The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.5]

In the Mahdist village at the far end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk, the flag of NGO “Kamma” waved over the little motorized drone accompanying an elven visitor.

She appeared suddenly, and she caught everyone’s attention immediately. Homa stood back while the villagers crowded around the woman and her pack drone with a great and inexplicable cheer. Baran moved to the head of the little crowd alongside Sareh, both looking eager to meet the visitor as well. Despite the crowd forming around her, the elf took every hand that was offered with a smile, everyone was friendly to her.

“Greetings, greetings! I’m glad to see you all well! I’ve brought goodies!”

With a wave of her hand, the elven woman commanded her drone to open up its cargo.

Inside the drone were several bottles of a white fluid with colorful flecks, that according to the label was a doogh with rose petals– a fermented milk drink popularized by Shimii culture. Alongside the bottles of doogh were vacuum-sealed round filets of beef without any labels or even nutritional information except for a packing date. Homa’s eyes fixed on them from afar as if she could eat them with sight alone. They were not the best cuts; almost no fat and with meat fibers that would be visible across the Wohnbezirk. These were probably tough, cheap meats, but with a good, long cook, they would be mouth-wateringly delicious.

“Mashallah! Conny, thank you!” Baran said, beholding the gifts with a sunny expression.

“Don’t mention it!” replied the elf, Conny, “I heard that you would actually be holding the Tishtar festival this year again. I knew I had to make time to help in any way I could!”

Baran turned from Conny and scanned the crowd briefly, before finding Homa.

She waved for Homa to come closer. Homa hesitated, despite Baran’s excitement.

At Homa’s side, Kalika gently shoved her on the middle-back, urging her to step forward.

Homa reticently advanced through the crowd until she was face to face with Conny.

“Homa, this is Conny Lettiere! She’s helped us out a lot over the years!” Baran said. She waved her hand from Homa to Conny. “Conny, this is Homa, she is a special guest of the village! She’s a very generous and courteous traveler in search of her roots!”

Immediately Homa had a series of conflicting thoughts.

Special guest?! She felt entirely out of place being anyone’s special anything.

Though she would not complain, if it meant a place of honor (and meat) at the festival.

Lettiere?! Wasn’t that the surname of the loud elf student who was always in the cafeteria on the communist ship? Were they family? Did all elves know each other? Not that this was any of her concern, but it still piqued her interest in that brief moment.

She had met very few elves in her life and they felt– exotic.

“Nice to meet you.” Homa said, awkwardly reaching out her hand.

“Pleasure is all mine! Thank you for lending these folks a hand!” Conny replied, taking it.

They had a quick and courteous handshake. Conny pointed over Homa’s shoulder.

She lowered her voice to just above a whisper as if not to draw attention.

“Then, I take it that the lady in the splendid coat, whom I don’t recognize, is with you?”

Homa looked over her own shoulder, saw Kalika, felt foolish for looking, and looked back.

“Yes, I hired her– you know, it’s dangerous in the Imbrium lately.” Homa said.

Conny smiled and nodded. If she was thinking of anything dire, it was not evident.

With the pleasantries taken care of, Baran urged everybody to return to what they were doing and led Conny to her house, where they had an electric plug that they could hook the drone up to so it could continue to chill the food until the festival, in a few days time. While Baran and Sareh took Conny, Homa returned to Kalika’s side with a glum face.

“Look at you, so gloomy! You’re getting a whole feast of meat! Perk up!” Kalika said.

“I’m not like, a little animal that just gets happy at feeding time.” Homa grumbled.

“Of course. Just– bear with this for a bit longer, Homa. You’re doing great.” Kalika said.

She patted Homa on the shoulder, and Homa hated how much she enjoyed the praise.

Maybe she was a little animal chirping for food– in this case, for Kalika’s attention.

While the village leadership welcomed Conny, Kalika and Homa hung around outside of the village gate. Kalika had just put out a call to the Volksarmee, summoning someone to repair the village’s oxygen system. Most of the troops had been given their own missions, just the same as Homa and Kalika. But they could spare Chloe Kuri, who was allegedly pretty handy with machines and was already out and about and could make a stop at the village.

“Chloe is always running around. You can count on her to show up anywhere needed.”

“I thought we would be getting one of the engineers. Can she really fix that thing?”

“She’s a reliable jack-of-many-trades. Anyway– who was that woman?” Kalika asked.

Clearly switching gears on Homa– not that Homa minded or could say anything about it.

“Apparently she’s ‘Conny Lettiere’, an NGO worker. Friendly with Baran.” Homa said.

“‘Lettiere’ huh?” Kalika said. “The Pandora’s Box has a guest with that surname.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen her in the cafeteria. She’s always talking about random things she learned from communist textbooks. She’s an elf too. They might be related.” Homa said. “Maybe our elf can come to an agreement with their elf for a supply of meat.” She added as a joke.

“Homa, don’t call them ‘our elf’ and ‘their elf’.” Kalika said, patting Homa on the head.

“Hey, I was just kidding– and leave my ears alone.” Homa grumbled.

She made no move to resist the continued petting. Not even the feeblest resistance.

When she was satisfied, Kalika lifted her hand from the fluffy ears with a contented sigh.

“Kalika, what is ‘Kamma’? Do you know? You’re better traveled than me.” Homa asked.

“They are an organization funded by donations. They distribute free food to poor folks.”

“With how Baran talked about them I thought they would be like you all.”

Homa pressed Kalika for more details since she had never seen Kamma around Kreuzung.

Since they still had time before Chloe arrived at the Wohnbezirk, Kalika continued.

Kamma was a non-governmental organization that was established by former legislators from local but well-funded Liberal parties– because of this, Kamma and the All-Rhinea Liberals could never escape undue association with one another. All Kamma did was buy whatever was cheap or even unwanted, leveraging bulk purchasing of goods directly from suppliers or from distributors about to either slash the prices of or liquidate certain items. Then they would cook soups or hand out cans and frozen foods. It was that simple, but even that was controversial, and led to conspiracires and witch hunts. There were allegations that the Liberals employed Kamma for various criminal activities, anything from vote buying to ballot fraud to trafficking children. Alongside the political ascension of the Volkisch, Kamma began to draw less attention to itself, to avoid being used as a political cudgel.

Such things were pointless now that the Volkisch had fully ascended, of course.

“You have to understand Homa, public feeding of the poor is a compassionate act to us because we are compassionate people. There are a lot of people in the Imbrium, both ordinary and powerful, who would rather the poor and homeless receive no help and disappear. They are seen as a problem. Their continued existence takes up space. It is inconvenient that Kamma helps them to live.” Kalika said. “Kamma is actively banned from public feeding in a few different stations, Kreuzung being one of these.”

Homa’s ears folded. “That’s horrible.” She said, and it was all she could say in response.

Her mind flashed all of the different times she had been struggling with food recently.

Those last awful days in Kreuzung where it was a battle to get even a bit of meat.

Had the situation dragged any farther, she might have struggled to get any food at all.

She thought of all the ways that powerful people engineered that entire situation.

From the prices to the supply, to just not allowing people like Kamma to help anyone.

They wanted it that way– they wanted Homa to struggle and even starve.

In contrast, she recalled her recent stay on the Brigand– where she just ate for free.

And where, even at her most useless and difficult, nobody would allow her to go hungry.

“I guess that’s why Baran is not surprised to see communists.” Homa mumbled.

“That girl is a lot more learned than she seems. She is being discrete with us– I bet she knows more than she lets on.” Kalika said. “Don’t judge her by outward appearances, Homa. Mahdist religious schools teach history, rhetoric and logic, not just scripture. Not only that, but the Mahdists in the Imbrium have a history of political struggle. It’s likely she’s developed an understanding of the ideologies and situation of the Imbrium of her own accord.”

Homa did not recall receiving any religious schooling herself– her upbringing that she could remember was rather Imbrian, thanks to Leija’s investments in her education. So she could not have known what Baran did or did not learn in the little village madrasah they must have ran out of the masjid. But she also wondered whether Kalika thought of her as a Rashidun Shimii, and a part of her did not like the idea of being judged that way. Nevertheless, she kept quiet– she did not know what she wanted to or could even say about that.

