Surviving An Evil Time [10.4]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić stood alone in a corner of Ballad’s Paradise’s model village attraction with her back to a wall, hands behind herself. From a nearby open ventilation grate, a black cable sprouted that linked up to a device in her pocket, and broadcast audio to a pair of pods tucked into her ear fluff. At the end of that black cable, dropped all the way through the ventilation one whole story down, was a wireless receiver. It was connected to a transmitter on a certain waiter.

She shut her eyes and imagined the scene, and the characters within, as she listened in.

Kitty McRoosevelt–

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”

Majida al-Khaybari–

“Are you out of your god damned mind? You think I’ll join this senseless massacre?”

(Internally she amended her view of al-Khaybari. She was not so bloodthirsty as to join Kitty in this act.)

Surprisingly, Raaya Al-Shahouh–

“There are Shimii in this station complex! You want us to kill our own people?”

“Calm down!” Kitty shouted. “We’re only using it for leverage against the core station! We’re not going to complete the process, we won’t destroy the station, we’re just going to cause a temporary shutdown.”

Majida audibly scoffed.

“Leverage? Leverage for what? Everyone in Eisental will call you shaitan after this!”

Imani smiled. Yes, go on, Kitty. Let her in on your plan, why don’t you?

“Leverage against the governor. Shut everything down, isolate him, and take control.”

“You and what army? If you do this Kitty, the hammer will come down hard.”

“I’ve got forces waiting for the go-ahead. Majida, we have this figured out!”

“I’m about to pretend I never heard any of this, Republican. You are completely insane.”

Kitty continued. Finally she began to let Majida in on the substance of her plot.

“We’re planning to infiltrate a small force into the station, sneak through the lower dock interstice, commandeer the core, and put Kreuzung temporarily out of commission. Our goal is to overturn the government of Eisental. I have a small army at my disposal that will come in once the core station’s defenses are out of order due to the Core Separation and disarm the Volkisch– but with your forces, Warlord al-Khaybari, we could practically guarantee total control of the region!”

There was a long silence. Imani could picture Kitty’s smug face.

“Control of the region– for whom? Who is running Eisental if this goes your way?”

“The Republic of Alayze.” Kitty said promptly, automatically. There, she made her biggest mistake.

She had completely misread Majida al-Khaybari. She didn’t understand her at all.

“Absolutely not. You and your Republic can go fuck yourselves with those reactor rods.”

“Wait–!” Now Imani could picture the woman’s immediate despair.

Kitty was shocked by the response. Imani could hear her palpable desperation.

“Majida, we’re only trying to do right by your people, we always have! We’ll make you a legitimate leader here! Your people will be able to come back to the stations, secure real livelihoods–!”

“The Khaybar ummah haven’t sacrificed everything just to serve a different hegemon, G.I.A.”

“Majida–! Just– take the fuel rods and think about it, okay? Free of charge.”

Raaya Al-Shahouh spoke up with a melancholy tone of voice. “We need the fuel.”

Majida grunted. “If you’re so insistent, Kitty, then we’ll take your fuel rods and regard it as Jizya. But you can forget about my troops coming here to support your plot. I’ll extend my stay here to make sure you don’t get the Shimii here killed with your stupidity. But I won’t help you clap a prettier set of chains around us. You should’ve kept things strictly business with me, G.I.A. This is our last transaction.”

Imani heard her pick up the case with the rods, and perhaps throw the one with the money.

There was an indistinct clanging sound followed by silence. The point was made. Conversation over.

Imani felt very satisfied with the situation. Khaybari would have been a formidable opponent.

Among practitioners of Sihr, Majida al-Khaybari was quite notable.

Or at least, a certain cat made boisterous note of her as a dangerous element.

Thankfully, Kitty McRoosevelt and her G.I.A. cronies were utterly out of their depth.

Where the Imbrians and the Cogitans both read Majida wrong was that they called her a pirate and a mercenary and believed that wealth was her foremost aim in her activities. They lacked the context to understand that she was actually the most extreme Shimii nationalist in the Imbrium ocean. Kitty could have limited herself to simply promising to topple the regime in Eisental, but she was a Cogitan imperialist through and through, bonafide G.I.A. She made the worst pitch possible.

Now, with Majida in the sidelines, the G.I.A would need more of their “army” to appear.

Imani could let them get far enough to gather the entire gang in the Kreuzung Complex.

And then she could eliminate them all in one blow.

She just needed to know how many, when they would appear, and to keep track of Kitty.

That way, she could interfere to shape the battlefield to her needs.

“Mysia, take off from here tomorrow and go to Aachen. Give them an update.”

“Of course ma’am. I take it I’ll collect my payment from there as well?”

“Yeah, yeah. For someone who didn’t grow up there, you’re such a fucking Katarran.”

Imani wouldn’t be able to count on Kitty’s chaste little enby any further, then.

That was fine. She had a more reliable helper now anyway.

She lifted the cable to pull the wireless receiver out of the ventilation, wrapped the cable, and stowed it along with the earpods into the white box which Mysia had given her in secret when she and Homa had breakfast. That was the end of their arrangement, and Mysia had been paid up front, so there was no need to take care of that end either. Imani had gotten her way on every single item.

For a moment, though, she remained inside the model village.

Smiling gently to herself. She could almost see herself and Homa still chatting away here.

Homa was interesting. She had potential– so much more potential than she knew.

“It’s unfortunate.” Imani said to herself. Touching her lips, where she had been kissed.

She had to give her up now– but it was fun while it lasted. Brief as it was.

In this surreal little calm before all-out war. She had gotten her taste of living.

Now she was prepared to die for Vesna Nasser’s cause once again.

“Homa. My little ho~ma~. After this is all done if we’re both still here. Maybe.”

She knew she was being stupid. What an irrational crush– love at first sight? Foolish.

But– for a girl who had never really experienced such things, it was strangely powerful.

Worth spending her time off to indulge it.

Doubt brought weakness. Satisfaction, surety, and experience, all brought strength.

That was what a certain cat taught her. A lesson learned from a life of immortality.

Leaving behind her wistful girlish feelings in the place that stoked them, Imani exited Ballad’s Paradise through the rear entrance to the visitor center. There was another fancy wooden bridge, this one abutted by a fake waterfall. There was almost no one around. She had waited a few hours before coming out just to be certain she was moving at off-peak times. A gentle breeze blew her hair– she ignored it, but it was a bit irritating to have it blown about when she spent so much time brushing it silky smooth.

Then as her heels clattered dull on the fake wood–

Her eyes blinked, red rings glowing around the iris as she tapped into her power.

There was a brief disturbance in the auras.

“You can come out. Get in the elevator with me. I’ll lock it down.”

As she approached the elevator, a dark figure surreptitiously climbed up from the side of the bridge and slipped inside alongside her. She withdrew a keycard with a Volkisch eagle upon it and thus commandeered the elevator by special decree, making sure it remained locked for her. She set a contradictory pair of tiers to guide the elevator up and down enough to have a chat.

“Does Khaybari’s presence make you as skittish as it does everyone else?” Imani asked.

“I have an adequate respect of her. She’s not my concern right now.” Said the figure.

“That’s such a characteristic response, ‘Radu the Marzban.’”

Standing at her side, never making eye contact as far as she knew. Taller than her by half a meter, a giant of a man, covered head to toe in armor, with wide shoulders and a broad chest. His helmet was completely sealed, even his Shimii ears were encased in the metal, even his tail was covered in flexible armor. His suit was powered armor of legendary Katarran design, driven by agarthic batteries. Interlocking plates like layers of an insect’s hide protected him, said to shrug off small arms up to anti-materiel rifles while enhancing the strength of the wearer through an interior carbon nanotube exoskeleton.

However, there were reflective surfaces all over the suit, LED pixel clusters.

He had a cape which had a false fur trim but was also covered in those LED clusters.

Nasser had told her that this helped his specific invocations of Sihr.

That voice which escaped his helmet was crisp, clear, human, his own. Unmistakable.

Radu the Marzban.

Imani stood casually next to him. She almost felt a bit of girlish pride in doing so.

Standing next to a figure of legend was no mean feat.

“I figured you would go off on your own. What did you turn up?” She asked casually.

“I want to ask you the same question.” He said.

“Oh, now you want to cooperate?”

“Hadžić. Why have you not stopped that G.I.A. agent? What are you plotting?”

“I stand to gain from letting her act freely for now.”

“She is going to get people killed. Our people, Imani, could be killed.”

Imani smiled. “Why didn’t you stop her then, if you know better?” She asked.

She looked up at him over her shoulder. His gauntlets closed into fists.

“Out of Vesna’s respect for you, and your loyalty to her, I am keeping my distance, despite my misgivings. But I do not trust you, Hadžić. If you don’t want me to act on my own, then tell me what you hope to gain from allowing Kitty McRoosevelt to attack the station’s reactor core and endangering its people.”

His tone was growing aggressive. Imani could see his aura warping and contorting.

All of the colors of his aura vanished under an erratic tidal wave of green and black.

He was imbuing— deliberately trying to flood her with aura, with controlled emotion.

Green, anxiety and fear; a stark matte black, the color that signified death.

Against an ordinary person, being battered by this aura would have driven them to frothing collapse.

Imani could sense the enormous power he possessed. The stories could have never described it in full.

Perhaps this man had really been a companion to Mehmed the Sorcerer.

Her knees rattled ever so slightly. It took all of her own prodigious power to resist.

This much resistance was enough to make her feel a little cocky, even.

“Is that the ‘King’s Gaze,’ Marzban? You’ve proven your point. You are as frightening as the folk tales say. I don’t want to make an enemy of the legend. Despite that, I must demand you leave the strategizing to me. If we stop Kitty now, we won’t be able to draw her organization out of hiding. I am not trying to extend the conflict. I am trying to destroy the enemy in one blow. Is that acceptable to you?”

Radu never even turned his head to face her.

She knew, however, that in his own way, he was scrutinizing her.

In the back of her mind she felt the pinpricks of intrusion.

He had ceased trying to humble her– now he wanted information, and this took a different skill.

Despite her resistance to his powers, he was reading what he could out of her.

It was possible to do this, but it usually required concentration and subtlety. He did it with brute force.

“In a vacuum that would be a sound strategy. In this case, your pragmatism will result in vicious cruelty. There are already mounting tensions in this station. Allowing a battle to play out at all will bring harm to innocents and leave scars here that may never heal. Do you only view this as collateral?”

His voice was growing irritating to Imani’s sensibilities.

She was tired of undying “legends“ like this deigning to show up only when convenient.

“Uh huh. You yourself are only here because of Nasser, right? This is what she wants.”

“I’m here to protect Vesna. I’m here for my kin’s best interest. Not just her self-interest.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Imani said. “I’ll do things my way, and you’re welcome to help or hinder me as you so choose. I’m not going to bother to stop you. But ultimately, if you get in my way, you get in the way of Nasser’s ambition. And she won’t choose her kin over her goals. Nasser is not old school like you are, Radu the Marzban. She is a modern militant, not a noble warrior from your mythical era. Her own flesh and blood are as disposable to her as anyone else’s. You’re blind if you don’t see it.”

She gazed up at the helmet again. There was no way to see his expression.

But she did see his unrestrained, massive aura turning ever so slightly yellowed.

Disgusted with this idea, with the words that he heard, to the point he lost some measure of control.

He was so predictable. Inside herself, Imani was grinning.

“I’m stopping the elevator here. We have nothing more to say to each other.” She said.

“Hadžić.”

For the first time in their conversation, Radu turned fully around. His aura retracted, becoming an outline.

He leaned forward so as to put Imani’s eyes level with his helmet.

“If Homa Baumann and Leija Kladuša come to harm, I will avenge the wrongs done to them before I pass.”

“Oh–?”

Before she could respond, the elevator door opened to another indoor plaza.

And then Radu the Marzban disappeared as suddenly as he came, his entire body briefly glowing before the light bended around him to conceal him from view. She could hear his distant, heavy footsteps for a brief few moments before he either climbed or ducked away or weaved into the crowd somewhere else– or simply concealed the sound of them as well and continued walking using Sihr to be unnoticed.

Imani watched for a moment, until the elevator door closed again.

“Little~ Ho~ma~,” she sing-sang to herself, “she’s even more interesting than I thought.”

All of this she would have to report to Nasser as soon as she could.

With Kitty moving, and the Marzban aboard, things would be getting interesting.


On the northeastern side of the Kreuzung core station, near the tower’s base plate, was a place known as Old Iron. This was a cross-shaped street with two intersecting horizontal branches, where the largely impoverished residents of the subsidized habitats below and above Old Iron could have some nearby businesses and services, so as to keep them near Kreuzung’s base away from richer areas. That night, the brightest glow in the neighborhood, brighter than the damaged LED clusters, were the warnings on the walls to be careful because a main water pipe had broken, and the space had filled with water.

While the water had been remotely shut, the pumps were broken, and it would all need repairs.

Kitty McRoosevelt’s heels splashed in the ankle-deep water. Careful not to fall with each step.

She checked her portable to make sure she had the right place.

Surrounded by other ailing shops and small offices. “Unit 12 in Old Iron.”

There was once a bar there, “Majestic 12,” that was a cornerstone of the community.

Both the local community and the intelligence community.

Everything around her was dilapidated and dim. Those lights overhead were not simulating night, rather, they were out of order entirely, as were most of the streetlights. Aside from the flooding, there was clear wear and tear, steel panel seams on the walls splitting or bulging, automatic doors hanging ajar, the concrete layer of the street pitted and fractured. This place couldn’t be said to be “under served.”

It looked like it was entirely abandoned by the city government.

As if to punctuate the insult to its people, now that the pipe and pumps had broken, the wall had a countdown to the arrival of maintenance services– the countdown went up instead of down, however, as the estimate for when someone would be able to repair the pipe drew farther and farther into the future. When Kitty looked at it, the crew was twenty-six hours away and counting up, farther and farther away.

“People here must be fending for themselves. It’s crazy.”

Kitty had never experienced poverty in the Republic, so she was predisposed to believe that the Empire was simply inferior in this respect, a worse place to live. Republic propaganda did depict the Empire as a backwards and brutal place, so it’s not as if Kitty had no idea that places like this could exist. But experiencing it first-hand was shocking. It made sense, however. Old Iron was supposedly a place the G.I.A. mined for discontented people to make into informants and assets, once upon a time. Several terrorists had allegedly been equipped by the G.I.A. from this place. The Majestic 12 bar.

Now, however, the see-through window panels had gone opaque.

Kitty tensed.

Though she had come to Kreuzung before, she had never explored so far in the core station.

Usually she got out of here as fast as possible, never straying beyond the darker corners of some dock.

When she approached the bar and tried the door, the automatic mechanism would not respond, and the manual lever had been locked in place. She kicked the door in frustration. G.I.A. information in the Empire was a crapshoot. It felt more like hearsay and folk tales than actionable intelligence. Nobody knew what they were doing. Since the dismantlement of the cell in Palatine twenty years ago, the G.I.A. had been subject to a game of whack-a-mole. Every year agents came in and went– body bags or imperial prisons or even defectors. It was like the Empire could read the rebellion in their eyes and single them out.

Kitty herself had only been at this for a few years. Her name was older than she was.

It had been such a struggle to get here. She had to see it through to the end.

But she was stuck.

She wasn’t half the agent the old Kitty was, and yet inherited her grave responsibilities.

The current Kitty McRoosevelt had been a gun runner, making dirty money and equipping dirty people to fund G.I.A. logistics in the region and foment disorder. She had never led a military operation, she had never plotted an attack. She handed other people the means to do so– and egged them on to commit such deeds. Her hands were bloody, but they had little experience with personally drawing blood.

The “old” Kitty, the one who was really meant to be here, had a far more illustrious career.

She could have led a fleet into battle against the Volkisch. She could have done anything.

There was no point at which Kitty stopped thinking, ‘if only she was here instead of me.’

But that was why they had to strike. If they didn’t take this chance, her cell would fall apart.

They could not return to the Republic. So they had to fight, while they still had the means.

That was the only reason she was doing something as desperate and taboo as she was.

However, Kitty’s ambition to strike at the Kreuzung reactor had a key flaw.

To get her entry team into the core, she would need bodies, diversions, a multi-prong attack.

But she did not have enough firepower inside the towers themselves.

As it stood, she would have to take over a dock to let the entry team in by herself.

To avoid detection, it was only her and Mysia who had come first, and they came separately.

She had hoped to find a local force here but there was none now.

Without the support of Khaybari and her fighters and without Mysia (who was no fighter), she had to recruit somewhere else. She hoped to find some support at the “Majestic 12,” but it was not to be. Her intelligence was out of the date and the place looked completely abandoned. If there was some secret entrance somewhere, she had no idea, and would not be able to access it at the moment. She could have the labor unionists in the Rhineametalle tower take part, but they weren’t fighters.

She needed muscle.

She struck the door to the bar again and again in frustration.

“Useless. Maybe I’ll see where the Katarrans hang out around here.”

Like many Republicans, Kitty was “wary about” (racist towards) Katarrans.

But they were useful– and their infestation of the Empire’s underworld was convenient.

With access to money and Katarrans anyone could get acceptable firepower anywhere.

Kreuzung, like much of the Empire, hated the Katarran race furiously as well.

And like much of the Empire they found the Katarran underworld irresistibly convenient too.

When she could not get any G.I.A. informants, Katarran “gossip” did the job in a pinch.

When she could not get any tactical support, a few violent fish did the job.

Regardless of racist policy, you could find Katarrans and their services nearly anywhere.

Of course, their precarious existence also served Kitty well in negotiating jobs.

Much like the relationship between the Republic itself and this peculiar race of people.

“It’ll have to be that. I can’t tell them the whole story, but they’ll be enough to welcome the entry team.“

As she was making ready to leave with a feeling like she had swallowed a stone, Kitty heard footsteps splashing in the flooded street. She put her hands in her coat pockets and slouched forward, beginning to walk away while sneaking glances around herself. There hadn’t been anyone around before, and while it wasn’t inconceivable that someone might come in, she couldn’t help but be wary in such a bleak place.

“Hey, wait a second! Is this the Majestic 12 here? When is it open?”

Kitty would have walked away, but the stranger’s call piqued her interest.

“No way to know at this point!”

Putting on a cheerful facade, Kitty turned around.

Standing at the door to the dilapidated bar was a woman.

Black suit, jackets and pants and shiny shoes, of an exact make that Kitty felt she knew right away. She did not wear a tie, and her shirt was partially undone to expose a humble bit of cleavage, but also a deep, dark pink scar on her chest. She was handsome, with both soft features but a certain weathered ruggedness, her black bangs parted to cover up one eye, visible scars. She wore the rest of her hair pinned to the back of her head, messily, without much thought to it. She was older, maybe.

She had her hands in her pockets and a certain devil-may-care posture.

When she flashed her own smile back at Kitty, she could see the easy confidence in it.

It was like a–

“Women like you end up sleeping with me after a meeting like this.”

–sort of grin.

Kitty couldn’t help but grin back at her.

She pointed with her thumb at the door to the bar.

“I had been hoping there was something there too, but this place is a dump.”

The woman smiled a bit.

“It is. Even the shitty hab I used to live in can’t compare. I feel sorry for these folks.”

Kitty tossed her hair a little.

“Well, maybe we can take this party elsewhere. I’m Kitty.”

“Kitty, huh? I’m Marina.”

They shook hands, but Marina’s eyes remained fixed on Kitty, looking her up and down.

“Like what you see, darling?” Kitty asked.

“I used to know a Kitty. Kitty McRoosevelt.” Marina said.

Interesting.

“I see. What a coincidence– that is also my surname.”

Marina’s grip on her hand strengthened. Not too rough, but firmer.

“You’re not her. She was older than you.” She said.

“Of course, but I think maybe, you understand that names are easily traded in.”

“Does McClinton mean anything to you?”

Sighing with a mild exasperation, Kitty reached into her coat and withdrew her badge.

She briefly flashed it at Marina, enough to catch her eye, before putting it away.

“Let’s talk at my place. I don’t like the vibes here one bit.” Kitty said.

Marina seemed to gain even more confidence from that.

“When women invite me in, I tend to stay the night, you know.”

“It’ll take a bit more than that to convince me to sleep with a corpse.”

Marina laughed. “Ah. Damn it. I shouldn’t have let on how uncool I was.”

Kitty smiled bitterly. “My name lineage is no less tragic than yours, McClinton.”

“I’m going by McKennedy these days.”

“How fortunate of you to have lived in a manner that let you choose a name.”

That was a choice Kitty had never had.

“There’s nothing fortunate about me.” Marina McKennedy said.

Leaving Old Iron, they headed for the central-western part of the tower, close to the dock where Kitty had left her yacht, Bertrand’s. They made a paltry bit of small-talk on the way, which suited Kitty just fine at this point. Her habitat was past the shopping mall with the big pavilion and one tier up. The elevator dropped them off at a hallway upholstered with colorful synthetic carpets, painted white walls and unassuming brown doors. Nothing was actually painted, nothing was really wood, nothing was made of real cloth, it was all plastic and carbon and metal, but it made for a convincing facsimile.

“After you.” Kitty said, opening the door to her room and gesturing in.

Marina walked in and Kitty glided in behind her, moving fast.

Soon as she cleared the door threshold, while Marina was staring at the furniture–

Kitty surprised Marina and clapped a pair of cuffs on her, binding her arms behind her back.

“What–?”

And pushed her off the landing with a kick, knocking her onto the floor between the bed and desk.

“What the fuck? What are you doing?” Marina shouted, struggling on the ground.

“Just making sure.” Kitty’s speech turned rather dead in tone– she was done acting.

“Don’t touch me! Get away from me!”

Kitty kneeled down on top of Marina, using her body weight to keep the woman’s legs pinned. She rooted around Marina’s jacket and pants, while Marina struggled, thrashed, she was openly weeping with fury, throwing her shoulders, trying to snap up her head to strike Kitty and failing. Finally, Kitty found her fold-out leather badge case in her back pocket and popped it open to view the badge itself.

While Marina continued to struggle impotently, Kitty produced a pen-shaped object from her coat and fixed the end of it over the badge. Around its circumference, a series of tiny lasers scattered over the badge, and a tiny screen on the object informed her this was a genuine badge that did indeed belong to a certain Blake McClinton, once upon a time. Was it really this woman now, however?

“Don’t touch me! Get off me! I’ll fucking kill you!”

Kitty finally stood and stepped back from Marina, allowing her to thrash on the floor at random and crawl away in a panic. She was sweating, her breathing troubled. Kitty looked down at her, a dispassionate expression on her pretty face, still holding the badge. She waited until Marina had crawled all the way across the room, and hit the opposing wall, teeth grit, eyes red with tears and agitation.

“I’ll– I’ll fucking kill you– you bitch–”

Breathless, extremely invested– was this a trauma response?

“You’re getting too worked up. How did you get this badge?”

“That’s me! You fucking idiot! What do they teach you at Madison these days?”

She knew where the G.I.A headquarters used to be, at least.

“They teach the same shit; but I picked up a tiny bit of caution over time, rather than just vibes.”

Kitty threw the badge back at Marina. It landed on her lap.

“Blake McClinton was killed in a failed coup twenty years ago.” She said.

Marina kicked her feet with frustration.

“I guess the news didn’t reach this side of the Imbrium then! I was not killed, you idiot!”

“And you’re a chick now? What happened? Why would they bother to spare your life?”

“Fuck if I know! To torture me for the remainder of it! I don’t know!”

“How did you get this badge? I know for sure it’s not a fake now.”

“It’s mine! It was at the fucking jail, lady! In an evidence locker!”

“And what jail was that?”

“The Ergastulum! Where the fuck else would it be?”

Kitty was surprised. “So you were broken out in the Ergastulum Massacre?”

Marina shook her elbows, still struggling.

“Yes! The Katarrans didn’t massacre the prisoners! They just let us out!”

Sighing, Kitty threw the key to the cuffs at her and sat on the bed.

“Calm down. Relax. Undo the cuffs. I believe you. I’m sorry for touching you.” She said.

“I don’t– I don’t forgive you. You bitch–” Marina said, catching her ragged breath.

She maneuvered herself to reach for the key and undo the cuffs.

Kitty half expected her to jump up and start attacking like a wild animal.

But she just stood up at the end of the room, straightened out her jacket, dusted herself off. She was shaking. She hugged herself briefly. Kitty could not understand the intensity of this reaction.

“You’re lucky I don’t put my hands on cocky chicks like you.” She mumbled.

“Wow. How chivalrous.” Kitty said, rolling her eyes.

What an exhausting night– she really just dug up one of the G.I.A’s ancient graves.

For all the good it would do. She was becoming more convinced everything was fucked.

“Tell me what the hell the G.I.A. is doing here.” Marina demanded.

“For what? Are you back in the game? You’re lucky you’re still alive. Just run away.” Kitty said.

Marina shouted. “Shut up! Not one hair on my head is lucky! Look at yourself! You’re desperate and paranoid, wandering around looking for an old fucking safehouse. Tell me what you’re doing, and I might be able to help you. You’ve clearly got no god damn direction you’re going in right now. It can’t hurt to clue a veteran in and see what happens. If I don’t like it I’ll just stay out of your way and that’ll be that.”

Kitty couldn’t really excuse herself of any of those charges. She really was desperate.

“Fine, veteran. But pipe down. Someone might hear you.”

Kitty kicked her feet and laid back upon the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

Reminiscing about where it all went wrong.

“Two months ago– was it? Yeah, that sounds right. Over two months ago. There was a battle in the Great Ayre Reach. You know, like we always do. The Imperials won this one, but some of our warships managed to break through to Rhinea and hid in Sefar’s Gorge. Whether it started as an attempt at desertion, or a deliberate mission of the G.I.A. I never received an answer from anyone. But a flotilla of Republic ships, with Divers, ammunition, fuel, and supplies, all came to be stuck here in Rhinea as the Empire succumbed to chaos. I’d been working as a logistician and rabble rouser in Eisental for a few years now. I met with an older G.I.A. agent, Kitty McRoosevelt, and she requested my help to gather the Republic forces in the Aachen area and use them to take control of Eisental. Eisental borders the Great Ayre Reach, so we could act as a bridgehead. Unfortunately, Kitty was killed, and I barely made out alive. Now I’m having to come up with the final act of this tragicomedy with nothing but her name– or else the fleet will be helpless.”

Marina listened without reacting or responding until the end.

