Sinners Under The Firmament [9.1]

For Ulyana Korabiskaya, her lowest point in life came when she awoke without warning within a chaotic, white-walled medbay in an adjacent substation to Mount Raja. Disoriented, with her hair cut off on one side rendering half her head more susceptible to the stale, chill air. She reached a hand to her head and ran her shaking fingers along heavy stitches. They hurt to touch, sending a jolt of pain into her skull.

Tears came to her eyes unbidden, teeth chattering.

Despite the pain she still felt trapped in a nightmare. Her vision had swam in and out of dreamscapes where her body floated amid suffociating steel rooms, water up to her chest. Ripped pipes vented gas and smoke, fires danced atop shreds of steel sewn with fiber-optic cables torn from the wall. There were people screaming, drowning, burning, dying. She tried to reach out to them, but she would vanish in one dreamscape, passed out, maybe killed– only to arrive at another with the same hopeless scene.

When her eyes adjusted to the light in that bright white room–

There were dozens, maybe a hundred people in the medbay with her. Alive, dead, dying.

Everything suffused by the din of the suffering, the hopeless whimper of human injury.

In adjacent beds were people with all manner of wounds, many maimed, some beyond recognition.

Burn victims patched from head to toe in bloody gauze. Moaning bodies with painful but not life threatening injuries who were last in line for medicine while nurses cried for more anesthetic and painkillers. A soldier assuring the medical staff that a shuttle from Mount Raja would restock them soon. Amputees, at least some of whom were, perhaps by virtue of their time of admittance, already having the remains of the limb prepared for a cybernetic implant to prevent them from being disabled permanently.

This involved bio- and ferro- stitching on the wound in cold blood. These were the loudest cries.

Ulyana did not understand at first. Everything had a very hazy, distant, surreal logic to it.

Had she not been in her bridge? Was she not– was she not the Captain of the Pravda

Through the door to the medbay, a figure dressed in black and red strode through.

She navigated the packed beds, the struggling nurses and doctors.

Her eyes did not once waver, she hardly took any of the scene around her.

Perfectly composed, she arrived at Ulyana’s bed and took off her hat.

“Yana. Are you awake? I’m so sorry. But you’re alive, for that we must be thankful.”

Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

Ulyana’s eyes shut, filled with tears. She gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of her blankets.

“No, please, Parvati, please tell me it’s not– please tell me–” Ulyana begged.

“It’s not your fault.”

Nagavanshi reached out and took her hand for comfort.

Ulyana Korabiskaya broke down into sobbing, crying, and finally screaming.


As soon as she maneuvered her Strelok out of the deployment chute and onto the hangar proper, Khadija al-Shajara slammed the button to open the cockpit and practically leaped out of the machine before the doors even fully opened. She fell between a group of engineers. Cranes attached to the roof of the hangar were moved along rails, lowered to the chutes to help the more damaged machines up into the hangar to be secured on their gantries. Red, gaudy red– Khadija was looking for the Grenadier.

“I’ll leave it to you all to get my machine sorted. Where’s the Imperial?”

She saw the briefest hint of a red helmet and shoulders, steel lifting hooks around the hull.

Khadija ran through the mechanics and stopped at the edge of the chute.

Waiting for the machine to be lifted, and the upper hatch of the chute to close.

And then for the machine to be set down and its hatch to open.

The instant that the bottom half of the hatch lowered enough to be used as a handhold, Khadija practically leaped up into the cockpit, charged the seat and grabbed hold with both hands on Sieglinde von Castille’s collar. While the whole hangar seemed to watch, Khadija, eyes afire, fangs bared, teeth gritted, stared into the Baron’s eyes, and held her as if sustaining that gaze would kill her.

“So this is who you are.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde von Castille gazed back, eyes mournful, shoulders slouched, hands shaking.

She was almost a head taller than Khadija but looked so much smaller then.

“Red Baron.” Khadija cursed.

“Lion of Cascabel.” Sieglinde’s voice was almost a whimper.

They stared at each other for what seemed like breathless minutes, the hangar at a standstill.

Khadija clicked her tongue and shoved Sieglinde back into her cockpit.

She leaped down onto the floor of the hangar and walked away, hands balled into fists.

Chief of Security Evgenya Akulantova parted the crowd of mechanics and approached the machine, drawing her grenade launcher in one hand, though it was a two-handed weapon for most. With a rubber padded missile loaded into it, she aimed inside the cockpit and tipped her head to the side to motion for Sieglinde to come out of it. There was a gentle smile on the Chief’s soft grey face, bearing sharp teeth in an almost disarmingly amiable fashion. A gentle, maidenly giant with a brutal weapon.

“You are Sieglinde von Castille, is that correct? Until the Captain gets to talk to you in-depth, we are treating you as a prisoner rather than a defector. Peer titles don’t mean anything in here, but I hope you find the brig hospitable, nevertheless. I strongly suggest to step out of the cockpit with your hands up, and let my subordinates inspect you.” she nodded now towards Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who had arrived with similar grenade launchers on slings around their shoulders.

Silent, Sieglinde did as she was told and made no move to resist being pat down.

She was escorted to the brig, and the hangar resumed gawking and returned to its normal operation.

Out of the other tubes, the HELIOS of Murati Nakara and Karuniya Maharapratham was collected next, along with the remains of the SEAL of Marina McKennedy. Sameera’s Cossack was in almost perfect condition and hardly needed assistance lifting itself out of the water. Once all the Divers were collected, they were lined up abreast on gantries at each opposing wall so that they could be inspected. Chief Lebedova took one look at them and lifted her hand over her eyes, shaking her head vigorously.

“Some of these are in deplorable condition. We just got done reassembling that Cheka too.”

As had become usual, the Cheka’s electronics had nearly burnt out and several of the power cells distributed across the chassis as well as a few internal systems would need to be replaced. On one end of the hangar Sonya Shalikova and Murati Nakara (who was blamed as well despite being uninvolved this time) were both being lectured by Gunther Cohen about their repeated misuse of the machine.

Sameera’s, Khadija’s and Valya’s Streloks were all in decent condition.

The Strelkannon was already a maintenance-intensive machine so every sortie meant that a dozen people had to take care of it. That would not change here, and the Chief was already in her mind plotting out the service schedule for it. It had taken a few bumps, and specifically the torpedo launcher was damaged, and it would be a delicate operation to remove the remaining munitions and fix the pod.

Aiden Ahwalia’s Strelok was recovered from the seafloor. He himself was unharmed, but the machine was in pieces, only the cockpit was untouched. It was as if a monster had torn it apart with its bare hands. They could salvage some of the electrical parts and hydrojet components, but the chassis was basically nothing but food for the Ferricycler so they could ferrostitch simple metal parts from it.

They had no spare parts for the S.E.A.L. so that one was a complete write-off.

Sieglinde’s Grenadier was in the same category. They would probably disassemble it.

The HELIOS was in decent condition thanks to its sturdiness, but it was missing an arm which would have to be replaced by kitbashing a Strelok arm, since they, also, had no spare parts for that machine either. It had come out of the container that the Solarflare ladies had asked them to label as “spare parts.” Thankfully the most complicated part of the system, the drones that it launched, were in perfect condition. Those, Lebedova thought, would be impossible to replace if anything happened.

“We have to clone the software on this thing and get a look at the guts.” She noted.

As for the Brigand itself, there was damage practically everywhere.

No breaches, but plenty of electrical systems to replace, armor plates to sub out.

The Ferrostitcher and the Ferricycler would be running day and night.

“I’ll let the reactor engineer know just to be on the safe side.”

This time around there was no round of applause for the pilots.

Not for a lack of strong feelings, as everyone was grateful for their efforts. But because they were recovered in the middle of a continuing alert, where the sailors were still working all around the ship looking for leaks and electrical damage, or in the hangar assessing damage and beginning to put together tools and parts to begin repairs. Even with the pilots recovered, that alert was not rescinded. The Antenora was still being closely monitored as it began its retreat and the record-breaking levels of Katov mass in the water were a concern. Everyone was busy, and there was no time for heartfelt pleasantries.

It was at that point that the bridge informed the hangar of a new development.

They were so busy, and so incredulous, that at first, the danger barely registered.

But they understood implicitly — the danger was not yet over.


Sonya Shalikova stood outside the medbay doors for a moment.

Collecting the military greatcoat she was wearing over her pilot’s suit for warmth.

Clutching it to her chest, heart beating as if she had run a marathon.

The Cheka’s environment control system had broken down during the battle with Selene, so as a precaution, she was being sent to rest in the medbay for observation. However, she had a certain powerful desire pursue as well, having learned that Maryam Karahailos was also being kept in the medbay for observation. Something she had steeled herself about doing when she was out at sea.

“Ugh, is this stupid? I haven’t known her for that long.”

And yet, didn’t people go out on dates as perfect strangers? Didn’t they even have sex?

She probably knew a lot more about Maryam than most people did on their first date.

So then if she wanted to– then it made sense– it wasn’t anything weird–

“You only live once.”

It was a silly refrain but it encapsulated her current motives.

Fighting Selene pushed her to stand on the border to the afterlife and to interrogate herself. She could no longer punish herself and berate herself and live sternly in repentance for her sister’s passing. There was a vast ocean that was full of mysteries, and many people who depended on her. Shalikova had to move on from her past. She had to forgive herself as her sister would have forgiven her, and start to truly live.

And part of living was being honest with herself about what she treasured, what she desired.

This wasn’t some erratic feeling for a stranger. It was Maryam! It was different!

She could do it for Maryam!

Shalikova gathered her breath and strode through the medbay door.

Murati’s and Sameera’s beds were empty– they were both still in the hangar. She had gone ahead.

Farther down the aisle, however, a certain purple cuttlefish girl sat up in bed, humming.

Bobbing her head from side, shuffling her legs under the bedsheets, amusing herself.

She was– she was really cute– wasn’t she? Shalikova felt a fluttering in her chest.

It was as if over the past few days she had put on lenses that made her see Maryam differently.

“Oh! Sonya! Is it really you? I’m not having a medicine hallucination am I?”

Maryam put on a truly sunny smile upon seeing Shalikova enter the room.

Shalikova knew if she responded and started talking to her, that she would lose her guts.

So she strode quickly past all of the beds and up beside Maryam’s without saying a word.

Tracked unerringly by those w-shaped irises from the door all the way into her space.

“Sonya? Did I do something to make you mad–?”

At Maryam’s bedside, Shalikova bent at the waist and grabbed the sister’s shoulders.

Pulling Maryam into a clumsy kiss on the lips. Holding for a second and parting.

Looking deep into those magnificent Katarran eyes.

For Shalikova, savoring the experience of her very first kiss–

It barely felt like anything. In fact it was almost embarrassing how normal she felt about it.

Had she expected firecrackers to go off? Tongue? Her pale skin turned red as beets.

Maryam was also turning red, putting her hands up to her cheeks, swooning and giggling.

Those fins atop her head started to wiggle with delight.

“Sonya–!”

“I– I think I love you, Maryam.” Shalikova said and instantly wanted to kick herself for it.

While the two had their moment, the bearing monitors in the medbay blared a silent alarm.

Unbeknownst to the young lovers, the Brigand was dealing with a crisis yet again.


“Start moving away from it as fast as you can! Now! Right now!”

Ulyana Korabiskaya briefly stood up from her seat to punctuate the urgency of this order.

Helmsman Kamarik did not need to be told twice. The Brigand turned its prow away from Goryk’s Gorge and began to accelerate as much as it could with the damage it had previously sustained. On the main screen, amid a mass of red matter, the predictive imaging attempted to block out a “shape” for the “dreadnought” it had spotted and assigned mechanical explanations to the biological details it was seeing. Everyone on the bridge focused on their stations rather than look at the main screen.

From the electronic warfare station, Alex Geninov waved frantically at the Captain.

“Uh, ma’am, I started to clone the storage on that HELIOS thing like the hangar was asking for, and the HELIOS Information System seems to have data on that Leviathan. As soon as I started a connection to that Diver it started trying to image the Leviathan through the network. Take a look.”

“Feed it to the main screen. Let’s see what Solarflare LLC has dug up.”

Alex did just that, and after a moment to think, the predictive imager discarded the idea that the Leviathan rising out of Goryk was a known dreadnought model. Instead a fully biological classification appeared, and the picture became crystal clear as to the features of the gargantuan monster roaring to life right in front of their eyes. In the HELIOS Information System, this beast was described as a “Fortress-class” Leviathan with a unique name. It was known as “Dagon.” And there was more–

“Syzygy flagship Dagon– what the hell does that even mean? Flagship?” Ulyana said.

“Flagship implies its leading something.” Aaliyah said. “I can’t imagine this is correct.”

“I think the pictures are correct, I dunno about the description text.” Alex hesitantly added.

On the main screen the clarified image showed a creature with a long body that seemed covered in some kind of fur or fibers, black and brown. Upon its back were two sets of appendages that resembled more than anything the wings of a bird, folding on clawed joints. One pair of wings had a truly enormous span and a second, smaller pair guarded what appeared to be attached bio-hydrojets. A smaller set of these hydrojets rested on the creature’s tapering rear, where a massive dolphin-like tail stretched.