Her feelings were too conflicted to assert a stable position any which way.

It was impossible to say ‘I am not a Rashidun’– because she also wasn’t a Mahdist either.

She was nothing, no one– a configuration of parts uselessly novel to the mean.

Whoever heard of a half-Shimii, half-Imbrian; who hardly even knew her own religion.

“Oh dear, you went silent on me again.” Kalika said. “Jerky for your thoughts?”

From her jacket, Kalika withdrew a small, foil-wrapped piece, a meat snack.

Volwitz-branded, salt and pepper flavored. A little cylinder of cured processed beef.

“Kalika, I said I’m not a little animal who responds instantly to food.” Homa grumbled.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to cheer you up.” Kalika said.

“No– I’m not mad. Sorry. I’m just being difficult.” Homa said. She averted her gaze.

Feeling suddenly pathetic at how quickly she snapped at Kalika, practically her only friend.

Kalika handed Homa the meat snack with a smile. Homa accepted it with some hesitation.

“Where did you get this, anyway? It’s Volwitz grocery store junk food.” Homa said.

“Sareh gave me a few pieces before the Kamma lady arrived.” Kalika said. “She wanted to show her appreciation for us saving Baran from those thugs. I told her we did not need any rewards other than the things that we already agreed upon, but she was so stubborn about repaying me. Instead of arguing I just accepted her gift to absolve her of her debt.”

Homa held the bit of meat between her fingers, turning it over. Feeling– pathetic.

“Must have reminded you of somebody.” Homa grumbled, thoughtlessly.

“The real Kalika is much less judgmental than the Kalika in your mind.” Kalika said.

She smiled and poked Homa in the cheek playfully as if to diffuse any tension.

Homa thought of apologizing for being so quick to misread her– but held her silence.

Slowly, she unwrapped the meat snack and raised it to her lips.

Taking a bite, breaking the processed, molded meat into chewy strands. Releasing salty-sweet flavor that made the insides of her cheeks tingle and contract.

It was tasty.

It was not what she wanted, but it was tasty and meaty and provided a momentary comfort, and she silently thanked Kalika for the offer. That thanks would remain silent, however– there was a silly, petty little pride in her that refused to air this childish gratitude.

She wished dearly that she would never have to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘thank you’ again.

And even more she wished she could say such things without feeling so stupid.

On and on turned the maelstrom of feeling and desire in her chest and gut.

Not knowing what she was anymore, where she was situated, what she even wanted.

Thankfully she would not remain in such a suspended state for long.

Two hooded figures came into view, prompting Kalika to step forward from the gate.

One a short and cute-looking Katarran and the other a slim and pretty young elf.

Chloe Kuri and Elena Lettiere from the Nationale Volksarmee, carrying a few plastic bags.

“Oh, I did not know we would have another visitor.” Kalika said, smiling at Elena.

“I was– showing her around some places.” Chloe said, gesturing toward Elena.

“Yes, I insisted upon her, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll stay out of your way.” Elena said.

“It’s not a problem. There’s not much to be in the way of.” Kalika said. “We’ll introduce you to the village and you can savor some of the local color while Chloe works. I’m sure they’ll love you. Just don’t expect a lot in the way of amenities– and remember to mind what you say.”

There was a bit of sharpness to Kalika’s voice near the end. A warning.

Elena nodded. She looked at Homa and smiled.

That sunny, care-free demeanor kind of reminded Homa of Baran too.

“You’re Homa Baumann right?” Elena said.

“Homa Messhud, here.” Homa said, trying to contain her sudden irritation as she spoke.

“Oh, sorry! Right, cover identities.” Elena said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

There was a voice in Homa’s head calling her a bimbo– but it was unkind and unearned.

It was not like Homa herself had proven a mastermind infiltrator either.

“Maybe you should let Kalika do the talking.” Chloe said. “She’s good at that.”

Elena looked embarrassed but smiled and nodded her deference.

Kalika looked more amused than bothered by the whole scene.

She led through the gate, taking one of the bags from Elena and leaving the rest with Chloe.

In the village, things had settled back down and there was no longer a huge crowd.

The villagers went back to what they were doing. It was a bit noisy in the street, with children playing a boisterous game of tag and some of the women congregating in the town’s bakery singing and joking around by the windows. Sareh, Imam al-Qoms, and a few of the bigger middle-aged women in hijab had assembled on the stage were the taiza structure had once stood. They cleaned up, arranging the pieces that remained. Teenage girls approached the stage, bringing tools and a handful of containers, probably fixing gel.

Baran sat on the porch of the hair-dresser’s place along with Conny, trying to talk above the level of the noise, probably catching up with the friend-of-the-village. That little salon was one of the most prominent plastic buildings on the main street of the village and had a long front, hosting many people. Baran had her walking stick on her lap, and a piece of bread in hand. She waved when she saw Homa and Kalika, all smiles. Kalika nodded her head toward her and led the party to the salon. She gestured toward Elena and Chloe.

“Baran, and Ms. Lettiere, these are companions of ours who have come to help with the oxygen generator problem, just as we promised before.” Kalika said. Upon giving that introduction, Elena immediately stared at her, and at Conny, and looked a bit lost for words. Thankfully, she was not the one talking. “This is Elena Rossi.” Kalika put a hand on Elena’s shoulder and squeezed gently. Elena stiffly nodded, playing along. “And this little fish is Chloe Kuri, who will take the lead on the repairs. We hope to done by tonight.”

“Pleased to meet you!” Baran said. “I can’t thank you enough for your help!”

Conny looked at Elena for a moment while Baran spoke.

She then reached out a hand to her with a big grin on her face.

Buongiorno, paesan!” She called out with a sudden cheer.

Elena quietly returned the handshake, visibly going cold.

Homa so rarely heard any elvish spoken, but that was definitely elvish Conny spoke.

There was a pizzeria in Kreuzung Homa indulged in whenever she earned the rare bonus at work. Big beautiful pies with seasoned crusts, bright marinara and velvety cheese. The management played up that it was authentic elvish cuisine, and that the chef was an elf, bright-eyed, pale-skinned, with green hair and sharp ears– but of course, the chef was just in the marketing graphics, and Homa never once actually saw her. Everything else was just music and green-and-red flags and elvish herbs on the pies. That was the greatest extent to which Homa was exposed to the exotic and passionate culture of the elves.

Perhaps this was also the case with Elena, who clearly did not understand High Elvish.

Not even that stereotypical phrase that Homa heard at the pizza restaurant every time.

Homa began to feel some compassion for her, watching her suddenly blanching.

“May I have the pleasure of an introduction? I was busy making a call before.”

Kalika also reached out a hand to Conny and addressed her. Conny shook with her.

“Concetta Lettiere, call me Conny. I’m the Chief of Field Operations with Kamma, an NGO that gives out food to the needy.” Conny said. Kalika made no reaction upon hearing, neither the name nor the title, but Conny seemed to leave just a bit of space for silence, as if fishing for one. She then continued to speak. “But I’m not here on an errand for Kamma, at least not officially– if I was I would have brought a crate of cans instead.” Conny smiled. “I’ve come and gone from this village before and befriended the locals. I really love the culture here.”

“It is very hospitable.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia– just an honorable mercenary.”

She winked and laid her hand on Homa’s shoulder as if to appear chummy.

Homa, with the aim of also looking chummy, laid her own hand atop Kalika’s–

And it was her metallic hand, so it was gloved, and neither warm nor soft to hold at all.

So much for even that briefest of fancies. Homa’s ears briefly folded.

Piacere, straniera. I’m so grateful you could help these folks out.” Conny said.

Comparing their elf, with her elf, Homa could see the resemblances in certain places. Conny’s hair, blue and twin-tailed, had a truly outlandish sheen, and when she did not dye it black to hide its luster, Elena’s hair was similar in its bright purple color. Both of them were slim women with gentle curves, though Conny was even shorter than Elena was. Though they both had ears situated in the same place as an Imbrian, rather than a Loup or Shimii’s raised ears, elven ears were longer and pointed. Elena’s had a slight curve to them still. Conny’s ears were longer and sharper, terminating at an angle rather than curving off.