“So you’re thinking of occupying Kreuzung and holding here for Republic relief?” She finally said.

“That’s about it, yes.”

“How strong is this fleet?” Marina asked. “Can they actually hold Kreuzung?”

“Twelve vessels. Ten Frigates, Two Cruisers. We’ll be using ten, holding back two for recon.”

“That’s a lot of firepower. But it’s not war-winning firepower.”

“The Volkisch are in disarray. We can hold if we take Kreuzung’s stationary defenses.”

“Right, so, new question: how do you plan to capture those stationary defenses?”

Kitty rolled over on her side. She could see Marina leaning back against the wall.

She wanted to see the reaction on her face when she said it.

“I’m going to cripple Kreuzung with a Core Separation.” Kitty said, smiling.

Marina stared at her.

“You’re going to– what?”

“It’s bold, isn’t it? Marina, do you have sex with men or women or both?”

“The fuck are you asking that for? Are you out of your mind? A Core Separation?”

Kitty laughed. She felt so hollow inside– no more acting. This was her real self. Nothing.

Nothing without the characters she played.

“I never understood taboos. It’s a sound strategy, isn’t it?” She said. Her voice neutral.

“How the hell will you even pull it off?” Marina replied. Impassioned.

“We’ll get physical access. I’ve already got the route planned out.”

“Kitty, the collateral will be immense.”

“As long as we reconnect the core when we take over the station, everything will be fine.”

Marina slammed her fist against the wall behind her.

“You don’t understand the scope whatsoever! Separating the core will cause a monumental panic! Electrical systems will start going into low power modes that never get tested! People will run out into the streets, there will be rioting, looting, it will look like the fucking end of days in this station! Innocent people could die, in hospitals, in homes, on the street. That neighborhood we saw? It’ll probably flood because any power rationing plan will not include the fucking pumps there, if they work. And while this tragedy happens, you’ll be trapped! You’ll be surrounded from literally all sides by the imperials!”

“I don’t care.” Kitty said. “Marina, you don’t understand anything.” She felt like tearing up for a moment. “You’re just a lone wolf, doing whatever you want. I was put in charge of this operation. I’m responsible for giving people hope that they can win a war and go home again. I watched her die, Marina. And now a ton of people are counting on me. I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure this out. This is the only plan that works with what I’ve got right now. Because it’s chaotic, because we all have this taboo that you don’t do anything to reactors or shoot at stations– Marina. When I held her bullet-riddled body and became Kitty McRoosevelt. I realized we’re in an era where anything is fair. Even using core pylons as weapons.”

Marina grit her teeth. She closed her fists and stared at Kitty with visible frustration.

“Look at you. You suffer one setback and start spouting nihilist bullshit and killing civilians.”

“No wonder you failed.” Kitty shot back. “With your stupid sense of justice.”

“Fuck you.” Marina said. “None of you have to do this. All of you can just stop.”

Kitty rolled onto her back in the bed again, shifting her gaze from Marina back to the roof.

Empty and white.

Just like her–

“Marina. You and I are G.I.A. We voluntarily left the Republic to have adventures here. You and I can blend into this world, we know how, it’s our entire way of life. If it was just us, that would be one thing. But most of the people working for me now are soldiers. They were forced to leave the Republic, and they are trapped here. Without my assistance, they will all die here. They can’t make lives in this place. All they can do is fight. They can’t blend in. They can’t just disband. Everything they see is the enemy. Thousands of aimless people in steel coffins. That’s why I want them to fight for something. The only hope I know how to give people, is to give them targets to attack. I hope you can understand that now.”

Kitty McRoosevelt, before all this, was a senior G.I.A. operative, like Marina was.

But Missouri McFord was a just a scoundrel who gave disgruntled people guns, fuel and bombs.

It was true– everything was fucked the second the real Kitty McRoosevelt died.

“That’s still all I’m doing. You can help me or not. But it’s going to happen.”

She reached out the roof, staring at it between the five gloves fingers of her hand.

“Kitty McRoosevelt doesn’t have a future, Marina. It isn’t a living person’s name.”

“God damn it. Shut up.” Marina said.

There was silence for a few minutes. Kitty didn’t say anything more until Marina spoke.

“I won’t help you separate the reactor core. But I can assist you with logistics.”

“Thank you, Veteran. Then, maybe we can help each other. What are you doing here?”

Kitty sat up in bed. Out of habit, she was putting on a blithely false smile again.

Marina initially resisted the question, but then handed her a photo, printed on a pixel sheet.

There was a woman, a thin and long-limbed woman, wearing a white coat over a brown blouse and a black pencil skirt. She had very long purple-ish hair, tall Shimii ears with a good bit of fluff in them, a deadpan but unassumingly pretty face. Boxy glasses perched upon a small nose. Her green eyes, even through the photo, seemed to pierce through the viewer with an overwhelming directness.

“She was going by the name ‘Asan’ once upon a time. I want to know what happened to her. I’d– I’d like to reconnect with her if she’s alive.” She hesitated. “We– we have some business to finish.”

“A Shimii? You think she’s around here?” Kitty asked. Marina nodded her head.

“Once upon a time, her employer was headquartered here. A biological research group, Bio-Radiance.”

“A Shimii scientist? Here? Marina, Kreuzung is extremely racist toward Shimii.”

“That doesn’t preclude anyone from living or hiding here! Can you help or not?”

Kitty smiled. “Well, sure. Alright. I have a reliable agent that is leaving the station soon. I will tell them to dig up what they can before they go, and to leave you something at Aachen that you can find so you can continue your search. In return, I need your help rounding up some Katarran lackeys.”

Marina crossed her arms over her chest. “Why would I go to Aachen?”

“It’s the next place that makes sense for you to go, if you don’t find anything here.”

“Alright. Fine. I can get you some Katarran mercs, no problem.” Marina sighed.

“Don’t tell them about the Core Separation, of course.”

“I’m not stupid. Of course I won’t tell them. You come up with the cover story.”

“Okay. I’m counting on you.”

“I know a Katarran merc who is at loose ends. I’ll hire her, and she can help with the rest. Trust me.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad I have someone so resourceful to count on. Sounds good then.”

“No, it’s actually dreadful, for you. Having to rely on Katarrans is never good.”

Kitty stared at Marina for a moment. She almost wanted to laugh. It was all so ridiculous.

She really didn’t look half-bad. Not as good as her Kitty but–

“Do you still want to stay the night? It’d be fun to have you.” Kitty asked.

Marina’s response was immediate.

“No. I have to leave. I’m working with some people I don’t want to find out about this.”

Kitty didn’t really care about the details of Marina’s life. She didn’t care about her at all.

That part of her, that really, truly, cared about someone– it had broken.

In that moment she just really felt like she wanted a comfort she was not going to receive.

“How did you know the old Kitty?” She asked. Just for Marina to stay a little longer.

Marina fingers opened and closed into fists at her sides.

She averted her gaze, and began to walk out. She answered only once she was past Kitty’s bed.

“She was a field agent around the time I was. But she never got caught. How did you?”

A bit of bitterness involuntarily crept into Kitty’s smile as she remembered–

“We had sex. It was comforting. She comforted me a lot. That’s how we got close.”

Marina grunted, said nothing. She ran her fingers through her hair, her movements tense.

“I kinda wish you’d stay.“ Kitty said. “We could comfort each other.“

Marina sighed.

“Of all people, I have no right to judge you. Please just try to keep living, Missouri.“

There was another long, awkward silence. Kitty did not speak, and Marina walked away.

When the door shut closed behind her– that was when Kitty finally let herself cry.

Hugging herself in bed, helpless, overwhelmed. Everything was too inexorably in motion.

She had nothing except what she was given. Weapons and a mission to complete.

Kitty McRoosevelt was a dead person’s name.

All she had left of her was a dead name worn like a fetish.


“Tch!”

Majida al-Khaybari grumbled, walking aggressively with a forward slouch, hands in her pockets, periodically kicking her feet at nothing. Making a variety of disapproving noises to air out her tensions. At her side, her partner-in-crime Raaya Al-Shahouh had an airy, free-spirited gait as they made their way back to their apartment in Tower Eight, frequently stealing glances. Majida had been livid, after leaving Kitty McRoosevelt and her insane scheme back at Ballad’s Paradise. Not just livid at that G.I.A’s freak’s insane plot– also livid that she had to find and hire a Katarran mercenary courier at the last second.

Had it been the low-grade fuel stuff, Majida could have transported it herself.

With high-grade rods she needed someone with a big ship, or the right gear to isolate them.

And nobody official or reliable would have let her transport Agarthicite fuel rods to Khaybar.

“I swear if that courier steals them– ugh! Damn Kitty McRoosevelt’s bitch of a mother!“

“Manners.” Raaya said. “Where did the goodly Warlord who reads scripture go?“

Majida averted her gaze in response. Her cheeks flushed just a little bit.

She really was ashamed. She had a fiery temper and she was the first to criticize it.

“If it means anything,” Raaya said, “I think you handled everything admirably.”

“There was no handling it. We have no choice but to stay out of that madwoman’s mess.”

“I just was afraid you were going to kill her for a second.” Raaya said, shrugging.

“Not in front of you.” Majida replied.

“You’re so considerate. But I’ve seen death too, Majida. I’m not naïve.” Raaya said.

“I’m not disrespecting you. I just– I just don’t like you seeing that side of me.”

“Just don’t treat me like a kid. You may be taller but I’m older and more mature than you.“

“Older? By a few weeks maybe. And I don’t treat you like a kid. I just esteem you highly.“

“Hmm.“

Overhead, the station lights had begun to dim. Rather than white and yellow more and more of the sun lamps shut off, and in their place gentle dark-blue LEDs began to cast the station into the darkness of night. This was part of controlling the habits of the population, but also to achieve a sense of normalcy, to allow their present state to compare to the ancient lives that humans once had in their true home.

Night created other moods as well–

Raaya put her hands behind her back, smiling sweetly. “Majida.”

“Hmm?” Majida gave her companion a brooding look.

“Our business is concluded now, right?”

Majida grunted. “I’m staying until I hear from Zahira that the rods got back. We might need to find an additional seller if not– and I’ll have to fucking kill that courier’s whole gang too. Ah, damn it that’s another thing, I need to find where we can send an acoustograph to Zahira to let her know–”

Raaya tapped Majida in the back. “Majida– our business is concluded.” She said again.

When Majida’s quizzical gaze fell over her, Raaya looked a little bit demure. Her face flushed.

“Wait– You little minx–?” Majida laughed. “Well, well, well! Fine. I’ll take care of you.”

She got up close and nuzzled her companion’s nose with her own.

Raaya laughed and immediately turned a bit bratty. “I’m glad you finally got it, you oaf.”

That little scene caused Majida’s mood to visibly lift as they made their way back from the Kreuzung Core.

It was dark, the halls were cold, the world was full of troubles, but she could smile.

Because their business was concluded. So then– only pleasure was left.

Soon after getting home, in one of the basement habitats of Tower Eight–

“Are you comfortable? Your body feels so relaxed. I could hold you like this forever.”

“It’s nice to have your arms around me. I can tell you’re excited too.”

Majida’s head rested on the girl’s shoulder. Her hands gripped pleasantly rounded hips.

Her tongue tasted the side of Raaya’s neck– the smaller woman tensed slightly.

“What are you feeling up to? I’ll only do as much as you want.” Majida cooed.

Raaya briefly hesitated. She spoke to her partner in a timid whisper.

“I’m not ready to bear your child.” She said– clearly embarrassed to have said it.

“Hmm. Understood. I’ll just fool around a little then, okay?”

Majida’s hands glided across Raaya’s ribs and over her chest, sliding on the smooth, soft skin to cup her firm, pliable breasts in her hands. She was not shy with her affections, her fingers gripped with force, lifting the soft little mounds while teasing the nipples with the tips of her index fingers. A little yelp escaped Raaya’s lips– Her slim, narrow back arched into Majida’s chest, her pelvis grazing Majida’s lap. Majida fondled Raaya’s breasts with enthusiasm, delighting in the pleasant give of the skin, its smooth softness, the heft of the flesh, and the humble shape that fit into her eager hands so exactly.

“Caught you by surprise? What a tasty little sound.”

“Majida–”

Her name drew from those lips like a ragged breath.

Majida could feel her lover’s pulse elevate through the touch of their skin, through the hands cupped over her chest. It drove her wild. Majida was up on the bed against the cold, steel wall of their rental unit, with Raaya sat on her lap and backing into her whenever Majida got rough. Or whenever Majida actively pulled her closer, easily lifting her weight, as close as she could maneuver the shorter woman into her body. In this position, she could reach anywhere she wanted on Raaya’s body, and having consented and given her oath, Raaya gave no resistance. But whenever Majida aroused her, she felt the pressure of Raaya’s weight shift into her, up against her groin– the softness of the girl’s buttocks against the length of Majida’s shaft particularly– it took some willpower not to cum from that sensation alone.

“Hmm? What was that?”

She leaned against Raaya, breathing into the nape of her neck, whispering.

Taking in the simple, earthy smell of her long, loose brown hair.

Raising her head up almost over the smaller woman, Majida bit down on the silky-soft, cartilaginous edge of her ear, kneading the flesh playfully between her teeth, causing both of Raaya’s ears to twitch–

“M-Majida–!“

“Hmm?“

Majida played dumb while continuing to tease her.

One hand retained a firm grip on her splendid little morsel of a breast, but the other began to travel.

Drumming on the flesh as she went, crawling digit by digit down her belly.

Tracing a little line in her lower abdomen with a pressing finger, as if over the womb.

Raaya’s tail curled around Majida’s thigh. Her own tail held one of Raaya’s legs.

Majida felt every shudder and shake of the woman in her grasp, transferring skin to skin.

She couldn’t see Raaya’s face, but Majida imagined her bitten lip, her eyes shut in euphoria.

It was intoxicating. Her head felt hazy.

She wanted to pin her down– but restrained herself.

Oaths were extremely important to Shimii, in business and in courtship.

Raaya whimpered, barely forming words–

“What was that? Got something to say?”

With the question came a renewed interest from Majida’s fingers, lower, near her–

“N-No– it’s nothing– keep going–”

“Thought so. Don’t keep too quiet though. Let me hear that lovely singing voice.”

She did not have to wait long or make much effort to play Raaya like a lovely instrument.

“Aah!”

From Raaya’s lips sang desperate little moans, music to Majida’s ears as her fingers teased her, entered her, finally reaching between her legs. She was softer than silk between her thighs, Majida’s roaming fingers delighting in the texture of her, in the warmth. She leaned forward, squeezing up as close as she could to Raaya without bending her over, her breasts pressing against her soft, warm back, glistening with building sweat. Majida’s lips, tongue and teeth journeyed across lean shoulder-blades to the base of the neck. Her mouth left hungry, sucking kisses and bites across Raaya, little red claiming marks of her desire.

“Nngh! Oh–!”

Raaya’s tongue lolled momentarily from her gasping mouth.

Her upper body lurched forward, while her hips backed up against Majida.

In response, Majida felt a dire need to press herself even closer, to move in rhythm with her.

Under her breath, a barely audible grunt escaped from her.

She couldn’t hold back from making a sound. Her vision briefly swam.

Raaya was grinding right on her cock– it was definitely deliberate.

And it only made her hungrier for more.

Beautiful, enrapturing, a dream-like haze of pleasure.

“I didn’t think you knew what you were doing.” Majida said in a low voice.

“I’m– ugh!” Raaya shook. Majida’s fingers– “I’m a grown woman, Majida– hngh!”

“I just didn’t think you had this kind of malice in you–”

“Shut up– and just–”

“With pleasure– my pure little Raaya.”

Majida cooed as her index finger rolled slowly and deliberately over Raaya’s clit.

A most beautiful little noise escaped from Raaya’s lips.

She lurched forward, and as one body Majida moved with her.

Bent down on her elbows, Raaya put her head down into the pillow, her shoulders rocking, her tongue lolling, her lower body shaking. Majida loomed over her, the taller woman, hugging her breast to back, her hanging cock hard as steel, kissing Raaya, reassuring her. One hand holding and stroking her abdomen while the other caused a tumultuous unceasing passion to echo through her skin, down bucking hips, through shaking moist thighs, bent knees. Raaya’s delicate hands gripped the bedsheets, she smothered her head, grit her teeth, while her body moved in a wild synchronicity with her lover.

Her tail lifted from Majida’s leg, and instead joined Majida’s own, curled together like a coil.

Incoherent, passion-slurred words half in Fusha and half in Low Imbrian escaped Raaya’s lips.

As her flesh was held by the center and played by the lower half to a thunderous climax.

Majida was relentless, her body enveloping her partner, wanting to take her closer, closer and harder. She could feel Raaya’s orgasms through her working fingers, could feel her body tensing, convulsing, the spasms of each subsequent tremor of her pleasure. It spurred her to continue, to escalate, her own breathing heavy with effort, smiling, head foggy with joy, drawn in by her partner’s song.

When Raaya was fully exhausted, Majida could feel it too. She smiled with satisfaction.

Pulling her finger from Raaya was like taking out a load-bearing rod.

In the next moment, she completely fell down onto the bed, slowly rolling on her side.

Her slim, heaving chest, her quivering thighs and legs. Beautifully spent, unwound.

Looking up at Majida, who was sitting against the wall again, with a precious little grin.

Which Majida returned by putting the fingers she had used into her mouth to taste.

“You really are special, Majida.” Raaya whispered, echoing an oft-heard sentiment.

Majida cracked a little grin. “I am special. I reside beyond the bounds.”

After resting for only a moment, Raaya suddenly made herself sit back up.

She leaned forward with a final flicker of passion–

“Oh!”

Now it was Majida’s turn to be surprised.

As Raaya, supporting herself with her arms on Majida’s hips, gave her a sucking kiss–

–right on the very tip of her cock.

“Ugh– Raaya–!”

Her tongue slipped from between the kissing lips, applying a sudden warm pressure–

Erect just from fingering and grinding with Raaya before, Majida lasted no time at all.

A trickle of thin fluid dribbled from Majida’s cock into Raaya’s awaiting tongue.

Just as soon, Raaya lifted her head, crawled back up onto Majida’s lap, and kissed her.

There was not much of the fluid for their tongues to share, but they still reveled in it.

Kissing with the last of their strength until their clumsy bodies fell together in exhaustion.

They laid beside one another, locking eyes. Sweating, breathing hard, skin aquiver.

Raaya tipping her head a bit to stare, Majida tipping down. Enjoying the difference.

Glowing. Fulfilled. Having satisfied an urge they could partake in at no other time.

“Sometimes I wish I was a little bit more– fertile.” Majida said.

Raaya laughed. She was so beautiful. “It’s the right amount of adventurous for me.”

Majida reached out and held Raaya close, stroking her fluffy ears and hair.

She wanted to hold her like that forever.

Their adventure to Kreuzung had seen them swearing a temporary marriage, rendering their rendezvous religiously permissible under Mahdist beliefs. Though it was not necessary to do so for Majida to escort Raaya out of Khaybar, it was something they both had wanted to do, and which they had done in a limited capacity before, in order to explore their relationship more intimately. Of course, they could not swear such a thing to Raaya’s mother, Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh– rather, it was an uncle of Majida’s main lieutenant Zahira. He was also a religious authority and witnessed signing the temporary marriage.

Zahira and her family, being of military bearing and very loyal to Majida, understood and encouraged the Warlord to take brides and partake in sex, but Majida did not view things in such casual terms. And she hoped that Raaya did not see it that way either. To her, these oaths were preparatory, a statement of Majida’s intent for Raaya and a presage for a true consummation of their romance and intimacy.

Mahdist Shimii put a lot of stock into contracts and oaths, as a people who survived a history of painful betrayals. Rashidun Shimii looked down upon these temporary unions as prostitution, but Majida was not treating Raaya with disrespect. She was following her oath. And someday, she wanted Raaya to be her woman, and she treated her as such. She was faithful and protective of her. She coveted her and cherished these rare moments where they could have the pleasure of each other as adults. In Khaybar, under the watchful eye of Mawla Asma– they were both not ready to talk to her about it yet.

But the few times they had a chance like this, they relished it.

“Raaya. You are the greatest treasure which God has given me.” Majida said.

“And you are my hero, Majida. I’m happy to be able to share these feelings with you.”

Holding her temporary bride there, in their temporary bed on this strange station, Majida felt suddenly that she never wanted to let Raaya go. She could do anything as long as Raaya was there, either beside her or waiting for her to come home. Raaya was Khaybar’s future, Majida’s future, God’s gift.

And now, she was here in Kreuzung with her.

In the middle of whatever tragedy was about to unfold in the station.

Allah forgive me. In my lust I’ve made a foolish decision.

She should have never brought Raaya here– had she known–

“Majida, are you okay?” Raaya asked weakly. “You’re squeezing me a bit.”

Ana asef.” Majida said. Asking for forgiveness. She let her grip slacken.

Raaya nestled herself against Majida’s chest, making herself the little spoon.

“Thank you, Majida. For taking me places. And– showing me a good time.”

Her words turned a bit sheepish. When it came to sex, she really acted like a kid sometimes.

“I’m not afraid.” Raaya said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid for me. I know what must be on your mind. It’s on mine too, that’s one reason why I wanted a bit of– distraction, for us. But I’m not afraid. God saw fit to guide us here in a time of oncoming crisis. And my father entrusted our ummah to you, Majida, before he passed. I’ve always believed in you, even when Norn first brought you to Khaybar.”

“We should honestly leave while it’s still quiet.” Majida said.

“But we won’t.” Raaya said. “Because even for a bunch of Rashidun who might curse your name if they knew, you don’t want to see our people abused and killed by the Imbrians, no matter what. So you and I are staying here. I think that’s the right thing to do. I’m here with you, I’ll give you strength.”

Majida sighed. Raaya was speechifying, she always so brave. Always too brave.

“That’s what I’m afraid of. But you’re right. I even told that Kitty I wouldn’t leave.”

“You made the right choice not to help her. And you made that choice immediately.”

“Of course. It’s insane. She’ll be hated by all right-thinking people if they knew.”

“Yes. But nonetheless– you did not choose an easy path to victory. You were righteous.”

Raaya went silent for a moment. Contemplating, perhaps, before she spoke again.

“It’s scary, to think we live in a time where Kitty’s brutal thinking is even possible.”

Majida lowered her head into Raaya’s shoulders, into her hair.

“It’s because the Imbrians and Cogitans have everything in the world. They feel emboldened to destroy it all thinking they’ll rebuild over each other’s ashes. They are godless people who don’t see us as being really alive and worth living. They toy with our people. Someday, Raaya– I’ll bring judgment to them.”

“I believe it. But for now, let that righteous fire rest, and we’ll see what happens.”

Raaya was so much wiser than Majida ever gave her credit for.

Allah protect old Asma but– Raaya would make a magnificent Mawla too, Majida thought.


In order to drown out the noisy neighbors, the television turned up to full volume.

“…in other news, Kreuzung public security has launched a murder investigation after a body was found in the maintenance tunnel for the water systems in Weiss Park this evening. Public workers discovered the body after entering the tunnel for weekly maintenance. The area was then cordoned off for investigation. KPS told reporters that they believe the murder was recent and the suspect is at large and urged citizens to report all suspicious persons to KPS station guards. The victim has not been identified at this time and the KPS has urged the public to avoid speculation as to the nature of the murder until they issue an official report. In more light-hearted news, Epoch Clothiers has announced a campaign to donate 15% of each sale of their high-end line ‘Epoch New Horizons’ to providing baby formula to needy…”

Homa Baumann began to tune out what the news reporter was saying, on the television playing across the wall opposite her bed. Her room lights were all off, so she was bathed in the glow of the television as she lay sideways on her bed, her legs half-curled, half-naked in only a pair of underwear shorts. Her long, dark, fluffy hair was loose, wildly thrown about, with the band that once tied it cast across the room.

Her tail wiggled about as much as it could as her weary eyes scanned the face of the inexpressive man delivering the news, watching him flap his mouth but beginning to lose the words. Her tail kept wiggling as she laid on her back and over it, smothering the little ball of fur. Her lips parted with a yawn.

She stretched out her arms and realized she was wearing one thing up top.

Her necklace. It was the only thing Radu recovered of her mother.

As such it carried a dual identity.

An item of the mother she could hardly remember.

A gift from the great dark figure that pried her from the grip of death.

And now,

Cherish that little life in your hands,

Homa popped open the necklace container to expose the piece of silica.

She lifted it up in front of her eyes.

It was shiny, when hit by the light from the streaming video on the wall, an opaque white and silver prism. Rough hewn, it had dozens of surfaces, without definitive shape except that it was a sliver, sheared off some anonymous rock wall. Her mind briefly pored over it. Over the idea that it had ever been alive.

Homa grunted a bit with irritation. Tired, unable to sleep, but recalling those silly words.

Her head was full of troubles. Her life was truly no good– if this little thing was alive, it had it easy.

“I am barely cherishing my own little life, you asshole.”

Homa let the necklace drop between her breasts, without closing the container.

She felt it stir from her own breathing and the beating of her heart.

“…it’s Day 5 of the Rhineanmetalle steelworkers strike, and so far, there is no deal between the workers and the company. President Achim Lehner has issued demands for the striking steelworkers to reopen the steelworks and ‘resume their patriotic duty’ while Governor Werner has said he believes that a ‘mutually advantageous position’ can be reached for all sides in the dispute. Rhineanmetalle could not be reached for an official comment. The steelworkers remain barricaded within Tower Nine despite attempts…”

She was vaguely listening to the broadcast again with her head turned from it.

“How do they get food?” Homa wondered.

Maybe they had planned everything prior to striking, or the tower already had food stocks.

Maybe someone was helping them.

Homa put on a little grin, rolling over on her side. Her vision wavered.

“Maybe Korabiskaya and Kitty are all here to make the strike worse.”

Why was that woman on her mind? Idiot.

Her tail wagged a little. She smiled to herself.

“Maybe they’re the big heroes. And Imani and I are the awful villains.”

An embittered little laugh.

Compelled by her little half-awake fantasy, Homa reached for her portable on the end of the bed. She brought it up to her face, unlocked the screen with her thumbprint and looked at the mails in the messaging app. Imani’s black hearts were the only mails that she had ever received.

And she had not sent one since their date.

Homa wondered if she should ask Imani if she was okay, but she thought better of it.

“What’s going to end up happening to me?” She said to herself, dropping the portable.

Would she ever hear from Imani Hadžić again?

