A pair of dark-furred cat-like ears stood up straight and engaged in a subtle wiggling.
“I’m hearing an Imperial ship! Ritter-class Cruiser!” Fatima al-Suhar called out.
Several bridge officers stiffened up in their seats.
The Ritter-class encompassed quite a few ships that had given the Brigand and its guests substantial grief in recent events. The Aleksandr detected near the end of the battle for Kreuzung; the Greater Imbria that had chased Elena Lettiere out of her home; and worst of all, the Antenora, flagship of the fearsome Norn the Praetorian. Ritters were high-tech types of vessels that could fight toe to toe with the Brigand if not give it pause outright, with comparable 150 mm guns, secondary 76 mm guns, missiles, torpedoes, drones and Divers.
“Check for the IFF before getting nervous.” Olga Athanasiou said, in a blunt tone of voice.
There was a rare configuration of command on the bridge. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya was out taking care of ‘personnel issues’; Commissar Aaliyah Bashara joined her; and Premier Erika Kairos meeting the sailors and thus, also indisposed. Prior to their adventure in Kreuzung this should have made Murati the next-in-command on the bridge as First Officer.
Instead, Erika’s right-hand woman Olga Athanasiou was given the bridge, sitting in the big chair in her black hoodie and long casual pants, her pale hair tied up in a ponytail. This was more of a mercenary situation than the strict military regimentation the crew was used to.
On the main screen, a small Zachikova model appeared and nodded her head.
She pointed her round, tiny hand at waveform graph that appeared beside her little body.
“This signal perfectly matches the ‘Day Code’ given to us by Premier Kairos to identify the Volksarmee’s acoustic beacon IFF. I am certain that this is an allied vessel.” She said.
Olga smiled and leaned farther back in the Captain’s chair, putting her feet up.
“That’s the Rostock then. Helm, rendezvous with them. Signals, send an acoustic hail.”
Kamarik and Semyonova worked as instructed, efficiently and without complaint.
“So– do you think she is ever going to learn our names?”
On the opposite side of the bridge from signals, Torpedo Officer Alex Geninov grumbled.
“Gamer, tis been but few moons since she joined our band. Silence your errant tongue.”
Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa whispered back with typical verbosity.
Olga sighed audibly at the two of them.
“Rejoice you two; I know your names, because you get scolded the most!” She said.
Fernanda shot Alex a glare as if to say ‘you got me in trouble again!’
Alex squirmed in her seat, under both Olga and Fernanda’s glowering expressions.
Even with Olga in the Captain’s chair, there could still be an air of familiarity.
Soon after, the National Volksarmee flagship answered the Brigand’s message. Within 30 minutes the two vessels closed enough to one another for laser-based communications. On the main screen, the Rostock came to loom massively within 50 meters of the Brigand in the otherwise empty-seeming, near-black landscape of Eisental. It was the first time since they had left Thassal Station that the Brigand was face to face with an Imperial model ship on assuredly friendly terms. Quite a unique image to be seeing in ultra-high resolution.
The Ritter-class, also known as the “Sword class,” resembled what its nickname suggested. The prow of the ship was sharp and roughly triangular, while the gently flared rear armor over the hydrojets resembled a sword’s handguard. Atop the slight curve of the top deck rested the main gun turret, its dual 150 mm barrels and their chunky drainage housings permanently engaged, unlike the Brigand’s retractable guns. But the Rostock had a few modifications. Most obviously, it had a livery, dark green with a red stripe running across the bow. In addition to the interdiction gas guns and the secondary 76 mm cannons, there were also additional jet anchor pods installed on the front and rear of the ship. Sixteen cells of vertical missile launchers were evident as well. How had Erika acquired such a vessel?
Olga always answered the same– that is a story for another day.
So the crew remained curious but nonetheless professional as they could be.
“Yeah, that’s her all right.” Olga said. “Accept the hail, Sig– Semyonova. Main screen.”
Semyonova smiled at Olga. “Yes ma’am. Right away.”
She promptly routed the communication from the Rostock to the main screen situated on the forebridge. After a few seconds a woman appeared, saluting the entire time, rendered massively in front of everyone due to the size of the main screen. Like Olga and Erika, the captain of the Rostock had the same rectangular horns coming out of the back of her head pointed up, barely visible from behind her peaked cap. Her skin was lightly pink with orange mottles visible around her neck. On her cap, there was a silver badge that had been evidently defaced, a crude star cut over whatever it had once represented. She dressed in a long red coat over black pants and a cut-off black top, and wore her dark blue hair quite long.
“Comrade Olga. Captain Daphne Triantafallos of the Rostock is reporting in.”
Her voice was serious and her enunciation was very deliberate.
Olga cracked a little grin upon seeing her.
“How have things been, Daphne? We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we’re going to have do it while on the move. It is going to be pretty annoying, you know, so get ready for that. But until Erika gets back from chatting, we can take it easy for a little bit.”
Rather than respond, Delphine glanced around.
From her vantage, she could see some of the Brigand’s bridge crew.
“These are Union soldiers, Olga?” Delphine asked.
“Indeed they are.” Olga replied dryly.
“To think– I will fight alongside the great liberators of the southern sea. It is my honor!”
Semyonova narrowed her eyes with confusion as Delphine adopted a more compliant tone.
“May I attend the Brigand for a spell in order to observe their operations? I’m sure we can learn something that will improve the Rostock’s efficiency!” Daphne said, with a little smile.
Olga laughed. “Sure, sure. We’ll have a lot of people coming and going.”
“Are we that special?” Geninov whispered, but not low enough–
“Have some faith, torpedoes!” Olga declared almost as quickly as Geninov spoke.
Geninov frowned, and there was some light giggling throughout the bridge at her expense.
On the leftmost edge of the main screen, beside Daphne, a second figure peeked into the picture. Daphne turned to acknowledge her and bid her to come closer and greet everyone. In the next instant, a round-faced and pretty young woman took the opportunity to jump in, cling very close to Daphne and fully enter the picture. Dressed in a plastic, hooded coat with numerous pockets that seemed like it had either been sloppily dyed red over or blue; or that it had faded from red with specks and streaks of blue dotting its surface. When she pulled her hood down, she rendered visible her brown hair, collected into a big braid. Her skin was a brownish-grey with spots of white, but most peculiarly, she had a single horn stretching from the top of her forehead, a few centimeters long before it was broken off. Big orange eyes and rosy cheeks, gave her a more girlish and soft appearance than Daphne’s sleek edges.
“Greetings everyone! I am Nomia Grammateas. I am Daphne’s adjutant. Nice to meet you all.”
She spoke in a voice so dulcet-soft she earned an easy comparison to Semyonova.
“You can catch up later.” Olga said. “Daphne, we should not stay put for much longer. We need to get the show moving. Pull the Rostock alongside us, we’ll synchronize navigation data. We can use shuttles or Divers to ferry personnel between the ships in motion.”
Daphne acknowledged with a shallow nod.
In a corner of the main screen, a camera picked up movement and brought up a picture-in-picture showing the ocean ahead of them and what had been detected. There was only one sight to see. The Rostock began to pull water through its jets again, leaving the area of the forward cameras to be picked up by side cameras. Slowly circling around the Brigand to face in its direction while maintaining a fifty meter distance from starboard. Olga ordered Kamarik to get the Brigand moving also; the two ships resumed their journey together.
Olga sat back in the Captain’s chair and shut her eyes for a moment.
She thought of the amount of work ahead of them before Aachen. They had to synchronize the data of both ships; come up with a slew of protocols for working together; collate a shared inventory; make communications routine enough that both crews became habituated to working together and making joint decisions; all of this just in the middle of the ocean while hurtling toward greater troubles. There would be even work at Aachen, and even more to do once they worked out any kind of plan against the Volkisch Movement.
As with all previous events that transpired– Olga simply grinned to herself.
There was a lot of toil ahead, and she would certainly complain.
But she was excited to be out of that stuffy Kreuzung station and back in the ocean.
In the ocean, where there was a fight, there was the possibility of change.
Victory or death.
Erika’s dream was one step closer to being realized.
And that was all that mattered to her. A world where Erika would not need to work.
At Dr. Kappel’s request, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya visited her clinic.
Of the many meetings on her schedule this would be the first.
She was grateful for the opportunity to put off the disciplinary meetings with Illya and Valeriya– and Zachikova and Arabella after them. She also had a meeting with Erika, Murati, Euphrates and Tigris to catch up on the events surrounding Arabella, the Omenseers, and “Psionics.” Then she had to finally reprimand Marina. Compared to all of those topics, talking to Homa Baumann, if not any lighter, would at least be easier to approach.
Ulyana walked into the clinic and made note that all of the disciplinary hearing subjects had already been collected from their beds by Akulantova and taken to the meeting place. Aaliyah was likely already there with them. There were a pair of sailors helpfully assisting in putting away the plastic screens that had been installed between each bed. It made the clinic look a lot less occupied. There was one barrier at the end that would not yet be moved.
Behind it was Homa Baumann.
(And Kalika Loukia, seated beside her and in the middle of conversation.)
Ulyana arrived swiftly, interrupting the two and introducing herself.
“Greetings, Homa Baumann. I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Let’s have a little chat.”
In her bed, Homa Baumann looked– small.
She was not necessarily a very short girl, and it was not necessarily because Ulyana herself was taller than average. Rather, Ulyana felt that Homa was making herself small, distant. She was nervous and closed off. Whether voluntarily or not, she seemed like she was shrinking back from Ulyana. Compared to when Ulyana had last seen her, when she was brought into the ship, Homa was cleaned up and healthier, her dark hair attaining a lively luster again, her eyes brighter. She was looking even skinnier than she did in Kreuzung, when she greeted Ulyana at the port. But she was eating again, so she would be restored in time.
“Do you recognize me, Homa? We actually met when my ship arrived at Kreuzung.”
Homa briefly glanced at Kalika and then back to Ulyana.
“Yes, I do recognize you.” Homa said. “I remember. The Pandora’s Box– I always knew you guys were shady.” She averted her gaze. “Two days ago– I had just been operated on and I was really freaked out. But I get it– I’ve ended up on a mercenary vessel. Isn’t that right?”
“Close. I suppose you could say that about our present situation.” Ulyana smiled.
Homa narrowed her eyes.
“Are you going to try talking in circles around it too?”
“No. I will tell you everything you want to know. Then you can decide whether to stay with us or part ways. So just ask. I can spare ten or twenty minutes. You can ask me anything.”
For a moment, Homa was warier than she had ever looked.
“What happens if you tell me your secrets and let me go, and I snitch to the Volkisch?”
Kalika sighed openly and put her biological hand over her face in response.
Ulyana smiled, because it was such a farcical proposition, and such a prickly response.