Both of them were very pretty and had a certain timelessly girlish appearance. Their soft and gentle facial features and the shapes of their faces were almost a dead-on match. Their noses had a similar length and narrowness and Elena’s indigo eyes matched the size and shape of Conny’s green eyes, and the colors of both were similarly intense. Conny’s skin was a bit paler than Elena, who had a touch more pink on her face and hands.

Elena was usually modest, wearing her uniform and traveling clothes– meanwhile, Conny had an outlandish tasseled bra top and bell-bottoms that she only barely covered up with a white blazer jacket. That boldness was also readable in how she carried herself. Always smiling, with her head high, making direct eye contact with whoever she spoke to. Her stride was easy and confident, and she never stumbled over her words.

In that sense Elena was nothing like her– but Homa suspected they were indeed related.

Homa did not miss how awkward Elena immediately became when she heard Ms. Lettiere.

Kalika had a good eye for problems– she subtly clued Elena into what was happening and introduced her under an assumed name before Elena could possibly put her foot in her mouth. They avoided exposing Elena to any unwanted attention from Conny and Baran that way, even though Elena’s body language had been completely shaken. Homa made a note of that trick for later. In case her spy career continued to take off after this trip.

Her career as a busybody continued unabated, however.

She was very curious whether Conny had any inkling about Elena.

“Baran, I’ll take Chloe and get started on the oxygen machine. Before the air here gets any thinner.” Kalika said. “If I can ask for a favor, can you perhaps treat Homa and Elena?”

Homa would have shot Kalika a look, and wanted to raise up a fuss– but did not.

Mustering a titanic effort not to speak her mind and say something difficult.

Though she disliked how often Kalika parted from her she was curious about Conny.

“Absolutely! I’d love to have them. We can talk more over some breakfast.” Baran said.

“Homa and I will cover anything for you.” Kalika said.

She knew that just meant the communists would cover it– but it still gave her a bit of fright.

Playing the part of a generous and well-funded traveler did not suit her penniless self well.

Nevertheless Homa continued to act the best she could by keeping completely quiet.

“Don’t worry about that! We’ll be getting some more food in soon.” Baran said.

“Oh, is that so?” Conny interjected. “Do you bring it in from the Volwitz subsidiary?”

“Right, the councilwoman, Ms. Jašarević, helped us set up a weekly delivery.” Baran said.

“The councilwoman, huh,” Conny said, her eyes briefly wandering toward the gate.

“There’s a couple families that make good money outside, so they help pay for it too.”

“I do know about the remittances.” Conny said. “I’m glad you have some means here.”

Baran looked a little proud of herself. Homa felt a fresh sting of pity for the village.

Elena, meanwhile, remained tongue-tied as before but nodded her head rapidly in response.

Kalika and Chloe bid their temporary farewells and then headed for the rough, rocky areas surrounding the village, where they would work on the oxygen generator. Kalika left one of the bags that Elena and Chloe had brought in as part of her contributions to Baran’s household. When Baran unwrapped the bag, and took a look inside, she gasped, took another look, and alternated between grumbling a bit and smiling. Homa took a step forward and looked inside the bag as well, wondering what drew such a reaction.

Inside the bag, were cans of tomatoes, a jar of eggs, and jarred sweet and hot peppers.

There was enough for a big breakfast or lunch but not much more than that.

“She did not have to do this.” Baran said. “But I’ll repay her by feeding all of you.”

“Ah– you don’t really have to repay anything, it’s really fine.” Homa said.

“Then I will treat these gifts with respect by making a delicious meal.”

Baran took her walking stick and leaned on it to stand from the porch, wincing with pain from her injuries. Homa offered to take the bag, but Baran insisted on carrying it herself. She lead the way from the salon, behind the masjid, and to her own house.

While they walked, Elena looked around the village with wonder and a clear, growing concern for her surroundings. Homa thought she must have looked the same yesterday as Elena did now, seeing the humble old plastic houses, the rocky terrain, the poor lighting and limited electrification and breathing the slowly worsening air. Life was colorful in this hospitable village certainly– but it wasn’t easy, and anyone could see that.

Conny must have been used to it. Her little grin never vanished from her face for an instant.

“Welcome to my humble abode! Make yourselves at home.” Baran declared.

Through the blue and green curtain-door into Baran’s house, greeted by the little table and chair and the accompanying kitchen accoutrements as Homa had last seen them. This morning there was a bit of fragrance in the air. A lavender-scented smokeless aroma-pod, Raylight Beauty brand, had been set on Baran’s window, perhaps to help her relax after the past day’s ordeals, where the village had been attacked and Baran herself stricken.

Baran bid everyone to sit, and then declared that she would work on the meal alone.

Taking one of the chairs, Homa watched her cook.

It reminded her of her own apartment back in Kreuzung. All Baran had to cook with was an electric pot and a small water kettle, but she was not deterred in the slightest.

First, she took the tomato cans from the bag. They had tabs that allowed her to open them without tools. Once opened, she dropped the tomatoes into the pot. Without skipping a beat, as if a practiced motion, Baran broke off the top of one of the cans. She used the can top to crush the tomatoes. Careful, sliding motions of her hands– Homa was not standing but could picture in her mind that the tomatoes were crushed to a thick but wet consistency. She already knew the sort of dish those ingredients and methods would yield. Once the tomatoes were crushed up, Baran placed the empty can in a bin nearby but kept the lid in hand. She then took the jar of peppers and twisted the top open without struggle.

Silently, Baran picked a pepper out of the jar. She looked at it, turned it over in her hand.

Taking it into her fingers, she took a bite. Nodding to herself, she dropped it into the pot.

A second and a third pepper each received a bite; a fourth caused Baran to shut her eyes.

That one, too, went into the pot with the tomatoes.

Turning the can top sideways, Baran used it to cut and scrape and mash the peppers.

Homa felt a bit of awe watching Baran cook. She must have done this a million times.

No tools in reach but the top of a metal can and the pot to heat it all in.

She looked almost entranced as she cooked. Tail swaying, hands dancing.

There was a smile on her face, an automatic one arising as if from meditation. It was not the sunny, cheerful, girlish look that she directed toward villagers, guests and strangers. It was a gentle and slightly tired look that struck Homa as more mature, as revealing of more experience than Homa had thought. Watching Baran cook seemed to expose a notion of time– the sense that she must have lived like this for long enough to not only become comfortable with it but to have mastered it as technique. She was young and she looked young, she was just Homa’s age, but her expression as she cooked, reminded Homa of something, a face of a woman that she could not place. Someone with a family and a home and a place in the world. Someone with responsibilities to uphold, people to care for.

Motherhood, maybe? Whatever it was, the image came and went as rapidly as the thin air.

With the tomatoes and peppers cut up, Baran knelt down.

Wincing visibly as she tried to access the small refrigerator on which her pot sat.

Baran had been attacked the night before by the thugs that tore down the village’s taiza monument. They had hurt her leg, but despite the pain she was in, she did not ask for help nor stop what she was doing. She barely slowed down– physically and emotionally. How must she have felt about such a horrible thing? Despite frequent evidence of her pain, it seemed she would not allow it to trouble her. Baran moved as if not entirely conscious of her pain. Barely acknowledging it before initiating the next elegant movement of her body that would also, inevitably, trigger it. Wincing– but standing, moving, unbowed.

From the refrigerator, Baran withdrew a blue container with a yellow label familiar to Homa– Zlatla seasoning with a Volwitz foods branding. This staple seasoning was a mixture of finely grated dried vegetables, herbs and spices with some glutamates to enhance the flavor of anything. Homa loved it. Baran stood back up, winced, and shook a small amount of the seasoning over the tomatoes and peppers, before setting the pot to start cooking.

Homa had to fight back an urge to weep at the scene playing out before her.

It was not just that it harkened back to her own life. But rather, the quiet dignity of the scene despite everything that Baran lacked, all the unacknowledged cruelty, it made Homa so angry and so sad and helpless about things. If she saw any of those bastard thuggish boys again in that moment she would have done something monumentally stupid with the gun Kalika entrusted her. If she could have shot the walls to make them more habitable, shot the ceiling to bring light, shot the food to bring abundance, she would have, in that moment. All she had was a violence so potent that it festered in her heart and became tears. She felt incredibly stupid and ashamed, and it took every bit of her self control, every bit of her strength, to squeeze her heart dry and avoid letting out her melancholy.