When she went to work on Firstday would Kitty McRoosevelt come check on her yacht?

Would one or both of them end up on the news, as anonymous as the corpse in the park?

“I– I went to that park today– didn’t I?” She said groggily. An icy fear gripped her.

She could have died– she could have been murdered.

Somehow, it was this that seemed to seize her into pure panic.

Shaking across her body, a creeping anxiety that bid her to hug herself, teeth chattering.

Her mind seized up, in contrast with her cold flesh her head felt like a furiously boiling cauldron evaporating every piece of thought that she could possibly have had. She felt her breath grow heavy, her legs feel numb, her vision fading in and out between names and places real and imagined. She was a child, stranded amid the leaping sparks of downed and flaming wires steadily slipping into a pool of water, a dark figure approaching; she was an adult, in a chapel, holding hands with her bride Imani Hadžić; she was the Coral Knight, in armor and lance, traveling station to station to right wrongs and punish the evil forces who wished to steal the life force of the good and kind folk of the Coral Kingdom.

Half asleep anxious visions paralyzed her mind and body.

Shaking hands, quavering breath. She grabbed the necklace in the middle of the attack.

Don’t Be Afraid–

A voice, beautiful, comforting, warm, but striking thunderously through the panic.  

Homa’s breathing slowed.          

That voice cut through the waking nightmares and ushered Homa to finally fall peacefully asleep.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.3]

That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.

Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.

Once her vision settled, she could make it out.

There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.

It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.

Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.

Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.

It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.

Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.

When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.

With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.

First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.

“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”

His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.

She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.

Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.

Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.

It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.

“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.

That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.

“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”

Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.

Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.

For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.

Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?

“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.

Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–

Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.

She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.

“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”

No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?

With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.

It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.

Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.

“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”

Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.

Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.

Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.

Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.

Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.

“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”

She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.

Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.

She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.

That could very well be her soon–

In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.

“Imani?”

Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.

Another black heart from Imani. No other text.

“This woman–! Ugh–!”

While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.

All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.

Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…

Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.

“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”

While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?

Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–

“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”

Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.

On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.

And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.

From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.

Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.

There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.

Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.

No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.

So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.

On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.

She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?

From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.

There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.

Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.

“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”

As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.

“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”

When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–

–how long their tongue was,

and forked. And how–

how sharp their teeth were–

“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”

Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.

Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–

“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.

Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.

For this person not to do so was pretty strange.

“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”

Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.

“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”

At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.

This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.

There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.

But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.

They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.

“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.

Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.

“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.

Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.

She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.

Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.

Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?

“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.

Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.

“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”

She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.

Homa had enough of this.

“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”

They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.

“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”

They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.

“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.

Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”

The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.

“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”

“What–?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”

Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.

Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.

All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?

When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.

“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”

Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.

“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.

As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.

“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”

Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.

“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”

For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?

She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.

Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.

So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.

From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.

The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.

He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.

Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.

Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?

Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.

She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.

Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.

“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”

Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.

Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.

Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.

Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.

It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.

For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.

Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.


Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.

When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.

There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.

Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.

When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.

The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.

Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.

This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.

Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.

“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.

Homa looked around the room.

Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.

She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.

Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.

Homa picked up.

“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.

“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”

Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”

From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.

When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–

That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–

Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.

She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.

Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.

She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.

“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.

“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.

Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”

Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.

She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.

After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.

While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.

Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.

Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”

“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.

And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.

“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”

That question came as a shock, for no good reason.

Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–

“Um, yeah, about that–“

“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.

“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“

“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.

“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.

Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“

“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.

“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“

Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?

It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!

“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“

“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”

Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.

She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.

“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.

The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.

“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”

Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.

“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”

It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!

Lesbians?!?!

“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”

“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.

She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.

And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!

There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!

Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.

(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)

“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”

Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”

“That sounds a lot more doable.”

Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.

Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.

She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.

Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.

Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.

Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.

Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.

“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”

“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.

Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”

For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.

“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”

“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”

Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.

At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.

“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”

Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”

She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.

“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”

“Uh huh.”

When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.

The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.

“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“

Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.

“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”

Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.

Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.

Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.

Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.

“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”

Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.

This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.

“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”

Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.

It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.

She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–

–she really did look like just some girl.

Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.

Imani looked happy to see it.

After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.

“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.

“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.

“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”

“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”

Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.

“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.

Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.

Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.

After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?

“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t it?”

Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.

“Well–”

Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.

“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.

“Say it–?”

“I dressed up like this for you.”

“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.

Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!

“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”

In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.

She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.

“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.

“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”

Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.

One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.

To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.

It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.

Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.

“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”

“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”

“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”

“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”

“Uh huh.”

“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”

“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”

She put on a little grin.

Homa shuddered at the thought of it.

“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”

Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.

Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.

“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.

Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.

“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”

“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.

“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”

Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.

According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.

There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.

“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”

“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.

“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”

All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.

Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.

There was something about it that was a little painful, however.

Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?

Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?

“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”

Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.

“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”

“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.

“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”

“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”

Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.

And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.

In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.

“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.

“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”

“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”

Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.

Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.

Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.

“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”

Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”

“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”

Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.

At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.

Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.

Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–

She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!

Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”

As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.

Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.

Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.

A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.

Imani giggled as she swiped through them.

“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”

By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.

So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.

“Let’s take a few more!”

After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.

Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.

Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.

Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.

“It’s so cute!”

When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.

She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.

“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”

Homa nodded silently.

Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.

Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.

“Fancy.” Imani said.

She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.

After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.

Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.

Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.

Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.

“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”

Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.

Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.

“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.

Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.

Imani Hadžić.

They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–

In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–

Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–

Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.

“Imani, why–?”

“Hmm?”

Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.

With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.

“Um–”

Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.

Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.

“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.

There was an obvious tremble in her voice.

She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.

Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–

“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”

Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.

Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.

“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.

“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”

Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.

“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.

Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.

It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.

“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”

She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.

Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.

An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.

Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.

In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.

“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.

Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.

In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.

“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.

“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”

When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.

“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”

Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.

As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.

There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.

With that in the background, the music became frenetic.

“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”

She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.

Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–

–vicious.

“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–

“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”

Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.

Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?

“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“

She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.

Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.

Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–

“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”

Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–

–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.

With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.

About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.

And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?

But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.

After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.

Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.

And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.

“Ho~ma~“

For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.

Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.

Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.

Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.

“Ho~ma~“

When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.

Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.

Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.

Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.

But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.

Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.

“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”

Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.

The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.

Over several festive hours,

she had been nurturing affection,

for the girl Imani wished she could be.

It hurt.

“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.

Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.

“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”

Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.

If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.

Then at that moment–

Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.

Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–

–who saved the witch from her demons.


After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.

Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.

It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.

After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.

White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.

“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.

Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.

Then the dinner plates came in.

Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.

This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.

It really was like beefy butter.

Madame Arabie never stood a chance.

“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.

“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”

From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.

“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.

Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.

But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.

Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.

She had to move on.

“Thank you, Imani.”

“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”

She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.

Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.

After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.

That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.

As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.

Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.

Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.

A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.

That most brief glance–

–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.

Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.

Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.

Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.

Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.

That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?

Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.

Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.

Imani–

“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”

It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.

Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?

Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?

She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.

“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”


In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.

“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“

“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“

Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.

“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.

They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.

“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.

“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”

“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.

They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.

Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.

“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”

This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.

“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“

For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.

Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.

“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”

Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.

At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.

Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”

Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.

Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.

And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.

What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.2]

Madame Arabie casually reached for Homa’s face, taking a lock of her dark hair, and rubbing it between her fingers, feeling the texture. She looked pleased with herself, touching Homa’s hair, rubbing her cheek, as if she had been tending a garden and found bushes flowering. Her proximity and the liberties she took with Homa made the elevator ride extremely uncomfortable. But she did not feel like she could protest.

“Lovely, lovely. You’ve been taking care of yourself.” She said.

“Yes, ma’am. Skin and hair care, like you taught me.” Homa said.

When she could afford to do so, anyway. Shampoo and moisturizer was extra in the shower fees.

“Good. It’s beautiful. You do make a pretty girl, Homa. This is your mother’s hair, right?”

No. That was wrong.

“Yes. That’s right.”

It was her father’s hair color and texture.

Her father was an Imbrian; her mother was Shimii. But Madame Arabie didn’t really care.

And Homa did not want to spoil her seemingly good mood.

Looking on the bright side, she was being taken to Madame Arabie’s club and restaurant.

The Flowing Scarlet, the headquarters of Arabie’s gang and nexus of control over Tower Eight, was a grand building impossible to miss. Its home in tier four was an “open” type layer of the tower, where rather than having a high-ceiling corridor with spaces set into its walls, there was a free, cubical space with discrete buildings inside it and streets which ran through them. This allowed the Scarlet, a two-winged, three-story structure that looked like an entire hotel, to stand on its own over the smaller shops and houses surrounding it. Everything around the Scarlet looked fairly ordinary but the main thoroughfare from the elevator leading to the Scarlet was well lit and amply beautified, like a carpet into the venue.

Once upon a time, this tier had been a warehousing district, with crates stacked high. When the tower was converted from an industrial hub to a segregated habitat for the Shimii, this particularly spacious tier started to be built up by Shimii that had connections to powerful Imbrians in Eisental and beyond.

Homa had heard that this was before Arabie’s time, but that she came in like thunder afterwards, sweeping everything up and quickly climbing the Shimii underworld. She could believe it easily.

Now, this place was her temple, the symbol of her wealth and the pleasures it bought.

Homa had been to the Scarlet before, and she knew the interior well. From the front door was a dazzling lobby branching right and left. On the left wing of the building on the ground floor there was an upscale bar space, while the right wing contained the main attraction: a restaurant space with a theater and a runway that bifurcated the floorspace, surrounded by tables. Dancing girls in revealing, “exotic” clothing performed for the crowd, singing, dancing, putting on short, sexy skits, flashing skin at the men below.

Even Imbrians came into Tower Eight exclusively on the promise of a night of adventure at the Flowing Scarlet. This mystique surrounding the venue helped Madame Arabie to rake in a lot of cash.

Between her qualities as a hostess and all the heroin she traded in, the Madame had made a lot of friends.

On the higher floors of the Scarlet, Madame Arabie herself made her residence, and her close business associates came and went. Behind those beautiful, marbled halls, were nestled the spoils of bribery, extortion, and drug trafficking. Sometimes, even committed by boys and girls Madame Arabie “hosted” as a “benefactor” to lost and orphaned Shimii. This was all part of her power– and it was all tacitly supported by the Imbrians, for whom Tower Eight was a lucrative attraction as well as a ghetto.

Here, the lowlife Shimii unworthy of Imbrian grace could do everything illegal the Imbrians couldn’t.

They provided pleasures that became desirable because they were forbidden and distant.

It was for that reason, and almost that reason alone, that Tower Eight was how it was.

Homa was keenly aware of all of this, of its deepest depths. She had seen it all.

With all that said– the food was delicious. Madame Arabie had priority on goods after all.

Flowing Scarlet was the liveliest place here. Homa could at least enjoy the luxury.

Goods, talent, people’s bodies; Madame Arabie had her pick of all the best from the station’s Shimii.

They were all hers to use, whether they believed it or not.

Better to be used than discarded. Better to have a little pleasure than suffer frugally.

“If it weren’t for the girls being so sensitive, Homa, you would live with me.”

It was a promise she had heard a few times before.

Like everything else Madame Arabie said, it didn’t mean anything until she actually did it.

As soon as they stepped off the elevator, Madame Arabie removed a sash around her waist.

She wore it as a drape over her head instead, like Hijab, to conceal herself on the street.

“You’re not going through the front dressed like that. Come with me.”

Madame Arabie took Homa up the street in front of the Flowing Scarlet and then turned a sharp corner around it, taking her into an alleyway abutting a warehouse that was likely owned by the venue and its Madame as well. She swiped a keycard to open a side-door into the warehouse.

Homa’s assumption proved correct.

Inside, she found herself in a room dominated by long lines of racks from which hung dozens, maybe hundreds of costumes and uniforms for the waitstaff and the dancing girls. There were risqué strapless cut off tops with golden tassels hanging from the underwire, the cups designed to push up the girl’s breasts. There were long skirts with broad slits across the sides to bare the girl’s legs for the customer’s delight. Cut off translucent sleeves and veils added a touch of tantalizing sheer black to the costumes, which came in many colors, but all of which were glittery and filigreed in gold and silver seams.

Stereotypical “harem girl” style costumes– people went wild for these.

It was the complete opposite of what Shimii women were supposed to be like, but no one really cared.

Homa had to admit she would have gone wild for a girl wearing this too.

But about wearing it herself– she wasn’t too sure. She felt a hint of excitement, but it felt weird too.

Homa’s breasts and hips had grown quite a bit– but she probably still couldn’t pull it off.

Still– it was adventurous to think about– girl’s clothes fascinated her–

“Don’t worry, I am aware you don’t like this kind of thing, and besides, it’d only alarm people if I was seen walking around with a dancing girl, it’d be like preferential treatment. Those girls can get quite catty, you know? No, you’ll be wearing one of these instead. It’ll suit you better and draw less attention.”

She withdrew from the racks a button-down shirt, a waistcoat, and a pair of pants.

While it was much less embarrassing to wear, there was a part of Homa that was a little bit disappointed– being able to try on the dancing girls’ costumes harmlessly, without becoming Madame Arabie’s restaurant minion, might have been fun. Still, maybe the waitstaff uniform did fit her better.

Madame Arabie put Homa’s work clothes in a bag and watched her get dressed up as a waiter.

“Put this on too– you’ll be my gentlemanly guest, rather than seen as a waiter.”

Saying this, Madame Arabie handed Homa a blazer to go over the shirt and waistcoat.

“Do I get a monocle too?” Homa joked.

There was a little instant of fear– had she gotten too casual?

But Madame Arabie just giggled at her.

“Don’t get cocky. Usually it’s only people of refinement who get a date with me.”

She poked a shocked Homa in the chest.

“Be grateful and come on. You can get your stuff back from here on your way home.”

With a coquettish expression, she glided out of the warehouse.

Homa donned the blazer and followed her with utter bewilderment.

Inside, the Flowing Scarlet was as opulent as Homa remembered it.

Shiny white floors decorated with geometric, floral patterns, and the banners of the walls with Shimii heraldry, moons and stars and images of mosque architectures– these were the most authentically “Shimii” design elements of this fantasy venue. Golden chandeliers and fake wood desks and cabinets and tables, the torch-lit sensuous atmosphere of the restaurant, the dancing girls putting on their tantalizing show, all the rest of it, catered exclusively to the Imbrian imagination. Not that there weren’t plenty of Shimii enjoying it as well. Those who couldn’t afford the restaurant could go to the bar and get a glimpse of the girls every so often from afar. It was like paying for a drink and a sandwich just to get to watch a distant advertisement for the rest of Madame Arabie’s offerings. Homa couldn’t understand it.

Both halves of the venue were extremely popular, however.

Maybe because there just wasn’t anything else as lively as beautiful as this.

No other clubs, even those owned by Madame Arabie, had this atmosphere.

That mixture of high class with exotic, unabashed sexuality, existed nowhere else.

And on that night, the proprietress herself walked through the front.

As soon as they entered through the door she pulled off the covering from her face.

Madame Arabie began to embody the “madame” once more.

Swinging her hips, smoking her vaporizer pipe, walking with an entirely different cadence.

Keeping up behind her, Homa felt more like a butler than her “date.”

All eyes were on the Madame, every visitor in the lobby and everyone who could see from the bar or the restaurant out to the lobby, they were all following after her tail with their eyes, and she never once deigned to return their attention. She walked as if none of the world existed but each tile she stepped on, as if with the confidence that wherever she trod there would be a step for her.

Of course, nobody dared approach. Madame Arabie touched you if she desired you.

Raising hands to her yourself was tantamount to death. She was nobody’s plaything.

And Homa knew very well– it was not just her goons who could kill you.

If it was just that, anyone who could be Madame Arabie.

Madame Arabie gave her no instructions. Homa just followed behind her.

They got on an elevator together. She blew a puff of fig-smelling vapor in Homa’s face.

“See? You play the part excellently. That’s why I like you so much.”

What part? Boy-toy? Homa liked this situation less and less by the minute.

“Ma’am, I–”

“I’m only teasing you. If you want to me to stop, then stop reacting to it.”

“No, it’s just–”

“Shush. We’ll talk business soon. Just enjoy– not everyone gets this treatment.”

She pinched Homa’s cheek, then the elevator opened.

Homa followed her out onto the floor of what was clearly the private residence. From a small hallway they entered a luxurious living room, by itself two or three times the size of Homa’s room. A false wooden floor painted a rich brown and a pearl-white roof seemed to suggest earth and heaven, and impressionist paintings incorporating fluid geometries interwoven with Fusha calligraphy adorned the walls.

There was a trio of white couches arranged into a square on a raised island, sat around a tea table in the center of the living room, and the space branched from there into a dining area separated off by a long metal island with an overhead air circulator, and a hall likely leading to the bed and bathrooms.  

Though she couldn’t help but be bewildered by the opulence of the upper crust, there was one incongruous element in the living room that quickly caught her eyes– and Madame Arabie’s.

As soon as they walked in, there were people already in room, waiting for them.

Homa glanced at Madame Arabie.

She was grinning, but twining her own hair on one finger– fidgeting. She was agitated.

“My, my. Who let you two in?”

Ana asef. I didn’t have a reservation, so I let myself in.”

There were two seated on the bigger couch, both Shimii women judging by their figures and features.

The one speaking had her arm wrapped around the other, who in turn had her eyes closed and was gesturing apologetically with her hands. That dominant woman was taller and slender, with silver hair down to the shoulder, slightly wavy and with an unevenly cut ends. One of her ears looked like any Shimii ear, sharp with trimmed grey fur in a masculine style; the other ear however was grey and hairless and bent in an interesting angle. Her tail, too, was hairless and gray, and it forked slightly at the end. She was dressed in a gaudy, flowery shirt, and brown pants. Homa had no memory of this woman at all.

Her companion had on a sundress and hat, and was nearly a head smaller, with long brown hair. Her own ears and tail looked completely standard for a Shimii, if a bit unkempt, the fur on them slightly frizzy.

Homa realized quickly that Madame Arabie recognized these two.

“Hmph.”

Madame Arabie switched off her vaporizer and left it on an end table near the door.

“Should I introduce you, or would you prefer to do it yourself?”

“To the kid? Go ahead. But I’m going by Madiha al-Nakar right now. So use that name.”

Madame Arabie turned to Homa and gestured vaguely at the couch.

“Fine then. Homa, this is ‘Madiha,’ a Katarran mercenary playing a Mahdist Shimii activist.”

With a cruel grin on her face, she pointed out the grey-brown skinned, silver haired woman with the odd ear as if introducing an actor to a play. Upon closer inspection Homa thought she could tell– it wasn’t just the ear, but the tail, too, it was so cartilaginous and hairless. Homa had never been aware that there could even be Katarran Shimii– she barely knew anything about Katarrans generally except that they were usually violent criminals and “mercenaries,“ and they were “made in vats full of fish ovaries.“

Madiha glared at Madame Arabie with simmering displeasure.

“Pfeh. You’re lucky you’re too useful to be angry about.”

Madiha’s companion patted her lap with a hand as if to comfort her.

Madame Arabie ran a hand through her hair, thinking. Staring at Madiha’s companion.

“And the girl– I believe that’s– oh, that’s Al-Shahouh, isn’t it? You’ve grown up. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.” The girl muttered a reply almost on instinct, then realized she did wrong.

“Call her Parinita!” Madiha shouted. “Like I said, we’re here on specific business.”

Madame Arabie sighed. “Fine. I have a date, so let’s get done quickly so you can leave.”

Again with the word ‘date’– Homa wanted to sink through to the ocean floor.

“Happy to. I’d be glad to never hear your harpy voice again, inshallah.”

Madiha stood up from the couch.

She raised her hand, and in an instant, something appeared in it, which she was suddenly holding in her fingers. It happened between a blink of Homa’s eyes, like a magic trick, and drew a sharp reaction.

Madame Arabie took a step back in response and raised a hand in front of Homa suddenly, as if protecting her from something. Homa could not understand the situation at all, but she thought Madiha’s eyes had briefly glinted red, and she had stopped approaching. There was a bar in her hands–

–a bar of metal? A sleek, shiny metal?

“Your sorcery doesn’t work on me, Katarran!” Madame Arabie hissed.

“Relax. I’m well aware and I’m not doing anything to you. Here.” Madiha grinned, bearing sharp fangs.

She stretched out her hand. What she had in it– was a bar of gold.

Or at least, it looked like pure gold, shimmering slightly orange-yellow. It was stamped.

There was a moon and a star embossed across the top of the bar, along with numerical codes.

Madame Arabie’s posture instantly softened. Her eyes drew wide at the sight of the bar.

“Mehmedist Gold? Mashallah.” She said, in awe of it.

Mashallah, indeed.” Madiha said. “This bar weighs 12 kilograms of pure gold. Not the ferrostitched bullshit they put in machines. Real, valuable gold, a king’s ransom right in my hand, from a king of our people himself. I want you to take this, and in turn, give me two million of those despicable Imbrian marks from your little gang’s war chest. I have some shopping to do and gold would raise too many eyebrows. You must be well aware of what a tidy sum that leaves you with. Aren’t I generous?”

“There must be a catch.” Madame Arabie said. Glancing between the gold and Madiha.

“Of course there isn’t, Leija–”

Leija?

“Don’t call me that, Khaybari.”

Madame Arabie’s hands closed into fists. Madiha shrugged her shoulders.

“Look, I also need papers to come and go, and that’s your deal, isn’t it ‘Arabie’? And I might need a few favors while I’m here. Favors worth a couple million marks. It’s still a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

Madame Arabie grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes.

“Two-faced Mahdist, it’s always like this with you.”

Madiha locked eyes with equal displeasure. “Look who’s talking, you Rashidist viper.”

Parinita ran from the couch and shouted, putting herself between Arabie and Madiha.

“Can we cut it with the name-calling? Please? Let’s behave like adults.” She pleaded.

Madiha looked at Parinita and sighed deeply. Her aggression subsided quickly.

Madame Arabie was far less moved but did not press any further.

Parinita relaxed and clung to Madiha’s side as if to contain her.

“I’ll be needing a lackey sometimes while I’m at Kreuzung. Why not that kid? I can pay.”

Madiha spoke up again after a few moments of silence, her tone moderated.

Homa didn’t know what she was getting into, but the word ‘pay’ was tantalizing.

However, she couldn’t speak in this situation. Not unless Madame Arabie decreed.

That thickening tension between the two of them– someone like Homa could do nothing.

In this atmosphere, she was like a chained convict.

Madame Arabie crossed her arms. “Hmph! Homa, I have some errands for you too. And I expect them to take precedence– but whatever you do with this woman, I don’t care about it, nor will I stop you. But if you take her money, I won’t be able to protect you if she retaliates against you. Be smart about it.”

She said all of this without even once looking at Homa. Madiha laughed about it.

“Look closely, ‘Homa’, at how this woman is. Anyway, whatever. Do it or not.”

Homa would definitely be after this woman’s money as soon as she could– if she could.

But in front of Madame Arabie, she would put on a façade of nonchalance about it.

Finally Madiha reached out with the gold bar again. Madame Arabie scoffed at her.

“Put it down on the table, Katarran.” She hissed.

“Whatever you say, Leija.” Madiha replied. She flicked her wrist with the bar in hand.

Madame Arabie grit her teeth at the taunt again but did not respond.

Homa hadn’t even considered– 12 kg, just casually held in one hand like it was nothing.

At least dumbbells had a grip between the weights. That was a solid bar of gold.

Was that the legendary strength attributed to Katarrans?

Madiha flicked her wrist once more and the gold bar disappeared from her hands.

Suddenly, it was on the table, without even making a sound. Again– like a magic trick.

“You fancy your wicked powers of illusion, I see.” Madame Arabie said.

“I do. Now the gold’s yours. Where do I get my money?” Madiha pressed.

From the sleeve of her dress, the Madame produced a strip of what looked like red plastic.

In the light, it shimmered with lines like a circuit board.

“Take this out of the restaurant, and across the street, to the warehouse front office. You’ll get your money from the bookie there. Don’t cause any fuss. Just have them scan this and tell them the exact amount of money you need, not a cent more. And you better not use your magic tricks to take back the gold after you collect your payment. The entire station will be after your head if you try to cheat me, understood?”

Madame Arabie extended her arm to its full length, offering Madiha the card at a distance.

Madiha’s eyes shone red again, for just a moment. Had Homa imagined it?

Then she laughed again.

“I see– so if you’re holding it, your aura is on it– because you’re resisting– interesting.”

“What are you mumbling about?”

“Nothing~” Madiha put on a mischievous little song-like voice. “Pleasure doing business~”

She snatched the little card from Madame Arabie’s fingers.

With Parinita in tow, they left the room to the same elevator as Homa and the Madame.

For a moment, Madame Arabie just stood there and quietly seethed.

Staring daggers at the gold bar. Then, her shoulders visibly relaxed. She breathed in.

“Money’s money. This will be more valuable even if the Imbrian mark inflates. Idiot majus.”

“Is everything okay, ma’am?”

For a moment after the words left Homa’s lips, she saw the briefest glimpse of the rabidly furious eyes that Madame Arabie had been giving the gold bar but turned upon her instead. Enough time in that glare for her heart to seize in her chest like a heart attack, for her soul to try flying out of her body in terror– but it was only an instant in real time. Madame Arabie softened considerably quickly– her eyes cast down at the floor, just as briefly taking on a sadness and age that Homa rarely saw in her face.

She then smiled again. She put a hand on Homa’s hair and shook it.

“Of course I will be fine. I’m the boss around here. Think about yourself instead.”

Homa could tell she was still troubled, but she was back to putting on an act.

She felt strangely compelled to sympathize– she had to very specifically pull herself out of that thinking.

“I won’t let her ruin our date. Come on, Homa.”

I wish she would stop saying that. I don’t want to think about being on a ‘date’ with her.

She and Madame Arabie had a weird relationship– but it was not that degree of weird.

Right? It wasn’t– it couldn’t be allowed to get that way!

“Sit.”

Past the living room they entered a comparatively intimate dining room, with a glasstop table that sat four at most on artsy glass chairs arrayed in a cross. Overhead hung a lamp with adjustable lighting for mood. There was a button on the table and Madame Arabie pressed it as soon as she and Homa were seated across from one another. While the button was held down, the glasstop exposed itself as a touchscreen LCD in the guise of a tabletop. Madame Arabie ordered dinner via digital menu.

“You don’t have any allergies right? You can eat anything?”

“I can eat anything ma’am.” Homa replied obediently.

“Fantastic.”