She was not threatened in the slightest.
This outburst came from a place of hurt.
“Nothing will happen to you. At least not by our hand.” Ulyana said. When she spoke her voice was gentle but firm. “You can go directly from our ship to the Gau office at Aachen. Nobody will stop you. You can say what you want to say to them, and certainly we may be inconvenienced by it, but more than likely you will end up being arrested by them and we will just escape and find another way to conduct our business. You have some lurid fantasies if you think I’m going to silence a helpless girl as a threat to our security. We operate just a bit more ethically than that. Besides, you hate the Volkisch too, don’t you?”
That final point was the most important one.
Knowing what Ulyana knew about the situation, made it much easier to sell things softly.
Had Homa been any more ambiguous– she may well have had to cover off the possibility.
But the sad, withdrawn girl in front of her was no threat to anyone right now.
She would not do anything to merit extreme measures.
“What makes you say that?” Homa said bitterly. “There’s a lot of Volkisch Shimii now.”
Homa could not meet her eyes. She had never once looked at Ulyana directly as they spoke.
Poor girl. Her voice was trembling. Her state made Ulyana’s heart quiver with pity.
“You fought them in Kreuzung. You killed them too. You threw yourself right at them.”
At the sound of the word ‘killed’ Homa seemed to flinch and stare down at her own lap.
“Homa. Please. Nobody will hurt you.” Kalika finally interrupted.
She reached out a hand to comfort her– and Homa gently shied away from it.
“It’s not that.” Homa said. Partially through gritted teeth. Her hand clutching her blanket.
“Homa,” Ulyana said, believing it was time to just put everything on the table with finality, “I’m a Captain of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s Navy.” She waited a moment for Homa to draw her eyes wide. “You may have heard of us referred to as rebels or bandits; but we are communist soldiers and we have not come here to plunder or enrich ourselves. We are here to help the people of Eisental to resist the Volkisch Movement.”
“The Union?” Homa said. Her lips quivered. “So you’re not mercenaries. You’re real soldiers.”
Her initial shock seemed to quickly abate, but she still could not lift her eyes from the bed.
“Before either mercenaries or soldiers, we’re all communists.” Ulyana said. She bent over slightly to try to get closer to capturing Homa’s eyes. Homa continued to avoid her gaze. “We don’t want to cause you unneeded suffering, Homa. When we dock at Aachen, no matter what, you will have a chance to leave. But we know that you fought the Volkisch at Kreuzung. If you are opposed to their injustices, then we can be your allies in that regard.”
Homa narrowed her eyes. Her ears folded. She looked more conflicted than before.
“You don’t have to make any decision right now.” Ulyana said. “You don’t even have to decide when we get to Aachen. Take your time and think about it. Staying with us will put you in a lot of danger– but as long as you remain here, we will feed you and take care of you. You’re not the only guest we have. We don’t have infinite capacity but we can certainly help you. We’re not in the habit of abandoning innocent girls to the elements. We will not make you fight either, so you do not have to worry about that. You can still do what you want with yourself. But if you want to leave, you can leave. We’ll do our best to assist you.”
Homa bowed her head. Her hair fell messily over her face, enough to cover her eyes.
“Why?” Homa asked. “I don’t understand why– why would you be like this? Didn’t one of you look at the data from my machine? I was afraid you wanted me to fight. So– why–?”
Ulyana suppressed a laugh.
She must have gotten wind of Murati’s thoughtless intentions.
“I’ll tell Murati Nakara off if she gets too excited. I am not recruiting you Homa.”
“I don’t understand!” Homa cried out. “Why would you be this accommodating? I’m just some nobody! No, even worse– I’m just a big target now! I killed Volkisch back at Kreuzung. I killed dozens– no, hundreds of them! So I’m a murderer and a criminal! They’ll find me and hunt me down and make me pay! Meanwhile I’ll just take up space, eat your food, and you’re even giving me a free surgery. I don’t understand why you would do any of this for me!”
Homa had made her own voice crack several times. She was losing control.
Ulyana tried to reassure her again.
“We are doing this much for you– because it’s right, Homa. Because causing you harm or neglecting you is the senseless, needless option.” Her calm gaze met Homa’s impassioned eyes directly for the very first time in their conversation. “Because I couldn’t live with myself throwing you out of this ship knowing you have no means to sustain yourself. Because what is convenient for me is not what is right or just for the world. That is why, Homa. We can adjust the rations; we can get more medicines; we can move around people so you can have a place to sleep. But we rescued you; we have a responsibility to help you!”
That screaming which had shaken itself out of her chest seemed to leave Homa hollow.
“I– I–” Homa began to weep. “I see. I see. I– I don’t have any more questions. Sorry.”
She turned suddenly in bed, wrapping herself in her blankets, turning her back and sobbing.
Ulyana looked at Kalika, silently requesting her input.
Kalika shook her head and made a waving hand gesture as if to say ‘go, I’ve got this.’
Ulyana nodded back.
She turned her own back on Homa’s bed for now and walked away.
In her years as a Captain she had built up some experience dealing with traumas like this.
And she herself had a complete breakdown too– after the Pravda incident in the Union.
Back then she had completely blamed herself for the accident.
For the sinking of the newest Union dreadnought and the loss of hundreds of lives.
Ulyana knew the sound of those words that Homa spoke against herself.
Blame and self-hatred and confusion. After the Pravda sank, the questions would torment her mind for years. “Why did I live when others lost their lives?” “Where did I go wrong?” “How can I keep living like this?” To silence those voices, Ulyana drank and fucked and retreated from the world. She ignored her friends and shouted and spat at any stranger who tried to drag her back or to give her a way out. Only Nagavanshi succeeded.
She saw so much herself in Homa that it was almost painful to bear witness to it.
Ulyana had grown too, however. She was not still the woman of mere months ago.
For a woman in her mid-30s, the last few months had done the work of years.
Overcoming had been slow– but she forgave herself.
She would not avert her gaze from Homa. She had to meet that girl’s eyes at her level.
She also knew that trying too hard to help could become its own torture for poor Homa.
Instead Ulyana hoped that Homa would slowly accept the everyday kindness of living on the ship and come to a decision for herself. Exposed to the frequent and unexceptional kindness that everyone on the Brigand would receive in their time of need. She hoped that given the right opportunities to fight her own helplessness, Homa would take them and it would build her spirits back up, so that she felt like she had found her own power and purpose again.
That was what the Brigand and its mission, had done for Ulyana herself.
Ulyana had learned to forgive herself for the Pravda.
All she wanted for Homa, was that she could forgive herself for her own tragedy.
At least Kalika had put herself at Homa’s dispensation. Having a friend would help.
There was not much Ulyana could do. She walked out of the clinic feeling ambivalent.
Walking slowly through the hall to have a moment’s peace to decompress.
Before all of the exhausting meetings about to come.
“Homa Baumann is the least of my problems.” Ulyana said to herself.
Still– that meeting had been nowhere near as simple as she had hoped it would be.
People could hurt so badly– in every piece of them, the cruel Imbrium could put a scratch.
Just like the Brigand itself, sailing immaculate before being patched up over and over.
All Ulyana could do was keep patching, to keep the water out.
Several doors down the hall, her next problem awaited in a nondescript meeting room.
There was a table, some chairs, the blue walls, nothing exceptional or different.
Akulantova at the door; Aaliyah waiting on the other end of the room, alone.
And between them, Illya Rostova, her arms crossed; and Valeriya Peterburg, avoiding eyes.
Perhaps one of her most dangerous set of problems.
“Have they been behaving?” Ulyana asked upon walking in.
“They know better than to piss me off worse than they already have.” Akulantova replied.
Her voice was gruffer than usual. She was more unreservedly blunt to these two.
Neither Illya nor Valeriya made a sound despite being mentioned so roughly.
Ulyana walked around them and took a seat next to Aaliyah.
“Are we ready to begin, Captain?” She asked.
“We have to be.” Ulyana said. She meet Aaliyah’s eyes– her Commissar looked wary too.
Together, the two of them faced Illya and Valeriya on the other side of the table.
“Let’s cut the bullshit.” Ulyana said immediately. Aaliyah’s ears stood on end. “You two don’t respect me or Chief Akulantova. You are probably laughing to yourselves because Akulantova values human lives and I was just an ordinary ship Captain. You probably don’t respect Aaliyah because she’s ‘just’ a Commissar too. Am I wrong? You believe your special forces clique are the center of the universe don’t you? That you are all above the law?”
“Captain–!” Aaliyah gasped with surprise.
Ulyana did not draw her eyes away from Illya.
Even Akulantova had her eyes drawn wide at the Captain’s aggression.
Illya raised her eyes from the table, her icy gaze meeting Ulyana’s passion.
“Dead wrong.” Illya said. “I believe no such things, Captain.”
“Then I misread you. I sincerely apologize. Let us put it behind us.”
Ulyana reached out a hand to shake. Illya looked at it and quizzically returned the gesture.
Neither of the two made any sort of show of their hand shaking.
Just an ordinary firm shake. As if nobody had shouted.
When their hands retracted, Ulyana crossed her arms. She let out a breath.
“Tell me why you and Valeriya left the ship without authorization, in full combat gear.”
Illya shut her eyes. “To rescue Zachikova.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Do you think I would have forbid her rescue?” Ulyana said.
“I worried you might put the mission ahead of a single crew member.” Illya replied.
“And you wouldn’t?”
“I don’t leave people behind if I can help it.”
“People, writ large– or people, as in just your former squadron?”
“We would have done the same. For you.”
Valeriya finally spoke up in the middle of them. She was covering her mouth with her hand and would not make eye contact with anyone. Both of them were dressed in the Treasure Box uniforms, and Valeriya was not given her tactical mask back to wear. So she was covering her face and speaking from behind her fingers. While Illya’s body language was firm and determined, Valeriya looked shaken and unable to hold her gaze on anything.
Despite this, she spoke up when she needed to.
Ulyana sighed. These two weren’t necessarily ill intentioned– just difficult.
Difficult girls whose history Ulyana was not allowed to know.
For the first time Ulyana felt that it would be difficult to make friends here.
She had to be the boss, rather than the inspirational figure or the ship dad.
“You misjudged me as well, Illya Rostova. In that situation, I would not have abandoned Zachikova. Our mission has paramount importance, of course– but I need my crew to complete my mission. I need Zachikova, you, and Valeriya. More than that– I am responsible for you. It would take the most dire circumstances for me to abandon you.”
For the first time, Valeriya briefly glanced at Ulyana directly.
“It’s my responsibility– what we did.” Illya said, raising her voice as if hoping to center all attention on herself. Meeting Ulyana’s eyes while reaching out a hand and gripping Valeriya’s shoulder to comfort her. “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I own up to it. You’re partially right, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I do not know you as a Captain. So I would rather break a few plates, and be yelled at, and learn my lesson, than lose my chance. So I went out and brought back Zachikova. Because she was a comrade– and friend. So I just broke the plates.”