She knew the dish Baran was making. It was a common enough breakfast for Shimii.

Next she would crack the eggs inside of the paste and cook everything in the pot.

Runny, soft eggs would set into the juicy, savory-sweet, spicy veggies.

Leija had made it once for Homa.

She remembered. Leija knew– Leija taught her to cook. Leija used to do those things.

She remembered–

Leija Kladuša still an upstart gangster, when she had to deal the heroin herself in the alleys and pay tribute back to the old boss Ekmečić. Dealing drugs was one of the few ways a Shimii could make it big in Kreuzung and Leija must have had big dreams to have taken on such a shame and such a risk. Homa remembered— the plastic walls, the instant pot, the treasure box with Leija’s good clothes and makeup– Homa sometimes wandered into it out of curiosity. Why hadn’t she remembered this before–? Then she recalled too– Leija’s drunkenness, the rages, leaving bags of drugs around. Cursing that she had to take in a kid– but begging, crying, for Homa to never leave her, for her little kaidaf to hug her tight–

And she remembered– a blond woman coming in one day and

changing everything,

Leija hiding Homa in the treasure chest–

“We can do each other a favor, Leija. How about it? I take care of Ekmečić–”

That voice– in the resurfacing memories of her addled brain– it sounded–

Like it came from a machine– from the communication equipment of a diver,

“N-Nasser?” Leija had said to the stranger.

Nasser–?

“Leija– someday, I’ll come back to collect. At that time– be prepared.”

That blond woman– and boss Ekmečić dying one day–

Vesna Nasser–?

Then– the ascendancy, and the privileges– then the inescapable Destiny

VESNA NASSER?!

“Homa, what’s wrong?” Baran asked suddenly. “You’re crying?”

Conny and Elena looked at Homa with surprise also.

She realized where she was again. In time, in physical space–

Homa felt the cold tears trailing down her cheeks and her heart thrashed with panic.

“It’s nothing, sorry– It’s the chili vapor– I’m not used to it.” She said, a poor excuse.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I’ll put on the lid.” Baran capped the pot, responding in earnest.

Nobody suspected a thing, but Homa felt like her brain was being stabbed.

She focused on her breathing, trying to steady herself and calm down her rushing thoughts.

It was stress, she was worn out, she was so poor managing it. That was it, that was all.

Hiding her vast internal struggle under deep breathing and a few tears.

Homa sat on the chair feeling hollow and trying to refill herself with humanity.

Thankfully nobody pushed her, and the moment passed without further incident.

Baran continued to cook, the guests continued to sit, and the tears and fog began to fade.

“Umm, excuse me, Ms. Lettiere–” Elena slowly lifted her hand up like a kid in classroom.

“Call me Conny, paesan!” Conny said. She had been watching Baran cook too.

“Yes, Conny– are you by any chance related to Leda Lettiere?”

Conny smiled, but with less of her prior unreserved gaiety.

“My, oh my– is she still such an icon for young elf girls after everything that happened?”

“Um, well, I kinda– I guess I just–” Elena’s head looked to be sinking into her shoulders.

“I’m just teasing you. Yes, Leda Lettiere was my little sister, believe it or not.”

“Conny, can you tell me more about her? I– I’m like a– a big fan and I– her story is–”

“What is it, are you afraid of being kidnapped and bethrothed to a demon king too?”

Homa was tired out and somewhat disinterested in the conversation, but upon the mention of a demon king, a staple in the sort of fantasy stories she loved, her eyes briefly raised from the table and wandered over to the elves. She saw Elena’s flushed and surprised expression and the hesitation that appeared to grip her and Homa felt, for a moment, as silly as it sounded, that maybe Elena was worried that a demon king was after her chastity. Conny meanwhile seemed to be savoring the moment as she watched Elena squirm.

What was it with older women and teasing whoever was around?

Conny sat back in her chair and let out a sigh, her first display of anything less than cheer.

“You must know how the story ends, don’t you? It’s not tea table fare.” Conny asked.

“I do– I’m sorry.” Elena said. “I shouldn’t have gotten– starstruck. It was silly, I–”

“No, it’s fine. There’s no point in avoiding it.” Conny said, and she turned back to Elena, leaning forward on the table. “Lettiere did not mean anything to anyone when I was born. Leda was a high-achiever and gobsmackingly beautiful, but she was still just a student and still just a woman for most of her life– until Konstantin von Fueller saw her.”

Homa’s ears stood up and though she pretended not to be, she listened with rapt attention.

“We both attended the Palatine Royal Institute for our higher education. Leda was actually studying something kinda brainy– was it applied mathematics? Or maybe higher principles of classical philosophy? Could have even been both, I forget the specifics as a lowly liberal arts student. But she was a genius. Anything she wanted to do, she just did it. She would tell me that she would help me learn this or that, whether it was dancing or public speaking or even languages. She learned a bunch of High Speech like she was becoming a damn lawyer, but it was just for fun! And she would always say that all you needed to do was commit to it and then find an efficient method for learning. Completely insane girl.”

Conny leaned forward on the table, resting her head upon it. Still grinning at Elena.

“Baran, can I curse in your house?” She asked.

Homa sensed a change in the way she was grinning but could not place it.

Still cooking, without turning her back, Baran replied, “I’d prefer you did not.”

Conny sat back in her chair with a little sigh.

“Fine. Anyway. That knave Konstantin von Fueller was inspecting the institute one day, but all he checked out was my little sister that day. At that time he must have been in his fifties! Over twice her age, the nerve. Had he not been the Emperor I would have knocked all of his teeth out.” Conny said. Given the Emperor was dead, saying this sort of thing did not matter, and it would hardly have mattered in present company, even if he was alive– but Homa was still a little bit shocked to hear it. “They had a child maybe two years after. Horrible! He took Leda and in return he gave our family lavish gifts and accommodations. He made the Lettieres something— except for me. I refused any such things. Last time I saw Leda, she talked about being the wife of an Emperor like it was learning a language or learning to dance. With the right method and commitment, she could do it. Awful!”

Conny sighed and put her head to the table. Elena still did not seem to know how to react.

“You said you know the end? Well, he killed her. End of her story. Not too pretty, huh?”

“I–” Elena stammered over her words again. “I– I guess I never understood– why she–”

Conny completed her sentence with her own presumption–

“Why was she killed? For treason– the thing Emperors say about anyone they want to kill. He must have been bored of her. Though, I guess if any woman on Aer could have killed that bastard it would have been Leda Lettiere. I will certainly never know the truth now.”

Elena looked down at her lap. Homa felt that Elena was keeping back from crying too.

But, if they were related– what was Elena to Leda Lettiere, late wife of the late Emperor?

Homa wasn’t anybody, so she just knew about Elena from things she heard off-hand.

Wait– wait a minute– Homa’s head started to race in an entirely different direction.

“It’s not a great story and I’m not a great storyteller. But you asked for it.” Conny said. “Maybe if Norn the Praetorian and Samoylovych-Deepestshore had never been born it could have been a heroic story on my part– but I simply lived my life while my sister disappeared. There is only so much I can say. It is more than anyone will ever tell you, and I am telling you because you are a fellow elf and under the care of an esteemed person like Baran.”

“Thank you, Conny. It does help me understand a little better.” Elena said sheepishly.

After an awful story like that, what could Elena have been feeling? Homa felt pity for her.

“Don’t mention it. You should have a better role model, like me. I’m successful and alive.”

Even Conny seemed to realize as soon as she made that joke that it was very distasteful.

So she quieted and waited, as did Elena, for Baran to finish cooking and serve the food.

“Honestly Conny, you told that story in such an insensitive way– I’m sorry, Ms. Rossi.”

“I’m insensitive? I’m the one here that this stuff happened to, you brat!” Conny cried out.

However, she did not let her mood sour long, and Baran did not take it personally either.

Homa felt that the two of them must have known each other long and had a rapport.