Toward the front of the creature was a small serpent-like head adorned with forward and side-facing horns, and a mouth that unhinged horribly to let out great, shrill bellows that Fatima al-Suhar described as sounding like the shrieking of a woman. She was clearly unnerved by them. As more data was fed in and more of the picture was clarified, bio-weapons could be seen, two large bio-cannons on the back and numerous remora-like “Sprayfish” class Leviathans burying into the monster’s skin like gas guns.

“It’s imitating a dreadnought?” Ulyana said. “Damn it, what on Aer is going on here?”

“Oh! Looks like my intuition was right. All of you really are still in horrible danger!”

There was an incongruously delighted voice coming from the door to the bridge.

Braya Zachikova arrived, quiet, with a sullen expression.

And she arrived with a guest.


In the middle of the near-lightless utility room, framed by the dim rays of the LEDs out in the hall, Braya Zachikova had found a woman where she had expected the corpse of a fish. Around her was a puddle of oily colorless flesh like raw leather or wet innards, sliding off her back and limbs like she was dropping a coat from her slender shoulders. That movement, the easy wet peeling of meat from off a human body, when Zachikova looked at it she felt her vision distorted, as if her brain was a predictive imager trying to make sense of something, framerate lagging, pixels out of place. An alien imitation of motion.

At first the smell of her was disgustingly fishy and salty, clinging to Zachikova’s nostrils like the flecks of oil in the puddle below, as if it would be impossible to clean the aroma out of herself. Then however it became sweet, almost floral, as the flesh further contracted and more of the creature’s new, human body appeared in its place. It stirred something inside Zachikova, something under her gut.

There was a quivering feeling, a sense of pressure or contraction in her.

Something new, never before felt.

Speechless, she took a step back, and the lights behind her shed on the woman instead.

The creature’s eyes shut for a brief moment and slowly reopened, as she adjusted to the light.

Seeing her, truly seeing her, Zachikova felt her heart stir as it had done for the dancer.

She was pale as porcelain, skin stark white except for the two thin, smooth, small, upright horns that grew from her forehead, parting her long, swept, red-streaked white bangs. Her eyes were no longer lilac but gold irises on black sclera, reflecting nothing, but striking Zachikova as containing a truly unfathomable intellect. Her hair, red and white, fell in waves of silk behind her back and over her shoulders.

Her pallid figure was slim, long limbed, slender, lithe, every adjective that could come to Zachikova’s mind as her eyes followed the smooth, gentle curve of her round shoulders, crested the hill of her breasts, followed her flat belly and the slight, firm roundness of her hips. From her hips, calves, and forearms, thin white and red fins grew sleek, diaphanous and moist. They resembled the koi fish-like profile that had so enamored Zachikova. Her slender, long fingers looked temptingly soft as the features of her face. Curled behind her was a white tail that could reach to the floor, parting at the end like a dolphin’s or whale’s.

For Zachikova, who had rarely felt physical attraction, looking at this woman sent jolts of titillating electricity into her core, over the tips of her own fingers and to the ends of her own breasts.

“Braya.”

She spoke her name, cooing it softly.

It felt as if there were flesh in her metal ears for that voice to caress.

“Braya. Do you like this form? I wanted to enter the next phase of our courtship.”

Zachikova couldn’t respond to that. She couldn’t master herself enough to speak.

When she had found something aesthetically pleasing in the past, it had often been a design, a machine, or a clever bit of software. She had felt a sense of titillation toward such things in the past on rare occasions, but she knew it was incongruous and ignored it. People had hardly ever interested her, and when she felt that she became taken with her Dancer she knew intellectually that physical affection from it, true skin to skin affection, was something impossible. But it was no more impossible to her than having sex with Semyonova, Geninov, Murati or any human person she had ever felt even the vaguest physical attraction towards. Physical and social permissibility were no different to a heart as closed shut as hers.

In short: to her she it was equally impossible to fuck machines, fish, or people.

So it never mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered. She had been happy to love her Dancer from afar.

To acknowledge her as a superlative design, and feel happy as a witness.

Knowing there was a gap in their species did not blunt her appreciation.

Now however it was as if hormones that had been repressed for decades flowed heedless.

Now– it was permissible. It was permissible to think– in physical terms–

Her imagination could scarcely handle the feelings flooding in.

She thought initially that it had to be the smell– it was enchanting her somehow.

Pheromones. Like an animal– it’s got pheromones– the sweat, the sebum, it attracts me–

“Braya~”

Zachikova stood frozen still as the body in the puddle stood clumsily on her sleek, human legs.

On her soft, delicate-looking feet, balancing herself by that long, graceful tail.

There was a brief red flash in her eyes, clearly visible amid the inky black of them.

Beneath their feet the puddle of flesh stirred one final time.

Gore and guts that had peeled from the woman began to coil around her arm as if alive again and beckoned by her. Glistening grey and brown flesh thinned, dried, and blood dribbled out from it as if wrung out, all while the mass snaked as if on the creature’s fingertips. When it finally settled, she took the mass and casually spread it, having formed a white robe parted down the middle, which she draped over her shoulders, wearing it in a way that her breasts and everything else was still exposed.

At her feet the puddle had turned dark red from all the blood and fluid drained from the robe.

Zachikova watched her, unblinking, as she approached to within a few steps of her.

“Braya. Braya, Braya, Braya– I love saying your name like this. Hearing it in my throat.”

She smiled, her cheeks spreading ever so softly on that smooth, immaculate face.

One hand laid upon Zachikova’s shoulder, and the second gripped her firmly on the hip.

Her touch was like pure ecstasy, being in her presence, held by her, a sweet warm feeling–

It wasn’t pheromones. Zachikova wanted this. Her heart pounded and not out of fear.

Everything that she thought it would feel like, to touch, to be held, to be enveloped in the flesh of another close enough to feel her heartbeat through the touch. This really was her– it really was the Leviathan who had enamored her with its graceful dance. Had she been human all along or had by some miracle a human form been given to her Leviathan, to meet Zachikova like this? Regardless, the press of physical intimacy destroyed all other thoughts in the officer’s mind. She was starving for touch.

Rather than her fantasies of swimming in the ocean together– Dancer had come to her.

That hand laid upon her shoulder glided across, to the back of her neck.

Skin to skin, for the first time. Like a wave that touch reverberated across Zachikova’s body.

As if touching not just the skin of her neck but touching every skin, even the deepest.

“Braya~”

Taller than Zachikova, the woman guided her head to tip slightly up for her access.

While her lips drew near and pressed, touching, at first, glancing.

Zachikova felt the hand behind her press on her flesh and the hand on her hip nearly lift her.

Despite the differences in size and strength Zachikova did not wait.

Reciprocating, she pushed back onto the creature with her own needy kiss.

With ardor they locked lips again and again, lingering breaches inviting brief mutual taste.

Parting less than a millimeter for less than a second before they joined again.

At first their opens eyes were fixed together as tightly as their lips, but as if one the two shut out the light, feeling only each other in the darkness. There was a trust built between their flesh, suspended in an all-encompassing embrace. Zachikova felt her mouth parted by the creature’s tongue and gave no resistance. She felt the weight of her bear slowly down. Compliant, wanting, needy, she let the creature sit her down and let her lay atop her, tongue crawling deep as throat, slender roaming fingers. Undoing Zachikova’s pants and sliding teasingly down her lower belly, across her quivering inner thigh–

Pause–

Zachikova opened her eyes with a start. The woman had turned her head to the wall, eyes glowing red.

Her distracted long tongue retreated leaving Zachikova gasping, shuddering between breaths–

Sloshing thick fluid spilled from her once invaded lips tasting salty-sweet–

Those fingers on her thighs slackening in their grip, ending the fantasy–

What had been pure physical instinct before gave way to the squeamishness of intellect. Realizing there was a woman on top of her of unknown provenance whose fingers were just about to go inside her, whose tongue she had tasted to her throat, Zachikova crawled out from under her in a sudden panic. Everything felt suddenly irrational, though not wholly unwanted– she could no longer lose herself to the longing flesh having been given time to think, and made herself deny the pleasure then.

She retreated back to the unemotional logic that governed her mind.

And away from the intoxicating taste of another body–

“Who are you? I’ll sound the alarm!” Zachikova said.

Pulling her pants up, she put her back to a wall and her hand over a red emergency button.

The creature’s fluids still trailed from Zachikova’s own lips. She had to brush it off.

Her flight triggered no chase. Her counterpart was serene in tone.

An unconcerned, gentle smile adorned the face of the creature as she stood back up.

“Of course you know who I am, Braya.”

“Quit being coy!”

Something distracted her again– the creature kept looking to the wall.

“Oh Braya. Well. I’m afraid that this vessel is not out of danger. We should sort that out first.”

“Do I need to either repeat what I said, or push this button?”

At this, the creature pouted. That expression– Zachikova’s loins stirred again.

She was so beautiful– so beautiful, with an alien eroticism to her every movement.

No, calm down– quit acting so stupid, Braya Zachikova!

“Oh dear, my little Braya– ah, well. I should have known you’d be a little closed minded at first. That’s fine then. We can start over from the beginning. You’re worth it to me.” The creature took the makeshift robe which she had put over her shoulders, and slipped her arms in the sleeves, fastening it around her hips, such that it split tantalizingly just above the knees. Zachikova tried not to stare at her.

“Give me a name or I’ll have security sort you out.” Zachikova threatened.

“You can call me Arbitrator One.” She said. “We write the number in the ancient tally.”

So it was actually written as Arbitrator I, but it was not pronounced that way.

“What kind of a name is that? It’s more like a made-up title isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

“No, it’s my name. But if you want, you and you alone can call me Arabella.”

“You’re Arbitrator I then.” Zachikova said. Trying to make herself be cold to her. To reject her.

It almost hurt. She– she wanted to treat this creature lovingly. It was irrational! She had to resist it.

Braya Zachikova was a machine. She couldn’t let herself act so foolish around this thing.

“Braya, I’m a bit disappointed.” Arbitrator I put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, her eyes narrowed, giving Zachikova a petty, hurt look. “I thought you of all people would understand me.”

“Are you the Dancer?” Zachikova said. Then she realized suddenly– would she even know that name? And before Arbitrator I could respond, clarified. “The Leviathan that– that died in the Gorge–”

“That was a part of me. I am as much exclusively it as you are only the last skin you shed.”

Her eyes lit up again and she started to look around the room again with a sudden urgency.

“It’s really surfaced.” She said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Braya, you’re all in danger. Please believe me.”

She kept repeating that. Was it true?

Then again–

At this point it hardly mattered. Zachikova felt a stab of anxiety. She had to report this– all of this.

The Captain would have to sort it out. Whether Arbitrator I was lying or not.

Zachikova lifted her hand from the emergency alarm, feeling dazed by everything that happened.

“Braya, you need to navigate this vessel away from here.” Arbitrator I insisted.

“Away to where?” Zachikova said, sighing as she humored her.

“Hmm. Preferably we’d go that way.” Arbitrator I pointed her hand straight up.


At this point, in this particular day, the bridge officers on the Brigand had seen enough people come in and make mysterious pronouncements that the moment Zachikova came through the door with her mystery guest, everyone had already made time in their busy schedules to stare at her. However, the last few people that had come in, like “Euphemia Rontgen” and “Elena” were ordinary-looking folks.

Even for a Katarran (they assumed) this new entrant was particular.

Bare-foot, wearing a tight white robe, overlong red and white hair– and those horns!

Those eyes— then again, Maryam Karahailos had strange eyes too.

However, the most salient thing for the officers was where this woman had come from.

Everyone had formally been told of the Solarflare LLC employees, and of Maryam and Marina.

“Zachikova, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Why is she on the bridge?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya was firm but not necessarily adamant.

A lot had happened that day. For the moment she was in a fey mood in which she believed she was ready for anything. Come what may! She was rolling with the punches. Her scientist guests lying about their names and what was in their crates? Fine. Marina had fooled them all into escorting the Imperial Princess this whole time? Sure. She had always expected Marina to be lying, though not with such grandiosity. An enormous Leviathan was bursting out of the Goryk Abyss? Why not, at this point. Bring it on.

She did not want to admit it, but this was a nascent panic beginning to snake through her brain.

“She came from– Um–” Zachikova paused. She raised a hand to her lips. Her face was a bit more expressive than usual, in that her brow was ever so slightly furrowed. She then proceeded to speak, after gathering her thoughts, unsmiling and with a neutral gaze. “She came from outside the ship.”

“From outside the ship? From the open ocean? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

Zachikova made no expression. Ulyana narrowed her eyes. The mystery woman smiled.

“Did the Antenora fire a boarding torpedo at us?” Ulyana said.

“We’d know if that had happened.” Aaliyah interjected, listening to the whole exchange.

“Was she a stowaway with Solarflare LLC’s cargo?” Ulyana asked Zachikova.

“No.” Zachikova said. Ulyana crossed her arms with exasperation.

“Then did she crawl through the vents? What the hell is going on?”

Aaliyah groaned and put her head against the computer terminal arm on her seat.

Ulyana’s brain had briefly pored over the realistic possibilities. None of it made sense.

Zachikova seemed unable to say anything but, “She really came from outside the ship.”

So Ulyana then turned to the mystery woman herself. “Okay, you, identify yourself now.”