While they waited, Madame Arabie laid her hand hovering just over the table.

Homa reached her own hand out, and Madame Arabie held it, stroking the knuckles.

“How have things been, Homa? Have you gotten to pilot a Diver often?” She asked.

“Whenever Bertrand needs it. His other pilot is an old guy.” Homa said.

“Do you like the job?”

“I do ma’am. I like being around the machines. And going out in the water is exciting.”

It was impossible to say, ‘I wish the job you got me paid more’. But she wasn’t lying either.

Her job was the tiniest bit of freedom she had, so she enjoyed it.

Madame Arabie smiled, her eyes narrowing a little, keen, and bright.

“You are allowed to tell me when you are hurting, Homa. And to come to me for help.”

Homa nodded. “I didn’t want to bother you ma’am.” She wasn’t lying about that either.

“Nonsense. You can rely on me, Homa.”

But she didn’t want to.

She didn’t want to crawl back to Madame Arabie and be further in her debt.

Homa needed her own power, her independence, to escape from this rotten place–

“You’ve helped me a lot, you know? I wasn’t aware of the difficulties you were facing– but I heard that it was lean times for some of the private docks. So I wanted to compensate you, bring you back in, give you a little job. Show you that I’m still on your side and make up for any negligence.”

Madame Arabie’s slender fingers pressed down on Homa’s hand, tracing to her wrist.

That touch sent a quiver into Homa. She had to calm down.

If the Madame wanted to hurt her, she would have. She had nothing to hide from her.

For some reason– Madame Arabie needed her. So she just had to play along.

“I’m grateful ma’am.” Homa said, smiling politely. “It’s been kinda fun already.”

“Not the kind of fun I wanted, with that damned Katarran interrupting. But, anyway.”

She leaned a little on top of the table, coming closer to Homa, eyes fixed on her–

Homa trying desperately to keep her eyes up and off her breasts as they rested on glass–

Her whispering voice like a warm breeze. “Now we can continue our little date.”

She winked at Homa and drew back, laughing a little to herself.

“My, my! You’re so red, Homa! Look at you! Such a cute little thing; you can’t handle a woman at all still, can you? I’m telling you, if you keep being so fun to tease, I won’t be able to control myself.”

Homa averted her gaze and grumbled silently.

Then, finally, their food arrived, sparing Homa from more teasing.

One of the waitstaff from the restaurant below came up with a cart and deposited their plates gently on the table. Madame Arabie had ordered two plates of pulao, rice with nuts, peppers and figs layered through it, and topped with hefty slices of glossy red chicken breasts. Chicken breast had never been Homa’s favorite, but the cooks at the Flowing Scarlet never missed (or Madame Arabie would let them know it). For a chicken breast it was richly juicy, pull-apart tender, and the firm exterior of the breast had been fully coated with the spicy glaze– it was to die for, an explosion of savory flavors that made Homa’s life before it feel utterly monochromatic. Meanwhile the varying textures and tastes of the pulao, sweet and spicy, soft rice with firm green peppers and snappy chilies, it practically tasted of wealth.

Homa tried to keep her pleasures as close to the chest as possible.

Madame Arabie’s curious eyes tracked her closely, with a little smile on her red lips.

“Homa, do you think I’m being cheap with you for ordering this?”

“No ma’am! This is fantastic! Thank you for the meal!”

She wasn’t lying, but she did sort of think Madame Arabie was being cheap.

That “melt in your mouth” beef that Hasim had been advertising at his shop was something that Madame Arabie could have any day of the week. In fact, she had better, because Hasim and all the other shops that got shipments from the Imbrians had to sell the absolute best to Madame Arabie first. So for Madame Arabie to choose a chicken dish instead of the high quality beef her restaurant VIPs got–

“Pulao is my favorite dish. This is my recipe.” Madame Arabie said. “I wanted to share it with you.”

That was a surprise– it was just more teasing though. “Thanks ma’am.”

After carefully going through her own meal, eating so as not to spill anything or spoil her cosmetics, Madame Arabie had the plates taken away. Homa felt fuller than she had been in months, maybe years. However, as soon as the waiter and their cart had gone, Madame Arabie leaned against the table again, fixing her deep emerald eyes on Homa’s quickly wavering yellow gaze once again.

“Homa, I promised old man Radu that I would look out for you. I am well aware that my business is not godly, and out of this respect for my esteemed elders and of course, my affection for you, I have tried to keep you on a respectable path. I have only asked for you to run errands when necessary, and I try to keep your hands clean. But I do need your help again, Homa. I have taken every precaution to insure your safety, but it is an important task, maybe the most important I’ve ever given you.”

Homa’s ears stood on end.

Entranced by the cruel but enticing intellect and beauty of those eyes holding her tight.

Mentioning old man Radu was a cheap emotional appeal.

But it was one she very rarely played on Homa.

“Sometime in the next few days, a ship will arrive at Bertrand’s for an extensive repair. There will be a blond woman on the ship who will likely pose as a customer. She is very dangerous, Homa, and she is plotting something, but she will not suspect anything, and you must see that it remains that way.”

Madame Arabie pressed the button on the table to bring up the LCD screen layout again.

On Homa’s side, a photograph appeared of a woman in a dark blue military uniform.

That woman in the picture reminded Homa of Ulyana Korabiskaya, tall and blond standing on the edge of the docks, cutting a dashing figure in uniform, but it wasn’t her of course. Her hair was a different shade of blond, darker, and longer, and her countenance lacked some of the regal maturity that characterized Korabiskaya. She was younger, maybe, or less refined; not that Homa, who was only 21, could say anything like that for sure. Homa had never seen a uniform like hers. Imbrian soldiers had grey uniforms, and the Volkisch dressed in black, not this ocean blue color that this woman was wearing.

Maybe it was ceremonial?

“When you confirm the appearance of this woman at the dock, you will take this letter for me to Tower Twelve, the Laurentius Military Center. It sounds daunting but you don’t have to go in, just call for Standartenführer Imani Hadžić and she will come see you on the gatebridge. Give her the letter and tell her everything you saw and heard. She will likely make you into her informant at that point.”

From her shirt, Madame Arabie withdrew an actual sealed plastic envelope.

Inside, there was likely, from the weight of it, an actual rock paper letter.

Homa could imagine it. Maybe even written in real ink. Containing deadly secrets.

As much as she disdained Madame Arabie and her duplicity–

she couldn’t say,

this wasn’t,

adventurous.

All kinds of dark fantasies began spinning off in her mind.

There was something happening in Kreuzung. Something big and dark and dangerous.

Labor strikes; economic hardship; the Volkisch movement; and these strange visitors.

And Madame Arabie was connected to it? And there was a military officer involved too?

Imani Hadžić — that was a Brenic Shimii name, one of the western cultures.

–her wild leaps of thought were finally interrupted as Madame Arabie spoke up once more.

“Do this for me, Homa, see it through to the end, and if officer Hadžić is satisfied with the result, Inshallah I will make any dream of yours come true. Hell– you may even get to pilot one of your machines for the military or merchant marine, instead of a dingy little dock. Just take this offer from me, and then do what Hadžić tells you. You’ll be a real hero at the end of all of this. You’ll have cachet beyond your dreams.”

Homa– a hero? Fingers in her mind pored over those words, the texture, the color, sound.

Even beyond the grip of spiraling fantasies– the promise of payment alone–

Yes– she couldn’t just fantasize wildly! Madame Arabie was still the same liar as always!

There was some ulterior motive to this. It would be dangerous. It wouldn’t be honorable.

But this wasn’t the first time Homa had done something awful for the Madame’s favor.

She had street smarts, she knew she was she was getting into. She couldn’t escape it.

If she saw it as a gig, she could not turn it down. She wanted the money– needed it.

“Of course, Madame.” She took the envelope. There was no other choice. “Always.”

“Excellent. I would ask you to stay and celebrate, but, you have to go get ready for work, after all.” Madame Arabie winked at her. “Just come see me after everything is done. Keep the clothes.”

So much for things not getting too weird with Madame Arabie–

There was no choice if she wanted to survive. “It’d be my pleasure, madame.”


Homa saw herself out of Madame Arabie’s home, her head still turning over everything that had happened. She just barely registered that she had agreed to rat out someone to the military. She imagined it must have been a business rival of Madame Arabie’s, maybe someone trying to run in contraband or drugs from another station, or maybe someone who owed her money. It didn’t matter in the end. No matter who it was, Homa knowing or not knowing the whole truth would not change anything. If not her, someone else would do the job. Money always found its way to people.

She did not have naive expectations of herself– but some part of her really wanted to be a hero.

On the way down, she almost imagined she might see that “Madiha” character again.

But there was no fuss being made at the warehouse. That woman disappeared too.

Homa got her clothes and bags and left without being noticed by anyone.

Overhead, the artificial sky had turned dark, with only the tiniest crest of false moonlight.

She slunk home.

Homa made her way down the halls, quietly, looking at her own feet.

There was a sense of tension inside her, filling her chest and stomach like a balloon.

Restlessness, anger, worries about the future. Frustration.

Dropping her bags on the floor of the room, undressing, taking off her boots, putting the goods she bought into the cupboard and the refrigerator. Setting her pot to keep the stew barely warm through the night. She hung up her new, fancy set of clothes as well as her work clothes and paid the fee to have them misted, scented, and dried. Then she paid the fee for the shower and locked herself in the bathroom like a sardine. Water came pouring down over her head and back, her arms at her sides.

Her black hair came down over her eyes as she bowed her head, putting it to the wall.

In the shower, she was alone, and no one could see or hear her.

There was no neighbor on the shower’s side of the room.

And even if there was, the mechanisms around the shower that served and drained water and cosmetics and shampoo, the sink that came out of the panel, the toilet that could pulled in, all of those things meant the shower was surrounded by mechanisms. So she was insulated, nobody could hear.

Sealed up tight. In a place truly, completely, alone.

She flipped the lights in the shower on, and via touchpad, also turned on the mirror.

Drawing in a breath, she screamed at the top of her lungs into the mirror.

Breath ripped ragged through her lungs and neck. Her fists clenched hard enough her nails might have drawn blood had she gone any further. Her whole body had tensed. Then she spread her lips, lifting gritted teeth from each other and heaved a sigh. Looking up at her reflection.

She did feel somewhat relieved. But it was not enough.

So she screamed again.

Her tired yellow eyes and long black hair in the mirror, over her soft, smooth face, slick with the little trails of water coming down from her crown. Water trailed down the muscles of her back, across the slope of the shoulders, over her breasts. Sometimes, Homa needed to look, to remember that she wasn’t a mass of scars, that her hair wasn’t going white yet, that her back wasn’t out, and she had all her limbs.

She was very young– some people still called her a kid.

And yet, she still felt like she had lived too long and lived through too much sometimes.

What did other early twenty-somethings do? They still went to school didn’t they?

Homa looked at the sad girl in the mirror and narrow her eyes.

“Listen up. None of this is going to bow down your back.”

She told herself. And that girl in the mirror– didn’t look any less sad.

Homa banged her head against the mirror, gritting her teeth.

Thankfully, the “mirror” was only the LCD layer over the wall, projecting her face.

“Old Man Radu, huh?”

Hearing that name again after so long, it bothered her then, it infuriated her.

What did that man care how Madame Arabie treated her?

And why would Madame Arabie care what he told her either?

It was all cheap emotional manipulation!

Radu the Marzban was somewhere out there having adventures without her.

Some big hero he was supposed to be! Her mother was dead! He couldn’t save her!

And her father– who knew who that was?

All she’d ever known was Kreuzung, Tower Eight. Loneliness and Arabie’s fickle moods.

With her head up against the mirrored wall, she looked down at the water draining at her feet.

“If Kreuzung goes through something really bad– what’d be left for me, then?”

There was nowhere to go. Out there, was only the Imbrium Ocean.

Stations were only connected by ship docks. Nobody could just travel or move anywhere.

Everyone was trapped!

And ships were a luxury– or a grave danger.

“Old Man Radu. You might as well have just thrown me out of an airlock.”

She was full of trepidation– and now she was in the clutches of Madame Arabie again.

How could she ever get out?

There was no way to get out clean– without dirty work, without blood on her hands.

“I wish! I wish everything could be fucking perfect! But it’s not possible!”

At least she would have money now! She would be taken care of!

“Who cares if I’m doing some nasty thing for that bitch Arabie! What choice did I have?”

She shouted her heart out in that empty shower where no one could see or hear.

“I need money to live! Now I’m getting it! I’m not going to feel guilty or afraid!”

She continued to shout. As if a voice long suppressed needed to finally escape.

“In fact, I’m glad! I don’t have to worry about the fucking rent! No one else will help me! So nobody can blame me for this! I’ll get out of this place! I won’t die old in this ghetto! I’m glad! Thank you Madame Arabie! Yes ma’am, I’m grateful ma’am, I’ll do anything you say ma’am! Nobody else will help!”

Her mind was made up. She set her feet, straightened her chest.

She wasn’t going to change her mind.

(Not that she could– not when she gave Madame Arabie her word.)

“Fuck!”

Once more she banged her head against the wall.

Everything from her ethnicity to her womanhood to her livelihood, everything was so much trouble, nobody made it easy, nobody helped her, nobody ever let her just have anything she wanted. She was a freak to everyone in Kreuzung who thought themselves a “decent” person so all she had left was the basements, the dark corners, places unwanted. She struggled for every bit of cheer she ever had.

Whoever it was Madame Arabie wanted her to feed to the sharks– fuck them.

That was her thought. They could complain if they had a solid alternative.

“Fuck them.”

She looked up in the mirror.

Now that was a determined little grin from that once sad and downtrodden girl.

That’s what she wanted to imagine herself looking like.

“I’ll get out of this place. I’ll get out of here, whatever I have to do.”

Overhead, the stream of water shut off, having dispensed what was paid for.

Homa felt a warm breeze instead, blowing to partially dry her off.

Without waiting for it, she stormed out of the bathroom and threw herself into bed.

Nude and still a bit wet, she rolled up herself up in her blankets and closed her eyes.

Trying to lose herself to the comforting softness of the mattress and the bed’s warmth.


“Homa! If any ships come in today, you take the lead, okay?”

“You’re being awful kind, Becker.”

“Well, if you don’t get any work, Bertrand will fire you, and if he does, I’ll have to quit. If I can’t look at your little ears and tail all day, there’s just no point to coming back to this dump every day.”

Homa grumbled and thought of throwing something at Becker.

But she wouldn’t say ‘no’ to the work.

Around noon the next day, Bertrand Shore Works got a new customer approaching, and there was a great excitement about getting two ships in two days after such a drought in the work.

Unlike the Brigand, which had been an enormous Cruiser, this was a humble yacht, just 40 meters long and 13 meters tall, with a blue and white livery that was generic to the specific model, made by a company called “Tigershark.” It had an exposed bridge compartment at the top, a sleek pointed box that followed the profile of the hull, with a long, thick titanium-strutted glass roof allowing for the person at the helm to look at out into the water above them as they sailed. The rest of the hull was beautifully curved down to its keel, it looked flawless. Through and through a rich person’s toy.

“They’re coming in for a full maintenance and repair job, repainting, and a jet replacement? And they’re coming here for that? We either have God or the Devil on our side here.” Aicher said.

It was a big job, it’d be a lot of piecework on a delicate ship, a lot of expensive parts.

Everyone was surprised. Yachts usually went to subscription yacht clubs for this kind of thing. Bertrand’s usually worked with larger ships that didn’t travel to Kreuzung enough to pay for an expensive licensed space in the Seaport or didn’t want to deal with Seaport security or pay union rates for repair work. Old Bertrand would collect a premium on having a little toy taking up space he “could” be using for industrial ships — if there were any coming through, which there weren’t, but he wouldn’t tell the customer that.

He would definitely play up the opportunity cost to seem aggrieved.

So B.W.S was buzzing. Becker and Aicher were leading the crew like a battalion.

Homa meanwhile just acted surprised. She recalled the conversation with Madame Arabie.

Someone knew this ship was coming, and that someone was working through the Shimii in Tower Eight to snoop on it. Madame Arabie had warned that it was dangerous– Homa tried to act natural, but as the ship was brought into berth, and then deposited by the metal arms from the drained berth into the workshop area, beached inside the dockyard, her anxiety and trepidation grew stronger. An icy chill gripped her heart as the side of the hull opened and a ramp extended down from it.

Aicher waved Homa over to go greet the owner of the ship and get them an airstair.

And from out the bulkhead door, came the woman Homa had seen, exactly as the picture.

Rather than the uniform in Arabie’s photograph, the young, long-legged blond beauty was dressed in an extremely fancy-looking fur coat (it couldn’t have been real– it had to be synthetic) over a collared shirt and shiny leather-like pants. She wore tall black pumps for shoes and perched on her strong nose were a pair of black spectacles. Her earrings and fingers glinted with jewelry, with rings and gems.

Bonjour!” She called out with a glossy red smile, descending the airstair like a runway model.

Homa found her brain utterly arrested by the sheer aggressive beauty of this woman.

In the damp, drab environment of the B.W.S. dockyard she was like a flashbang grenade.

Aicher surreptitiously tapped Homa in the back, and she walked forward to meet the lady.

As soon as they neared each other, Homa caught a strong, sweet scent from her.

“Oh what a dear! I’m so happy I decided to berth here. I’m Kitty McRoosevelt.”

“Uh. Hello!” Homa smiled awkwardly. “Welcome! I’m Homa Baumann, I– I work here.”

She hastily extended her hand and “Kitty McRoosevelt” gave her a firm shake.

Not a common name but that didn’t matter; Homa wasn’t an expert on names.

Madame Arabie’s words rang in her head as she shook that soft, slender, but strong hand.

This woman was dangerous. She didn’t seem like it, but appearances weren’t everything.

All of this, her glamor, sweetness, energy– it could be an act.

“Pleasure to meet you. Got my papers right here.”

Kitty handed Homa her portable and Homa scanned it. Everything came up fine.

Her last port of call was Worms, which, from what Homa knew, wasn’t too far, and made sense. Worms and Mostar were the two closest stations. For a yacht, 40 meters was big, and pretty seaworthy, so she could travel it between stations. She had one item of listed cargo, which was a leisure submersible stored in a cargo hold in the prow. None of them would need to touch that. All their work would be in the back, with the hydrojets and the intakes in the rear underside, and on the bridge and the living quarters in the rear center where they were swapping some electronics. And everything was indeed registered under Kitty McRoosevelt. Her papers were stamped by the Aachen Station Authority. It was all legit.

That didn’t mean anything by itself though.

Madame Arabie could get legit papers for people who didn’t exist.

Maybe this Kitty was the Madame Arabie of Aachen Station. Homa couldn’t know.

“Checks out. You can go into the office to work out pay and a work schedule.” Homa said.

Kitty smiled at her. “Thank you dear. By any chance, will you be working on her?”

Homa blinked at her, briefly stunned at this deviation from the typical script.

“Oh, yeah!” She averted her eyes from Kitty’s own. “They’ll probably have me doing the exterior. I can help out a little with the duct work too, but I am not certified to do anything with the electronics. So uh, I guess I’ll be painting and shining and applying the anti-organic coating and stuff like that.”

“Ah! So all the stuff I care about the most. I’ll be looking over your shoulder then.”

She briefly met Kitty’s eyes out of shock, and then averted them again.

Her client patted her shoulder with a knowing smile before walking away to the office.

Becker and Aicher then, unfortunately, approached the stunned Homa at the airstair.

“Ah, damn it, the customer’s trying to steal her away– and she looks a damn sight nicer than I do.” Becker said. “I don’t have a chance. I better enjoy having Homa around while I can.”

Homa narrowed her eyes at him.

“Homa Baumann, popular with the guys and the ladies. This black cat’s got all the luck.”

Homa turned her evil, narrow-eyed gaze at Aicher instead.

There was some levity, everyone was happy to have more work and pay coming in.

As the woman disappeared into the office, and they began to assess the work that would be done to the ship, however, Homa felt that tension in her chest start to build again, constricting her breathing and heartbeat. Kitty was exactly the woman in the photos that the Madame had shown her. Come to think of it– it had skipped her mind, but she never got a name for the woman out of Madame Arabie, only the photo and her instructions. This was all deeply mysterious, but she had shown up, Kitty, the cosmetics, and fancy clothes aside, had the same face as the woman in the photograph.

After work, she would have to head to Tower Twelve.

Laurentius Military Center.

And there she would meet–

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.

“Becker? You were in the military right? Can I ask you something?”

She and Becker were sizing up the ship using a digital laser scanner when she asked.

Becker was holding the laser, and she the cable. His wizened face looked suddenly proud.

“Ah, but I was a volunteer patrolman, not really military. Those were good days though.”

Homa interrupted. “Is Standartenführer a really high rank?” She asked.

His expression darkened suddenly. He looked at Homa with surprise. Maybe– maybe fear.

“Homa– are you in trouble?” He lifted a hand from the laser. He looked startled, worried. “Is that why you’ve been looking down lately? Listen, if it’s anything with your papers, I can vouch for you. If the Volkisch are hounding you– If you have a citizenship hearing or something– I can–”

“No, no!” Homa replied, as surprised as he was. “Becker, I’m okay. I was just curious.”

“I see. Homa, that’s a Volkisch political rank. That’s– it’s not a– it’s not normal. It’s bad news.”

Homa tried to persuade the stammering Becker that she was fine, and everything was okay, but his reaction, and that little episode with him, just made the fear gripping her heart swell tenfold.


Tower Twelve loomed like a gun to the temple of Kreuzung station.

Homa had learned a lot about it in the past months due to the ongoing imperial unrest.

Laurentius Military Center was the main garrison of the Kreuzung Complex. While there were troops also stationed in the walls of the Kreuzung crater for defense and patrol purposes, if anything happened in Kreuzung’s core station, the response would come from Tower Twelve. Eight weeks ago, the election of Achim Lehner led to an enormous crisis in the Kreuzung complex. Imbrians rioted in the core station, prompting severe lockdowns, and the troops in Laurentius picked sides within the chaos.

Some of them joined the rioters, some of them deployed to contain the riots and ended up fighting their own colleagues, and others broke into factions within Laurentius itself. Perhaps the largest group of security forces simply refused to participate in this and guarded the Kreuzung government center at the top of the core station while the violence worked itself out elsewhere. The Volkisch eventually took control of Laurentius, but nobody was successful, whether Volkisch or not, in toppling Governor Werner, who navigated the entire crisis and came out of it with both the grudging respect and cooperation of both the rioters and the Volkisch. The Shimii in Tower Eight had been distant witnesses to the violence, because their tower locked down during the chaos, preventing them from resupplying needed goods.

She hadn’t been there to see any of it, but Becker and Aicher had a lot to say about it.

Especially Becker– he followed conflict news closely and knew a lot about the military.

So he explained everything to Homa– from his perspective.

Regardless, what happened, happened. And Homa had not been hurt, except that Kreuzung locking out Tower Eight led Homa to spend extortionate amounts of money for pitiful amounts of food in the Shimii market, barely keeping herself alive. It was a shock to her, one she had not felt since she first started her gender transition– at 19, she realized that for her, being a woman required the mercy of the Gender Equality Center and their policies. And now at 21, she realized, everything, food, shelter, electricity, was at the mercy of the Kreuzung Core Station’s security and stability. Tower Eight was their hostage.

Weeks later, things settled down. Life returned to a sense of normalcy at Kreuzung.

Laurentius, however, continued to represent the threat of the Volkisch attaining complete control over the station, or at least, that’s what Becker and Aicher thought about it. If there was a crisis again, the Volkisch might have the excuse they need to not just station their black-uniformed forces in Laurentius, but to replace the Kreuzung Core Station’s police and security– and the local government.

All of this grand politicking was over Homa’s head. She only vaguely understood.

However, the idea of Laurentius as a threat felt visual when she beheld the tower itself.

Unlike the rounded, drum-like towers meant for people to live in, Laurentius looked like a weapon from afar. From the gatebridge, she could stare out the glass panels at the tower, some thirty meters separate, its shadow like a coiled cylinder made up of brutal spikes. The Gatebridge itself was like the closed maw of a beast with black iron teeth and camera eyes. Laurentius was home to warships, armed Divers, missiles and guns, and the black uniformed soldiers that made old Becker pause, unable or unwilling to fit them into his heroic myths of the gallant frontier patrolmen. It was an evil place, death at the midnight hour.

Homa had traveled through a lot of Kreuzung to make it here.

Through elevators and steel hallways and civilian checkpoints.

Now, standing in front of the armored entryway to the station, she had no idea what to do.

There was an enclosed guard post, but the glass was tinted. Was anyone actually in there?

Swallowing hard, she pushed herself to go near the box.

She raised her ID and work permit to the wall of the box to be scanned.

A red square appeared around her papers that flashed. Normally it was green.

Confused, Homa raised her card and permit off the wall of the guard post and set them back on to try to rescan them. She got the same result. There was a red box around them and it started to flash. She waited a moment for anyone to say anything, but the guard post was silent.

Mind in a fog from the stress, Homa was about to try again–

When, from the guard post, an irate voice sounded.

“Are you fucking stupid? You’re not allowed in here, Shimii! Go back to Tower Eight!”

“I’m sorry!” Homa cried out. Her ears curled against her head in fear.

Suddenly, a line of green and yellow laser light traveled over her body from the box.

“You’ve got nothing in your hands, nothing in your clothes– consider yourself lucky.”

Homa stood there, briefly speechless. Staring with wide, nearly weeping eyes at the glass.

Unable to see a person inside– at least the Tower Eight border guard were visibly there.

“Fuck off kid. Keep standing there and I’m going to read it as intent, understand?”

“I’m– I’m looking for someone! Please, it’s really important!”

There was a grumbling noise over whatever hidden sound system the guard post possessed.

“God damn it. Name and rank and you better be exact, kid. Or I’m calling this shit in.”

Homa cried out, “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić!”

Silence.

When the guard spoke again, she sensed a change in his tone.

“Um. Repeat please.” Was that a tremor in his voice?

Homa blinked. What was going on? “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.” She repeated.

There was no further response from the guard post. For a few minutes, nothing but silence. No motion, no lasers, nothing. As the silence stretched, it scared Homa more than the shouting.

Just at the point where Homa thought she would scream with anxiety–

–without warning, the black teeth of the bridge gate began to spread open.

Then she heard a pair of sharp footsteps approaching, a tap and a clicking heel.

Looking through the open gate, Homa spied the figure and her long, confident stride.