On the table, Baran put down a big plate with all of the food on it. She had gracefully slid the eggs and the vegetable sauce out of the instant pot and managed to set it on the plate, making for a pretty display to the guests. There were six eggs, crisp-edged, with soft yolks like liquid gold, set into the sauce and flecked red. It was a strange number of eggs for the amount of people assembled, but when Baran sat down, she explained.

“This is all for you. I’ll be fine– I already had a bit of food earlier.” Baran said.

“Um.” Homa interrupted, now made uncomfortable. “I’d really like you to join us, though.”

“Baran, absolutely not. I’m on a diet– I’m not going to eat much. Eat from my share.”

Conny spoke up and insisted, even shifting her seat to be closer to Baran so she would eat.

Baran sighed, but Conny had a look on her face that suggested she would not yield.

So in the end, Baran joined everyone else at the table and they tucked into the dish together.

Homa felt much less awkward. She would have hated eating while Baran simply watched.

As she turned over this feeling, a thought came to her vulnerable mind unbidden.

That must have been how the communists felt when she tried to refuse their charity too. Homa thought she had taken just a step closer to understanding them, in that moment. There was something demoralizing about looking at someone deprived of everything and also then depriving themselves of assistance. Someone subjected to so much cruelty and yet continuing to make sacrifices of her own comfort for others. It made Homa feel– helpless herself. Like any little kindness she was capable of would not matter. Little things like sharing a meal with someone were all that she was able to do against the cruelty of the world. If she was not allowed even that then she felt like she would be useless to the world.

Baran should eat the meal she worked so hard to cook, even if the ingredients came freely.

Because the kindness of Kalika and the communists was repaid by living happily with it.

And maybe Homa ought not to refuse any more help from the communists in the future.

Perhaps all they really, actually wanted was to see her just a little less deprived too.

Homa took a plastic fork and gathered a bit of egg yolk, tomato and pepper and tasted it.

Of course, it was delicious. Sweet and savory, just spicy enough, with a creamy texture.

Made all the better because Baran savored it herself and looked so happy with the result.

“Thank you, God, for this meal, and for these companions.” Baran said in a small voice.


“There you are. How was your day? How are you feeling, Homa?”

Kalika parted the curtains into the little house they had been given to stay in, peeking her yellow and black eyes before crossing the threshold. She slid the curtain closed behind her and took off her jacket and pulled her hair loose. It was night and the meager and semi-functional system of lights in the village had begun to dim. There were no additional lights on inside the house, no torches, the television was off. Homa lay in bed, in the dark, on the mattress with the blankets half pulled over her body, grumbling to herself.

She looked up at Kalika and then her eyes wandered away without making contact.

Homa did not respond. She had been spending all day thinking about how she felt.

“Taken a deep breath lately?” Kalika asked.

When prompted, Homa breathed in, and then felt foolish for doing so on command.

“I guess you must have fixed the oxygen generator.” Homa mumbled.

“Chloe did. I just handed her tools and tried to keep her enthusiasm in check. She offered to stand watch so I could rest. Elena is staying for the night too, she’s one house down from us. It turns out there’s more than one little abandoned house in this village.” Kalika said.

“Baran looked happy to have new guests.” Homa said, raising her voice a bit more.

Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa, her long legs half-curled up.

“I was away all day– how were things in the village? I take it there weren’t any problems.”

“Everything was peaceful. When the food order came in I helped Baran distribute provisions to the villagers. She even got flour and sugar for the bakery and coffee grounds for the little cafe. I actually did a lot of work, you know. It wasn’t just you keeping busy.”

“Good! You’re going to have so many women feeding you meat during this festival.”

“Hey–!?”

Kalika laughed and Homa glowered. They sat together in silence for a moment.

“How do you think Baran is doing?” Kalika asked.

“I think she’s fine. She’s strong– and she’s used to how awful things are.” Homa said.

Unlike her– Baran was someone who remained standing in the middle of turbulence.

She must have had complaints, every human being had them.

Her outward appearance was always smiling and courteous and optimistic, however.

Homa felt weaker for not being able to control her emotions so well.

Kalika dropped back from a seated position, coming to lie beside Homa with arms out.

One of her hands, her biological hand, laid a warm ungloved touch on Homa’s shoulder.

“Homa, it’s not shameful to talk about your feelings. I’ll listen.” She said.

“I know.” Homa said. Kalika’s warmth, so near her, helped stifle Homa’s irritation.

Laying side by side in the dark together, in this underground hovel.

Katarran mercenary with a blade dripping red with history; and some useless girl.

The two frauds who had done what they could for this village.

Homa wished Kalika would ask to hold her; wished that she would have accepted it too.

“I don’t know what I’m feeling or what to feel.” Homa finally said, when she could not bear the silence anymore. Her heart was pounding. She was nervous and turning over every word she thought to say. Everything felt so difficult and came so suddenly. “I guess– I am angry. I think I am really angry Kalika. I just– I really hate that these villagers are living like this down here. I hate that they get abused by the people outside. That if they stopped receiving charity the station might just watch them all die and do nothing or make everything worse or even come and kill them. I hate that Baran has to thank God for this.”

Her voice dropped to an almost whisper, feeling that she was speaking something evil.

Even if she had never grown up very religious, the influence of God suffused her.

For the Shimii, religion was essentially inseparable from their culture and identity.

“It’s not the fault of God that this is happening. People are the real devil here and God is not without his blessings for these folk.” Kalika said. “Baran has a lot to feel grateful for. She has clung on to her home with all of her strength. Homa, you saw those boys from the other night– people can make the choice to leave. It’s an evil choice to force on them, to tempt them with– but that also makes Baran’s resistance very meaningful to her.”

Homa understood what she meant and lacked the strength or desire to argue.

But she wished she could argue against it.

“I almost wish– I could take them all way somewhere. Like I got taken away.”

“I understand that impulse.” Kalika said. “But to them, this is their home, Homa.”

Home was such a bitter-sweet word for Homa that it almost made her mad again.

“Home? I always wanted to leave Kreuzung. It was horrible. I wanted to see the Ocean.”

“I get it.” Kalika said. She squeezed Homa’s shoulder a little bit. “It’s a bit rich for me to talk about a home too, but I think that’s also why I sympathize with the villagers. I’ve been rootless all of my life. I would never look back to Pythia or to Buren and think of them as home– but I wish I had a home. Hell, for a time, I thought I had found a place like that. So I guess– what I want for the villagers is for their home to become a place that they could thrive in. I’m curious, Homa, do you have anyone back in Kreuzung? Friends? Family?”

Leija–

“No.” Homa said, fighting back tears. She could not fully disguise her pain in her voice.

“I’m sorry.” Kalika said.

She turned on the bed and wrapped her arms around Homa, who did not resist.

Pulling her tight against her chest, holding her so close, like Homa had never been held.

Homa felt Kalika’s rapidly beating heart at her back. Kalika must have felt hers too.

She had not asked and Homa had not accepted, not audibly; but it still happened.

And Homa was happy to be held. In the dark, where no one could see– she smiled.

Reminding herself she wanted to become more accepting of kindness.

“We’ll figure it out, Homa.” Kalika said. Her voice sounded a bit sleepy. “I’m here.”

Homa knew she had barely slept the day before and been so active throughout.

Kalika deserved to rest and deserved whatever kindness Homa could give.

Bob tail fluttering, ears folded, Homa nestled back against Kalika.

And took Kalika’s hands into her own, fingers intertwining.

“Good night, Kalika. Thank you for everything.” Homa said.

“Good night, Homa. I– I really– you–”

Kalika yawned and rested her head closer to Homa’s fluffy cat-like ears.

Her breathing grew steadier, and her grip started to slacken.

“I need you Homa.” She mumbled, her voice slurring. “You are my–”

Soon, she was sound asleep.

Homa, herself a bit sleepy, wondered whether she had heard that correctly.

She must have just been babbling out of exhaustion– but it was very cute.

On the night of the attack on the village, Kalika had looked so intense, so powerful.

Her sword swing cut the air with an audible whistling. She was so strong.

But in the center of all that thunder and fury there was a woman with a soft heart.

In her own soft heart, Homa had a childish little feeling of satisfaction.

So much had happened– but she wasn’t alone.

Though she still felt so doubtful about what Kalika saw in her, she still savored the moment.

