nervous about Aachen.” Aaliyah said.

“It’s easier to lay low in Aachen than here.” Erika replied. “Right now, all of us are violating the law here in Kreuzung. If we can take measures to protect ourselves in here, by comparison Aachen is a picnic. The United Front is assembling there with confidence.”

“If you say so. I will trust your judgment, Premier.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana could still see a shadow of her worries on her expression. She knew her too well.

“It’s not on the agenda, but since we’re on a similar subject, I want to ask about you yourself. We were not aware of an ‘Erika Kairos’ prior to our arrival here, though that is for the best overall. Can you give us more details about you?” Ulyana said, as cordially as possible.

“I’m open to it.” Erika said. She drew in a deep breath and straightend her chest. “My name is Erika Kairos, I’m 33 years old, I have heterochromia, my three sizes are 120 cm bust–”

“Premier, you can skip the ‘vital statistics’.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I suppose my request was a bit vague.” Ulyana said, smiling.

Her eyes slightly drifting to the new Premier’s chest and having to be wrung back.

“Oh! Okay. Well– I am a voracious reader! I like philosophy, and science, but I also like to read storybooks, and comics; I like films too! My favorite genre is actually hard-boiled detective mysteries! My favorite food is spanakopita. My likes and dislikes are communism and–”

“Thanks, Premier.” Ulyana said. This was so cute she almost didn’t want her to stop.

“Was that really what you were asking about, Captain?” Aaliyah replied, exasperated.

Erika looked a little bit flustered. “Huh? Is there anything you want to know specifically?”

“I guess I was more concerned with whether you’ve made any enemies?” Ulyana asked.

Olga answered in Erika’s place. “Everyone hates her. She’s an avowed communist.”

She sounded a bit frustrated by the question, as if everyone should have known this.

“Everyone?” Aaliyah asked. Erika looked flustered again.

“Saying everyone is a bit–” Erika began, and almost stuttered–

Olga sighed.

“Katarran mercs don’t like philosophers. They like to pretend they have no beliefs and will do anything for money. So they end up falling into a really conservative outlook and that’s what I mean. Mercenaries know about Erika and the majority of them dislike her for it.”

“They’ll still take my money when it’s on offer.” Erika said. She grumbled a little bit.

“As long as that holds true, I think we can accept the situation for now.” Aaliyah said.

“So no rivals or blood oaths or anything like that?” Ulyana asked, in a jovial tone of voice.

Erika crossed her arms.

“No names you would recognize. Yes, among the mercenaries in Eisental, I’ve crossed a few paths in my life. But nobody that is going to go out of their way to excoriate or attack me. Anyone with that level of animosity has already been killed by their own predilections.”

Ulyana whistled. “Has your vibrosword aided anyone’s predilections in the act?”

“We’ve had some episodes.” Olga laughing a bit. “There’s nothing to worry about there.”

“I can take care of myself and my debts, Captain. And I have.” Erika grinned.

“Fair enough. I understand. Thank you, Premier.” Ulyana said.

Erika nodded her head.

Her eyes wandered a bit– she seemed to quiet and think for a moment.

“How much do you know about the present situation in Eisental?” Erika asked.

“We’ve been keeping up with events as much as we can.” Aaliyah said. “We know there is a worker strike in one of the towers here, which is owned by the Rhineametalle corporation. The Volkisch are afraid of it spreading, so they’re manipulating the markets in Kreuzung to turn people against the strikers by blaming them for price hikes and erratic supply.”

“We thought of helping out the workers here, but when we learned of the United Front, we felt our focus could be best served there.” Ulyana said. “It’s horrible to have to pick and choose who to fight alongside, but we don’t know how the workers here would respond to communist assistance. We know the United Front is like-minded, and they’re also armed.”

“I agree with your choice.” Erika said. “You don’t have to justify it to me.” She settled back into her chair and began to explain the situation in greater detail. She sounded confident and spoke clearly and precisely. “You see, the workers in Tower Nine are trying to toe the line. They are part of the liberal current and they do not want to be seen as too radical. They fear the reprisals that the Volkisch are capable of; but they can’t bear the working conditions that have been imposed on them because of the civil war. They are trying to do something, but they can’t be seen as doing too much to a vulnerable Rhinea, so they went on strike.”

She continued promptly, never losing her pace. “But Rhineametalle has gotten a new hand of cards to play because of this situation. They don’t want the strike to be broken up too quickly. Rhineametalle is facing down the possibility of the Volkisch forcing them to produce more gear and sell it for less money to support the failing war efforts in the south. The Volkisch believe Rhineametalle’s profiteering is sabotaging their war effort. With the strike, Rhineametalle can just watch the Volkisch squirm, and remind them of who needs who. Lehner, their so-called Fuhrer, doesn’t have the ability to crack down on the workers any more than he is, without risking his influence over his own war industry if Rhineametalle reacts adversely to his actions, or the collapse of his front from diverting more troops.”

“So they’re all at a standstill right now.” Ulyana said, after a moment contemplating the Premier’s description. “Something has to give eventually, doesn’t it? The strikers do not have infinite supplies, so they won’t be able to physically hold on to their barricades forever. And with enough time, Lehner will find the troops he needs somewhere; or maybe even an innovative Volkisch commander in Kreuzung will find a weakness or undertake some daring raid that breaks through. It’s unlikely that Rhineametalle will fold to their demands too.”

“You’re right, Captain. There is only one thing that can save them, but it’s ancient history they dare not speak about. They should have prepared a ‘General Strike.’” Erika said. Ulyana nodded solemnly. That phrase meant something for someone who had been young during the mass deportations and enslavement that presaged the Revolution.

“Ironically, it’s the ghost of the ‘General Strike’ panicking the Volkisch now, isn’t it?”

“Right again Captain. It’s one powerful reason for the Volkisch to make soft moves.”

Everyone in that room knew the history. Prior to the Revolution, the most critical moment in the reign of the Fueller dynasty was the attempt, begun by Bosparan and Volgian activists, to stage a ‘General Strike’ across all productive industry in the Empire. Connections across the Empire, established by activists like the Nakaras, Daksha Kansal, Elias Ahwalia and Bhavani Jayasankar, threatened to link together and coordinate devastating work stoppages that would have ground the vulnerable machinery of the Empire to a halt at a critical juncture. Imbrian industry was overstretched in development of the colonial machine, overly dependent on slave labor conditions to make up the massive expenses that had been incurred moving civilization ever southward to the extreme ends of the hemisphere. With the incorporation of Veka being largely seen as a financial failure across the Empire, the Nectaris colonies had to be absolutely successful, ruthlessly efficient, maximally extractive.

But the General Strike never came to pass. Its actors were suppressed, one by one.

Enslavement in the colonies should have been a fate worse than death for them.

However, the failure of the General Strike led to the success of the Revolution.

And thus, ultimately, to the creation of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.

Ulyana could almost understand not wanting to casually speak those words, which were so dense with violent history. She believed Erika Kairos was correct in her assessment. The Volkisch must have been terrified of the possibility of the strikes spreading, so they had to play propaganda and not respond too brutally and too soon to the strikers. But the strikers were not planning to spread the strikes; ultimately, the Volkisch would win the standoff.

“There’s more too.” Erika said. “Eisental is a powder keg for other reasons. It’s the most productive region of Rhinea, with most of its mining, and production of primary parts and products for Rhinea’s corporations. It has a significant agricultural belt too. It is primarily a site of extraction. That also means it’s the most proletarian of Rhinea’s provinces. It has the most disenfranchised people, and the most poverty, but it has the smallest Volkisch presence. The Volkisch’s Stabswache political troops have been largely deployed to the interior and south of Rhinea to secure their power over the middle and affluent classes and to purge the intellectual and political liberals. That’s where their immediate priorities lay.”

“Interesting. I was wondering why we didn’t see more Volkisch day to day.” Aaliyah said. “They overestimated the value that the Volkisch’s ideological message would have among the poor in the industrial north. Popular opinion has not swelled massively in their favor.”

“Certainly they have their supporters in the so-called ‘National Proletariat’.” Erika said. “But Rhinea’s last election had a very low voter turnout– and this election was cast as being apocalyptic for burgeoning Rhinean democracy. Most people don’t trust in the government and are just keeping their heads down one way or another. The Volkisch miscalculated the level of local fervor in the north, so Eisental remains in tenuous liberal control.”

“That also means we will absolutely see a Volkisch military response here.” Ulyana said.

They had to be coming, and soon. Eisental wouldn’t remain an idyllic valley for long.

“I predict we will see quickly raised, ill equipped and poorly trained Volkisch militias from the south, at least at first.” Erika said. “I am hopeful we won’t see a Stabswache fleet. That would be the worst case scenario. The Stabswache are elite political troops, you see; but six of those fleets are already heavily committed, and the seventh is far from ready to mobilize.”

“Anything they raise will have to travel here too. We will have time.” Ulyana said.

“Right. And if these militias are anything like patrol fleets we can best them.” Aaliyah said.

“Volkisch militias are even less organized.” Erika said. “I sense an early advantage for us!”

“We shouldn’t toot our own horns too much.” Olga said. “Any enemy is a dangerous one.”

“But we musn’t be too careful either.” Erika said. “We can’t lose the opportunity they’re giving us to muster before their real strength can respond. It’s why the United Front has elected this time to get together and to begin our activities. It may allow us to push Eisental over the edge in a way that will destabilize all of Rhinea, before the big guns see the field.”

Aaliyah nodded her head. She seemed impressed with Erika’s casual ease with big topics.

Ulyana, meanwhile, couldn’t help but compare Olga and Erika to herself and Aaliyah.

They had a similar conversation themselves before ever setting foot in Eisental.

That thought warmed her heart– but she could not linger on those little fantasies too long.

“There is one more thing I need to touch on about Eisental– and myself.” Erika said.

Aaliyah and Ulyana nodded along in acknowledgment, interests piqued.

Erika took in and dispelled a breath. “There are two other factions in Eisental who could become involved. I’m sure you must be aware of Khaybar– a so-called mountain range so tall and winding that it splits the Imbrium. Eisental abuts Khaybar to the east. It is not well known to the public at large, but I have heard stories that there is an ancient Shimii abode within Khaybar. There have been sightings of pirate activity in the area as well. According to the mercenaries here, the pirates learned to employ the heavy Katov mass events in the area to intercept and loot Imperial cargo and convoys. The Fueller dynasty silently buried any official reports about the pirates, while also decreeing Khaybar off-limits to all commercial traffic. They hoped to starve the pirates of loot and bury them; but it didn’t work.”

“Of course it wouldn’t work. If you can cross the pass, it takes you half the time to get to Bosporus or Veka, than going around it.” Ulyana said. “Those pirates may not have as many victims, but they may still see a good business. It’s just too tempting to make that run.”

“Precisely.” Erika said. “Khaybar continues to see unregulated traffic to this day. I believe there are still fighters operating out of that mountain. I would like to reach out to Khaybar, and I think we can start by developing contacts with the Shimii communities in Eisental.”

“How do you figure the two sides are affiliated? Do they have exchange?” Aaliyah asked.

Erika smiled knowingly.

“I can’t say that conclusively, Commissar. But people that the Imbrium Empire has deemed outlaws are not always motivated by greed. This applies to you too, doesn’t it? Think about it: there are no lavish creature comforts the pirates could possibly be cultivating within their grim little mountain hideout– they are there because they are desperate, because the Empire gave them no choice. I have a hunch the ‘pirates’ are probably a Mahdist remnant. It squares with the legends people tell about Khaybar. And Mahdist Shimii are known to have very tight and lasting communal and familial bonds. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

“I am not a Mahdist. I’m a secular Shimii. But I can see your logic now.” Aaliyah said.

“Was your family Rashidun?” Ulyana asked, suddenly curious.

“My family was secular.” Aaliyah replied sharply. Clearly this was a touchy subject.

Ulyana felt like she was leaning her foot over an industrial grinder and decided to back up.

“I apologize for my assumption.” Erika said, looking worried.

Aaliyah moderated her tone again.

“No offense taken. If I’m following your logic right, you think there must still be some Shimii out here who have contact with the Shimii in Khaybar. And it would be safer to make those contacts through them than trying to barge into Khaybar and causing a scene.”

Erika was clearly relieved to hear that ‘no offense taken.’

“Precisely. It’s nice to work with professionals. I feel afraid sometimes that I’m not being properly understood when I speak, but all of you seem to have no problem with my rhetoric.”

“We’ve had a lot of practice with rhetoric lately.” Aaliyah sighed deeply.

Ulyana smiled nervously. “So, we have Khaybar– what is the remaining faction?”

When the conversation started, Erika had led off by saying there were two factions left.

Erika’s tone turned a little more serious as she acknowledged Ulyana’s question.

“The Mycenae Military Commission.” She said. Her expression darkening.

“Wait, a Katarran warlord faction is operating in Eisental?” Aaliyah asked suddenly.

“I’m afraid so.” Erika said, solemnly. “We have Tagmata sipping tea in Stralsund.”

Ulyana felt, for the first time in the conversation, a sense of alarm.

“How did that happen? This is the first we’re hearing of this.” Ulyana said.

“The Volkisch have stopped publicizing anything about it.” Olga said.

“They were invited six months ago and arrived before the Volkisch takeover.” Erika said. “By blessing of the liberal parliament and as guests of the Rhineametalle corporation.”

“A Katarran warlord is openly purchasing Imperial arms?” Aaliyah said, scandalized.

“It’s Rhineametalle’s newest growth market.” Erika said. “Katarrans in our homeland mainly use either Republican weapons or smuggled Union weapons to fight in the warlord conflicts, but the Empire would be easier to buy from, if they started selling. Since the fall of the Palaiologoi, the Empire feared having anything to do with Katarre. But Rhinea liberalized; the all-mighty mark bill superseded the failing authority of the Fueller dynasty. With the retreat of the Emperor from politics it was only a matter of time before the Imbrians intervened.”

“There is a gargantuan amount of ocean between Mycenae and Rhinea.” Aaliyah said. “You’re telling me that all this time, the Emperor’s authority has been so weak as to allow this?”

Erika smiled. “It’s more like, the economic incentive, and Rhineametalle’s financial pull, was just that strong. Obeying the Emperor makes you zero profit, but looking the other way or assisting Rhineametalle and Myceanae directly, that confers money and favors.”

“But why invite them into Rhinea itself? It makes no sense to me.” Aaliyah asked.

Publicity, Commissar. Rhineametalle gets to show off all their high-end gear in the hands of a foreign client, legitimating their clout as the largest corporate power and a player in the broader world. Mycenae gets legitimacy.” Erika said. “Mycenae gets to be the only warlord power ever formally invited into the Empire, and invited into their trendy, rising financial center to make big money deals for advanced weapons. It makes them out to be the only warlord state that is actually functioning as a state on a national, political scale.”

“How strong is the Mycenae Military Commission here?” Ulyana asked.

“Something like a Union fleet combat group: a few big ships and their escorts.” Erika said.

“Their few big ships are Mycenaean dreadnoughts though.” Olga said with a grim tone.

Ulyana’s heart was rushing a bit.

Aaliyah was doing most of the talking– but even she looked nervous.

The Union was well aware of the status of Katarre.

They didn’t have all the details, but the Republic, who were deeply involved in Katarre, shared a lot of their information as a sign of goodwill. Out of all the Katarran factions, the Mycenae Military Commission was one of the most fearsome. Their regulars, the Tagmata, combined the ferociousness Katarrans were known for with sound military training and even a burgeoning research and development capacity for new weapons, not just war profiteer stock. It was possible that they had even developed a second generation Diver already, to match the Empire’s own R&D pace. Ideologically, they were retrograde nationalists, calling for the revival of the old Katarran kingdom– a message that inspired not faith in any of the flash in the pan warlord states, but in Katarran reunification— a nightmare for the Republic.

Mycenae’s presence was a massive and volatile factor they had to account for now.

“How likely is it that the Tagmata will intervene if we start taking action?” Ulyana asked.

“Completely unknown.” Erika said. “I have very little intelligence on their intentions.”

“We know the Volkisch are committed racists. Diplomacy between them and Mycenae will be complicated.” Aaliyah said. “We might have an opportunity– except, I assume that Mycenae will try to contact the Katarran mercenaries in this region. So they might learn about Erika; and if the mercenaries don’t like Erika’s program, I’m sure the Tagmata like it much less.”

Olga averted her gaze.

Erika breathed out a heavy sigh.

“It does feel like a confrontation with the Tagmata is unavoidable for me.” Erika said.

For once, she looked somber and downcast.

That shift in her cheerfulness made Ulyana want to support her– to protect her feelings.

“Nothing is unavoidable.” Ulyana said. “We’ll be smart and keep our eyes out. We’ll gather intelligence and examine the situation we’re in at each juncture. If we have to fight, we’ll fight; if we have to run, we’ll run; but if there’s a chance, we make peace. That’s all we can do, but Premier, the Brigand will support you. Aaliyah and I will be here to protect you.”

Ulyana extended her hand. Erika reached out her own and gave her a soft, girlish shake.

As a Katarran, she probably had to keep her strength in check for Ulyana’s sake.

“I had high expectations, and they have been thoroughly met.” Erika said. “I can see how the Union won its revolution, if there are more officers as sharp as you in their waters.”

“I’ve come away quite pleased with your character as well, Premier.” Ulyana said.

After they shook, Erika extended her arm again, to Aaliyah, who shook it as well.

“I already said as much, but I am impressed with the Premier’s assessments. I’m sure we’ll have our disagreements in due time, but if having the Tagmata on our backs is the price we pay for your stewardship, I would fight through a thousand Katarrans for it, Erika Kairos.”

“Thank you, Commissar! Those are such high praises. I will endeavor to sustain them.”

Erika looked to be almost glowing under all of the praise she was receiving.

She looked so young; smiling with a shining light of hope and idealism.

Ulyana had been too young and too hurt in the Revolution to pay attention to people’s characters too closely. She had been surrounded by all of the titans of communism in the Imbrium, once upon a time. And she wondered whether Bhavani Jayasankar had once smiled like this. Whether Daksha Kansal had ever looked this young. Before the falling outs, the splits, the backstabbings and blood. She hoped that Erika would be able to continue smiling, with a stout but gentle heart, even as the waters around Eisental turned murkier.

Erika had the right ideas. She had a sober outlook, and she was thinking ahead.

However, that look in her eyes, when she appeared so defeated at the prospect of having to fight the Tagmata, suggested that for all her clandestine maneuvering, she had yet to be tested in the hellish nightmare of outright war. She was daunted by a powerful enemy.

Ulyana would be at her side; she hoped she wouldn’t bear witness to a tragedy.


“Illya, I need you to sign this. It’s nothing bad. Just do it, okay?”

Shalikova laid a piece of synthestitched stone paper and a scratcher on the table.

Illya Rostova looked away from a surveillance monitor with a skeptical look on her face.

She glanced down at the paper, and back up at Shalikova, who stood stiffly opposite her.

“Huh?” Illya turned fully around, looked at the paper and the scratcher with which to write.

Shalikova’s keen indigo eyes wandered, briefly breaking her disinterested façade.

The Surveillance Room was close to the Bridge, and constituted one half of the security room, with its own door. It was also where they kept the locker for the security division’s guns, but Illya and Valeriya hardly ever respected the lockup process. In the middle of the room, a three section desk surrounded two chairs, with a tiny gap allowing the occupants to exit. On each wall faced by a section of the desk, there was a large multi-section monitor with a camera feed. Valeriya and Illya, of course, sat side to side or back to back in the middle of those desks, their faces lit up in blue in the dim room by the monitors.

On Valeriya’s desk section there was a partially stripped AK assault rifle.

Every so often, between watching the monitors, twiddling her fingers, and playing with locks of Illya’s hair, Valeriya would strip or put the rifle back together, expertly reassembling the firing mechanism, affixing the barrel, pushing the receiver cover into place. Union assault rifles used a small amount of pieces to be easier to manufacture, and Valeriya’s hands looked almost mesmerizing in their quick work. She had clearly done this a million times.

When she noticed Shalikova watching, Valeriya lifted her mask over her face and stopped playing with the rifle, or Illya’s hair. She just sat sadly behind Illya with her gaze averted.

Illya, meanwhile, also had her own assault rifle out of the locker and laid on the desk.

“Nope.” Illya said. “I am not signing this for you, sorry kid.”

Shalikova rolled her eyes, grunting.

“C’mon, it took you that long to read it, and you’re saying no?”

Illya turned the paper around for her to see it, pointing at the bar code near the top.

“Form 56A, Request Authority For Shore Leave, Location Approval.” Illya said. “This form has to be signed by your direct superior. I can’t believe you’re still trying to avoid the Lieutenant. I’m not going to lie to cover up for your cowardice. By the way, the Captain will also look at this, so you know, even if I could sign this for you it isn’t a done deal by any means.”

Shalikova felt both mildly embarrassed but still wanted to resist Illya nonetheless.

“I’m an Ensign! You’re a Lieutenant-Commander! You– you outrank Murati!” She cried.

Direct superior.” Valeriya mumbled from behind Illya.

“She’s right. Besides, I’m a Marine and you’re a Pilot, our ranks are different.” Illya said.

Annoyed, Shalikova snatched the form from Illya’s hands and looked it over again herself.

“I’m rated Chief Petty Officer.” Valeriya mumbled. “Illya is a Master Petty Officer.”

“Right. We have ratings in the ship’s chain of command, our Marine ranks don’t matter.”

In the fog of her newfound distress, Shalikova was barely listening.

Form 56whatever–

Shalikova had only filled it because she wanted to take Maryam out on a date.

She had overheard some gossipy sailor girls that people were planning dates to the next nearest blocks in the Tower. This gave Shalikova the idea to try to do the same, and she asked the sailors about the proper procedure for doing so– which entailed stitching out this form or filling it digitally. Almost all of the time the latter was preferable– but Shalikova did not want a paper trail to get to Murati, so she thought of having Illya sign a physical form on the sly. Clearly that had not worked– and her carnival date with Maryam seemed impossible now.

“Quit moping around and go talk to Lieutenant Nakara already.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, Valeriya nodded her head lightly as if to back up what she was saying.

Shalikova shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

She was paralyzed with frustration and indecision.

Maryam deserved to get out of the ship and have a good time.

Shalikova really wanted to do something for her, after everything they had been through.

But– there was just something–

–something in the way of talking to Murati– it felt so difficult–

“Listen, Sonya.” Illya said. “You have to learn to confront your officers if something is wrong and you want it right. You also need to have the courage to get scolded if you are wrong and they are right. But you have to hash it out. What you’re doing right now, I called it cowardly, and I stand by it. You’ll have to talk to this woman, it is unavoidable. So go do it on your terms, or you’re going to get it done to you and you’ll have no control and no leverage.”

Shalikova’s hand closed into a fist. She still felt stubborn about the situation with Murati.

“I know. I know.” She mumbled. A shudder ran its way through her body.

Illya looked at her for a moment, bowed her head and let out a low grunt.

“I’ll go with you. Okay? Stop moping. If Murati gets out of hand I’ll deal with her.”

Valeriya stared at Illya quizzically, playing with her mask as if trying to stay out of this.

Shalikova stood bolt upright. “No, no, no. That’s– that’s the last thing I want.”

“Okay, what’s really going on?” Illya said brusquely. “Do I need to go talk to Murati?”

A disaster, an unmitigated and complete disaster! Shalikova’s eyes couldn’t meet Illya’s!

Oh my GOD I’ve made everything so much worse! So much worse!

She had really done it– she had triggered this insane woman’s motherly instincts.

“It’s really nothing. I just don’t like talking to my boss.” Shalikova said in a shaky voice.

“What is that guilty face you’ve got on?” Illya said. “Sonya, talk to me.”

“You’re projecting! Look, you’re not my mom, you don’t need–”

“I told Zasha I’d look out for you. Did Murati do something to you?” Illya asked.

Shalikova couldn’t help but notice Illya’s fingers seemed to subconsciously play over the sleek, black carbon-fiber body of the AK rifle as she was speaking. Zasha had once likened Illya to a wolf in order to describe her to Shalikova, who had been learning about animals in school and was going to meet Zasha’s dear friends for the first time.

Illya was tall and gallant and very loyal and protective, Zasha said. By then, Illya was already a star student when it came to not just civics and basic sciences, but particularly in combat. Best shooter in her class, best hand to hand fighter. She, Valeriya and Zasha, as young adults, participated in exercises with older people and defeated them. They became Nagavanshi’s own hunting hounds– and Illya led the pack. Shalikova knew this as soon as she saw Illya’s steel eyes and silver hair, the confident little smirk she always had–

–and now, the restrained bloodthirst, the territorial barking, the alertness in her body.

It wasn’t as if Shalikova didn’t love her– but she didn’t love this, this way that she acted–

“Illya, what the hell are you thinking? Stop imagining whatever gross thing you’ve got in your head!” Shalikova shouted back in Illya’s face. “You need to trust me. Zasha is gone! I’m in my twenties, I’m grown! I’m a soldier! You don’t have to threaten anyone on my behalf! If you do anything to Murati for no reason– I’m going to hate you forever!”

Illya suddenly smirked at Shalikova. All of her dark presence washed away instantly.

“Good. Then go have a nice chat with Murati yourself and have fun on your date.”

She poked the monitor next to her on the desk–

her finger covering the head of a woman using a portable computer in the social area.

“I’ll know if you didn’t.” She added. This seemed to amuse her greatly.

Shalikova had been expecting the worst, so to see Illya bring herself back down so easily, perhaps she had misjudged this woman. Maybe it was not only Shalikova who had grown but Illya, too, had matured. Hell– maybe Shalikova was still just a stupid child and Illya was really the only adult in the room. She let out a breath that had been held in her chest for so long she thought it would turn into a stone. In front of her, Illya was completely calm again.

Talking to Murati did not seem so scary after all of this nonsense.

“Fine. Fine! You’re the absolute worst.” Shalikova said.

“Uh huh. If your date gets approved, come to our quarters. I’ve got something for you.”

“Huh? Why don’t you just give it to me–?”

Illya made a ‘shoo’ motion with her hands, dismissing Shalikova without another word.

She returned her attention to the monitors with something of a little sigh.

Behind her, Valeriya started to absentmindedly strip her own AK rifle one more time.

Exasperated with them, Shalikova stormed out of the security room and slammed the door.

“BLYAT! How did Zasha put up with these bitches!” Shalikova grumbled.

It was uncharacteristic of her to swear aloud, so in order to recompose herself she waited in the other half of the security room for a few minutes so nobody would see her so annoyed in public. Thankfully, the security team medic Syracuse had been drawn away from her usual spot near the security team armor lockup. Shalikova could be alone for a few minutes.

Certainly, talking to Murati felt just a little more possible after this fiasco.

Thanks, Illya, Valeriya, Shalikova thought sarcastically.

And perhaps also– a bit sincerely, too.

Shalikova found Murati sitting down in a booth seat on the left-hand wall of the social area by herself, like she had seen in Illya’s monitor. Murati had a portable computer and looked to be flipping through pages on the touchscreen. She was quite engrossed in the activity and did not notice Shalikova approaching. Shalikova scanned her aura– green and blue.

For a few moments, Shalikova stood ghost-like at Murati’s side. She observed that the lieutenant was searching on Kreuzung’s internet for things like ‘breath-taking places for an adult date,’ ‘most romantic destinations to bring your fiancé,’ ‘popular date ideas among young women.’ None of those really felt like they would be effective search terms. For one, she was not even specifying Kreuzung and so the search kept showing her other stations like Bremen and Thuringia and even the Imperial Capital of Heitzing. Her queries were also extremely literally written which Shalikova attributed to the Lieutenant having an–

extremely stupid and literal brain

“Lieutenant, please just search something like ‘Kreuzung date spots’.” Shalikova hissed.

Murati raised her head sharply from the portable computer’s screen.

As soon as her eyes met Shalikova’s a pair of red rings reflexively appeared around her irises.

Shalikova, in turn, also activated her psionics and nearly jumped as well from the shock.

“Oh! Ensign Shalikova! I’m sorry, you startled me!” Murati said.

“It’s fine! It’s fine!” Shalikova cried out. “Just be quiet and shove off to the side.”

For a moment people were staring.

There weren’t that many sailors, because most of them were working, but there were a handful, enough to constitute a scene– and Alex Geninov was at the pinball table with a smirk on her face, which was absolutely mortifying to witness. Thankfully, Murati slid deeper into the booth and allowed Shalikova to sit next to her, mostly out of sight.

Shalikova took in a deep breath. Murati looked completely taken by surprise.

“What the hell happened with your eyes, Lieutenant? How can I trust you now?”

Her tone came out extremely accusatory. So much so that Murati looked startled anew.

This was truly the best that Shalikova could think to say in order to breach the topic.

She thought of Illya’s demeanor on the way to talking to Murati and felt inspired.

Instead of confessing to anything, it was time to act like she was not guilty of anything.

For all she knew, Murati could have been going rogue and nobody else would know!

(Given Murati’s character, such a thing was outright impossible, but she could pretend.)

“Ensign! It’s not what you think!” Murati said. She held her hands up. “Captain Korabiskaya knows about it and trusts me. And I want to say, we both trust you too! I’m not even going to ask where you got the same ability. Really– all I want is to help and support you.”

Shalikova felt that kind of guilt she always felt talking to Murati.

Like she was being a burden to her stupidly earnest and overtly concerned Lieutenant.

“Why are you always like this? I don’t need your support.” Shalikova mumbled.

“It’s fine if you don’t. But you shouldn’t have to navigate all this alone.” Murati said.

“What’s all this? We don’t even have the same vocabulary to talk about this, do we?”

“Um,” Murati said, “Do you call it psionic powers? Or maybe omenseeing?”

“Omenseeing? Are you just making stuff up now? I don’t call it anything like that.”

It would help if she could successfully pretend she had always had psionic abilities.

And that the shock of seeing Murati had been exclusively from seeing another psionic.

Murati blinked.

“I’m sorry– I had no idea you were dealing with something like this. Look, I received this power from– Euphemia and Teresa. But you musn’t tell anyone else. Right now, its existence is on a need-to-know basis, until we can understand it better. I volunteered to be given the power, to see if we could trust Euphemia and Teresa. Once I know more about it, whether it is safe, how difficult it is to learn, how dangerous it is, I’ll debrief the other officers.”

Shalikova almost felt bad about lying to Murati. She really trusted her so fully and easily.

She had thought this conversation would be way worse. In her mind, Murati was yelling.

A version of Murati existed in her head who was so far from reality that it was shameful.

It made her feel guilty. But at least the current situation was not so volatile at all.

“What will you do with me then, Lieutenant?” Shalikova said, meeting Murati’s gaze.

She tried her best to make a pathetic sort of expression, like a cat that got kicked in the ribs.

Though she was very poorly versed in manipulating anyone, Murati was an easy mark.

Her own expression responded to Shalikova’s with an upswell of pity and reassurance.

“Ensign, it’s not just my job to correct your behavior, but also to make sure that you are okay, and that you can meet the demands of the mission.” Murati said. She reached out and patted Shalikova on the shoulder. Shalikova allowed it. “I never wanted to antagonize and drive you away. I apologize for that. I’m still new to commanding and I haven’t risen to the challenges yet, but I’m trying. I know I’ve been misreading you. I want to reassure you; you won’t have to answer to anyone. I’ll take responsibility. I’m not going to force you to do anything. I just want information on psionics– on our powers– to stay as contained as possible.”

Murati, you’re making this painful in such a different way than I thought it would be.

Shalikova would not crack and tell Murati the whole truth.

Not yet.

But her heart was bleeding– she really wanted to confess to her stupid, earnest Lieutenant.

I’m in the wrong here. But at least, for now, it’s a harmless lie, for Maryam’s sake.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Are there any specific conditions I should abide by?”

Murati smiled brightly. Shalikova was taken aback by her sudden and open cheer.

“All I ask Ensign, is that you continue to use all of your abilities in defense of communism.”

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and her brain filled with a cyclone of shapeless debris.

Idiot! You corny idiot! Don’t smile saying something so dumb! I hate you so much! UGH!

It took all of the strength in her body to lift up the corners of her lips in response to that.

“Acknowledged.” Shalikova smiled. In her mind’s eye, her smile was demented as Illya’s.

Murati continued to smile back. She looked so bright, so charmed and happy– UGH!

She let out a breath and put her hands over her heart. “I’m so glad we could fix things.”

“Uh huh. Anyway– I have stuff to do. Here, sign this for me and give it to the Captain.”

Shalikova deposited the crumpled-up Form 56A on the table and stormed off.

“Huh? Ensign? What happened to this form? Where are you going so suddenly?”

Leaving Murati behind by herself to uncrumple the paper as best she could and read it.