“I am Arbitrator One, written with ‘I’. I come from the people known as the Omenseers.”

That woman crossed one arm over her chest and performed a short bow, smiling.

“I’ve been contending with liars all day, so forgive me, but– No, you’re not!” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I shrugged with her palms up. “Then you may call me Arabella then, I suppose.”

“Don’t call her that.” Zachikova said suddenly. “That’s– That’s clearly the fake one.”

“Aww. Little Braya is jealous– you’re right, that name is only for Braya.” Arbitrator I said.

Zachikova turned sharply to her. “Knock that shit off, they’ll misunderstand!”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova then at Arbitrator I in turn. One flustered, the other grinning.

In her mind she ran through the things she knew about Zachikova.

And the things she knew about the present situation.

Something was connecting, but she didn’t want it to connect.

Because it was too absurd. It was a desperate bit of pattern recognition and nothing more.

Last time she saw Zachikova she had run out after her pet Leviathan had sacrificed itself to save them. Ulyana had heard reports from the sailors of Zachikova running across the hangar to the utility chute near the rearmost part of the ship’s habitable pods. That was where she had recalled her drone to after the previous events. Ulyana, at the time, figured that Zachikova was in a vulnerable state and that she wanted to collect a final memento of the creature from the drone. Now she was on the bridge with–

Now–

Zachikova was here on the bridge– with a mysterious woman who–

–who looked a little bit like if someone was trying to cosplay that Leviathan,

and was saying weird things and had come out of nowhere

Oh no no no no no Absolutely no Absolutely no That is completely insane

“I’m–” Ulyana had an involuntary twitch. “I’m going to ask again and I want a rational answer.”

“Esteemed Captain,” Arbitrator I performed another little bow and raised her voice as if speaking to an audience. “This vessel is in grave danger, from which you may not be able to escape without my particular expertise. I implore you to defer the matter of my identity at least temporarily until such a time as Braya– and of course other hominins aboard– are safe from Dagon’s emergence out of Agartha.”

Ulyana only heard one word of that. “Did you say ‘Dagon’? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Indeed, that is the name of the creature.” Arbitrator I said.

“Then you’re with Solarflare LLC! Quit making up ridiculous–”

“Uhh, Captain! That big guy is doing something!” Alex Geninov shouted.

On the main screen, a Radiation warning suddenly appeared.

They had been scanned by LADAR, the sensors detected the lasers. This was shortly followed by the sensors detecting that a sonar pulse had bounced off the hull. And then another– Fatima al-Suhar withdrew from her ears her headphones, rubbing the sides of her head in pain. She must have heard the pulse, but she was too dazed– Ulyana realized that all the roaring may have been bio-sonar pulses.

That LADAR warning could not have come from the Antenora either.

Both ships had gone their own ways and the Antenora knew the Brigand’s position already.

“Fatima, are you alright?” Ulyana asked.

“That noise felt a knife cutting across my skull.” Fatima replied, nearly weeping.

Ulyana was speechless. She felt pure anxiety vibrating between her skin and flesh.

“Have you heard any technological noises since the Antenora fled?” She asked.

“It couldn’t have been technological.” Fatima said. “It had to be biological, Captain.”

There was no denying the terrible hypothesis in the back of her mind.

“Take a rest. You’ve done more than enough today.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you Captain. I’m very sorry. I should be stronger–”

“Don’t worry. Please just take care of yourself.”

Fatima nodded her head and leaned back on the padding of her chair, gently sobbing.

Ulyana trusted her. There really were no mechanical ships being caught on their sonar.

So that LADAR had to have come from the Leviathan. It really was an imitation battleship.

Leviathans were much faster than ships. This creature had seen them. Would it give chase?

And if it gave chase could they escape it? Could they fight it off in their current state?

On the main screen, the creature looked to still be extricating its bulk from the Gorge.

They still had some time to react, but how much? How vehemently would it attack?

Ulyana called on Semyonova, on the station adjacent to the despondent Fatima.

“Have Maharapratham called to the bridge right away. She needs to see this.” She said.

Semyonova nodded and began to work on her task when she was interrupted.

A pale white hand gently patted her shoulder as if to say that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Have you perhaps a clearer picture of the danger you are in?”

Arbitrator I chimed in again, reminding Ulyana and the officers of her presence once more.

“Captain, I can tell from your aura, you have acknowledged an idea of what I am. It disgusts you, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? For now, we can leave it at that– I am indeed the Leviathan that was outside. I am friendly– I want nothing more than to save this vessel. Right now, understanding the situation won’t save you. You will have to trust me and verify later.”

Those eyes of hers, yellow on black like a beast. Even Katarrans didn’t have eyes like that.

Meeting those eyes and the depth of their alien intellect, Ulyana felt her heart quaver.

Then as Ulyana’s own ordinary eyes locked deep with Arbitrator I’s exotic eyes–

The latter’s, in a blink, became ordinary green irises on white sclera just like her own.

She had changed them– right? She had transformed them. They weren’t like that before.

Was she seeing things now? Ulyana relented. She wasn’t equipped to tackle this now.

“Aaliyah, are you okay with adding this to the pile of interrogations we need to do?”

“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice.” Aaliyah replied.

On the main screen, there was a sudden gust of red biomass from the gorge.

As with a flap of its “wings” the massive Dagon finally emerged fully into open water.

They were uncomfortably close to the Gorge and therefore to the creature.

The Captain tried not to show it but her breathing was accelerating heavily.

She felt a pressure so powerful that it was crushing her against her seat.

Watching that lumbering creature begin to move, and begin to turn–

Was she going to lose this ship and the lives of everyone in it, like the Pravda?

Ulyana’s voice caught in her throat. Her chest heaved, her skin felt tense over her flesh.

Her head filled with hazy thoughts of flooding, electrical fires, gorey images of the injured swimming in and out of her vision. Reaching for them, unable to take their hands and save them. Surrounded by the bodies. Would it happen again? Was she destined to lose everything again? Her own life was meaningless to her in that instant. She thought of her crew– what would happen to them? The events of the past few weeks sped through her mind like a blur, could she have done anything, anything at all to forestall this?

Could she do anything now? She was practically choking.

“It’s unmistakable now! It’s bearing right toward us!” Semyonova shouted.

Ulyana felt a stone sinking down her throat and landing heavy in her stomach.

Despite their vaunted position there was nothing a Captain could do but give orders.

They weren’t the heroes– they sent people to their deaths. She was nothing without this crew. This magnificent crew had already done so much, proved themselves so extraordinary while against horrific odds and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Despite their eccentricities, despite their differences, they had survived to this point even as things always seemed to crumble around them.

Ulyana esteemed them dearly. She would give anything to protect them.

Now however she felt like any order she could give would be suicidal.

Where could they run? How could they fight? She had no directions to give.

Every choice available felt like it would lead to their deaths.

I couldn’t redeem myself Nagavanshi. I’m still useless. I’m still powerless.

Staring at that monster on the main screen, she felt like there was nothing she could do–

“Captain.”

She felt a hand caress her shoulder and pat on her back, coming from beside her.

Ulyana glanced at her Commissar, Aaliyah, her ears erect and tail swaying gently.

Her orange eyes fixed Ulyana’s own in a way that sent a tremor into her chest.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I haven’t seen you pull off miracle after miracle just to give up now.”

“Aaliyah–”

“We can talk later. Right now, they need the Captain to be decisive. Take a leap, however insane; I’ll follow you, no matter what it is. I trust you. You’ve more than won that trust. We can interrogate all that happened, and all that we did right or wrong, after the fact. You’re not alone; I won’t let you be.”

Ulyana looked into Aaliyah’s unwavering eyes feeling foolish for her lapse in strength.

For everyone’s sake couldn’t let this become like the Pravda. So she had no other choice.

She let go of her trepidation. When it came down to it, she only had one asset remaining.

“‘Arbitrator I’, you clearly are tied into this, so tell me how we can escape.” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I stared at the main screen with those newly green eyes, smiling contentedly.

As if knowing that her time had come. She gestured her white hands to the main screen.

“Dagon is still immature. I believe its juvenile body will not allow it to rise without being damaged by the changes in water pressure. It needs the deep water to support itself.” She said matter-of-factly, with mysterious confidence. “Therefore, we can escape by going up, Captain.” With that same odd cheerfulness to her pallid expression, she pointed her index up at the ceiling.

Zachikova blinked incredulously at this.

“She mentioned this to me before, but I thought it was nonsense.” Zachikova said.

It was true that the body plans of deep sea fish meant that their flesh and organs could collapse in lower pressure water if they ascended to the photic zone, something that the Brigand as a pressurized steel vessel did not have to contend with. That would potentially prevent Dagon from pursuing if the Brigand performed a “rapid blowout” ascent. However, even if it was true that Dagon was not equipped to rise up the water table, there was nothing waiting for them in the sunlit ocean but more death.

Arbitrator I smiled as if she knew what Ulyana was worried about.

“I can keep the vessel safe from wild Leviathans. I can do nothing against Dagon.” She said.

There was no time. Ulyana had to be decisive. She had to trust this ‘Arbitrator I’ figure.

They only had one choice. They could not possibly stay and fight Dagon in their condition.

And so it was– like in the legends, like in fables told to scare and fascinate children.

To survive, they would have to make myth reality and ascend to the surface waters.

“Helmsman, blow all the ballast water! Angle fins for rapid ascent!” Ulyana declared.

Everyone on the bridge, even the gas gunners two tiers below the Captain, turned their heads over to stare at her as if they couldn’t understand. In response, Ulyana stood from her seat aiming a hand at the main screen with a flourish. “Quit tarrying! Prepare to ascend the photic zone!” For most people, heading surfaceward was an insane endeavor– but on the main screen, there was an even more insane sight, the hulking Dagon looming nearer and nearer, and appearing large and larger than their ship.

Helmsman Kamarik looked back at Ulyana from his station, first surprised then unnerved.

“Captain I– I gotta confess, I’ve never even simulated a rapid ascent.” He said.

“I’ve read about the process.” Ulyana said. She struggled not to stutter or get tongue-tied.

“Well. Okay. You’re the boss. I guess I’ll get the ballast going then.” Kamarik said.

He spoke almost as if in the form of a question but began the process.

As part of their mobility options, ships, whether Imperial or Union, had a suite of control surfaces on the exterior, particularly the main fins and the mast/conning tower fins, and internally, they had ballast tanks to control mass and density at different parts of the ship. Ballast tanks were filled with water that could be pumped into and out of the water system. The amount of water ballast could be reduced by filling them with air from vents to make the ship float more, or increased for negative buoyancy.

Truly expert helmsmen used all of these elements to their advantage for combat maneuvering.

Ascent was normal for ships — naval combat was three dimensional.

Those same mechanisms that could be used to move up and down in a controlled fashion within the aphotic waters could be used for an extreme ascent into the photic zone, the forbidden realm of sunlit ocean beyond the upper scattering layer. Nothing physically prevented them from doing so. There was less pressure in the photic zone, so it was even mechanically safer to operate there. However, the presence of corrupted weather and Leviathans made it a fool’s errand. Only a scant few rapid ascents had ever been performed by Union ships, and it was something that was useless to teach to new crews.

“Helmsman, the only tricky part will be stopping our ascent short of the surface.”

Once the ballast was blown and the ship started climbing rapidly, the water system would be strained.

In order to stop themselves quickly to prevent breaching the surface and exposing the ship to the full extent of the Corruption, they would have to dump water back into the ballast tanks and level out.

Cutters and most civilian vessels did not have internal water systems strong enough to refill the tanks in the middle of an ascension, so they never blew their tanks. Anything Frigate size or larger could do it provided there was water in the system ready to route into the tanks. Ulyana knew, theoretically, that even if water collection was compromised during the ascent, there was always enough water in one place: the reactor cooling. It could be routed into ballast temporarily, leaving the reactor to run hot for a time.

“At 150 depth, we should be able to level out if we pump heavy water into the tanks.” Ulyana said.

Helmsman Kamarik whistled admiringly. “Ma’am, this is fuckin’ crazy. But here it goes.”

“Semyonova, relay to the hangar!” Aaliyah said. “Tell everyone to secure tools, now.”

“Um, yes!”

Semyonova quickly broadcast to the ship– but she had maybe twenty or thirty seconds.

Not nearly enough time to warn everyone–

“Alright, here goes nothing!” Kamarik said. “Blowing the ballast and angling up!”

At first there was a periodic vibration, that traveled from the ship into the bodies within.

As the ballast water blasted out of its hatches and the ship tilted it became a quake.

Rumbling that presaged the beginning of a mythical flight.

Parvati Nagavanshi had been right. Ulyana could either become the greatest Captain the Union had ever seen, or a washed up nobody, reaper of ships, a death-omen if she even survived the madness she had been thrust into. She thought she had come to terms with the last crazy task she had to confront and then there would suddenly be a new, even more startling development to test her resolve.

This time, it wouldn’t be like the Pravda. They couldn’t be any more different.

She watched the main screen as the monster called Dagon left their sight.

Grabbing hold of her chair as the ship angled almost 40 degrees toward the firmament.

Shooting up faster and faster, rattling and shaking, the main computer blaring statuses.