A swishing noise– a black peaked cap twirling on one of her fingers.

Homa had been right. Imani Hadžić was a Shimii like her, with rounded off ears and a very long, thick tail perfectly manicured into an unbroken little cylinder behind her. She had long limbs and a young face, cutting an attractive silhouette, a Madame Arabie in the making, Homa thought, but she was far tidier. Her dark blue hair was shoulder-length and orderly, covering the sides and back of her head quite evenly, with perfectly arranged bangs over her forehead and a slight curl at the back. Homa couldn’t tell whether she was wearing makeup, but she had a tiny bit of a blush to her. Thin spectacles perched on her nose.

Draped over her shoulders like a cape, the empty sleeves swaying with her movements, was an all-black Volkisch coat, with two red armbands around the sleeves emblazoned with black symbols in a white circle. One was a black disc surrounded by lightning bolts, the disc itself made up of a single line, like a picture of a complicated maze; the second armband had a black moon and a black sword in the white. Neither of these were symbols that she recognized; it was a Volkisch coat, but their symbol was an eagle.

Aside from the coat and the hat twirling like a toy in her slender fingers, she had on a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a buttoned-up collar, a black skirt, and pitch-black tights. Those sleek, sharp heels of hers lent her footsteps an almost metallic ringing on the thick concrete of the bridge. On the collar of the coat draped on her there were several pins, maybe signifying her rank or awards. Homa could not read or understand their significance, but she recalled what Becker had told her earlier.

From just looking at her, before she ever spoke a word–

That cold, cutting gaze on her pretty face– her self-confident stride–

a little grin forming on her lips as she approached–

–and the casual way she wore and played with her symbols of office.

Something, maybe her own nervousness, Becker’s words, a gut feeling, it all told her.

Imani Hadžić was the most dangerous person she had ever met.

She could almost see a black outline, like a dimension of death swirling around her.

And a red, furious glimmer in her eyes for the briefest of instants.

Was Homa hallucinating? When did she get like this?

Homa closed her fists and caught her breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her wits now.

Not in front of this woman.

As soon as Imani Hadzic crossed the bridge, Homa extended a hand in greeting.

Try to be brave now. She told herself.

As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Hadžić accepted the handshake and answered in a sickly-sweet voice.

Wa Alaykum Salamu.”

“I’m Homa Baumann. Madame Arabie sent me to deal with you–”

Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words!

“Eh– I mean–!”

“Oh? Deal with me? That’s very interesting. Then, let’s deal, Homa Baumann.”

Imani leaned into Homa and pulled her close, invading her personal space instantly.

They were almost breast-to-breast– Imani was nearly the same size as her.

Her grip was much stronger than her appearance would have suggested.

“Imani Hadžić. But you knew that already.”

Imani’s tail curled around Homa’s leg, prompting her to quiver.

Her warm breath in Homa’s cheek, and the smell coming off of her chest–

–unlike the sweet-smelling Arabie with her perfume, Hadžić smelled like chemicals.

Homa almost thought she might faint when she caught a whiff of it. She held back disgust.

“Homa Baumann. An interesting name; enchanted to meet you.”

Imani drew back, releasing Homa from her viper-like grip.

Her smile looking particularly twisted for a moment.

“So, I take it you’ve confirmed the appearance of our mutual acquaintance? And so soon, too.”

Awaiting an answer, Imani seamlessly went back to twirling her black cap on one finger.

Homa was forced back to reality. She was on the hook to complete this job.

“Yes, sorry, I did. There was a yacht in today, from Aachen, by way of Worms. Registered to Kitty McRoosevelt. She came with it too. Blond– there was a picture that Madame Arabie–”

“Indeed, this picture.”

With her free hand, Imani produced a small portable handset.

On its LCD screen was the exact photo that Madame Arabie had shown her.

The Standartenführer transitioned seamlessly to a calm, interrogative tone of voice.

She was not playing around with Homa anymore.

“So it was this woman?” Imani asked.

Homa started to feel at ease. “Yes, it was her. I’m completely certain, I talked to her.”

“What did she bring the yacht in for?”

“A lot of work. Full hull repainting and coating, hydrojets, electrical system.”

“How long will that work take you and your company?”

“We quoted her seven eight-hour days. We have a 2-day weekend this week, and next week we only get the Seventhday off, so– we’ll probably be done the week after, on that Firstday, I think.”

“Ah, the bottomless joy of the Imbrian work calendar.”

“We could have done it in a few days but we’re trying to wring money out of her.”

“You’re an honest girl. Well, don’t you worry about being too greedy. I’m positive she doesn’t care. She’s not in here to get that yacht repaired. That’s the crux of our entire dilemma, after all.“

“Madame Arabie told me to give you this letter.“

Homa withdrew the letter from the interior pocket of her jumpsuit.

Imani took the envelope and dextrously split the glued flap with her gloved fingers.

She withdrew the stone paper from inside. A single sheet, folded closed.

Her eyes scanned over the contents quickly, and then stashed the letter in her coat.

She seemed far less interested in the letter– than in Homa herself.

Slowly, that playful smile from before faded back in over her once neutral expression.

“Ho~ma~”

She said the words in a too-sweet singsong voice.

“Yes. I believe this can work Ho~ma~. Indeed, indeed.”

Was she talking to herself? Homa couldn’t tell where the conversation was going.

For a moment, Imani tilted her head toward the guard post.

“Hey, dumbass. This girl is with me. You scared the fuck out of her. Apologize now.”

From the hidden speakers on the guard’s box, Homa heard the guard’s trembling voice.

“Y-Yes ma’am. Acknowledged. Ms. Baumann– I’m terribly sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“You’d better show her outstanding customer service from now on.”

She didn’t have to say more. They all felt it. From the dreadful glare she was directing at the box, the threat was implicit. Homa almost imagined that she had said ‘I’ll kill you,’ ‘I’ll torture you,’ ‘you’re a dead man’ after each of those sentences. It seemed like the natural extension, and it felt like a form of cruelty to withhold the obvious. But Imani looked delighted with the response from the guard.

When she turned back to Homa, she was all smiles again.

“Ho~ma~ heh, what a cute name.” She leaned into Homa again, but not as close as before. Homa tried not to breathe in the smell. What was it anyway? It smelled like the inside of a hospital. “I asked Arabie,” Imani continued casually, “if she had an urchin with connections to a private dock, so we could have a firm hand in Kitty McRoosevelt’s scheming. After our arrangement, I surreptitiously worked to have her land in B.S.W to keep an eye on her. I never expected to get such an interesting specimen in return though. Yes, I’m interested in you. Homa, from now on, you’re working for me, okay? Kitty McRoosevelt is a dangerous terrorist and has done many misdeeds in Eisental. I am afraid she might be plotting her worst attack yet. With your help, however, we can save Kreuzung Station from another catastrophe.”

“Ma’am–?”

She saw it again– those red glinting eyes that stared as if right through her.

What was it that Imani Hadžić was seeing through those eyes that interested her this much?

Madame Arabie had made it sound like she would be Imani’s gopher for a bit, which was an ordinary task for Homa, but she didn’t expect Imani to get so handsy. Her entire demeanor was terrifying. Her presence was so heavy, so morbid, but Homa barely understood where those feelings were coming from. She tried to be rational, to return to her own motivations. She needed to stay good with Madame Arabie, and she wanted money, whether Hadžić’s, Arabie’s or even that Madiha character’s money–

–and even more than that, the word terrorist began ringing around in her brain.

Joining the expanse of black, mottled with colors, that had overtaken her emotions.

There really was some catastrophe brewing in the station.

And if it hit, maybe Homa wouldn’t even survive it this time.

She didn’t think Imani Hadžić was a good or heroic person at all. She was a soldier, and in Kreuzung, the soldiers had been beating and killing people weeks ago in order to “restore order” and “prevent a catastrophe.” Homa had no sympathy for that kind of wanton terror. But if she could help Imani to keep things from escalating to that point, then maybe such an action could be called heroic.

There was another voice, that Homa didn’t want to acknowledge.

Because it felt childish, and simple, the thinking of a kid when she needed to be an adult.

However– she did, distantly, think that this would be adventurous, exciting

“What do you say, Ho~ma~? Would you be willing to help me– or–?”

Imani Hadžić was not going to give her a choice, anyway.

Homa saw it written in her face. She was already Imani’s puppet, she was destined to be.

But she wasn’t going to do it for nothing.

“Ma’am, I’ve been promised a lot of payment and gotten none. I need a guarantee.”

“Oh? How bold of you. Trying to extort something upfront? My, my, my–”

Imani’s fingers suddenly darted to Homa’s cheek. She thought she would be slapped–!

Instead, however, they simply patted on the edge of her jaw and sat there, holding her.

“–You’re lucky that you’re a Shimii. Or at least, half one.”

Her disdainful, icy gaze locked on to Homa’s own.

“If I didn’t have a soft spot for you, that would have been a slap. Little~ Ho~ma~”

She drummed her fingers on Homa’s cheek. Homa remained speechless in her grasp.

“I– I need money for my rent. It’s coming up. Otherwise I’ll be kicked out.”

It took all her strength to speak despite the smothering, invisible weight around Imani.

But Homa spoke up. She tried to meet Imani’s icy gaze with determination.

For a moment, she realized Imani’s eyes were two different shades of icy blue.

Among the Shimii, this was exceedingly rare. Mismatched eyes.

As rare as Homa’s mutant tail– but viewed as beautiful rather than shameful.

Imani Hadžić was not only a full-blooded Shimii, she was an exceedingly rare kind.

“That’s it? That’s such a humble request. It’s so cute. Sure. I’ll pay your rent. Personally.”

Imani drew back, crossing her arms and giggling.

“Ma’am–?”

Personally? Why did she emphasize that?

“But maybe I’ll use your address to come bug you too~ we’ll see!”

Oh no–

Before Homa could object or respond, Imani reached into her coat and procured a second handset portable of the same model as the one she had been using before. It was a trendy new model, handheld with a slate form factor, jet black with a crisp touchscreen. If Madame Arabie was 15 years younger she might have been glued to a device like this. It fit perfectly in one’s hands, could go into any pocket, but it had the same computing potential as a normal portable terminal or room computer connected to the station’s network. Homa had seen them advertised around the pavilion shopping center.

Nonchalantly, Imani handed to Homa ten thousand marks worth of tech.

“I’ll contact you through this whenever I need you. I’m not clingy, I don’t expect you to twist into a knot to call me back or answer my mails immediately, but if I don’t hear from you within the same day, I will camp out at your apartment and get answers personally. Fair warning not to leave me hanging.”

“What? I can just have this–? Ma’am, this– this is really expensive–”

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Take good care of it. Don’t lose it– or pawn it or anything.”

“I wasn’t going to! So to be completely clear, I can just keep this, to talk to you?”

“You can use it to watch videos or play games or whatever too. I don’t care.”

Homa blinked, looking down at the handset’s black LCD with confusion.

“I’m– I guess I’ll give it a go? Um. Thanks ma’am. This is– a lot more than I expected.”

“Uh huh. Anyway. I’ll call or mail you when I need you. We’ll talk about your rent later.”

She turned sharply around, waving her hand behind herself.

Homa could still see that grin, clear as day, still right in front of her.

That was how fast, how confidently, she dismissed her.

“Take care, my~ little~ Ho~ma~,” she laughed, as the black jaws of the gate shut behind her.

Leaving Homa paralyzed for a moment, still processing the wind that had swept her up.


By the time Homa had walked all the way back to Tower Eight from Laurentius, it was night again, and she wouldn’t have time to go food shopping. However, because she had eaten with Madame Arabie yesterday, she still had beef cube lonac in the morning, and could have more of it when she returned. Then tomorrow, she could set her bone marrow lonac to cook and have it for dinner.

She did not usually meet anyone on the way back to her apartment, but coming back this late at night, two nights in a row, made her feel a bit lonelier. There was nothing to be done about it, however. Homa had no friends, a generational difference to almost all of her coworkers, and was foreign enough, weird about gender enough, and secular enough, that she didn’t feel comfortable going to the mosque, or hitting the clubs. She worked, and she ate– her only hobbies were just reading fantasy stories, which was hard to do on the walls of her room, and sports, particularly waterjet racing, which were cancelled.

From her pocket, she withdrew the slate Imani Hadžić had given her. It was nice to have a portable.

When she graduated from vocational school, they took the terminal she got loaned for studying.

And Shimii weren’t allowed to withdraw anything from Core Station lending libraries to take home.

Maybe she would spend her days off playing with this portable. Figure out the games and such.

It’d be easier to read books on it too. She could pick up reading The Coral Knight again.

As soon as she returned to her home, she threw off all her clothes on the floor and jumped into bed. She would have to get up soon to eat and shower, but she had been walking for so long and she needed to relax. That cool comfort of her room’s climate control, the LED clusters overhead, the stale scent of metal around her, it brought her relief. She was home, she was safe. No more walking. No work.

She lifted the portable in both hands, holding it over her eyes. Her mind drifted off.

Kitty McRoosevelt, the terrorist. Madame Arabie, the gangster. Imani Hadžić, the cruel and dark soldier. Homa Baumann, the noble knight, caught up in the whirlwind of events. Her exhausted mind drifted off into little fantasies of this. Her pure heart standing determined against evil; but aside from fantasy, she felt no emotions. In that moment, she was not shaking, and the stress had passed her by. She felt fear when she was in the presence of some bigshot. But in her room, everything was eerie, normal.

Out there, outside her door, there was some kind of plan in motion.

In here however– well, wasn’t that always the case?

Homa was not an esteemed knight involved in some quest. She was just some kid.

Shimii had no knights. They lived in the shadows of the Imbrians’ wars and upheavals.

Things just happened to them. They did not have the power to be involved.

“Ugh. Quit thinking about that big brain stuff. You’ll go insane, Homa Baumann.“

She rolled over on her side, toying with the portable, her tiny tail wiggling what it could.

“I’m gonna pick up the Coral Knight where I left off this instant.“

A dose of pulp heroics would do wonders for her mood–

Then as she began to feel cozy and relaxed, the portable lit up suddenly in front of her face.

She saw a portrait appear on the display and a recognized name to match the face: Imani Hadžić.

Homa fumbled with the portable, sat up, put it to her ear; heart gripped instantly in fear.

“Oh good.” Imani’s tinny voice sounding from the portable. “You’re awake, Ho~ma~”

That little drawn-out singsong rendition of her name again. “Um, officer Hadžić, ma’am–?”

“Eww, don’t call me that. Homa, you are to call me ‘Imani’ at all times from now on, okay? Anyway. We’re going on a date. Meet me in Kreuzung, G3 Block, Tier 8, tomorrow at 9 o clock sharp. The block is called ‘Ballad’s Paradise’ if that makes it any easier to find it. Wear something decent, okay?”

Homa felt like someone had taken a mallet to her chest. “A– um– uh– a date?”

“Uh huh. You ever been on one? Don’t worry. I’m the kind of girl who takes the lead if she has to. You just show up and look nice next to me, okay? It’s a really nice place I’m taking you, expensive too.”

“Um. Imani. With all due respect– why are we going on a date?”

She heard a loud and clear and extremely dismissive scoff on the line.

“It’ll be super fun and you’re gonna love it. C’mon, it’s the last day off I’m gonna have in a while.”

Homa heard a softly ringing noise as Imani suddenly disconnected.

Surprised, she lifted the slate from her ear, stared at the screen in disbelief.

A moment later, a little banner on the screen notified her of a message.

Homa flicked her finger at the banner–

And found a mail, consisting of nothing but a black heart, sent by Imani Hadžić.

She fell back down to the bed, the slate slipping out of her fingers.

Up from her chest, she lifted a hand and set it over her eyes.

Homa drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs.

In silent awe and growing exasperation of the capricious witch she was involved with.

“What have I gotten myself into? She better fucking pay my rent.”

So much for all the adventure and mystery. This really was her life now.

Of course, there was no choice. Not with this woman– not with any part of it.

She was someone who things happened to. Not someone who could do anything.

So then– now the only question was, what would Homa even wear?

To her date tomorrow. With Imani Hadžić.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.1]

Two thousand meters under the surface of a fallen world, in the pitch-black depths of the Imbrium Ocean, there sounded the guttural cries and clashing arms of a great rebellion. It was an era of great tumults.

“We can defeat them. Remain steady! We are the Ummah! La tahzan innallaha ma`ana!

Do not fear, God is with us.

In the year 934 “After Descent,” in the rocky, deep land of Eisental, armies arrayed themselves over a chasm that yawned red with ancient blood. Thirty three ships on one side and fifty-two on the other; the grey and gold Imbrian ships with beveled prows, winged fins, heavily filigreed in the symbols of Empire; versus the boxy, brown, almost brick-like vessels of the “jihadists” challenging them.

As they approached, the combatants saw each other only as blurry images on computer screens. Sonar sensors, laser imaging arrays, computerized rangefinders. To the opposing side, they were each concealed physically within their own vessels and invisible. Never would they meet; they would not see each other bleed. Yet it was a war all the same, with the weapons of the age locked and ready to kill.

It was said that the Imbrians were stronger, that with less ships they could still win.

It was said by defeatists, “one Imbrian ship is the equal to ten of the ships we can make.”

This was neither science, nor was it respectful of themselves and their ummah.

Mehmed Khalifa knew that the Shimii could not only fight the Imbrians; they could win.

This Imbrium Ocean had seen so much upheaval, been the site of so much pain.

Once referred to as the “Atlantean” ocean after a civilization that had control of it, the Imbrium lay in the western hemisphere of the world, fenced in by the dead continents of Occultis and Nobilis and bifurcated by the presumed remains of “Atlante” now called the “Khaybar Mountain,” which divided the Imbrians north to south, east to west in their waters. This was the ocean’s secret history, known to a few– in 934 After Descent, this ocean was only known by the name of its latest conqueror, The Imbrian Empire.

Mehmed Khalifa kept the secret — and how he learned it — to himself.

“Atlante” was an irrelevant word. Only the world of the here and now truly existed.

It was because this Imbrium Ocean had seen so much upheaval, because it was divided, that Mehmed knew that he could win. If the Imbrian Empire was founded over this, then it was founded on the corpse of a world and its own Imbrian Empire before it. So then, what precluded Mehmed from building his own Empire over this mass grave? He had the power to rule, and he had the site to lay down his palace.

As he stood on the bridge of his flagship, as the ships neared a kilometer of each other and began to fire their blazing weaponry, Mehmed Khalifa watched the computer screens intently. He had divined the enemy’s intention and put together his strategy. Now all he could do was watch it unfold before him. To believe in the men and women he trained, to believe in the powers that he had given his people.

For a moment, he was gripped by a great anxiety–

At his side, a heavy hand set down comfortably on his shoulder. It felt warm, familiar.

Mehmed turned, his cat-like ears vibrating slightly at the touch, locking eyes–

Smiling, as a deep voice told him, “Imam of Imams, I am blessed to fight at your side.”

In return, a fond whisper drew from his lips–

One word, full of all of his love. “Radu–”


Inside the apartment a percussive noise began to play from the room’s sound system. Along with the reverberating sound, the bed was also gently vibrating to awaken its occupant. Her limbs seemed to wake before the rest of her, her legs kicking out while her hand groggily laid on the wall. Around her hand a square outline lit up green on the wall surface, authenticating her to the room.

Homa Baumann lifted herself up to a sitting position. Head pounding with fading visions.

With the room lights off, a tiny crack of yellow light from the hall cut across the floor.

Blearily, she rubbed her hand over her face and over her hair. Her cat-like ears folded forward as she ran her hand over them. Behind her, she swished her short, fluffy bobbed tail. She had an odd dream, but the sight and sound of it was slipping away from her as her senses returned. There was a lot of praying in the dream, in Fusha— a language Homa knew embarrassingly little about for a Shimii.

From across the room, she heard a low, whirring mechanical noise.

LEDs lit up on a little machine; a timer, and a temperature reading.

For a moment, with her legs out of bed but her mind lagging behind, Homa sat quietly.

Aside from the noise of her cooking pot, reheating yesterday’s lonac, everything was quiet.

“Turn the lights on, dim.”

At once, the LED clusters on the roof came to life, casting a gentle white light.

Homa found herself surrounded by smooth, metal walls. Behind these walls were various amenities tucked away with sliding plates. There was a tiny bathroom, tighter than a public bathroom stall, with a combination shower, toilet, and sink subject to water fees. There was a small closet that could warm and spray down her clothes for a tiny fee. Most of her possessions lived under the square frame of her bed, which had a remarkably soft mattress, about the only room feature that felt luxurious.

Her most prized possession, however, was her multicooker digital pot.

Sat atop a small refrigerator in the corner opposite her bed, the pot had a simple computer and a panel for touchscreen controls on the front. It could hold around 7.5 liters and it had a metal pot that could sear meat, and it could also boil, and cook under pressure, as well as having other modes. Every morning, Homa could get up from bed and finish off yesterday’s lonac, and then cook today’s stew in it.

Homa’s head began to simmer with the directives of daily living. She made herself get up.

She slid her hand over the wall behind her fridge and multicooker and it slid open.

Inside were a few plastic bowls and cups, cutlery, and other items, along with three pill bottles.

She popped open two of the pill bottles and took into hand a pink pill and a yellow one.

Taking a cup from the little closet, she went to the bathroom, slid open the door, and with her elbow, hit the touchpad on the wall to bring up the sink, which slid out of the wall inside the bathroom stall. There was barely enough room to actually enter the stall with the sink raised up, so she did everything at arm’s length, taking water from the sink and drinking her pills before returning to the multicooker.

Homa made a mental note that she was running low on her pills.

She would need to make a trip to the Gender Equality Institute– if it was open at all.

These days, with the whole Volkisch thing–

Bah–

She didn’t want to think about it. Food first; then go to work. That was her life.

Cracking open the instant pot, she found, freshly warmed up from its slumber, a bowlful of an orange and red stew, thick with pale green cabbage, glistening with rendered fat, shredded chunks of red-flecked brown meat tucked away like little treasures inside. While the stew was traditionally made with many vegetables, her “bachelor’s lonac” was composed of mainly cabbage, with a bit of stew meat, flavored with tomato paste and “Zlata,” a seasoning blend of dried and powdered vegetables with a little salt.

This meal was her humble companion, keeping her alive. It was her little ritual.

She filled her bowl by pulling the pot out of the multicooker base and tipping the contents into it. Then she set the pot back. Before eating, she bent down to the refrigerator and checked her current stocks. She had some cubed stewing beef left, which she put into the pot, and then set the pot to sear it nice and hot for a few minutes while she ate; she still had a bag of cabbage for today’s pot, but she would need to get more. She had a bit of bread, and a cupcake that a neighbor had given her, along with her seasoning bottles and tubes, which were still decently in order. Satisfied, Homa returned to bed with her bowl.

Homa lifted a spoonful of stew into her mouth and instantly shut her eyes with pleasure.

Lonac warmed her heart. Every morning and every night.

That vegetal, tangy cabbage and savory meat made her want to keep living.

Everything was tastier when she was hungry, but this stew was her little masterpiece.

Despite everything, despite all the hardships, she could at least do this–

Tears welled up in her eyes. She tried to fight them back as she ate.

There was no use crying. Crying wouldn’t make anything easier than it was.

Every day that she lived, God willing, was a day where something good could happen.

So she focused on the taste of the food, how good it felt to eat. She forgot the bad things.

“Have to get food ready for tonight, and then get to work. That’s it; that’s everything.”

Homa cleaned out her bowl, and by then, the cubed beef got a bit of a sear and rendered some fat into the pot, to join whatever drippings were left over from the last pot. Homa took a mug of water and poured it into the pot, along with a squeeze of tomato paste from a tube and a half-dozen shakes of Zlata seasoning from a “family size” shaker bigger than her fist. She stirred the liquid, paste and seasoning until it formed a uniform yellowish-orange, flecked with red. Then she layered shredded cabbage and topped everything off with a bit more liquid before sealing and programming the pot.

Those beef cubes were very tough; tender marbled beef was expensive for Shimii to get. However, the beef cubes were full of flavor waiting to be unlocked. Cooking them all day in the pot broke down the tough meat and spread rich, savory flavors into the cabbage, making a little meat go a long way.

Tonight, she would come home to enough lonac for a big bowl for dinner and breakfast.

To ensure that would continue to be the case she would have to hit the market after work.

And to do that, she needed to get paid.

If a ship came today, or if she got some kind of gig at the docks, she could make it.

Inshallah, she would make it.

She double checked the pot, double checked the fridge, and then walked over to the closet.

From the closet, she withdrew her black lycra diving suit, a sports bra, and the jumpsuit she wore to work. She stripped off the camisole and shorts she wore to bed, putting them in place of her work clothes so they would get freshened up inside the closet. Because showers cost money, she only showered when she came back home from work. In the morning, she still felt pretty fresh from her last shower.

Then from the cupboard, she withdrew a necklace, a weathered old thing, valueless.

She carefully, even reverently, put it around her neck. She would zip her jumpsuit over it.

In terms of sentimental value, it was a priceless good luck charm.

And she needed all the good luck she could get.

Homa dressed, pulling her fluffy little bundle of a tail through the holes in her diving suit and jumpsuit. She tied up her blue-black hair into a fluffy ponytail, donned her work boots, and from the same cupboard with her bowls and pills, she withdrew a trio of ID cards clipped to a lanyard. One was her dockworker pass, another her resident ID, and the third was her work permit for the main Kreuzung station, so she could leave the segregated Tower Eight. Those papers were her entire life.

“Power saving mode until I return. If there’s an outage, apply battery to the multicooker.”

She gave instructions to the room computer, and an acknowledgment appeared on the wall.

Then she left the room.

Directly outside her room was a hall, a few meters wide, soft brown matting covering the metal floor, while the walls were the same bare metal colors as the rooms. Room doors lined the walls, and the hall branched at every 10 doors. Each room had a customizable framed plaque space where something could be displayed to add color to the hall. Homa did not use hers for anything but her next-door neighbor on the right, who had given her the cupcake, had a banner with Al-Fusha characters, purple and gold colored. Homa could not read it, but her neighbor told her: it meant “God loves those who do good.”

Homa followed the hall to an elevator, and she took this elevator up sixty stories.