Murati didn’t have a writing implement but that was her problem to figure out now.

Shalikova’s face and ears were turning as tomato red as Maryam’s became sometimes.


Several hours after their meeting with Erika Kairos, Ulyana and Aaliyah found themselves burning the midnight oil in the exact same meeting room they had been so frequently occupying. They were metaphorically buried in paperwork, even though on the desk there were only two portable computers and a small stack of actual physical stone-paper forms.

“Everyone is asking for shore leave outside the block.” Ulyana said with concern.

“Maybe there is a problem on this ship.” Aaliyah said sharply.

“You know what Nagavanshi once told me about military relationships?”

Aaliyah returned a skeptical gaze. The insides of her ears were flushed again.

Ulyana smiled. She found her Commissar’s uptight attitude to be very cute.

“She told me the story of a Katarran brigade called the ‘Sacred Band’. They were organized in pairs of homosexual lovers. Their sexual and emotional bond was a prize for them, something worth protecting and fighting for. Something more than the glory and profit of the warlord who hired or enslaved them. They were apparently very effective fighters.”

Aaliyah’s eyes narrowed further.

“So you’re telling me we should encourage this behavior because codependency might increase morale. Is that seriously what you are suggesting, Captain?”

“I am not suggesting anything.” Ulyana shrugged with a delighted expression, eager and happy to be teasing her cute Commissar. “I was just telling you a story Nagavanshi told me about these sorts of situations. But think of this, if the now Commissar-General, back then, didn’t really care about enforcing this rule, then why should we go out of our way?”

“For the sake of order? To avoid unnecessary problems down the line?” Aaliyah said.

“Did you know– I’ve always suspected Nagavanshi is Premier Jayasankar’s lover.”

“What?” Aaliyah turned fiercely red. “What do you mean? How do you figure?”

Ulyana continued to smile, and a baffled Aaliyah stared at her and seemed to take the hint.

Aaliyah would have been six or seven years old during the Revolution, but Ulyana had fought alongside all of these characters and was part of their circles for some time. She would have known better than her who Nagavanshi was fucking and what attitude she had towards it. Their potential HR-level problems with sailors in love did not nearly reach the level of a problem that Nagavanshi and Jayasankar’s relationship would constitute if it was true.

But also– Nagavanshi wielded massive power with the full confidence of the Premier.

That type of loyalty perhaps arose– because perhaps she loved her, maybe even physically.

“We’re not rubberstamping these, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Aaliyah said, pulling out the full name with a venomous tone. “I refuse to approve dozens of potential sexual excursions based on your uncritical ideas. If we’re allowing this, we’re taking full responsibility for every one. We’re going to research every location, every time frame; evaluating each of the people involved, whether we trust their judgment; and approve or reject them case-by-case.”

A grim shadow settled over Ulyana’s once placid smile. “Well– It’s only right, I suppose.”

“Furthermore– I refuse to be anyone’s relationship counselor!” Aaliyah whined.

“I– I was never planning on that. Commissar, they’re adults, they can make decisions–”

“They better be able to! If their love problems interfere with their work, I’ll be quite cross!”

Ulyana stared at the almost childish consternation on display, and she wondered if there was some projection happening. Of course, she said nothing of the sort for fear of taking a hundred steps back in her own love problems with her dear Commissar. She simply kept smiling and promising to support her just as she had loyally supported her throughout.

On that night, they each grabbed a portable computer and set to work.

First they used the cameras on the back of the portables to digitize the paper forms.

Then the real work of going through each of the forms began.

“Look at this, Captain! The nerve of some of these sailors! These two want to go A-block? Imagine the Volkisch staring at two gigantic men holding hands in the middle of the most affluent district in the city! We would be all be crucified! These people have no sense!”

Ulyana could disagree with Aaliyah’s tone but not her intentions.

Looking through the forms, the sailors in particularly had very fanciful ideas of where they could be allowed to roam. Each form had a location, time frame for the leave, as well as guests that the requester would be responsible for. Because the sailors and officers did not know anyone but each other, each requester usually had one other member of the Brigand’s crew as a ‘guest’ on the forms– easily construed as their ‘date.’ Several people wanted to see the gardens at A-block, which were reserved for the affluent families that lived there.

Ulyana would never support the social hierarchy of Kreuzung, but the fact remained she had to abide by it to avoid suspicion and safeguard the mission. All requests to go to A-block were discarded outright, with messages prepared to inform the requesters they would be approved to go to the Alcor campus or Solarflare LLC and nowhere else. These were easiest requests to work through. By far the most complex were the ones that seemed reasonable.

“Alexandra Geninov wants to go to a seasonal street market on C-block.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah looked up the venue and event online. “Seems reasonable. It’s not that far.”

“Alex is annoying sometimes, but I think she can behave herself in public.” Ulyana said.

“Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa is going to the same place.” Aaliyah said with a sigh.

“So they filed separately, but are going to the same place at the same time?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes. It’s very like them, isn’t it.” Aaliyah said. “Have they matured even a little lately?”

“Well, they’ve been living together for a few weeks without incident.” Ulyana said.

“Alright. We’ll approve them, and hopefully they won’t cause a public disturbance.”

For everyone, the forms required two signatures. First was the direct superior’s signature and then the captain’s signature for final approval. For Bridge crew, Aaliyah acted as direct superior, and the Captain then signed. For sailors, it depended on their section, but so far, it seemed that Lebedova and Cohen had signed everything without really looking at it– or maybe they were as lacking in sense as some of the requests Ulyana was seeing.

Murati was the superior officer for requests from the pilots.

“Murati commented every single form submitted by a pilot.” Aaliyah said, impressed with the work ethic. “It looks like she already took a look at the places her people were requesting. She suspects Khadija just wants to go drink alcohol even though she’s technically not supposed to; and she is afraid Aiden is requesting leave so he can run away somewhere.”

“Murati’s such a treasure.” Ulyana said, looking at the digitized version of the form for Sonya Shalikova’s leave request. It had been heavily crumpled up, but Murati had pressed it flat again. Comments on the form urged the approval of Shalikova’s request as a gesture of good will and reward for ‘coming forward about her problems.’ “I’m going to approve this one.”

About halfway through the endeavor, they began to see more complicated requests.

People with the audacity to request to stay in hotel rooms, and who wanted multi-day time frames with multiple locations involved, who requested additional Imbrian funds than their shore leave stipend for expensive requests, or other such things that warranted even closer and more involved research than previous requests. Aaliyah’s ears folded against her head with exhaustion and Ulyana had begun to yawn with increasing frequency.

Soon Ulyana was seeing double and had to put down her portable.

“We need to take a break, Commissar.” She said.

“No complaints here.” Aaliyah replied with a groan.

“Care for a drink? Alcor gifted me a bottle of liquor on my last visit there.”

“How will that make us any less sleepy?”

“It won’t, but it will be fun. I think we could use a little bit of fun.”

“I’d be lying if I said I disagree. Fine. Bring out the booze.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged sympathetic gazes, and Ulyana opened a small box that she had set on a chair in a corner of the room. Inside was a bottle of beet-sugar rum, Tuzemak, called Struh in the Imbrium. She had two drinking glasses as well, though both were made of plastic. Setting them down on the table, she poured the clear reddish liquor into the glasses. She pushed one toward Aaliyah, who took it in hand. They tipped their glasses together, cheered for health and the safety of the mission, and downed a shot at the same time.

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled rapidly, and she shut her eyes briefly. It was a strong spirit.

Ulyana was untroubled. She considered herself a champ when it came to liquor.

“I’m still surprised at how sweet it is for liquor.” Aaliyah said.

“Completely trounces the potato stuff doesn’t it? Want another shot?”

“Hmm. Oh– whatever. Sure. Hit me. We’re already breaking all kinds of rules anyway.”

Two more shots; down the hatch. Aaliyah’s tail stood up briefly stiff and straight.

Ulyana sat back down with the bottle on the table.

“It’s so good. Fuck. I’m having another.” She said.

“Hit me too.” Aaliyah said.

Third shot; and there it went. Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed and relaxed on their chairs.

Smiling placidly, the Captain turned her slightly wavering vision on her Commissar.

Aaliyah was such an appealing girl. Her medium skin tone, her shiny dark hair, the natural pinkness and suppleness of her thin lips. Her jewel-like eyes and the elegant curve in the shape of her cat-like ears. Her slender tail, and the slenderness of her body too. Ulyana could not help in that moment but to think of the height gap between them too– she could have bent forward and loomed a little bit– her body would have fit so perfectly nestled with her back to Ulyana in bed– she would have been so warm and soft, such a sweet little morsel–

A sharp sound– a drinking glass striking the table.

“Ulyana, another shot. I want to feel the fire in me.” Aaliyah said suddenly.

Her eyes were looking a bit cloudy, and her cheeks were beginning to redden.

Ulyana, with a little laugh, filled Aaliyah’s glass again, as well as her own.

The Captain downed another shot; her Commissar was slowly sipping hers, however.

“It’s unfair.” Aaliyah mumbled. One of her ears was upright, but the other had folded.

“What’s unfair?” Ulyana said, her voice starting to drawl just a bit.

Without prompting, she refilled the Commissar’s glass, and they both drank again.

Fifth round!

“We have to do all this work, and they can go out to play.” Aaliyah said.

“True, true. They don’t know how much we sacrifice for them.”

“They don’t! We just endure silently, there is no one to take care of us.”

“Right. It’s fucked. Commissar, if it weren’t for you, I would go insane.”

“Indeed, indeed, Captain. We are the only ones for each other.”

“To hell with the sailors!” Ulyana cheered, taking another shot and topping up Aaliyah.

Sixth round!

“To hell with the sailors!” Aaliyah paused, drank. “I’m gonna– I’m gonna deny, deny, deny!”

With each ‘deny’ Aaliyah tapped her glass on the table like a gavel.

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit! That’s that Ashura brutality we all love!” Ulyana cheered.

She refilled their glasses. Aaliyah tucked the shot in quickly this time, shutting her eyes.

They broke out into laughter together, tapping their quickly glasses on the table.

Then, topping up once more–

Seventh round!

“We deserve a vacation too. Captain– I’m– I’m taking you out!” Aaliyah declared.

“That’s dangerous talk soldier! You really ready to ‘take out’ the Captain?” Ulyana said.

Both of them cracked up amid the slurred words.

Eighth round– Ninth Round– Tenth–

floating velvet colors– soft giggling in a gently swaying room– paradise–

“Don’t believe me? I’ll show you– Captain–”

Aaliyah stood suddenly, and made her way around the table–

However, she stumbled over one of the chairs on the table’s side and tripped.

This led her to fall on Ulyana, who had been sitting quite back on her chair. Both of them fell backwards together and ended up entangled on the floor. Ulyana had hit her flank and Aaliyah her gut, but between the shocked gasping for air after falling, they began to giggle airily at one another, embraced. They brought their faces close and rubbed noses together.

Ulyana stroked Aaliyah’s hair.

Even their legs had entwined as they laid on the floor, staring into each other’s eyes intensely with drunken euphoria. Ulyana had been right. Aaliyah was so soft– so warm–

Unfortunately for the two of them, those gazes wavered far too quickly for their intimacy.

And the most that happened was that they fell asleep in each other’s arms on the floor.

Lips just millimeters short of a kiss, sleeping gazes still held tightly together.

Overlooking them on the floor, a metaphorical pile of work on the table still undone.

All of the officers, at least, had had their forms looked through and approved.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.5]

This chapter contains sexual content.

“Hey, Olga,”

Several hundred meters below the baseplate of Kreuzung’s core station, the subversive Katarran group known as the Rotfront made a little base of operations. It wasn’t in the initial plan; but now most of the group’s officers had taken up temporary residence in the twisting maintenance tunnels that once served the central construction shaft. After a short meeting to explain the purpose of their visit to Kreuzung and the expectations of the next day, their leader Erika bid farewell and walked out of the room Kalika, Dimmitra and Chloe were sharing prior to the visit from their superior officers.

Olga Athanasiou quietly followed behind Erika after her bombastic declarations.

And Kalika Loukia followed behind Olga, getting her attention.

While Erika walked cheerfully away and around an elbow in the deep pipes ahead.

“Oh, sorry–” Kalika interrupted herself and sighed. “Maybe you should catch up.”

“You underestimate her.” Olga said. “She’ll be fine. Talk to me.”

“I suppose you will say ‘you are underestimating her’ again.” Kalika said. “But is it really okay for her to be gallivanting all throughout the underground? She should have left this delegated to her officers. I or Dimmitra, one of us was going to handle the negotiating, weren’t we? Or even Chloe could– there was no need for her to come personally.”

“She really wants to.” Olga said gently. “It’s not my place to disabuse her of her desires.”

She and Kalika were a bit of a study in contrasts.

Kalika was a tall and colorful woman, somewhat like their commander. She was well-made up in the face, her hair was artfully cared for, her clothes, even in the underground, had a luster to them. Kalika oozed style and confidence. Olga, meanwhile, was a very neutral woman. She was dressed in long beige pants and a black hooded jacket hiding a nanomail shirt. Her pure white hair had a few wide streaks of black running through it, some in her bangs, some in her simple, mid-length ponytail. Olga was short, and not broad or curvy enough to make up the difference in mass to Kalika overall.

Despite this, Olga was second-in-command, and Erika’s personal bodyguard.

When she spoke, Kalika responded with respect and deference.

“You have a say also, and she would listen to you. She’d be safer waiting on the Rostock.”

Olga shook her head. “My duty and pride is in keeping her safe, not confined.”

“Sometimes, confinement is the safest option. Look– Erika has all the vision, you know?”

“I understand your concerns. But please trust me; and trust her.” Olga said, gentle but firm.

“Let me accompany you to the negotiation.” Kalika said. “Not out of disrespect to you as her security chief. You know I trust you in a fight. But just to assuage my fears of foul play.”

“We were already planning to take someone else. So that’s no problem.” Olga said calmly.

Kalika nodded her head, sighing with a bit of relief.

Her bright gaze then seemed to fall upon the pocket of Olga’s hoodie.

“Are you bringing a gun up there?” Kalika asked. “It’s not wise.”

She did indeed have a pistol in her pocket. Olga always carried a firearm.

“It’s very small and made of pure carbon, it won’t trigger anything.” Olga said. “I’ve got my fists too, but I’d rather not draw too much blood. It’s– It’s a problem for me if I get too crazy.”

Kalika nodded her head. She understood, without asking further questions about it.

Or– she thought she understood.

Katarrans had different biologies and psychologies, different modus operandi and creeds.

There were some for whom a prolonged fight might trigger a mental episode.

Others for whom chopping bodies might excite their physical senses too much.

Kalika assumed it was a case like that. She was a Katarran so she understood this implicitly.

Olga was not actually a Katarran, however.

So Kalika did not actually understand her ‘special case’. And it would remain that way.

“Olga, I believe in the future Erika wants to build. I just want you to know that. That’s why we all need her.” Kalika said. “It’s why we all worry about her. It’s why she needs to be careful. I know that she is personally strong. But assassins and plots can overcome great personal strength.”

Olga smiled. “I should like to see them try anything with her.”

She turned around and waved goodbye behind herself, leaving Kalika in the middle of the tunnel with a befuddled expression. She heard the door into the little room open and shut and made her way around the corner Erika had taken. As she suspected, she found their esteemed commander waiting just around that corner, with her arms crossed, and her back to the wall, smiling.

“Kalika cares a lot about you. Or, at least, about your vision.” Olga said casually.

Erika beamed innocently, looking almost girlish. “A testament to my grand charisma.”

“I wonder how they would react if they knew what you were really capable of.” Olga said.

“Someday, I’ll own up. But if Kalika’s sensed nothing, let’s leave it that way.” Erika said.

“Your Saint’s Skin is powerful. I doubt she can tell what’s going on with your aura.”

“Mine is parlor trick compared to how much you’ve bucked suspicion.” Erika said.

They resumed walking a few lengths of pipe farther down, to the next relatively intact side room. Kalika’s hall had a few other doors, but none of them had operable doors. Olga wanted Erika to sleep in a place where they could lock themselves in and have relative safety for the night.

Neither of them wanted the possibility of interruption tonight.

They had something intimate that they needed to take care of.

Once they found a suitable room, with a door they could lock and minimally intrusive equipment inside, Erika put down a long canvas bag they had retrieved from Dimmitra. Inside was an LED lamp, some blankets, a large canteen of water, individually packed ration bars, and other necessities. While the halls were dim, the room with its door closed was completely dark without their own LED lamp, so they set it in the middle of the room and switched it on. It was like their own tame digital pyre.

Olga sat with her back to a long and broad pipe on the wall.

“I could nod off right now.” Olga moaned. “You really had me up all day today.”

In the middle of the room, after rummaging through the bag, Erika took off her coat.

She looked partially over her shoulder, smiling. “I can’t help it! There was so much to do. Every corner I turned, I saw a new face crying out for help. I knew this place was bad but hearing about it and seeing it myself was completely different. I couldn’t just walk away from all of it.”

“You’ll help by overturning the system responsible for this.”

“Olga, people are still hungry and cold in the meantime. If I have supplies to spare, I can’t look the other way.”

Staring at those subtly red lips, Olga could not possibly have been upset with Erika.

“You’re always like this; I think the crew wants you to focus up.” She said.

“Kalika complained, of course.” Erika said.

“She told me you should remain on the Rostock and let the rest of us work.” Olga said.

Her voice had a subtle tone of mischief–

Erika’s response was expected.

“Hmph! If she’s so worried, she should patrol or gather more intelligence! Secure more allies among the townsfolk! Her job is supposed to be operational enablement isn’t it? She should enable me! My ambition is not so easily deterred nor contained.”

Olga smiled broadly. “You have to cool it a bit– she thinks I’m your worst enabler now.”

“Well– I would only consider limiting my involvement if you denied me your company.”

She followed her words with a haughty laugh. Olga continued smiling as she watched her.

“Yes, and I’d never do that. I’d hate to miss a second of your annoying, manic energy.”

“I’ll make sure to continue having a full schedule for the two of us then, darling.”

Despite her irrepressible attitude, as Kalika put it, Erika was Olga’s treasure.

Olga would not dare change her. That flame in Erika’s breast made the rest of her shine bright.

Like Kalika, Erika was a colorful woman. Her long hair had a complex, dark blue hue, and her pink face was done up almost professionally with makeup. Her horns were polished to an almost mirror sheen. Her red greatcoat and hat over her shirt and pencil skirt made her appear a cross between mafia boss and corpo chick. She dressed like the job she wanted– a leftist usurper.

Olga felt her face warm, her pale features flush, gazing upon Erika in the lamplight.

Erika’s coat fell gently to the ground, slipping from her arms.

She undid her tie and several buttons on her shirt, pulling it off one shoulder, then the other, and laying it down on her coat. Unclipping the lacy black bra supporting her breasts, rising and falling with gentle breaths. Visibly shivering as her skirt came off. All of it joined the pile of clothes. Erika peeled off all of her clothes except for a pair of lightly bulging panties.

Her disrobing was meticulous and efficient. She was not trying to be titillating.

But Olga could not help the effect it had on her, for several reasons, and watched with rapt attention.

Erika was beautiful, exciting– but she was also meat. She was tonight’s meat for Olga’s hunger.

“You’ve been needing this, haven’t you? I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance until now.”

“I’ve been keeping under control.” Olga said. Her chest tightened just a little bit. Her breathing agitated, and she licked her lips, which felt suddenly dry as her eyes followed the curves of Erika’s body. “But I won’t deny– I want it.”

“We don’t want to make a mess of our clothes.”

Erika pointed a slender index at Olga.

Without taking her eyes off the radiant figure of her Premier, glistening in the lamplight, Olga began to disrobe as well. She pulled her hoodie off her slender frame, along with the plain white t-shirt to which her nanomail padding was affixed. She did her belt and slid her pants and undershorts off. She threw the clothes into a pile and pushed them away.

Not once did she and Erika break eye contact.

Smiling, Erika strode a few long steps and sat skin to skin with Olga.

Leaning her bare shoulder and her lean back close to her bodyguard’s chest.

“I’m sorry.” Olga said preemptively, as her hands laid upon Erika, pressing tentatively as if judging the give of her supple skin.

An exploration that presaged the secret and shameful desire she harbored.

“Don’t be silly. Haven’t we done this more than enough?” Erika said.

“It’s never been fair to you. It’s never been okay.”

“We’ve been through this. Do what you need to do, Olga.”

Olga’s alien heart skipped a beat as she looked down at the gentle, vulnerable curve of Erika’s shoulder, at the lean, tempting collarbone, at the soft shoulderblade. Her mouth watered even as she spoke, and she could not get her eyes to fix on anything but the flesh, beneath which flowed bountiful blood. Erika was so close, she could smell her. For Olga’s nose only, it was the salty hit of sweat and hormones that dominated– she could not smell the floral shampoo almost at all.

Moving her arms, closing in on Erika, careful like a lover’s first time.

Deliberate efforts to remain gentle, to remain calm, to control her strength, to gauge Erika’s response.

Olga wrapped her arms around her commander, and lover–

One over her lower belly, one over her breasts, cradling her–

Her lips closed between shoulder and neck, feeling the palpitations of Erika’s heart through to her mouth. A kiss, first chaste, then a second, sucking on skin, longing, hungry. Leaving a red mark that laid the target for an incisive but tender bite. She felt Erika’s body shudder in her grip. Olga’s teeth breached skin, drawing surface blood in tiny trickles before splitting deeper vessels open. She feared as she fed, as she began to taste fluid iron-sweet. As blood flowed into her mouth, as skin further tore, as her tongue lapped whatever her lips had not claimed, she feared, but she could not speak. She feared losing control of herself.

Erika’s taste was divine. That redemptive manna which she gifted to the monster in Olga.

“Oh my. You were really pent up. I’m the one who should be sorry.” Erika cooed.

In this state her words were heard distant, muffled, and yet so beautiful and comforting.

Those words kept her human as she savored the flowing human flesh drawing from the wounds.

“Keep going. Take as much as you need.” Erika said.

Olga’s fingers closed tightly around one of Erika’s breasts, squeezing supple flesh.

Her other hand massaged Erika’s lower abdomen, kneading there to relieve her own stress.

Behind Erika, Olga’s hips bucked, the tips of her breasts felt hot and astir with an electric feeling. Her soft penis twitched as it closed against Erika’s rear, Olga too involved in feeding to muster an erection yet consumed in an erotic sensation. Desires intertwined, the taste of blood and the urge to mate, primal feelings she held toward Erika that were excited at once in the middle of this act. Olga’s vision was a haze, her senses dulled, but she felt through her skin. She was skin, was touch, was the warmth and friction of claws on flesh, teeth into sinew, the throb of another’s heart racing across her self like a shockwave.

While her dripping fangs depressed then returned to the wound, precise, carefully inching deeper.

Threatening to tear out the shoulder and chew–

and never once doing so, only drawing just a little more to feed–

Olga still had control. She had control over Erika’s body, but also over her own.

Quivering hands settled over Olga’s own. She felt Erika shaking slightly in her grip.

That feeling of reciprocity slowly began to bring Olga from the animal stupor she was in.

“I’m sorry.” Olga mumbled, licking her lips and lapping miserably at Erika’s back.

Blood streaked down from the wound. Olga’s tongue glided slick over Erika’s shoulderblade.

Erika spoke calmly, comfortingly, holding the hands by which Olga seized her.

“There, there. Have as much as you need. I’m the only one strong enough for this.”

“Erika.” Olga’s lips hung open, holding back another bite. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Olga.”

Olga. She felt so reassured when Erika spoke that name.

Olga.

Olga Athanasiou.

“You are Olga Athanasiou. My dearest friend. My greatest protector. My passionate love.”

Erika knew exactly what to say to lift her spirits, even as pathetic as she felt.

She was a human, a person, Olga Athanasiou of the Rotfront. She had made herself human.

No longer the ‘the Hunter of Pactea’. And not ‘Hunter One’ in a maniac leviathan cult.

She alone made herself human, and she alone decided she would be among the hominin.

“I wish I didn’t have to hurt you.” Olga said. Her mouth streaked red-brown.

“My word; we always go through this. Just relax. I trust you. I’m doing this for you.”

Olga’s face sank against Erika’s bloody shoulder and back. Hugging Erika tightly.

“Your pulse is slowing down, darling. Are you done? Can you bandage me up?”

“Y-Yes, ma’am.”

“Good girl.”

Calm washed over Olga.

Her jittering, the heat in her sinews, the spring-load of instinct to kill and fuck like a beast–

it was gone as Erika’s blood flowed through her.

“Goodness. That was exciting.” Erika leaned back against Olga, her voice slightly trembling. “If I wasn’t so tired I’d try to get you hard and do something more. Next time we’re on the Rostock, though– I’m absolutely in the mood.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” Olga said. Her ordinary, confident tone of voice returned.

Erika sated her hunger for human flesh. For now; for as long as her willpower held out.

Eating meat, avoiding vicious bloodletting in combat, and meditating, all helped to keep her centered.

Eventually, however, she needed human flesh to remain sane. Erika’s blood sufficed.

For Olga, who had sworn not to eat humans again, it was shameful– but it was the only way to retain her self.

Erika understood. Erika was an angel. Olga would have been a monster without her.

“Goodness.” Erika mumbled, her heart clearly still racing from the act.

They shifted positions, with Erika now seated in front and Olga kneeling behind her.

Olga produced a roll of plastic gauze wrap from their bag, and carefully, beginning from the wound, she began to tie the blue bandage around Erika’s shoulder, under her arm, around her back, making sure everything was fully supported and covered. This was how she wished it could always be with Erika. Olga’s touch was tender, careful and caring, brushing on silk-soft skin, and she relished the peace, the gentle breathing from an Erika who was not sustaining an attack. That feeling of a soft and steady pulse transferred through skin, through the bandage, to Olga’s fingertips. Olga relished caring for Erika.

She would do anything Erika wished. All she wanted was for Erika to feel good.

“Olga,”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve never been a monster to me. Not even when you bite.”

“Erika–”

She reached backward and patted Olga’s head, stroking her hair where she could reach.

“Ssh– I’ll only accept praise for my Olga here. No denigration. Premier’s orders.”

Olga smiled. She held back a few tears. “Acknowledged.”

She continued to wrap up Erika’s wound slowly and gently. Savoring that little moment.

Erika opened a wrapper from the bag, unveiling a bar of pemmican, crumbled meat mixed with its own fat as well as nuts. It was high in protein and iron, especially this specific Volwitz brand, which was for the gym and not survivalists, and so was made with molasses inside. Erika always ate a few bars right after Olga drank from her. She handed a bar to Olga as well, who took a bite every so often while she worked and while they talked. With her hunger stated, hominin food regained its flavor to her.

Sitting around, eating, conversing like this– it was nice.

“I’ve never met communists from the Union. I’m excited to talk to them.” Erika said.

“I’m sure they’ll love you. You’re their biggest fan.” Olga teased.

“It’s more than being a ‘fan’! We share the correct ideological line.” Erika said.

In her mind Olga could already see the stars in Erika’s heterochromatic eyes.

“Of course, of course.” Olga said. She wanted to encourage Erika to speak.

“I have so many things I want to say to them. I’m running them over in my head.”

“Maybe you can practice with me.”

“Oh Olga, you’ve heard my rants hundreds of times.”

“I’m always happy to hear Erika Kairos’ hundredth-and-one rant.”

Erika laughed, which caused Olga to allow herself a chuckle as well.

“Fine then; you asked.” Erika said. “So, in the Imbrium, the key contradiction is–”

And so they spent the night together before the fateful meeting.

Olga bandaged Erika; they curled up together in warm blankets, eating their pemmican; and Erika speechified all throughout.


“Um. Hey. Yo. You’re with this ship, right?”

“Huh? What do you mean ‘yo’? Who are you that you’re acting so casually here?”

“Orlan. Orlan Aries. Sorry to bother you. There’s a bit of a situation.”

Murati Nakara narrowed her eyes at the man who had approached out of nowhere.

Unremarkable with his messy hair, anonymously-plain face, ordinary suit. Who did he think he was?

It was the middle of the day, and with the Captain and Commissar gone, Murati had been recalled to the Brigand from her meeting with Tigris and Euphrates in order to have an officer in charge of the work site. Murati gladly accepted the responsibility, hurried back with a determined smile and parked herself on the blacktop floor of the space Alcor had leased them. Nobody asked her to remain outside, and she was not necessarily supervising, since she did not really know the work that needed to be done nor who to delegate it to– that had all been decided in prior planning. Still, she took this task deadly serious.

This was a chance to prove she had the mettle and discernment of a Captain.

So she stood guard, on the hunt for threats to operational security, with keen-eyed justice.

This, she believed, was the ultimate duty of the officer in charge.

“I’m not expecting anybody. You better explain yourself quickly, or I’ll call security.”

“Whoa! Hey! Isn’t that a bit harsh to leap to so instantly?”

Orlan made a pathetic expression and Murati delivered words swift and sharp as knives.

“Not another word out of you that isn’t an explanation, you swindler.”

“Now I’m a swindler?!”

Murati stepped forward into Orlan’s space. Menacingly. With authority and security.

They were similar in size, but Murati still seemed like she had all the power in the exchange.

Orlan quickly shrank back a step in the face of her imperious approach.

“Call your Captain.” Orlan said slowly. “Please call your Captain. She can explain.”

“How do you know I’m not the captain, hmm?” Murati said.

“She’s a blond– with– killer shoulders and legs. She– she was with a Shimii–” Orlan stammered.

Murati stepped forward again and Orlan bolted back a step, holding up his hands.

“Killer shoulders and legs? Hmph! Maybe you’re a stalker?” She said dangerously.

“Can you PLEASE call her?” Orlan begged.

It was clear that he was describing Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara.

Since he saw them together, and could’ve only seen them together outside, today–

That narrowed his possible roles in the mystery of why he and Murati were speaking at all.

Prompted by Orlan’s begging, Murati finally contacted Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara over the Brigand’s encrypted line, routed to the portable in her hands. They were waiting for their next meeting, having long since completed their chat with Gloria Luxembourg and her aide– who just happened to now be standing right in front of Murati.

She quickly learned that Orlan Aries was a social democrat, which she thought was a hopeless line–

But also that he was an erstwhile ally and that she should treat him respectfully.

Despite his weird attitude and demonstrable lack of ideological rigor.

Learning these things did not especially endear Murati toward him any further.

However, an officer also had to be a good representative of their crew to military allies.

Therefore, Murati cooled off and reached out a hand to shake with Orlan.

“Murati Nakara. Lieutenant and First Officer.” She said, by way of introduction.

She was not going to apologize nor admit she might have been a bit of a hair trigger.

“Nakara?” Orlan asked, tentatively reaching out his own hand and returning the shake.

“Hmm? Something wrong?”

She felt a sudden spike of anxiety. He had reacted to her surname. Did he know–?

“Oh, it’s an uncommon one. An uncommon surname.” Orlan said. “Around these parts.”

She sighed. “Well, as you must know already, I’m not from around these parts.”

“Right. True. I just motormouth sometimes when things get dicey.”

Murati held back the comments she had brewing about that particular behavior.

“So, Orlan, you concluded your meeting with my superiors. What are you here for?”

Orlan sighed. He was clutching a fancy-looking portable against his chest with one arm, while every so often absentmindedly running the fingers of his free hand across his hair. He had a glum expression. He was clearly stressed out. When he spoke again, Murati thought he was just barely keeping it together, sounding both at the end of his rope and perhaps embarrassed about it.

“You might have to call your Captain again. I’m looking for a ride out of Kreuzung. I had plans with a group of Katarrans to smuggle me out to Aachen to avoid personally checking in or out at the ports. But all mercenaries I’d been dealing with got bought out of their jobs for twice my offer. So now I’m in a bit of a jam, and I can’t even contact Gloria for more money.”

He looked like he was ready to be turned down, averting his gaze from Murati as he spoke.

Murati meanwhile tried to smile a bit. “I don’t think I’ll need to call that in with the Captain. We’re heading for the same place, and we’re not enemies. I don’t think the captain would turn you down if she was in my shoes now. As long as you keep quiet and out of the way, we can find a place for you aboard our ship.”

“Oh! Thank you! Wow, that’s– finally, all my worries are gone!” Orlan smiled brightly.

He looked like a changed man almost instantly, a boyish beaming face having eclipsed the bedraggled shell he had been broadcasting to the world previously. He reached out his hands suddenly and shook Murati’s again, staring her right in the eyes. She was so confused by the gesture she actually shook his hands for a solid thirty seconds before snapping them away.

“Ah, sorry. It’s been nothing but lows and lower lows lately.” Orlan said.

“Well, I’m glad I can help.” Murati said with a cautious tone.