Turbines and pumps and air vents in the water system struggled and cried out for aid.

Already damaged electrical systems reported sporadic failures with lights, circulators, network boards.

Every officer grabbed hold as best they could as the ship climbed.

Arbitrator I seized Zachikova into an embrace and held on to the post of Semyonova’s chair with her tail. Geninov, Fatima, and the rest grabbed on to their chairs which were bolted to the ground. Helmsman Kamarik struggled between holding on for life and limb and continuing to operate his station. As the Brigand tilted to an ever more violent angle and picked up speed, anything freestanding on the officer’s stations like half-empty cups of coffee or broth or cans of protein stew went flying to the back of the bridge, spilling and rattling. Every human body threatened to fly to the back as well.

It was a spectacular insanity. Nobody was prepared for this. Nobody could prepare for it.

Ulyana went from being almost sick with nerves to grinning at the sheer chaos of it.

She felt as if the judgment of God was being cast upon her. Her sins weighed like the ballast.

And despite everything, she had blown them out to begin her climb to paradise.

Having surmounted so much danger, staring the sky in the face, it led Ulyana to finally realize: the Pravda had not been her own fault. She had made no decisions as the Captain of the Pravda, she had no agency in the midst of the disaster. She was a victim. She was in command of a test voyage and the ship’s guts failed that test. It was not like the decision to fight back against the Iron Lady, to charge into Norn’s claws, to trust Elena Lettiere, or now, the decision to follow Arbitrator I, a being who had appeared and spoken mere sentences before suggesting that they ascend the heavens to escape their fate.

Those were pivotal moments where she had affected the lives of her crew.

As Captain of the Brigand, Ulyana had made several choices, pored over, and reasoned to the best of her ability, with all the information at her disposal at the time she made those choices. She gave orders, oversaw plans and organization. People, and the ship, moved as she commanded. On the Brigand, she had been responsible for the lives of many. It was not so when the Pravda met its demise.

That had been a tragedy, a wound in history which she was truly helpless to forestall.

And by contrast, on the Brigand, Ulyana was not helpless or hopeless. She had agency.

She was exercising the power and judgment she had to the best of her ability.

As the ship became free of its water weight and rose, Ulyana shed her own burdens.

No regrets. At every turn, I’ve done the best I could. Thank you, Aaliyah.

With one hand holding onto her chair, Ulyana stretched out the other.

Around Aaliyah Bashara’s shoulder, as the commissar struggled to hold on as well.

“Are you ready to follow me into hell, Commissar?” She cried out, over the rumbling and rattling.

“Always, Captain!” Aaliyah shouted as well.

On the cameras, the red waters were quickly left behind.

Katov biomass readings plummeted, and the water turned from red to black to blue.

Dagon had vanished, and the sight in front of them was a thick cloud of organisms.

“Crossing the upper scattering layer!” Kamarik shouted. “Hold on, baby, hold on!”

Sensing the advance of the ship the teeming mass of pelagic fish and the ordinary predators that thrived on them spread open suddenly as if forming among them a door. A biological gate to the heaven that was barred to humanity, and there were less than seconds of recognition of this grand feat and what it signified as the Brigand hurtled through the 100 meter strata of marine life at immense speed.

“400 depth– and climbing!” Geninov cried out in mixed awe and terror.

On their cameras the surroundings were beautiful and alien.

Blue water all around them. They could see— the water was streaked with light.

Directly above was God, white disk adorned with grand rays. 400 meters, 300 meters–

Beams of light shooting eerily into the water. It was the corrupted surface directly above.

Mere hundreds of meters away. Closing in. Humanity’s forbidden, fallen holy land.

Sinners who had been cast from heaven now leaped toward the firmament.

“Pump the reactor cooling water into the tanks! Level us out now! Right now!”

Against the force of the water the Brigand’s fins returned to their horizontal, level plane.

Through a herculean effort of every available mechanism the reactor cooling pods drained heavy water into the ballast tanks at maximum pump. Red alerts screeched as various components strained under the pressure, turbines grinding, pumps screaming. There was compounding damage everywhere–

“She’ll make it! She’ll make it!” Kamarik yelled.

Ulyana held on to hope as the ship struggled, shaking itself apart.

At her side, Aaliyah threw her own arm around the Captain, clinging tight to her.

With her at my side– we won’t fail.

Judged–

–and found worthy.

Directly below the sun disk, body of God, the Brigand leveled out, avoiding the surface.

A mere 50 meters below the edge of their world.

On the bridge, the officers nearly stumbled out of their chairs, having been leaning to keep themselves level while the ship had been tilted and now finding themselves in obscene angles with the ship righted. All the cans and cups rattled one more time. One final quake spread through the ship that rumbled right into Ulyana’s chest as they stabilized. On the main screen there was bright, blue ocean all around them.

Final labored breaths shook the terror out of their chests. They were– they were safe?

“Damage report.” Ulyana said, exhibiting a slight trepidation.

“We might have some leaky pipes and a few pumps to replace.” Kamarik said.

“We have electrical damage basically everywhere. Core’s heating up.” Geninov added.

“The hangar’s a mess. Tools everywhere.” Semyonova moaned. “A few injuries. No deaths.”

Subhaan Allah.” Fatima said, holding a hand against her breast and breathing deep.

Ulyana laid a hand over her face. What a mess. “At least we’re alive. Kamarik, get us down to 200 or 300 depth again. Take it slow and start phasing out the heavy water from the system and refilling with sea water. Prioritize refilling the core, even if we have to move at one knot or stay still. Semyonova, tell everyone not to use the faucets or anything right now, it’s going to be full of agarthic salt if they do. God, what a mess. Everyone run checks on your own systems. Are all the sensors still up? We need to plan repairs too. Get Lebedova on it if she isn’t. If she needs additional manpower the pilots can help.”

It was a lot easier to resume the act of being Captain than to take in what had happened.

At his station, however, Kamarik was smiling placidly, leaning back on his chair.

“Something wrong?” Ulyana asked, near breathless from everything that had transpired.

Kamarik shook his head. “No, just taking this whole shit in. We’re naval legends now, Captain.”

He ran his hand over his station screen like he was comforting it. “This dame really did it.”

“We’re gonna be dead legends soon!” Geninov shouted from Zachikova’s station.

Dozens of red flashes appeared on the main screen, target boxes around incoming objects.

Leviathans. Sprayfish class, Barding class, Greathorn class– leviathans of all sizes.

Great maws, long bodies, numerous jets, bio-cannons. All kinds of body plans.

They had detected the Brigand and were approaching, cautiously, curiously, in numbers.

“We traded a big one for every fucking little one in a ten kilometer radius!” Geninov cried.

Ulyana shut her eyes and drew in a breath. She tried not to panic. It was another moment.

One of many that would characterize their journey from here. All she could do was face it.

“You said you would handle this? Show me you aren’t a fraud then– or die with us.”

She turned a glare on Arbitrator I, who seemed perfectly calm with the situation.

Letting go of Zachikova, whom she had been tenderly embracing during the ascent.

She walked forward, between all the stations on the middle tier, just below the Captain.

“Of course. Please observe. I am who I say I am. And with this, I seal an oath to this vessel.”

On the main screen the pack of Leviathans approached, circling, spiraling, hurtling forth–

Arbitrator I raised her hand to the main screen, eyes glowing with red rings.

“Raise not your arms against the master of Lemuria and chosen of Shalash. Omensight.”

Ulyana felt something stir. Something that made the tiniest hairs on her skin stand on end.

In front of her Arbitrator I glowed for a split second with a myriad of colors.

It could’ve been the lights, or it could’ve been Ulyana’s own exhaustion.

These brief explanations could encompass none of what happening, however.

At her command (at her command?), the Leviathans drawing visibly nearer to the Brigand were given sudden pause, those with fish-like bodies hovering briefly in place before turning away, those with serpentine bodies directing their snaking masses in directions away from the Brigand and coiling at a distance. Those with whale-like bodies that could not easily turn their bulk dove deep to swim beneath the Brigand, unable to swim over due to the proximity to the surface. That teeming mass of life which they had attracted crossed past them and dispersed. Ahead of them the ocean became clear again.

Clear of the Leviathans, but in their place, the sunlit world was still filled with life.

With the danger passed, the main screen filled with the beauty of paradise.

White rays of sunlight penetrated the water’s surface and illuminated schools of small fish swimming in their thousands. Jellyfish with surfaces cycling through the colors of natural rainbows rose and fell in their natural diligence. Larger fish preyed on the small as if nothing had disturbed their hidden world. Those Leviathans went from being threats to rejoining nature, navigating with their own majesty amid the ordinary creatures. In contact with the light, and separated from the benthic world of humanity, nature flourished in the photic zone. Ulyana watched this serene landscape, with quiet reverence, as if still counting the seconds of life that she had left in the face of a danger now, finally, abated.

A collective sigh reverberated across the bridge. They were finally safe.

They had survived.

Exhausted officers put their heads on their station desks, deflating after the danger washed over them. Geninov was loudly sobbing. Fatima and Semyonova openly crying. Kamarik repeatedly tapped his fist on the wall near him. Fernanda stood up from her station and bowed her head over it, shifting her feet as if to keep from kicking. Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah’s ears and tail drooped so low they might have fallen off.

In place of the adrenaline and the blood boiling stalwartly in her veins, Ulyana felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of her forehead. She hardly felt a migraine like this since she stopped drinking herself drunk. Life had stopped moving second by labored second, but she still felt the inertia brimming inside her. All of it was over, finally over. No enemies on their sensors. Just them, alone, and the open sea.

Her crew could rest. A Captain’s work was never done, however.

“Hey,”

Leaning back for comfort, calmly breathing, Ulyana fixed her attention back on Arbitrator I.

“What was all that shit you just said? Explain what the hell just happened. Right now.”

She jabbed an accusing finger at the pale woman below.

Arbitrator I beamed, bobbing her head from side to side with her hands behind her back.

“It was just the incantation to my magic spell!” She declared cheerfully.

Beside the Captain’s chair, Zachikova raised both of her hands to her face, groaning.

Ulyana felt a familiar gentle pat on the shoulder.

“We’ll save it for the interrogation, Captain.”

At her side, Aaliyah Bashare smiled, relieved and cheerful, while comforting Ulyana.

Her face might as well have glowed for how beautiful it looked at that moment.

“To hell and back again, Captain. Or I couldn’t call myself your Commissar.” She said.

Ulyana returned the smile gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me, Aaliyah.”

While the ship slowly got underway again, the two of them fixed gentle eyes on one another.

So it went.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Brigand was free from external, violent threats.

It would take time for Ulyana to feel safe about everything she had learned today, however.

Their horizon was filled with fog and smoke. But they could do nothing but go forth through it.

For the next leg of their journey, the Brigand’s path would be lit by the sun itself.

An even grander journey awaited them. At least Ulyana would not have to command it alone.


Within the roiling red cloud that had burst from Goryk’s Abyss lumbered a great tyrant of the seas.

Rising out of a wound in the earth, roaring its entrance into the world of “human civilization.”

Avoiding its strength, the humans which had borne witness to its rise fled in every direction.

Its name was Dagon. With six eyes on its head and several across its body, the monster watched the machine it had sought to pursue shoot skyward at a bewildering pace. In itself, the beast scarcely understood what it was seeing or what had happened– but deep within the pressurized cavities of the monster there were symbiotic intelligences that understood what had transpired. They guided the creature to resume its flight within the shadowed wilderness of what was known as “Sverland.”

These intelligences did not answer to the beast, however, nor did the beast truly answer to them.

Both Dagon and its navigators bowed before the authority of the being Dagon was born to protect.

“We were tracking a ship, weren’t we? How come nobody’s updated me on it?”

Her voice reverberated across the interior of Dagon’s cerebral pod, stirring semi-transparent teal-blue organelles on the surrounding walls, like sinewy boils in which humanoid bodies could be seen to float, suspended in a film of dimly glowing gel, and affixed by their slender, pale necks to great bundles of nerves and arteries. Moisture glistened on the leather-pink surfaces which hardened black at the edges of the organelles. They shuddered with understanding of her requests and spoke silently to her.

Numbers and coordinates and data filtered into her mind from the minds surrounding her.

“Huh? You all let it get away? Why? There was no reason to engage it? Putting those vile excuses for homo sapiens in their place is good enough for me. It would have taken us no effort to crush them utterly, no? What do you mean? What do you mean it would have been dangerous?”

She developed an angry twitch as she conversed verbally with beings speaking mentally.

“Autarch, the vessel rose to the surface. It was a powerful vessel. We did not engage in pursuit.”

“I know. Navigation told me. But thank you for appearing, Enforcer II, to take the blame.”

In the middle of the womb-like cavity rose a black, crab-legged armored throne upon which sat the exalted Autarch of the Omenseers, known as Arbitrator II. Her current body was still immature, a slender pale figure with red hair longer than herself and a single curled horn on the side of her head. Dressed in a white robe bedecked with biologically luminescent cuticles, a tail twice her size curling around her throne.

At her feet, a pale woman with wavy brown hair kneeled. She had arrived from a sphincter leading down into the lower womb, within which prepared combat bodies were maintained. Her white and black dress had a trim of brown fibers and colored algae and flattered her mature figure. If at present the Autarch appeared like an older teen or younger adult, the creature before her was a middle aged woman.