Kreuzung Tower Eight was known as the “Shimii District.” It was “tower eight” because it was situated at the 8 o’ clock position from the central tower. There were twelve towers in total, each connected to the core station by a tube. Shimii were rarely allowed to live in the main tower, so Tower Eight had rooms, shops, mosques, and other amenities distributed across the tiers of the tower for their use, so that they would never need to leave its confines. At the very top of the tower was the tram that led into Kreuzung, along with a small dock exclusively for the delivery of goods via the cargo elevator. That tram was Homa’s destination, but she would stop at the market a few tiers down from it on the way back home.

Her room was underground, in the cheapest habitat to live in.

Above her, there were tiers with real houses, even a simulated sky with rain.

And the sort of people who could afford to live in them– certainly not her.

She spent several minutes on the elevator, people infrequently stopping to get in and out. Doors opened and closed quickly shut on seedy commercial areas, a beautiful garden plaza surrounding a mosque, a massive warehousing district, an expensive housing habitat, all piled up on top of each other, slices of the layer cake of Shimii living in Kreuzung. Finally, Homa looked out the door onto the upper tier.          

Homa stepped out onto a metal floor —

–and found herself, immediately, crushingly, surrounded. Surrounded by something enormous.

Staring up, helplessly, and recalling the details of her life, framed beneath the metal and glass.

She did not just live in a normal room, contained in a building, with her pot of lonac.

It was the year 979 A.D. in Kreuzung, capital station of the Imbrian province of Eisental.

Homa lived 2500 meters under a vast ocean beneath the dead surface of the planet Aer.

It never got easier to look at the enormity of the cold, dark, and vast Imbrian Ocean under which they all lived. Tower Eight’s upper floor had reinforced metal ceiling girders with enormous gaps between them that were glass paneled, exposing grand long streaks of the swirling black water outside, along with the occasional glimpse of marine life. Along with that glass and metal dome overhead, the thick, sturdy tram tunnel connecting Tower Eight to Kreuzung loomed in the distance with its sealed metal hatch.

That tram tunnel, massive and industrial, was like an arm that Kreuzung had extended out to Tower Eight, clapping on its head and squeezing, uttering ‘you Shimii belong to me, and this is your place.”

For just a minute, Homa felt a sense of foreboding. Maybe it was the long elevator ride that took something out of her at just that moment every day, and the combination of that and then staring at the deep blue-black eye of Shaitan threatening to crush her from overhead. For a moment, she felt like a speck of dust. Her breath caught in her chest, her eyes briefly spun, she felt vertigo. But every day, she mastered herself, closed her fists at her sides, and made herself walk to the tram station.

“Go to work, come back, eat dinner. I can do this.” Homa whispered to herself.

She did it every day– today was no different. It would be the same for the rest of her life.

There was a checkpoint beside the tram platform, with an armed, uniform Imbrian officer in a booth behind safety glass. Homa could see the waiting tram engine and its two cars on the track. There was no line in front of the checkpoint; a paltry few cat-eared, cat-tailed people were waiting on the tram station already having crossed the gate. She walked up to the guard’s booth by herself.

“Card up against the reader. You know the drill.” Said the guard in a disinterested voice.

He was watching a video on a portable terminal.

That guard was not there to operate the gate and card reader. They operated themselves.

He was there to shoot gate jumpers or arrest people with forged papers.

Homa held her work permit card up to the touchpad on the guard’s booth.

A few seconds later, the gate partially opened, allowing her through, before shutting again.

“Have a wonderful day at the Kreuzung core station.” The guard mumbled.

Homa did not respond to that. She walked to the edge of the tram platform and waited.

Finally, the train doors opened, Homa walked in, and took a seat.

There were less than a dozen Shimii around, and all of them dressed in work clothes, Homa saw a woman who was clearly a desk secretary, a man in a padded suit, maybe from a cleaning company, and others like them. Unpainted metal walls, barely padded plastic seats, there was not much to say about the tram itself. When the hatch into the tram tunnel opened however, the dark, yawning maw ahead was just a bit unnerving. With the few people in the tram, and everyone keeping to themselves, there was nothing to hear but the indistinct metallic sounds of train on track, stirring right through Homa’s gut.

At first the tunnel was fully sealed and there was nothing to see out the windows.

As they approached Kreuzung, there was a section that was made of glass, and through the ceiling panel window of the tram car, it was possible to see the vast shadow of Kreuzung ahead of them. Tower Eight was about 700 meters tall, with about 400 meters of it above ground, but Kreuzung was over 1.2 km tall and it was even wider than tall. Compared to Tower Eight, it was its own separate, entire world.

All of this, the vast Kreuzung, and its twelve clockwise towers, was set into an enormous crater itself several kilometers in diameter, and Homa had heard the crater was actually ringed with external facilities, and the walls of the crater had habitats for mineral workers and soldiers, and military and industry installations– overall, the Kreuzung crater and the entire complex housed millions of people, it was massive. It was not even the largest such complex either– the Palatine and Veka both had a city complex larger than this. And Shimii legends told that their ancient cities were bigger and grander.

Nevertheless, that moment in the tunnel, staring up at the distant shadow of Kreuzung, an enormous pillar that rose to fill the sky, its millions of lights barely outlining its figure in the vast darkness of the Imbrium– Homa almost felt like it was meant to make her feel small. Like it was deliberate.

As if to say to her personally, that there was no possible way to change any part of this.

Homa Baumann, a poor mixed race Shimii, brown skinned, dark haired, sitting alone in that tram in her blue jumpsuit and workboots, her fluffy tiny stub of a tail caught against the seat, her yellow eyes staring up at that pillar. Struggling for food, struggling for medicine, struggling to control her life, segregated from the Imbrians who could come and go where they pleased, who owned this ocean. None of this could be challenged by someone like her. All she could was sit down and stare at it every day.

In the shadow of a thousand year history of her people that led to this day.

Things she barely knew or understood, loomed over her, whispering shadows.

Sitting there alone on the tram with all of this in sight, she thought–

How did it come to this?

How did it come to be that their people lived with these injustices?

But she never even learned Fusha, she barely really knew their religion. She didn’t know their history.

She went to school with the Imbrians and never learned much there either.

So how could she even begin to think about such things?

She held a hand up to her head. “Just go to work, come back home, and eat.” She mumbled.


Homa stepped off the tram in Kreuzung to a sectioned off platform where Shimii were subject to yet another inspection before they entered the station proper. At the gate out of the platform, she had to go through a combination heat, laser, and acoustic body scanner with a gate. She shut her eyes; she knew it was over when she felt the rumble of the ground sonar shake out over her skin.

“Free to go. Next in line, come on!”

She was ushered out of the gate area by an additional guard, and down a slightly angled ramp. She walked through a dimly lit maintenance tunnel before coming out through a nondescript door that fed into Kreuzung. When she stepped out, she was already in the middle of a crowd. It felt like they wanted her to blend in, but she always felt like she was committing a crime by coming here with how walled off and surreptitious everything was. Like she broke in despite being let through.

Kreuzung was so enormous, it didn’t make much sense to think of it in terms of tiers like she thought about Tower Eight. Each “tier” of Kreuzung had multiple modules inside it called “blocks” that could have vastly different uses and layouts. Homa found herself in an enormous, vast pavilion with multiple stories. Each ring was divided up into spaces for storefronts, restaurants, and other businesses, connected by a spiraling staircase in the middle, or by elevators. Everything was ritzy, the thoroughfares were carpeted blue and fenced with glass panels beneath pearl-white guardrails. Every storefront had colorful digital signage and prominently displayed its hottest merchandise up front, such that scanning the horizon was like looking through a catalog of clothes, electronics, food, toys, jewelry, home decorations, anything Homa could possibly think to buy was sold here, maybe even by a few different shops a piece.

Unlike Tower Eight, where the ceiling never got far enough to ever feel like a sky, this pavilion alone had stories that were twenty meters tall each, and at the top, where Homa was, the domed glass ceiling that was projecting an artificial sunlight looking down into the mall was forty meters up. Even in the tiers of Tower Eight that had individual “buildings” instead of just halls of “rooms,” most of the “houses” were maybe, at most, 10 by 10 meters inside, much bigger that Homa’s room but not extraordinarily so.

Here, each shop was bigger than that, and even the humblest storefront was the size of six or seven or eight of Homa’s room. It was truly insane, the amount of space being devoted to commerce.

Homa could sometimes afford to shop at some of the stores here, or to eat at the restaurants, but she preferred to frequent the shops in Tower Eight because she always felt like people were staring at her in Kreuzung. Not only that, but every item was also more expensive in Kreuzung, even in budget shops, so where she could buy two shirts and a pair of sturdy boots in Tower Eight, she could buy a shirt or some synthestitched sneakers in Kreuzung– though they’d be from flashier brands at least.

It was lean times for her company, however, so her wallet was looking worse for wear.

She could forget about trying on a dress or any more feminine clothes than she had–

If they didn’t get a few ships today, she wouldn’t be able to make rent this month.

She would have to ask for help– maybe even do the unthinkable, ask Madame Arabie–

No way– things had to work out today. Homa waded her way through the crowd.

Making it to the elevator, and down to the dock owned by Bertrand Shore Works.

B.S.W. was a bit out of the way, for a commercial dock.

They were at the bottom of the Kreuzung pillars and Homa had to take an elevator, walk through a residential hallway, and then take a second elevator, to reach a dark, grimy old cargo ramp that she took into the dock’s “dry” structure. That sense of grand scale returned as she crossed the bulkhead door from the ramp into the docks proper, and everything opened up in front of her, from a tunnel into a grand and open mechanical space, 50 meters tall from the walkable floor, but up to 75 meters tall in the berths.

Attached to the dock platform, BSW owned two cage berths, enormous boxes with titanium walls and massive glass windows that could be sealed for extra protection. These structures opened and closed into the Imbrium ocean outside. Each berth had complete water and pressure control, separated between the two, multiple magnetic arms, and the ability to extend platforms to the docked ships so they could work on them “dry” or while flooded. Both berths could hold up to a Cruiser in size. One of the Berths, the one farthest, was attached to a massive mechanical conveyor, its mighty gear-works exposed on the far wall, that could take a ship up and out of the berth, out of B.S.W and into the city itself, for heavy duty work at a contracted or private yard– or for scrapping and parts sale. It was a gate into the tower proper.

Everything was black metal and green grime, sharp angles and discolorations, rainbow pools of oils, chemical weathering in parts of the floor from accidents, burns on the walls, it was an ugly place, but it was massive, industrial, the kind of place that Homa wanted to work in, piloting huge machines and working on ships. There was an open space where they could work on parts repair for individual ship sections, flanked by a parking space for a forklift, a crane, two demilitarized Volker Diver suits and a wheeled ferrostitcher assembly the size of a truck. Just off of the ship conveyor at the far wall there was a shitty little plastic building that housed the main office, the bathroom, and the breakroom.

Homa walked along the edge of the berth walls, glancing at the massive, empty windows into the Imbrium. Because these were lit up by the berth’s lights, the water was a dark, greenish-blue rather than pitch black. There was nothing there, but she was trying to manifest it. Today, they would get a ship in, and get a good chunk of cash out of the deal. Or at least a gig around the station waters.

As she approached the back of the main building, she heard a lively discussion.

“–it’s crazy, isn’t it? They work for Rhineanmetalle, make way more than we do, with benefits, and they’re still bitchin’? No one would give a shit if it was us here making a fuss at old Bertrand, nobody would give us solidarity, but those guys can throw a fit and have TV cameras up their ass in one afternoon.”

“Ehh, no use thinking about it. I don’t think the Volkisch are going to let it drag on long.”

“Those Volkisch haven’t been able to oust old Werner from the high tower. They weren’t able to stop the riots either. We were lucky that mess stopped itself. I’m telling you, these guys’ tantrum is gonna last for weeks and give us all headaches. What if ships don’t come in when they hear of it? It could get bad.”

“Ships already are barely coming in. I don’t think strikers are gonna change any of that.”

“But that striking shit, it scares off the business type guys. I’m telling you, it’ll be trouble.”

“What are you two hollering about?”

Homa approached from around the corner of the office, brows arched with curiosity.

She found her two older coworkers, Becker and Aicher, chatting away with their backs to the plastic wall beside the office door, small disposable coffee cups in their hands. They were both dressed in the same blue jumpsuit coveralls as she was. They were old hardy men, olive skinned, rough voiced, with lots of facial hair and little on their heads, rough hands, big shoulders, and bad backs.

Both of them put on their best facsimiles of a smile when Homa appeared, as if it took some effort to get their faces beyond sneering. Becker and Aicher had been sneering for a long time.

“Mornin’ little sunshine!” Becker said. “Homa, did I ever tell you you’re about the only damn reason to want to come to Bertrand’s junk pile these days? Did I ever tell her, Aicher?”

Aicher rolled his eyes. “I really wish you never had, not now and not before.”

“Oh come on.” Homa frowned at Becker. “At least bug me later in the day than this.”

“Sure thing doll.” Becker said. “We were talking about the strikers.”

“Strikers?”

“Yeah, you know, when folks get mad at the boss, and try to take over the equipment.”

“I know what a strike is– I didn’t know one was going on.” Homa replied.

“It’s the steelworkers at Rhineanmetalle. Tower Nine.” Aicher said.

Becker scoffed, shaking his head. He was clearly impassioned by the topic.

“I was just tellin’ Aicher, those guys make a killing compared to us greasemonkeys at the docks, and they’re still throwing fits? They should be happy to have a job at all. Not everyone gets to live in a place like Kreuzung, it’s not cheap, but at least it’s nice, there’s opportunity. Every room has a computer! Those guys make enough to eat at nice places, have good rooms. They oughta be keeping quiet.”

“I guess so.” Homa said. She was immediately worried.

Rhineanmetalle was a lot of the reason Kreuzung was the way it was.

It wasn’t just the steelworks at Tower Nine. It was almost everything.

The factories in Tower Three, the engineer habs in Tower Ten, the semiconductor plant, and hell, the equipment for the police and the garrison too. Kreuzung had a huge school mainly sponsored by Rhineanmetalle for its STEM program. Homa began to worry, that if there was some trouble with Rhineanmetalle in one place, it would make trouble for the entire station complex.

She wasn’t angry at the steelworkers– if she could shout at old Bertrand for more money and get anything out of it she would have been happy to do so. She couldn’t blame them. She was anxious and a bit annoyed, verging on anger, at “the way things were” in a vague sense. Any kind of disruption would just get the Volkisch riled up. People might get hurt. Prices of stuff might go up. She barely got through the week of the election back when the Volkisch took over Thurin. That was an absolute nightmare.

Everyone at Kreuzung was panicking and taking advantage of the panic.

People did get hurt and prices did go up, despite how far away the violence in Thurin was.

And Tower Eight locked down. The Shimii were left to fend for themselves.

Even when liberal old Werner remained the governor, people still panicked at Kreuzung.

“Man, this sucks.” Homa mumbled. At least back then she had a little money saved up.

Becker nodded his head. “Well, what else can we do? Let’s just hope whatever head-cracking goes down will just go down fast and be done. Homa, you need the money more, so I’ll let you tool up the vehicles, that’s what Bertrand wanted us doing today anyway.” He pointed to the machines sitting at the edge of the workspace. They needed tire changes, battery checks, and other routine maintenance.

While this was partially him fobbing off work on her, it was also kind on Becker’s part.

Homa might have gotten fired by old Bertrand if she had nothing to do for this long.

Becker and Aicher and the other crew had seniority. Homa was the new kid, and a Shimii.

Even with her Diver piloting certification. They had another pilot– they could do without.

So she saluted old Becker with a little smile. She wasn’t opposed to working.

She preferred to have a job than not; and she liked getting to poke at the heavy equipment.

Homa walked inside the office, waving at the secretary behind the desk, a compact lady with short brown hair named Emma. She waved back with a smile, while working on something on her desktop terminal. The interior was white plastic, far less dirty than the exterior, with nothing more than Emma’s desk, the closed door to Bertrand’s office, and the door to the breakroom. Homa put her hand on a scanner on the wall next to the breakroom door, which would clock her in and automatically clock her out at the end of the day. Dockworkers were paid by the hour, but their base pay was subpar because without ships or cargo they were being paid to sit around, and Bertrand was stingy about it. But on top of their mediocre hourly pay, they had opportunities to earn some real cash through piecework and gigs.

Once she was clocked in, the tools locker would allow her to take out needed equipment.

Thus she began her business of the day.

Her first target would be the Diver, since they could get a gig at any moment that might require her to go out in it. They had two demilitarized Volkers, stripped of their curved round armor so they looked like a pair of crates with arms and legs and an exposed camera system for a head. Some of the ductwork for the hydrojet backpack and its front-facing water intakes was exposed. It was still a Diver, a large humanoid armor built for braving the ocean, so it could still withstand pressure and allow the operator to go out in the water and perform work (or fight bad guys, in some far-off impossible fantasy of Homa’s.)

However, without its armor, it needed regular maintenance to remain operable. Seawater would wear away the so-called “waterproof” lubricants and seals on the exposed joints. The armor on a Diver was alloyed against seawater corrosion, but the interior works meant to be hidden behind armor were not as protected, and without the armor, corroded much faster. That meant the lubricants and waterproof sealant had to be reapplied judiciously, and the machine had to be checked for corrosion, and any exposed weld joins or bolts or joint balls exhibiting advanced stages of corrosion had to be completely replaced. Thankfully the metal could be partially broken down and reused by their Ferristitcher, or else Homa would probably be paid even worse by Bertrand if he had to buy new parts all the time.

As long as Homa caught problems in time, it wasn’t too bad.

As she worked on the Diver’s legs, checking the knee and its internal water intake, the “pelvic” platform to which the legs attached to the cockpit structure of the chest, the ankle joint that allowed the angling of the hydrojet on the sole of the foot– Homa looked up sometimes, her heart soaring with a bit of awe at the machine. Standing over 6 meters tall and close to 4 wide, it towered over her. One swing of that arm would break every bone in her body. There were larger things than a Diver, but only a Diver was shaped like a human, shaped enough for comparison. It had arms, legs, a body and a head. A metal human.

These machines fascinated her– that was why she had wanted to work in the docks.

Out of all the dirty jobs Madame Arabie had in mind for her, this one appealed the most.

And so, Homa diligently cleaned the old Volker suit, took note of the observed levels of corrosion in the parts, none of which needed immediate replacement, and reapplied lubricants and waterproof sealant gel wherever needed. Sometimes, with the gel fully dried, it almost looked like the Volker had some of its armor back on its shoulders and hips, between the joints in its arms and legs. With the exterior taken care of, she brought over the wheeled lift to help herself up to the cockpit to check the instruments–

–when her favorite part of the maintenance was interrupted.

She heard a cracking, buzzing noise coming from Bertrand’s building.

Over a loudspeaker, the old man’s voice boomed,

“We got a ship incoming! Cruiser size on the second berth, taking the lift. Homa, get a portable and go check their papers out. Sound off when you do, and the boys can get the lift going.”

Responding at lightning speed, Homa quickly took off her greasy gloves, dropped them in a bucket of cleaning solution, and ran back to the office. A huge smile had crept up on her face, almost mad with elation– a ship! They finally had a ship coming in! As she ran, she saw, in the distance, the outer wall of the far berth opening and the magnetic arms shifting to grab hold of the incoming Cruiser.

It was real; it was real!

She hadn’t had shipwork pay in almost two weeks!

Emma came out of the office and handed her a portable terminal as she approached, and then Homa took it like a baton pass and ran a dozen meters from the office to the edge of the conveyor up from the second berth. She opened the door to a booth which had a touchpad with the controls to the berth doors and to start up the conveyor engine. She also had controls for a movable airstair so that the crew of a ship on the conveyor could come down and show their papers or haggle with the dockworkers.

From the booth Homa had a good view of the Cruiser as it began to pull into the berth.

With a clanking noise the outer door of the berth closed, and the magnetic arms affixed themselves to the hull to hold it into place. Powerful pumps drained the berth water into the ocean outside. The arriving ship was gruesomely ugly. A massive, brown, and roughly rectangular vessel with rounded sides and a slightly angled deck and prow, with thick fins on the midsection and rear. It looked like the kind of ugly old hauler with trick cargo holds to ran poppy for Madame Arabie, except scaled up to be twice as big.

That was the one thing it had going for it– this was a huge cruiser, heavy-looking and substantial.

Homa checked her portable, which had the arrival information from the port dispatcher.

“The ‘Pandora’s Box’, huh?” She whispered to herself. “It was christened really recently too.”

Treasure Box Transports. Extremely shady– no wonder they came to Bertrand’s dock.

‘Transport Company’ usually meant some barely above board criminal outfit.

But if they hid all their stuff right, they could go in and out of Kreuzung without problems.

As long as you were good and prompt with money, nobody cared about anything else.

Once the berth was entirely drained and the mechanical arms holding the ship completed an automated stability check, a light appeared on the touchpad in Homa’s booth. She pressed a button to open the berth into the dockyard, and the thick metal door slowly lifted to allow the Pandora’s Box to be deposited inside and onto the conveyor. Homa’s entire view of the conveyor was filled by brown metal as the ship took up half the interior of the yard. Becker or Aicher or one of the other guys was operating the conveyor, and it was them who attached a series of magnetic clamps to keep the ship in place.

With the Pandora’s Box fully inside, Homa closed the berth opening behind them.

For a moment she was bewildered by the sheer scale of the operation. Bertrand’s was just a lot of space when it was empty, but with a ship inside, Homa felt like she truly understood once again the degree to which everything around her was massive, industrial. It was just a little daunting as she got to work.

From her booth Homa controlled the boarding airstair, guiding it on a rail until it aligned with the bulkhead on the Pandora’s Box. Once she got it where she wanted, she left the booth, and walked along the side of the vessel, flicking her finger on the screen of her portable to bring up the program that could scan and verify the documents from the incoming crew representative. She felt a bit of a thrill as she walked alongside the enormous ship. Yes, it was ugly and unadventurous and it did not look romantic at all, nevertheless, it was a ship. It sailed the oceans, it saw different vistas and peoples all the time.

A workaday cat like Homa envied even the relatively small freedom of working on a ship.

At the top of the airstair, Homa waited for the bulkhead door to open.

A few minutes later, she heard the hissing as the door unlocked.

“Good afternoon! Thank you so much for your hard work. Very reasonable prices too!”

From behind the bulkhead door of the Pandora’s Box appeared a representative of the crew, and what a representative she was! Tall, busty, and leggy, with long, wavy blond hair, green eyes, and a mature, sophisticated affect. Her uniform was sharp, a white button-down and tie with a teal half jacket, long-sleeved, along with a black pencil skirt, tights, and black shoes. She was stunning, as if the world had heard Homa’s brain muttering her taste for adventure and responded in kind with this woman.

“Can– Can I get your name please?” Homa said, trying not to sound too dorky.

“Captain Korabiskaya. Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She gave Homa a handsome smile and a little wink, before turning over a portable terminal with their papers. Homa could not meet her eyes.

The bashful Shimii took that thick portable and waved her own smaller portable over it.

There was a little green flash of acknowledgment. Crew, cargo, passengers; their manifest just checked out. A ship’s manifest was like their passport, and this one was legit and up to date.

“Your papers are in good order.” Homa said, trying to neither lift her voice too high nor to murmur at her attractive customer. “Um, do you all– do you have a loader lined up to take your ship somewhere? We have some contacts– good guys, they’ll get your ship where you want it–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted gently. “We have something lined up. Thank you.”

“Alright.” No commission for that part, but it was fine. “Can I get your destination?”

“We’re taking the ship to a rented drydock in the main tower, it’s leased to Solarflare LLC and the contact for it should be under Theresa Faraday. If you need to reach us personally about it, you can get a hold of Ms. Faraday on Tower Five, Tier ten, Block D. Will that suffice or do you need more information?”

“Yes, thank you. That’s everything.” Homa said simply.

She figured these people had their situation planned out already.

So she would not be able to upsell them on additional services. But it was fine– just getting a ship up on the belt and signed in was piecework for everybody, and Homa would be going home with a decent chunk of cash she had not been expecting. A little closer to making up her upcoming rent.

“Keep working hard, cutey.”

“Huh?”

By the time Homa recognized the compliment, Ulyana Korabiskaya was back in her ship.

The Pandora’s Box closed its bulkhead, and it was ready to be slid uphill into Kreuzung.

As quickly as that mysterious ship and its alluring Captain had appeared, they exited.

Massive, grinding metal works towed the ship up the conveyor ramp and through gigantic metal doors into the interstice of the tower. A gargantuan network that could take material from the docks to the huge shipworks or scrapyards inside of the monumental Kreuzung complex. The Pandora’s Box was on its way to its next adventure. Homa hadn’t worked with a ship in so long she almost forgot how it felt.

Those little glimpses, as if of another world entirely, flashing by Bertrand’s–

Out in the water, something was always moving, always stirring, all of the rest of life.

She felt so,

small

insignificant

helpless

worthless

alone,

–but there was nothing she could do.

Homa lived 2500 meters below sea level of a scarred world without justice or peace.

In the bottom of the Imbrian Ocean, the throne oppressing a whole hemisphere. Everything was in tumult, the future was uncertain– and all she could do was go to work, return home, eat and sleep–

She couldn’t even pray– she had never learned the words properly in Fusha.


At the end of the day, Homa left the breakroom, waved all of the guys and Emma goodbye, and left old Bertrand’s behind for home. Her bank account was a little bit buoyed– apparently the Pandora’s Box did not haggle even a mark down, which was rare for private docks like Bertrand’s, for whom there was a relationship of mutual desperation to the erstwhile clientele of lowlife crews. Bertrand was greedy, but sharing the spoils was part of the code of honor of any thief who wanted to keep a crew together.

So the Pandora’s Box “overpaying” benefited her quite directly that day.

She retraced her steps, back up the Kreuzung elevators, up to the still crowded pavilion, through the checkpoints at Kreuzung and then at Tower Eight, and there she stood again. Hours later, and the Imbrium Ocean was still staring down at her from overhead in Tower Eight. That mighty and overwhelming force loomed in heaven, outside the dome, as she waited for an elevator.

“I hope the price of meat hasn’t gone up already. I haven’t heard any more news.”

Homa hadn’t been paying attention to any news.

Some part of her didn’t want to know; but if the strike made things really bad again–

Well– she would find out anyway if the tower locked down again.

There was a ringing noise that startled her out of her thoughts.

An elevator had arrived to take her down.

She entered and pressed the button for the eighth tier commercial block.