“Now I can even kick back and relax for a few days. God, I’ve needed this kind of break.”

She didn’t know how to deal with how cheerful he had become.

“The days go by, lives get spent like lighter fluid, but there’s still good people in the world.”

From his pocket, he withdrew a cigarette and a lighter, lit a fire, and took a care-free drag.

He looked over to the Brigand. He whistled, as if for the first time noticing its size.

Smoke escaped from his lips in a clumsy cloud blowing Murati’s way.

She grimaced.

“She’s not a looker, but she seems solid as all hell.” He said of the ship, blissfully unaware.

Murati waited for him to raise the cigarette up again before she took it from him.

“No smoking.” She said. She dropped it on the ground and stepped on it.

Even this could not put down his indefatigable good mood.

“Of course, of course. Your house, your rules, ma’am Murati.”

Orlan handed her the pack of cigarettes. Murati would have to dispose it later.

“Say, are you by any chance related to Karthik Nakara?” He asked casually.

Murati’s eyes fixed him with a sudden glare, burning with immediate power.

In a sudden panic, she triggered her psionic power and looked at his aura.

Calm blue and green, nothing out of the ordinary. A slick texture, pliable, like a gel, with a smokey scent. She could not sense any evil intentions from him, no violence, no skepticism. He seemed entirely benign and casual in intention.

“Ah, sorry for the sudden personal question, but I’m only curious because my parents were oceanographers too. That’s why I recognized the surname before, actually. All of your parent’s work is officially discredited, but my parents always cared more about the right theories than the correct ones. So I heard your surname a bunch– they wanted me to go into oceanography too. I just ended up being too much of a meathead for it, I suppose. Are we perhaps alike in that regard?”

He shot Murati another cheerful smile after his long explanation. Murati sighed deeply in return, visibly unsettled.

“Karthik Nakara was my father. But I don’t know anything about oceanography.” She replied.

Orlan nodded. “I knew it. We’re alike then! You were kinda scary at first, but I felt like we could hit it off!”

Murati tensed up. This chipper mood of his was really going to be a problem, wasn’t it?


Kremina Qote had communicated to Erika and Olga that they should arrive in the afternoon since the Pandora’s Box was meeting with Gloria Luxembourg first, earlier in the morning. Erika was a little fatigued in the morning, and Olga welcomed being able to cuddle up with her for a few more hours in the blankets. Erika’s back was turned to Olga, the latter holding her tightly, lightly nuzzling Erika’s good shoulder. She still felt ashamed of what she did, even as Erika’s warm, human (hominin) blood flowed inside her. She wanted to coddle Erika for the wound that she inflicted, to make her feel good any way she could.

“I’m fine, Olga. You’re underestimating me just like Kalika and the rest.” Erika said.

“I don’t underestimate you– but this is different–” Olga said, searching for words.

“It’s not. I trust you, I know you won’t get out of hand with me. You haven’t yet.”

“But I don’t trust myself. I can’t– not when it comes to the hunger– I’ll never be–”

“Jeez! Then at least trust me to be able to protect myself, even if you lost your senses!”

“You would have to kill me.”

“That’s enough, Olga. Please. Just take the advice you give the others– and trust me.”

Olga bit down on the blankets over them, her arms still curled around Erika’s bare body.

She knew Erika was right, in principle. She knew she had to and could only trust her.

But this wasn’t just ‘trusting her to protect herself from mercs or cops’.

This was tied up in Olga’s most vicious trauma and shame– her hunger for human flesh.

That hunger which was the curse laid upon the Omenseers since the dawn of their species.

While Olga brooded, Erika suddenly turned around in their makeshift bed, releasing herself from Olga’s grip. Instead Erika wrapped her arms around Olga rather than the other way around. Olga was a head shorter, and when Erika shifted, she held her against her breasts and stroked her hair almost like she was holding a pet. Olga could feel Erika’s cheek against her own.

She was smiling. And as soon as she had tightly caught Olga in her vice, she started to giggle.

“No more worrying about me today! Worry about securing alliance with the Union folk!”

“It’s not like I can do anything to influence that!”

Olga sighed, but then nestled herself back against Erika’s chest. She found herself smiling too.

Erika never thought of her as a monster– so maybe she needed to stop doing so as well.

“I promise, Olga. When I take power, you’ll never have to fear again, for anything.”

Her voice was not so giggly when she said things like that.

She was serious– she was the commander of the Rotfront when she spoke in that voice.

Olga held her own hands over Erika’s, and against her own chest. “I believe in you.”

Soon, they were both upright, dressed, cleaned up, and out the door once again.

Erika in her button-down and coat, the uniform of the woman who sought power.

And rather than a hoodie, Olga now wore a suit and pants, playing the bodyguard properly.

Her old clothes she stashed away in the bag. Dimmitra would take them. So it was important they were clean.

Kalika and Dimmitra would have absolutely made a fuss about the blood if they didn’t take care.

“How’s my tail, by the way?” Erika whispered before they left.

“Hasn’t grown back since the last time I ate it.” Olga said. “It’s scarred over.”

Erika smiled. “Good. We don’t want any inappropriate questions.”

Olga nodded. Both of them had origins that were best kept under wraps.

Once they returned to the room where their subordinates had been resting, they found Kalika standing out in the hall, arms crossed, back to the wall. Impeccably dressed as always in her fancy coat, button-down skirt, tights. Olga wondered how she did her makeup and hair so perfectly in this damp old tunnel. Alongside her was a smaller woman, shorter than Olga, though not by much, but also somewhat thinner. She had silver-grey hair streaked with black, grey skin, and golden eyes. She had a hooded cape with holes for her horns, and wore the hood partially up, but not entirely covering her face and hair. She had on a cut-off top, short pants and a long sheer bodystocking that was cut off just over her breasts.

“Oh! Premier!”

She had a soft, almost childish voice for an adult woman.

Before Erika and Olga could reach Kalika and the door to the room, Chloe had already dashed to them and met them halfway. She had her eyes drawn wide open and mouth half as wide, like she had words right on the tip of her tongue. This was Chloe Kouri, the smallest, youngest and most eager member of the Rotfront, but up to the par of everyone else in terms of capabilities.

“Premier, ma’am! I got some really interesting intelligence!” Chloe said.

“Let’s hear it. We’ve still got some time before we need to go up.” Erika said, smiling.

As soon as Chloe started speaking, Olga could see the big shadow of Dimmitra at the door behind Kalika, who was still standing there brooding. Everyone else found the way those two were attached at the hip very cute and endearing, but Olga was sometimes irritated at Dimmitra’s sense of protectiveness over the little gurnard. But– everyone but Kalika was guilty of fraternization and none more than Olga, who was regularly involved with the boss– so she wouldn’t say anything.

“Apparently, someone suddenly rode up this morning and bought up a ton of the named mercs currently in Kreuzung! They knew all the places to hit up in the lower levels and picked up a bunch of crews. It happened real early too. By breakfast time every rando Katarran was trying to get in on it!” Chloe said. “There were rumors that they got bought out at twice the going rate! Screwed over a bunch of other jobs that were going on in Eisental! It was so shocking that the gossip has been going around at light speed down here! There’s probably something real big about to go down somewhere!”

Olga and Erika exchanged worried glances and looked back at Chloe.

There was an ecosystem of Katarran mercs in every station that was large enough to have a criminal underworld– and even in those with small criminal underworlds. It was loose and chaotic but it had observable patterns.

Most Katarrans in the Imbrian ocean were nomads, running from place to place. Very few Katarrans ever got a chance at steady and stable work and therefore living situations. Almost every Katarran who thought they could settle down would eventually have a run-in with the law or the underworld and have to skip town; jumping on whatever transport they could get, accepting hard and poorly paying temporary labor on whatever ship or place would have them, but dreaming big. There were always Katarran bodies in circulation, almost by design, and driven largely by racist neglect and statelessness.

Then there were named Katarrans, what the average Imbrian would think of as a real mercenary.

Named mercs were people you could know if you were savvy or had an ear for gossip. Every station had names. Names had their own gear, they had experience, they had decided what their body was for, and it was never anything wholesome. Names were not desperate– they had been around and knew how to survive. Most of all, names were made by their reputation. They often attracted lower tier mercs, either by their social power, clout or even through threats, into forming crews.

These were folks that could get in trouble with the Imbrians and maybe get away with it.

It was possible for any unscrupulous idiot to buy the labor of random desperate Katarrans anywhere.

There were always the bodies of their people around to be used. Olga and Erika knew this all too well.

For someone to gather up named mercs, though, it meant something bad was in the works.

For the Rotfront, it was tantamount to someone waving money in Erika’s face that she could not possibly resist. It would bring Olga, Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe into service with her, along with the Rostock (and Erika was someone with a few ships and hundreds of soldiers). Names built crews. Buying up a named merc usually got the financier at least five or six other tag-alongs at least, always a nice and tidy squad. Enough elites working together could bring out an army.

“Chloe, was it the Mycenae Military Commission?” Erika asked. Her tone was serious.

Chloe shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s more fact than fiction about the financier.”

Olga shifted uneasily in her shoes, hands in her blazer pockets. She grunted.

“It’ll be really bad if Labrys Agamemnon has finally made her move. We aren’t ready.”

“It can’t be Agamemnon.” Kalika said from the door. She had been listening to Chloe’s boisterous conversation from a few meters away. “All of the named mercs here were resisting the Mycenae’s summons just a few days ago. Nobody wants to die for their ‘Golden age’ rhetoric. I doubt that situation could change so quickly and dramatically.”

“If anyone can buy out contracts at twice the rate, it’d be Mycenae, though.” Olga said.

“Labrys is too proud. In her head she’s still dealing with disposable larva from embryo farms.” Kalika said.

“It’s possible a few named mercs got desperate enough to take Labrys’ offers. Anything can happen.”

Erika spoke. That chipper mood her crew constantly saw had been considerably dampened.

Kalika shook her head. “Erika, the Tagmata’s money wasn’t good enough before. We shouldn’t panic.”

“No one’s panicking.” Erika said. She smiled. “But we need to be careful, and we seriously need this connection to the Union to work out now. We’ll need them if the Mycenae Military Commission starts throwing their weight around.”

They all knew a confrontation with Mycenae was likely. It was a bitter history engraved on their flesh.

Over a hundred years ago, Katarre had been torn apart in a civil war still raging unabated.

Everything preceding the war was called “the Golden Age” of the House of Palaiologos.

Now competing warlords divided this vast and incredibly rich country among themselves.

Every Warlord had their own ideas about the collapse. Doubtless, Labrys Agamemnon did too. How it happened was merely academic. In the present, it simply was what happened. Since the collapse, Katarre had been ruled by warlord states each with a potentially massive amount of military power and resources, but fractious in nature, kept in flux by the systems and circumstance, by outside intrusion and internal intrigue, all of it grinding replaceable Katarran bodies for the land’s bounty.

Mycenae was the first name for the old kingdom, and the most resonant.

“The Golden Age” was the legendary name of the era where Katarre was united.

Tagmata, Numeroi, Cataphracts and Hoplites– these were all terms harkening back to that ancient time.

By adopting them, the Mycenae Military Commission wore their ambition on their sleeve.

In name, rhetoric, aesthetics and iconography– it was obvious to any Katarran who they intended to succeed.

Worst of all, they had accrued the professional and brutal military power to match those aspirations.

It was hard for Katarrans to be nationalist, but they could be nationalists like no one else.

Someone like Erika Kairos, peddling the hopes of a revolutionary future–

There was no greater enemy to the new Mycenae, who clung to the despair of the past.

“We should be cautious, but not paranoid.” Kalika said. “Erika, you can’t just focus on the Mycenean fleet’s status alone. Liberal Rhinea liked Mycenae’s money enough to invite them here on behalf of Rhineametalle, but the Volkisch has none of those relationships built. They might not be so keen to have a bunch of foreign dreadnoughts around. It’s unlucky they have ended up stuck on our turf when we started poking our heads out of our holes, but it can also be an opportunity.”

“I’m not unaware. But if we’re not ready, they’ll send us back to our holes.” Erika said.

“As long as we’re still alive after we retreat, there’s always hope.” Kalika said.

Erika shook her head. She smiled. “Yes, but Kalika, I’m here to stake it all on this.”

She kept saying that– not even Olga truly knew what the limits of that ambition were.

One thing was readable, in Erika’s grin and the firmness of her voice.

She was determined not to turn back now, no matter what.

Kalika sighed. “Well, sure. You’re the boss.” She said.

“Yeah, she’s the boss. So you shut the fuck up, Loukia, and just fucking follow orders.”

From the door, Dimmitra seemed to have finally had enough and walked out.

She was a tall and burly woman, dressed only enough to accentuate her personality and muscle.

Chloe left Erika’s side and rushed back to Dimmitra, looking up at her with big eyes.

“Don’t be mean, Itra! Kalika is a comrade too.” Chloe said gently.

Faced with Chloe’s soft gaze, the larger woman’s incisiveness immediately diminished.

“She’s a comrade who talks back too much.” Dimmitra mumbled.

Kalika seemed unthreatened by Dimmitra’s approach.

Erika spoke up suddenly, raising her voice above all of them.

Olga saw her aura briefly flare up.

“That’s enough.” Said their Premier. “I appreciate Kalika’s outspokenness, and I appreciate your loyalty as well, Dimmitra. At the end of the day, I need no protection from someone’s ideas. I know without a shadow of a doubt that Kalika trusts me enough to follow me to the bitter end. She wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that– it would only be then that I’d want to shut her up.”

Kalika shrugged. Olga saw red rings around her eyes very briefly.

She caught sight of Erika’s aura. Kalika knew Erika had power– but not how much.

“I’d just prefer our ends to not be so bitter, even for someone as blunt as you, Dimmitra.”

“Hmph. Whatever.”

Dimmitra went back into the room and Chloe followed, trying to cheer her up.

Olga grumbled. “Thanks, Kalika. What a mood to set for our big meeting.”

Kalika shrugged again and started walking out ahead of the rest of them.

Erika and Olga said their farewell-for-nows to Chloe and Dimmitra then followed along.

“She cares about us a lot.” Erika said to Olga. “Even if she keeps it to herself.”

“I know. Dimmitra has her read all wrong. But Kalika can be annoying in her own way.”

“That’s the case with every living person, I’m afraid. Present company excluded.”

Olga got along well with Erika and had something to say about everyone else.

In her mind, that was part of being someone’s bodyguard– and her closest confidante.

But she wasn’t unrealistic in her criticism. She thought Erika must have appreciated that.

So with that said, and with the thought of the Mycenae Military Commission having gone in and out of their heads, the Rotfront’s delegation ascended Kreuzung’s underworld, and made their way as instructed to the fifth tower, and the beautiful campus belonging to Solarflare LLC. There was a sky, a few trees, even a professionally-kept litter of birds trained to fly over the main street, and chirp. People on the street gave them looks, but mainly kept to themselves. It was a busy technology sector.

Kalika whistled upon exiting the tram and seeing the open sky in Solarflare’s tier.

And that distant central spire belonging to their eventual destination.

“Ritzy as hell.” Kalika said. “Are these really communists we’re meeting?”

“The Union made allies with an industrial scientific company, Solarflare LLC.” Erika said. “We are being hosted in their main building to allay suspicion, since many characters come in and out of Solarflare LLC, on sleepy days and on busy days. We won’t look out of place there because it’s such a cosmopolitan company. And they have rabid lawyers and lobbyists.”

“That’s all it takes for the Volkisch to get off them?” Kalika asked.

“I think the Volkisch haven’t begun looking. Or don’t even think to look there.” Erika said. “After all, it’s a for-profit technology company. The Volkisch have to make such people happy in order to secure their existence in the long term, so they must tread lightly. To capitalism, the Volkisch are replaceable with any other enabler and protector of private accumulation.”

Kalika looked skeptical but turned her eyes from the campus’ grand spire back to the road.

“Well, I suppose this says good things about the Pandora’s Box’s ability to make friends.” She said.

“Let’s hope they want to be friends with us.” Olga replied, speaking up.

They made their way into the main building and spoke with the receptionist.

As Kremina Qote had said, the receptionists pointed them to the right meeting room.

It was not so long a walk later, that they finally met face to face with the communists.

Erika’s lips curled into an enormous, girlishly giddy smile upon seeing them.

There were two– a fair blond who was made up almost as glamorously and fastidiously as their Kalika, along with a slightly more rustic but still comely Shimii with darker features and hair. Both were dressed in button-down sleeveless shirts, skirts, and teal half-jackets, which the blond wore off the shoulder like she was showing off, and the Shimii wore buttoned-up in a fussy way. They were seated behind a table in a small meeting room with some monitors and portable computers.

“What do we think of Levi Mordecai in this room?” Erika asked, grinning happily.

That made the blond chuckle. “You’re in the right place. Erika Kairos, correct?”

Erika put her hands behind her back and leaned forward with a mischievous face.

“Indeed. Erika Kairos, political Premier and military Commander-In-Chief of the Nationale Volksarmee.”

Oh right, Olga thought, that’s our new name. We’re not just the Rotfront now.

This wasn’t the first name change either– she would have to get used to it.

“These are my associates, Olga Athanasiou and Kalika Loukia. Here to provide security.”

“Understandable.” Said the Shimii woman. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, adjutant and second-in-command; this is Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the Pandora’s Box. We’re all communists here, and we can speak openly.”

Erika smiled, stepped forward and sat in the chair in front of Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Kalika remained outside, at the door.

Olga stood inside, her back to the wall just behind Erika.

“It’s good to meet you, comrade.” Ulyana said. “We are talking with everyone involved in the United Front in Aachen, in the hopes of becoming involved in the action ourselves. We are hoping to caucus at the United Front with one of the main factions. We have heard from Kremina Qote that you espoused similar politics to the Union’s system, is that true?”

“I have a strong affinity for the politics of the Union. I believe it is the correct line.” Erika said. “The Union system overthrew industrial slavery and safeguards their revolution from the Empire to this day. They are the successful model.”

“Certainly, I can only agree with that. Now, materially speaking. We have combat equipment and training that we want to distribute to the United Front.” Aaliyah said, taking her turn after Ulyana. “But we have heard also that your group is pretty well equipped. Can you tell us more about your organization, in terms of its current resources?”

“Of course.” Erika said. She spoke calmly, proudly, professionally. There was still a bit of girlish tittering to her voice, but she was all business. “I command three ships, two Frigates and a Cruiser, and have connections to three willing mercenary Frigates who will take my money if I need them. In total I have about 500 loyal and professional personnel, who are fully provisioned with rations and munitions. I have six Divers, and my flagship, the Rostock, has missile capability.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Do you have former combat experience?” Ulyana asked.

“All of my crew members are Katarrans with mercenary pasts. Some short, some long.”

“Are your crew members ideologically aligned?” Aaliyah asked.

Erika smiled. “I know that communist Katarrans are rare, but I’ve made political education a priority for those working with me. In the ships under my personal command, I only take aboard people who are fed up with the system to a degree that mark bills can’t distract them from. It would be endangering myself to entrust my operation to dilettantes.”

Aaliyah smiled a little herself. “I believe you may have read me wrong, Erika Kairos. Communist Katarrans are not that rare– there are actually many of them in the Union. No disrespect was intended from me, comrade.”

“Ah, but it is a question that must be asked and answered nevertheless.” Erika said.

“In that case, I am curious about your own ideological development.” Ulyana asked.

Olga sat back and watched. Erika was in her element.

She was entirely genuine in her excitement. Olga could see it in her.

Erika loved to talk about communism. She really, truly, believed in all of it.

And maybe some of her crew did not– but all of them believed in her and thus her vision.

Dimmitra was not really a communist. But she followed her warlord, to the absolute end.

Chloe did not really know the theories well at all. But she wanted a kinder and more peaceful world.

Kalika was pretty booksmart, but she was also quite jaded. But she cared about the group’s safety.

None of them worked strictly for money.

They had a Katarran-from-Katarre level of belief in Erika, through thick and thin.

Having been asked to talk about communism, Erika now had the brightest face in the room.

“When I was very young, I first heard of revolution, from news about the Empire losing its colonies. At the time I was destined to become a tool in a Warlord’s arsenal. In Katarre, people are treated as tools, and rarely taught anything outside of the core of knowledge they will use repeatedly, forever, until death. But everyone hears some words they were not meant to. Concepts like change, hope, a future, and the ability to make oneself, are inescapable. They are a core of humanity that nothing can stamp out. For me, since I heard the word revolution, one thing led me to another– I escaped my country, I fought as a mercenary, but all throughout, I was fascinated by the slaves who shook off their shackles and killed their masters. Much of the world holds a grudge against you to this day. In that sense, you are very Katarran, and it is part of why I admire you.”

“How did you come to read Mordecai?” Ulyana said. “I’m ignorant of mercenary culture.”

Olga felt that Ulyana was genuinely curious about Erika. She seemed interested in what Erika had to say and looked more openly engaged. Aaliyah, meanwhile, resembled Kalika or Olga herself. She was watching, scrutinizing, maybe thinking about the direction of the conversation a few steps ahead of the two speakers clearly charmed with each other.

They all had their roles to play in this friendly little war of words.

Erika continued to answer the questions with the same restrained joviality.

“Mercenary culture is illegality in itself. Anything that the Empire singles out with hate and fear and criminalization, you hear about and can get your hands on. You’d be surprised the number of mercenaries who read banned books and have taboo ideas, but at the end of the day, most only do it to pass the time or act quirky. It’s easy to read Mordecai; harder to believe in it.”

Olga spoke up for the first time.

“Mercenaries who work for long enough start getting ideas about changing things.” She said.

“Thank you, Olga.” Erika said. “She’s correct. I got around enough, with all those ideas in my head, that I started noticing patterns about the world I could not let go. Fundamentally, I felt that not only did Mordecai understand how the world worked; he showed me that it could change. And not only had I worked for long enough; I’d seen too much tragedy to keep going as I was.”

“It was the same in the Union. Hard to go any lower than being enslaved.” Ulyana said.

“All too true.” Erika replied. “Radical ideas grow in urgency as things fall apart.”

“Erika Kairos,” Aaliyah spoke up, “what is your goal in Rhinea? What would you have the United Front do?”

Erika did not have to think twice about it. Olga grinned, knowing what she would say.

“Nothing less than the complete defeat and destruction of the Volkisch Movement.”

“Quick and satisfying answer.” Aaliyah replied. “How do you hope to achieve this?”

Erika crossed her arms and sat back on her chair, looking confident. Here came her speech:

“In Rhinea, the key contradiction is not the treatment of Imbrian workers by the bourgeoise, but rather the pitting of Imbrian workers against racialized populations.” Erika said confidently. Her eyes then fixed on Aaliyah specifically, in a way that got her ears to twitch. “Katarrans are treated in an abominable fashion throughout the Imbrium, but Rhinea has a specific relationship with the Shimii people alone. Shimii are segregated and criminalized very specifically. If Katarran bodies are forced into a state of anarchy, Shimii are subject to complete, invasive control. The Shimii’s existence is a form of discipline on the Imbrian persons in many different ways. They are competing workers, they are racial others, they are security threats, and they are also captives.”

Erika fixed Ulyana and Aaliyah with a powerful gaze.

Both were now staring directly at her with much greater interest than ever before.

“Eisental is absolutely crucial to Rhinea and the Volkisch. Without the rest of the Empire to feed their industries, they must count on Eisental for raw materials and primary processing that allows finished goods to be made everywhere else. Eisental is both crucial to Rhinea and also its soft underbelly, being incredibly vast with many terrains. But Eisental is also the site of an ancient Shimii state that was crushed and subjugated by the Imbrians. These contradictions of Eisental’s identity are the key to victory. If the Shimii rose up in their masses, Eisental would collapse, and with it, Rhinean capitalism and its current Volkisch stewards would also topple over. The Shimii, in the agrispheres, in the segregated sweatshops of the corporations, in the ghetto of Tower Seven, they are the sleeping, suffering masses whose plight we must heed if we want to stir a revolution.”

After a pause at the end of Erika’s speech, Ulyana spoke up, now smiling wide too.

“You’ve really thought about this very thoroughly!” Ulyana said.

“What about Katarrans?” Aaliyah asked bluntly. “Don’t you want to liberate your people?”

“Of course I want to liberate them ma’am Bashara. I would be heartless otherwise. But it will come when it comes; Eisental hangs in the balance of a Shimii’s tail.” Erika said. Crucially she was still excited and not offended by the question. She was engaged in discourse. “Trust me that I am thinking of factors for Katarran revolution as well, but such a thing supersedes Eisental. In the conditions of Eisental, we have our best chance for revolution by focusing on the Shimii.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah gazed at one another as if silently gauging each other’s responses.

In the midst of this, the Premier of the Rotfront would suddenly make her heartfelt plea.

Erika reached out a hand on the table, symbolically extending for a shake not demanded.

“Comrades, the United Front is just a steppingstone for me. Whether or not anything comes of that discussion in Aachen. I wish you to join me in this endeavor. I ask that you evaluate for yourselves what Eisental’s revolution needs, and you will understand that I am correct. If you ally with me, slowly but surely, a new dawn will come to Rhinea. I will work tirelessly for this. I will work with Gloria Luxembourg, or the Three Arrows– but I want to work with you, comrades.”

“I hope you’ll take this well.” Ulyana said. “But you remind me of Bhavani Jayasankar.”

Erika’s mouth briefly hung open and then she closed it, and then opened it, and laughed.

“Quite a high compliment! I will never refuse such a comparison!” She said.

Her tone of voice was fully out of control now, increasingly giddy and girlish.

“We will evaluate everyone who speaks to us, and let you know of our final decision.”

Aaliyah spoke up, as if to reign in Ulyana who was clearly taken with Erika’s enthusiasm.

Olga was confident, however, that Erika had achieved some success with these Union folk.

Nobody could have heard that woman say such things and not be taken in by it.

She had such audacity, but also, such a clarity of purpose. Erika had heavily reasoned ideas.

She could be foolish and reckless and authoritarian sometimes, but she was irrepressible.

Flawlessly dependable, hopelessly dedicated, a shining beacon for Katarrans in her care.

“Erika, I have a final question.” Aaliyah asked. “What would Rhinea look like afterward?”

Olga thought the adjutant’s tone of voice suggested she was trying to keep Ulyana from speaking further.

But again, there was no hesitation on Erika’s part. She had always been thinking about this.

“My vision of Rhinea would have it become a one-party communist state with regional soviets, including a majority-Shimii Eisental Soviet operating as an autonomous zone. Similar to the Union system.” She said.

“Right, but what about you?” Aaliyah asked. “Where are you in your vision of the future?”

“Oh, of course, I do see myself as something of a political architect. Like a Daksha Kansal.”

Erika smiled completely placidly. Aaliyah nodded her head.

“So you’d be in charge.” Aaliyah said. “You would have a strong leadership role.”

“Someone must be; and I am better prepared in all aspects than most.” Erika said.

“She is our Premier.” Olga spoke up. “We obviously have expectations of her to lead.”

Was that a question trying to trip her up? That Shimii sure was a tricky one. Ulyana seemed to be swayed, but even after hearing about the liberation of her people, that Aaliyah was pressing Erika harder with every question she asked. And her face was unreadable most of the time too. Olga would have thought she would have been elated to hear Erika’s idea for a Shimii autonomous region, but she seemed to be concealing her emotions well despite Erika’s sincerity and kindness.

“Thank you for answering our questions honestly.” Aaliyah said.

She fixed Ulyana a critical look, and Ulyana looked back at her a bit helplessly.

Olga sighed. Was that not what they wanted to hear?

Erika, however, was still entirely calm, and her usual charming self.

“Anything else you desire to know?” She asked.

Ulyana looked like she was about to speak but Aaliyah answered first.

“No, I am satisfied. You have means and ambition and are clearly formidable. I can see why you are a core pillar of the United Front. Regardless of any decisions we make, we look forward to your participation in Aachen.” Aaliyah replied.

She had gone completely neutral on them. Olga felt unnerved. Did Erika mess it up?

“Of course. Likewise. We shall meet again, comrades. Thank you for your time.”

Erika, calmly and politely, began to stand up, as did Aaliyah–

“Actually–”

Ulyana spoke up, and this time in such a tone as Aaliyah could not try to repress her.

Olga glanced at Aaliyah, and found the Shimii just as surprised as the rest.

“Erika, I do have a curiosity.” Ulyana said. Her face showed determination that was similar to Erika’s own and the adjutant at her side did not try to interrupt it. “Gloria Luxembourg did not meet us in person, and we are well aware that the most connected or influential anarchists will not show themselves openly. Isn’t it dangerous for you to come all the way here?”

At this, Erika smiled again. It wasn’t a soft, girlish smile like the rest.

Olga could feel the fierceness in her, the danger.

She was smiling like a Warlord smiled.

“It is dangerous– but I am staking everything here, comrades. I am done hiding.” She said.

Outside the door, Olga could hear Kalika grumble to herself.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me. Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.”

Erika turned around and left the room, followed by Olga. Kalika then started after them.

“Oh, Kalika!”

In the hallway, Erika looked over her shoulder and met Kalika’s gaze suddenly, stopping her in her tracks.

With that same determined smile as before, but her arms girlishly linked behind her back.

“Please stay with our friends– I want you to act as my liaison to the Pandora’s Box.”

“What? Excuse me? Ugh!”

Erika bobbed her head to one side a little bit without changing expression.

Kalika gritted her teeth and closed her fists.

Olga fixed her own gaze on Kalika, but she also knew the woman would sigh and say–

“Of course, Premier. Please take care on the way back.”

Erika drew back. “Is that really how you feel?” She asked, in a mischievous voice.

“You’re a bitch.” Kalika said. “But you’re the only bitch here with her head on right.”

Without another word, Kalika turned around and obediently returned to the meeting room.


Erika and Olga turned and left the meeting room and Kalika behind.

Walking side by side down the hall out to main lobby of Solarflare LLC’s campus.

Their mood was complicated but not somber. They were both poring over their previous encounter.

“How do you think it went?” Erika asked.

“I think they would be fools not to join your fleet.” Olga replied.

It wasn’t directly addressing the question, but it was her honest feelings.

She thought to say more– but something distracted her in the hall–

Coming from the opposite direction, crossing paths with them.

Two women walking past carried a distinctive presence that made Olga freeze in place. One was taller than the other, well-endowned, her suit and hair color giving her a monochromatic appearance, while beside her was a slighter girl in a dress all done up in lace, her long hair slick and shining as if treated in oil. At the sight of these sophisticated-looking women–

Olga’s eyes dilated, her skin crawled.

She felt a sudden shock run through her nerves, almost similar to the frenzy that the hunger for human flesh inspired in her, at its worst. Erika noticed a few steps ahead and stopped and looked. Her gaze traveled from Olga to the two women.

“Erika,” Olga said. “Please wait there.”

“Of course.” Erika said. She watched from where she stood.

Olga turned fully around, and her aura flared up.

From her body, a black and red wind swept toward the two women, a few meters away.

They stopped walking, and themselves also turned partially to see who was behind.

In the desolate metal hallway full of meeting rooms behind doors.

Syzygy Enforcers I and III smiled as they met the confrontation from Olga and Erika.

“Well, well! Fancy meeting you here, Hunter I.” Enforcer I, Avaritia, grinned at them.

Her strange eyes formed cross-hairs that locked on to Olga with vicious interest.


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.6]

In a very dark and silent room, sounded a shutter, its report as loud as a gun.

On the middle of the far wall a circle of white light shone suddenly.

With the shadows just barely parted, five ascending rows of ten seats each became visible.

There was nobody alive sitting down in them; but every other seat was occupied by a stuffed animal.

Some were proud collectibles and limited editions in pristine conditions; others were patched up with much love and attention, having seen many hugs and absorbed many tears in their best days. It was these stuffies that gave off a tiny wisp of colors from their bodies, green and blue and the tiniest hint of black. It was these stuffies that could almost feel human in their aged dignity, in the visible scars of experience.

Below that circle of light on far wall, there was a small stage.

Footsteps; a woman climbed up on stage and briefly stood in the light to wave at the audience.

Of course, none of the stuffies waved back.

“Hello, hello!” She greeted. “My name is Polaris, super cute girl and genius wunderkind of the Shooting Stars! I need little introduction right? I joined the United Research Department of the Aer Federation at 13 years old! I’m a well-known prodigy who has written many papers!”

Polaris certainly no longer looked 13 years old.

She was a grown woman, pale, with her brown hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore a white coat which was full of custom-printed pins, each of which gave off the same feeling of humanity as the stuffies in attendance. The aura wafting from her pins curled over her left shoulder like a fleetingly visible rainbow half-cape. Her turtleneck and skirt had tiny coffee stains and were going slightly ratty. She had a flushed and girlish countenance; a slight roundness to her cheeks and nose.