“Does this mean henceforth you will correct your behavior?” Aaliyah asked.
“Yes.” Illya said. “Next time this happens, I’ll follow protocol and trust you.”
“We’ve been pretty speedy decision-makers when it has mattered. We could have avoided a lot of trouble.” Ulyana said. “Anyway. Let me be clear about where we stand. You are all valuable members of my crew. I have decided to punish you, and the punishment has been decided too. But I will expect both of you to continue doing your jobs, and to perform with excellence. I expect you to follow orders. You want those guns out of their lockers, you request it from the Chief. You have a situation, you report it to me or to the Commissar– or hell, even Murati! We just can’t afford to be completely in the dark. You had that scuffle with Ahwalia, and now this. You will learn to cooperate with others properly. That is the only thing you are missing. You must recognize that you are part of my team. Understood?”
“Yes, Captain.” Illya said. “I intended no disrespect. I am not trying to subvert command.”
“Good. And while you intended no disrespect, you disrespected me nonetheless.”
“I apologize, Captain. I will do whatever it takes to rectify the situation.”
“Just do your job. Do it right. Look at Klara and Lian for examples.”
Illya seemed to bristle ever so slightly at that suggestion, but said nothing more.
Maybe she was a good girl after all.
Ulyana turned to Valeriya and spoke to her directly.
In that instant Illya looked more alarmed for a moment.
“You care about Illya quite deeply. But don’t just do whatever she tells you. I want you to be able to exercise your own judgment and rein her in if you must. Are we clear?”
Valeriya nodded her head quietly. It was difficult to be firm with her.
“Good. You two have demonstrated a lot of skill– I will be needing you. So shape up!”
The Captain turned her attention back to Illya and smiled.
“Now, let bygones be bygones, agree to do better next time– and accept your punishment.”
From a corner of the Akulantova, who also had a grin on her face, picked up a box.
She dropped the box in the middle of the table between Illya and Ulyana and chuckled.
“You are all cordially invited to café Last Resort Rations. Three meals a day, two weeks.”
Ulyana opened the plastic box to unveil several compressed bricks of food vacuum packed in transparent wrappers. Each of them had a sticker with the packing date, fall-off date and the name of the item. She held up one which was a muddy dark color and had specks of green within it. It was evident through the packaging that the brick was dense and crumbly.
“Look! Soy sauce cabbage congee! Amazing!” Ulyana said, putting on a sadistic smile.
Aaliyah picked one up and showed it off with the exact same expression as Ulyana.
“And here we have red rice with beans and peppers. Scrumptious.” Aaliyah said.
“But we’re not monsters here. You’ll also have water from your rooms, and one of these.”
Ulyana produced from the ration box a tiny two-piece alcohol stove, a pack of fuel tablets for the portable stove and a little steel cup. An entire portable mess kit for survival use.
“You can bite straight into the food bar, or you can dissolve the contents into a little stew.”
“Three a day.” Aaliyah added. “We will be checking in on you to make sure you eat them. If you even as much as look at Minardo’s cooking we have some creative ideas to make this worse, so it’s best to steel yourselves for it now. While you eat, think about what you’ve done and the social contract for being on this ship. I don’t care how classified or not the two of you are; you’re under the Captain’s command and my supervision. End of story.”
Enjoying herself far too much, Ulyana pulled out a third bar and waved it gleefully.
“Straight out of our old homeland: buckwheat with mushrooms and algae!”
Aaliyah followed her, producing a fourth block. “Homestyle tofu rice with green onion.”
“I get it, I get it.” Illya said. “We’ll eat out of the box and be good girls from now on.”
Valeriya nodded her head alongside Illya.
Even she looked a bit more amused than before at the nature of the punishment.
“Did you think we were going to vent you of an airlock?” Ulyana asked.
“No, more like shoot me in front of the crew as an example.” Illya said.
“We’re not putting that entirely off the table on a repeat offense.” Aaliyah replied.
Now it was Ulyana’s turn to look momentarily shocked at her Commissar’s aggression.
Off to the side of the table, Akulantova made a face and averted her eyes.
Illya and Valeriya looked completely unphased by the comment.
“Well– I suppose that is most of what needed to be said on this topic.” Ulyana said trying to fill in the sudden silence, and wanting to move on to her next meeting. “Illya and Valeriya; we will be monitoring you more closely from now on. I want us to have a better relationship. My style of leadership is that I want to trust that everyone working for me is an adult with an ethical compass who can do their job correctly and communicate well. I am grateful that you were able to bring Zachikova and Arabella back safely. But you have shaken my trust in you — needlessly — and it will need to be rebuilt. But I want to believe in you two.”
Illya nodded her head. “Acknowledged. I will endeavor toward excellence, Captain.”
“See that you do.” Ulyana said. “Is there anything more you want to tell me?”
“Actually, there is, Captain. There is something you can do for me.”
Ulyana awaited for Illya to explain– instead she got up from her chair.
Akulantova stiffened up– Aaliyah was about to shout for her to sit until dismissed–
But everyone quieted when Illya kneeled beside Valeriya, taking her hand.
“Valeriya Peterburg, will you marry me?”
In that moment, Valeriya’s eyes drew wider open than Ulyana had ever seen them.
She was rendered perhaps more speechless than usual.
“I want to take care of you forever. I never want to leave your side.” Illya continued. “So much has happened to you for following me all of this time. For every one of my horrid decisions, you have supported me. At my every lowest point, you have been forced to watch me struggle to stand. Whenever I falter, you are forced to save me. When we were in the middle of a firefight again, I trusted you with my life, but I was– I was so deeply afraid for yours. I can’t pretend like this will make up for everything, but it’s a real commitment I can make to you right now. I want to spend the rest of my life treating you like a queen, Valeriya.”
Aaliyah and Ulyana stared in mute surprise. They glanced at each other helplessly.
Valeriya lifted her hand from over her mouth– she was smiling, a little bit.
“Y-Yes. Thank you.” She whimpered, her voice lower than ever.
Her eyes glinted with a hint of tears. But she was smiling, happier than ever.
From her kneeling position, Illya turned to face the others.
“As soon as possible I want this to be completely official. The Commissar is a communist party official, so she can notarize; and the Captain and Akulantova are our two witnesses. We have cohabitated for years. I want to marry her. You don’t have to put me on any lists for bigger rooms or whatever the fuck– just fill out the form for us. Please.”
Illya sounded far more serious than she had been during the entire conversation before.
This meant even more to her than her life, Ulyana thought.
These two– they really were very difficult women. But very tender too.
Aaliyah sighed. “I’ll add your paperwork to my unending list of things that need doing.”
“Thank you, Commissar, Captain, Chief.” Illya said. “Truly. Thank you for everything.”
“You two are always the biggest pain in my ass.” Akulantova said. “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations.” Ulyana said, helpless to add anything more substantial.
“Congratulations.” Aaliyah added in a monotone voice.
All of the reluctance in the world had taken residence in her. She was nearly shaking.
Regardless, there was a confession and everyone accepted it.
Illya and Valeriya stood up, and Valeriya threw her arms around Illya without hesitation.
In return, Illya kissed her with her own unreserved passion, the audience be damned.
Neither of them stretched out the scene any further. After the kiss, they were dismissed.
Illya took the box of rations and carried it, beside an uncharacteristically smiley Valeriya.
Akulantova watched them go with a critical expression, jaw twitching with irritation.
And so concluded that piece of business.
“Well,” Ulyana said, “Never knew this whole mess would end in a wedding. Fun, huh?”
Aaliyah stared sidelong at Ulyana, frowning, her arms crossed, seated back on her chair.
“Personally, I must express disapproval. But administratively, I will comply.” She said.
Ulyana laid a hand on her shoulder with a smile. “That’s our charming Commissar.”
“Hmph.” Aaliyah’s ears folded, but she did not shake Ulyana’s hand off her shoulder.
Another meeting room door opened in the wake of the Captain and Commissar.
Seated across the table from Arabella and Zachikova this time. Both of them out of their hospital beds and back in uniform. Arabella had been retrieved with some truly grisly wounds, and had recovered exceptionally. However, ever since she was brought aboard she had refused to take on any color in her skin or hair. A pale girl with completely white hair and pale eyes, even the once flush and vascular tips of her horns were stark white.
Meanwhile Zachikova was still quite herself, but she was nursing a serious injury to her leg and sat on a wheelchair during the meeting. For once she had an emotion on her face.
She looked nervous.
As soon as Ulyana and Aaliyah took their seats across the table, Arabella bowed her head.
She bowed so low that her hair covered her face. Aaliyah sighed.
They heard her sob but could not see her tears.
“I apologize for the danger I brought upon all of you. I am so deeply sorry.” Arabella said.
Zachikova remained quiet, her hands on her lap with the fingers curled into fists.
“We are still almost completely in the dark about what this danger was,” Aaliyah said, “and about your role in it,” she then turned to face Zachikova, “and why you snuck out to go after her without telling anybody. More than punishing anyone, we need to understand the circumstances. We can leave some things to a report, but I want a motive.”
Zachikova raised her eyes from the table and met Aaliyah and Ulyana’s gazes.
“She went missing and I had a feeling she was in danger. So I went after her.” She said.
“When a crew member goes missing, Braya Zachikova, we form a rescue party, and then we know where everyone is, what they are doing, and we can coordinate them. When we work together we have a much higher chance of bringing everyone back safely!”
“I had an emotional response.” Zachikova said. Averting her eyes.
“It’s not that I can’t sympathize with that. We are all emotional on this ship.” Ulyana said, entering the discussion. “But when another crew member’s life is on the line, we need to temper our emotions with rationality. We can’t act on pure impulse. There is always enough time to make sure the crew knows what you are doing and can back you up. Zachikova, the way you decided to do this could have jeopardized your life, that of Arabella, and Illya and Valeriya, who also went after you in secret. You could have all died without us ever knowing where you were, or what had happened to you. Akulantova had to run out to find you! You should thank her for your lives. We can’t allow this to repeat ever again.”
Zachikova paused to think for a moment.
But even she seemed frustrated with her own response when next she spoke.
“I understand perfectly well. It’s not like me– but Arabella isn’t like anyone else to me.”
“It was my fault.” Arabella interrupted. “Please do not chastise Braya.”
“I must chastise her.” Ulyana said. “Because she knows better than to have done this.”
“I know– but what I mean is, I called out to her in a panic. I called out to her to save me.”
“You’re talking about psionics, aren’t you?” Ulyana said.
Betraying a sudden weariness.