When the elevator doors opened, she stepped out of the tube and onto a double-wide concrete street. Up above the metal roof used a pattern of blue and yellow LEDs to try to represent a sky, but it was not so high up that it made any sense as such, it was nothing like the skies they were taught about in school or in scripture either. On both ends of the wide street there were shops, many of which were also the homes of the shopkeepers, who did business on the street level and slept in a second floor. All of the homes were made of plastic. Some of them had coats of green or purple paint, but most of them were the grey, brown, and black of the various interwoven, synthestitched pieces that made them up.

There were small plants in bubbles along the road for decoration. One of them had a flower.

Homa briefly stared at it– she couldn’t smell it because of the glass bubble protecting it.

Sometimes, she was struck by a brief but powerful longing to be able to smell such a flower.

But that would entail breaking the glass, and maybe killing it– and certainly receiving a beating.

At all times, it passed her over quickly and she walked past.

Some of the shops sold hand-made goods or offered services like room or home repair or haircuts or cosmetics or instruction in Imbrian language; others sold prepared foods like shawarma, cups of soup or stew, and wraps; but there were several that boasted affiliations to known Imbrian companies.

“Proud Volwitz affiliates” were authorized to sell Volwitz Foods products to the segregated Shimii– “Part of the Epoch family” meant they were selling Epoch Clothiers textiles. “Arleiter Tools Subsidiaries” sold everything from power tools to cables to fireproof suits, Homa bought her jumpsuit there. There was at least one shop for each of the big brands. Many Shimii couldn’t get papers to enter Kreuzung. Homa was “privileged” in this way. Most Shimii could only stay in Tower Eight or immigrate to an Agrisphere or to a Shimii quarter in some other station. So for many they could only get branded goods at these stores.

Even at this time of the day, there were a lot of people out on the streets.

Workers coming down in dirty clothes after clocking out, or towngoers dressed in their best and most colorful synthetic tunics, perhaps on the way to bars or dance clubs or even to gamble. Women who had just gotten their hair done up to go dancing, pulling along friends who dressed modestly and wrapped their hair, ears poking out of the hijab, all laughing together. There was such a huge variety of people. Homa could tell who the really religious folk were because they were hurrying back from the shops to the elevators in order to make it home by the nightly prayer. Other people would make it up when they did get home, “for Allah is most merciful;” others still would simply not pray, or only when convenient.

In all of this, Homa was alone.

Watching from afar; feeling at once compelled to be a part but also separated from the rest.

As the kind of Shimii she was; as the kind of woman she was– and whether or not people treated her as either of these. Watching the teeming mass of life around her, people joyous, people down on their luck, people haggling to the last cent or dropping a lot of money on name brands– it felt like a world as separated from her as the distant stations of the rest of the Imbrian Ocean. Places like Thurin, or the imperial seat at Heitzing in Palatine, so far away and so unreachable that they seemed like legends.

Fitting in among the Shimii here also felt like a distant fantasy.

She got herself moving again, casting her eyes at the ground and away from people’s faces.

Homa had one particular store that she bought from, located atop the bend in the street.

Named only “Hasim’s” but this one was not only painted royal purple: it had a Fusha sign.

Homa would say she “didn’t know a lick of Fusha” but she knew a good few common words and she was familiar with the really popular Surah passages, and the one on the sign in particular: “Not even an atom’s weight escapes your Lord on earth or in heaven.” Any given passage of scripture had a multitude of interpretations, but Homa knew the message of this one to be: God is always watching you, and He will see crimes against you redressed. No one can ignore the presence of God and sin without consequence.

In this context: it was one of the passages featured on businesses to show they were owned, protected, enabled, or otherwise associated with the gangster Madame Arabie. On the surface, these were just pretty words in Fusha language, but everyone here knew that it meant that this shop couldn’t be messed with. And that friends and supporters of the shop could get in good with the big boss herself as well.

No matter how she wanted to view herself, Homa was one of Madame Arabie’s goons.

So she shopped cheaper at Madame Arabie’s shops. It was another silent privilege.

Hasim’s was the only place worth checking if you were as “privileged” as she was.

If Hasim did not have something, it was not worth checking anywhere else. Nobody else had the same supply line as he did. Madame Arabie was probably giving him some kind of special treatment, or using him to smuggle stuff. Hasim always had the best goods, best prices, best selection, and all he sold was natural stuff. Not factory prepared Voltwitz meatloaves, but real meat, vacuum packed and frozen.

As-salamu Alaykum, Hasim.” Homa said, trying to put on a smile as she entered the shop.

Wa Alaykum Assalam, Homa!”

Hasim responded with ten times the cheer that Homa had. He was older than Homa by several years but could still be called a young man, particularly by his looks. He was slim and had a handsome boyish face, with the hair on his ears and tail perfectly trimmed (fluffy ears and tails were more of a woman’s fashion). Golden-skinned, with bright eyes and a brighter expression, colorful clothes, he was his own mascot.

His shop was as richly decorated as his clothes were. There were all kinds of religious souvenirs about, little hanging pictures of beautiful mosques from who-knew-where, colorful tassels between shelves of boxed products, his meat freezer’s walls had patterns of Girih tiles in blue and gold– very festive.

“Anything I can help you with?” He asked, cracking a big smile at her.

Homa cast a glance at the large meat freezer on the side wall of the shop, which looked like it had been picked clean aside from some vacuum-sealed beef bones and pile of frozen whole chickens. He had bags of vacuum sealed fresh cabbage in the refrigerator, and some fresh-ish steak that looked too expensive. In a pinch she could use dried chipped beef, but neither boxed nor canned did she see any there.

“Can I trouble you for any uh, budget, frozen stewing beef? Are you sold out?”

“Afraid I’m all sold out of the cheap beef Homa. Trying to get more in. It’s very popular, everyone can tell it’s a good deal, you know? Big beef eaters around here. Thrifty schoolmarms can feed an army of kids with my stuff too.” He pretended to look around, as if there was anyone else in the shop but the two of them. “For you, though, I could interest you in the steak? You ought to treat yourself, don’t you think? You work hard! You deserve some luscious, marbled beef melting in your mouth, today, only–”

As charming as he tried to be, Homa was not interested in his line delivery or the upsell.

Silently, she balked at the price. She needed to make rent. “Not today Hasim.”

She turned her eyes back to the frozen beef marrow bones. They would have to do.

“Pleasure doing business as always Homa!”

“Hasim,”

Before leaving, she turned to him, bags in hand, a bit of worry across her face.

“Have you heard anything about prices going up?” She asked.

“Homa, I have the best prices on the station! Why would they go up?”

“There’s something happening in the Rhineanmetalle towers, I heard.”

“I heard about that but– you know, successful businesses adapt to the conditions–”

“You just don’t know yet.” Homa gently interrupted, her ears drooping a little.

“Valued customers will always be the first to know my prices, Homa, you know that.”

Hasim smiled at her, but she could tell he didn’t like the topic. His tail was straight up.

She took it as a tacit admission. Yes, if things got bad again, he’d raise his prices.

Having any amount of forewarning wouldn’t change anything. Prices were prices.

When she walked out of the store, her bank account was still quite intact, and she had a bag of frozen beef bone sections with a nice cylinder of marrow in the center of each, and a fresh pack of cabbage for nutrition, along with a can of beans to bulk it up a bit. She was feeling positive about it. While she wouldn’t have the nice falling-apart beef cubes, the marrow would add good flavor, especially if she seared the bones, and the beans would fill her up nicely in the absence of shredded beef.

Her heart was lifted up a bit– tomorrow’s lonac would still be good, and she had money.

And then, almost instantly, her heart was cast far, far down. Slammed into the ocean floor.

When she met those razor-sharp emerald eyes approaching, she was instantly cut down.

A voice soft as song with the wickedness of sorcery–

Salam. Homa, darling. I’m so blessed to have run into you before you left.”

Madame Arabie.

As beautiful as she was deadly, a walking promise of pleasure or pain.

Her flowing chestnut brown hair swayed behind her in the gentle breeze blowing from the air circulators as she approached. Long-limbed, lithe, dressed in a fashion hopelessly unattainable to anyone who aspired to her level. Her tunic had a finish as if lacquered, deep red filigreed with golden lines tracing dazzling geometric patterns across her chest. Shoulders cut wide, neckline plunging deep to punctuate her hefty bust, with a skirt that seemed modestly long but had a slit on one side unveiling some skin.

Her red lips briefly sucked the end of a vaporizer pipe held on slender, long, and deft fingers, rumored to have seen the insides of both men and women’s bodies in contexts of love and violence both.

Behind her, a fluffy brown tail traced gentle lines in the air. Her ears were sharp, fluffy, perfectly manicured. She was beautiful, strikingly beautiful, the most beautiful woman on Aer, perhaps, with a mature affect in the expertly applied cosmetics on her olive-tan face. A radiance in her smile and the bleak, hopeless, crushing pressure when that smile turned to disdain. Madame Arabie, the sanctioned ruler of Tower Eight under the distant and callous eyes of the Imbrians. Demon and woman, love and hate, believer, and heretic; Madame Arabie trod a path that was sheer power in itself.

It was in her every step, it was the softly blown sweet fig smoke from her pursed lips.

It was Homa’s purse strings, which she completely controlled. It was life and death.

In a sense, it was even Homa’s very identity, permitted only under the Madame’s decree.

Homa could not speak.

She stood rooted in place, watching the woman approach with a sense of utter helplessness. Her mind flashed, between kisses and beatings, stroking hands, and slicing claws, blood and spit cast against wine and perfume. It all flashed in an instant, and she wondered where the slot machine would land.

An insane part of her heart felt almost relieved.

If this was her monthly run-in with Madame Arabie, then so be it. Let it be now, let it come.

Homa mastered herself, used all of her willpower not to flinch, when the silken skin of Madame Arabie’s fingers caressed her chin, and the woman planted a gentle kiss on Homa’s cheek.

She parted slowly from her and looked at her with the fondness of a mother.

A tiny grin on her lips suggested not motherly affection, however, but incoming depredation.

“Working hard as always. Come with me to the restaurant. I’ll get you changed, get you a good meal– we can catch up. Don’t worry, I’ll get you back home before bedtime. What do you say, darling?”

What do you say? She heard it in her mind as a shout. She knew what she needed to say.

“Thank you, Madame. I’m always happy for your hospitality.” Homa forced a smile.


On the southeastern side of the Kreuzung complex, an ordinary passenger ship descended the crater and crossed Tower Four before being flagged into the eastern end of the Kreuzung core station itself. It was a small, workman-like ship with maybe two dozen people inside, so it could dock almost anywhere.

Within the hour it was berthed at the Kreuzung International Seaport, and its passengers stepped into the station. A massive, shining steel-blue concourse greeted them, with posters everywhere boasting the many attractions of Kreuzung, its affiliation with Rhineanmetalle and its association with many large brands. In fact, the concourse itself was proudly named Arleiter Tools International Concourse– a brand now owned by Rhineanmetalle. Volwitz Foods was the next most prominent advertiser. Signs directed the concourse-goers to stop by the Volwitz Restaurant Pavilion after they were fully checked into the station.

Before the war, there were hundreds of interminable lines of passengers being checked by customs authorities, coming and going through Kreuzung as the vast flows of intra-Empire commerce itself did, but comparatively, the Seaport was almost barren that night. Those who were traveling now were only people from Rhinea itself trying to make business work in the silent chaos of the Civil War.

–and opportunists from abroad slipping in to fight their own shadowy battles.

“Hey! Not that way! Shimii! We process your people over here, come on!”

One of the border guards waved over a pair of women who had come out of the little ship last.

They had been headed for the wrong line to be processed out of the concourse.

Judging by their attire, the two women must have been wealthy, to be Shimii with freedom of travel and such colorful clothes. One of the women had on long brown slacks and a shirt that was blue and adorned with bright green and yellow palm trees and half-moons. She was carrying two jackets in arm, hers, and her companion’s. The leading woman’s skin was an odd grey-brown color, her shoulder-length hair a silvery pale, and one of her ears looked like it had all its fur singed off, smooth, grey, and overlong, crooked at an odd angle.

Her companion was a vibrant young girl, sandy brown skin with sandy brown hair in a ponytail, wearing a yellow sundress over a white, long-sleeved nylon bodystocking with a brown sun-hat. She was all smiles, quiet and peaceful, and quite obedient. Possibly younger. Such pairings were not altogether unknown.

No one would judge them overmuch– their money was still good here, if they knew the rules.

When called, the pair headed cheerfully to the immigration line without a care in the world.

They handed over a portable terminal that had their papers on it.

“Confirm your name, origin and business, please.” Said the border guard.

Speaking for the party was the woman with the odd ear. She grinned calmly.

“Madiha al-Nakar. Came by way of Mostar, and she and I are just here for pleasure.”

She pointed at her companion. “Her name is Parinita Al-Muhairi.”

“Alright. Your papers check out. Enjoy your stay– but listen up first,” the border guard leaned closer to the slot in the glass shield of his booth, so Madiha and Parinita could hear him whisper. “Go to Tower Eight. Talk to Madame Arabie in the Flowing Scarlet, it’s a restaurant in Tower Eight, Tier 4. You can’t miss it. She takes care of Shimii around here for us. Don’t dawdle or you’ll get in trouble. Kreuzung is real segregated. You can’t avoid that with just money. Go to Arabie and get Kreuzung papers there.”

After listening to the whispered instructions, the two women pretended everything was normal.

“Oh what a happy coincidence. That’s exactly where we were going first.” Madiha said.

Alhamdulilah.” Parinita added with a big girlish smile.

“Fantastic. Then don’t let me stop you ladies. Get your luggage and have a great time, alright?”

In front of them, a little gate opened, allowing them out of the concourse into baggage claim.

The guard tipped his hat to them, and Madiha smiled knowingly back.

Hands in her pockets, taking in the sights. A tiny flickering flame of violence in her heart.

“Are you ready? My mawla in the making?” Madiha asked.

Parinita took in a deep breath. Holding her gentle, unbloodied hands to her heart.

“Yes. I’ve got to be. For our people’s future.” She said, with a sad, sighing breath.

Madiha smirked. From between her lips, a tiny bit of smoke blew out.

Her eyes glowed briefly red with determination.

“Don’t worry. I’m here for you. Anyone tries to touch you, I’ll incinerate them.”


Previous ~ Next

Arc 2 Intermissions [II.5]

Awaiting the Storm

“I hope I did not keep you waiting too long.”

“What are you talking about? You’re right on time as always.”

“Oh! Look at that– I could have sworn I’d disappoint you this year.”

“Of course not. I had complete confidence in you.”

New Karach Station had declared there would be a simulated rain in the park and some commercial tiers of the station that day. Simulated rains were infrequent, because they annoyed ordinary station-goers, but it was viewed as a valuable way to keep people in touch with nature and its volatility. For Shimii, who made up most of New Karach’s population, there was a unique importance to weather simulations. It was a way to remind themselves of the acts of God, which could be seen in deep readings of their religious literature. Such literature was fragmentary, much of it having been lost in the tumult of history, but it did mention things like sunshine, clouds, rain. It was important to do what they could to experience these things that God had meant for them, to subject themselves to natural adversity with a sense of humility.

In Martyr’s Park, which had been built around the Union Shimii’s memorial cemetery, the rain was also meant to inspire mourning that day. Water came down from the high ceiling of the broad tier that encompassed the park, with an artificial hill overlooking a plain of grass intercut by a concrete path through the gravestones. None of the graves contained actual remains, but that did not matter.

There was a single large tree in the middle of the park, and it was real, not in a bubble or kept alive by machines, it was real, carefully tended, and on that day, buffeting gently in the simulated breeze that drove the rain at an angle. It was pouring rain, the ceiling elements cycling desalinated water in large amounts for the task. It was the birthday of Movlid Omarov, a hero of the Union’s Shimii, so on that day, the sky was weeping. He who had been first to break his shackles, and whose next action, was to break the shackles of his neighbor, and the neighbor after that, until he had freed scores of his kin.

On that day, Bhavani had dressed in as fine a vest and pants as she owned, took up a parasol from a rack in the elevator, and after traveling the winding cemetery path in Martyr’s park, she arrived at Omarov’s simple grave in a corner of the park. There were already stacks of handmade gifts left to him.

At the grave she joined Omarov’s daughter and sole remaining relation, Milana Omarova.

A tall woman, light brown skinned with long, golden blond-brown hair and dark orange eyes, standing under her own parasol, dressed in a ruffled green synthetic cape over her chest and back, beneath which was a Union navy uniform. On her hip, she had a holster for a diamond sabre, with an LED in the handle indicating battery power for the chainsaw motor. Her tail necessitated its own multi-section plastic covering to avoid the rain, because it was very large and very fluffy, a trait which all of her family and many displaced Volgian Shimii shared. For this occasion, she wore very light red cosmetics.

Milana was younger than Jayasankar by over a decade, having been a teen in the revolution. She was in her prime, lean, long-limbed, with a good figure and beautiful smile which she brandished as they met. Despite everything, she was like a ray of sunshine, full of energy, shining in the heavy rainfall.

As-salamu alaykum!”

“Greetings, Milana.”

Bhavani had thought she might have been late, but Milana assured her she was right on time for their yearly ritual. With everything else happening, Bhavani really had to fight to set aside the time to visit New Karach. That very night, she would have to be on a ship bound for Sevastopol Station to headline Maya Kolokotronis’ award ceremony. From there she had to meet with the Shipbuilders Union in Daman Station, and travel to Lyser to gather all the stakeholders for a final decision on the agricultural program. Then she would be going back to Solstice to prepare to fight out the Council’s “Motion to Retain” in the coming weeks. Milana would actually be joining her on some of these excursions, at least.

After all, she was the leader of the “Omarovist” Shimii brigade loyal to Jayasankar.

So she and her father were always worth the visit. It was an event both heartfelt and convenient.

Once they exchanged their initial pleasantries, the two of them paid their respects.

Milana went down to her knees in front of the grave, holding the parasol with one hand.

With the other, she rubbed her fingers over the smooth carving, displacing water from over it.

“These are chaotic times, father. Death and duty hang over us, as they loomed large over you and your generation. I have been thinking about you throughout. I know that I will surmount these challenges, because it is of course nothing like the suffering our ancestors endured, and I am thankful for their deeds, the same as I am thankful for yours. We miss you dearly, but Allah, subhana watala, saw fit to relieve you of duty, with your work done. All I can ask is for you to smile on us. We’ll find our way, by the grace of the most exalted and merciful.” Milana smiled, her bushy tail gently waving behind her. “Bhavani has visited again this year too, of course; and aren’t we blessed? Does she not look gorgeous as usual?”

Bhavani knelt down next to Milana, in front of the grave. She remained quiet, reserving her thoughts as a non-believer in the Shimii religion. For “Mahdist” Shimii, there was an element of positive reflection to visiting graves. Milana did not come to this grave to cry, as Bhavani might have cried and screamed and shouted on the graves of her parents– but to seek strength and the example of her father as a living man who lived right and took care of his family and his duties. It did not matter that Omarov had died unjustly.

Milana did not cry, and her tone of voice was always moderated, as if speaking respectfully to a man who was still in her presence. The way she controlled herself and kept positive was truly inspirational.

After paying their respects, Milana recited a prayer, and then they left the cemetery together.

On the way back, Bhavani became curious about her attitude and tried to air her interest.

“I had to keep silent, because when I think about what happened to him it burns me up.” She said.

“I’m glad you kept quiet then. You know it’s not a time for that today.”

“I do know. But how do you maintain such an iron will? You didn’t even shed a tear.”

Milana glanced at Bhavani with a little smile. “I put everyone in a grave who deserved it. Their families mourn them and their deeds now. It’s not me who needs to be thinking about it. What do I have to be sad about the past for? I will be killing for the rest of my life, but when it comes to my family affairs, I’ve paid back the blood and ended the feuds. There is no use thinking about my father’s killers anymore.”

Bhavani smiled back. “You’re a uniquely strong individual, even for your family. I hope you know that.”

Scary girl. I did help her with that killing, so at least I don’t have anything to worry about there.

“Will you stay for the procession? At 01600. There’ll be songs and cheering.” Milana said.

Bhavani smiled, with a bit of guilt. “I’m afraid I am too busy this year. I would love to, but–“

“Then you must at least stay for a meal.” Milana said. “We can talk about whatever business then too.”

She just knew; Bhavani always had some ulterior motive.

“Sorry, sorry,” Bhavani said, in a sing-song voice, before switching to a more neutral register, “I can’t help but have business everywhere I go. I hardly have time to just bask in good company anymore.”

“I understand perfectly well. I appreciate the visit, you know. We all love you here, Bhavani.”

Milana gave her a playful little punch in the shoulder and smiled brightly.

She meant the visit; but not only these visits. Bhavani had visited often.

Among other things, these visits led to the building of three Mosques and several other amenities.

“I am flattered as always, Milana. This is the most homey place I ever have a chance to visit.”

“I’m glad you think so. Not much has happened since your last visit, but let me take you around anyway.”

Bhavani smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, and Milana led the way to the elevator.

New Karach Station was a multi-section pillar on the border between Ferris and Lyser. Set into a rocky crater 1500 meters below the surface, it was initially an excavation hub for mining, and had both above ground and below ground facilities. Crucially, the yields were mediocre. It was only Shimii slave labor that made it profitable for Imperial companies to dig here. Brutally exploiting free labor for construction and extraction allowed the Empire to settle down anywhere. But once the Union overturned colonial rule, New Karach was made into a habitation that would allow the Shimii within to lead dignified lives. There was no point mining here, but the people of New Karach needed homes, and wanted to retain their community.

There was one habitat, an enormous dice cube shaped structure, positioned above the seafloor, but it was the size of four habitation blocks of other Union stations stacked together and astride. When the station was founded, the Shimii were crammed into the underground section of the station while the Imbrian colonists and officers lived in discrete sections above them, with luxurious amenities. The Shimii were moved to these sections, which were overhauled to allow more people to live in them. Thereby, no Shimii lived entirely underground anymore, a symbolic victory for the residents. The underground habitat was converted into commercial spaces, that housed state-owned distribution centers, co-op shops, several mosques, and other amenities, such as schools, clubs, theaters, plazas, sports fields, among other things.

There was also the large “industrial” section underground where the Shimii retained the equipment left behind by the Empire. They gave the mining equipment to the Union for use elsewhere, but kept the imperial assembly line and manufacturing. They focused on producing finished goods with materials ferried in by the Union. They spun synthetic textiles and manufactured things like plates, mugs and cutlery with Synthestitchers, and built complex parts for ships and computers using Ferristitchers.

New Karach manufactured weapons too. Reportedly the best AK-pattern rifles in the Union!

There was also a massive underground dock at 2000 meters depth for commercial and industrial traffic, accessible by several hatches and tunnels on the exterior of the New Karach crater. A section of the port had become the headquarters of the “Omarov brigade” and its associated Fleet Combat Group.

Martyr’s Park was above all of this, at the highest level of the station, closest to God.

When they left the elevator, they walked through one of the commercial areas. It was the newest one, slowly built in place of a decommissioned prison section. Bhavani and Milana arrived at a multi-story interior pavilion, each story linked by elevators and staircases. There were several spaces all of which were colorful, brightly lit with LEDs and displaying signs and banners, some of which were animated.

Directly from the elevator, Bhavani could see study hall where several dozen Shimii were gathered on mats, learning scripture and the Fusha language together, and practicing song-like prayers; there was a co-op “Shawarma” shop; a state-owned clothing and laundry center; a large food court that occupied several “lots” in the commercial area by itself; and a messenger station where people could get help connecting to long distance friends or relatives, or pick up physical mail if they received any.

They were on the second tier, so they could look over the railings and see the plaza below, which was being used as a football field. There was a heated match underway between rival clubs from the station and their supporters and banners were gathered on either side — it was quite lively.

“It feels like every time I come here it’s more active. It’s very positive.” Bhavani said.

Milana nodded. “It’s not all fun and fancy, but we’re thriving compared to how it was.”

Everywhere Bhavani turned there were people, out on walks, eating, praying, reading, diving into the clubs for live music or dance. Everywhere she turned there were fluffy cat ears and gently swaying tails as well. There were over 300,000 civilians inhabiting this station, mostly Shimii, and near entirely Mahdist Shimii. Milana showed her around, pointing out a few new venues that had been received state licenses recently; boasting about the taste of the local biostitched shawarma, almost like real meat she said; explaining the football club rivalries. People recognized her along the way gave her their blessings.

“Commander, may the favor of the almighty be with you.”

“Commander! Praying for your good health!”

“Thank you for your visit Commander!”

Bhavani smiled. “My, my– you’re quite popular.”

“I’m on local TV frequently.” Milana replied, as if trying to brush it off.

As they wound their way through, they picked up food to go, and walked back to an elevator, crossing again in front of the study hall. There was no music, but the prayers were so melodic by themselves that it felt like there was song. Even though they were young amateurs learning, it still sounded beautiful to Bhavani’s ears. Inside the study hall there was a big banner with a symbol in Al-Fusha, the Shimii “High Language.” Bhavani recognized the shape: it represented the “Mahdi,” a legendary Shimii figure who was admired as the savior and ruler of the first underwater Shimii civilization in the far past. It was not permissible to depict the Mahdi as a person, so he appeared only as these written characters.

All Shimii believed the same origin story: a grand figure known as the Mahdi revealed himself at the hour of the Shimii’s almost assured demise during the destruction of the surface world, and shepherded them to the ocean. He became their first king, and along with his companions, established life underwater. “Mahdist” Shimii were unique in that they believed that the legendary Mahdi had been betrayed, and that the following Caliphs, Shimii kings, distorted his dying wishes and perverted the religion to seize power.

Due to these firebrand beliefs, the Union had to be delicate in how they treated the community.

“Milana, if I may be so bold as to ask–“

When they returned to the elevator, and the doors closed, shutting the sound of the prayers, Bhavani grinned to herself. She had the history of the Shimii in mind, and it brought another curiosity forward.

“Do the Rashidun Shimii here give you any trouble?” She asked with a slightly mischievous tone.

Milana gave her a skeptical and mildly annoyed little look.

“Of course not. They know how things work. There’s like a handful of them. I know them all by name.”

“Oh I understand how meticulous you are, believe me. I’m just curious.”

“It’s entirely fine. We’re all Union here. Those feuds stay in the Imbrian Empire.”

“It’s not so much the feuds as the religious curriculum that I’m curious about.”

“They know how things work. I said it’s fine, Bhavani. Don’t concern yourself with it.”