She was still young– but worn. Her eyes had deep bags under them, and the fingers with which she operated the projector’s clicker and her laser pointed were bruised black and purple and red.

Her voice trembled very slightly as the audience of stuffed animals gave no response, and she resumed:

“Today, we are going to learn about the Aer Federation’s Threat Classification System. This simple system was designed as a way to categorize threats to public order in a way that their OS, the Aerscape system, can parse, assess and respond to– in theory, delivering contingency plans directly to STEM-equipped personnel in the form of detailed tactical, strategic and logistical info within minutes.”

Polaris fiddled nervously with the laser pointed in her fingers.

“Of course, that was– is, the theory. The implementation was flawed.” She mumbled to herself. “I think it will help illustrate the situation that the Aer Federation was– is–” she paused, “the situation it is in.”

There was another loud report from the shutter on the projector– an image appeared in the white light.

That image was a young man with a hoodie, hands in his pockets, avoiding eye contact.

“Contagio Civilis.” Polaris said. “Social plague’– but these titles were more than their literal meaning.”

A crowd of people all wearing the same t-shirt. Seemingly nothing else out of the ordinary.

“For the Aer Federation, this was also ‘civil contact.’ To watch for any organizing or group thought. It was– it is– currently– before–” Polaris paused and raised a hand over her mouth briefly then smiled and continued speaking. “It is a model called ‘zero trust society.'”

There were a few more reports of the shutter.

Images of thieves, graffiti artists on hoverboards, doomsayers on the street–

–a shadowy, tall man surreptitiously in an alleyway on a dark night,

a misshapen shadow in a suburban backyard, looming over a child with eldritch violence,

a woman putting up flyers,

“Contagio Civilis.”

She waved the laser pointed at each of the images.

“These were individual threats to highly localized areas. Next set of slides please.”

There were images of tornadoes, monsoon winds, black bloc anarchists, labor unions on strike,

a shadowy figure of flesh in a dark forest, maw studded with teeth, legs as thick as an adult’s torso–

a single bolt of purple lightning and a half-charred corpse disfigured with hexagonal missing flesh,

“Clades Regionem.”

A map of a coastal region appeared, red overlayed on a long strip of land containing many cities.

“I added that one slide– the purple stuff. But– that sort of thing was never officially acknowledged by the Aer Federation. Anyway. This is one level of threat over. Clades Regionem. It can be read as both ‘localized disaster’ and ‘regional conflict’. Clades Regionem were threats that affected a particular locale in the Federation. At first, national disasters were the main focus of this category, but over time, they came to encompass political movements and organizing efforts at city and state levels. Clades Regionem were threats that called for suppression, but response stopped short of total elimination. Next slides.”

Loud shutter report;

Dark computer monitors with white sigil text that read “Q – The Question.”

People staring at those monitors in rapt attention while a countdown played beneath the Q sigil.

Another shutter–

Young men and women with small arms, dressed in old-school Ayvartan communist uniforms.

“Continere Ruina.”

MRAP vehicles opening fire with machine guns and wire-guided missiles on a colossal, gangly red creature in a forested area, its long snout closing over a similar vehicle which was being crushed in its jaw and eaten. Under its shadow, pale human figures gathered. When the slide turned, it was a similar picture, except coast guard boats firing autocannons and torpedoes at a massive, serpentine beast out at sea.

Polaris looked upon the flashing images with what seemed like a growing sorrow.

“Continere Ruina. To the Aer Federation it means ‘continental devastation’ but it can also be taken to mean ‘contains ruin’ or ‘contains calamity.’ The obvious thing to draw from it, is that it’s a scale of threat that can affect an entire continent. But there were other interpretations: ideas that ‘contain ruin’ such as, in the Aer Federation’s eyes, ‘authoritarian communism’ were labeled as Continere Ruina level threats. This is because it’s an idea that can spread far and cause unrest. Even something like the ‘Question Conspiracy’, climbed in threat level as it spread across the internet and caused civil unrest globally. Threats of this nature were often required long-term, clandestine methods in order to oppose them. They had to be destroyed, but the level of damage also had to be hidden from the public as much as possible.”

Polaris’ laser pointed hovered over an image of an enormous, armored, snake-like being emerging from a cave, black exhaust seeping from jets along its side– clearly taken by someone’s trembling hand.

There was another shutter slide, another slide; a group of nine individuals, one of whom was Polaris.

There were Shimii, Loup, Nochtish, Nobilean, and Ayvartan members, all together in one place.

The Shooting Stars.

“Continere Ruina level threats were the first threats that called for elimination to be strongly considered over suppression. Elimination entailed hunting down the organization, or the organization’s assets, all equipment involved, and so on, with the goal of not just suppressing individual actors, but permanently uprooting all elements. These purges were expensive and time consuming. So, as the Federation weakened, it became possible to continue operations when marked at this level– if you were careful. Or if you were connected– the Federation was also– is also– notoriously corrupt and nepotistic.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the faces of the group in the picture. Her eyes watered just a little.

She grit her teeth and ran her arm over her face. “Next slides please.”

There was a picture of what looked like an advertisement.

It depicted:

A dog-like figure and a human-like figure; x-rays of them showed bizarre internal anatomies.

It read:

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

BIOMECHANICS ARE A THREAT TO HUMANITY. BIOMECHANICS ARE AGAINST THE LAW.

“Excorium Humanitas. Literally ‘to peel the skin off a person.'” Polaris said. “Excorium Humanitas level threats could harm people and society globally. Threats to ‘all humans’ such as the Great Ravages– pandemics that caused billions in loss of life taken together, and trillions in economic damages. Global Climate Change– but only the part where the planet was warming, not– all the other things–“

Polaris’ hands shook.

Her laser pointed briefly flitted across a picture of a massive purple storm cloud.

“But it was also understood to include, ‘threats that can change the nature of humanity itself.'”

New slides. A short, pale girl standing at the edge of a rural road at night, with a passing car stopping to offer her help; and then a slide of the inhabitants slaughtered, the girl eating them. A symbol of an eclipsed sun; a city under a barrage of purple lightning, tearing through buildings and streets, while at the edge of the storm a horde of dark, animalistic, monstrous figures were tearing into a crowd of riot police.

“Biomechanics conglomerates exploited the tensions between the Federation’s constituent states to gain funding from all sides to pour into dangerous projects. After a series of high-profile incidents, and the spread of hostile biomechanoids, the Federation responded sharply. After being declared Excorium Humanitas, it became impossible to buy even a clone of your deceased dog or a vita-stitched cleaning servitor. Even cybernetics started becoming Excorium Humanitas bit by bit. Alternatives to STEM-integrated implants or STEM-capable cybernetic augmentation controllers, particularly in the latter-day Federation, became targets. Even things like stitcher machines and biomedical organ growing began to be curtailed due to this ongoing backlash. There was even a move in conservative parts of the Federation to label ‘transgender ideology’ as Excorium Humanitas, but these were not successful, thankfully.”

Shutter; shot.

On the screen, a picture of herself, on a poster. Polaris. Margery Balyaeva. Nationality, age, gender, sex.

“No attempt to fully eliminate biomechanoids and biomechanics was ever successful. I strongly believe the Aer Federation’s ongoing– collapse– troubles– they’re not a result of just biomechanics in itself.”

It was visibly difficult for her to speak of this.

That sorrowful looking photograph of hers was surrounded by a circle of repeating text,

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS

and below the picture,

ALL MEASURES VALID. PROTECTING THE FEDERATION IS A CIVIC DUTY.

That said it all. Margery Balyaeva or “Polaris” no longer had rights as a subject of the Aer Federation.

“This is for my– I guess you could say, my current actions. Not that it means anything anymore.”

Polaris smiled at the audience suddenly. She pointed at herself glibly, digging fingers into her cheeks.

“Polaris, Excorium Humanitas, speaking. But it’s okay; you won’t have to pursue this evil villain to safeguard your falling world any longer. I’m sorry I can’t continue to provide a distraction.”

An involuntary sob; she sucked in air and steadied herself. “Next slide. Please.”

Shutter–

A woman huddling on a bed, flesh glistening as if fluid, pustules that seemed to writhe covering her skin.

“Raphtha, the plague of burning. The last and most horrific of the Three Great Ravages. Upgraded first to Continere Ruina, then Excorium Humanitas, and finally Aerae Nullius, when it caused the total collapse of Hispalis and Brittania.” Polaris said. “If only they would have responded strongly from the start.”

Shutter–

A wide shot of an island landscape and port infrastructure, a dark sky overhead, waves of people panicking and fleeing. A colossal serpentine monstrosity, nine eyes along its snout focusing seemingly on the picture camera with a cruel intellect. Gunfire seemed to fly at the islanders from protrusions along its length. From its mouth, an enormous gust of annihilating purple breath cut apart the land itself.

“The Horror of Dys, a biomechanoid that destroyed the Aer Federation’s man-made continent in the central Imbrium, ending their ambition to relocate their headquarters to ‘the center of the world.’ It is still at large, somewhere in the depths of the ocean. Hell– I might end up meeting it soon if I’m unlucky.”

Shutter–

A woman, her orange eyes hidden behind dark glasses, wearing a turtleneck and pants with her hands inside of a long coat. Her purple eyeshadow and lipstick added a splash of color to her monochromatic aesthetics. Long dark hair, and a regal expression, made her appear mature and queen-like in nature.

“Zabik, fellow Shooting Star. A major figure in STEM technology; and avid defender of biomechanics. I did my very best to protect her. But– Hmm. Actually I think she would say ‘I’m still here.’ I think she would.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the picture of this woman. She reached out as if to touch her– then drew back.

“We’ll still be here in our STEM data. We’ll be in the aether– and Zabik, you’ll always be with me.”

She pulled herself away from the woman’s picture and back to the task which she had given herself.

Shutter–

A bloodlessly pale red headed woman with a horn, dressed in a robe that almost seemed like a pair of demonic wings folded over herself, a spiked tail swinging behind her. Lit by a bolt of purple lightning, she laughed raucously with furiously red eyes. An image like– the last thing the camera ever saw–

In the distant horizon, the thick, raging sky blocked the sun like a total eclipse–

“All of these images represent the same thing.”

Shutter–

A picture of an Aer Federation flag, the globe surrounded by six hexagons in a hexagon pattern.

And a bloody X scrawled over that flag.

“Aerae Nullius. A threat rating that is rarely acknowledged. We can draw from the name that these were threats to ‘Aer.’ But how is that different from Excorium Humanitas? In truth, these were threats that could bring about the fall of the Aer Federation specifically, not to the planet Aer. For example, and this one is so perversely horrid: the Shimii and their religious conflicts were ultimately labeled Aerae Nullius.”

Polaris pointed her laser at a picture of a group of cat-eared and cat-tailed militants in hoods.

“None of us will ever know the degree of effort that went into preserving the Aer Federation. How many trillions of Ecos were spent in asserting Aerean sovereignty in the face of growing social conflicts? In controlling a planet ravaged by climate instability and historical pandemics? All of it while trillion eco conglomerates reaped vast profits!” Polaris’ fingers clutched her laser pointer more sharply than before.

“Excorium Humanitas.” She mumbled to herself. “All I wanted– was to preserve humanity. To save us.”

Her eyes glistened. She began to weep, to sob, her shoulders shaking. Ugly noises escaped her lips.

“Zabik– I’m– I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I failed; I failed everyone. Now– now there’s no going back–“

Throughout this display of pathos all of the audience was silent– including–

Gertrude Lichtenberg.

Frozen with her eyes wide, shaking, taking the place of a stuffed toy in the higher seats.

And at her side–

Red hair, a horn, a pale, grinning face, a tail so long it lounged over several rows of seats,

“Interesting. So this is where she fled to. Well– good riddance. Just another hypocritical hominin. You belong in this underwater prison. You deserve even worse. For what you did to us– to me–“

Arbitrator II suddenly lifted her hand to Gertrude’s face, covering her eyes,

and caused her body to burst like a smashed watermelon, ejecting colors from hundreds of wounds–


“Master? Are you with me? Hold my hand.”

Gertrude felt a warm touch, fingers gently squeezing the palm of her hand.

A wall of colors parted before her eyes to reveal a world that felt more substantial–

yet still airy around the edges.

Dim sights through fatigued eyes, half awake and half in dream.

She was standing in the middle of the Island-3 entrance, with that damnable STEM-locked door.

At her side stood–

Azazil An-Nur.

Gertrude was immediately stricken by her bewitching beauty, and the otherworldly presence she felt from the woman. She felt like these dreams felt, like the silver trees felt (what trees?), like the horned woman felt (horned woman?). She felt like the promise of sublimity that Gertrude only found in her delusions.

Pale and long-limbed with deep, dark orange eyes mottled with yellow, cybernetic perhaps.

For someone who called her ‘master’ so frequently, she looked strikingly regal, purple lips subtly smiling, her purple-shadowed eyes delivering a penetrating gaze. Her dress and half-cape, hugging her slender but curved figure, made her out akin to a noblewoman, lustrous silver hair fastidiously kept. Atop her head, she had two black animal-like ears, thin and tall and fuzzy. Was she a Shimii or a Loup?

“Master, how do you feel?” She asked.

Gertrude spoke perhaps the most honest words she had allowed herself to say in this entire expedition.

“I feel like I don’t know what is real and what isn’t.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled at her.

“What would be different, if this was a mere delusion? How would that change your position?”

Gertrude’s jaw trembled.

“I’m– I’m staking my future here–“

“Can a future not be built on emotions? Are emotions not real?”

“Emotions are not material.” Gertrude said. “I feel– I feel insane. I need to know this is real.”

Azazil turned to face the STEM-locked door to Island-3’s spire once more.

“Human emotions have left a mark on this place. I am merely helping you to experience these emotions. Perhaps the mechanism can be likened to a dream; but the feelings are true. They were felt here.”

In the next instant, shadows became visible all around the entrance to Island-3. These shadows were like negatives of a person, visible as the person-shaped empty space that stood between shimmering colors, blue and green, yellow and red, purple, black. These shadows moved naturally, gestured to each other, maybe even spoke, though not in a way Gertrude could understand. They never acknowledged her.

Tall and short, male and female (or at least, gertrude’s interpretation of gender markers).

They examined the door– one even burnt their hand exactly the same way as Gertrude.

Then– they cut out the panel and began to examine the interior of the wall.

“You can see it.” Azazil said. “Their feelings, traveling the path they wore through the aether.”

Gertrude recalled the feeling left in the tunnel. Norn’s world-scarring fury.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked.

“I am a humble servant who was created to take care of humans.” Azazil replied.

“You have power. Like Norn.” Gertrude said.

Everything felt so dream-like that it took a lot of effort just to speak.

Her thoughts felt so airy that she had to seize a firm hold of them to prevent herself from wandering aimlessly between all the different things she felt and wanted to say. Speaking itself was almost an act of rebellion, as deliberate and kinetic as throwing a punch. Speaking asserted a specific place, a point in time, an anchor in the middle of the maelstrom. That was how muddled and difficult her surroundings and her mind had become. Azazil felt like the only concrete thing, another lighthouse in this sea of fog.

“You have it too. You have a wandering heart, carried by the currents, longing to connect.” Azazil said.

Island-3’s main entryway disappeared around them, its colors blending back into fog.

Gertrude was startled, and took a few steps back.

Then she found a wall had appeared behind her. She was now in the interior of Island-3.

Around her the surroundings filled in like a sudden splash of paint on a canvas.

Shadows crossed the lobby and toyed with the finery and furniture that had been left there.

They climbed farther up into the living quarters, their experienced engineers methodically weaving a path through the ancient station. They brought their own crates of supplies, but found a gigantic, existing supply of food with the markings of a polity they did not know. They were surprised to discover the food in these crates was still good if rehydrated. They could hole up inside this place for a while– Gertrude began to understand these feelings the shadows had as concrete desires elucidating on their situation.

Then, Gertrude spotted a few of the shadows bringing up someone into the habitat.

Escorting her through the halls, showing her their findings as a worker would to a superior.

Unlike the shadows, this figure was distinctly a person, with the fullness of her shape. She was dressed richly, in a purple dress embroidered with gold and a silver tiara resembling a laurel wreath with gemstones ensnared in the branches. Her gaze was distant, confused, hazy. She was short and small, skinny even, with a long tail that trailed behind her. She was a child, grey-skinned and pale-haired.

Even in this clearly distressed state, there was still an air of regal dignity that Gertrude recognized.

“They’re Katarrans?” Gertrude said. Her eyes drew wide. “That– That’s Norn? Is it really?”

Her aura, even at this point in her life, when she must’ve been a child– it was so remarkably similar.

It felt like Norn felt, and the band of red that slithered weakly along its edge, it felt familiar.

Like a prelude to the fury that would characterize the grown woman this larva would become.

“There is a figure who is not just a shadow in the aether?” Azazil said. “Then it is as I suspected. I felt you had a deep emotional connection to this aura. Unlike you, I can’t see anything but shadows.”

“Norn was Katarran royalty?” Gertrude said. She could hardly hear Azazil now, her focus too narrow.

She wanted to see more, to understand more, and the aetheric visions seemed to oblige her.

Drawing her further into the station, and out of it– into the tunnel.

Shadows excavated the tunnel, created security measures–

“The Vizier wants Her Majesty to be safe here.”

“No harm will come to her here. She will be able to return someday.”

“Someday she will return the glory of House Palaiologos.”

“Someday. We will all return someday. She will take us back to Katarre.”

Not speech, but the thoughts contained in the feelings representing these shadows.

They worked hard and diligently to create what was almost assuredly a prison.

All the while saying to themselves that it was for Norn’s benefit.

But also for their own. That this little creature they were bricking up would return their glory.

Gertrude’s heart began to pound with growing dread.

She watched as they left her at the very end of the paths they had cut. Oxygen-pumping equipment and air purifiers and moisteners were affixed on the walls which were noisy and eerie but would keep her alive. Hers was the filthy room at the very end, that Gertrude had seen, where she had found Azazil trapped. It accumulated wrappers and food containers and other such things that nobody picked up, becoming like a nest of trash. In the middle of it, the little girl was fed once a day, only rarely seeing light.

At first she was fed the rations that the Katarrans brought with them, as well as rations from Island-3, like packaged freeze-dried goods of the defunct Aer Federation that somehow survived to this day, as well as algae and fungus from the aquaculture farms. However, this would change as the Katarrans began to forage, and Norn began to fed instead mostly on fresh-caught abyssal worms and bony yet gelatinous deep trench fish. Her meals had already been largely tasteless, but now they became actively disgusting.

Despite this, she was at the mercy of her retainers, so she kept her head down, ate, and waited.

Waited– but for what? Years passed without change.

In those conditions, her aura became– grey. A dismal fog that barely clung to her clammy skin.

Azazil’s fingers squeezed into a fist.

“They stripped her of all humanity. She forgot, for some time, what it was like to feel emotions.”

Gertrude watched the girl, growing into puberty and maturity and beyond, within this hole.

Slumped against a pile of plastic containers, her once beautiful dress now rags.

Her tail grown longer than her body, her hair overlong, lacking the energy to do anything.

Receiving only enough care to retain the shape of a human, but no more.

“Why? Why would they do this to her? She was important to them, wasn’t she?” Gertrude cried out.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her heart thrashed in her chest. She couldn’t understand it. She wanted to know everything, but the fullness of the situation was not making itself clear to her. She could only extract the stultified emotions of the little Norn wasting away in this hole. When another shadow would wonder in to feed her, it, too, had no emotions and could not be read or understood. Gertrude hands started shaking.

“They must have lost their own humanity as well.” Azazil said gravely.

“You were in the same room!” Gertrude shouted at her. “You must know why this happened!”

Azazil shook her head calmly.

“These events happened before my stay here. You can see more than I ever could.”

Gertrude turned from Azazil back to Norn and felt a heartache so strong it stifled her breathing.

“Norn– What did you want me to see here? Was it this? Did you know I would see this?”

Her voice began to tremble.

She tried to wipe her eyes but the tears would resume whenever she laid eyes on the little creature.

For how long had Norn suffered in this place? Why had she been confined here?

“Was it the end of the Katarran golden age? But then Norn would be over a hundred years old.”

Could Norn truly have been the remains of the house of the Palaiologoi in the old Katarran Kingdom?

Gertrude’s state of mind was still difficult to get a hold of. It helped to ask herself questions.

Anything she said felt more concrete than any of her surroundings. It grounded her in reality.

She felt like she was convincing herself of a narrative she could believe–

Then, suddenly– Norn locked eyes with her. For an instant, Gertrude felt fear like she never had before.

Can she see me? Can she tell I’m watching? Can she tell I squandered the power she gave me?

Far behind Gertrude and Azazil, the doors into the tunnel opened again. Someone walked into the tunnel.

Norn was not looking at the two observers. She was in her own time, staring at the intruder coming in.

“Oh, this is awful– but I suppose it’s safe, at least.”

Light shone in from the open door into Norn’s tiny quarters.

Gertrude had expected a shadow, but the woman facing Norn was rendered in the recollection as faithfully as Norn herself. Norn was a grown woman during this encounter, but her expression was as bewildered as a child confronted with something grander and vaster than they had ever seen. Drawn-wide eyes, tearing up from the light, fell upon the brown-haired woman at the entrance to the chamber.

She had professor-like presence that reminded Gertrude of Nile. Turtleneck sweater, white lab coat, and a pair of rugged pants that hugged her mature figure. Like Nile, she was quite comely; an inquisitive face with a gentle nose, red lips curled in a sad and worried smile, a pair of red glasses with thick frames perched in front of dark eyes. Her slightly wavy hair was worn long, her gait confident and casual.

“Greetings, little one. You can call me Ganges. I came from very far away. I wanted to see you.” She said. “I think you are very special indeed, aren’t you? Are you truly Astra Palaiologos?”

Norn blinked at her. She was no longer so little a thing as before. Gertrude could see the beginnings of that lean and strong body she had grown to fear, long-limbed and almost elegant, but in this moment, she was ill proportioned due to her mistreatment. Curled almost into a ball in her dark room.

She was a woman, but a woman with the mind of an abandoned child.

She spoke as if any word might rip her throat open.

N-Ναί.”

Norn barely squeaked out a little sound. It was an affirmation, in High Katarran, sounding like “nee.”

Her jaw trembled, teeth chattering. She could form only one more word.

Αστρα…”

Shaking fingers pointed at herself. Astra.

In response, Ganges reached into her coat and produced a plastic-wrapped object.

Norn drew back in fear, but then rebounded toward Ganges upon seeing the offering, suddenly curious.

Kneeling to Norn’s level, Ganges handed Norn the item, partially unwrapping to reveal a piece of bread.

“For you, your majesty.”

Norn snatched it from Ganges’ fingers and began taking tiny nibbles of the bread.

As if she did not want it to be gone so soon– but she still relished the taste.

While she ate, Ganges patted her head softly.

This was not done purely out of casual kindness. Gertrude could see colors drifting from her fingers.

Norn’s aura was growing redder and redder. The more she ate, the angrier she seemed to become.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was so helpless, and so angry, so incredibly angry.

She had rediscovered emotion seemingly so she could hate the world.

And through the hand she was using to comfort her, Ganges could feel the shift.

Ganges sighed as she watched her. “I’m in a real bind. I think I did find our Apostle– and she’s in terrible conditions. But she’s safe and unmolested by the outside world. Ugh. Maybe this was all a mistake.”

Gertrude held a hand up to her chest, gritting her teeth.

“God damn it. I can’t even ask myself what Euphrates would do.” Ganges said. “I know too well.”

“Take her away from there. Don’t leave her.” Gertrude mumbled to herself, lips trembling.

“Was that what happened, Master? Is this figure freeing her?” Azazil asked her.

But Gertrude felt in that moment, that this wasn’t the case. That it wouldn’t be.

All of the emotions confined in this room told her a different story.

Ganges would ultimately leave Norn in her captivity for several more years.

Before the currents of tragedy and war would drag the world back to the cage of Astra Palaiologos.

Gertrude turned her head from the sight of the skinny, abused Norn eating the bread.

She couldn’t take it– she couldn’t imagine being subjected to that kind of pain.

Growing up a child incarcerated and made to disappear by all of the adults meant to protect her.

Those were her retainers, weren’t they? She was royalty– but more than that, she was just a child.

If they saved her from the collapse of the Katarran Kingdom, why did this have to happen to her?

Why did they hate her so much to do this to her? Why didn’t they just kill her then?

They could have left her to be killed by the burgeoning Warlords and it’d have been a kinder fate!

And why– why was Gertrude seeing something this horrible–

“Why did this happen to you? Why did they do this to you?” Gertrude set her jaw, closed her fists.

She had no answer to this; no answer was forthcoming.

It was just one of those unthought-of evils of the world. Children could know suffering too.

“God damn it. God damn it! GOD DAMN IT!”

Gertrude screamed her lungs out and struck the wall, her fist taking on the evil red color too.

Around her and Azazil, the colors twisted and turned once again, bringing them to a new scene.


Gertrude’s tears fell like yellow and green and black color into the floor below.

When next the aperture into Norn’s prison opened, Gertrude’s head snapped toward it.

She briefly saw red on the walls in the interior of Island-3, but it was not aura.

Blood and spatters of bodies had smeared over the pristine steel.

An enormous figure walked through the open door. Tall, burly, with a confident gait.

Covered head to toe in power armor, of legendary Katarran make.

Save for his helmet, which bore two cat-like ears– it was made for a Shimii.

It was the biggest Shimii Gertrude had ever seen, taking step by thundering step toward Norn.

As soon as Norn first saw the intruder and her tired eyes adjusted to the light, she scurried back.

Crawling on the floor– but stopping at the wall formed by the trash behind her.

As if some part of her knew it was filth, not to be touched by someone– she still had– dignity–

Gertrude covered her own mouth, her chest pounding and shaking.

Norn’s fear overcame her anger and the room suddenly became greener and darker.

Her overwhelming aura infected Gertrude with the monumental fear of death that Norn had felt.

Even Azazil’s hands began to shake– she linked them behind her back to hide it.

“Astra Palaiologos.” said the man, approaching. He was so large. Norn was like a larva next to him.

Suddenly, the man knelt, keeping his head raised but his knees bent like a knight before a liege.

“Your majesty. Blessings of the Prophet who is most worthy, and the Caliph who is the appointed successor of his excellence, be upon you. I am called, by His Excellency, Radu the Magnificent.”

His voice was soft and sonorous. He was still enormous. Still casting a deep shadow over the girl curled up in the corner. She stared up at him with eyes rendered large and cloudy from the fear that overcame her. She did not understand his overtures. But whenever the man spoke, he was so immensely obsequious, his voice so beautiful and his cadence so poetic. These elements made her feel something.

“Your majesty; I sought you like a pearl in the sand of humanity’s streaming aether, and I am overjoyed that my divinations finally bore fruit. The Imam of Imams himself, our Caliph, his excellency Mehmed the Great, wishes to extend to you an invitation. He greatly desires to meet you. You shall be treated as an honored sister, and protected from your enemies; taken from this heinous captivity and given the respect which is your birthright. You have a God-given power, Astra Palaiologos, which will sweep away all that has wronged you, and Mehmed the Great will lead you, hand in hand, to its utmost realization.”

Astra shuddered, as the armored man reached out his thick, gloved hand, its digits extended.

That metal claw could have ripped her skinny arms right out of their sockets.

She was like a little doll made of rags compared to the titan that had come to seek her.

And she didn’t understand; she didn’t understand almost anything he meant.

Just the mere fact of hearing words, so many words, difficult words; it terrified her utterly.

His voice was beautiful but everything he was saying was ugly, so ugly, in her mind.

All she could do when faced with that hand was shake and shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

“Princess; your condition is truly evil. But all of your oppressors have paid in blood. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will judge them now. They will never hurt you again. Come with me, Astra Palaiologos.”

She understood the sentiment behind those words. She must have seen it in his aura.

He had killed all of her retainers. Even the briefest thought of such violence drove her to tears.

He waited patiently with his hand outstretched, while Norn shrank from him in terror.

“Can’t you see you’re terrifying her, you bloated fool?”

Radu’s head snapped over his shoulder and he stood quickly, Norn crawling back in his shadow.

He faced the aperture from where he had come and found Ganges standing there.

Unchanged by the years.

She had a companion; wavy blue hair to her shoulders, wearing a jacket, vest, shirt and tie, long pants.

A young-looking face with a sharp gaze that seemed to have a presence beyond her years too.

This woman briefly surveyed the room and Gertrude could sense her disgust with what she saw.

“This is horrific.” said Euphrates, Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

Gertrude was certain that was her name– Norn’s emotions in this room coalesced powerfully around her.

“Well.” Ganges added. “I know what you would have said about it at the time.”

“No, you don’t. But we’ll talk about this later.” Euphrates glared at Radu.

In return, Radu reached over his shoulder.

The handle of a weapon snapped from his back to his hand. He drew it in front of him, and it unfolded into a polearm with an axe-like bladed head which began to gently buzz with microscopic vibrations.

Euphrates crossed her arms. “I don’t care what Mehmed is intent on calling himself now. This woman’s life is not his to toy with. I won’t let her become another tool for his schemes. Understood, Radu Yilmaz?”

Radu scoffed through this mask upon hearing his name spoken so casually.

“I should like to see how you intend to take her from me.” He replied simply.

Ganges sighed. “I guess I’m up, huh?”

“You’re responsible, aren’t you?” Euphrates replied calmly.

“Oh, so that’s what we’re doing? Fine then. You’re impossible.”

Ganges took two steps in front of Euphrates and put her fists up.

Radu stared at her. His face was unreadable due to the rigid snout-like shape of the mask.

There was something like a low chuckle coming through his respirator.

Ganges grinned at him. “I’m afraid that difficult bitch back there never fights her own battles, so you won’t get the satisfaction of beating her to a pulp and watching her pathetically demand more.”

Euphrates grumbled. “Ganges, this is nothing but slander–“

“Whichever of you gets cut in half first, it changes nothing.” Radu said, cutting Euphrates’ response off.

“Enough talking? Okay then. Madam Astra, please stand back from the bad man.”

Norn was now fearful enough to crawl back so far she wedged into cover amid the trash.

Gertrude almost wanted to run to her aid– but none of this was real– it couldn’t be real–

“Master, these emotions are real.” Azazil said. “Steady yourself and see it through to the end.”

Azazil reached out and held Gertrude’s hand. Holding it, Gertrude’s panic quelled.

She fixed her eyes on the combatants–

In time to watch Radu raised his halberd up with both hands.

Swirling black miasma crawling up his arms and along the length of the shaft, concentrating on the blade.

Spiraling around it until the halberd was engulfed in what looked like black heat-less flames.

Radu towered over Ganges like a demon and swung his weapon in a brutal overhead smash.

In response, the Immortal charged him with a grin on her face.

Rushing headlong, Ganges raised her fist over her head to collide with the immense axe blow.

Cutting head met bare knuckles, furious black aura colliding with that lazy candle-flicker of blue–

“Got you.” She shouted.

As the blade crossed the hazy blue color the blow softened to the point it slid across Ganges’ skin.

“What?” Radu cried out.

Ganges turned away the cutting edge and Radu’s arms pushed back as if his attack had bounced

Leaving his chest open and exposed to Ganges’ fist.

Her knuckles connected with his armor and a pulse of red expanded out from the impact.

Radu staggered back as if hit by a battering ram, smashing into the wall behind him.

Ganges reared back up to a full stand from her striking stance.

One fist glowing blue and the other red, in the same way as Radu’s weapon had been colored black.

Beneath the aura of both fists, however, was a rushing rivulet of dark red blood.

Ganges winced, still grinning, but clearly in pain.

“Damn. What do they make that armor out of?” She said, shutting one eye.

Euphrates frowned. “We’re not used to having enemies near our level.”

“Near?”

From the wall, Radu stood back up. His armor had a banged-in dent on the chest.

His arms steadied around his weapon once more.

“Near? You underestimate me at your peril, old engineers. I am a disciple of Mehmed the Great!”

Radu leaped forward, his halberd slicing the air in a brutal swing tracing a trail of black and red–

“She said near.”

Ganges’ fists both turned blue and collided with the blade.

Between the combatants, red and black and blue colors burst like sparks.

Ganges swinging her fists and meeting the vibro-halberd as if her hands were made of steel.

Radu swinging overhand, horizontally, diagonally, raining furious sequential hacking blows.

Then, from a horizontal slice, Radu pulled back his blade, threw his weight forward and lunged.

Thrusting the vibrating spike atop the halberd head toward Ganges’ torso with all his might.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment!

In the instant between Radu drawing back and charging forward, Ganges was engulfed in blue aura.