Arabella nodded her head. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms.
“Zachikova heard my psionic screaming. That’s the reason she came after me.” Arabella said.
“You don’t have to make excuses for me. I made my own decision.” Zachikova said.
“Let her talk.” Ulyana said. “Arabella. Why did you run away in the first place?”
Arabella looked utterly defeated as she spoke.
They could barely see her face and she was weeping.
“When you came back from your meetings with the United Front groups, I caught the scent on you– the scent of some awful people of my own kind. They are known as Enforcers of the Syzygy. They are brutal and they disdain hominins. I was terrified that they were plotting to trick you and kill everyone here. I felt that I needed to go after them– that only I could do it– in order to protect Braya and all of you. I prepared for a few days by gathering my old memories and then I escaped to go after them. Perhaps it was also the hunger– pushing me into conflict with them. But ultimately, I did what I did. It was reckless and useless. I did enormous damage to my mind and body, and betrayed your trust, for nothing.”
“Have we really just not engendered any trust in you all?” Ulyana said sternly.
Somehow, she felt more saddened that nobody reported to her when they were in need.
Perhaps because that was something easier to grasp than the rest.
“You caught the scent of your kind on us?” Aaliyah asked. “So we met with Omenseers?”
Arabella nodded her head.
“So these Enforcers you mentioned– we can rule out Erika and her troops, or Arabella would have made her scene on the ship rather than vacated it. We can also rule out the demsocs, since Gloria was not physically present but Orlan is on the ship and getting along–” Ulyana felt her heart beat faster. She recalled the strange behavior of the anarchists, utterly false in their ideology and confessing that they believed some bizarre theories.
“It was Zozia and Ksenia then.” She finally said. The Imbrium was cruel indeed.
“I might be able to describe their hominin likenesses for you.” Arabella said.
“So you were not successful in eliminating them.” Aaliyah said.
“I’m afraid not.” Arabella said. “They almost killed me. I wasn’t strong enough.”
“Then we’ll be running into them again at Aachen.” Ulyana said gravely.
Aaliyah’s tail stood up straight. “We need more info– how do we even respond to this?”
“Arabella, are you okay with telling us all of this? You don’t have to do this.”
Zachikova spoke up in defense of Arabella. Aaliyah shot her a furious look.
Ulyana laid her hand on Aaliyah’s shoulder and shook her head to stop her going further.
“Zachikova. Arabella saved our lives back at Goryk. We deferred prying into her affairs back then. But now we need more information. We are not doing this out of convenience– if we want to protect her from her enemies, who clearly meant her harm, then she has to work with us. She can’t keep going around behind our backs anymore. Do you understand?”
In response, Zachikova quieted and averted her gaze. Arabella held her hand briefly.
“It’s okay, Braya.” Arabella said. She put on a brave face.
Facing an Ulyana trying her damnedest to smile, and Aaliyah’s fiercely skeptical eyes.
Arabella began to speak, and she told Ulyana and Aaliyah something new.
“My name is Arabella– it is what I was originally called. Arbitrator I– that was something my sister made up. Her name was Caderis– now Arbitrator II.” Arabella began. Then her tone grew impassioned, and the things she said made both Aaliyah and Ulyana stare fixedly. “My sister and I were created as weapons. Biological weapons. By people up there.” She pointed at the ceiling. She clearly meant the surface. Ulyana and Aaliyah followed where her finger pointed with wide-eyed confusion. “They used DNA from the original Omenseers to make us. We were meant to be extremely adaptable weapons that could be used to control the hominins. Hominins were more scared than ever, and fighting each other, and the world was in a truly horrid shape. When I was born, the sky was already purple. ‘Biomechanoids’– as they called us– did not need fuel or munitions, and we could repair ourselves– and we derived our fighting energy from the most abundant resource left in the world. Expendable, infinitely replaceable hominins. We could kill them, eat them, and then kill more.”
Ulyana could hardly believe what she was hearing. She did not know how she could reply.
Or at least, that was her snap reaction.
After a few moments she realized the world had been overturned and made a farce in front of her eyes so many times already. She could believe almost anything after she overcame her initial shock. Then again– judging by Homa’s reaction, to her, communism was as incomprehensible as the idea of talking to a surface world bioweapon. So perhaps musing on the weirdness of the particulars here was nothing but good old human emotion.
Aaliyah did not raise her voice to interrupt either.
She had her arms crossed, she had her eyes to the table. Mulling over as Arabella spoke.
Hearing no interruptions, Arabella caught her breath, continued– but quickly deteriorated.
“I wish I could tell you more– about my self or Caderis or the original ancient peoples. I wasn’t lying when I said it takes me some time to remember my memories. I’m sorry. It’s because I’m not a real person– I believe you are all real people, and I’m a fake person. Back then– the hominins came up with the idea that there were ‘Genuine Human Beings’ who had to survive. But I’m not one of those– because Genuine Human Beings have a normal brain, and they have a soul too and God loves them. I’m a ‘Biomechanoid’– I’m only conscious because of a DNA computer inside me. Not because I’m a person. And–” Arabella grew more distraught as she spoke. Zachikova started to look at her with clear distress. But she also did not interrupt. She seemed as shocked as everyone else. Arabella looked like she had to make a physical effort to control her stuttering and complete her sentences again. “I know it must sound dumb, and I’m really sorry! But I broke the computer! I wanted to get all of the data blocks out of it and read them again but I was careless and now I can’t remember half the things I should know anymore. Back then– I put them all away, because I was scared of everything and I wanted to run away! But then when I wanted to be brave all of the blocks are broken and I cannot read them now! I’m really sorry! Now I’m useless to everyone!”
“Arabella, please calm down!” Ulyana said. She reached out and held both of Arabella’s hands in her own, giving her knuckles a gentle squeeze with her thumbs. “It may be cold comfort to you– you have experienced things we can’t possibly imagine– but I believe you are a human being! Humanity is more than just your biology. You’re human to me– I care about you.”
Hands smashed down on the table from beside Arabella.
“And it doesn’t matter if she isn’t a human being!” Zachikova said suddenly. Angrier and more emotional than she ever had been. She stole one of Arabella’s hands from Ulyana and held it herself. Arabella turned to look at her, Zachikova with her cybernetic eyes that still wept, her brain implants and her antennae-like ears. “Humans aren’t the only things worthy of existing in the world and having their lives respected! I know– I know what it is like to not feel human. Arabella, you don’t have to be ‘a person’– you’re important to me! To hell with the computer too! You’re more than the data some bastards left behind! I don’t care about it!”
“Braya–” Arabella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry– I broke it– I’m–”
“I told you before. I need you. You’re not useless– never say that again. Never.”
Zachikova squeezed her hand.
Arabella shut her eyes and smiled. She took in a deep breath.
“Thank you. I won’t say it again Braya. I won’t say it again. I’m so sorry.”
Both of them wept and held each other’s hands and fixed their gazes.
Intertwining fingers, tearful smiles.
Ulyana could have almost cried herself.
Zachikova had changed a good bit since the Brigand had set out too.
She had found the person who, in the entire ocean, brought out her warmest feelings.
“Arabella, we’re not here to torture an innocent girl for information.” Aaliyah said, piercing the silence that had befallen the room as the lovers comforted each other. Ulyana could see that it was taking her some effort to hold her own passions in the midst of all of this emotion. “I can understand that with the trauma and injury you’ve suffered, which would have killed any ordinary person, you are unable to recall what has– apparently– been an incredibly long life’s worth of complicated information. I’m not going to insist on wringing your memories out of your mind. The Captain is correct– before we are military officers, we are communists. For now, try not to stress out over your lost memories.”
Arabella looked from Zachikova over to Aaliyah and wiped her tears.
Her eyes shut–
and in an instant, her skin flushed, turning a light brown with a slight pinkness.
Color surged across her skin like a time-lapse of a flower blooming. Her hair became dark purple-blue, shrunk to back-length, with somewhat disorderly bangs. When she reopened her eyes they had become blue and purple as well. Her horns glowed with thin purple veins. She gave off a very different kind of presence. No longer slouching and defeated.
As her lover had found her warmest feelings; Arabella found her colors again.
Zachikova stared speechless at the rapid transformation, still holding Arabella’s hand.
Arabella squeezed that hand with a fond expression on her face.
She suddenly looked much more like herself.
“Thank you, Commissar, Captain. I’ve been a lot of trouble, but– I won’t run away again. I promise. Even if my brain is more scrambled than ever, I know what is important.” Arabella said. Her tone started wistful but slowly became firmer again. “You are all so incredibly kind to me. I feel ashamed of what has happened. I will take responsibility for myself. I want to protect Braya. I want to protect her friends too. I will do whatever you say, Captain.”
“Arabella– you don’t have to–” Zachikova began to speak, but Ulyana interrupted.
“You’re not going to reject her determination, are you? She’s trying to move forward.”
Ulyana smiled. Zachikova narrowed her eyes and grunted but then quieted.
She averted her gaze but then found herself looking at Arabella, who was also smiling.
Zachikova seemed trapped between the two of them and bodily relented.
“Fine. I’ll be there every moment, anyway, so I needn’t worry.”
“You really are getting emotional huh?” Aaliyah interjected teasingly.
“We’re not treating her like equipment.” Ulyana said. Also teasing the self-described ‘robot’.
“Captain, you know how I feel about that already, so please just drop it.” Zachikova said.
“Alright, alright.” Ulyana said, smiling.
Aaliyah crossed her arms and stared at the table, shaking her head.
“I was already planning on doing so, but we need to have Maharapratham look at her.”
“Maharapratham?” Arabella said. “That’s the mushroom lady right?”
“She would be so upset at you calling her the mushroom lady.” Ulyana said, amused.
“She’s our resident scientist and lab technician.” Aaliyah said sternly. “She was supposedly a wunderkind at the academy– even has two degrees supposedly. Recent events got me thinking that with Arabella’s cooperation and consent, Maharapratham might be able to learn more about Arabella’s kind through lab tests. I think it is worth trying.”
Ulyana stared at Zachikova expecting an overprotective comment in response.
But Arabella also turned to Zachikova after hearing Aaliyah’s suggestion, smiling brightly.
The attention of the two women caused Zachikova to wither, silently disgruntled.
“Braya, would you be okay with your mate becoming a science experiment again?”
Arabella smiled again in the silly way she once used to address the world around her.
As if to remind everyone that this purple-haired, darker-skinned version was still herself.
“Do what you want.” Zachikova grunted. “But I want to be included in the project too.”
“It’s settled then. I’ll inform Maharapratham. It’ll have to be later– I’ll have to catch her up on all of this.” Aaliyah said, gesturing around herself. “In the mean, Zachikova, you will assist in gathering Arabella’s testimony. Compile all intelligence about the Kreuzung Omenseers into a detailed report. That way when we get to Aachen we can more easily disseminate information to the Volksarmee about the fake anarchists to keep everyone safe.”