“Autarch,” Enforcer II began, “Forgive me for the miscalculation, but I’m afraid Dagon is not yet mature enough to rise any further. It was grown in the Agartha, and its body is still soft. It must adapt to the waters of the homo sapiens and must then adapt to the waters farther above. It will take time.”

Arbitrator II rolled her eyes. “Okay but why didn’t we fire at the ship? How mature are the weapons?”

“I’m afraid the bio-cannons have only reached 40% maturity. Missiles are at 50%. Forgive me, milord.”

The Autarch’s voice became slower, deeper, evident of her displeasure. “Hold out your arm. Right now.”

Enforcer II quietly and dutifully outstretched her arm. Arbitrator II did not even move in her seat.

In a split second arm fell from elbow with a violent, bloody discharge as if sliced off.

Blood sprayed in a streak over Enforcer II’s beautiful features. She grimaced, enduring the pain.

On the ground, the severed arm rolled down the pod before the floor itself opened to consume it.

Absorbing the flesh into the surroundings such that it could not be recovered.

“While you reflect upon your gross miscalculations you can restore your arm bit by bit. Dismissed.”

Enforcer II mustered a pained smile and bowed to Arbitrator II, arm still bleeding.

Arbitrator II laid back, sighing. “Oh well. No matter. For now, I’ll just savor the journey.”

Gazing around the kingdom in miniature from which she would survey the “human” world.

Grinning with self-satisfaction. Soon, she knew. Soon, the time of the Syzygy would be upon them.

Dagon glided over the ocean surface, beginning its path through the fringes of human existence.

A great shadow of once-dormant secrets now probing out from within the depths of Aer.

Arbitrator II drummed fingers on her cheek. Idly recalling visions of her previous selves.

She had airy glimpses, passing feelings, of a great history to which she was a crucial part.

“Why hurry, after all? Let’s toy with them a bit. The Titan of Aether has an unchangeable destiny.”


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Thieves At The Port [5.9]

This scene contains graphic sexual content.

When the Captain and Commissar arrived at Doctor Winfreda Kappel’s office, they found her reclining in her chair, her face sullen, swirling a tiny bit of yellow-brown fluid in a small glass. There was an uncorked bottle on the counter nearby, along with a minicomputer with an open patient file. Ulyana glanced at the screen and saw a freshly-taken photo of a certain Marina McKennedy on the screen.

“No one on the crew is supposed to drink unless we approve it.” Ulyana said.

Her tone was more playful than it was stern.

Dr. Kappel smiled at them, arranging her colorful hair out of her eyes and behind one ear.

“Good Evening, Captain, Commissar. If I recall correctly, and I do, the regulation lists the specific alcoholic beverages that can only be drunk with a formal release by the Captain. However, the ship doctor’s standard-issue lemon brandy is actually exempt. It’s why I took this job at all.”

“Huh. First time I’ve heard of this. Is that true?” Ulyana asked Aaliyah.

“It doesn’t sound true.” Aaliyah replied. “It sounds like shameless excuses.”

“Wait, so you don’t know for sure?” Ulyana said.

“You’ll forgive me for indulging after the depressing visitor you sent my way.”

The doctor winked at them and took a small sip of her brandy.

“I’m glad you did see her, and not just the depths of your brandy bottle.” Ulyana sighed.

“I’ve got good news for you, Captain: she’s biologically alive.” Dr. Kappel laughed.

“We’d like to know the bad news then.” Aaliyah said. For a moment, the room quieted.

Then it was Dr. Kappel’s turn to sigh. She ran her hand over her forehead briefly.

“Let me think of where to begin. It was a lot of work I’ll have you know.”

Ulyana was afraid it would be something like this. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t see patients like this in the Union very frequently.” Dr. Kappel replied.

“Start with the basics then and work your way to what’s actually bothering you.”

Dr. Kappel reached out to the countertop and picked up her minicomputer to glance at it.

“Marina McKennedy has a strong baseline level of health if you judge purely on her general physicality. She has the level of fitness I would expect from a combat soldier. No chronic illnesses. Lots of lean muscle, flexible and dexterous, not too dense, or heavy; full range of movement in her limbs, solid reflexes, good hand-eye coordination, perfect hearing; good eyesight, from her good eye. I’ll get to that shortly. Her weight can’t really be faulted, but she clearly has been eating poorly. Despite this, she maintains an acceptable level of fitness by Union standards.”

She spoke almost robotically and looked up at the Captain and Commissar for remarks.

Neither made any expression, so she continued reading from her notes. “She disclosed a single gender affirming chest surgery, but not the timeline of the surgery. I believe she has fully recovered from it. Upon learning of her status I prescribed her hormone treatments. She did not disclose any other health information: including that she had a second skin applied, which is visibly fading. I figured that out myself during our checkup. I did not disclose this suspicion to the patient.”

“A second skin? Over what specifically?” Ulyana asked.

Normally second skins were applied on certain parts of the body.

They were applied to the faces or bodies of performers to typify certain beauty standards.

Unblemished cheeks, the illusion of a beautifully toned body, different skin colors.

“Full body, except a patch on her chest where there’s an older scar.” Dr. Kappel said simply. “And I believe it’s not for gender affirming reasons. In fact, I don’t think the surgery she disclosed was for that either. I would know. As a trans woman and a doctor I can tell you nobody gets surgery for such a humble size when they can go bigger.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced briefly at each other. A full body second skin was quite rare. In the Union you rarely saw it. The ingredients were better used for other medical purposes. Applying a second skin required a lot of hours of precise work in order to look perfect.

“What is she trying to hide then? That’s what you’re implying, right?” Aaliyah said.

Dr. Kappel sighed as if it was painful to recall what she saw.

“Scars. Lots of scars and damage. All over her body. Not just surgical scars, either.”

“I’m not sure I understand the reaction you’re having here, Doc.” Ulyana said gently.

“I’m just upset whenever I see evidence of extensive and brutal torture, is all.”

Dr. Kappel turned a weary glance to her superiors. Her voice grew more impassioned.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other again as if they hadn’t expected that.

“Marina McKennedy was traumatically tortured, Captain, Commissar. Any doctor could have told you that. Even the Security team’s medic. Marina is covered in irregular scars all over her body, that are becoming visible again. She styles her bangs over one side of her face to cover it, but I believe she suffered violent eye trauma too, necessitating an implant. Likely a back alley job, but I didn’t want to push her to let me check it. Psychologically, she is deeply troubled. She is afraid to be touched on her bare skin. Even if she knows she will be touched and if extensive consent is sought, she will allow the touch but react quite negatively.”

As she spoke, Dr. Kappel pulled back the sleeve of her coat and bodysuit to reveal a bruise.

“Even for someone with military combat training, it was hard to block her strike.”

“Solceanos defend.” Ulyana whispered to herself. Aaliyah’s tail turned stiff and straight.

“I don’t want you to think she’s dangerous. I think she’s just deeply, deeply hurt.”

Dr. Kappel set her minicomputer back on the counter and downed the rest of her drink.

“I understand. Is there anything else we should know?” Ulyana said.

“Her main vice is smoking, which she herself admitted.” Dr. Kappel said. She had the same tone of voice as when she was rattling off facts collected in her notes. As if she had walked herself down from getting too emotional about the patient. “I’ve informed her this ship is a smoke free zone, and tobacco is relatively rare in the Union, so I’ve prescribed medication to wean her off it. You’ll have to keep an eye she doesn’t bring any tobacco into the ship. It’s more prevalent in the Empire than the Union. She has a mild dependency on opiates, I also prescribed drugs for that. That’s all the pertinent information.”

“Do you think her judgment is impaired in any way?” Aaliyah asked.

“Bit insensitive to ask after all I just told you, no?” Dr. Kappel replied.

“I don’t see it that way. I have to know so I can help the patient be safer too.”

“Fair enough. I don’t believe so. I think she is fully cognizant and operating in reality.”

“We’ll just have to be patient and see if we can get her to open up.” Ulyana said.

“Good luck with that. At any rate, I did let her know we’ll be doing weekly checkups.”

Ulyana smiled nervously. “Thanks for volunteering, Doc.”

Dr. Kappel scoffed. She poured herself another glass. Her cheeks were starting to flush.

“I feel obligated to help, from one transgender sister out in the world to another. I can’t leave a patient to depend solely on you two brutes for her long-term health.” As the doctor berated them, Ulyana and Aaliyah simply stood in place and averted their gazes awkwardly. “But you understand that henceforth, I can’t tell you anything she confides in me, per Union regulations.”

“We get it. Don’t worry. She’s a spy, we know we’re being lied to.” Aaliyah said.

“As long as you keep her from blowing up on us, I agree to confidentiality.” Ulyana added.

“Good. Honestly, I should have braced myself to see such things, but still. What she’s been through, it’s so evil.”

Dr. Kappel looked up at the ceiling, as if referring to the whole ocean around them.

“I feel like we’ve all seen enough of the Empire to last us a lifetime already.” Ulyana said.

“Well, we’re barely getting started. So we’ll all need to toughen up.” Aaliyah said.

Her own droopy ears and tail belied her personal sense of demoralization, however.

For a first step, this mission seemed to have only reminded them all of their smallness.

There was nothing bold or glorious about it.

Of course, that was military work through and through. It was not always glorious.

Not for the officers, not for command, not for the sailors or even the doctor.


Ulyana did not have much to move from the former Captain’s quarters over to the Commissar’s.

Her personal clothes were packed in a neat bundle, and she could always get more TBT uniforms. They had extras. Aside from one nice dress, she only had a few good pairs of pants and their matching coats and dress shirts, and one good Union formal uniform. So she took these effects into the Commissar’s room right after the room was reassigned, pulled down the bunk on the right-hand wall and set them there. Her makeup kit was easily portable and slotted in nicely into the storage under the bunk. There was one item she had to be delicate with, a bottle full of something quite special.

It was this item she was fetching from a lockbox in the Commissar’s room wall, when Aaliyah entered in from the hallway, looking exhausted. As soon as the door closed behind her she took off her hat and set it on a hook, took off her long coat, and pulled off her tie and the top few buttons of her shirt. The way she did it, it was like ritual: a daily, trusted act of undressing, in the mindlessness of privacy, fully at ease with herself. Her whole body language softened that instant.

She even let out a little cat-like purr.

Of course, she then noticed Ulyana in the room and immediately jerked back.

“Captain!” She cried out.

Ulyana waved a hand, her lips curling into an awkward little smile.

“Warm greetings, Commissar. I live here now.” She said.

Aaliyah’s wild expression softened, and she averted her gaze.

“I– I know that! I thought you would be somewhere else at this hour!”

Her ears drooped and her tail curled, flicking behind her.

Ulyana extricated the bottle from the confines of its padded bag and pulled it up.

“I was planning on a shower, but first, I actually wanted to invite you to a drink.”

“What? A drink? What kind of drink?”

Holding it by the neck, Ulyana showed Aaliyah a dressed-up bottle of a fancy liqueur.

“It’s tuzemak infused with coconut.” Ulyana said. “Small batch, but good quality.”

Ulyana uncorked the bottle. She had already tasted it, quite a few months ago.

Her demeanor was guarded as she offered the bottle. She ready for Aaliyah to yell at her.

Instead the Commissar looked intrigued. She approached and gave the bottle a good look.

“That’s quite an interesting combination. How did you get your hands on this?”

“You’re acting like I stole it.” Ulyana laughed. “It was on a plaza table in Sevastopol.”

“Sevastopol is situated close to an agri-sphere. I guess it makes sense for a plaza find.”

Ulyana felt lucky that Aaliyah’s response was so passive. Maybe she was too tired to moralize. Feeling emboldened, Ulyana pushed things one step further, set the bottle on the commissar’s pull-down writing desk, and withdrew two small, clean shot glasses, setting them both neatly on the desk too. Aaliyah watched her quietly while she was doing this.

“Would you do me the honor of joining me for a toast?”

Aaliyah’s tail went from flicking back to swaying gently behind her.

“Well. One drink could not hurt I suppose.”

That response put a radiant smile on Ulyana’s face.

She poured a full shot glass for each of them and handed one to Aaliyah.

The second she took and raised to eye level.

“A toast: to a successful mission, and a victory for communism!”

Aaliyah and Ulyana touched glasses and lifted them to their lips.

A slick, sweet taste, sugar beet with a hint of coconut, burning all the way down.

It made Ulyana’s chest warm. Even in this ship, in this unknown ocean, it felt like home.

“That was amazing.” Ulyana said.

“It was delicious. Thank you for the toast, Captain.”

“Want to go for seconds?”

“Going to have to stop you there.”

Aaliyah put her hands on her hips and threw a narrow-eyed glare at Ulyana.

Ulyana took the shot glasses and bottle back with a knowing grin.

The Commissar stood there watching her Captain clean the glasses in the room’s water dispenser and remained like a fixture or a piece of furniture while she put them away. Once they were back safely in the storage under the bunk, Ulyana came face to face with Aaliyah again, and she, too, became a fixture in the middle of the room, between the bunks. They avoided staring directly at one another and neither spoke for several long seconds. Ulyana then realized she was standing in the way of Aaliyah’s desk, so she moved aside and sat on the bunk instead.