Closing her eyes, she stepped forward into Radu’s swing,

turned her chest aside, as if a dance move,

and with an open palm, turned away the blade from its flat.

“You’re no Mehmed the Great.”

Ganges opened her eyes, stepped, as Radu fell forward, unbalanced.

With her free hand she seemed to twirl his aura out of his person like ribbons.

And with the same open palm that struck away his blade, she struck his face.

Delivering her aura and his own back to him in a blow that despite its apparent physical softness–

–rang out like a cannon.

King’s Gaze: Dominion.

Radu was bodily lifted from the ground and thrown on his back, his weapon falling at Ganges’ feet.

All of this happened as slowly as a droplet falling from a high ceiling.

And as fast as a bolt of electricity.

Gertrude watched the brawl unfold in disbelief.

“What the hell is that hand-to-hand technique?” Gertrude muttered to herself.

“I said near for a reason.” Euphrates replied. “You have a lot of aura to throw around and mastered some complicated concepts, but you are just using it to butcher people. We’re more advanced than that.”

Ganges scoffed, standing in the some position she was left after the blow.

Breathing heavily, blood dribbling down her hands– and some out of one eye.

“I’d like to see you pull off what I just did, Euphrates.” Ganges complained.

“Part of good management is delegation.” Euphrates replied.

“Go fuck yourself.”

Quiet.”

Ganges’ eyes narrowed, and Euphrates’ shot back to the cave wall.

Slowly, but surely, Radu was standing back up to his feet.

Part of his mask had been broken by the force of Ganges’ strike.

Revealing an eye and a bit of boyish cheek, hinting at a young countenance.

Short messy hair, and a single exposed Shimii ear with hex-shaped scarring.

His shoulders were shaking under his armor. He was having trouble standing at full height.

Despite this and his heavy breathing, he recalled his weapon from Ganges’ feet.

Catching the handle in one hand, spinning the weapon partially, and catching it in the other.

He held the weapon in front of him, grit his face and screamed.

His roar pushed black aura across the room in overwhelming amounts.

“Be quiet. Don’t speak as if you’ve felled me, you worm-begotten whores. I will never fail my Caliph. I am his fortress and his sentinel; your fancy footwork can topple me a thousand times and I shall rise a thousand times. This blade will taste all the blood it needs to realize His ideals! Don’t mock me!”

His endurance surprised the two Immortals, and his growing determination was fearsome to behold.

Then, just as Ganges and Euphrates made ready to withstand a renewed assault–

Across the room, a wave of red suddenly overwhelmed the black aura that Radu had spread.

Euphrates and Ganges both turned their heads in surprise.

At the fourth person in the room whom they had all forgotten.

Even Gertrude had lost track of her while observing the battle.

At the back of the room, standing out of the trash in her discolored, ragged dress.

Norn walked forward, completely wreathed in the deepest, darkest red Gertrude had ever seen.

Παύση.”

She shouted with such force that Radu began to shake.

Red trails flew from Norn’s body like arrowheads on snaking bodies.

Aiming directly for Radu and piercing his body in a dozen places. Leaving no blood, no wounds.

Nevertheless communicating as much rage and hatred as a hundred of Radu’s strokes.

Subject to such power, Radu’s exposed eye went dark, his body slumped.

Radu the Magnificent dropped his weapon, fell to his knees, and collapsed with a sudden finality.

Παύση…”

Norn started to collapse as well, but Ganges rushed forward and caught her in her arms.

Euphrates finally moved from the entrance, quickly examining Norn.

And further examining the mess all around them.

“He’s not dead.” She said of Radu.

“Pity.” Ganges replied. “Well, he’s lucky I’m not as kill-crazy as he is. We need to go.”

Euphrates sighed. “Mehmed will keep coming after her. Violently. This is a mess.”

“There’s seven of us and one of him. Well– there’s six of us willing to do anything.”

Ganges cracked a grin. Euphrates put a hand over her own face.

“Please quit it. I– I’ll convene a discussion about Mehmed. Okay? But we need more information.”

“Fine. But what this one needs is to see Nile. Right away.”

“Agreed. Even under Nile’s care it will be a while before she recovers. Poor girl.”

Euphrates and Ganges both looked at the utterly exhausted Norn with great pity.

“She’s so light.” Ganges said. “This is too terrible. Damn it. I should’ve just taken her before.”

They carried her out and the colors swept after them, while Gertrude and Azazil watched.


Gertrude awoke with a start, lifting her head suddenly from Azazil’s lap.

Her breathing was heavy, and the world was spinning. She felt vomit rising to her throat.

She hugged herself, sweating, skin clammy under her armor.

Scanning her surroundings in desperation she found herself in the tunnel, in Norn’s old prison.

Gertrude recalled when she first ran into this place it felt like an endless maze.

Now there was only the large room, and a short hallway to the entry door.

It was dim and still filthy with plastic trash, but it didn’t feel so oppressive now.

Slowly, Gertrude’s breathing relaxed.

Behind her, Azazil gently wrapped her arms around Gertrude’s shoulders.

She could feel the warmth and softness of Azazil’s chest pressing behind her.

It titillated her just a little bit, and she did not want to acknowledge that fact.

“Master, do you understand better now?”

On the walls and floor, Gertrude could plainly see the damage from Ganges’ fight with Radu.

It was real. So she came to understand, or at least, she had a narrative in her head.

Norn had been a princess of the Palaiologoi, rulers of the old Katarran Kingdom in the Golden Age.

To escape the Warlords, she must have been taken here. They were lucky to find Island-3’s spire.

Then Norn was betrayed by her retainers, by the entire world she knew. Isolated for endless decades.

Terrorized and dragged out into the world during Mehmed’s Jihad, and ending up with a grudge against the Sunlight Foundation. She would ultimately become the Norn von Fueller that Gertrude knew.

Host to an incredible, world-consuming wrath; and an immeasurable pain.

Gertrude started to weep.

“What was the point of seeing that? If I can’t change it? If I can’t ever help her?”

Azazil clung more tightly to the back of the fallen night.

“Master, the emotions left in this place were entrusted to you.” She said into Gertrude’s ear.

Gertrude threw her shoulder forward to shake off Azazil’s embrace.

That ever-polite stranger behind her made no comment on this brutish reaction.

“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Gertrude asked brusquely.

“I’m Azazil An-Nur.” She said calmly. “I was created to take care of humans.”

“You keep saying that. Are you a human?”

Azazil smiled pleasantly, purple lipstick glistening in the dim light of the instruments around the room.

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She said easily.

“What? Debate by whom?”

Gertrude shook her head. She felt insane. Everything was completely insane and nonsensical.

“Forget it. Don’t answer that. How did you end up here? You arrived after Norn already left, right?”

“Correct. I never met the woman whose emotions marked this place. I had a purpose to come here.” Azazil said. “Unfortunately, the spire’s mainframe captured me by registering my STEM as a servitor and rewrote my purpose, so I have been tidying up here for a long time. I was forced to rid myself of my transport by the system in order to leave room for guests to arrive, so I became trapped in here.”

Gertrude looked over her shoulder and stared at her.

How did a computer capture a person? How did they– rewrite– a person?

But when Gertrude first saw her– she was in grave distress and asking for help.

And there was all that buzzing in her brain about– STEM reformatting.

It was a horrific thought, that she had become enslaved here. By a computer that could do such a thing.

Could she really have been telling the truth?

“Is that why I found you the way I did?” Gertrude asked.

Azazil nodded. “This Island-3 module is suffering system malfunctions after it was visited by a group of biomechanoids. As one of its servitors I began to malfunction as well. When I sensed the presence of guests, I called out in the hopes that I could reformat my command authorizations to become subordinate to you instead of to Island-3’s service fleet. As you can see, I was successful.”

“What the hell?” Gertrude cried out in frustration. “Are you or are you not a human being?”

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She replied again, still smiling gently.

“Are you a machine?”

“I am completely biological.” She reached out a hand. “I am soft and warm, aren’t I?”

She was– Gertrude knew that better than anyone now. Azazil felt like a woman.

“Then what the hell are command authorizations? How does a computer capture you?”

Azazil continued to speak easily and with frightening clarity.

“Via STEM, which was installed in me when I was created.”

“How? Explain how. What the hell even is STEM? The door had it– and you do too?”

“System for Token Execution and Management.” Azazil said.

“More than that! God damn it!” Gertrude choked down a desire to yell.

“STEM is a DNA-based storage and execution layer that hosts data Blocks as well as nanobiological instruction sets called Tokens. It is depicted as a helical chain of blocks in computationally important hierarchies called a stemchain.” Azazil said, still looking rather tranquil.

Gertrude felt a knot in her stomach. “That’s– that’s insane. DNA? So that was how– how you were–?”

Azazil continued. “To explain my situation further, the station installed a token at the top of my stemchain to control me. However, humans hold special permissions over my body as a safety measure, overriding any Autonomous Device. So you are the Master of this body now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“How–” She wasn’t going to even touch the body stuff. “How do you know my name?”

“I learned it at the time you became registered as my Master.” Azazil said, smiling.

That made no sense– or perhaps Gertrude didn’t want to make sense of it.

“Who– who did this to you? Who created you?”

Gertrude was just barraging her with aimless questions now.

She knew it was all useless, but she was angry and lost and increasingly hopeless.

In response Azazil furrowed her brows. Her eyes narrowed. Her gaze wandered.

“Not gonna answer that one, huh?” Gertrude said in a petulant voice.

“One moment Master. I am resolving blocks deep into my chain.” Azazil said.

Her tone of voice was completely unperturbed despite repeated questioning.

“It just looks like you’re stalling!” Gertrude shouted. “This is all made-up isn’t it?”

In the next instant, Azazil smiled again.

“I was designed by Margery Balyaeva.” She said.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide.

That name–

She had heard that name– she had seen it–

in a dream.

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

Those words rang out in her head again. Had that– had all of that been real?

Then– had that horned woman really eviscerated her body–?

Gertrude felt like throwing up as she was flooded by reminiscence.

Nothing made sense. She was torn between so many different visions and worlds.

“Master? Are you unwell? There are still medicines in Island-3 I can access.”

None of that was going to help her. She needed something concrete to focus on.

She needed the next link in her own long and tormented chain of experiences.

“No.” Gertrude grunted and forced herself to a stand. “Forget it. I’ll be fine. We need to find–“

What this one needs is to see Nile

Her emotions were all over the place, but one thing came to mind that felt certain.

Nile must have known something she wasn’t saying.

Azazil claimed her stay in Island-3 did not coincide with Norn’s. But Nile had met Norn.

It was time to ask her about this whole situation, and the mysterious Sunlight Foundation.

That would be her next step– find Nile, make her own up, even if it took brute force–

Then, Gertrude felt something stirring in a pocket of her clothes that distracted her again.

She reached into it and produced the trinket Nile had given her.

Stirring gently in her hand, vibrating with an otherworldly presence.

On its surface, the fluids formed a blue hexagon, its lines scratchy and irregular with vibration.

Gertrude thought she heard noises coming from it.

Brief bursts of garbled choppy audio that began to coalesce into brief gasping, wailing, moaning.

Suddenly, Azazil rushed to stand in front of her.

“Master, stay behind me. They mean you harm.” She said.

From her upper back, hidden under her cape, she withdrew an extendible riot baton.

She wielded it in one hand while extending her arm to cover Gertrude behind her.

“They?” Gertrude’s voice trembled. The room felt suddenly, bitingly cold.

And her vision swam, through a wave of fatigue worse than any she had previously felt.

For a moment, she thought she would collapse, but steadied herself on Azazil’s back.

And saw, over the woman’s shoulder, a figure moving in from the door.

From the door that had never once opened to admit anyone inside since Gertrude awakened.

“What is that– please– no– oh no– oh god–“

One of the most primal fears was the fear of conception in itself.

An ability to view an object with an inability to place its context within reality.

Shadows peering around corners only enough to be noticed. Distant, distorted figures coming into view. Person-shapes before the instant of recognition. Amorphousness, miscibility into the background. To allow for an instant, the existence of something before the mind could place it in the natural order of things. There was nothing there; the lens resolution was too low; the blob becomes a person in time.

In the instant before acknowledgment, there existed the possibility of the unknown.

When something was peered at by human for long enough without producing understanding.

Such a thing was called a monster. Excorium Humanitas.

Such a thing now stood in front of them. And even in full focus, it was impossible to believe.

“Master, I will protect you. Please leave these aberrations to me.”

Facing Azazil and slowly approaching, was a creature that was tall and seemingly thin, covered head to invisible feet in a long, raggedy blue robe or hood. Its face was covered by a mask, leaving no gap between the hole in the hood and the white of the mask. On that mask, moving like facial features but also etched as if cut right into the material, were two eyes like thick black lines and a jagged smile like the silhouette cut by a pumpkin with a candle inside. Its strange expression looked like a sleepy smile.

One arm was fully covered by blue cloth save for long bony claws specked with mold.

Mold also grew in patches around its worn robe and gave off bright blue spores.

Behind itself, the creature dragged an elongated, swollen arm with papery blue-black flesh growing even more mold. This arm and much of the creature’s body was tied in chains that seemed to fix its robes in place, but did not impede its movement, which itself was bizarre. It twitched from position to position, its motion blurring, its body elongating and shortening and sometimes even splitting in half or twisting into a knot as if Gertrude was viewing mismatched frames of animation rather than a real creature.

The same wailing, choppy noises that came from the aetherometer issued from the creatures as if they were living outputs for some deranged radio station. They didn’t have to visibly move to make noise.

Then like a static-torn message from a radio at the edge of its distance, Gertrude heard words.

This…first stone…my church…

There was a voice, a human voice, a

discernible, distinct,

familiar,

voice,

“M-Monika?” Gertrude said. Suddenly piecing together the speaker. “Monika’s voice? Why?”

One of the creatures, of which there were several, then made it close enough–

To lift its claw and swing with violence, its sleepy carved expression unchanging.

Blue color shone from its sharp white digits as it brought them to bear on Azazil.

Without hesitation, she swung her baton in return, purple color collecting around the shaft.

A sound like bone snapping– she battered away the claw as if it weighed nothing.

Instantly the creature in front of her disappeared in a cloud of spreading blue aura.

“Keep hold of yourself Master. Steel your emotions and do not fall asleep.” Azazil said.

Two more creatures slowly twitched into view, coming closer.

They clicked their silhouetted mouths, making impossible noises as they neared.

“I won’t let them touch you.” Azazil said. She looked briefly back at Gertrude.

Her orange eyes had bright red rings around the iris. Her aura thickened and flared.

Gertrude huddled behind her, speechless, eyes watering, feeling tired down to her bones.

For all she knew, she was already asleep. Because so far, nothing resembled reality.

Just as she got used to having her feet on land, she was suspended again in an instant of lunacy.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.5]

In the middle of the endless white forest, there was a tree with a trunk that reflected light like glass.

Images upon its length began as static, but cohered into something as the tree awaited a visitor.

Raised over an ankle-deep puddle, surrounded by its rising and falling roots that were like gnarled bodies half-interred and half-dug back up. She saw it in the distance, and she ambled toward it like an animal in an endlessly dark cave, as if her senses only allowed her to perceive and follow its light. Step by slow, plodding step, her mind a fog, while the trees sang around her, their colors drifting in the air like a sky full of ribbons. Cheering for her, encouraging her, warming her, lavishing her with their endless affection.

She stepped into that puddle and looked up at the reflection on the trunk of the tree.

There was a familiar environment. A window into a world of metal.

There was a woman, hair tied up in a brown ponytail, wearing a long shirt and pencil skirt and tights, and a long lab coat. She had a pin on her lapel, depicting a globe beneath a rainbow of falling stars, and a second pin beside it, at times clutched in her shaking hand, with a logotype: “Shooting Stars.” These tokens looked almost childish, and the way she was clutching them nervously even more so. It made her look too young, too new, particularly in the indistinct violence of her surroundings. Metal, dark and jagged and industrial, pipes and mechanisms, tubes, fluid, fuels, gases. She stood on a platform deep in the midst of a gargantuan mechanism, staring helplessly as it unfolded before her, loomed over her.

Staring as it seemed to menace her; as it seemed like it grew endlessly outside of her grasp.

And up above, emblazoned in the center of everything, a flag.

Linked purple hexagons around a tiny blue globe, accompanied by a logotype: “Aer Federation.”

That mystery woman in the reflection contemplated the flag, then turned her head over shoulder–

–and smiled, an expression so tragic that blood should have come out of her eyes as tears.

As if staring out of the picture in the tree; as if she could see the lost soul in the endless forest.

Across time, maybe even across dimensions–

Filled with an agony and mourning of incomprehensible proportion.

“I’m sorry. I know that this will trouble you greatly, but I have made my decision.” She said. She was not speaking into the forest, not speaking to the woman in the puddle, but to the owner of the memory. “I’ve failed Nobilis, I’ve failed Nocht, I’ve failed Ayvarta; I’ve failed all of humankind, every hand that gave me third and fourth and fifth chances.” Tears drew from her eyes and though she continued to smile it was clear that her heart was broken. “If there’s anyone left to remember me, it will only be as a dismal failure; but the thing I regret most is how I failed you. We’re the only two left; and I can’t make this decision for you. But I made it for myself. I– You’ll probably think I’m such a coward. But I can’t– I can’t keep–“

Suddenly, at the side of the woman in the puddle, who had been watching the memory–

–there was a second one.

Red-haired, horned– lavish white robe– a disdainful look in her yellow on black eyes.

“Interesting finding. Somehow, this graveyard keeps opening its holes for you subhuman scum. I wonder– who is she talking to? Maybe I will let you explore and see if you turn up more.”

She raised her hand, and the colors collected around it like tendrils–

“But not for this; not right now.”

–and the tendrils lashed out at Gertrude Lichtenberg and tore her entirely to pieces–

“There’s nothing I want to be reminded of less– than of that spineless bitch Polaris.”


Depth Gauge: 3503 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)

Gertrude Lichtenberg awoke with a start and ran her hands over her body in a panic.

Breathing heavy, checking that she had arms, legs, a torso, shoulders, breasts–

With the source of her panic rapidly fading, unable to piece together what she had experienced, Gertrude was overcome with exhaustion once again. She threw herself back on her back, kicked her legs, sighed.

Despite the nap Gertrude felt very little relief from her previous exhaustion. It felt like lying down in her bed only caused time to move forward and did nothing for her body otherwise. There was a thought that swam vaguely in her mind and started to drift farther and farther away in wakefulness and it infuriated her. Something she had to do? Something she had to be worried about? She grunted with anger.

“This is really starting to get to me. I’ll– I’ll talk to Nile again. After I come back.”

They should already be at the same depth as the suspected habitat in the rock wall.

She could not stop now. She had to see this thing through to the end– or to its next step.

Gertrude slipped out of bed, fixed her clothes and left the room.

She took with her the gadget that Nile had given her, lying on her bed, stowing it in a pocket.

She did not look at it.

Since she did not understand it anyway, she was not curious whether anything had changed.

She made her way to the Iron Lady’s bridge. At the door, she was immediately met by Karen Schicksal, who handed her a vitamin jelly pouch without saying anything. She looked more disarranged than ever before, with her hair uncombed and dark bags under her glassy eyes. As soon as Gertrude accepted the vitamin drink, Karen withdrew another such drink from her jacket and began to drink it. They were starting to go through these quicker than Gertrude could have imagined– everyone looked exhausted.

In addition to Karen, Nile was standing with her back a corner of the room, and Victoria was standing beside Dreschner near the central throne. Gertrude sucked her vitamin jelly while making her way to her own chair, nodding her head at Nile and Victoria along the way, both of whom nodded back. They both appeared about as haggard as everyone else, but standing a little more alert than some of the crew.

“High Inquisitor,” Dreschner said, by way of acknowledgment. He yawned, pointing at the main screen.

On the main screen, their next destination loomed in front of them, enormous in its scale.

Its size easily outmatched the enormity of the Iron Lady herself.

“What is this supposed to be?” Victoria mumbled to herself.

In front of them, the structure that had been partially embedded into the rock wall appeared like an enormous, metallic stack of four plates where each pair was stacked well to well, so there was a thinner “neck” between the two main structures. It was absolutely massive, at least 300 meters tall. Some of the outer armor showed signs of damage, like shearing and gaps in the plates, but miraculously, there was no wear from the saltwater. Certainly this structure could not have been new as it was the size of a larger substation and nobody could have built it in such a precipitous location, so one would have expected an array of creatures to have accumulated over it over time, and for the elements to have worn its surface.

“It fits much too snugly into the rock wall.” Nile said. “I’m no engineer, but this looks deliberate.”

She appeared beside Dreschner’s seat, standing in conference with the rest of them.

“Not one of yours, I take it?” Victoria asked, her voice exhibiting a hint of derision.

“I would have ditched all of you and gotten myself a nice can of espresso if it was my lab.” Nile said.

“Don’t get started, you two.” Gertrude grumbled.

“I have something of an idea regarding its provenance.”

Dreschner raised his voice to match the women beginning to argue. Everyone looked his way.

“Lady Lichtenberg,” he continued, “do you remember your father well?”

Gertrude shook her head. This was a topic on which she had no strong feelings.

She remembered Dreschner from her childhood more than she remembered her own father.

“He was a very busy man, and the years of my childhood which are still clear in my memory did not feature him prominently. Not to sound callous– that’s just how it is.” Gertrude replied.

Dreschner nodded. “I would never accuse you of being anything less than filial. At any rate: the reason your father was first employed by Leda Lettiere was not as a guard, much less as guard captain. He secured those positions due to his bravery in a clandestine effort. He participated in an abyssal expedition to recover an ancient technology. A surface-era technology. I never learned what it was, but your father told me of the existence of such ruins. There are allegedly even some under Heitzing. It’s not well known.”

Gertrude was not aware of this history, but in her somewhat addled state, she simply could not muster a lot of emotion about her father. However, there was one tantalizing bit of information there–

“Wait a minute– surface era? As in, over a thousand years ago, before– the Ocean?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly.

“Maybe even before the corruption.” Nile said suddenly. “He’s not wrong– such things exist.”

Gertrude and Dreschner’s eyes turned sharply to stare at Nile, who crossed her arms.

She looked as tired as everyone else there.

“They do– I bet your organization has unjustly pilfered many of them.” Victoria hissed.

“No more than you biofascist brutes have destroyed unknowingly in your pointless wars.” Nile snapped.

“Stop it already!” Gertrude shouted. “Don’t speak another word to each other. Dreschner– how do you know this structure is related to the surface? What did my father tell you about such structures?”

“That they did not decay, and they never lost power.” Dreschner said. “We have confirmed both. While this station has received seemingly random acts of violence, there are undamaged plates that look brand new. No wear, not even saltwater corrosion. Furthermore, we probed around the area with a spy tentacle and found that there is a lower intake which is still sucking in water. This structure has electric power.”

“Can we signal it with the laser? Do we get anything back?” Gertrude asked.

Karen raised her voice, having stood in the periphery of the discussion. “We attempted to connect to the exposed laser array near the top of the structure, but we kept receiving incompatible protocol errors. I even had the computer attempt a Free Interface Generation process just to see if we got something, but the Iron Lady’s learning computer could not figure out how to communicate with this system at all.”

“It might be designed not to respond even when passive.” Victoria said.

“It’s unsafe to make a system like that! If the human operators were all incapacitated, there would be no way to determine the status of the station and respond to emergencies!” Karen said, sounding helpless.

“That’s our safety standard, but not necessarily theirs.” Gertrude said. “Nile, how much do you know?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t much.” Nile said. “Our resident deep-divers were a pair of ladies by the names Euphrates and Tigris. I was not as much a woman of action. I preferred to stay behind and work in lab or clinic settings, not run around. That being said, we had friendly chatter about it. So I can confirm that the most peculiar characteristics of old era structures are their continuing access to power, pristine condition, and the difficulty in extracting anything from them. Euphrates never successfully recovered old era data from any of the structures she uncovered. I doubt we will be able to do any better ourselves.”

“We may want to consider turning back, Gertrude.” Victoria said, her ears folding slightly.

Gertrude wasn’t about that to heed that advise. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her or even insinuate that this had been fruitless. In fact, if this was a Surface Era facility, then Gertrude’s journey may even have become more important than ever before. She felt a sudden attack of grandiosity– Norn wanted her to see this thing. Norn wanted her to discover it. That meant there was a way inside, or there was something to see inside. There was something she had to uncover, something that she had to understand.

There was no force on Aer that would have made her turn back now.

That inferno, raging where her heart should have been, dispelled some of the exhaustion she felt.

“We’re not ascending.” She told Victoria. “And you’re coming with me. We’re going into that thing and we’re going to see what we find in it.” She then told Nile bluntly. Nile did not seem surprised, and simply hid her hands in her coat pockets. “Have we found an entry? Can we connect a chute anywhere?”

She was raising her voice. She did not intend to sound so angry, but she was– impassioned.

“I know we’re all exhausted and we’ve been working nonstop. We’ll have a break as soon as I return from that structure. But I don’t want to hear talk of turning back. We are not returning to Konstantinople empty-handed. I am grateful for your continuing effort. Now, remain alert!” Gertrude declared.

This time loud enough for the entire bridge to hear.

Dreschner averted his gaze. Karen shrank back.

Across the bridge, there were a few half-hearted nods and salutes.

“Let’s start working on a way in there. The boarding party is already decided.” Gertrude said.

Everyone on the bridge resumed their duties, and so, with a sigh, the expedition continued.


The Iron Lady neared the structure and extended its boarding chute, holding onto the surface around the suspected entryway via its magnetic clamps. A similar process to the entry into the Cutter was undertaken, but ultimately found to be unnecessary. The engineers brought a wheeled scanning array to attempt to predict the structure of the door, which would have subsequently told the engineers where to drill. However, as soon as the first few seconds of laser and sonar scanning commenced, the door simply opened, as if it detected the sound and light waves and responded solely to that level of activity.

Behind the door was a brightly lit corridor at the end of which there was another door.

This one, the engineers did not probe. They tested the environment for habitability and turned back.

There was oxygen, everything was lit up and temperate. They had power, heating– and a big door.

“The door seems to have an LCD panel for interaction. We figured you would want to look at it first.”

The engineers were clearly tired, and anxious about the structure, but holding back any criticism.

While Gertrude found the situation unnerving, it was not nearly enough to get her to back down.

At this point, nothing would be– perhaps not even certain death.

She tried to keep her crew in mind– but they slowly fell by the wayside of her obsession.

“As long as there’s breathable air, I’m going. I can delve inside on my own if that’s what it takes.”

Victoria sighed openly at Gertrude’s behavior– or maybe out of personal exhaustion too.

“I swore that I would protect you. Quit being so pig-headed. I’ll follow you in.” She said.

With the help of some of the girls from the security team, Gertrude and Victoria once again donned their armor and flip-up bulletproof glass visors. Gertrude had her club and vibroknife and pistol, but in addition, she had a trio of portable door-breaching charges clipped to her belt. These would do nothing to a bulkhead, but could punch through an interior sliding door’s locking mechanism and thereby force the door to slide open. She even convinced Victoria to carry an additional two on her own person.

Victoria and Gertrude were a given, but there was a third member of this particular sortie.

Her face was again covered by her special muzzle, but that and her collar, glowing green, were the only pieces of apparel that Nile had in common with her previous appearance. She had been forced to leave behind her turtleneck and coat in favor of a durable, long-sleeved blue shirt like Gertrude’s– along with a suit of K9 skirmishing armor. This resembled Imbrian composite riot armor, but it was lighter, and made up of more individual plate segments that could bend together with the natural curve of her body to allow greater flexibility and freedom of movement. K9 armor units also included a tail and ear section, as well as Loup-scale vibroclaws retractable into the gauntlets. It suited her height and physique perfectly.

Like Gertrude, her long hair was tied up to keep it out of the way. That detail, the long pants and boots, and her distant eyes, gave Nile a very rugged look in the armor. Gertrude thought it was quite attractive.

She was the picture of K9 excellence, armored, deadly, swift on her feet, and proud-looking.

And as a nod to Nile’s particular status, her armor had the badge of a K9 medic, and a medicine bag.

“You look handsome, doctor.” Gertrude said. “How do you feel? How’s the fitting?”

Nile shut her eyes and sighed. “Never in my life did I imagine myself wearing this kind of thing again.”

“Again?” Victoria asked, narrowing her eyes. Nile ignored her completely.

Gertrude chose to let the remark go.

“Might as well use stuff we have that we know fits and works. Gets around the issue Victoria had.”

“I’m not objecting. It’s just surreal. If you’re expecting me to sic on command, you’re delusional.”

Gertrude grumbled. “I’m protecting you! I outfitted you so you won’t die if you get shot or stabbed. I have no expectations of you as a fighter. You’re here because I need your brain, and I need it safe.”

“Here’s hoping there’s nobody around in there to shoot or stab me.” Nile said.

She made to put her hands in her coat pockets, and found herself wearing no coat.

Sighing again, she hid them behind her back, interlocking the fingers.

Meanwhile, near a Jagdkaiser with its cockpit open, Ingrid stood with her arms crossed, staring from afar.

Before setting off, Gertrude drew nearer to her, drawing her lover’s full attention.

“Ingrid, I really want to thank you for doing your job so diligently.” She said.

Ingrid raised a hand to hover in front of her mouth while she yawned loudly.

Her tail started wagging, just a bit.

“When don’t I, huh? I’ve always been your loyal dog that gets shit done.”

“I promise, after all this, I’ll make some time specifically for you again, okay?” Gertrude said.

Ingrid averted her gaze and grunted.

“I’m not a puppy, I don’t need you to placate me. I’m fine over here. I have nothing against what’s going on and I completely trust and believe in you. So just go, so that this whole mess can be over.”

Her tone was not agitated in the slightest, even though she looked slightly annoyed.

She was being so much more mature about all of this than Gertrude previously imagined.

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said again.

She was so strong. If only Gertrude could have a quarter of her strength– or loyalty.

God damn it. It’s not like I’m cheating– I haven’t done anything.

And the two of us aren’t even– god damn it. God damn it, Gertrude Lichtenberg.

You’re a real bastard.

Her inner voice berated her terribly.

She closed her hands into fists and walked away. Feeling terribly guilty for a moment.

Personal issues had to be set far aside, however.

She had to make ready to tackle the supposed old era structure.

For everyone’s sakes. It wouldn’t matter what she and Ingrid were or felt, if she was still powerless.

That prospect of “old era technology” that might grant her an advantage was far too tempting.

Without some kind of forward progress, Gertrude was convinced she would lose everything again.

So she took her resolute and desperate and half-mad steps, one foot in front of the other.

Crossing the bridge suspended in the middle of the ocean, into the walls encasing the unknown.

Past the threshold from the Iron Lady’s boarding chute, the interior of the structure was exactly as simple as the engineers described. Plain steel walls that were nonetheless polished and unblemished, a wide lobby bereft of anything save for a single shut door with an LCD panel beside it. As soon as they crossed the the threshold, Nile turned around and looked at the ceiling over the door-frame.

“There are vents up there. If there’s vents, there’s potentially pumps. That might explain why this room is barren and has nothing but another bulkhead.” Nile said. “This room opens to the exterior, possibly when it detects radiation, admitting people inside. It’s not necessarily meant to be a secure bulkhead.”

“Why would anyone design it like that?” Victoria asked.

“It might be their safety regulations.” Gertrude said.

“Is that euphemism meant to mean ancient surface humans? Because I’m not convinced.” Victoria said.

“Skepticism is healthy.” Nile said. “Fearless leader, go interact with that door, and we can confirm.”

“I know. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.” Gertrude replied, grumpy at the teasing.

Gertrude approached the door with Victoria at her side and Nile following a few steps behind.

Up close, the door looked remarkably thick and solid. It almost appeared seamless with the surrounding walls, with only the thick doorframe belying its true nature. The LCD panel was crisp and almost clear enough to be a mirror, completely unblemished. It was about the size of a human head. Gertrude approached and laid her hand on the panel, because its size reminded her of a palm scanner.

Blue light filled the screen and began to display a picture in response.

White text on a blue background, a bit difficult to see.

“What is this? It’s all in High Imbrian?” Victoria said. “Then we can safely say it’s from this era, no?”

Nile shook her head. “It isn’t exactly the same grammar as High Imbrian.”

Gertrude stared at the letters, speechless.

Across the Imbrian Empire, the common language was “Low Imbrian.” Low Imbrian was a somewhat universal language in the Imbrium and its surroundings. Cogitan captives understood Low Imbrian to an extent; and their Imbrian captors, following another pointless battle for the Ayre Reach, could mostly understand their common tongue, Republic Common Speech. The Union spoke and wrote Low Imbrian as “Union Communication Standard.” Katarrans called it “Street Talk.” Hanwans understood it and spoke a frighteningly similar language they called “the Public Tongue.” This language must have had an ancestor that was common to all races and cultures of Aer, and its inter-legibility survived stalwartly to this day.