“Sounds good. Just one more agenda item on the unending pile.” Ulyana sighed.
“Don’t forget we’re also punishing them.” Aaliyah said. “Go on and punish them, Captain.”
“Punishing us?” Zachikova said, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh that’s right! I almost forgot. You’re going to eat nasty food for a week.” Ulyana said.
Ulyana got up from the meeting room table, ready to show the pair a packaged ration–
“Whatever. I don’t care. I’m not even sure if Arabella can taste food normally anyway.”
Zachikova deflated the performance before Ulyana could even put down the ration box.
“I’ll eat anything for Braya! No matter how gross! She was going to eat a man for me!”
Arabella called out in solidarity. Zachikova flinched and stared daggers at her in turn.
Out of surprise and consternation, Ulyana dropped the ration box on the table with a thud.
“Wait! She was going to do what?! Back up! Say that again?!” Aaliyah shouted.
Ulyana felt her poor pitiable heart start banging up a storm again inside of her chest.
“Let’s– Let’s just leave that– for the official report Zachikova will be writing for us.”
“No–” Aaliyah said, her voice sounding distant and distraught. “I need to know now.”
“I’d– I’d really rather not today. I’d really rather just read about it later.” Ulyana said.
Aaliyah and Ulyana gave each other the most haunted gazes they had ever shared.
“It better be in the report.” Aaliyah said, staring at Zachikova. “It better be in the report.”
“God damn it.” Zachikova grit her teeth. “I didn’t eat anyone. I was trying to feed her.”
Realizing too late what she had just said, Zachikova suddenly shrank further in her chair.
Arabella was all smiles, as if the atmosphere in the room had not become a thunder cloud.
“It better in the report.” Aaliyah said again, dangerously. “I’ll be– displeased– if it isn’t.”
Ulyana, similarly shaken by what she had heard insinuated, supported the Commissar.
“You better write an entire novel explaining what happened in grotesque detail.” She said.
“I’ll type everything up. I’m really sorry.” Zachikova said. “You’ll know everything.”
“Two weeks eating the bricks.” Aaliyah said suddenly, raising her fingers in a V-shape. “Don’t even think about going near the cafeteria. Or I’ll make you wish you were a cannibal.”
“Yes ma’am.” Zachikova said. She had never sounded so compliant as she did right then.
In Ulyana’s eyes everything was a surreal blur and in her ears words rang distant.
Zachikova and Arabella were ultimately ushered out of the meeting room by Akulantova.
While Ulyana and Aaliyah stayed, staring at the metal table surface and middle distance.
“Well. I guess– actually, is there even something in the regulations about–?”
“Please, Ulyana. Just. Please.” Aaliyah put her head down on the table.
Ulyana reached to stroke her ears gently.
They stayed together for fifteen minutes, sighing, before the next meeting.
Euphrates waved with a sunny smile as if she had not a care in the world.
“So compared to the rest of your day, how easy do you think this one will be?”
“Don’t even joke about it. If I wasn’t the Captain I’d call in sick tomorrow.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah wearily sat down in an even smaller room than before with even more people than ever. It was their most familiar meeting room yet. Because it was the room they worked out of the most, during their stay in Kreuzung. While the two of them looked quite worse for wear, the rest of the participants seemed quite fresh. Euphrates in her spiffy sportcoat, her shoulder length messy blue hair having just barely met one more comb than usual; Tigris in brown overalls and a long-sleeved white shirt, her red hair tied into a long ponytail, without a drop of grease on her; Erika Kairos, sharp as ever, her coat and business attire pristine and her smoke-blue hair silky and shiny; her companion Olga, her feet up on the desk, wearing a black hoodie and long, tough pants, her white hair collected into a ponytail framed by her horns; and Murati Nakara in a uniform worn perfectly, shoulder-length hair disorderly, having grown out a bit since the start of their journey.
“Wait, who has the bridge right now?” Aaliyah asked.
“Kalika is up there, don’t worry.” Erika said. “Homa Baumann is sleeping.”
She added the last detail with a little grin.
“She’s really taken to that kid huh? I didn’t know she could be so nice.” Olga replied.
“She can be a bit tetchy about politics, but she’s not heartless.” Erika said.
Once everyone was gathered and seated, Ulyana and Aaliyah took a moment to compose themselves before diving into the meeting’s topics. Since Ulyana felt she would leave any meeting with Arabella having more questions in mind than answers in her pocket, she had requested that Euphrates and Tigris meet with her directly afterward for a session to discuss the session. Euphrates was amenable to more discussion surrounding the Omenseers and suggested they also review what Murati had learned about psionics so far.
“We now convene the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff.’” Ulyana said.
“Take it seriously.” Aaliyah sighed.
“How should we begin?” Euphrates asked. “Anything on your mind, Captain?”
There was so much on her mind it was hard to narrow it down. “By any chance, are you familiar with DNA-based computers?” Ulyana asked. “We just got done talking to Arabella and she claims her consciousness is in the form of a computer inside her that is now broken, so her amnesia won’t recover. I’m inclined to believe her– if she meant us harm, she would have caused her ruckus inside of the ship rather than sneaking out. But does that mean every ‘Omenseer’ is also some kind of flesh computer? Can her ‘data’ be recovered?”
“Tigris, any ideas?” Euphrates said suddenly, smiling at her companion.
Tigris had her arms crossed and her head down and looked surprised to be addressed.
“Why the hell are you asking me? I work with machines not with meat.”
Euphrates shrugged comically. “There you are, Captain. I’m afraid it’s beyond us.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know anything! Idiot! You agreed to this meeting!”
Erika raised her hand as if in a classroom.
Ulyana was surprised to see her interject. Having access to the Brigand’s classified operational data for a few days already, Erika knew at least as much about Omenseers and psionics as they did. She had been included in the meeting on a purely informational capacity– their political leader should just be aware of these ‘classified’ subjects. There was no expectation she would have information of her own to share about the situation.
Instead the Premier smiled mischeviously once she was given the room.
“I am here to make an important disclosure– which is why I brought Olga.” Erika said.
“I’m an Omenseer.” Olga said suddenly, crossing her arms and averting her gaze.
Everyone else in the room turned reflexively to stare at Erika and Olga.
“What? You’re not going to be nervous around me now, are you?” Olga grumbled.
“She won’t bite.” Erika said, calm and affable.
“C’mon, don’t put it like that.” Olga replied, further annoyed.
“Well, it looks like my work here is done.” Euphrates replied, shrugging again.
“No it’s not! You’re going to talk if they ask you something, you clown!” Tigris shouted.
“Time out!” Aaliyah said, forming a ‘T’ with her hands. “We need to speak in turn!”
“Premier,” Ulyana started, still grasping for what to say, “How did–?”
“Much as with you and Arabella, my dear Olga stumbled into my life a mystery. Over time I slowly unraveled a few parts.” Erika replied, remaining calm and amused despite the attention. “But I have never needed to know more than what she wishes to tell me. I have never demanded any more. She has never intentionally hurt me. I trust her more than I trust any other person in the world. So I will request that you do not try to force any information from her– or from Arabella either. Regardless, she and I are at your disposal.”
“It’s about time to tell the bits I know.” Olga said. She sighed again. “Look, Arabella is not incorrect in what she told you. She might not be able to recover some of her memories again. Omenseers’ heads work differently than those of ordinary people. Think of it like having two sets of memories: there’s your everyday stuff, and there’s more tucked away somewhere. You kind of know it’s there, but ‘thinking’ about it is more complicated. I think that is what Arabella is talking about with ‘DNA computer’. In my head, I know it is called STEM.”
“Okay. So, are you going to tell me that yours is broken too?” Aaliyah asked.
Olga put her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “Yeah. I am. Mine is incredibly fucked up by this point. See– the STEM stuff is in our bodies, right? I don’t know whether it’s DNA or what it is exactly. It’s inside this body, the data is stored in my flesh or organs somewhere, but it is different. Then– Well, Omenseers can shape our bodies into different forms. It’s called ‘biokinesis’. Doing that, we can recover from injury faster, or grow weapons. Look.”
She raised one hand out of her pocket and waved it in front of everyone.
Ulyana stared at her raised index and middle finger, which Olga pressed together.
Until they joined to become one combined digit that was sharper than before.
Then in the next instant, with seemingly great ease, she split the fingers apart again.
Perhaps a more dramatic version than what Arabella commonly did to her own body.
“Now think about the data that is stored in my body. I do not know where it actually is. I do not know how this STEM or whatever inside me works, I just know I have it and that if I think in a certain way I can try to access it. But it’s in this body that is constantly changing, getting fucked up, getting patched up– of course after a while the data has to be scrambled up some. So if I tried to access my STEM it would be like an insane dream.”
“Well. It’s a bit surreal to watch it in action, but it makes sense.” Ulyana said.
“I guess it does.” Aaliyah said, putting a hand on her forehead as if nursing an ache.
“Olga, how did you come to be an Omenseer? I still don’t understand that.” Murati asked.
“Before, Arabella told us she was a thousand-year old member of a ‘culture’ but now she is saying she was a surface-era biological weapon that was made from the DNA of– I assume– a member of that ancient culture. I am having a tough time squaring it.” Ulyana said.
“Huh?” Murati nearly shouted. “A bio-weapon? That’s– that’s incredible if it’s true!”
Her eyes had lit up like twin jewels with the excitement of discovering an ancient weapon.
Ulyana was torn between thinking it was cute and thinking it would be annoying.
“Don’t get too excited.” Olga replied. “I don’t know anything about that. It’s definitely not how I ended up here. But who knows– maybe Arabella is just special and different.”
“Don’t bother Arabella, Murati– or Homa Baumann, either.” Ulyana said.
“Wait– why Homa Baumann?” Murati looked suddenly helpless.
“Be quiet, Murati. It’s not your turn.” Aaliyah said, raising her voice.
Murati turned a downcast expression at her corner of the table.
Erika covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.
“Olga, can you tell them your story? I’d love to hear it too.” She said.
Olga met Erika’s eyes. Her stern expression melted in one softer and more relaxed.
When they looked at each other it was as if they were alone in the room.
Ulyana thought this was an opportunity for Erika too, not just the Brigand’s crew.
And that Olga was not resentful to have that opportunity.
“Damn it, you already know the important bits Erika. You’ll just be bored.” Olga ran her fingers through her hair and chuckled. “But fine. Whatever. Believe me if you want or not. But I was actually a Leviathan before. Weirdly, I remember what I looked like– I was thick and kind of blunt, all tail but with a horned head. That’s where these are from.” Olga poked at her horns. “Most of my life is a huge blur to me, but sometimes, I see it in my dreams– the ocean, being huge again. I feel like if my STEM worked it would have those memories.”