Milana’s implication was clear: the mosques in the Union were by and large Mahdist mosques. The Rashidun Shimii were the majority in the Imbrian Empire, and that was the reason why the Mahdist Shimii became a majority of the Shimii in the Union. So the Rashidun Shimii here would just have to suck it up for standing by or supporting the ethnic cleansing that transpired to create this situation. Milana would have no sympathy for them. Bhavani supported Milana: so the Union would not have much sympathy.

“I am unconcerned. I support you unconditionally. I just want you to know you can lean on me.”

Her younger companion laughed raucously as the elevator doors opened.

“I’m not a teenager anymore, Bhavani. I can handle this. But thank you for the offer, nonetheless.”

Such a conversation to an onlooker might have carried an implication of a benefactor haranguing her subordinate, but Bhavani had a lot of affection for Milana, and simply couldn’t keep herself from mothering this quite grown woman to some degree even now, after all these years. She wanted to tease her, to poke at her feelings, and to coddle her like a daughter. There were some in her cabinet who did not grasp the sheer importance of Movlid Omarov and the Omarov family had for the Premier.

On a personal level she had fought alongside Omarov, and respected him greatly as a fighter and as a statesman. She and Ahwalia both had promised to take care of Milana, though Ahwalia did not care much for this promise in the pursuit of his grand dreams. But Bhavani had wholeheartedly wanted to share the power of the Omarov family, a girlish dream of twenty years past, she admired him almost as much as she had admired her teacher Daksha Kansal. His name deserved to be spoken in the same breath as her.

On an ideological level, while he was not necessarily the best-read communist, Omarov was keenly aware of the nature of power. To Bhavani, Omarov was not just a hero. He was a template, for forms of power she needed to command. Omarov understood that politics entailed suppression, the wielding of power.

If your ideas did not suppress your opponent’s, theirs would be adopted and yours would be crushed.

So your aim should be to suppress your opponents and crush their ideas to reproduce your own.

This was the only way to create the world that you desired, which was the aim of politics.

After all, why would you fight for ideas you did not believe to be necessary and true?

Necessary and true enough to kill for? So he united his Shimii kinfolk with that sense of urgency.

Those who treated politics as a game would be swallowed by those who engaged in it with zeal.

Before Jayasankar knew this, Omarov knew this. He didn’t write books. He knew it in his skin.

Knew his comrades, knew his enemies, knew his aims and ambitions, and his vision for the world.

The Shimii militias were perhaps the most fearless, disciplined, and ruthless revolutionary soldiers.

Ahwalia’s utopian supporters denigrated the Shimii behind their backs, calling the influence of Omarov by a pejorative Volgian term, an “Omarovschina.” But Bhavani took this as a term of endearment. If such an “Omarovschina” existed then this phenomenon fostered great and laudable deeds in the Revolution.

Legends like Khadija al-Shajara arose out of the “Omarovschina” and achieved great victories.

Omarov’s influence rallied the Shimii, and rallied them not only together, but with the rest of the Union. Gracious and humble, it was Omarov who proposed alliance first, he was keener in that than Ahwalia or Kansal. It would be a more fragmented Union without the Shimii community, and so Bhavani placed a lot of importance in them, and their special needs– and that importance she channeled through the figure of Omarov, his history, his place in the revolutionary legend, and thus, promoted the “Omarovschina.”

It was the influence of the “Omarovschina” which meant that Bhavani could walk alone in New Karach. At ease without an escort, coming and going like a member of the community. Watched over by everyone. Given blessings on the street, loved and welcomed and thanked as if she herself was a Shimii too. It was this way, in part, because nobody would dare mess with Milana Omarova or one of her guests.

Within New Karach, Milana Omarova was what Bhavani Jayasankar wished to be: without enemies.

“Follow me to my office, we can eat and chat in there in peace.”

When the elevator door opened, the two of them stepped into a central lobby which snaked off into several directions. There were larger rooms with multiple people, hallways with smaller rooms. Bhavani saw an open door to a large room where the floor was padded, and several cat-eared men and women were learning hand-to-hand combat. Without the padding, their instructor would be knocking them to a metal floor. In the far distance, even through the soundproofing, Bhavani could hear the reports of rifles from the training range. There was a small break room with water and bread– the general mess would be far larger and was likely on a floor below, along with the barracks and the quartermaster’s warehouse.

Every wall was steel grey-blue, unpainted, unadorned. Only the prayer rooms had been done up, with colorful quilts on the floor, the ceilings and walls projecting false polished masonwork and an ornate domed roof where there was not any such thing. As they traveled the halls, marines and support staff saluted Milana and Bhavani, some cheerfully crying “Urrah!” or “Allahu Akbar!” when they saw her, particularly those visibly sweating and breathing hard from a round in the training rooms.

“Such excitable and hard working folks.” Bhavani said fondly.

“Hah! They’ve just learned to find it fun because its mandatory!” Milana said, her voice without malice. “You put a fish in an aquarium full of knives and they either learn to love dodging them or die.”

“Colorful as always, Brigadeer Omarova.”

They had taken the elevator down to the lower level, the headquarters of the Ashura’s “3rd Separate Brigade”, the “Omarov Brigade.” They had a fleet of twelve Frigates and the Cruiser “Kaman”, as well as two troopships to transport the Brigade’s 3200 dedicated Marines. They were not all bunked and mobilized at that moment, as the headquarters had the room to house about three thousand personnel total. Half the fleet’s ships were manned at any given moment. Personnel were cycled in and out of reserve so they could be among their community. Between the Marines, ship crews, and support staff there were almost 10000 Shimii personnel involved with the Omarov Brigade when fully mobilized.

“Does Nagavanshi have some kind of spy tailing you to make sure you’re okay?” Milana asked.

“I’m sure she does, I just don’t know who or where.” Bhavani replied, her tone casual.

Milana briefly narrowed her eyes and then sighed. “You’re probably right.”

“Does it not sit right with you? Would you want to be out of her reach?”

“No, I just don’t want some lout reporting gossip to her. About us being alone together.”

“We’ve been alone together before.”

“We’re at war now, so I’m afraid of auntie Nagavanshi being at her most paranoid.”

She said the word “auntie” in a quite derisive tone of voice.

Bhavani grinned. “Now it’s my turn to tell you: don’t be concerned about that. I can handle it.”

Milana shrugged her shoulders. She stopped at a nearby door, swiped her keycard.

“If you say so. Right this way.”

Though Bhavani had a similar same age gap to Milana that she did to Nagavanshi–

Milana was like a daughter to her. She would never.

While Nagavanshi was her little snake, and was treated accordingly.

Past the door, they entered an office about 5 meters by 10. There was a long couch against one of the walls, and on the wall opposite the couch was a large framed portrait of Movlid Omarov, a stocky, well-built man with a keen glint in his eyes, greying fur on his cat-like ears, and graying hair on his head, dressed in a Union uniform. This was a revisionist sort of image– Movlid did not live long enough for the green uniforms of the Union navy to become standard, nor did he live to wear the many medals on his breast, but it did not matter. Had he not been betrayed, he certainly would have been honored like this.

At the back there was Milana’s desk, which had a computer terminal with a screen on an arm mount, from which Milana could make video calls or perform other tasks. Behind her desk hung a very large flag, the Omarovist flag, all green with a yellow half-moon and a yellow sword crossing over the thin side of it, framing a yellow star in the middle. On her desk there was a much smaller Union flag on a little pole, all red with a yellow plow and sword framed by the black, globe-like shape of an Agrisphere’s main module.

Milana set her lunchbox on the desk, and she removed the diamond sabre in its sheathe from her belt and dropped it on the side of her desk surface. She then sat back in her desk chair, and gestured for Bhavani to sit. From the floor in front of the desk, a chair lifted up that Bhavani could make use of.

“Crack it open, it’s good. Lunch is always fantastic here.” Milana said.

Bhavani sat as requested and opened the lunchbox.

Indeed, it was fantastic. The multi-section lunchbox contained a fired flatbread wrap around pickled tomatoes and cucumber and smoked cheese, along with a dish of stewed beans and chickpeas, some intact and some slightly mashed for contrasting texture, topped with crumbled hard cheese drizzled with the corn oil the cheese had been packed into. There was also a baked cutlet of chickpea and potato, and a small container of a watery juice drink, which had been enriched with some needed vitamins.

Soon as Bhavani began to eat, she could not disguise the sounds of pleasure drawn from her by the tastes. Everything was delicious. She loved the oven-fired char on the bread, the mellow tang of the cheese, and the starchy richness of the beans. People assumed that Bhavani must have lived large as the Premier, but she was not like Ahwalia, who gave himself the free time to have dinner parties. As an obsessive who insisted on having her hands on every project, Bhavani’s most frequent meal, aside from Nagavanshi, was broth, pickles, biscuits and coffee that were ubiquitous in every workplace.

Things within reach that she could push down quickly. Things she could taste out of sight.

Milana did not interrupt her. While Bhavani ate uncharacteristically slow and savored everything as if it was a gourmet meal, Milana tucked her food away efficiently, like a soldier at the mess. She was done minutes before Bhavani, but did not insist that her guest eat any faster and did not distract her with questions until Bhavani had finished everything. But she did scrutinize the lunchbox every so often, as if to check that everything was indeed being eaten. A habit of how thrifty she was raised, no doubt.

Once they were both done eating, Milana collected the lunch boxes.

“I’ll drop these at the collection point later. So, Bhavani, how is everything? The vote to retain is coming up, so that must be why you’re visiting. If it was about the war you would have asked me much earlier. If you’d left it up to me I would have had Serrano in the pocket even faster than Kolokotronis.”

Milana put on a softer expression, despite the fact they were now ‘discussing business.’

Bhavani relaxed in her chair as well. If anything, this was a more natural environment for her.

All of her relationships were in some way transactional– that’s just how things were.

Once the transactional quality was laid bare, and the facade broken, she felt more at ease.

They were both using each other. But that didn’t mean there was no love between them.

“Right, it’s about that.” Bhavani said.

For that instant– she hesitated. She was only human, after all. Any biography that touted someone’s impossibly decisive character was propagandizing them. Bhavani Jayasankar, the staunch communist militarist bent on imposing her vision of the Union, could hesitate, and did so then. She thought of what she would say and what it would mean and she hesitated. Because it was simply an enormous task.

She paused for a moment– just enough for Milana to interject.

“Bhavani, you know I am your infantryman. Just tell me what you need.” She said.

This girl– this woman, had so much respect for Bhavani. Her soft eyes were full of genuine emotion.

It hurt to ask her to fight for her. She dreaded the moment that was to come for them.

Because the guilt she felt then, worming its way around her heart–

If she ever had to send Milana to her death, she would never live that guilt down.

But what Milana had said was true. She was, through and through, “Bhavani’s infantryman.”

So she had to overcome her hesitation. For the world that they envisioned.

That was what it meant to desire power, to gather power, and to wield power.

Milana; Nagavanshi; even someone like Murati Nakara–

They were people she loved. But also the tools that she had at her disposal to achieve her ambitions.

“Right now, Ahwalia’s supporters in the government and the Council are arraying against me in opposition to the war, our alliance with Veka and other policy shifts. Left to their own devices, they will only prolong a state of political stalemate. I’m having to take action outside the system, mainly through the military. The war is an escalation on my side, and there will be more. I want Ahwalia to escalate in turn– I want his people to think they have a decisive chance against me. We are going to provoke them, bait them into risking everything. Then we will destroy them once and for all. This situation will become complicated, and I will need your help. Nagavanshi is aware of this. I will be asking a lot of you.”

There it was. Laid bare. Her ambition, and the future she felt brimming in her skin.

She did not say everything, but she said everything she needed. More could be said later.

In the next instant, with a dark grin on her face, Milana put a fist up to her chest.

Her ears perked and there was a red, bloody glint in her eyes.

“So the time has finally come.” Milana said knowingly.

“It is coming. If we emerge from this storm, it’ll be our Union henceforth. No more compromises and no more backroom dealing. We’ll build our righteous Union that spans the ocean.” Bhavani replied.

Alhamdulilah.” Milana replied. All praise be to God. She was still smiling.

Bhavani smiled back. “Glad to fight by your side once more, my lion.”

Tightening around her heart, those thorny coils of guilt. She did not flinch despite the pain.

For those who pursued power, this feeling would forever live in their chest, no matter what.

No matter how righteous their ambitions, how correct they believed their ideology.

Humans felt guilty; humans using other humans for their own ends could only feel guilty.

Bhavani knew, in her guilt-stricken heart, that, when even the great man himself armed this girl, his little daughter, and had her fight and kill to achieve victory at whatever cost– Bhavani knew that Movlid Omarov felt the exact same way as she did. Every painful step toward his new world, the defeat of his enemies and the dignity of his allies, the great works he envisioned and the peace that he desired.

Each step like this, was one more ugly, grim brick in the edifice, the cracks filled in blood.

No matter what the bricks built. There was no beautiful way to wield power. No bloodless revolution.

She could only hope that after everything was done, she would be remembered as well as he.

That the edifice of her Union could be seen to shine as brightly as his vision, despite the blood spatters.


When Fuhrer Lehner would have received the news, he was in the middle of his private lunch.

He ordered the officer arriving outside his office to wait, regardless of the urgency.

Lehner was the great leader. It was he who decided urgency, and nobody else.

He was in his unofficial office at the top of the R.N.N. main building in Thurin Station. The R.N.N. building had become the fortress out of which he ruled, despite the seat of administrative power lying in Weimar. Military officers and politicians thus came and went from the R.N.N. building– but the news kept going out regardless. Because it was already messaging “pro-Conservative” in the past, it was pretty easy to turn the dial on the R.N.N’s broadcast up a notch to “pro-Volkisch” and full-throated support of Lehner.

At his desk, alone, Lehner had a lovely lunch served out in front of him that day.

Honey-garlic glazed ribeye steak on a bed of polenta served as the main course. Lehner focused his attention on the steak, mainly, ignoring the polenta. On the side, he had cubed, battered and deep fried potatoes served with melted cheese, and a salad that was lightly flecked with greens and onions but was mainly shredded egg and bready white croutons. Despite their ubiquity in the diets of his citizens, there was no dark bread, no pickles and no sausage on his plate. Lehner despised all three of these food items.

He didn’t inherit a fortune from his family to be eating crated-up preserved rations like the rabble.

Once he had thoroughly savored his meal, Lehner allowed the officer to meet him.

It was the chief of staff of the Rhinean National Navy, his direct subordinate, Walther Weddel.

“Why are you always so dumpy? At least try to look heroic.” Lehner said.

In Lehner’s mind his chief of staff should be an absolute mound of muscle, enormous, a man who looked like he lifted Diver suits, with angled jowls so deep it looked like he chewed through bones all day. Instead he had Walther Weddel, a smooth, egg-like man with a boyish face who was always sweating. His uniform hung off him like a grandmother-gifted coat. Had Lehner the luxury, he would have told him he should be ashamed to promote himself as a racial superior, but Walther’s administration skill was sorely needed in order to keep the Rhinean forces in order. Only Walther could organize their mess of a Navy.

“I’ll try, Fuhrer.” He said. “I apologize– I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”

Lehner locked his eyes on him immediately.

That was how Lehner learned of the loss of roughly a third of the Volkisch Movement’s fleet.

Walther told him what they knew at the time.

Their operation in Serrano had been absolutely crushed — by the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.

At first he looked incredulous. This wasn’t unbelievable but he needed specifics.

Without specifics, without people to berate other than Walther– he had nothing.

“Do you have a report? Numbers? Names?”

Walther glowered and stuttered. “We are trying to confirm who is alive and get a timeline of what actually happened. There’s some fog of war– I just thought I’d inform you– we– we– may need to–“

Lehner began shouting. “Consider me informed, and go find out what actually happened! Tell Warteburg and Jagow! If we really had a complete collapse in Sverland it’s the front line that needs to know! Fuck! What am I supposed to do Walther? I can’t just pull out a chess board and figure this all out for you!”

He sent Walther away to find a way to reword the loss and report on it when Lehner was in a better mood. It wasn’t that Lehner didn’t believe him. Lehner believed him completely. But he was paralyzed with frustration, and did not know what orders he could give, or to whom, to fix what was broken. He had not even considered the Union, hiding in the remnants of the Empire’s colonies, as a threat, until then.

One more enemy in a world full of them.

For the Volkisch, their bid to become the true lords of the Imbrium ocean was going awry.

They had given the Royal Alliance several black eyes in the open waters between Sverland and Rhinea, but the Royal Alliance’s defenses within the Yucatan Peninsula itself had completely stopped the momentum of the Volkisch forces. The Royal Alliance had baited the Volkisch into overextending while they remained near their stations and bases, where they would be close to supply, and benefit from the support of stationary torpedo and cannon emplacements, missile launch sites, Diver bases, and minefields.

Meanwhile the Volkisch supply situation was a mess, their lines overstretched, the supply of raw materials and finished goods subject to irregular delays. Their officers were unwilling to engage in siege warfare and still sought an impressive maneuver victory. Lehner had to specifically order Reichsmarschall von Jagow to reform the Volkisch line closer to Rhinea and regroup, because he became alarmed at the enormous salient stretching into the Yucatan. It didn’t take a genius to see the problem– so why couldn’t his command staff figure that out? Lehner had begun to worry that his entire armed forces was useless.

While they had the most advanced industrial complexes, in the form of the Rhineanmetalle group, the resources needed to replace an entire fleet were enormous. Shipbuilding wasn’t even the most immediate problem either– staffing their Navy was. There was a surplus of militiamen, and from them, they had trained rudimentary marines and diver pilots. But it didn’t solve the lack of experienced sailors and officers who could staff ships and do the grunt work of maintaining a sailing, blue water navy. While the Volkisch rabble could beat up unarmed liberals on the streets, they were being exposed as poor warfighters.

Those 150 plus ships they sent to the Serrano region was the result of weeks of recruiting and training, filled in with some of their veterans from the Rhinean Defense Force of the old Imperial Navy. They could rebuild that many ships before the end of the year if they set their mind to it, but the training, the leadership, if it had all been destroyed, could they replace it in time to crew those ships? They had been deemed too green to fight the Royal Alliance effectively– and now it appeared they were also too green to fight the Union effectively as well. So in what capacity could they be used to support the war?

As Lehner ruminated on this, it was not even the worst news he received that day.

“You’re fucking kidding me.” was his response to the next emergency call that he received.

Strikers at Rhineanmetalle steelworking plants in Kreuzung had completely paralyzed steel production. They had occupied the plants, and were effectively keeping out local police. Rhineanmetalle forbid the use of lethal weapons in their plants, fearing the destruction of expensive equipment or the deaths of skilled workers who would be difficult to replace. A stalemate was forming, and orders went unfulfilled.

Lehner met with his economic ministers, with representatives from Rhineanmetalle, with quartermasters–

This situation could become dire. They were not ready for work stoppages. Production was too tenuous.

Without continuous production of armor plate, coilgun missiles, cannon barrels, and other such things, they would not be able to support day to day fighting at the front within weeks. Furthermore there was a possibility if this strike dragged on it would inspire more strikes. Lehner went with his standby solution to every problem: cracking heads. He promised he would have Marines in there beating the unholy fuck out of those steelworkers until they were back to soldering plates through the pain of broken hands.

“With all due respect,” the Rhineanmetalle representative did not call him ‘Fuhrer’, so he avoided saying any title, “Heavy fighting inside of our plants is categorically impermissible. Our equipment is specialized and delicate, difficult to replace. The Trade Union knows this very well. What we demand is an economic stimulus package, then we can pay the strikers and continue to meet our supply obligations for the navy.”

“You just want to bribe them? What if they ask for more?” Lehner shouted.

“We’ll meet that when it comes. Going forward we will be taking steps to insure the workforce is unable to occupy the plants so easily, but right now, we will not support any fighting in our plants. We believe there should be ample funds from the former Rhinea’s surplus years to cover such a cost. This is the only request of the Rhineanmetalle Group and affiliated entities. We hope to see a speedy resolution.”

Lehner was furious after the string of meetings.

Rhineanmetalle only cared about their own pockets. They just wanted a bigger war chest to feel the burn of negotiating with the trade unionists less in their yearly corporate earnings. Meanwhile those trade unionists had no patriotic sense of duty whatsoever. They only cared about their own stomachs, not that their country was torn apart and their region locked in a war! They knew that this strike would hurt Rhinea massively at this exact moment. They had probably been biding their time, waiting for this opportunity.

He didn’t care what Rhineanmetalle wanted. There was only one viable solution.

Crush the trade unionists, now, and force all of them back to work without objection or negotiation.

One problem begot another, however. What forces could he send to do this?

Kreuzung was a gigantic station-complex, and Rhineanmetalle did not only have the plants in Kreuzung, they owned the mines in the same region, Eisental, and they owned the petroleum industry and carbon manufactures too. Those were also Rhineanmetalle workers, and he could not take the chance that the trade unionists had not gotten them involved too. In Lehner’s mind, this situation was quickly escalating to a total state of emergency for the entire Eisental region. If he sent a small force just to slowly grind the workers at the Kreuzung plants, it wouldn’t be enough if it became widespread unrest and labor riots.

He needed enough forces to crush all dissent decisively and dissuade further uprising.

Not just at Kreuzung, but enough troops to patrol Eisental and make sure the unrest did not spread.

Eisental was a big place. This would be an enormous undertaking. Who could get this done?

He could not send the north border force, even though it was closest to Eisental. That would open a hole that Erich von Fueller’s Grand Western Army could exploit. He could not send his frontline troops, obviously. There were available reserve forces for the front, but the frontline commanders would go insane if he took their reserves from them. So it would have to be militia and internal security troops. But he needed the bulk of the Stabswache to enforce order in the political centers, like Thurin and Weimar. It was a tenuous time and without the firm hand of the Stabswache, the liberals and anarchists might rally. Hell, the strikes in Eisental could spread into Central Rhinea– then everything would be truly fucked.

Lehner walked in circles around his office, thinking himself sore.

Militia could absolutely not be sent alone. They had to be supervised by the Stabswache.

Or could they–?

No–

Volkisch militiamen might just wreck all of Eisental’s industry in the process of suppressing dissent.

God damn it– the militia could definitely not do this without tight supervision.

He convinced himself.

Stabswache, his elite political troops, would be needed– but which unit? Who would lead it?

He needed a force that was large enough to patrol an entire region with a station-complex that had twelve towers, and a dozen other stations besides, six agrispheres, and several industrial works.

Size wasn’t the only issue either.

He needed an elite, disciplined force, that was already equipped and able to not only fight in stations but patrol in the open water; but one that would not be missed at the front, nor in the political centers. He needed it to be led by someone intelligent, but who would be careful with the logistics of the operation. Someone with a vested interest in smoothing things out, who could get Rhineanmetalle on board. But who was ruthless enough to not slack off or go easy on the trade unionists for the sake of peace either.

It couldn’t just be a Volkisch zealot– they would be just as bad as the militia.

Who did he trust to take this issue seriously?

Then, he remembered, buried deep in the ledger in his mind–

Like a bolt of lightning–!

Vee.

Vee!

Vee was both a Stabswache commander and a major Rhineanmetalle shareholder!

Vee had a force with personal loyalty and their own equipment!

Vee (Lehner pointedly avoided pronouns and this person’s proper name in his mind) could handle this.

Vee had a personal and financial interest in this mission. The 7th Stabswache was unorthodox, but the one thing they weren’t lacking in was discipline and skill. They were also walking a thin tightrope as one of the ethnic legions of the Volkisch– hungry to prove themselves, and willing to go all out in the service of Volkisch interests. This could be their chance to prove they were worthy, and worth more than just a reserve force. Lehner hated having to ask, but this was his best option. The 7th used to be part of his mercenaries after all, the Lehner family private army. By right, he should be able to call upon them now.

His mind was racing. A thousand kilometer per hour, breakneck g-forces of thought–

Vee– Vee was difficult. Extremely difficult– Lehner felt ancient pains unearthing themselves.

It could end up embarrassing for him if word got out– about their relationship.

But he had no choice. Vee was in the Stabswache for a reason. Independent even of his own judgment, the 7th Fleet had come to join the violent pastiche of the Volkisch Movement for their own interests, but they had served excellently so far. And nobody in the Volkisch political class would miss them if they were gone somewhere– they were not Imbrians after all. He convinced himself. It had to be Vee.

She–

She– that was right.

He would call Vee a she to butter her up a bit. Then she (he was practicing) would definitely agree.

She was whip-smart, a genius, enough to make her own money, serve her own interests.

It was decided. He had no choice. His manic energy had finally given him a good solution.

Yes– everything would get taken care of now.

Lehner called his secretary. “Connect my office through to the 7th Stabswache. I don’t care where they are. Put me through to Vee– just connect to the Aleksandr and the communication officer will know!”

Even his secretary was a little shocked at the request.

After a few minutes of finagling behind the scenes, Lehner’s office was relayed through various laser stations until, on the border with Sverland, he connected to the Cruiser Aleksandr. A bewildered Shimii woman answered the call first, but then quickly put the Fuhrer through to the commander of the vessel. On the main screen of his office, Lehner put the commander’s wry little grin up and began to chat.

“Vee, I’d been thinking about you a lot lately.” Lehner said. “You look amazing in uniform. Real heroic.”

He segued easily into the act. He was her political leader– but also a concerned father.

And Vee responded to the act with her own, immediate restraint. Playing along cheerfully.

“Opening with the compliments? I’m surprised. Maybe I’ll actually believe you were thinking about me.”

On the screen, the confident young woman staring back at him rested her head on a fist, with a delighted grin on her soft, slim face. Her all-black uniform was pristine and expertly fitted her lean proportions. She had a peaked cap with silver, cat ear-like decorations atop, and a red armband indicating her membership in the political paramilitary of the Volkisch, the “Stabswache.” She toyed with her long hair, mostly light blue but with one pink stripe running through several long locks which she spun around one finger.

Lehner had to grit his teeth around this one, but he had no choice. In the end, as much as he disdained his son-turned-daughter, this really was a situation he could only entrust to her and to her troops.

“So, are you ready to owe me a favor? Or perhaps you’re ready to talk seriously about Pan-Imbrianism?”

Said Violet Lehner, Oberführer of the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, “Zabaniyah.”

Presaging the discussion that would lead her and her troops to Kreuzung, into the stage of history.

Carried by the currents on a collision course with a certain traveling band of revolutionaries.

And the next site of their destiny.


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


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