High Imbrian was not like this. High Imbrian was a highly rigid and formal language with a completely different structure to Low Imbrian (though Low Imbrian was littered with High Imbrian loanwords). High Imbrian was not spoken in conversation, but was often learned and used as an academic status symbol. Doctors like Nile would know quite a bit of High Imbrian; an Inquisitor like Gertrude was supposed to learn it rigorously because large parts of the legal code were written in it. There were other prestigious languages of this sort. The Shimii boasted a dying tongue called “Fusha” that their surviving religious scripture was written in. The Union used a lot of High Volgian and High Bosporan in the same way Imbrians employed High Imbrian. Hanwans spoke a tongue that Imbrians called “High Altaic.”

These were niche languages that had largely died in their cultures save for loanwords in whatever dialect of the common tongue was actually spoken by the masses. It was widely believed that the High languages belonged to specific ethnic groups from the surface and slowly faded, while the common tongue was evidence of a global network of cultural exchange that necessitated a lingua franca.

It was in this context that Gertrude experienced shock when she only somewhat understood what she was seeing on the screen, but understood enough to tell it was High Imbrian. She could not hold a very vivid conversation in High Imbrian, but she should have been able to read it. And she could, mostly, but there were some grammar stumbles, it was just different enough that it read stilted and wrong in her mind.

“My High Imbrian is deeply rusty.” Nile said. “But I think it is asking for a ‘signal’?”

“No, it’s asking for a ‘Token’.” Gertrude corrected. In her own mind, making some best guesses, it said:

Welcome! We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Only authorized personnel can access the Island-3 crown spire. If you are here by mistake, assistance has been dispatched for. If you possess a valid authorization token, please lay the flesh of your hand on the panel and we will scan for evidence of STEM activity.

More or less that was what Gertrude understood. It was just a little bit off, but probably not too much.

Gertrude took off her glove. Victoria shot her a sharp glare.

“What are you doing?” Victoria asked. “You don’t know what will happen.”

“It just wants to scan my hand.”

Gertrude laid her hand on the screen once more, the bare flesh of her hand against the cold panel.

In the next instant, she felt a burning pain and jerked her hand back on pure, naked instinct.

Crying out in pain, shaking it, as if trying to cool it off. But the pain was localized too.

It was not “burning” but something like thousands of hot needles pricking her hand.

Her heart raced as she held her palm up in front of her eyes, looking for blood.

“What happened?” Victoria shouted. “Gertrude!” She snapped toward Nile. “Take a look at her!”

Nile had been staring with surprise at the panel, and Victoria jolted her back to reality.

“Gertrude! Let me tend to it! Stop shaking it!” Nile stepped forward.

“It stings, god damn it!” Gertrude cried out.

But there was no blood, there were no wounds, not even the needle pricks she felt.

Nile gently took Gertrude’s wrist and looked over her hand. Her eyes narrowed, she was puzzled.

From her belt pouch, she withdrew a plastic pack inside of which was a soaked cloth.

“This has an analgesic and mild sedative solution. It will relieve the pain and clean– the area.”

She could not say wound– there was no visible wound, no blood, no damage to the skin.

Gertrude grabbed hold of the little cloth in her affected hand, squeezing all the healing moisture from it with a sudden desperation. Soothing cool sensations flooded over the hot needles that had once invisibly scored her flesh, leading to relief, both from the pain and the sense of panic. She grit her teeth, breathed deeply but in a controlled rhythm, slowly regaining her center under Nile’s comforting ministration.

On the door panel, the text had updated to read:

INVALID. TOKEN NOT FOUND.

INSTALL STEM AND A VALID AUTHORIZATION TOKEN AND TRY AGAIN.

“HURENSOHN!” Gertrude screamed at it in High Imbrian, as if the panel understood–

Please refrain from vulgar language or verbal commands will be disabled.

“Huh, it accepts speech? That said speech, right?” Nile said.

She was gently stroking the back of Gertrude’s “wounded” hand to try to soothe the Inquisitor.

Gertrude, meanwhile, was growing ever more irritated as the pain in her hand lessened.

“It said ‘verbal commands’.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Interesting. Was that option previously available?” Nile asked.

“We haven’t been talking in High Imbrian until Gertrude called it a son of a horse or whatever it was– so maybe that activated it.” Victoria said. “Can one of you two talk to it about how to get in?”

“We know how to get in!” Gertrude replied brusquely. “We need some fucking, token or whatever.”

Nile sighed through her respirator. “Calm down, Gertrude.”

She turned her sight on the panel.

“Well, lets hope it understands me through my mask.”

Nile called out to the panel in somewhat tormented High Imbrian, inquiring about “STEM.”

Almost instantly, before Nile was even done talking, the text on the panel updated once more.

STEM stands for System for Token Execution and Management.

STEM is the ground-breaking technology back-end supporting the advanced endurance, comfort and security that have made the Island-series a leader in colonization solutions for extreme environments.

“What the hell? Say more than that! Elaborate!” That last word Gertrude shouted in High Imbrian.

On command, the panel spat out a longer and more complicated explanation.

STEM is a zero-trust secmodel installed at a mechanical root operating layer or in a neurological subject cortex that allows the reading and execution of “rich data blocks” or the storing of permissions and contracts into “tokens”. A STEM token or block can be tied to biological identity with strict permissions, a model that insures only authorized personnel are able to employ the access and execute the code associated with that token or block. STEM and tokens bridge the gap between analog and digital by imprinting cutting-edge smart contract tokens and encrypted data-rich blocks onto both electronics and the personnel that use them.

“What the hell does this gibberish even mean?” Gertrude shouted. She just barely understood it.

“I’m having a truly difficult time parsing it. What is– what is a Sicherheistmodelle?” Nile asked.

“You’re supposed to be the genius scientist!” Gertrude continued shouting.

Nile stared at her dead in the eyes. Her ears erect, her tail straightened out.

Gertrude felt a chill from the directness of that gaze, the tightness of that body language.

Her fingers, which had been stroking the furious Gertrude’s hand, stopped moving over her flesh.

They pressed down, without causing pain, but the grip became firmer, less comforting and warm.

“This childish conduct ill befits you.” Nile said. “I am a doctor, and I am a doctor who talks to patients and reads books and writes papers in a language people actually speak.” Despite the muzzle, Gertrude could tell that Nile was setting her jaw. She was agitated. “I am doing my best. I will continue to do so. Now, if the two of you want to get through the door, you will ask it where you can get a ‘STEM’. From what I can parse, a STEM is necessary to be able to hold the “signal” or “token” to open the door. Clear?”

“Yes.” Gertrude said simply and promptly as a scolded schoolchild. “Sorry.”

Victoria grunted, averted her gaze and said nothing.

Nile’s fingers began to move over Gertrude’s afflicted hand once more, as gently as before.

“I know you’re upset.” Nile said, her voice returning to its soft register. “But from what I’m seeing, it’s unlikely the door meant you harm, and it is even less likely that any lasting harm will result. Your hand will be fine. I’m here to support you, Inquisitor. Keep your wits about you, or the little lady here will worry.”

“Hmph. I’m not going to worry over her.” Victoria replied. “But you’re right. Gertrude, please calm down.”

“You could stand to be at least a little bit gentler with me.” Gertrude mumbled.

“What was that? You need to speak up for the door to hear you. It’s not updating.” Victoria replied.

Did she really not hear, or was she just being a bitch?!

Gertrude sighed. They were right– she was being stupid and losing her temper at a computer.

But they had essentially confirmed it now. This place, Island-3, was not built by Imbrians.

While the door recognized a variant of High Imbrian, Gertrude had never heard of a “STEM.”

Whatever cybernetic system this was, it was used to delegate access controls.

Imbrians used biometrics like fingerprints and eye-scanners, but they didn’t call that “STEM.”

They also didn’t describe those systems in the same way, even factoring translation errors.

Gertrude caught enough strange words in the description of “STEM” to think it must have been quite different from standard biometrics. It wasn’t just making a key based on Gertrude’s retina or fingerprint. Maybe it was storing the key itself onto her. That might have been why it fried her hand– it needed to sample her skin or blood or something else, biological, to know Gertrude had a STEM inside her.

This was equal parts surreal, arresting, but also, exciting.

Had Norn explored this structure? If so, how had she gotten past the door?

And what was behind this barrier that was worth such a complicated security system?

“How to install STEM in myself?” Gertrude asked the computer in High Imbrian as she knew it.

Parsing request.

“Don’t get mad at it.” Nile said. She must have noticed the tension in Gertrude’s arm.

A few minutes later, the text updated again.

A STEM architectural administration location has been found near you!

Suddenly a garbled, glitchy-looking and unreadable map appeared along with a series of coordinates.

“That map is bunk, but the coordinates may be correct. That Z axis is 5000 meters deeper than we are right now. It might somehow know that there’s another ancient installation in the abyss.” Nile said.

“Five thousand meters?” Gertrude cried out. “So, what, we leave with nothing and dive deeper?”

In another fit of passion, Gertrude lost control of herself and kicked her steel-lined boot against the wall.

“Gertrude!” Nile scolded again.

Gertrude grit her teeth, ignored her doctor’s reprimand and readied to kick the wall again–

“Huh?” Victoria’s ears stood up, and her tail curled. “Over there. Something shook.”

Everyone turned to face the wall running alongside the door.

At the edge, the seam between the corner and the wall was beginning to widen.

“That panel might be loose.”

The trio gathered at the corner and found that the seem between the panels was indeed widening.

“This wall can’t be that thin?” Gertrude said.

“There might be electronics hidden behind this panel.” Nile said. “I don’t know why it would be so flimsy.”

“Gertrude, you believed Norn was hiding something in here, didn’t you?” Victoria said, crossing her arms. “If so, a brute like her probably has no idea what that STEM thing is either, but she may have forced her way in violently. We need to move this panel and see if there’s a crawl space or a gap behind it.”

Don’t insult Norn.” Gertrude said with a sudden sharpness. “But yes, we should try to move this.”

Victoria looked surprised by the sudden scolding.

Gertrude made to leave to get equipment, but stopped when Nile touched her shoulder.

“Leave it to me. I want to limit how many people we involve in this.” She said.

“Why?” Gertrude replied.

“Just be quiet, trust me, and get back from the wall.” Nile said.

Victoria stared at her with narrowed eyes, but took a few steps back.

Gertrude almost feared she would reach for her sword. She stepped back from Nile as well.

Nile turned to the wall. She let her arms hang at her sides, loosened up, moved her fingers.

“It’s been a while since I did this. I would beg Allah for forgiveness– but I’m beyond forgiving anyway.”

In the next instant, Gertrude saw Nile’s eyes acquire red rings around the irises.

She drew in a breath, and delivered a punch to the wall–

–that Gertrude realized stopped just short of striking.

Victoria’s eyes turned red as well– she must have been seeing it.

There was a brief flash of green across the panel, and it shook and fell loose from the wall entirely.

Nile casually reached out her hand and caught the panel before it collapsed on top of her.

“Help me move this aside.” She said calmly.

Victoria stood in place, wary, while Gertrude stepped forward with a troubled look on her face.

She had felt it, that hair-raising invisible pressure; this was the power Norn possessed.

When she beat Gertrude back on the Antenora, when she attacked so quickly it was as if time slowed.

That beating was replete with the colors and presence that Gertrude now felt again.

Wary, she helped Nile to move the panel aside.

Revealing, behind it, several electronics that had been rearranged away from a very narrow path.

At the end of which Gertrude could see a distant metal wall– was that the interior?

“We found our entryway. And perhaps also Cocytus’, if what you believe is actually true.” Nile said.

She looked at Gertrude, and found herself holding a narrow and serious gaze from the Inquisitor.

“Nile, explain what you just did. I want to trust you, but I need to know.” Gertrude said.

From a few meters away, Victoria lifted her hand from the butt of her sword and sighed.

Nile shrugged and began to recite in a professor-like voice:

“Loup call it Volshebstvo and its practitioners Zirnitra. They have a belief that these are knacks which can be obtained by feats of strength or the whimsy of spirits. Khedivate Loup and Shimii hold these arts to be forbidden by God, calling them Sihr. Practitioners are called Majus, which is a highly pejorative term for Shimiists of all sorts as it implies godlessness and idolatry. To them, these abilities are provided by Jinn, evil spirits or demons that bend light to create illusions that deceive and lure people away from God. Khanate Vekans believe that Bayatars attain these powers from taking in the blood of their monarch’s horse, or having sex with the monarch– they call it Id Shid and call its practitioners the Mergid.”

She cast a glance at Victoria as she spoke the last sentence, and Gertrude cast a glance over to her too.

“What are you trying to say?” Gertrude replied. “That you’re some kind of folkloric legend?”

“No. I am saying you have nothing to fear. People with this ability have always existed.” Nile replied. “It’s neither unattainable nor inherently evil. In fact, I could show you how to do it– provided we had time.”

“She’s correct.” Victoria said. “And, Gertrude, if she wanted to kill us, she had many chances to do it.”

It was surprising to see Victoria agreeing with Nile on anything, and that surprised lent additional tension.

“Taking her side now?” Gertrude snapped. She realized, immediately, how stupid that sounded.

Nevertheless, she had said it, and let it hang in the air, awaiting the crash–

“I’m on the side of being logical and not lashing out at people for no reason. Unlike you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt pure shame down to her bones with the way Victoria and Nile were both looking at her.

Nevertheless, there was also a rebellious little part of her that didn’t want to have to apologize.

“Whatever.” She mumbled. “Let’s just carry on. I’ll go through the opening first.”

Nile and Victoria stared briefly at each other, then at Gertrude, with defeated looks on their faces.


Gertrude, Victoria and Nile ventured deeper into the facility.

Crawling through the narrow gap in the wall that had been concealed behind the loose panel, they found themselves in a hall behind the STEM-locked door. Following that hall, the space opened up into a lounge that was two stories tall. A pair of staircases along the sides of the space led to a narrow walkway connecting a few doors, but most of the space was taken up by untouched furniture that looked like it was made of glass, but must have been some kind of carbon or plastic. There were tables, chairs, what seemed like a couch lacking any kind of soft padding, completely empty vending machines. A bar with a counter, housing machines for preparing food that were also too clean to have seen any recent use.

The entire room had a hyper-modern style, featuring many abstract shapes, swirls, curves, everything from the railings on the staircases to the hanging LED lamps, the handles on the doors and the armrests and legs on the chairs, it all seemed like an objet d’art more than a functional set of furnishings. Gertrude was silent and serious as she looked over the pieces. The trio tried a few of the doors; several were locked via STEM tokens, while the ones that weren’t appeared to be empty storage rooms or backrooms.

That the supposed people of the ancient era lived so much like the people now, did not once enter into Gertrude’s mind. Her archeological curiosity was purely self-centered and power-driven. She had no interest in this time capsule, even though she was now sure that it was such a thing. Rather, what mattered was the treasure at the end; and therefore, finding the road that led to the end.

“Someone picked this place to the bones.” Victoria said. “No food, no drinks, not even napkins or hand soap. The bar has nothing, the vending machines have nothing, even the furnishing looks like it should have padding or cushions but no longer does. But they also left it superbly clean. It’s surreal.”

“It doesn’t matter. There must be a way through here. I’m going to blow one of these doors.”

Gertrude reached for one of her breaching charges, but Nile bid her to calm down.

“Those panels are probably just blocking off executive offices.” Nile said. “This place looks like a corporate lobby. Those offices probably just have devices and computers with STEM interfaces. Let’s check upstairs and try to find a connection to a different area. We may have more luck if we can get farther up.”

“We should also keep an eye out for more damage.” Victoria said. “Our mysterious infiltrator may have made their own functional path through the structure. I’m positive they did not have a STEM.”

“That gap they made in the first room was meticulous. None of the electronics were damaged.” Nile said.

Gertrude did not have as much of a low opinion as Victoria did of Norn– but she was beginning to think it may not have been Norn who first discovered this place. It had to have some connection to her, or else Norn would not bother sending her to Kesar. Either Norn visited this place, or perhaps she was taken here, or found it in a classified file or something like that– but she might not have been responsible for it. That move with the hidden panel was not Norn’s style. She would have blown a hole through.

Norn was not surreptitious. She was direct. She had no motivation to lie; she had the power not to.

So this place had to mean something or she would not have sent Gertrude there.

But, perhaps she also didn’t make the paths herself either. She was not meticulous.

“Ugh. What a situation– fine, let’s check upstairs.” Gertrude brusquely replied.

Climbing the staircases, they found more locked doors, with panels as verbose as the one before all asking for STEM tokens– but of a slightly different type. These doors asked for “verification” tokens rather than “authorization” tokens. Gertrude knew enough about machines to know such a distinction was significant, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t about to let the door sting her again, she knew she did not have a STEM and therefore, it was fruitless to play around with the panels for too long.

There was a plant pot in each corner of the upstairs hall, next to one of the locked doors.

They had short, thick green trunks and long fronds, like “tropical-style” plant decorations.

Gertrude, on a whim, rubbed her fingers on one of the fronds and nearly jumped.

“This– this doesn’t feel like plastic!” She called out.

Victoria dipped a finger into the soil in the pot. She withdrew it and shook it, with wide-eyed surprise.

“It’s moist.” She said simply.

Nile crossed her arms. “Someone has been here recently, and they’re taking care of this place.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “They won’t communicate with anyone, but they’ll water the plants?”

“Maybe they can’t actually operate the main computer; they’re not able to pay attention to a security system or acknowledge intrusion remotely.” Nile said. “They have no administrative ability, but can get around somehow and are trying to keep the spaces inhabitable as much as they can. So they are unable to respond to contacts from outside and can’t operate these locked STEM doors but they keep what they can reach clean, and have wound their way through the facility over time without causing damage.”

Gertrude couldn’t imagine this scenario, it was too farfetched.

“That’s insane, they would still need food and water. For what end would they stay trapped here?”

Nile shrugged. “I’m just guessing. I have no idea. But these are real plants, and someone watered them.”

“Whoever it is, they are fastidious. Everything is impeccably clean, it looks brand new, and it can’t just be because the materials are durable. It does fit a potential profile of our mystery infiltrator.” Victoria said. “There may be sources of food and water deeper in. I hate to say it, but it’s not so implausible.”

“Fine. That gets me no closer to anything.” Gertrude complained. “We need to find another path.”

Nile and Victoria stared at her again, but this time Gertrude did not stay put long enough to see it.

Though she felt their gazes in the back of her head. They simply vanished in the flame of her passion.

They looked over the lounge and bar area, as well as the upper story, a second time.

“Wait, I know.”

Gertrude had an idea. The front door panel had called this placed the “Island 3 Crown Spire.”

That did suggest verticality was important– it was like Nile said. They had to find a way further up.

Going up–

Maybe one of these doors had an elevator or a staircase but everything was locked by STEM and it was impossible to tell which doors were important and which weren’t. They couldn’t blow up everything for fear of damaging something important. It was likely the person or persons who infiltrated the front door ran into the same obstacle. They were on a landing though– so they must have tried going up.

Gertrude had been checking the doors and walls and the floor, on both the first and second stories–

“Nile, can you use your ability to try to disturb the ceiling panels?” Gertrude asked.

Higher up the spire from this “lobby”– to get higher up, maybe–

Nile nodded her head. She glanced at the roof.

Her eyes briefly lit up and red, and suddenly there was a series of loud knocks, dozens of them.

“Ugh! Be careful!” Victoria shouted, folding her ears down against her head with her hands.

Reverberating across the ceiling, Gertrude thought she could almost see the strikes on each panel.

Like waves of vague color rippling out from a center point in each panel.

Nile had not moved a muscle other than to give the ceiling a look.

Was her power even more impressive than Norn’s? That simply couldn’t be–

In the midst of her awe, however, Gertrude saw one of the panels shake and drop.

Along with a carbon-fiber rope ladder that stretched into the ceiling.

“There! God damn, we finally found it!” Gertrude cried out with joy. “Nile, you’re amazing.”

Nile shut her eyes and looked down at the floor but was clearly smiling behind her mask.

Victoria huffed. “I’m choosing to trust you for now, criminal, but I’m watching you. Every thing I learn about you makes you seem more dangerous, and Gertrude doesn’t understand it at all.”

“At least you’re choosing to trust me, that’s all I care about.” Nile replied.

“Hey. I understand perfectly what I’m doing. Quit your bickering. We can go up! Onward!”

Gertrude called out to the two, and ran to the ladder, which had come down in front of a second story doorway. She began to climb up into a crawlspace that separated the lobby from whatever was above. It was, like the interior of the wall hidden behind that loose panel, full of cables and vents and pipes, that had been carefully rerouted away from a tight path, at the end of which was a light coming down. It was another loose panel that had been completely pulled away, allowing exit up into a new hallway.

As before, the space was fastidiously clean. But it also answered a lot of questions.

After Victoria and Nile had made their way up to the new hall, which was a pristine blue steel like the other ones, they wound their way through several habitations and habitation-supporting facilities. Here, there was noticeable damage. STEM panels had been messily removed, and doors hung open with their sliding locks sticking out like limbs half-amputated. Aside from the door damage, everything was pristine, without a speck of dust. There was an area with bunks, dozens of them; a bathroom with showers; another lounge, with empty and open offices that also had their STEM locks disgorged; and an algae and mushroom cultivation room that was overgrown but tended, still producing food that must have been regularly consumed. There was a wall full of crates of material for both the algaea and the mushrooms.

Gertrude was amazed at the the size of the grow operation and the sheer amount of supplies in it.

“There’s decades worth of food in here. There must be a hundred crates of preserved material.”

“Some of these crates have Imbrian and Katarran national symbols.” Victoria said. “But there’s one in the corner that’s just blocking off a vent that has an entirely different symbol. I’ve never seen this one.”

That last crate was made of plastic slightly yellowed and had seen a lot of use. That symbol on its lid was barely legible, but appeared to be six hexagons, arrayed in a hexagon pattern, around a globe.

“Is that an old Republic symbol or something? What polity is that?” Gertrude asked.

Nile’s eyes were shut. She took in a deep breath. “I’m afraid it’s much older than that.”

“You know something, so just come out with it. We’ll believe any crazy thing at this point.” Victoria said.

Nile nodded. “It’s an ancient polity that spanned the surface. The Aer Federation.”

“Aer like the planet?” Gertrude asked, in mild disbelief despite Victoria’s assertion.

“Yes. In the Sunlight Foundation’s research on abyssal locations and recoverable old era technology, which has borne little fruit, I must add–” Nile sighed. “This symbol came up a bit. It’s on broken pieces of ancient vehicles that Yangtze and Euphrates studied. On old cargo crates, ancient debris, shipwrecks.”

“I thought you said old era things were untouched by time.” Gertrude replied.

“Structures, yes. They are made of an extremely dense and high quality form of agarthic alloy that we have no capability to reproduce. The amount of heat, material and time that must have taken to produce a structure like this Island-3 would be mind boggling to us, infinitely too expensive and we simply don’t have the facilities and logistics to do it. But even the surface dwellers could not make everything out of this material, so they left behind debris. Things like ancient shuttles or transport ships, maybe even cargo pods and escape craft, that were ultimately destroyed long before our time and lost in the depths.”

“And your people just happened to turn up their bits and pieces in your expeditions.” Gertrude said.

“Why is that the part you’re skeptical about? You just don’t understand the time scale the Sunlight Foundation operates on.” Nile replied. Her eyes looked suddenly wistful. “For us, it’s as if time stops, and we have infinity itself to accomplish our goals. With that outlook, scouring every centimeter of a deep ocean trench or a gorge or overturning every grain of sand in a Reach is not daunting at all.”

She looked at Gertrude in the eyes. “It’s only recently, that I’ve felt like my time is moving again.”

Despite her ardor and desperation– Gertrude recognized the humanity in those eyes, in that look.

She stopped questioning Nile. She began to feel like she just wanted to embrace her.

And she had to choke down some of that unneeded empathy. To keep going; to keep the fire.

“Let’s keep looking around then. We might be able to find someone– or readable records.”

Nile nodded her head in response. Victoria put down the box back where she found it.

If there were Katarran and Imbrian supplies stockpiled here, then there had been an intruder.

It was just as they thought– someone had gotten to this old era structure before them.

Norn? Perhaps with assistance?

What do you want me to see here? What do you want me to experience?

Gertrude’s obsession with the purpose of coming here– made her lose sight of other things.

She barely acknowledged the magnificence of what she had found– what she had learned.

Knowledge and experience in itself was useless to her. Unless it was actionable as power.

So she kept wandering through this grave of an unknown ambition.

With a weary mind and a hungry, reckless heart–

Please help me.

“Hmm?”

Gertrude looked around.

She thought she heard a voice.

They were just walking down another corridor with more empty rooms–

Please. I’m trapped. Please help me.

“Do you hear anything?”

That voice had such pathos to it– it really sounded like somebody was hurt or distressed.

There was a growing alarm in Gertrude’s heart at the voice. Nile and Victoria stared at her.

“Hear what? There’s just a bit of whirring, probably the vents.” Victoria said.

I can’t get out. I need to leave. I’m trapped in here. Please. You have to save me.

“How can you not hear it?” Gertrude asked.

Nile looked at the Inquisitor, quizzical at first, but then her eyes drew wide with alarm.

“Victoria, grab her–!”

Victoria had been far too late to realize and then to respond–

Gertrude had already taken off running down the corridor. She was convinced that there was somebody deeper inside the facility that was desperately crying for help and it awakened every bound-up and coiled tense muscle in her body to sudden action. That voice, which was filled with so much emotion, it reminded her of something that she felt suddenly responsible for, and it made her despondent and desperate. She ran and her eyes teared up and her chest hurt and everything began to change–

rippling mirrored images of emotional colors
walls warped into half-remembered vistas of dreams
moaning forests full of silver trees
puddles reflected ribbons of flying sensation
sky as crowns of world-spanning white branches
reflecting past present future roots digging through–

a woman surrounded by evil machines–

and the one whom she had been truly speaking to–

and what she had left behind–


There was loud slamming sound as an automatic bulkhead shut itself behind Gertrude.

When she came to her senses, she was in a dark, cavernous place with a damp floor.

No longer surrounded by metal walls, Gertrude panicked and clutched her chest and neck–

but she could breathe.

Her breathing was ragged, moaning, exhausted, but she could breathe.

She was outside Island-3. When she looked back, she saw a closed bulkhead, but everything around her, in front of her, over her, was rock that had been carved into some kind of tunnel. It was dark, but there were a few LED strips on the walls glowing dimly and intermittently on failing batteries. There was air in this tunnel– she even thought she could still hear the whirring of a pump somewhere. She was not cast out at sea and the pressure was not going to tear her apart. She was inside the gorge wall somehow.

Looking back over her shoulder.

How far had she gone?

Where were Nile and Victoria?

And where was the voice that had led her to run so desperately?

She was so shocked, she felt numb, utterly confused, so she walked forward, there was nowhere else.

“What happened to me?”

Soon as she stepped farther into the tunnel ahead, that pathetic whimpering returned–

Please help me. Please anyone help me.

Gertrude was also hearing something else– a static-filled and broken, horrifying voice–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

There was buzzing noise inside Gertrude’s head like she was a radio for some dismal frequency–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

“I don’t have a STEM. That computer said it.” Gertrude mumbled to herself.

It couldn’t be her STEM that was breaking down– she had none–

These weren’t her thoughts– they couldn’t be– they didn’t have her–

–texture.

Gertrude was certain she was hearing someone else’s internal voice, but inside herself.

“It doesn’t feel like Nile, or like Victoria, or like Norn–“

It wasn’t like any of those powerful presences she had felt in the past, but it had the same–

–texture.

Every time she heard it, booming inside her skull, it made her panic ever worse.

Please help me– Please, I’m trapped– I can’t take it anymore–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Gertrude grit her teeth, going from a brisk walk back to a headlong run.

Her own ragged breathing began to overpower the voices in her head as she sprinted into the darkness.

In front of her the shadows parted to reveal ever more and deeper shadows.

She ran and ran in the mounting and encroaching dark, her chest muscles tightening, her legs burning.

Indistinct rock sliding past her, the same flat shadow in front of her tears-warped vision.

She felt the walls enclose, the world tighten around her like black shackles, why couldn’t she advance?

Her chest tightened and expanded and every action was pain.

But she kept running, kept tearing at the indistinct shadow in front of her–

Until something broke up the once-changing sights.

Gertrude brought herself to a sudden halt, gasping with surprise.

In the middle of a circular room littered with debris. Ripped plastic and cardboard, wrappers, fish bones.

All surrounding a woman in a long, black dress, standing with her head bowed, arms hugging herself.

She twitched; a convulsion wracked through her body–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Her lips spread gently and she whispered. “Please help me. Please, anyone.”

Gertrude stepped forward. That voice was so soft, gentle, needful–

She reached out a trembling hand and touched the woman on the shoulder–

and felt a jolt of something hot and quickly-spreading, like electricity through her veins.

Her eyes immediately began to weep, blistering hot like they were melting.

Around her everything broke down and blurred away in copious tears.

In between blinking eyes, flitting in and out of focus before her she saw–

Oceans. Mountains. Skies. Trees (not silver, but reaching high). Roads. Buildings.

(A purple glow that flashed and burned.)

Metal hallways. Depth. Darkness. Pale bodies by their hundreds.

(A clicking sound like thrown dice. A feeling like an equation resolved.)

Duty. Order. Repetition. The same halls, the same tasks.

(A rising pillar, ambition, an eagle on a flag.)

A monstrous metal landscape that glowed and throbbed with sinew and bone as if alive.

“I’m sorry.”

Polaris.

“I made my decision.”

How could you abandon everything?

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING–

SUCCESS!

Welcome to STEM R12.2. Isolating corrupted blocks until bad block check resolves–

BAD BLOCK CHECK CANCELLED– WILL NOT RETRY.

Eyes with glowing blue hexagons around orange irises deep and bright as pools of fire,

swallowed Gertrude whole.

She was right in front of her–

grinning.

And when her fingers touched Gertrude’s head, it felt like her skull split open.


Her body was in a different position and there was now a dim light in her eyes.

Directly in front of her– no, she was supine, so it was the ceiling above–

It was all dark brown and black rock.

She was not lying on the rock. Her head was lifted a little bit, and rested on something soft.

Her vision was still swimming. Something slowly started to come into focus.

On the periphery of her vision; black, a long black sleeveless dress, a black cape; slim pale arms;

A pale woman with a soft and beautiful countenance, a mature and gentle expression, regal even;

long silver-gray hair; an ample, gently rising bosom; two tall, fluffy, black ears;

silk-sleek hands stroking Gertrude’s hair and shoulder, around her neck;

Fingers crawling into her shirt and massaging her neck and collarbone in a sensual way.

Her head was resting on this woman’s thighs.

Bright eyes colored a deep orange locked onto Gertrude’s own.

She felt comfort. She felt rest for the first time in a while. She felt, strangely, safe.

“Are you awake now, master?” The woman asked. She shut her eyes and smiled gently.

Her voice was very attractive– deep, sonorous, worldly.

“Where am I?” Gertrude asked.

“You are in the Island-3 Crown Spire, the VIP module of the Island-3 colonization project.”

“What does that mean? Island-3?” Gertrude mumbled, still recovering her senses.

“Island-3 was a project to explore the deep ocean trenches and expand humanity’s reach into the place known as ‘Agartha’ in search of energy sources. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve uncovered. Most importantly, master, what you are now is safe. Your body is so worn, and you are full of anxiety. Let me help.”

Her lips were painted a very slight violet. With her every word, they moved so tantalizingly.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked. Her tense body started to loosen up.

“I am a humble caretaker of humans– of people. You can call me–”

She paused and looked up for a moment as if in deep thought.

“–it looks like you can call me Azazil An-Nur. I am Azazil An-Nur. I am here to serve, master.”

The woman looked around the room. She seemed puzzled by her own surroundings.

“Well– I suppose it cannot be said that you are in Island-3 anymore. Years and years ago, someone carved this tunnel, and trapped a girl here in the dark. They loved her because they had been born to love her– but their hearts resented her and wanted her shut away from sight. They were both ashamed and disdainful, grateful and proud; such is the dual nature of Duty. Those powerful feelings still linger in this place. They have become more important than Island-3’s original purpose. Do you feel it, master?”

Gertrude felt it. She could feel the entire room, beating, like it had a pulse, a pulse of long-lost voices.

There was a familiar texture that once felt so distant, but was now so plain, so obvious.

She could feel it so strongly that it was as if the colors in the room brought the woman to them–

Norn.