Not exactly coffee-table conversation, but everyone around the table kept quiet.
Ulyana looked at Aaliyah and found her screwing her face up and folding her ears.
Whenever she was met with something wild like this, she would physically resist it.
She was quiet, however. Quiet, and listening, and with eyes inquisitive.
Even if her face looked like she had just tasted soap.
“Omenseers now, are Leviathans that became human. Over time Leviathans just get more intelligent I guess. Honestly I barely remember when I changed, and what happened afterwards. I see it in my dreams and I want to believe it was true– that one day, I got sick of fighting for my life every single day like an animal. I discovered that I could be something less violent and less rapacious and I took the chance. But I don’t really know.”
“Being an Omenseer seems like a pretty psychedelic sort of experience.” Euphrates said.
“C’mon, I’m baring my soul here. If you think it’s useless I can just shut up.” Olga said.
“I think it’s lovely.” Erika said.
“I agree, and I can relate.” Euphrates said. “To knowing something only in dreams.”
“Well, maybe you ought to tell the room yours.” Olga said. “Anyway– one day, all my bulk was just gone, and I was like this. Floating in the ocean. Somehow I was not crushed by the water or eaten by a monster– but I was visited by something truly demonic. Arbitrator II.”
“The Autarch of the Syzygy.” Euphrates said.
“You’ve mentioned it before.” Ulyana said. “You and Tigris have history with this being.”
“We killed her. A long, long time ago.” Euphrates said. “The Sunlight Foundation briefly became interested in abyssal exploration, and to make a long story short, we came into contact with the Syzygy and it tempered our ambitions quite harshly. Arbitrator II confronted us personally as we began to dive more frequently and deeper, and we were forced to attack her. I can hardly claim that we succeeded. We never went that deep again.”
“So we’re dealing with an immortal cult leader here?” Ulyana asked, sighing.
“Olga,” Aaliyah said, “Are all Leviathans human, then? Can they all become like you?”
Ulyana felt her chest tighten– she had not put together this suggestion herself.
Certainly it matched everything they had learned so far.
After Goryk, Euphrates had referred to Omenseers as ‘humanoid Leviathans.’ Arabella had been a Leviathan once. Olga confirmed this was not necessarily anything special– there was, in front of them all, a second person who had once been a Leviathan. With this information, it was reasonable to believe that every Leviathan had the potential to become a person. And therefore, that perhaps all Leviathans were already humans, to some degree.
And, if Arabella was to be believed, that meant Leviathans were anthropogenic.
Perhaps they were made with that ‘original Omenseer’ DNA too.
Perhaps they were all bio-weapons.
Perhaps they were all humans.
To think then– that they had spent all this time killing them– no, it did not really matter.
Ulyana was a soldier. She had been killing humans already, in less complicated ways.
Whatever happened– there was simply no reasoning with a giant, dangerous animal.
Olga shrugged at the question that had shaken Ulyana so much.
“Yeah? I think so. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself.” She said simply.
“Olga, the Autarch found you– she did not make you into an Omenseer?” Euphrates asked.
“Right. Sometimes she just finds strays, like me. But I’ve also seen what she can do. She has troops go out looking for Leviathans with psionic potential. We captured them, and she would use psionics on them and have them shed their forms. That’s her preferred method of recruitment. I changed myself– but I do not know how many of us leave our leviathan forms naturally or how we are different from the ones Arbitrator II makes. Except for one detail. For the ones she changes she can brainwash. She could not brainwash me.”
Euphrates looked for the first time truly captivated by what Olga was saying.
“So she seeks out potential in Leviathans and baptizes them– interesting.”
Her jokey demeanor had faded slightly. But she did not follow up that statement.
“What does the Autarch want? What is this ‘Syzygy’ doing all of this for?” Aaliyah asked.
“I mean, like anyone, she wants control over people.” Olga said. “She wants control over humans. It makes sense when you think about it. Now, don’t freak out at this next bit, it’s annoying if you do– Omenseers feed on people. You guys knew that right? Arabella had to have had at least human blood or she would go crazy.” Olga scanned the room and saw Ulyana, Aaliyah and Murati making faces. She threw her hands up in frustration.
“I’ve been feeding Olga my blood. That’s one of the things we do in private.” Erika said.
“Premier– we did not need the clarification that you do more than that in private.”
Leave it to Aaliyah to be more offended at the insinuation of sex than the cannibalism.
“Quit gawking!” Olga said. “I’m really good at controlling myself and I have Erika. You don’t need to be fucking scared, okay? Anyway– you can put two and two together here right? If the Autarch can build up her army, she could basically start her own human farm and never have a worry in the world again. She needs to rule over the humans to eat them more easily. I’m not just painting a picture with the farm stuff either– she literally can capture humans and grow a kind of crop from them. Her own sick little garden in the abyss.”
“That’s– that’s actually– a lot more dangerous than we imagined.” Ulyana mumbled.
She could hardly even imagine it in full– she supposed ‘biokinesis’ was responsible.
Responsible– for turning a human into a sick little garden.
Aaliyah heaved a weary sigh. “Yes, that is disturbing, but I am not impressed with Omenseers yet. For example, if Akulantova is to be believed, she nearly punched one of those Syzygy fighters to death, and a small and well-trained spec ops squadron can fight it out with them and kill a good half-dozen. They are not yet ‘Imbrium-conquering’ level threats.”
“The rabble is not– the officer ones are a lot scarier, but there are not enough Enforcers to just overthrow humanity overnight. That’s why they are trying to sneak around and join a faction here, I guess.” Olga said. “I know the Enforcers are searching for something. But as a whole Syzygy are biding their time. Gathering intelligence, forces, and useful idiots. Just like you, I suppose– you’re in a little race with them for the Imbrium. Who will win?”
Olga leaned back and grinned to herself as if amused by the mental image.
“Obviously I intend to win that race.” Erika said. “And you will be at my side.”
“Of course. Between us, I’d love to rip out the Autarch’s throat myself.” Olga said.
“For a taste of your own kind?” Erika teased.
“Hey– shut up. I mean for justice or whatever.” Olga said, turning slightly redder.
“Somehow I doubt ripping her throat out will do much justice.” Euphrates said.
She sounded much more wistful than normal– but it was not followed up on.
“Then I suppose we can only do what we came here to do.”
Ulyana sat up straight and stretched her arms, feeling a bit sore from sitting tensely while she listened to all of this bizarre knowledge being shared. She tried to relax her muscles and to still her heart. There was only solution to this– they were just as prepared for the Syzygy right now as they were for the Volkisch. They did not know the total strength of their forces, they did not know their logistics, they had not found their bases or political supporters or the locations of their officers, and so they had no plan of attack. They could not allow themselves to be mystified by the more esoteric side of this situation.
They had to gather more intelligence and be prepared for a fight.
It was an uphill road, but the Volkisch controlled the government and the Syzygy did not.
Within the framework of the Imbrium, the Volkisch Movement was currently immortal.
To the layperson, they were just as mystical as this Autarch.
Just as powerful, indefatigable. Just as disturbing and cruel.
Nevertheless, the Brigand plotted to fight the Volkisch. It was an essential inevitability.
That was their mission. They had taken it up, knowing it was that difficult.
Nagavanshi pushed them hard. She was a damnably persistent recruiter.
But she had known that every single member of the crew would take up the challenge.
All of them were here because the impossible called to them, and they dared stare it down.
“At Aachen, next time I see Zozia, I’ll punch her right square in her jaw and see how her makeup holds up to it. I’ll scuff that well-to-do fuckboy coat she always wears.” Ulyana said.
“I know what you’re capable of– so I truly hope you are joking.” Aaliyah said.
“Sometimes I want to be the manly sort of Captain who pops off.” Ulyana said.
“Not that I mind popping off, but let us be delicate at Aachen, specifically.” Erika said.
“Of course, Premier. I would only pop off with your permission.” Ulyana said.
Her ridiculous declaration seemed to clear in the tension in the room just a little bit.
“Are you all satisfied or do you have more questions?” Olga asked, sounding annoyed.
“Is it too personal to ask how you and the Premier met?” Aaliyah said.
“It won’t elucidate anything about the Syzygy. That part is simple– the Autarch never had control over me because I was not an Omenseer that she made. So at one point, I got sick of being ‘Hunter I’ and I saw an opportunity to escape. I just ended up in Katarre after a lot of struggle that is pointless to recount. The rest is irrelevant. Hell– some part of me thinks the Autarch put no effort into stopping me either. She is not threatened by deserters.”
“Alright. Then–” Aaliyah turned to Erika. “Premier, are you psionically capable?”
Erika smiled. “Yes. I was going to disclose it when you were done with Olga.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Aaliyah said. “I was mainly wondering for your own safety.”
“I am not in Olga’s thrall.” Erika said. “If that is what concerned you.”
“I could not control this insane woman even if I tried with all my strength.” Olga said.
“Apologies. I rest my case.” Aaliyah said. “Anything more can be the subject of a report.”
“I am not offended. It is your job to consider every possible dangerous angle.” Erika said. “I quite like that about you, Commissar. To be clear, I knew much of what Olga had said– she said certain things to me, and now disclosed others to you. I wanted to be part of this meeting not just to play a perfunctory political role, but as a resource. Ultimately, however, Olga does not have encyclopedic knowledge that can answer existential questions about her origins and nature; anything she knows about the Syzygy’s tactics, I am sure she would willingly disclose in a report or some other official dissemination.”
“Right. I’m fine with that.” Olga said. “But there’s not much to say. There is regimentation like in a normal army. I was a ‘Hunter’ so my role was to move from the deep abyss up to the human world and carry out reconnaissance and retrieval missions. I hardly did much– I was not trusted, since the Autarch did not personally turn me. I joined her because I was lost and had nothing, and she and her Enforcer cronies were there to shelter me. Once I was grown a bit more into my new form and had my own thoughts, I wanted to escape. I do not know much about the other types of Omenseer beyond the surface level.”
“Do you have any ideas as to what Omenseer bases survive to this day?” Euphrates asked.
“Good point. You said they live in the deep abyss– so there was a Syzygy base at Goryk?”
Ulyana asked, recalling the rising of that enormous leviathan at Goryk, Dagon.
Arabella had told them back then that it was a Syzygy battleship.
They had not taken it seriously enough in the moment. Now it made much more sense.
“When I was part of Syzygy, I operated out of northwestern Veka.” Olga said.
“That is kind of close to the farthest Goryk aperture. Maybe they are linked.” Ulyana said.
“We’re just guessing. Nobody has an accurate abyssal topography.” Aaliyah replied.