Her mind wandered away from the troubled memories it had unearthed.

There was nothing she could do about Leija– or about Vesna Nasser.

At least not right now.

But she could at least help Kalika and do what she could for the people here.

Maybe she wasn’t completely useless after all.

With the soothing rhythm of another’s heart at her back, Homa soon fell asleep.


Three days passed since the Brigand arrived in Aachen, and the second round of United Front deliberations was underway– but that was a distant, unrelated concern to a particular silvery-white haired, indigo-eyed girl in an often dour mood. On that day, she had reason to smile instead. A reason that had nothing to do with politics or missions.

Her tasks were now finally behind her.

“Alright, the afternoon is yours, Maryam. We have limited funds to spend though.”

“Hmm-hmm! I already know what I want to do Sonya! I want to crush you at games again!”

“Crush me? When did you become so bloodthirsty huh? Come here, you cheeky–!”

Sonya Shalikova reached out and pinched Maryam Karahailos’s squishy cheek as payback. In turn drawing out a series of sounds from her girlfriend suspiciously like cuttle, cuttle, cuttle, while they play-struggled in Aachen’s entry lobby. Both of them were smiling and laughing, and though the sunlamps were the same and the oxycyclers had not changed, in Maryam’s company, Shalikova felt like the station was brighter, and its air cleaner.

It did feel like the perfect day.

Though Shalikova did cherish their previous date in Kreuzung, this time, Maryam was able to walk around Aachen station as her ordinary, purple and marshmallowy self. Her cuttlefish always looked happy to be running around, but Shalikova could feel that Maryam was a bit looser and freer when she did not have to wear as much of a façade around the station. The pair dressed the same as they had back at Kreuzung, their nicest clothes.

Maryam wore her long, dark blue dress and matching beret, but her tentacles rested on her shoulders rather than hiding in her hair, and her charming w-shape eyes and purple chromatophoric skin could shift freely to accommodate her many moods.

Of course, if Maryam was dressed as she had been in Kreuzung, and so was Shalikova–

this meant that Shalikova was dressed like a showy delinquent again.

However, she was just a bit less mortified about it than on previous ocassions.

She looked good, damn it– even though she did not want to, it was still a bit uplifting. Even though the red track jacket was too bright and the ACE on the back was somewhat embarassing; even though the pants were too tight for how humble Shalikova’s butt was; even though the shades made her look like a stereotypical curfew-breaker problem kid. Maryam liked it and that was what ultimately mattered to Shalikova.

It wasn’t like she was dressing up for anyone else!

No– actually– it was still basically as embarrassing as it always was.

“Illya– someday I’ll get you back for this–!”

“Sonya, you’re mumbling with such a fierce look on your face!”

“It’s nothing, Maryam. I’m just thinking of where to take you.”

Because of the activities of the past few days, the Brigand and her crew had gotten pretty familiar with the layout of Aachen station. They had cased the place and ducked into practically every nook and cranny, but more importantly, Shalikova herself had gotten a look at all the stores. She knew there were a few arcades strewn about the first tier. There was one particularly flashy establishment that she thought of bringing Maryam to, but it also played host to alcohol and gambling. She was not sure how that would go over.

“Maryam, do you drink at all? Or like– do you gamble?” Shalikova awkwardly inquired.

Thinking about her answer for a second, Maryam rubbed her chin with one of her tentacles.

“Fortune telling and street hustling is kinda like gambling I guess.” Maryam said.

“There are no technicalities here, do you like slot machines and beer or don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say I like it, but I’m not offended by that. I’ve been curious to drink actually.”

Shalikova thought of a drunken Maryam and the puns that might result from that.

She would take her to the flashy gaming parlor– but maybe dissuade her from drinking.

All of the smaller arcades were more slanted toward kids, and Shalikova thought bringing Maryam to one of them might have looked too silly. The largest arcade in the first tier, located near the middle ring of businesses, was essentially a barely disguised gambling parlor and bar that had a substantial and eclectic collection of video game machines. Standing outside of it, the gaudy decoration was evident on the enormous façade.

Arcade Dorado, one of the biggest overall venues in Aachen’s commercial spaces.

A little slice of Stralsund here at home, the sub-header read, a promise of hedonism.

Stralsund was the northeastern station complex famous for its unfettered pleasures.

“Let’s try to avoid having too much of a Stralsund mindset today.” Shalikova advised.

“Of course! I’ll be on my benthic behavior! A truly squidnified dame!” Maryam said.

“Right.” Shalikova said. “I shouldn’t have imagined any different.”

As she led Maryam under golden archways, greeted by the rapid sound of jingling coins.

Shalikova would come to find avoiding gambling was a difficult proposition at Dorado.

Even the gaudy façade, with its glowing signage, gold-tinted windows and golden arches, could not prepare Shalikova for how outlandish the interior was. Gold and coins were predominant colors and themes no matter where one looked. Every arcade machine had a golden chassis, so there were long, long rows of gold machines sitting under a gold-foil ceiling from which dangled fake gold coins that served as lamps and decorations.

Underneath their feet, the false carpeting was red but with gold trimming and when Shalikova looked closely, the little pops of gold that formed a pattern on the carpet were themselves false gold (they could not possibly have been real!) coins. Red was the secondary color, but gold lorded over the scene with an iron fist. There was a gold front counter, golden doors to the bathrooms and VIP lounge, the bar area had gold seating, the staff had gold vests and pants with red shirts. It was an unholy eyesore impossible to escape.

Apparently it was also an exceedingly popular eyesore.

Set into the very rearmost wall of the Aachen core station to account for its space, the venue was packed. Most of the slot machines were occupied, the bar counter was full up and many of the tables around it were taken, and there were briskly-moving lines in front of every token machine near the venue’s front counter. Despite the occupancy, the staff kept the patrons under control, and there was security on standby to intervene if needed.

Strangely sensual jazz sounded from overheard and melded with the garish sound effects from the games, the laughter and cries and cheerful hollers of the visitors, the authoritative announcements from the staff. There was a scented mist piped down from overheard to try to contain some of the other odors, but it only barely lent a minty note to the predominant smells of smoke, alcohol, sweat and aluminum. Together with the large occupancy, the scents blended into a strange and almost cologne-like aroma. Shalikova had barely stepped into the building, and it already felt warmer than the outside too.

She began to regret the decision to come here– until she turned to look at Maryam.

And found her girlfriend looking at everything with a wide-eyed, beaming awe.

“Sonya! This place is so deluxe! Look! Everything is made of Gold!”

“Maryam– you know the gold is fake, right?”

“But it’s still the right color! Come on, let’s get some tokens and play!”

Maryam grabbed Shalikova’s hand, and there was no resisting her pull.

As long as she was happy, Shalikova would put up with it.

They waited in line for tokens until they got to the front of a gaudy gold machine. Shalikova plugged a credichip she got from the captain into an exposed serial port on the machine and used a touchscreen to purchase a number of tokens. The machine gave them some indication of how many tokens were required to play the average game, so Shalikova had some idea of how many she wanted to buy. Her tickets were disbursed in the form of a polymer card with a nanochip that could be written to by the lasers on the machines. Dorado’s machines would scan the nanochip on the card with lasers to access Shalikova’s token count.

Despite having the means with which to play, Shalikova was still unsure what to do next.

Not only was the venue so large, but the amount of machines was also daunting.

There were two dozen long rows of machines, and the variety of machines was astonishing. It was not so easy to discount the “gambling” machines from games that she and Maryam might enjoy. Almost every machine was some sort of LCD display and a set of controls; but in addition to the slot machines that were pure luck, there were “skill games” that also paid out, such as digital shooting galleries, fishing games, digital versions of whack-a-mole and prize redemption games. Besides these there were also more traditional video games such as scrolling ship shooting games, gun games, speedboat racing games, falling brick puzzle games, and fruit-stacking puzzle games. The selection was overwhelming.

As they wandered the halls, they encountered a commotion in one of the slot machine rows.

Onlookers and staff formed a small crowd around a beautiful woman who, upon closer inspection, had some heinous symbols in her eyes– she was taking up three slot machines for herself. One to hold a basket of wine bottles and another to hold a plate stacked high with roast meats slathered in what looked like fruit preserves. Between eating and drinking she would bet big on the machine in front of her. The staff pampered and encouraged her.