Norn had been here before. This entire room felt like her– abandoned, confused, angry.

So, extremely, horrifically, angry–

“Master, are you curious what happened here? I can show you– if you open your mind to it.”

Gertrude’s head still felt hazy, and there were a million alarms buzzing in back of her mind.

Despite this it only took her a few seconds to respond.

“Show me.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled gently again.

“It shall be done, master. Hold on tightly to your sense of self– I’ll hold on to it too.”

Around Gertrude, the colors that were previously dancing in their dimmest hues exploded with brilliance.

Azazil’s eyes glowed with red rings, and a whirlwind of emotion swept Gertrude away.

To the time of Mehmed’s Jihad– and before.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.4]

Once again Murati Nakara found herself in a place that was becoming familiar: Euphrates and Tigris’ solar within the wing of Solarflare LLC’s headquarters. This time, her hosts had summoned her to a room which appeared to be a convertible court. There were a variety of balls, racquets and other sporting equipment on a rack in the wall, and there were slots on the floor and the walls to affix nets, baskets, goals, whatever was necessary. The floor had the same sort of digital projector plating that the walls of living quarters would have, but this was used to display the correct markings for whatever sport was being played. It was not a full-size court for any given sport, but it was more than large enough for recreation.

Murati was surprised by its very existence.

“You two didn’t strike me as the sports-playing type.” Murati said.

Immediately her hosts delivered their expected reactions:

“That’s so fucking rude! I keep extremely fit! Don’t lump me in with this nerd!”

“Can you defend yourself without abusing me? I exercise a bit too, you know.”

In the middle of the court, Tigris and Euphrates welcomed Murati inside.

“We’re not here to play ordinary games today. It’s time for your training, Murati.”

Euphrates lobbed an easy baseball pitch and Murati caught it in her hands.

She felt a string of anxiety plucked in her chest, rendering an arrhythmic little tune that caused her to shudder. It was these two, and it was this place, so clearly they were talking about psionics, and Murati had been hesitating to try so much as shaking an object lightly. She had caused nothing but disasters to herself and her environment every time she attempted to use psionics.

“I’m a bit worried about this. I’ve been having a lot of issues controlling my psionics.” Murati said.

“Both of us can recover very quickly from injury.” Euphrates said.

“That doesn’t help me. I could throw something too hard and hit myself.” Murati said.

“You heal up from injuries unnaturally quickly too.” Tigris said.

“It’s– It’s not unnaturally quickly.” Murati said. “My ribs were broken for–”

“Less than two weeks? Maybe even less than one?” Tigris said, with a little grin on her face.

Murati blinked. She felt like she didn’t know where to put her hands.

All her life she had recovered a bit quicker than others from injuries, but that wasn’t–

Her anxious train of thought was interrupted.

“Regardless, don’t be afraid.” Euphrates said. “We’ll keep things from getting out of hand.”

“Chuck it at me as hard as you can with psionics.” Tigris said. “I’ll demonstrate.”

Tigris clapped her hands together and took in a deep breath. She was concentrating.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Murati sighed.

It’s not just whether anyone could recover from her uncontrolled blows or how quickly. Murati did not want to hurt people she cared about with her psionics. It was like being taught how to shoot with live targets. Even with rubber bullets in the chamber, battering and bruising your comrades in front of you was not a good learning environment. It discouraged her from wanting to try it at all.

However, Euphrates and Tigris were not ordinary people.

She was not about to walk out and refuse when they were prompting her to take action.

Maybe she could trust them and see where it went– but she was still not enthused about it.

“Okay, here it goes.”

She reared back with the ball in her hands and made to throw it.

In her mind, she pulled the mental trigger that unloaded her psionics on the object.

Her eyes felt warm, and in an instant, the optics of her psionics covered her vision.

Auras appeared in front of her, emanating from Euphrates and Tigris.

Her own aura transferred from her arm into the ball she was throwing, tinging it green.

She felt like she had no control over that color specifically– it was just how it happened.

As soon as the ball left her hands, she pushed on it with her mind. She concentrated on her desire for the ball to snap in Tigris’ direction as strongly as it could. And snap, it did. It felt like there was a barely perceptible instant where the ball transitioned from moving under the power of Murati’s ordinary throw, the energy of her arm muscles on the ball’s mass; to moving under the power of Murati’s mind, violently accelerating the ball perhaps five times as fast as she could ever hope to throw it.

It would strike Tigris, across the court, before Murati’s arm was done moving–

Oracle’s Voice. Saint’s Skin.

Ball struck hand with a soft thump despite all the brutal energy behind it.

“There, wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Murati blinked, and Tigris was holding the ball in her hand without a care.

“Are you still afraid of hitting me?” Tigris asked in a teasing tone of voice.

Murati was briefly speechless. She stammered. “I– I thought I– I heard you speaking–”

“You didn’t hear it. You felt what I was doing as I did it, but it would have all happened way too fast for you to hear it with your physical senses.” Tigris said. “As you get more used to it, your mental sense of psionic things happening around will alert you with greater fidelity. Can you describe it?”

There was no describing it. It was like a mix between a sound and a feeling.

“I don’t know. I thought I heard a voice.“ Murati said.

“Ah, a voice you say?“ Tigris looked like she understood more than she was letting on.

“Basically,” Euphrates added, “Tigris performed a psionic trick to predict your throw.”

“And to be able to catch it safely. That was what you felt.” Tigris finished.

“It’s actually really promising that you perceived what she was doing.” Euphrates said.

“Is it? I can’t really articulate what I heard– what I felt, as you say.” Murati replied.

Euphrates and Tigris both nodded their heads together.

“Even people who, baseline, know psionics exist and can see auras, can’t necessarily tell like you could that something was going on with me in that moment.” Tigris said. “That voice you think you heard, your psionic reckoning, is called the Oracle’s Voice– it’s a gift not many people have, even people who, like I said, can see auras and understand that psionics exists. But that’s totally not 101 stuff.”

It must not have been, because Murati had no idea what to make of it whatsoever.

Even in the recesses of her own mind. It was impossible to articulate again what that voice in her head had told her she had felt and experienced. It had already faded like a dream– or if she were to use Tigris’ own word, fidelity, then it was like barely hearing a message while tuning a communicator’s frequency but quickly losing it to the noise, never to be found again. Like almost everything about psionics, it felt so frustratingly vague and immaterial that she was not sure how to approach it and master it.

“Even if I could be a generational psionic talent or something– I’m not right now! I have no idea how to even begin to exert precise control over this!” Murati said, hands closing into fists.

She had raised her voice in frustration. Euphrates and Tigris remained as steady as ever.

“It all starts with having emotional control, Murati.” Euphrates said. “Psionics is the power of the mind, but, more than that, it’s really the power of human emotion. Your mind is a conduit that turns your intention into power, but that intentionality is ultimately steered by emotions. Control emotion and you will control your psionics. It will never be perfect, but it can be managed and directed.”

“We’re not going to leave you in the lurch. I’ll teach you how to get started.” Tigris said.

Murati tried to pull herself back to the center, dial down her anger and anxiety.

She took a deep breath. “If you have some baby’s first psionic exercises to share–”

“Eh, you’re past that stuff.” Tigris said. “You figured out how to ‘turn on’ your psionics without anyone telling you anything. You can flip it on and off when you want. That’s the first part; and being able to throw stuff on command too. You’re solidly in the intermediate range of psychics now.”

Murati had not thought that was anything special. It felt like a perquisite to any psionics.

Clearly, she had to find a way to turn off the auras or she would have gone insane.

So she developed that intentionality before the colors everywhere fried her brain.

How was that not ‘step 0’ to learning psionics? It felt so natural when she did it now.

“Okay.” Murati triggered her psionics, rendering the auras visible. “What now?”

She intended for Tigris and Euphrates to see the red around her eyes, deliberately.

“Now you have to start developing intentionality in other parts of the process.”

Tigris took the ball she had in hand, showed it to Murati, and threw it up in the air.

Up in the air, the ball suddenly veered to the left with a thud, as if something had stricken it from the side. This sent it flying quickly to the other western end of the court– where with another loud thud, the ball was struck again in mid-air and soared toward the eastern end of the court instead. Tigris was not even looking at it. Throughout the rest of their conversation that ball would continue to be struck from side to side in the court as if by an invisible bat, over and over without affecting Tigris at all.

“When you begin practicing with kinetics, it makes sense to think of the psionic force as coming from you, like it moves forward from your position.” Euphrates began. She had shifted into her very professor-like voice and demeanor. “You’ve been characterizing kinetics as thrusts that push something forward, bearing from your physical position. However, psionics is the power of your mind. It isn’t that limited.”

“For an object that is in your physical presence, you don’t actually need to be able to touch it physically in order to affect it. Hell, it doesn’t need to move in a direction that makes sense for the position of your body. I could stance up to pitch forward but have the ball go over my shoulder.” Tigris said. Murati looked at Euphrates, then at Tigris, and then up at the ball, which was still being batted around over their heads as Tigris spoke. “Your psionic force can come from any direction and from any position around you.”

Murati’s eyes drew wider. She kept trying to follow the ball.

Then, she focused on the impact, where the ball changed directions–

She thought she saw something– a strange, visible burst as if illustrating a collision–

“You’re a quick study.” Euphrates said. She smiled proudly. “You see it, Murati.”

“Can you explain what I’m seeing?” Murati asked, blinking rapidly in disbelief.

“We call them vectors to help visualize the phenomenon, but it’s not entirely correct to treat them like physical objects.” Euphrates said. “It’s just a helpful illustration of the actual fact: you can decide the direction and location where psionic force executes and takes effect on an object, as well as its strength. There are limits, for example, a human’s body will resist being vectored just as much as their mind resists other kinds of psionic intrusion. Vectoring from inside an object means the object’s entire internal structure will distribute the force more or less evenly– etcetera. For now, think of it like a bat you can summon to hit a ball in any direction you want. That’ll help you get started on using vectors.”

“Using them?” Murati said. “I can’t even begin to conceive of how this works.”

“Catch!” Tigris declared suddenly.

From the eastern side of the court, the ball was subjected to one final snap, and tumbled in the air toward Murati. That final strike had been much softer than those preceding and Murati found it easy to grab the ball out of the air once it neared her. She looked at the soft surface of the ball, which had started to look a little beat up from all the strikes it had received. She turned it over in her hands.

She got a very fleeting sensation, the feeling that this ball had been struck by Tigris.

It had her aura on it, faint traces of it, a similar texture– that was how she conceived it.

There was a trace of Tigris on it, of Tigris’ emotion, the signature of her psionic power.

“Here’s an exercise you can do.” Tigris said. “With your hand, throw the ball up, not hard, just enough to get it in the air. Then, bat it over your own head in the opposite direction to where you’re looking. Try to imagine you’re creating an object in front of yourself to strike the ball while it’s in the air.”

“It doesn’t matter the shape.” Euphrates said. “Just imagine something hitting the ball.”

Murati suppressed a desire to continue complaining. It wouldn’t help her.

She would just follow their instructions to the letter and see where it led her.

Holding the ball in one hand, palm up, she casually pitched it into the air.

Following it with her eyes, Murati pulled her trigger.

Imagining– something— striking the ball and launching it behind her–

There was an enormously loud bang, followed by a shower of shredded fibers and cork.

One instant, Murati had been staring at the ball, and the next– it was completely destroyed.

There was a dull aching on one side of her head, and she flinched from the sound.

Everyone present was left momentarily speechless as the debris collected on their heads.

“I’d never seen someone reach this extreme on their first try.” Tigris whined.

She batted fragments out of her hair while Euphrates softly brushed her own shoulders.

Then she suddenly picked up a fragment of the ball from Tigris’ hair and looked at it.

Murati could see debris had a faint trace of red aura on it. Euphrates must have seen it too.

“Murati– how do you conceptualize using your psionics?” Euphrates asked.

Tigris sighed openly and swatted Euphrates’ hand away as she tried to pick another ball fragment out of her ponytail without asking. “Don’t ask her that way, she’ll overthink things too much. Murati– take this completely at face value. Imagine you’re a star football player: name your signature kick right now.”

As instructed, Murati took it at face value. “The Nakara Cannon.” She replied easily.

Euphrates and Tigris both grimaced, staring at the fragments of the ball with worry.

Murati gestured with her hands, exasperated. “What do you want from me?” She cried.

“She’s normally such a sweet girl, but her heart is just full of violence.” Tigris mumbled.

“Murati, can you try hitting the next ball with less– repressed fury?” Euphrates smiled.

Murati closed her hands into fists and shut her eyes, sighing deeply.

Even her most pessimistic assumptions of the task of learning psionics now felt too kind.


Shalikova and Maryam sat on one of the beds in their room and Elena Lettiere sat on the other.

While her cuttlefish partner was smiling brighter than the sun and stars as depicted in books and movies– Shalikova herself had a dour and somewhat confused expression turned on Elena.

Despite everything else she had seen and experienced on her journey, this was still a scene that felt a little too storybook for the young ensign. She had never sat this close to anyone politically important, just peers and higher ranking officers. Not any politicians, not even local apparatchiks– there was a public safety corps officer, once upon a time when she was younger, but that hardly counted, they were just playing detective. In essence, she had never been near political power, and did not know how she felt about those figures generally– and there was the fact that this was a princess. Some part of her was fascinated by the improbability of meeting a princess. Having a princess sitting across from her– with bright indigo hair and pointed ears and such a vibrant and pretty face. Just like a cartoonish storybook.

Even though she had been briefed on the basics of Elena’s situation, she felt compelled–

“Uh. Forgive me for asking but– are you really a Princess?” Shalikova said.

Maryam eyed Shalikova for a moment, her skin and hair colors turning slightly duller.

It was an awkward question, but she felt she needed to hear it to truly process.

“I used to be!” Elena said. “But I am no longer a member of the bourgeoisie!

She proudly showed them a book– a primer on communism for Union schoolchildren.

Shalikova had not seen a book like that since she was eleven or twelve years old.

With it in her hands, Elena was as cheery and smiley as Maryam had been.

“I’ve forfeited all of my titles and lands and am adopting a proletarian outlook on life!”

“Well– congratulations.” Shalikova said awkwardly. This all felt incredibly surreal.

“Sonya, she really is– was– a princess– and not only that, but she’s also got psionics too!” Maryam said. “She’s not as strong and cool as you of course, but I felt it from her! That’s why I helped her before. Also because I think she looked a little bit pitiful I guess.” Her head fins flapped a little as she spoke.

“Thank you for your help, wise sister!” Elena said. She bowed her head, a little bit pitifully.

“Oh no! No bowing! It’s fine. I’m just a very helpful girl.” Maryam said, her skin turning tomato-red.

“Maryam, what did you do to help her?” Shalikova asked, narrowing her eyes.

“That doesn’t matter Sonya!” Maryam said with a nervous little smile and a voice full of casual levity, raising her tentacles up like hands in her own clumsy defense. “Look, Elena is asking for help again! We should hear what she has to say and try to help her! Good deeds will do the soul good after all!”

Shalikova couldn’t help but smile. Maryam was a harmless marshmallow anyway.

“Fine. Fine.” Shalikova sighed a little. “Elena, tell us what’s happening.”

“Thank you! Wise sister– and gallant ensign!” Elena declared, clapping her hands together.

The Princess proceeded to tell them about her history with psionics.

She told them about her friend, Victoria van Veka, who left her life one day and just as suddenly returned in a time of a crisis with a strange new power. Elena explained what she had seen her do, and Shalikova immediately realized it. Telekinetics, possibly aura reading– the way that she seemed to “see through” Elena. She even attempted to control Elena’s body, and Marina McKennedy’s too, but both of them were able to muster some level of resistance and completely foiled Victoria’s attempts. Then she began to talk about her own experience trying to use psionics to “calm down” Marina McKennedy–

Shalikova could tell she was lying about some of the events and some of her motivations.

Elena was a sloppy liar. She must have been used to being believed at face value or having her lies accepted due to her status. Shalikova did not need to read auras to know this. Elena’s own tone of voice elevated and fell with the ebb and flow of her embellishments. She had a particularly awkward pause and rise in pitch when she said, “I was trying to calm Marina down– she was scaring me–” Her soft cheeks subtly tightened or twitched too, and it never happened when she was saying words she had clear confidence in. “My schoolfriend Victoria van Veka,” “she seemed to know that our other friend, Sawyer,” etcetera. She spoke with such a noted contrast in both the statements and the shifts in her mannerisms.

Shalikova was too observant, had seen too many such expressions and statements.

She knew all too well when a young girl was blatantly spinning a narrative for her.

Despite this, she allowed Elena to finish her story and kept her reservations to herself.

“When I try to use psionics now, I see a vision of Norn– and she hurts me.“ Elena finished.

In the end, it didn’t change anything whether or not Shalikova and Maryam knew the tiny details of her life to the letter. She already had the power and already could not use it anymore, and Shalikova trusted Maryam would judge her character and deem whether or not she was worthy of it–

“Wah! That’s so tragic! You’ve been through a lot! Come to the cuddlefish right now!”

Maryam practically jumped across the room and wrapped Elena into a tight embrace.

Elena sat speechless and stiff as a sculpture while Maryam hugged her.

Her tentacles relentlessly patted Elena’s head all the while.

“Sister! I appreciate your sympathy! But I’m truly okay, I’m– I’m healing and growing!”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes at the two of them. Maryam started openly weeping.

“Of course we’ll help you! Sonya and I would never turn down a girl in need!”

“Maryam, you– ugh, whatever.” Shalikova mumbled.

Some judge of character she was! Marshmallow-for-brains!

–and yet that was part of what Shalikova truly loved about her too.

Even if she was getting pulled into another surreal event– she would do it for Maryam.

“Sister Maryam, do you really think you could help me?” Elena asked, smiling.

Maryam let go of Elena, walked solemnly back to Shalikova’s side and sat there.

Her tentacles positioned themselves under her chin, as if she was steepling her fingers.

“It’s tricky-inky.” Maryam said.

“Tricky-inky?” Elena asked.

“Maryam, please be serious.” Shalikova sighed.

“Sorry. I’m just trying to cheer you all up! It was such a sad story!” Maryam said. She deflated and sighed and the chromatophores in her skin turned a little duller. “How much do you know about Norn the Praetorian?” She looked principally at Shalikova, causing Elena to turn to face her as well.

“Huh? I don’t know anything.” Shalikova said. “I know what happened recently and that she’s a bigshot Fueller family noblewoman or something like that. We don’t get history for people like that in the Union, it doesn’t really matter to an Ensign. Whether or not I know her history, if she shows up, I have to deploy and then fight her and her troops. Out of all of us officers, probably only the Captain and Commissar would be aware of who an enemy commander is, so they can strategize against her.”

Maryam nodded. “And to you, she’s your aunt, right?” She looked at Elena.

Elena averted her gaze, hands folded over her lap. “She became my aunt when I was a kid. She was adopted into the Fueller family, as an honorary sister to my father, Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. So she became Norn von Fueller that way. I think back then, my father must have been thinking his heirs needed more time to grow into leadership, so he wanted to leave the family in the hands of his strongest retainer. But– before she was my aunt, Norn was just a really scary knight my father employed.”

Maryam nodded again. “Okay. Well– the way I know her is as Cocytus, maybe the most accomplished psychic in the world right now. She was the woman who killed Mehmed Khalifa, the greatest psychic who was ever born or lived. So that’s why it’s going to be tricky to undo her psionics, princess.”

“I’m not a princess. Please call me Elena; or Lettiere if you want to be formal.” Elena said. “And– as for Norn, I sort of guessed she had to have a lot of power to be able to do this strange thing to me.”

“Hold on.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, is she even more powerful than you?”

Maryam smiled a little. “Speaking in terms of ‘power’ is not really accurate. Sonya, if you were issued a Kratov pistol or an AK assault rifle, would you always take the largest caliber weapon?”

“No–” Shalikova was already realizing her foolishness. “It depends on what I need for the job.”

“Indeed! In the same way, psychic ability can’t be summed up as power. I have a lot of psychic things I’m good at. I would say I’m really good with auras for example. I can read and influence moods really well–” Maryam’s fins stood straight up, and she started gesticulating defensively with her hands and tentacles, “–but I haven’t done it to you Sonya! Please don’t distrust me for saying that kind of thing!”

“I trust you!” Shalikova said, smiling and patting Maryam on the back to console her.

Elena meanwhile averted her gaze from the two of them again. She looked– embarrassed?

“Ah, sorry, sorry. I got nervous– Anyway.” Maryam said, smiling. “I couldn’t tell you what Norn has been doing with her powers. Hazarding a guess, she’s probably gotten really good at killing people with them. What I know Norn has on us that’s a huge advantage is experience. It’s a pure function of time– I’ve been practicing psionics since I was an older larva, but Norn is several times my age. Sonya, you have had your powers for a few weeks, and Elena has never been able to use hers properly. Norn is a veteran.”

“How do you know so much about Norn, Maryam?” Shalikova asked.

“Foundation stuff.” Maryam said. She smiled her ‘not saying more’ little smile.

“Oh, like Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday.” Shalikova said.

She recalled that when they had docked at the Goryk Substation, Maryam was very familiar to those two, they treated her like a kid. She had worked for their mysterious foundation, once upon a time. Shalikova had not brought that back up, and Maryam had been avoiding their guests from Solarflare LLC since then. Or rather, she was avoiding them because Shalikova herself was avoiding everybody.

“You could say, they have a catalog on really powerful psychics.” Maryam continued.

“Can they help us?” Shalikova asked.

“We shouldn’t let them know about Elena.” Maryam said. She looked serious again.

Elena looked nervous. Her voice trembled. “W-Why not? Will they dissect me?”

“Um.” Shalikova turned to Maryam and saw her squirming in her side of the bed.

“Of course not!” Maryam replied, once again waving her tentacles and hands in distress and surprise. “They’re not going to dissect you, that’s crazy! But first of all, they’re busybodies so they would want to give you a funny name and have you join their little club, which you shouldn’t because it’s full of selfish and weird people I don’t like. And then second of all, they probably wouldn’t help anyway.”

Maryam’s eyes narrowed and her tentacles snuck into her hair and wrapped up some of it.

She was trying to imitate Euphrates’ voice, expression and short wavy hair.

“We shouldn’t intervene in anything. It’s actually bad to help people and save the world.”

That was her imitation. Shalikova would have to take it for granted that it was accurate.

“Huh, Maryam is really talented.” Elena said.

“It’s in her genes.” Shalikova said jokingly.

Maryam’s cheeks puffed up and she turned red as a tomato– then she began to strobe red.

It was almost frightening to have that little marshmallow-y warning light beside her.

“Nuh-uh! I learned to do all this stuff! You need to drop the genes talk for good Sonya!”

“Sorry. I’ll stop. It was stupid of me.” Shalikova said, feeling properly ashamed.

Maryam’s skin returned to its normal pink color and her hair turned purple again.

She smiled sweetly. “I can’t stay mad at you Sonya.”

Shalikova could tell what was about to happen but did not avoid Maryam’s embrace.

Again, Elena averted her gaze. Shalikova wondered if they were embarrassing her with their PDA.

“Well, I’m glad I’m not going to have to sleep in the hall tonight.” Shalikova said, partially returning her girlfriend’s embrace. Maryam rubbed her soft, pliable cheek against hers. “We should get back to the problem at hand though. So Norn is way more experienced than us, and she has laid some kind of curse on Elena to prevent her from using her psionics. Is there anything we can even do about that? I had no idea psionics could even work this way. I thought it was just pushing objects and looking at colors.”

“Well,” Maryam’s voice was initially muffled as she was rubbing her cheeks very fervently on Shalikova, but she finally paused enough to speak coherently and separated herself. “It’s the power of the mind over matter, you know, there are a lot of unique things you could do if you believed in it hard enough.”

Maryam finally let go of Shalikova and then crossed her arms.

“I know what she did though. Sonya, look at Elena’s aura.”

“My aura?” Elena asked.

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt or anything. Just relax.” Shalikova said.

In the next instant, she tapped into the power.

“Wait, her eyes? Is that her doing things?” Elena said.

Indeed, she must have seen the red rings around Shalikova’s irises.

Indicating that Shalikova was performing psionics.

Around and behind Elena, the colors that had she gave off corresponded to an ordinary spectrum of the human emotional experience. Green and blue and a little yellow. Anxiety and a bit of sickness, maybe butterflies in the stomach from the situation at hand, but ultimately, every human had some blue in their aura to indicate they were okay. Blue signified peace, but all humans exhibited some blue in their aura regardless of the situation. Shalikova thought this was the guarantee of life– there was at least always the confidence that a human being could take a step forward and see another day, and that was their blue.

She wondered if, perhaps, on their deathbed, a human’s aura would be consumed in black.

So, this meant Elena had a pretty ordinary aura. Its texture was soft; it was faintly fragrant.

An innocent young girl who truly bore no malice– at that moment.

“Look closely Sonya. You can see it at the very edge, can’t you?” Maryam said.

Shalikova focused. There was no “edge” to an aura, not really, it was amorphous.

And yet, Shalikova could see it, like a thick outline of a hand-drawn character.

There was a very thin band of black around Elena’s aura.

“Elena, are you afraid of dying? Or are you thinking about death?” Shalikova asked.

“No, I’m not.” Elena said. She put a hand over her chest. “I admit I’m pretty nervous and my mood is not in the best of places, I guess. But I at least know I’m safe with all of you. It’s safer than I have felt in months, maybe even years. So no– I’m not concerned with death. Why do you ask?”

“Your aura is a series of colors that psychics can see on you that give a little clue as to your state of mind.” Maryam explained. “We’re seeing a band of black color– that usually means that the person is concerned with death. Either thinking about it or thinking about inflicting death on another person.”

“I’m not thinking about either!” Elena said.

For a moment, the band of black shook and expanded just a little.

“She’s thinking about death now.” Shalikova said. “But not before.”

Elena blinked. She looked like she wanted to crawl away from sight.

“Maryam is that what Norn did to her?” Shalikova asked. “Did she tamper with her aura?”

Maryam nodded. “She affected her aura, yeah. That black band is Norn’s influence. It’s not just the color. When you’ve seen enough auras, you can feel a texture and stuff– it feels Norn-like to me.”

“Norn can really do something like that? Victoria could only smash stuff.” Elena said.

“Anything is possible.” Maryam said. “But, within anything, there are a few specific things which people have observed. It is definitely possible to mess with auras– I can do it to some degree even. That is kind of like, a sub-discipline inside Psionics. You could call it Aetherics. It’s actually really rare, but there are people who can just inject aura into you to change your emotions to what they want.”

Shalikova had never thought it was possible to interact with aura.

She could see it, sure, and she could read it– but to think that she could alter it?

Then she remembered when she saw Maryam completely change the color of her aura.

“Maryam, can you do that?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam shook her head.

She then lifted her hand, holding up the middle three fingers.

“There are three aetheric abilities known by the Foundation. We call them the gifts because they’re rare, when you compare everybody who could do psionics– that’s because only some people figure out they can interact with aura, and even fewer do it a lot.” Maryam said. “The three gifts are Oracle’s Voice, Saint’s Skin and King’s Gaze. They have these names because people who have Oracle’s Voice can feel that this is what the abilities should be referred to as when they experience them. Almost anyone can figure out Oracle’s Voice, it’s just an extension of being able to see auras. Saint’s Skin comes next, it’s the ability to manipulate your own aura and the environmental aura in complex ways. And then– very, very few people in the world are able to use King’s Gaze. It’s the one that lets you manipulate other people’s auras.”

Maryam’s fins drooped and her colors dulled again. “I’m only able to use two.”

She lifted two fingers on her left hand and wiggled them, strobing the colors of their skin.

“So you don’t have the King’s Gaze.” Shalikova said bluntly, coming to a quick conclusion.

“Nope.” Maryam shook her head. “It’s rare! People used to call it the divine right of kings!”

Shalikova felt a shiver of fear deep in her chest. “But Norn has that ability somehow.”

“If anyone alive right now has the power of kings– it’s definitely Norn the Praetorian.”

“I’m doomed.” Elena moaned, holding her face in her hands.

“No you’re not!” Maryam said in a dismissive, whiny little voice. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms and tried to look terribly serious. “Give me some time to think and come up with a plan. This isn’t something we were ever going to confront on a whim one afternoon. Put it out of your mind for now, don’t tell anyone and don’t try to do any psionics. I will think about how to fix this, and Sonya will help me, right Sonya?” She turned to her girlfriend with big, bright and expectant W-shaped eyes.

“Of course. I told you before, I’ll stick with you and protect you, no matter what.”

Shalikova replied quickly. She was not only adamant on upholding the oath she made to herself, to protect her heart and cherished treasure– but also curious about these powers that Maryam had explained and interested in seeing how Maryam tackled another psychic’s antagonistic devilry. It struck her that it would be their first confrontation with psionics that were inflicted on someone to do harm. She felt a grim sense that it would be the first of many if they stuck to their chosen path.

For a girl who desired to spread psionics to the world and make a positive impact–

–exorcising the evil deeds of other psychics would likely play a tragically large part too.

Elena smiled. “Of course. Thank you. I’ll be patient and follow your instructions, sister.”

“You can just call me Maryam.” She pointed her two tentacles to her right. “And Sonya.”

“Don’t call me Sonya.” Shalikova said quickly to Elena. “Shalikova will be fine.”

“Thank you, Maryam, Shalikova.” Elena sighed with relief. “I feel better already.”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit. We’re two heroes chosen by God– we’ll reverse Norn’s curse!”

Maryam hyped herself up, but Shalikova couldn’t imagine it would be easy.

She herself had absolutely no great talent for psionics.

And Maryam herself had admitted to being less accomplished than Norn.

Elena looked quite satisfied, however, as if she had gotten it all off her chest now.

She left the room with a bubbly smile and a spring in her step.

As soon as the door closed, Maryam hooked an arm around Shalikova’s shoulder.

She started rubbing her soft, squishy cheek up against Shalikova’s face.

“Didn’t that feel good Sonya? Don’t you feel so fulfilled?” Maryam asked.

“Not especially.” Shalikova replied, sidling closer to Maryam to return her affection.

Maryam giggled. “She called me wise sister.” She seemed elated by this for some time.


“Apologies for the wait, valued clients. Here are your goods.”

A tall blonde woman set down a case on the table and opened the lid. Inside, in three neat rows, there were a variety of ID cards organized alphabetically and by type, and a fourth row had several plastic lanyards in packs. Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara picked up their own cards which were slightly above the rest, in order for Cecilia Foss to be able to easily pick them out to explain the differences.

“Madam Bashara has a Shimii work permit ID, you can tell it apart by the green stripe.” Cecilia said. “This allows her freedom of movement in Kreuzung for the purposes of going to and from work, as well as frequenting restaurants and shops in Kreuzung between the hours of 0800 and 2000. This means she is subject to a curfew in the core station. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the law, and we can’t get around it.”

Cecilia touched the top of Aaliyah’s ID, running her trimmed red fingernail over the stripe.

“There are 39 work permit IDs here for every Shimii that you disclosed to be aboard. For Katarrans and North Bosporans there are 31 temporary access permits each of which lasts thirty days with a single potential sixty day extension. Those are the ones with the red stripe. You, Madam Korabiskaya, are holding a provisional Station ID. I secured an appropriate amount of these for all Volgian and Imbrian personnel. We have registered all Volgians as Imbrians. Those IDs are the ones with the blue stripe, and provide full freedom of movement without curfew, as well as 180 days of stay. These can’t be extended, but you can apply for a full citizen’s ID within that time period if anyone wants to stay long-term.”

She spoke quickly but with clarity, and with an easy confidence in herself.

“For your security, we went through a process of identity laundering. Each individual should check their card for the name written on it, but it will only matter if they are stopped. Anyone who looks too closely and has enough access can determine the documents are fake and that the personages referenced do not exist, but no station security guard will go that far unless they request a departmental investigation, rather than just a stop or even an overnight arrest. A departmental investigation is unlikely, but possible.“

Ulyana was quite impressed with Cecilia Foss. She could understand easily how Euphrates entrusted her with day-to-day management of Solarflare’s personnel operations. She was the image of a high-powered lawyer, with her pencil skirt and business attire, long orderly blond hair, perfect makeup, steeply angled black pumps. Every movement she made looked deadly precise, and every word she spoke was said without any hesitation. It was as if her every second was planned ahead. Not only that, but she had these connections to the underworld and seemed to have an impressive ability to break the law.