“Not even among present company, I’m afraid.” Euphrates said.
“We wanted to try to do it someday– the Agni was partially for that.” Tigris added.
Breaking a long silence in which she had mainly crossed her arms and harrumphed a bit.
“Alright. Well. A lot of exciting reports going into the drafts today.” Ulyana said.
“We wanted to ask Murati how she was doing with psionics.” Aaliyah reminded her.
Murati, who had been mainly making faces quietly in her seat, suddenly revived.
Like a flower that had been splashed with water, she stood up straighter and more alert.
Murati addressed the Captain but then paused without speaking further for a moment.
“Um– I guess I don’t actually have much to report. I’m still evaluating things.”
“Are you feeling hale and whole?” Erika asked in a sweet voice.
“I suppose so.” Murati replied. Clearly confused at Erika’s sunny, impromptu check-up.
“You’ve seen her handiwork recently, Captain.” Euphrates said. “She’s a fast learner.”
Euphrates looked pleased with herself. Probably as much genuinely as teasing Murati.
Ulyana knew that this ‘handiwork’, however, involved turning a Volkisch guard squadron into a mess of shattered bones and crushed organs on Alcor’s blacktop. This was something that a grenade could accomplish with much more control– and it was easier to teach anyone to throw such a grenade. While it had been undoubtedly helpful, Ulyana remained wary of psionic powers. She wondered how much use they actually could be.
Murati averted her eyes. “I have a little trouble controlling my own strength.”
“I will preempt the obvious question that the Captain and Commissar must be preoccupied with,” Tigris spoke up suddenly, “and say that no, I do not think the rest of the crew should be taught about psionics yet. Not until we figure out what’s going on with Murati.”
“There is nothing going on with me.” Murati said. “I just need more practice.”
“At any rate, we can’t consistently teach anyone else right now.” Tigris said.
“Murati, what about Shalikova?” Ulyana asked. “How is she doing?”
“Oh, you needn’t worry about that.” Euphrates interrupted. “Maryam will support her.”
Murati raised her index finger and then put it back down immediately.
“Maryam?” Ulyana said. “Is Maryam psionic too?”
Aaliyah’s ears perked up again.
“Who else is psionic around here?” Aaliyah cried out. “This is out of hand.”
“I’ll tell you what– I’ll write a report on everyone’s psionic potential on the ship.”
Euphrates smiled congenially despite the tension she had reignited in the room.
Aaliyah and Ulyana dropped back into their seats.
“Thank you, Euphrates.”
“Fine. Fine. Just fine.”
They were both clearly stressed to their limits by this conversation–
Until a firm voice spoke up from beside them and excised the disquiet.
“Captain, in situations like this, we must center rationality and ethicality in our response.” Erika said. Her tone was still gentle but she sounded much more declarative. This was the ‘Premier’ speaking now, Ulyana thought. Erika pointed a finger up and circled it as if to encompass the room. “You have used this rubric a few times in these conversations before– we have reasoned that the ‘guests’ aboard this vessel, like Arabella, or Maryam, have had ample chances to sabotage it, subvert your control, alert your enemies, or otherwise cause grave inconvenience. None of this has happened. There is no reason to believe that some kind of secret plot is brewing. I believe we should formalize that logic and establish a standard that a crew member in otherwise good standing, who is found to possess psionics, is not ipso facto a threat to the mission. In this way we can avoid circular debates about the loyalty of particular individuals, and in turn, avoid wasting time and resources.”
“You’re right. We shouldn’t keep stressing out about this.” Ulyana replied.
“Premier, that is a reasonable standard.” Aaliyah said. “While I am continuously surprised at how much esoteric information and concepts keep getting wrapped up in our humble guerilla mission, it is unproductive to become paranoid. However, I must insist on a different standard for Omenseers and psionic users other than our current roster. Any future psionics users that we meet, we must be wary of and more wary than normal.”
“I don’t disagree.” Erika said. “But also, I think we already have wonderful standards and procedures by which we gauge our trust in strangers. We must also have a view toward the utility of dealing with the Omenseers, including Syzygy, and psionics users like our friends Euphrates and Tigris. We must keep our goal in focus. In Eisental, the law is not written by this Autarch– we must seize every opportunity to inflict defeat on the Volkisch.”
“Duly noted.” Aaliyah said. She did not sound completely satisfied.
But she would follow orders. Both Ulyana and Aaliyah had thrown in their lot with Erika.
And Erika thankfully seemed to keep a clear head even in these bizarre situations.
“Anything further should be part of classified reports. We cannot trust that we will retain verbal information indefinitely and we all have other jobs that need doing.” Erika said. “Package every report and everyone in this room will commit to read them, request any further deliberation, and then rationalize a final version. Then we will be on the same page vis a vis Omenseers and psionics in the future. Does everyone agree?”
There was a hearty nodding of heads and a few salutes in the room. As always with some answers and ever more questions, the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ thus concluded. Ulyana tried not to let the sensationalism get the best of her.
Truly, however, the Imbrium Ocean was deeper than she had ever thought possible.
Erika and Olga left the meeting room and made their way back to the bridge. Despite all of the shouting and turmoil throughout the discussion, Erika was, in her heart, quite pleased with the events. She walked with a light step and was even humming a tune. Ulyana and Aaliyah had one more visit that day and would not join them, leaving the bridge to the Volksarmee officers for now; and even Murati had someone she needed to talk to.
Everyone was working hard.
“Erika, did that go how you wanted?” Olga asked.
“Nothing ever does, because my imagination is too extravagant.” Erika said. “But I have full confidence in our alliance. They have been thrust headlong into events of incredible magnitude, but retain their heart and spirit. They are like us. That satisfies me.”
“I can write up more in the report, I guess. It just feels kinda pointless.” Olga replied.
“If you don’t think it’s important to say something, I trust you completely.” Erika said.
“I know you do.” Olga said. She put her hands in her hoodie pockets, grunting. “Part of me just feels guilty I’m not wracking my brains to tell them every little thing, and I do wish I could access my STEM better, but like– they’re fighting a war, and what Omenseers eat or how my Nest used to look or whatever, that does not really help them out. My dreams about living under a big silver tree. All of that just feels pointless to say.”
“Dreams are important! But you’re right, they’re not militarily actionable.” Erika replied.
Some secrets hardly mattered to anyone; some secrets changed the world.
It was impossible to tell which was which to women with as many secrets as them.
Whenever Erika told anyone even an inkling of the secrets that she shouldered–
She expected bedlam to follow. Despite this, her load was now lightened.
Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara had already seen impossible sights, after all.
More so than psionics, the dream of liberation felt impossible until it was achieved.
Maybe in the future she would tell them about her own DNA.
“Olga, do you know ‘The Union Officer’s Pledge’?” Erika asked.
“No?” Olga replied, narrowing her eyes.
Erika put a hand to her chest and shut her eyes while reciting.
“I am an officer of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. My rank is proof of the faith placed on me. I accept the responsibility of living up to my title, with honor; to serve the Union, with distinction; to acquire correct understandings, with humility; and thus to lead the downtrodden masses by example. I agree to live and die a worker, without a name.”
“That’s intense.” Olga said. “Do they all have to say that?”
“They all did– I found it in the ship’s files. It’s part of the commission process.”
Erika looked ahead.
She imagined everyone, from Murati Nakara to Ulyana Korabiskaya to Alex Geninov reciting this pledge. How did they feel? Did they know the power of their words?
All around her, she was surrounded by the people of the Union, just walking this hall.
That pledge was everything she wanted to be.
An impossible dream for a girl in the gutters killing to survive every day.
And yet, she saw it!
In their humble, everyday demeanor that they themselves never questioned.
In their minds, perhaps they did not think themselves communists, nor anything special. All of them took this pledge for their families or homeland. But to even be a communist, to accept it, to say it out loud, required immense bravery. All of the world told them they were insane, dangerous, even evil– but they fought on for those taboo ideals.
It was electric.
Her Rostock in formation with this ship full of quiet, impossible dreams.
She felt a bit embarrassed, but she wanted the Volksarmee to take the pledge too.
Without realizing it at first, Erika put on her sunniest smile yet.
“Psionics and Omensight both pale in comparison to the sheer power contained here.”
Olga smiled. “I am not sure that I agree with any of that, but I’m glad you’re happy.”
She was happy– she could see her dream in this place.
Arriving on the bridge, Kalika stood from the captain’s chair and greeted them.
“It’s been uneventful. The Rostock is alongside; operating normally.” She said.
“Glad to hear it. Olga and I can relieve you.” Erika said.
Kalika’s brow furrowed and she put her hands on her hips.
Erika could foretell the scolding.
“It’s not necessary.” Kalika said. “You’re the one who could use some rest, Premier.”
“Nonsense,” Erika replied. “I’m feeling spry and the coffee here is fantastic.”
“Olga, please tell her that she works too hard.” Kalika said.
Olga shrugged. “You can tell her all you want; when it comes to work, she won’t listen.”
Kalika shook her head and relented. “Alright, if you insist. I can go find something to do.”
Erika and Olga stepped aside and allowed a reluctant Kalika to leave the bridge.
“Order on bridge!” Olga called out. Imitating the Commissar; she was grinning in fact.
“We don’t need to be stuffy. At ease everyone!” Erika called out right after.
While the Brigand made its way through unoccupied territory, there was hardly anything for the bridge crew to do moment to moment. Over on Erika’s left, Natalia Semyonova had a deck of cards and was perhaps practicing some kind of divination or magic trick; Fatima al-Suhar read a book on a portable, still wearing the sonar station’s earbuds; Braya Zachikova was still only present as a cute miniature on the main screen. On her right, she saw that Alex Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were discussing something about ‘shipping’ that Erika came to think was not logistics-related; and Abdulalim Kamarik looked over the ship’s autopilot every so often while listening to music on a communication headset. Or so Erika assumed from his casual body language. They all heard and acknowledged Olga’s declaration before returning to their hobbies. A rather homey atmosphere.
“Olga, I think they’ve earned a bit of peace, don’t you?” Erika said.
Olga shrugged. “Until we run into a patrol or something.”
Erika took seat in the captain’s chair, while Olga occupied the Commissar’s beside her.
“Semyonova,” Erika said, “could you message the Rostock and put Daphne on my screen?”
“Of course! Captain Triantafallos assured me she was at your disposal at all times.”
Semyonova cheerfully swiped her finger on the screen of her station to wake up the display.
Within moments, Erika had Daphne on the computer affixed to the captain’s chair.
“Premier!” Daphne saluted the screen. “I am elated beyond measure to see you!”
“I’m happy to see you too Daphne. How has the crew been?” Erika asked.