“We can’t go on like this.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s set some boundaries, Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

When presented with an awkward situation Ulyana would always smile.

Because it was a forced smile, it was usually crooked. It did not really improve things.

It was, simply, just what happened. “Not Captain Korabiskaya?”

“Ugh. If I had to maintain that formality at all hours of my life, I would go insane.”

“I agree. I just thought you would prefer it. Like keeping a bit of distance, even in here.”

“Not at all. I think you’ve misread me. In my room, what I want is to relax, and to be able to dress down from the mask I have to wear around the crew. I’m expected to help the Captain enforce discipline. I need to command respect even if the Captain is lenient. It’s a big burden that I take off for a few hours in solitude. I won’t be alone anymore, but I still need to have that time.”

Ulyana nodded. Maybe Aaliyah did not realize that the Captain wore her own mask too.

That was something she would not bring up. She was the guest, and she would fit in.

“I understand completely. I want to help ease your burden however I can, Aaliyah.”

Aaliyah’s ears straightened up. She averted her eyes again in a demure expression.

“Well, thank you. My routine is that I write a Chronicle entry in silence, so I can reflect on the day. I want to ask you to be silent and still while I do so. Maybe take a nap or go catch your shower at this time. I always do this at 2000 hours, and then I read before sleeping at 2200 sharp.”

“I’m fine to keep that schedule.”

The pair stared at one another as if they were each waiting for there to be more to say.

Another awkward silence fell between them. The ship was so quiet too.

“Well. I guess it’s all settled. Thank you, Cap– Ulyana.”

“You could call me Yana too. Most of my friends do. Even Nagavanshi did.”

Her face turned briefly warmer. Oh, why did she chance on saying that?

Aaliyah merely shook her head and walked past her to the desk and sat down. She reached over the desk and pressed her hand down on the wall, sliding out a fake metal panel to expose the Osmium lockbox in which the ship’s chronicle was kept. All the while Ulyana watched her as she unlocked the box, took out the chronicle, gently booted it up. From her holster, she took her snub nosed revolver and set it down on the table — of the Bridge officers, only the Captain and Commissar were so armed.

Then she began to write. With her back to Ulyana and her eyes staring down at the screen.

“Duly noted. I’ll go catch that shower.”

From the desk, Aaliyah waved at her. “Enjoy your shower, Ulyana.”

When she said her name there, it felt so pointed. Ulyana shrank just a little from it.

Like an arrow right through her heart. What a stupid thing to feel!

Of course, what was she thinking? That they could have another passionate night?

That sort of fantasy would have just gotten her in great trouble.

At least she was not cast out into the hallway without a bed to call her own.


Her body was flung from high into a jagged precipice and fell down a dark chasm. She watched a stark white sky shrink into a sliver as the walls encroached around her. Falling for what felt like eternities, skin unfeeling in a rushing wind until she suddenly hit the ground.

Her back arched from the impact and she cried out soundlessly.

Skin and clothes split off from her body like glass shattering instantly into dust, rising into the air like a cloud.

There was no pain, but she still settled with the wind knocked out of her, naked on the ground, sweating, heaving. Her skin, the only layer that was left behind over her body, was wet, soft, and pale like an insect’s callow after molting. Eyes heavy, dragging herself on the cold, blank floor, her surroundings a blur. Who was she? She could barely remember her name.

All around her there was nothing but a curtain of squirming shadows.

Footsteps. Why would there be footsteps? She was supposed to be alone.

She looked over her shoulder in time to see thin shadows lashing out of the walls.

Her leg was seized as if by a wet, black rope and she was lifted bodily by the ankle.

That tendril dragged her toward a gaping maw of shadows that seethed and curled.

A second tentacle whipped around her neck and pushed her head up.

Thin, inky limbs formed bonds around her wrists and forced her arms behind her back.

As suddenly as she was seized, her body was set down, forced to her knees with her back straight.

Before her eyes, a human figure appeared from the shadows as if phasing through a membrane. A woman’s upper body leaned forward, red eyes, grinning lips, nose to nose with the skinny, soft callow that she had caught in her arms. A bioluminescent glow upon certain areas of her skin gave delineation to a slender chest and its exposed curves. Her eyes pored over the pale figure.

“Sonya,”

That sweet, luscious voice recalled the nymph’s identity with great joy. Sonya Shalikova.

As the woman spoke, Sonya’s cold, unfeeling body tingled with the warmth of the woman’s breath.

Then the tentacles binding her arms pushed against her back, forcing her chest forward.

Limbs slid around her back, tracing her ribcage, climbing over and squeezing her breasts.

A tendril glided up her thigh, sliding heavy against her groin, its slender tip curling around her dick.

Breathing ragged, pulse quickening, her pale flesh slick with sweat.

Sonya’s body reacted in a primal way.

Hips shuddering, chest quaking, a building pressure in her core that caused her to bite down on her lip. She did not hate the sudden grip of pleasure she found herself in. She didn’t fight it. As her body bucked, the tentacles moved in rhythm with her.

Sonya let out a soft, soundless gasp into the face of her captor. Her own lips curled into a little, exhausted smile.

“Sonya,”

A human hand reached out and caressed her cheek.

Two fingers penetrated her lips. Saliva trickled from her mouth, her tongue struggling instinctually against the intrusion. The voice grew more possessive as its lips closed in on Sonya’s face, past her cheek, and dug into her neck, leaving a red marking.

As the figure neared, the arms around her body squeezed to the point Sonya felt crushed.

Pleasure and love that once danced electric on her skin became consumptive, choking–

“Sonya,”

In a deepening constriction, the voiceless Sonya finally let out a scream in agony.

Everything went dark.

Back aboard the assault carrier “Brigand,” Sonya Shalikova darted upright in her bed.

Her undershirt clung close to her heaving chest with patches of cold sweat.

She reached to the wall and struck the contextual button that appeared to dimly light the room.

Lying on the other bunk, Maryam Karahailos stared at her, covered up her neck in blankets.

Her skin and hair were completely white, and her expression was frozen in a vacant smile.

“What are you looking at?” Sonya shouted.

Though her facial expression remained unchanged, Maryam shook gently with fright.

“You were making strange noises that woke me up. Then you started screaming.”

As if expecting further verbal outbursts, Maryam pulled the blanket over her head.

That bundle of blankets continued to shake for a few moments with Maryam’s fear.

“You had a very scary aura.” She said. “I was afraid you were in pain.”

Sonya brought her hands to her face and dropped back into her pillow, squirming.

Fleeting images of some kind of dream emptied out of her head.

She felt unsettled. But she knew it wasn’t Maryam’s fault and she shouldn’t have yelled.

After a few minutes she rebuilt the courage to speak. “Sister Karahailos–”

“Please call me Maryam, Sonya! Oh I hate hearing that cold formality with your voice!”

“So you’re still just awake and staring at me under the blankets?”

“Well, yes–”

“Maryam–!”

At that moment, Sonya was interrupted by flashing red lights going off in her room.

There were no loud alarm sounds– no alarm sounds went off for silent running alarms.

Maryam pulled off her blankets.

“Sonya, is that something important? Oh– your aura is scary again.”


“It should be illegal to make me do late shift so much. This is cruel and unusual.”

“Then at home you should have remained, therein bemoaning your pitiable existence.”

“All you did was say the words in a weird order. You’re not as fancy as you think.”

“Silence, gamer.”

Fatima al-Suhar sighed under her breath.

In the background, the two other late shifters kept themselves entertained complaining at each other near-endlessly. Had she been the sort to gossip or provoke, Fatima would have joked that Alexandra and Fernanda sounded like a married couple. Maybe once upon a time, she would have done so. But she could no longer stand causing inconvenience. She was so thankful to be alive and so sorry to have ever done wrong in her life. So she bit down that troublesome instinct.

Instead she hunkered down and went to work.

Raising her headphones and tucking them into her ear fluff, tail gently swaying as the sounds of the Ocean overtook the cacophony that proceeded apace directly behind her. It was this sound that strengthened her belief in God, even when everything looked bleak. That sound of gentle rushing punctuated by the sharp notes of life beneath the water. Fatima thought of it was the heartbeat of an organism that encompassed all things — for Allah was exalted and seen in all things.

Most people did not understand that the Ocean was always singing with life.

Within the water table, the ocean itself moved, creating currents and underwater waves that made bubbling and rushing sounds. Their ships were designed to move by sucking in water and accelerating it through the structure, so at higher speeds the disturbance of the water as the ship passed could also be heard, and understood, if the operator had a good ear. There was life all around them, even in the aphotic depths at 1000 meters below. Fish swam, crabs scuttled, squid and cuttlefish hid in the benthic depths and rushed out for prey. Sharks and other large fish that dove deep for food could be heard distinctly from the rest.

They rarely ever acknowledged it, but there was so much more in the Ocean than humans.

Fatima loved hearing those sounds. It was soothing. Even with the tension of hearing an enemy ship always looming over her, she could be at peace with the sounds of Ocean life. Most of the time, her job involved her sitting as if alone, isolated even in a room full of people. The youthful, noisy gas gunners below her, the bridge officers around her, and the Captain and Commissar behind and above her, all disappeared, and she only heard the endless call of the deep.

As if she herself was surrounded in the water, adrift in the lightless blue.

When she looked down at her console, she had various diagrams to monitor.

There were three major ones: a square spectrogram display for the hydrophones, a bearing imager with its own graph using the acoustic data, and a digital visual drawn up using the acoustic prediction algorithm.

In her opinion, the predictor was useless, except as something to look at to pass the time.

Most of the time she was staring at the spectrogram, watching the sounds being recorded and keeping an eye and an ear out for anything strange. All of the sounds picked up would appear in her spectrogram as lines, and she was well trained in discerning meaning from those lines. Meanwhile the bearing imager had angle markings and displayed the paths of large objects as lines so that Fatima could tell what direction ships may be coming from. There were bearing imagers installed in various places on the ship, but Fatima was the one tasked with the one on the Bridge, and it was the most fully featured on the ship.

Below the imagers, a text terminal displayed predicted origins as well as spectrum data.

On that night, like any other night, Fatima expected to hear more “biologic” noises than ships.

And the ships she expected to hear were slow, noisy civilian vessels.

They were heading to the Nectaris jet-stream, a major byway for Ocean traffic.

So at first, when she heard a distant, but distinctive sound of a large hydrojet–

She second-guessed herself. Her reflexes were lightning quick, however.

As soon as her brain registered a sound, and the realization shuddered through her whole body, she looked up at the spectrograph, bearing imager, and even at the predictor. She read the data on the terminal, as it was sometimes faster than calculating from the frequencies in the spectrograph. In seconds, Fatima’s little world had gone through several convulsions. Her ears stood straight. Her tail started flicking in the air. Her eyes drew wide as she slowly accepted the truth of what she calculated.

“It can’t be– It just can’t–”

Even as she said this, she stood from her station suddenly.

Beside her was Semyonova’s station. She ran her finger across a touchpad to awaken it.

From the side of the station she pulled up the corded handset.

Red lights started to flash as Fatima raised the alarm.

“Attention! All hands, duty “Semyon”! Repeat, duty “Semyon”!

Semyon was the code phrase for the combat alert.

Fatima’s voice came out from speakers installed throughout the ship.

Fernanda and Alexandra turned sharply around from their stations in disbelief.

All around them the red lights flashed. Doors started to open throughout the ship, bleary eyed people stepping out. There were no klaxons, and she could not say too aloud the words “combat alert,” because the enemy could possibly pick out loud sound from within the Brigand and glean insight into their intentions. Instead, Fatima simply repeated, in a falsely calm voice, “Semyon!”

She could not say out loud that an Irmingard class vessel was tailing at combat speed.

Nor that it had brought company.



Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. Her head eagerly bobbing as she tried her best to please, her tongue sliding through and into her, putting courage ahead of experience, it filled Gertrude with glee. Looking down at Elena like this: it made Gertrude feel powerful.

That memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long.

It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

The Roar That Parted The Currents [1.3]

This scene contains a graphic depiction of consensual sex.

Murati wondered if she would still come tonight.

They had promised, but then–

As brief as the fight was, she had been awful to Karuniya with those few words.

At least there was electricity in the hall now.

When she got home after her meeting, and the subsequent events she wanted far, far from her mind, her hallway’s power had finally been restored. When she arrived, her synthesizer music was blaring again, barely muffled by the door. A gaggle of engineers, still working on the farther parts of her hallway, stared at her as she appeared before them, ‘the owner of the very noisy room.’

“It’s DJ Hard Roe!” She shouted at them, an attempt at humor they did not appreciate.

Everyone got back to work and Murati disappeared into her room.

First thing she did was use the panel near the door to quiet her music.

She then sank back against the closed door behind her and sighed deeply.

All the way down the door, until she was seated with her arms around her knees.

The silence in the room just made her head pound harder with shame and anxiety.

“Stupid. You’re so fucking stupid; arrogant, stuck up, bitch. Meatheaded fuck.”

All of it was meant to assail herself. She could not fault Karuniya anything now.

She pounded her fist on the door behind her.

Her alarm clock continued to count the minutes and seconds. It was 1100 hours now.

She had a full day ahead of her still.