“I’ve provided lanyards for all personnel that were disclosed. I would strongly advise for all personnel to wear their IDs around their necks for the duration of your stay. In the event that one of your personnel is stopped by a law enforcement officer, their ID card will be scanned and will show that they are legitimately registered with the Kreuzung government, and their false identity will not be questioned right away. Please insist upon your crew not to backtalk or argue with Kreuzung security personnel– every single word can be incriminating, and every officer is looking for an excuse to take punitive action. Should an incident occur, it is imperative that I be contacted right away. But your personnel must request that I be contacted. If you desire, I can offer a script you can pass along to them to memorize as well as my business card for representation. The script is short, simple and it’s all they ever need to say to an officer.”

“Thank you kindly, Madam Foss.” Aaliyah said. “We would be most grateful for it.”

“Duly noted. I’ll send everything to Madam Semyonova for dissemination. Is that acceptable?”

“That would be great. Thank you.” Ulyana said. It was hard to say anything more.

Cecilia smiled at them and bowed her head. “Again, I apologize for the time it took to secure these permits and IDs. And don’t worry about us– in the event there is a full investigation, we will be able to escape liability, even if you are forced to escape.” She gestured with a hand towards the wall. ”Your crew is always welcome at Solarflare LLC, even past curfew. May I escort you to our premises now?”

“We’ll take you up on that offer.” Ulyana said. “We have a meeting coming up over there.”

“Indeed. I was already informed. Whenever you are ready, I can lead the way to our campus.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana clipped their ID cards to the provided lanyards, left the rest of the IDs in the meeting room for Semyonova to distribute, and followed Cecilia Foss out of the Brigand and to the tram station that would take them to Tower Five. Aaliyah marveled at the buildings, the wide open space, the false skies and the sheer scale of the operation being carried out to repair and refit the Brigand. Her wide-eyed wonder was incredibly cute to behold as they trailed together behind Cecilia. Ulyana felt relieved and elated that Aaliyah finally able to leave the ship and get a breath of the station’s air.

Especially owing to the purpose of the day’s meeting. She needed Aaliyah by her side.

They were headed to Solarflare to meet with Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Despite receiving some heartening news about the Union’s exploits farther south, Ulyana and Aaliyah agreed that their mission and its parameters had to remain the same for now. They had to help train, equip and support dissidents in the Empire with the ultimate goal of safeguarding the successful revolution in Buren. Pursuing that goal gave them options and opportunities, and it let them interact with what was directly in front of them. Allies, enemies, and the moment to moment. So they had to pursue their leads with the United Front, and only then could they dream about joining the Union war effort.

“Ultimately, our course and actions aren’t changed because the Union occupied Sverland.”

Aaliyah had said that during their discussion.

Ulyana agreed wholeheartedly with that wisdom. They would stay the course for now.

“Once we leave Kreuzung, we’ll launch a comm buoy and request additional information from Nagavanshi.” Ulyana said. “Then we’ll keep going our won way until we hear back via the ELF.”

Staying the course, meant tackling the opportunity Kremina Qote had given them.

They would pursue her leads to the United Front, in order to train, equip and support them.

First on the agenda was the S.P.R. and their militant wing, Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

Euphrates and Cecilia had organized a little office for the meetings to take place on the Solarflare campus. White walls, a door with a digitally-operated lock, no windows. There were gel-cushioned chairs, a long table, plenty of outlets and ports for devices, a monitor on an arm if it was necessary, and a dispenser for coffee, water or mushroom and algae broth. There was a bathroom nearby, and small wheeled table in a corner had writing implements and stone paper if it was needed. Aaliyah and Ulyana waved goodbye to Cecilia Foss, who had a packed schedule, and set up in the office.

“They know to come here, right?” Aaliyah asked.

“They know to meet us at Solarflare. The receptionist will send them here.” Ulyana said.

At the appointed hour, someone knocked on their door.

Hallo? Any comrades here? Is this the right place?” A casual and relaxed voice.

“There are comrades here, of a sort.” Ulyana called out. She unlocked the room remotely.

When the door opened, a fair-skinned man in formal attire walked in with an easy gait and sat down in front of them. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, Ulyana thought. He had a long-limbed and somewhat thin physique with strong shoulders. He had a good jaw and was clean shaven, but seemed to pay little attention to the state of his hair, which was cut short but a little bit fluffy as if uncombed. His eyes looked distant and tired, narrow with the beginnings of bags under them.

He wore a very nonchalant expression. Ulyana would have described him as an “everyman,” a cipher for the average Imbrian man who might still have been derisively called “boy” sometimes by his superiors. His dark grey suit was spectacular however, it was easily the most notable part of him, exceedingly well-tailored, perfectly fitted, and it looked almost as if it had been made with actual cotton or even silk.

It was the kind of suit that took a guy like this from 5/10 to 7/10 somehow, Ulyana thought.

He had a portable computer with him that was the size of an adult’s head, and which came with its own stand by which to prop it up. With a sort of briefly exasperated look on his face, he set up the computer on the table so that it would face Ulyana and Aaliyah. There was a frame around the screen that had embossed pink roses and gold filigree. When he had stood it up, he pressed down a switch on the side, before sitting down next to it on the other end of the table, crossing his arms and sighing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched him go through this process silently.

“Her highness will be connecting shortly. I hope. May have to muck about with the WiFi.”

“Gloria Innocence Luxembourg?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s her. Hopefully you weren’t expecting her in person.” Said the man.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose.” Aaliyah said.

“Can you introduce yourself? Are you able to speak for the S.P.R?” Ulyana asked.

“Uhhh– in some capacity.” He said. “My name is Orlan Aries. I guess I’m not a particularly political guy, but I got caught up in all of this for some reason. I don’t have strong opinions. The pay is good, and I like to say I see things through to the end, so here I am. Um– I was originally just joining the security team at Raylight Beauty, but I guess my hard work was noticed. Gloria must like me, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m representing — forgive this extremely presumptuous name — the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.”

Ulyana did not believe a single word of that.

It wasn’t that she was predisposed to distrust anything the United Front groups said.

Far from it– she wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt as potential partners.

However, for someone rich, connected and powerful like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to trust someone to “accompany her” (in this unique capacity) to this exclusive, clandestine meeting, that person could not possibly have been someone who viewed his own career with so many somehow, I guess and Um. His too-casual demeanor was definitely a front for something, but she couldn’t say what it was.

Orlan eyed the display with his jaw set. “Any day now, princess.”

Beside him, the screen suddenly flickered the manufacturers logo and then displayed a video feed, as if beckoned by Orlan himself. It happened with such little sense of transition that he was looking at the display with exasperation as it was turned on. In his surprise, he jerked away from it and nearly fell– this reaction looked humorous when contrasted with the overwhelmingly saccharine girl that appeared.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long! Thank you so much for your time!”

On the screen appeared a young lady, soft featured and pretty with dark eyes that glimmered in the center like they had a small starry sky for pupils and irises. Her pink hair was voluminous and long but very fastidiously orderly, with a neat and trimmed fringe and sidelocks. Some of her hair was collected with a red rose ribbon into a single small ponytail on the side of her head. She appeared to be wearing a white, long sleeved top or dress with a tall, lacy and frilly collar, along with a white capelet with red rose decorative trim. On the video feed, she appeared from the shoulders up, emphasizing her smile.

“I hope you are having a blessed day. Allow me to introduce myself.” She said. “My name is Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. I am the Presidential Candidate and chairwoman of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea. I am also the founder of Raylight Beauty Products GmbH; the biggest private employer of women in the Imbrium. My blood type is O, my constellation is Leo, and I love cute girls.”

Gloria flashed Ulyana and Aaliyah another sun-bright smile.

“This is an encrypted connection, right?” Aaliyah asked, staring at Orlan.

Orlan looked surprised to have been addressed. “Uh yes. Yes– it is, isn’t it ma’am?”

He looked with a sudden nervousness at Gloria as if he could no longer be sure.

“Absolutely. Unless you changed all my cute little settings on my portable.” Gloria said.

“Wouldn’t dream of touching the damn things.” Orlan sighed.

“Alright, since we can speak freely. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, Captain of–”

“–the super-cool UNX-001 Brigand!” Gloria interrupted happily. “Alias Pandora’s Box.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes slightly. She was starting to get fed up with Gloria’s whimsy.

“Looks like Kremina did fill you in.” Aaliyah said. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, Commissar.”

“Indeed! Then we are all meeting the right people. Isn’t it lovely, Orlan?” Gloria asked.

Orlan again looked confused about being addressed. “Yes, it’s a little tea party alright.”

Even he sounded exasperated with her already. Gloria continued smiling, so carefree.

“A tea party! How wonderful– I truly would love to host you someday, Ulyana, Aaliyah– circumstances permitting. However, I know we’re all short on time and long on business, so I will stop fooling around. I want you to know, even if you decide not to join our Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, I will still regard you as fellows, and I’d be happy to collab someday! To me, we are all part of one struggle. Now then, I also want to answer all of your questions today and see if I can’t snatch you away for myself, of course.”

Gloria winked at them. She spoke and acted so casually, with an easy, natural confidence.

Ulyana appreciated her friendly openness, but she wasn’t completely sure of its sincerity.

It felt too easy to like Gloria, or to overlook her. Was she just being manipulative?

“We are certainly open to working with you. Kremina may have told you, but we would like to assist the United Front that is forming in Aachen. We have combat equipment we can distribute to you, and we can offer training– and of course we can also fight alongside you if you have operational plans.” Ulyana said. “I’m curious about the S.P.R. You’re an underground party, so we can’t just find your agenda recorded on our computers. Can you explain the S.P.R.’s origin and your own involvement in it?

Gloria’s cheeks lifted, her biggest, most girlish smile accompanied with a tittering laugh.

“Perhaps ironically, I learned that the world was fundamentally unjust at my family’s own Luxembourg School for Girls.” She said. “My older brother controls the school now, but I attended as a teenager. I tried my best to lead a normative life, but I realized that regardless of my name and wealth, there were elements of myself which made me lesser than other people in the right-wing culture of Imbria. I began to take an interest in dissident literature and in secret became one of the rebels of Luxembourg school. The seed of the S.P.R. was my secret reading group back then.” Gloria looked proud of herself when she spoke up next. “I even met with the dissident queen herself, Leda Lettiere, one fateful day.”

Ulyana made note of that. It was name she had heard a few times already.

Queen Leda von Fueller, Elena’s mother; Marina’s lover; victim of the Emperor himself.

Leda Lettiere was executed directly after the Union’s victory in the Revolution.

For Gloria to have met her as a student, she couldn’t be a cutesy girl in her twenties.

She had to have been in her late thirties. Ulyana’s age– maybe even older.

“How did you feel about what happened to the lady Lettiere?” Aaliyah asked.

For a moment, Gloria seemed to pause. Her arm shifted just a little bit. It tensed.

“It was such an atrocity.” Gloria said. She was still smiling or trying to smile. But she did look just a bit dimmer than before. “She was taken from her previous life by a man whom she could not deny, and then he destroyed her utterly. One of the most iconic women of our time, who did her best to inspire women to strive for better. A beautiful angel who even fought a secret battle from inside that cage in order to liberate us all.” Gloria’s tone took a slightly sharp edge but then suddenly became a little more upbeat.

Ulyana thought, maybe she felt she had said too much that was too personal. So she corrected herself.

“Politically, that moment did not affect me. I already knew that women were disposable. Eccentric women, rebellious women, queer women, even more so. We are allowed to work, to speak; to own property and earn money; even to fight in the military; but we are always lesser-than. It’s an inextricable pall which Imperial society casts over us. Right-wing society; fascist society. I founded Raylight Beauty as a haven for women and girls. A place where they would be valued, selling things which made other girls feel beautiful and confident. But my goal was always to do what Lettiere couldn’t. To build a weapon that could strike against Konstantin von Fueller. Of course, there’s necessarily a different target for it now.”

“Was Mordecai among your dissident readings?” Ulyana asked.

“He featured prominently. His work on class conflict is absolutely necessary.” Gloria said.

“What led you to align your party specifically with social democracy?” Ulyana asked.

Gloria’s smile returned in its full force. “Mordecai did not advocate any specifics for how to organize a government in his works. He did not talk about how ministries and bureaus would come about once the old ones fell, or how to distribute power. But he did hold the fight for the suffrage of the lower classes in high regard as a condition for the social advancement of the proletariat. I believe that representative democracy with a one-person to one-vote approach is the fairest way to communicate the desires of the total mass of the proletariat; and like Mordecai, I believe that the failure of representative democracy in Rhinea specifically is due to its class character rather than the sum minutia of its mechanics.”

While many people would have argued the Union was not democratic whatsoever, and that it was a dictatorship now ruled by Bhavani Jayasankar, the distinction cited by Gloria for her vision of democracy was very specific in nature. In the Union, there was a practice of “council democracy” though the democracy part was, nowadays, often left out, and Bhavani Jayasankar did not acknowledge that word. She called it instead “council governance” or “sovietism.” There was universal suffrage in the Union but the mechanics of this suffrage was not carried out as specifically individually as it was in Rhinea.

In the Union, the mass of the working public was represented by delegates. A station’s population was organized into workplace unions, student unions for higher level educational institutions, and for Shimii, the Marja was its own institution with delegation as well. Each group directly voted for delegates (Shimii got to vote for delegates for their workplace and for delegates of the Marja as well), and those delegates represented them at their station council or soviet. In turn, station councils chose delegates for regional councils, and regional councils chose delegates for the Supreme Soviet. After being elected, the delegates made any legislative decisions in the interests of their constituents, with the check that recall or dismissal was possible if they failed to secure the population’s interests. Beyond local policy, a lower-level council could influence the higher-level council that they voted into power by petitioning in the interest of their local constituents for a regional or supreme policy action, again with the implied danger of dismissal.

It did not always play out this way– local and regional eccentricities abounded in the specifics of governance, but that was the model and that was how it worked on average. Policy was supposed to be set at each level, while also percolating up and down between them. It was a delicate balance that still allowed local decisions to be made by locals, and national decisions to be made collectively, nationally. There was an element of direct democracy in petitions, which were available at all levels of the system to reflect the desire for a certain policy, and communicate that desire to the appropriate level of council.

It wasn’t perfect– but it existed. It was the Union’s own version of “representation.”

Everyone outside the Union would find this unconvincing. After all, Bhavani Jayasankar ”took power in a coup” and now enjoyed ”supreme leadership;” but the power she took was that of the Premier, who was supposed to be beholden to the national and Supreme Soviets. The Premier faced a “vote to retain,” in which the Soviets had to express positive sentiment toward her rule in order for her to stay in power. In addition, Bhavani was not so all-powerful, even after her “military coup,” that she was able to directly set local water-use policy in Sevastopol or arbitrarily set holiday benefits for textile workers in New Karach.

Rather the system was supposed to be read as such: the Premier set the direction of the country, led the military, drafted economic plans, and tried to create an agenda for the country; the Supreme Soviet took that agenda and created “national legislation;“ the regional councils handled “legislation for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice individually;“ and station councils created “legislation for the people living in the station.“

Regardless; Ulyana felt she read a certain defensive undertone in Gloria’s statements.

She was doing something fundamentally different than the Union. She was asserting that fact.

People voted directly for national representatives in a congress, and voted directly for a President.

According to Gloria, this she derived from Mordecai himself, the “fairer” form of democracy.

Ulyana was not someone like Murati, however, so she would not argue the point.

But the point had been clearly laid out before her by the ever-smiling Gloria.

“We are Union communists. Do you feel comfortable working with us?” Aaliyah asked.

Now that was the response of someone slightly closer to Murati than Ulyana was.

Their guest did not appear to be perturbed by the question whatsoever.

“Like I said, I believe we are friends in this struggle. Both of us despise the Volkisch Movement and we want to see it destroyed and that is what ultimately matters to me. I’m happy to work with anyone who will oppose the spread of their evil– in fact, the United Front was my idea.” Gloria replied. Ulyana and Aaliyah both lifted their brows a little with surprise. “I reached out to some of the anarchist cells that use the Iron Front insignia, and I reached out to the Rotfront. I’ve even reached out to some of the ousted politicians– unfortunately, it was even I and my group who confirmed the death of Ossof Heidemann, who opposed Adam Lehner in the presidential election. The Volkisch’s petty revenge, no doubt.”

Kremina had never said it was Gloria’s idea initially, though she also never said otherwise.

But both of them had assumed that it was Daksha Kansal’s doing as they learned more.

“That’s a pretty impressive organizational lift, especially to keep hidden.” Ulyana said.

“I have a lot of help, and I pay really well!” Gloria said. “Isn’t that right, Orlan?”

Orlan glanced sidelong at the display, crossing his arms and leaning back.

“Huh? My pay? It’s fine. I could make more as a mercenary– but with no benefits.”

“Hmph! My benefits package is industry-leading! How could you want to be a mercenary?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to be one! I just believe in myself a bit is all, your majesty!”

“Hmph! Hmph! Hmph!”

Gloria acted comically upset by Orlan’s ungratefulness for a few moments.

Before sighing serenely and putting on a smile again.

“Don’t mind him. That’s the kind of relationship we have.” Gloria said.

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah replied dryly.

“How strong is the United Front militarily?” Ulyana asked, trying to move forward.

Gloria put a long finger on her lips and made a little ‘thinking pose.’

“We would have to see who shows up at Aachen for the formal establishment.” Gloria said. “I can only speak for myself. I told you I was building a weapon to destroy Konstantin before. While I have been organizing the S.P.R.’s political contacts surreptitiously, I have also been forming my own military. We use Raylight Beauty’s security corps as a front. I dubbed the group Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, after the black and red Rhinean ducal flag. We have amassed eleven vessels of our own design, and we have the numbers of Divers and infantry to match. You should see my flagship! It’s super great!”

She clapped her hands cheerfully. Ulyana nodded her head and jotted down notes.

“So we’ll have to join you at Aachen to really get a sense of its scope? Works for me.”

“Indeed! Until everything’s properly signed up, I can’t really speak with certainty. I hope that all of the friends I made will join me in my battle against the Volkisch, and all that is unjust in our Imbrium Ocean.” Gloria said, holding a hand up over her heart as if swearing an oath in front of them.

“Gloria, what role does Daksha Kansal have in your organization?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana was glad that Aaliyah was taking it upon herself to tackle the tougher questions.

It was nice to have her there as a counterpart. Good Captain; mean Commissar.

“She is one of my advisors in the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. We talk about politics and about military moves– but I don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.” Gloria’s eyes narrowed just a little bit. “I’m in command of the S.P.R. and the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. Daksha Kansal’s support is greatly appreciated, but she’s as appreciated as you, or the rest of my war buddies, and no better than anyone.”

Much like Ulyana and Aaliyah acted toward Kremina Qote, Gloria had to set her foot down.

It was another way of saying, I’m not Daksha Kansal’s subordinate.

A revolutionary leader with proven success was a potential problem to an up-and-comer.

Even if her charisma and experience was invaluable– it was the same tension they had felt.

“One last question.” Ulyana said. It was her turn to ask a very tough one. “We’ve been in Kreuzung for a few days and it’s been awful. What do you think of the attitude of Rhineans toward other ethnicities?”

Gloria continued smiling, unfazed by the question.

“Oh, it’s deplorable, surely. Eisental has a long history with Shimii and all of it has been truly regrettable. You know, working folk here keep to themselves a lot. I don’t want to blame them for a lack of social education– but it’s definitely something that must be set to right. I believe in universal suffrage, and universal participation. My presidency would entail an egalitarian revolution for Rhinea.”

Ulyana wasn’t impressed, but she kept that to herself. Gloria had no substance here.

Aaliyah wore no expression on her face as she heard Gloria’s response.

“I think we’ve got what we wanted out of this.” Aaliyah said. “Thank you for your time, Lady Luxembourg. We shall most assuredly take you up on that offer for tea in Aachen Station and discuss further.”

Gloria clapped her hands rapidly again. “Goodie! I look forward to it. Tah-tah!”

She performed a cutesy military salute, and the screen went dim as suddenly as it had lit.

Orlan looked at it for a moment before picking it up.

“Uh. Do you have any questions for me?” He asked.

“No, thank you for your time as well Orlan.” Ulyana said.

Orlan made a cutesy salute similar to Gloria’s before leaving with Gloria’s portable.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Ulyana and Aaliyah each let out a long-held sigh.

That was the first of the groups, and also the one directly supported by Daksha Kansal.

“What exactly is our esteemed first Premier thinking?“ Aaliyah moaned, lying her chest on the table, her cat ears folded. Ulyana laid a comforting hand on her back, thinking the same thing…


“Please, I’ll do anything you want. I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Hmm? You broke easily. That’s not terribly romantic, you know?”

Pavel Rovski was not someone known to ‘break easily’–

–except when staring at the crosshair eyes of the woman sitting back on a chair before him, whose legs she had lifted to rest directly through the center of his desk. He seemed to lose all composure as if he was no longer witnessing something human. Though she was startlingly beautiful, her presence was wrong.

But Rovski was cornered. They had found him out and he was not ready.

Behind him, the open door leading to the reception hall was guarded by two women, both very pale as Pavel’s assailant was. One was far more intricately dressed and decorated. The other appeared spartan, dressed in what seemed like a white uniform, with a capelet and pants and a weapon that looked like a cross between a rifle and a drying wound, covered in dark bruised flesh with a black barrel.

He spared not a second to stare at that alien sight, however.

His eyes were locked on those of Enforcer I of the First Sphere, Avaritia.

He could not tear them away. He was not being allowed to.

“Pavel Rovski of the ‘Rovski’ cell.” Avaritia smiled to herself. “It’s so delightful to meet you. I do love this scenario– you made such a beautifully romantic mistake. I thought of anarchists as being very mechanical, but I should have known, you have a very libertine ideology after all.”

Avaritia was overcome with joy at the circumstances that led to this meeting.

Pavel Rovski was a central figure (not leader, he never would have said leader, none of them would) of the ‘Rovski’ anarchist cell. It was only referred to this way outside of its ranks. To its members, this was the “Left Arrow” or “Third Arrow.” But Rovski was one of the secret keepers of the cell’s ranks– one of the few who could rally an entire thousand-strong battalion of the anarchist ranks, who were otherwise distributed in groups of fours and fives that communicated very sparingly and surreptitiously. He would only gather them when the time was right to take an action that ‘would mean something’.

Unfortunately, he was not dispassionate enough about the whole scheme.

He became interested in one particularly fiery young woman on his list, and sought after her.

That she was a lesbian– didn’t seem to deter him at all. He went to meet her in person.

Avaritia laughed at him. Such foolishness that brought him to this day!

She recalled something the Autarch had once told her.

“We have always been with them. Watching them. Laughing at them.”

Avaritia was laughing. But in her mind, she was not being cruel. Hominins were just so interesting.

She just loved the romance of it. Pavel Rovski, an unromantic man in a romantic situation.

From the doorway, her lover Gula spoke up, her arms behind her back, smiling daintily.

“Zozia is here with us today, you know? But you won’t meet her– she wouldn’t want you to. She was disgusted with you. You were an old man, and you should’ve never spoken to her. I do hope that you will not hate us for today. Hate yourself instead; despise yourself for your betrayal of your comrades.”

Pavel winced but was limited in his responses.

Avaritia’s green aura seeped into him, through green tentacles he could not see.

That had perforated him in a dozen places.

Filling him with crippling fear and anxiety that utterly warped his personality.

All of his much-vaunted bravery stood for nothing in the face of Avaritia’s commanding gaze.

“To think, a simple family lawyer could have been involved in a terrorist group!”

Avaritia laughed again.

Today, the site of their infiltration was a law office in Tower Six’s central commercial space. Beautiful brown interiors like fake wood, offices and halls amply varnished, the desks too, all earth tones, very peaceful. There were about two dozen clerks, lawyers, and the big boss of the place, Raszyn Grebber– Rovski was but one of many lawyers who worked here. An unassuming older man, average in every way, tucked away into a corner of this humble office, scheming to take down the Imbrian Empire!

Rovski’s jaw lightly unhinged, but he could not speak. He was far too crushed to do so.

“Gula, is it not terribly romantic? Is it not?” Avaritia said.

Gula, looking almost small beside her prince, tipped her head in a cute gesture.

“It is, my darling, atrociously romantic.”

Savagely romantic.”

Gula approached from the door and wrapped her arms around Avaritia’s shoulders.

Her head, peeking out beside Avaritia’s, bared suddenly sharp, saw-like teeth.

“So what happens to Monsieur Rovski now, my prince? Can I eat him?” Gula said.

Avaritia, still leaning back on her chair, raised a hand and stroked Gula’s hair gently.

“I’m afraid not, beloved princess. I need to disseminate the information he knows soon, and it would take too long if we ate him and loaded his blocks into our STEMs. We have an important meeting later today, after all. And like you said, it would be disgusting if he went near Zozia and Ksenia. It wouldn’t be romantic at all. So neither of us will eat him. We’ll transport him, and talk on the way.” Avaritia said.

“That makes a world of sense. You are so wise and so cultured, my prince, my knight!”

Gula stretched a long tongue from her mouth and licked Avaritia’s neck

Avaritia felt a sudden desire to bite her– but a voice from the door caught her attention–

“Um. I apologize for interrupting, exalted beings. But Vanguard L may perish from having to synthesize more gas– so, without casting judgment on your wisdom, I believe we should extract soon.”

Behind the two of them, guarding the door, in uniform and hat and wielding a bio-spike launcher disguised as a rifle, was Wizard III of the Second Sphere. She was one of the subcommanders of the Syzygy forces under Enforcers I and III. It had been difficult to convince the Autarch to part with Wizard and Observer type units, particularly to part with them for Enforcer I specifically– but eventually their exalted leader saw the wisdom in it. Just two people would not make a convincing force.

They would need to wield military power like the Hominins did, for the tasks that lay ahead.

Avaritia got her feet off the table and stood up, carefully gesturing for Gula to move aside.

Her gaze caused Wizard III to shudder as soon as it fell upon her.

She was, like most Omenseers born this side of the Holocene, a very pale girl with long, white hair and fairly thin and lean physique. She divided her hair into two tails, between which she laid the flat military cap that Avaritia had given her as part of Syzygy’s new, more “hominin”-fashionable uniform. Her twintails each had a stripe of blue hair running through them, which helped her to stand out more.

“F-Forgive me, Exalted Being. I spoke out line. Please forgive me.” She mumbled.

Avaritia smiled. She reached out and stroked Wizard III’s cheek.

“Wizard III of the Second Sphere.” Avaritia said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Um– of course– you’re our most exalted flesh, Enforcer I of the First Sphere.”

“Indeed. Do you know any more than that?”

“I was not afforded any additional information, your biological excellence. I apologize greatly.”

Avaritia grinned at her, bearing teeth. “When I was a Leviathan, I was a dreadnought class known among the Hominin as the Horror of Dys. I was the Island-Sinker, the Eater of Skies. Such is my power that I awakened myself too– the Autarch did not have to lift me from sleep as she did you.”

Her fingers squeezed just a little bit on Wizard III’s jaw. Not enough to cause any pain.

That is terribly impressive. I am blessed with this knowledge, exalted, superior being.

Because her mouth was seized, Wizard III communicated telepathically.

Perhaps so as not to disgrace herself to the Enforcer by babbling.

Avaritia lifted her hand from Wizard III’s face.

“Ultimately, my point is–”

She put that hand on Wizard III’s shoulder and smiled at her, winking one eye.

“Relax! Relax and be neither so scared nor so formal! Such things are not romantic at all. Had I wanted to punish you, my dear Wizard III, the violence would have been fast and vicious and required no dialog. Your assessment is correct, and we should indeed get moving soon before poor little Vanguard L has to exert herself again. With all the chemicals I made her digest, she must be in quite a state.”

Gula clapped her hands together with tittering delight. “Wonderfully said, my prince.”

Wizard III’s wide-open eyes narrowed, and she sighed with relief.

“How much do you know about anarchism, Wizard III?” Avaritia asked.

“Not a thing, exalted– err, Enforcer I.” Wizard III said.

Behind them, out in the halls and other rooms of the law office of Raszyn Grebber, there were several hominin toppled over wherever they had been sitting or standing due to the highly concentrated knockout gas that they had spread through the building. Vanguard L could be seen with her back to the wall farther outside, her jaw hanging open, coughing wisps of gas, her eyes twitching, limbs limp.

“Well, it is as I thought. We’ll need to teach you all how to be anarchists very quickly.”

Avaritia turned back to Mister Rovski, her crosshair eyes locking on to him.

She walked the way few steps back from the door, and Wizard III, to the side of the desk where Rovski was staring at them, crushed with fear, alive but immobile, no part of him having even twitched save for his horribly aware eyes that were tracking the alien figures, and his shaking jaw trying to cry for help to no one in particular. Avaritia walked over to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder, gripping her fingers. Hard at first, and harder still, until blood began to draw, until her fingers began to sink into him

“His resistance is weakened enough.” Avaritia said.

Around her irises, the red circles of psionic ability began to strobe and deepen.

She could feel his defenses collapsing one by one, until–

Biokinesis

drawn blood drawing backward into wound

reversing fingers spreading as stream

bone and sinew soft and malleable

skin and organ digesting into thread

spinning loom turning body about axis

hominin–

dehomininized–

“Oh! That is clever, clever indeed!” Gula smiled, with a sadistic edge to her little grin.

Avaritia had been careful not to spill anything despite how quickly she worked.

The tendrils which her hands had become, became hands again; in her grasp she had a rough white box of bones and skin the size of a human torso. There were a few silly decorations here and there– a crown of teeth along the top edge, filigree in sinew. Inside the box was a brain and everything a brain needed to be cozy for a little while, enough that they could probe its knowledge using telepathy.

Once they were done it, the box would be placidly ready to die permanently.

Left on the chair, behind the desk, was everything the brain didn’t need to be cozy.

It was most of the body, compacted, bagged-up–

–and it was the thing Avaritia now acknowledged as “Rovski.”

“Wizard III, please quickly clean up the remains of Monsieur Rovski, so we can leave.”

Avaritia shot an authoritative glance at Wizard III.

Staring at the unappetizing collection of offal on the chair, Wizard III sighed deeply again.

“As you command, exalted– I mean, Enforcer I.” She said, ambling toward the chair.

With a grimace, she knelt down near the chair as Avaritia left, and began to chew on the thing.

“Gula, please leave the rest of these kind folks in the office with the sense that nothing in particular worth recalling transpired during the past hour.” Avaritia said. “I would love it if they had calm blue auras and a sense of fulfillment and no earthly reason to care about Pavel Rovski for a long time. Though if any of them are psionic and resisting– Tristitia can make them disappear too I suppose.”

“It shall be done, darling.” Gula replied.

“Please don’t sneak a taste of any of them for now, dearest.” Avaritia added.

“I am more than satiated by the sight of you in command, beloved prince.” Gula replied.

Avaritia nodded. She started walking outside while stroking her own chin.

“From now on, my name is Zozia Chelik and you are Ksenia Apfel, my dear. We will take the place of the ‘Third Arrow’ at the Aachen conference, and with the Pandora’s Box today.” Avaritia said. “The Rovski organization had already contacted twenty people, of which we have intercepted twelve by now. The remaining eight will disappear and be replaced with Wizard and Observer units.”

Gula followed dutifully behind her prince. “Is there any risk of word getting out?”

“Thankfully the other two Arrows are not aware of the specifics of this organization, only their affiliation and their upcoming rejoining at Aachen.” Avaritia said, shaking her head while explaining. “They probably don’t expect to talk to Rovski specifically, even in Aachen. I think we can pretend to be them pretty easily. Rovski’s remaining 1000 members have not been contacted, and we won’t contact them. We’ll fill out our troops with Vanguards and Sentinels and if we have to, Hunters, to make up reasonable numbers.”

“Sounds fun.” Gula said. “Horror of Dys.”

Avaritia grinned. “Don’t call me that, Great Maw of Nysa.”

Gula raised fingers to her lips and giggled to herself.

Behind them, a miserable Wizard III lifted chunks of poor quality meat into her mouth and swallowed.

“I do wonder, my love,“ Gula said, “will this bring us any closer to the Origin Tree?“

Avaritia shrugged. “Anything brings us closer than we are now. Trust me, beloved Gula.“

She could not logically explain, but she certainly felt that it would bring them closer.

Every Hominin clawed and devoured so far had earned them meters toward the goal.

There were currents of aether gathering serendipitously around Kreuzung, around Aachen.

Eisental was a crossing of numerous fates. There was tension in the air among the Hominins.

It was in such times and such places– that homininkind was closest to their ancient keepers.

Rhinea, Solcea and Bosporus formed a triangle– and somewhere in there, the Tree slumbered.

“Step by step, hominin by hominin. We will lay hands on our venerated elder again.” Avaritia said.

She lifted her hand up as if reaching for something ephemeral, endlessly distant.

Grinning all the while. Her crosshair eyes locking on, in a growing obsession.

It would be romantic indeed.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.