“Hahaha~! This is why Madame Waldeck calls me her prize pig!” she shouted shamelessly.

Along with Shalikova’s reticence to try the slots, this mess ruled out doing any gambling.

Shalikova gently but insistently coaxed Maryam away from the slot machines.

Into the less over-crowded rows of video game machines.

However, even the ordinary-seeming video games had opaque gambling elements built in. All of them could pay out tokens in different circumstances, and several of them had slot machine elements for acquiring in-game advantages. Maryam was immediately drawn to a game with a tall, vertical LCD where the objective was to stack fruits, which when combined would become bigger fruits. As soon as Shalikova handed her the token card, the screen lit up asking if they wanted to roll on a slot machine to acquire random special fruits that provided larger potential points, and therefore, larger payouts on a win.

“Maybe we should’ve gone to the little kid arcades.” Shalikova mumbled.

“It’s okay Sonya! I will buy exactly one special fruit, just to see what happens!”

Maryam proceeded to quickly lose the game after that.

“Huh? But I stacked the fruits up really high. I thought that was what you did.”

“No I think you are supposed to keep the fruits from getting over the lip of the basket.”

“So when do you win?”

“I kinda doubt the game is winnable. But now that you understand, give it another try.”

Shalikova put the card back up to the scanner and gave Maryam another game.

Despite the opaque nature of the games and the overbearing monetary demands they made of the player, Maryam smiled brightly and laughed with triumph. Learning quickly, her humble strawberries and mangos started to become mighty oranges and gargantuan watermelons, expertly stacked while avoiding a “game over.” Shalikova watched and supported Maryam and felt a sense of relief at how much fun Maryam was having. That was all she wanted– as long as Maryam was happy, nothing else mattered. Shalikova was someone who could live shut up inside her room forever if necessary. That was just what being a soldier was like sometimes. But Maryam deserved every opportunity to get out and have fun and live her life. Shalikova wanted to give her that.

It only began to dawn upon her recently, after spending days cooped up with Maryam.

If she wanted to have a life with Maryam, long term, could things stay as they were?

Their romance had been an unconventional one.

They had met in the middle of Shalikova’s infiltration mission to the Imbrium. There was no guarantee she would survive. As much as everyone was optimistic, as much as they all believed in each other and in victory, their luck could run out any moment. Every battle was an invitation out of living, into permanent exile from everything she held dear.

In her mind she saw the image of that demonic mecha from Goryk’s Gorge.

Selene had come so close to taking her life. She would not be the last to have that chance.

Shalikova had to make the most of every day she had with Maryam– but she also had to change a little herself and change how she interacted with the world. She could not remain withdrawn from everything anymore, because she could not ask Maryam to hide too.

As much as it irritated her to expose herself to the eyes of the world.

Maryam deserved that world of peering eyes, and it was up to Shalikova to support her.

This time it was not Maryam who had begged Shalikova for a date–

Shalikova had taken her out instead– insisting on it, in fact.

She also had a mind to ask Murati out somewhere to establish a friendly rapport.

None of this came easily to Shalikova, but it was important, and she was committed to it.

So even if it was not to her liking exactly, she could watch Maryam play all day.

After everything they had been through, they could munch a few marks.

“Maryam, for the next game, can we look for something we can play together?”

Shalikova asked, and Maryam turned her head from the fruit game machine with a smile.

A big, goofy grin with wide open eyes. “Sonya! Of course!”

In response, Shalikova smiled back almost as excitedly as Maryam had.

Maybe it won’t be that hard to change anyway– in fact I think she already changed me.

Eventually, Maryam had racked up what Shalikova thought was a massive score, but it was physically impossible to continue stacking after the two huge watermelons became a truly colossal jackfruit. Maryam eventually lost and the machine congratulated her and asked Shalikova to scan the polymer card again to update its balance. Maryam won enough tokens to cover the cost of her two plays at the game, thus ending up even.

Shalikova supposed this was the best outcome.

“Sonya! Let’s go play the racing game!” Maryam declared.

She pointed out a pair of machines down the same lane, just past the fruit games.

Unlike the fruit machines, which were played standing up, the paired racing game machines had adjustable seats, with the wheel and pedals affixed to the seat rather than the chassis with the LCD screen. Shalikova followed Maryam to her chosen machine, paid the tokens, and took the seat next to Maryam. The LCD in front of them displayed a first person perspective of the cockpit with a scrolling foreground. Judging by the ocean surroundings, demarcated by buoys and too brightly-lit to ever be real, this was a game about speedboat racing.

Small, extremely quick submersibles were raced everywhere in the Imbrium, and even the Union. Daredevil speedsters sacrificed everything to get even one additional knot out of the machine, making the best racing submersibles extremely fragile and dangerous.

In the Union, Shalikova recalled there were attempts to organize clubs for racing drones instead of manned craft to try to create a safe alternative– but many racers still wanted the thrill and organized underground leagues, using leftover and discarded parts, repurposing decommissioned rescue boats and observation bathyspheres to create their own small machines that they could launch out from disused maintenance areas. Small but dedicated audiences followed their favorite racers to clandestine events. Eventually the Union relented and worked to regulate a public league with purpose-built craft that were a bit safer than the craziest racers wanted. Now, she and her girlfriend could experience the pulse-pounding thrills from the safety of an eye-searingly gold arcade inside a sturdy station.

“Sonya, this is your chance! This is a game where I can’t use my strength to beat you!”

“Was that a hint of cockiness? You’ll see– piloting a Diver isn’t that far off from this.”

“That’s the spirit! Give it your best knot! Or you’ll be stuck following my squid-marks!”

Shalikova’s eyes fixed on the screen. A count-down appeared.

Her fingers gripped the wheel, feet braced against the pedals, her body tensed–

On the count of zero–

Maryam blasted out of the starting line and–

brutally rammed into the side of Shalikova’s boat

and sent her sailing away.

“Maryam! What the hell kind of sportsmanship is that!”

“Hah! Sonya, I am a villain of the race track! I’ll stop at nothing to win!”

Shalikova was speechless as Maryam charged brazenly forward in a way that would at the very least make her look bad on a track– and would very likely have killed someone or herself! Taking advantage of the fact that it was a video game, Maryam drove like a hellion. Bashing into the track limit buoys to corner, whacking Shalikova whenever she got near, squeezing Shalikova out of the track when she tried to pass her– it was pure mayhem.

She was so aggressive that even when Shalikova tried to play equally dirty Maryam was simply much quicker on the attack! There was no opening at all!

Even when the contest did not entail her strength, Maryam was still too strong!

“Waha! Sonya, the undefeated of the sea has once again completely scuttled you!”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Maryam laughed and laughed, the color of her skin strobing with joy.

For more of that sight, Shalikova would have easily lost a hundred games.

Even if her pride did sting a little bit.

After a few rounds of the racing game that had the same results, Shalikova moved the competition over to a pair of machines that each hosted an instance of a very popular falling brick puzzle game. Invented in the Union, this video game represented one of a very few pieces of crossover culture between the Nectaris and Imbria as far as Shalikova knew. The object of the game was to drop blocks on a vertical board to form clean lines. Completed rows were eliminated and tidied up the board. Of course, the shapes that were given to each player to assemble complicated the matter. In this competitive iteration, clearing a line put junk in the other player’s board as well as forcing their bricks to accelerate.

To avoid any confusion, Shalikova explained these rules to Maryam.

“That’s all? I’m looking forward to yet another victory!”

“Someday that hubris will come back to bite you, Maryam!”

Shalikova played along, pretending to be invested in Maryam’s defeat.

When the first blocks started to drop into the digital boards, complete with flashy effects, Shalikova did begin to earnestly believe in victory. Maryam was sticking to her rather kinetic style of playing games, dropping her blocks as fast as the game would allow in rapid succession. At first, on an uncluttered board, it meant she got the first few combos of the game, putting junk in Shalikova’s board. Soon Shalikova’s slow and steady playstyle allowed her to control her board while Maryam failed to adapt as the game sped up, and began to clutter her board, make mistakes and ultimately, become overwhelmed.