Time kept moving. Life went on. Murati just had to deal with it.

Sighing deeply, she stood up, one hand on the door, another on the wall panel.

DJ Hard Roe’s “Abyssal Love” album then began to play once more.

There was a rich sound to it. DJ Hard Roe really took advantage of the ever-increasing sophistication of computer software to make fascinating sounds, but she wove in traditional melodies to create what she dubbed “the sound of modern sex.” Murati quietly revered her style and played her often.

It was the soundtrack to most of her days, ever since its release a year ago.

Perhaps not the sound of modern sex, for her, at least not then or most days.

To her, it was the sound of everyday life beneath the currents.

Sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. Erratic, shifting; then dramatically winding down.

Murati sighed. Life went on. When next she saw Karuniya, she would apologize.

For now, as she recognized before, she had a whole day to live, here, by herself.

Atop her nightstand she set her reading glasses. She looked in the drawer.

She then removed an injector and a bottle of medicine and set them on the nightstand too.

Her coat was still practically spotless. She put it and her pants back in the wardrobe.

She removed her full bodysuit and changed out into a two-piece swimsuit instead.

Around her room, a sporty two-piece was just the thing for Murati.

The top was sleeveless, front-zipped and cut just above the belly; and the bottom was a pair of shorts, all made of plastic and synthetic fiber. All black, and unlike the tight bodysuit it had a bit more give. This was the sort of suit you could wear comfortably around your room– though Karuniya would wear it out too. She was always a lot bolder than Murati in how she dress. She never cared what anyone thought.

Murati was boring– she usually just followed uniform policy.

Uniform policy for the military required full suits for meetings and combat alert.

“Ugh. Karuniya.”

She closed the wardrobe and pressed a button on the wall.

Had the music not been so loud, she would have heard the wardrobe spray her clothes with moisture and a cleaning solution. Then a warm mist and a strong fan would have dried them off.

Murati hovered back to the nightstand drawer.

She picked up the injector and filled it with medicine.

Gently, she ran a finger down the end of the injector. It was sharp.

With one hand she pulled her bottom down a little below the hip.

Her other hand stabbed the injector into her side and pushed down the button on the back.

She gritted her teeth. It hurt; it wasn’t supposed to, but she had made it hurt.

There was something cathartic about it. Both the self-loathing, and the hormones.

“Fuck.” She mumbled. “You just suck, Murati Nakara.”

She pulled the injector out and dropped it on the nightstand. There was a dribble of blood.

When she mastered herself and ceased to cringe at the pain, Murati tremulously opened the drawer and put the vial of medicine back inside. There was more medicine in there. A pill bottle; and a few packets of powder meant to dissolve below her tongue. She looked over the packets.

She had asked her doctor for the powder. For a special occasion she had said sheepishly.

Like the condoms also in the drawer, it was likely to now go unused.

She threw them back in the drawer and withdrew the pill bottle.

Taking two yellow pills from it, she walked over to one of the wall panels.

At the push of a button the shower opened. It was not only a shower: it was a very cramped full bathroom. To even get in she had to push the toilet down below the level of the floor with one foot, at which point it would lock in and become the vent for the dirty shower water.

She was not too tall, and she was fairly lean. Still, with the door closed, she would be packed in. Her arms at her sides, only really able to turn with some effort and reach up or down to scrub herself. She felt like a canned fish, packed in with soapy water or foamy mist. At least it was warm, but it was so tight.

There were barely centimeters of headroom at the top.

Water usage was controlled, as the machine was programmed with its weekly allotment. Though the water ration was generous, she still had to be careful not to waste it. For how cramped the place was, the shower had decent features. Foamy soap was dispensed from the sides and the roof, water could be sprayed, misted, or dispensed as a full shower, and water for drinking could be procured as well.

It was this latter function that Murati now desired.

She opened a tiny side-drawer and produced a reusable cup.

From one of the rear water sprayers she filled the cup.

She took her pills, and drank some cold, clear fortified drinking water.

Refreshed, her medical regimen taken care of, she closed the shower and sat on her bed.

“So Murati, what now?”

It was 1135 hours, and the whole day was still ahead.

Murati laid back in bed, facing the wall, and pressed her fingers on the panel.

Everything was context sensitive. In a sense, her entire wall was the control panel, and any square she touched could summon a window to operate the room. The screen was poor quality. Even the minicomputer she looked at back at the Navy HQ was easier on the eyes. Text and images were poorly rendered, so browsing BBSes on her wall was a pain. It was really only good for daily tasks and playing music. The room’s computer box was under her bed, along with her modest collection of diskettes.

There was LAN access, but for anything other than the official channels it was quite slow.

Between the clunkiness of the room computer and the power outages, she ultimately asked for and received a battery-powered alarm clock that could reliably remind her of scheduled tasks.

She wished she had loaned a minicomputer from the library.

For a moment, she switched off the music from the computer and tuned into a broadcast over the local area network. It took a moment to receive, both because establishing a LAN connection was arduous, and her computer itself was old and overburdened compared to the latest consumer-grade hardware. When the connection finally got through, and stabilized, it was rock solid, however. While the picture was terrible, even when she tried to restrict it to only occupying one wall without blending into the ceiling, the audio was pretty crisp. You could definitely rely on Union audio equipment, even if the screens still needed a lot of work. Because it was a priority stream, once connected, the broadcast was smooth.

An older man behind a desk read off the day’s announcements in a rich voice.

“–In agricultural news, Lyser’s Agricultural Institute is reporting Corn and Soybean yields are ahead of plan, with a surplus of 18% for the first growing season of 979 AD. Rather than distributing greater amounts of these products, the Union Agricultural Commissariat, in a highly criticized decision, have opted to retain the surplus to grow the strategic reserve as part of the Two-Year Famine Protection Program instituted by Premier Jayasankar. In a statement, the Commissariat spokespersons indicated that the allotments are currently ‘In a good place’ and that nutrition has been even, equitable and high quality in the Union. They urged citizens to look ahead and help the country future-proof its food supply by maintaining consumption at these levels and doing their best to work toward surpluses. Lyser has also reported a small increase in the amount of primary and substitute pollinator production–”

Murati tapped the panel to swap back to music.

Agricultural news was extremely important to the Union because it was a Plan Year.

They were supposed to look back on five-year production growth and start the next Plan.

Agriculture was not Murati’s interest or forte, however.

A few more taps, and her walls began to display moody colors for ambiance.

DJ Hard Roe returned to life with the rebellious, crackly beats of “Euphotic Hatefuck.”

Murati donned her glasses and withdrew one of her books from the pile.

“Remember to return these.” She mumbled. But she would not. Not yet anyway.

All of them had thick binding and covers. They were called “limestone paper” books but the pages were made of a complicated mineral compound, with some petrol products in there too. Wood paper was impossible to source. She could get books loaded as text files on a minicomputer, from the same library where she got the hard books. But there was something she liked about the physical books. Perhaps there were less distractions involved. Or their immediacy: turning the pages for example. Murati could not pin it down. But she would rather read about the Empire’s wars against the Republic of Alayze, on paper.

It was 1216 and she still had the whole day ahead of her.

At 1300 hours however, she was informed of a visitor at her door.

The alert appeared on the wall and muted her music.

“Lunch! Ms. Nakara, your combined lunch– would you like ‘A’ or ‘B’ today?”

“I’ll take ‘B.’ Please leave it at the door.”

Murati called out. She was not dressed modestly enough for polite company.

“Sure thing! Please pick it up while it’s still warm.”

This was the last thing the delivery boy said before the music kicked back in.

After a few moments had passed, Murati cracked open the door, slipped her arm out and pulled the lunchbox into the room. It was a white plastic case with a spork included for eating.

Inside, the box was divided into four courses.

There was a corn flatbread, a portion of pickled lettuce with an oily tomato relish, a soybean and yeast cutlet, and a runny fruit preserve. The pickles looked crisp, but the flatbread was a little stiff. The protein cutlet was slightly firm on the outside, soft inside, and coated in a bit of sweet and savory sauce, probably flavored with more yeast, corn or soy, or all three. On top of the cornbread there was a little packet of citrus powder, to be torn open, spilled into a cup and drank with water from the shower.

She wondered what was in the ‘A’ menu. She liked the cutlets, so she lucked out. 

Murati picked up her cup, mixed herself the citrus drink and with military discipline, quickly devoured her lunch. She did pause to taste the cutlet, which had a nice unctuous profile from the sweet-and-savory sauce. In a matter of minutes, she had eaten. It was filling, and the station was kind enough to home deliver the box once a day if Murati was checked into her room rather than out and about.

When she was done, she opened a slot in the wall and sent the box down a chute.

Wherever it was that they went, they would be recycled for materials, or cleaned and reused.

Murati then spent the next several hours in her books.

There was not really day or night for her. The Station environment harkened back to these strange contradictions of human life in its present state: at some point during the course of the day her lights automatically dimmed just a little, when the computer believed she should be winding down for the day. But Murati would simply raise the brightness of the room lights back. It was not “night” for her yet.

In a fit of pique, she finally got up from her bed.

Murati stepped into the shower, underwear and all.

She got a splash of water, a mist of freshener and then a warm spray to dry herself off.

Her next destination was her wardrobe.

She pushed her uniforms and wetwear aside. In one corner, she had a pair of sleek pants, dark blue with strips of translucent material below the thigh, as well as a button up synthetic white shirt with a black collar and elbow-length sleeves. Both had been acquired for a special occasion.

“Might as well not let them go to waste.”

She put the shirt on, buttoning it up to just over her breasts. She then unzipped her swimsuit top until the zip was right below the buttons: that way she exposed her collar and just the littlest bit of her chest. The pants, she wore without a belt. Everything fit perfectly; she could see her whole look for herself in the mirror in the back of the wardrobe. For once, she felt almost confident in her appearance.

Just like the models in the culture ‘zines.

She had seen the clothes on a dummy in a co-op. Murati had little sense of fashion.

But Karuniya, who had tagged along to shop, liked the look of them.

“That tall, dark soft-butch look really suits you.” Karuniya had said.

“I’m more like average and lightly toasted.” Murati had replied.

“If you really believed in yourself, you’d be so much hotter, you know?”

Murati did not exchange for the clothes right then.

She did come, sans Karuniya, the next day. And then she acquired them.

They had cost her half of her credits, but it was worth it.

Even if Karuniya was not there to see it, the clothes were amazingly comfortable.

She liked the look. Particularly the gap of brown skin at her neck and collarbone area.

While the pants really clung to her, they felt so easy to move in.

Murati did feel like a much more confident woman was staring back from the mirror.

A woman in her prime, lean with a refined expression and striking features, short and untidy black hair with a cool messiness, auburn eyes that shone with glamor, strong shoulders, long legs.

She was a complete and total specimen.

This woman could do anything.

She might even apologize to Karuniya for today.

Heaving a long sigh, Murati made for the bed and dropped herself on it.

It was 18:05 and around this time was when she had expected to have a date.

Instead, she was alone.

She hated the way that she reacted to Karuniya and she could not keep it out of her mind any longer. While she cared about her career (and who could say that this opportunity would not advance it?) she knew from the bottom of her heart that she cared about Karuniya too. And even if they never dated again as romantic partners, she would absolutely hate losing her dearest friend in the station.

“I should go talk to her.”

Her legs wouldn’t move. There was still an unearned sense of stupid pride in her.

She sighed again. She almost considered turning down the synths. The throbbing, sensual sounds of “Two Dolphins Meet Far Away From Home” were starting to compound the difficulty she had coming to any decision or making herself accept anything that had happened. On most days, the soundscape helped her to focus and drown out distraction. Today, everything was a mess.

Her legs still wouldn’t move. “God damn it, what am I doing?” She shouted.

That particular decision, at least, would be taken out of her hands.

Her music paused again by itself, mid-shout.

Murati sat up suddenly.

There was a notification on the wall. Someone was knocking on the door.

Because this was someone authorized to the room computer, an ID image was shown.

Shoulder-length hair, bright eyes, olive skin. An innocent smile.

She had taken this picture at the Academy, with her hair dyed green.

“I brought a peace offering.”

Karuniya called from the other side of the door.

Murati was still as hesitant as before to speak. To own up; to apologize.

Nevertheless, she found herself quietly opening the door.

“I know you’re annoyed with me.” Her partner said.

Karuniya walked in with a confident strut. She knew what she was doing.

She had a bottle in hand and a smile on her softly painted lips.

Like Murati, she had also dressed up for the date night they had promised to have.

“I’m not annoyed with you.” Murati said, trying not to stare too much.

How could anyone be annoyed with someone who looked like that?

Karuniya had also changed out of her full suit in something exquisite. To this “date” she wore a light-blue one-piece, front-zipped, with a high leg-line and exposed shoulders. Over it she wore an off-shoulder crop top with long, translucent sleeves, all yellow, buttoned just over her breasts, along with a skirt and stockings of a similar color and make. The skirt had a gap around the hips to expose skin.

Those materials had to be synthetic and petroleum products. There wasn’t a cotton shirt in sight in Thassal, or much of the Union. It was too expensive, the growing space at too much of a premium. And yet, the make was so state-of-the-art, so fashionable, Murati almost mistook it for organic clothes.