Daphne seemed quite pleased with herself as she answered. “Our cadres remain well supplied, amply motivated, and operationally efficient. Our consumption is controlled and we have not had any encounters. Magdeburg and Gera are presently lying low around Rhein-Sieg-Kries, awaiting orders. We can collect them on the way to Aachen if you desire, just say the word. Enemy activity remains low. Patrols are clustered around the Ayre border– their last order from Thurin was likely to guard against Palatine troops. We noticed the patrol fleet are avoiding Stralsund and the edge of Khaybar, so the east is open.”
“Unfortunately, that’s because of the Mycenae Military Commission. They simply do not want to cause a confrontation.” Erika replied. “So the east is still not open to us. Thank you for the report nevertheless, Daphne. I wanted to ask if you had collected any broadcasts from Kreuzung in the past few days. Some newly arrived tenants are likely to be our main concern going forward. The Brigand has been disconnected for a while.”
“As a matter of fact, we did capture a speech by the ‘newly-arrived tenants.’” Daphne said. “Kreuzung’s station broadcaster pushed it through every laser line and every channel carried it. They intended to make a nation-wide statement. In a matter of hours, northern Rhinea has been declared ‘Reichskommissariat Eisental’ and this Violet Lehner is now in charge of the place as its ‘Reichskommissar.’ No response yet from the Thurin Reichsgau.”
“We need to gather as much information as we can on this event. After Aachen we will have to make a pit stop in Trelleborg to see what the underground knows.” Erika said.
“Trelleborg?” Olga said. “The madwoman there wanted to bite you last time.”
Erika looked a little embarassed. “It will be fine Olga– nobody will bite me.”
“Nobody will bite the Premier on our watch, Olga.” Daphne replied, sounding deadly serious. “Premier, about the current tasks. Tomorrow we will begin work on operational integration between the Brigand and Rostock. It will be a tight few days. I am not sure we can complete all the necessary work before we reach Aachen. We have to sync the computers, rationalize supplies, set up recurring channels, appoint cadre liaisons–”
“Don’t worry, Daphne. Aachen is not the deadline.” Erika said. “Whatever you can get done during the journey is appreciated, but it will be an ongoing process to get everyone talking and working together. It will be gradual. I am not expecting it tomorrow.”
“Acknowledged, Premier. Your magnanimity is appreciated. Shall we reconvene later?”
“We should plan to meet. For now send me the video. I am curious about the rhetoric.”
“Of course. I look forward to shaking your hand and saluting in person, Premier!”
Daphne disappeared from the screen. In her place, a transfer bar appeared.
Once it completed, Erika played the video of the broadcast from Kreuzung.
The Rostock had captured the event in-progress.
Partway through an introduction by a state news anchor, who was cut from shortly after the video started. When the camera finally captured its intended subject, it was clear that Violet Lehner was settled into the old office of Kreuzung’s governor. Everyone in Eisental had seen the room used in broadcasts before, by old Werner. Now, rather than reflecting sky or grasses, the projection walls around the stately old desk projected instead red banners each with a central white circle. In one circle was a black sonnenrad, and on the other a diagonal hooked cross. Neither of these symbols were common to the government in Thurin, who preferred to identify with iron eagles, bundled arrows and straight, steel crosses.
Rather, the bannered symbols belonged to the ‘Esoteric Order’.
Within the broader Volkisch Movement, the Esoteric Order was not the most extreme nor the most niche group. Erika was aware of far smaller and far more violent elements. Esoterics were instead characterized by a greater radicalism. Ordinary right-wing elements sought to preserve or harken back to ‘better times’ in the past– to turn back the ‘progress’ of liberalism. The Esoteric Order had a complex transformative rhetoric. They believed in the new– they believed that Fascism was ‘modern’ and that through Fascism, a new mode of being could be discovered. Rather than harken back to the past, they believed the Nation was yet to be attained, that the ‘Volk’ had to struggle to be worthy of it. Their racial destiny was not in the past, but in the future. The Nation could not be moved to suit the fascist ubermensch; the fascist had to become ubermensch to suit the Nation. They did this through personal ritualization, religious mysticism, and bizarre nouveau racialism.
Erika had not been aware that the esoterics had an armed wing, however.
And that this armed wing was now personified by the woman with the long two-tone hair.
Violet Lehner sat behind the desk, in her black uniform, surrounded by esoteric symbols.
A lean, striking and pretty young woman with just a hint of exoticism to her appearance.
Her eyes had the slightest slant; her nose just a bit of hook; her skin tone just slightly deep.
To the most extreme elements of the Volkisch, she might’ve been too racialized in fact.
In the Esoteric Order, however, she was racialized enough.
As if Violet Lehner herself was an example of the all-encompassing Nation.
“Good greetings, citizens of Kreuzung, Stralsund, Rhein-Sieg-Kreis, Aachen, and many such places in the Eisental region– and to those watching from farther afield, perhaps! I appear before you today by way of introduction and to pledge my commitment to you. It is unlikely that many of you have seen or known much of me before recent events. Events that saw me thrust from a position of humble servitude in the backdrop of the Volkisch revolution, to the peak of Kreuzung in search of justice. My name is Violet Lehner. I am the only child of the Fuhrer Adam Lehner. My parentage has been heretofore a secret, albeit an open and unguarded one– I simply wished to forge my own path in life, and that is that.”
“By education, I am a laywer and a businesswoman. In my life, I have been a student, a shareholder, an advisor, a writer and in recent months, formally a military officer. It is with this eclectic character that I view the state of the Nation with anger and sorrow. Since the profligate Konstantin von Fueller saw fit to finally abandon the territories he had grown bored of plundering and toying with, and seek the retribution of the next world, our economies nearly collapsed, and we became surrounded by enemies.”
“We could have allayed the consequences of the Imperial collapse with decisive action, but the liberals and their committees and subcommittees hindered our response until death was at the doorstep. It is only through the brave actions of our National Socialist Navy and the Stabswache that we were able to deal with the saboteurs and meet the enemies; and only because of our swift and innovative Corporations that we forestalled material collapse. I am here following the examples that have been set. Eisental has suffered crisis after crisis, abetted by the remains of the liberals, by the saboteurs, and by the political-academic elites, who led the working men astray, sowed division within the Volk, allowed infiltration by foreign elements, and stifled and strangled our economic prospects.”
“No more will this be tolerated. Today begins a new era for Eisental. I and my forces have already arrested all of the criminal elements who had entrenched at the top of the tower; liquidated the foreign elements who went mad with bloodthirst and rampaged under Adolf Werner’s knowing eyes; and we will soon take all needed measures to restore the dignity of Eisental’s people and resume production of all the needed goods and materials to revitalize the economy, and pump blood back into our Volk and our Nation. We have stricken down the liberal elites and put men and women of sense in charge of everything.”
“Starting today, I have accepted the mandate of Reichskommissar of this territory, the Reichskommissariat Eisental, to oversee the return of order and the restoration of the Volk in this area and advance our shared cause. Eisental is the motherlode and breadbasket of Rhinea. Restoring Eisental to glory is to restore the Nation, which has been grievously wounded; and restoring the Volksgemeinschaft that has been splintered into a million pieces on spurious, ideological bases by the liberals. Starting today, you will recognize you are all Imbrians, and are all blood-siblings of the Nation. All of you are one.”
“Our task is monumental, and the stakes are high. We have everything set against us.” Reichskommissar Lehner raised her voice. That camera focused on the desk zoomed closer to her impassioned expression. Before she had spoken calmly, but she allowed greater fervor to bleed into her voice until it raised. “We are surrounded by charlatans who seek to plunder our wounded nation and erase the Volk! The victor shall always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused: we fight not just to exact justice, but to enshrine our struggle as the world’s truth! Should we fail, they will forever laugh at us for our toil. But we will prevail! Because unlike the liberals we have not turned our backs on the Nation!”
“Ethnicity, class, sex– these identitarian categories are part of an antiquated ideology that prevented us from achieving our shared Destiny. But I know the truth, the secret, that the liberal order wished for us to never seek; we are the one Volksgemeinschaft, one Imbria! Our Nation bleeds and cries out for all of us to save her! So we will unite under black sun and the wolfsangel! National Socialism gives us the path to our revolution! Our Nation calls us to action! We answer as one people, one struggle! All that matters is this: will you work? Will you fight? Will you answer her call? Those who turn their back on the call will be shunned by Destiny! They will be left behind to die with no one to save them! But to those who fight for Destiny’s favor we can say: you have all of the Volk behind you!”
“So come tomorrow, when you clock in to work, when you return to school, or when you pick your gun on patrol, or when you set sail for battle, think of this with seriousness. I am an Imbrian! What can I do to advance the Volk? What can I do for my Nation? Who are those around me that reject the Nation and seek to drive us back into squabble and misery? Who are those around me that will march alongside? All of you are the Nation! Your individual actions and decisions are what will make up the whole of our success! Kill the sniveling liberal in your brain who tells you that you the Nation is not worthy of you! By your actions, make yourself worth the glory of the Nation! Endsieg shall be yours!”
Violet stood up from her desk, and raised her right hand, from the shoulder, straightened.
“In your workplaces, in your places of worship, in your homes; you are one people with one united struggle! You all work toward fulfilling one immutable Destiny! You all work toward one Nation and will seize victory together! Stand proudly, and prove yourself worthy! Today begins your very own National People’s War! SIEG HEIL!”
Around her, the walls with the banners instead displayed several uniformed soldiers.
All of them were Shimii. Black uniforms, decorated in the same symbols on the banners.
And all of them hailed victory behind Violet Lehner with perfect precision.
Curiously, Erika noted, the victory salute was not followed by a salute to the Fuhrer.
As should have been customary: Sieg Heil, Heil Fuhrer. An omission rich in meaning.
“Violet Lehner is staking out for herself.” Erika said. “Her Nation will not include Thurin.”
“She’s a fucking lunatic.” Olga replied, peeking in over Erika’s shoulder.
Erika shut off the video and laid a hand on the screen as if she could make it disappear.
All of this was an opportunity– if they could seize it. If they were up to the task.
But the sight of Shimii soldiers doing the fascist salute was somewhat disquieting.
They were not the only ones fighting for the souls of Eisental’s dispossessed peoples.
Could Violet’s fascist subsumption of the will appeal to the broken masses of Imbria?
How many Shimii, Katarrans, and the Imbrian poor would be taken by this rhetoric?
Led astray by honeyed steel from a false savior, in the hour of their greatest desperation.
In that moment, Erika’s grand dream finally, truly met its nightmarish competing vision.
Past tragedies; present tensions; and the uncertain future all bled in front of her eyes.
Even in the quiet, empty ocean of middle Eisental, it could be felt–
the currents carried, along with Violet’s voice, and the cries of salute,
the brimming violence of the Nationale Volkskrieg.