Murati always found her face radiant; but she had made herself up a bit more.

Her hair had a glittery sheen, still hanging behind her back but brushed with a little more care. Her lips were painted just slightly reddish pink. Her cheeks glittered, flushed slightly pink with a hint of makeup powder. She must have been saving this stuff — it was all amazing. Murati was transfixed with Karuniya as she moved past her to set the bottle down on the nightstand. She looked jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

“I always thought it was really hardcore how you injected it.”

While Murati was busy staring at Karuniya, the scientist had been dissecting the room. Her eyes had settled on the injector and medicine bottle that was left discarded on the nightstand.

She just barely mastered herself in time to respond with intellect over libido.

“Injections have higher doses than pills. You take them less often.”

“You already take like two pills for other stuff, so do you actually gain any time?”

She had a point, but Murati did not invite her over for health coaching.

In fact, she had been reasonably certain the invitation would be off, after what happened.

“Want a drink? We’ll have to pass around your cup.” Karuniya said.

Murati felt that Karuniya was pointedly avoiding discussing the events from earlier.

She decided to play along. If she was honest with herself, she was happy to see Karuniya.

And that was a response, she assured herself, made with intellect over libido.

“I can’t well turn it down if you went out of your way to get it.” She said.

Karuniya’s bottle contained a sweetened and watered-down corn liquor.

They twisted off the cap and poured themselves a cup of the clear brown drink. They sat on the bedside and took turns drinking. Lyser corn wine was a special drink: there was a process to it. Most people would have just gotten a drink of raw corn alcohol and watered it down if they wanted to get drunk. Corn wine was an experience. Of the milieu of flavors, the taste of sweet corn was strongest. Corn wine lived up to its name. Each sip was frothy and slick, coating the tongue. Then followed the sting of the liquor, and the warming sensation as it flowed down the throat. For how cheap it was, it felt luxurious.

“This is pretty good.” Murati said. She gently tilted the cup, sloshing the liquor.

“Lyser had a good crop this year! Whatever year this was.” Karuniya said.

She lifted the cup as if to toast and took a sip.

“Year XXX, a good vintage.” Murati joked. Karuniya even laughed at it.

“I’m hungry. Let’s get something! We can pool our credits together if we need to.”

Karuniya put down the bottle on the nightstand. Any wall in the room, save for the sliding doors for the shower and other utilities which had their own controls there, could become a portal for the room computer. Over the nightstand, she put in a request for the food administration page.

Murati, still playing along nonchalantly, simply watched.

A grainy window appeared a few minutes later. Communicating with the wider community of the Station through the LAN was not instantaneous. Broadcasts had bandwidth priority and messages were slow. Eventually their patience was rewarded with the room service page for buying extra rations.

“A menu or B menu?” Karuniya asked. Murati simply shrugged.

Like magic, a few minutes later, there were a few knocks on the door.

Once the delivery was made, Murati simply picked up the food at her doorstep.

Dinner was similar to lunch, with the addition of a soup cup and pickled eggs. There was a potato salad, bread, and a savory protein cutlet, likely soy and specially bred yeast. There was a fruit compote.

The two of them sat on the floor with their backs to the bedframe.

“Not exactly a candle-lit co-op table date.” Murati sighed.

“What is a date, but the two people who are together?”

Karuniya sidled up to her on the bed and linked their arms together, holding Murati’s hand.

There was a sweet scent wafting up from her that reminded Murati of the botanical garden. Flowers; barely seen outside of a lab or a recreational park in the Union. But their scent was still there. Had Karuniya gone to visit the garden? Did she shed tears under the heavy scent of the plants?

That image was just too painful for Murati to keep ignoring.

“I’m sorry.” Murati said.

“I’m sorry too.” Karuniya said. She held up a finger to Murati’s lips before she could tell her that there was nothing for her to apologize for. She knew Murati too well. “No, Murati, I was presumptuous. We’re not kids doing group projects anymore. We have to think about our careers. I should have asked you and realized your feelings. I’m taking responsibility for this too. If you want out–”

“I don’t!” Murati said, gently guiding Karuniya’s finger off her lips. “I want to do this. A ship is a ship; a mission is a mission. I’m going to learn new things and see new sights, with you.”

Karuniya was surprised. Murati even surprised herself, with the forcefulness of her words.

She had only given it an inkling of thought throughout the day. Now that she had put it into words and advocated it to herself from a broader view, she actually felt a little excited. After all, she had been afraid of leaving Karuniya forever, or vice versa. Now they had their own ship.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Determination clearly shone in Murati’s face. Karuniya’s posture softened.

“Let’s toast to it then!” She said.

“How?” Murati asked. “We’ve only got one cup.”

“I can think of a way.”

Karuniya lifted the cup for a toast, took a drink, and pulled Murati into a kiss.

Sweet corn, stinging alcohol and a warm tongue stole through her unguarded lips.

“Toast!”

Pulling back, Karuniya giggled. Murati, her heart beating quickly, suppressed a laugh.

“You’re always up to something.” She said. “You’ve got an evil genius to you.”

“You’re right. I’m most definitely an evil genius. But at least I’m not a troublemaker.”

She dipped her flatbread in the soup and took a dramatic bite from it, winking.

“What was that?” Murati laughed. “What was that gesture even supposed to mean?”

“Eat up before it gets colder.”

Teasing her, Murati picked up her own flatbread and made an exaggerated wink.

Karuniya stuck out her tongue.

After their romantic dinner, the pair resumed their casual drinking. Karuniya inspected Murati’s general messiness. She had no room to talk however. Having been over at her place before Murati knew intimately that she had a book pile just like her own, just with different contents.

However, rather than her evil genius, Karuniya had genuine curiosity.

She picked a book off the pile, on the development of Imperial fleet tactics.

“This is just like you.”

Karuniya smiled fondly at the book. “It’s like holding a tiny little piece of you.”

Opening up the pages, she flipped through various wordy descriptions and diagrams.

“Do they still operate like this? This book is a hundred years old.”

“It serves as a foundation.” Murati said.

“You really think about this stuff all the time.” Karuniya said. “I signed up at the academy because the military has a monopoly on science here in the Union. So, I guess I’m sort of a soldier too. I just do not have as much of a concentration in the operational art. Do you think that’s a weakness?”

“No, I mean, when we go to war you will perform science-y roles still.”

Murati had said that with such confidence that Karuniya stared at her in silence.

After a pause, she asked, “You think we’re going to war?”

“Eventually we must. I mean, you know, the contradictions and all that–”

“I read Mordecai too you know. But does that actually mean war?”

“It will eventually. The Empire in the long term, needs our resources against the Republic.”

Karuniya laid back against the pile of books, looking up at the ceiling.

“Wow. I guess I never thought about it like that. I feel like– well, like a liberal. I guess.”

“I forgive you.” Murati teased her. “Besides, you have all kinds of incredible knowledge I don’t have. I can’t predict currents worth a damn; I don’t get biomass concentration. I’d need you.”

Karuniya stood up from the floor. Her expression changed suddenly.

“Murati, listen to me. I made a decision today.”

Facing Murati, she extended a hand to her. Murati took it and stood with her.

“I want us to be together. I never want to lose you. Both of us have lost enough already.”

Her other hand she stretched to the wall.

Without looking, she input a command to Murati’s room computer. For people who got used to room computers, it was not hard to work the inputs while looking away, or even to type on the wall with a completely absent mind. The whole time she typed, Karuniya had the most intense lock on Murati’s eyes. Murati felt a sensation come up from her core, a growing desire.

As the lights dimmed, those emerald eyes grew fiery, passionate.

Her soft hand tightened its grip on Murati’s.

There was a notification. Karuniya had recorded herself in the room log.

“I’m staying the night. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I kinda missed sleeping over.”

She walked around Murati, hand in hand, never breaking eye contact. She sat on the bed.

Heaving a contented sigh, she tugged at the neck of her suit.

“Do you want to hold on to me? Even if you don’t– will you indulge me?” She asked.

A zipper pulled down; a button popped.

Karuniya beamed with anticipation. Her breasts were half-exposed.

Murati did not need any further hints and did not respond with her voice.

She took Karuniya by the shoulders and practically pounced on her.

Silent, confident, her body communicated the desire she had and her total acquiescence.

There was barely room on the bed for them to lay together — except with one on top.

Karuniya locked eyes with an expression that was ravishing in its confidence.

As the tallest of the two Murati gently tipped her head down to her.

Their lips joined. First the kisses were brief, between intermittent, warm gasps.

Laid down against the bed, Karuniya embraced Murati, and pushed herself up.

When their lips next met, they locked tight, savoring one another, breathless.

Murati’s fingers glided across Karuniya’s belly, relishing the soft contours of her skin, the tiny twitches of motion from her body as she reacted to the strong, firm touch. Her long fingers traced Karuniya’s belly, to her hip, and down to her thigh. Pressing between her legs, she reached under the wetsuit.

Her lips brushed past Karuniya’s cheek.

Ever so slightly, they spread for a gentle nip at the warm, pliable flesh of her earlobe.

“Oh! Murati–!”

Exploring further, Murati felt a rising pulse as she sucked on her lover’s neck.

Mumbling little cries escaped Karuniya in fits and starts. She closed her eyes and dug in her fingers. Her legs pressed against Murati and kicked, thighs rubbing, toes curling with pleasure.

“Murati, this–”

Her moaning grew louder, incoherent. Her cries shuddered with her whole body.

Briefly lifting her other hand, Murati tinkered with the wall panel as Karuniya tittered.

Synthesizer music filled the room. Karuniya bucked her hips, nearly jumping.

Both from pleasure and incredulous surprise.

“What the–! You’re ruining– hngh!”

Karuniya’s complaints were interrupted by a cute little moan as Murati found a sweet spot.

Those fingers which were occupied within Karuniya had taken no pause.

With the music blaring, they found a pleasant new rhythm.

“It’s your modesty that I’m protecting.” Murati said into her ears.

“Oh shut– ohh!”

In lieu of shutting up, Murati drew closer again to Karuniya.

Karuniya’s back arched, and she drew forward, seizing Murati and pulling her deeper.

All of the playful sounds escaping Karuniya’s lips were masked by the synths.

Only Murati could delight in them, as close as she was, tasting them in her breath.

“What a noisy girl.” She teased.

“That’s– you–”

Karuniya tugged at Murati’s dress shirt, undoing the buttons and slicing down the zipper to start undressing her. She squeezed the pliable material of the suit, gritting her teeth. Her whole body shuddered from Murati’s attentions. With effort, she pulled the suit and shirt off Murati’s shoulders and down against her arms, exposing her sweat-soaked, heaving chest.

Her hands went from the suit down to Murati’s breasts, digging her fingers into the skin.

Responding to her lover’s feverish grip on her chest, Murati pushed her fingers in deeper and faster.

Playing Karuniya’s throbbing clit like the strings backing the current track.

Karuniya tensed, her back arched. Suddenly overwhelmed in climax, she jumped forward.

Perhaps she had intended to embrace. Instead Murati knocked heads with her.

From the sound system, a much quieter, less intense track suddenly began to play.

“Fuck–” Karuniya began through gasping breaths. “–Goodbye, mood!”

Clinging together, near totally naked, they burst suddenly into laughter.

Murati was so taken in with Karuniya. She was positively glowing. She was so beautiful.

“I love you, Karu.” Murati said. “I love you so much. Let’s stay just like this.”

She squeezed her lover tightly. For a moment they held one another, neither moving from the spot. Everything felt light and warm and fun. Comforting. They laughed a little more together.

Karuniya recovered her breath. Suddenly, she reached down to Murati’s pants.

“I love you too, Murati. But listen it’s neither fair nor hot if only I have fun.”

Her fingers sent a thrill, longing and anticipation cascading across Murati’s entire body.

“I’m having fun.” She replied, gently holding on to Karuniya’s waist.

“Yeah, yeah; enough of the strong, reserved service top stuff, just come here.”

From the nightstand, Karuniya coyly withdrew a pair of foil packets.

One was full of powder. She tipped the contents into Murati’s mouth to dissolve quickly.

A second packet contained a condom.

Karuniya teasingly reached between Murati’s legs and laid a hand there. First to slide the condom down Murati’s shaft; then just to squeeze. Between her grip and the medicine, Murati felt a powerful rush of blood. It was impossible to maintain her strong, reserved persona then. She cried in a deep, lustful voice.

Stroking faster, Karuniya brought her other arm around Murati’s neck. She kissed her, briefly — then pushed her down onto the bed, crawled on her, her hands supporting her weight on Murati’s chest.

Her lover rising and falling over her, with the music slow and the lights dimming, their eyes locked together with growing intensity even as their bodies quaked together with intoxicating pleasure–

Murati almost felt as if time had stopped. As if she was in a sublime dream.

Karuniya’s weight and warmth on her body did make Murati shout.

Both of them shouted.

Heads swimming, heartbeats pulsing from one to the other as if one flesh. Diving deep beneath the surface of each other’s bodies, touching everything, tasting everything, holding back nothing. Holding hands adrift in the currents of their pleasure, the two of them lost the time.

They were taken by a raw desperation. Sex was nothing new, but that night was different.

Between the first kiss and the last orgasm, the world changed. They felt it in on their skin.


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