Finally, Shalikova took her first victory. Maryam puffed up her cheeks with indignation.

“When it comes to puzzles you’re a real cuttlehead huh.” Shalikova said.

“Huh? Wow– that was a good one. You’re really getting into the spirit, Sonya!”

Maryam smiled and the fins on her head stood on end and then made a little flap.

Shalikova could not help but smile and laugh alongside her.

They tried a few other games once Shalikova had avenged her racing game losses.

Rather than compete, however, they found a few they could play together.

There was a flashy light gun game with 3D graphics where the two players fought off a horde of fleshy, mutated beasts to escape from a derelict research station–

“You’re holding the gun wrong. Try it like this.”

“Oh! Thank you, Sonya!”

A shooting ship game in an artsy limited color palette with very abstract enemies and landscapes, where where one player could shield the other player from bullets–

“Maryam! Switch to white shield while I attack!”

“Got it Sonya! I’ll protect you!”

And a trivia game where players could confer to answer questions about the Imbrium–

“–I was never taught any of this back in Katarre.”

“–I think I might have fallen asleep in class when learning about this Emperor.”

With some surprising twists–

“Phooey, who would have thought there was a homosexual Emperor? That’s nonsense!”

“I know, I could have never imagined it. Well, at least we’re losing together.”

Eventually the pair was almost out of tokens, the vagaries of their fate rarely yielding enough winnings to make up for the amount of games they were playing and ultimately losing or earning nothing on. It had been a few hours of good fun and Shalikova felt completely satisfied. She had even gotten Maryam’s mind off of drinking or gambling, two vices she hoped dearly her cuttlefish would never experience. Once their tour of the two-player games was complete, the pair started to walk out from the nest of machines.

Maryam poked Shalikova on the shoulder with one of her tentacles.

“Sonya, could you hang around for a bit? I want to use the little cuttlefish’s room.”

“Sure. I’ll just go poke at something with our last tokens.” Shalikova said.

Smiling, Maryam skipped away momentarily.

Shalikova turned back around to the machines, wandering back toward the fruit game.

Reaching into her pants pocket for her card and looked down at it idly while walking.

Her personal guard slackened completely; she was much less aware of the world than usual.

Such that her sharp eyes hardly detected a similarly distracted person on a collision course.

Shalikova had such confidence in her stride and so efficiently converted this into force against this foreign body that she nearly dropped back onto the floor after striking the stranger in what seemed to be both their center masses. Shalikova would not have been surprised to hear that she had butted heads with this individual– she braced herself on a stool seat in a panic and barely stayed upright. Her victim would have fallen had there not been a machine right behind her. It was such a shock, Shalikova was so embarassed.

“Whoa! Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’m such a– HUH?”

“What the fuck?! Watch where you’re going you fu– OH~?”

In front of Shalikova was a young woman, much like herself,

perhaps near to her exact age.

A little shorter than her, a bit fuller in figure with a dazzling appearance. Dressed in a long, off-shoulder ribbed sweater that quite flattered her, low enough to bare a lot of collarbone and some of her cleavage, with a skirt and tights and heeled shoes. Fashionable, wearing a bit of makeup. Her bright eyes adorned a pretty face twisted into a grin that immediately projected unremitting malice. Out of her long, flowing purple hair, sprouted a pair of rainbow-shimmering translucent antennae resembling biomechanical rabbit ears.

Selene Anahid, in the flesh, just as Shalikova had seen in her mind’s eye.

Judging by her expression, she was making a similar conclusion.

“Sonya Shalikova! You are Sonya Shalikova, aren’t you? You stupid oaf?! I found you!”

“Hey! I said I’m sorry! And– I have no idea what you’re talking about! Who are you?”

“Don’t lie to me! You miserable little rat! I can see right through you!”

Selene’s eyes briefly glowed with red rings and Shalikova feared for the worst.

But there was no attack either on her person or mind– Selene stopped with a grunt.

“Hmph, that stupid aura of yours! Show it to me! Stop hiding it from me!”

“I can’t! I’m not doing anything!” Shalikova said on impulse. “I mean– I don’t know–!”

“Quit acting stupid!” Selene said. Her lips spread into that grin again. “Sonya Shalikova!”

There was no getting away from it– this was Selene Anahid.

And she knew it was Shalikova in front of her. It was not about bumping into her, as rude as that was, and as much as Shalikova wanted to take responsibility for it. Rather, Selene and Shalikova had come to blows in a military operation in Goryk’s Gorge and were now face to face in the civilian interlude before wherever the wind of war blew them next. Shalikova had come away from that battle with an understanding of Selene as a reckless, unsympathetic person, arrogant and condescending, reveling in violence to assert her superiority. Those were the emotions Shalikova got in her fleeting visions and even more tenuous connection to Selene’s mind during their last bout. And now, here was Selene again.

In the ample flesh, able to see her and be seen without armor and without weapons.

She had become almost demon-like in Shalikova’s mind, a haunting presence.

Nothing but a promise of the violence that might befall Shalikova if she was not careful.

Here that violence stood, with a heaving bosom and an impish grin.

What would happen?

What could Shalikova possibly tell her to defuse this situation?

Her head felt so heavy.

She did not want to come into conflict with Selene.

Not only for the mission– but because she felt some measure of empathy for her.

“Selene– I– look, right now it’s my day off! You and I have nothing to do with each other.”

“Hah! Your day off? Destiny has brought us together! Your defeat won’t take time off!”

“God damn it, I don’t want to fight you! I never wanted to fight you! Just leave me alone!”

“Well, you should have stayed home if you didn’t want to fight! It’s too late now!”

Selene paused and looked at Shalikova up and down with such a sudden vehemence that Shalikova raised her arms as if to defend herself. She did not recall anyone ever checking her out with such an intensely tactless and almost lascivious gaze. Selene even leaned to the side to try to catch a look at the rear of Shalikova and continued to snicker to herself the entire time. For a moment Shalikova felt she would have preferred killing each other to this awkward surveiling. Immersed in the quarreling, her head began to fog up even more.

“Wow, what the hell happened to you? Did you fall into a textile press?” Selene said.

“What– what do you mean? I look fine. What do you mean by that?” Shalikova said.

She was shocked, her heart pumped strongly, and she did not process well what was said.

“I mean that clearly in terms of female aesthetics I am your obvious genetic superior.”

Selene raised a hand to gesture over the curve of her breasts as if to demonstrate, grinning.

“Huh? Aesthetics? Genetics? So what? You’re– you’re not even that much bigger!”

Selene was a slender girl– but compared to Shalikova she had curves like a fertility idol.

“Hah! Nothing but pure denial on your part! How do you even sit with no ass like that?”

“Are you serious? Is this really what we’re doing? People might see and hear this!”

“Flattie~!” Selene taunted, uncaring, raising a hand to her lips and laughing behind it.

Shalikova glowered and grunted. “You had a head start on me for growing all that fat!”

In her head that had been a much more devastating blow. She meant to argue that it was disingenuous for a cis girl to flaunt such things against her. But even just this level of insult made Shalikova feel horribly awkward and childish for stooping to Selene’s level. So what came out of her lips was by comparison near incoherent and seemed to take Selene a moment to process as it contained perhaps half the words Shalikova meant to say.

Selene put her hands on her hips and leaned forward with a matching friendless glower.

“Such a convenient assumption! But I’m the same as you– blame yourself, not the meds!”

What was she even talking about then?! Were they both transgender? This was a mess!

“Why the hell are we competing over our three sizes then anyway! You’re ridiculous!”

“And you’re still a flattie flat flat flattie.” Selene said without a hint of self-reflection.

Despite acknowledging it as ridiculous Shalikova was immediately aggravated to hear it.

In all of her life, nobody had ever confronted her like this, not since she was a little kid.

Other children could sometimes get rowdy at school, but they were always reprimanded.

Shalikova had grown up a polite and reserved girl among mostly polite and serious people.

Even Khadija was just teasing her and would not stoop to frustrating childish insults.

Illya non-withstanding, but that was different– Shalikova was unprepared for Selene.

That combination of arrogance, childishness, boldness– brought out the worst in her.

Her fingers crackled with electricity– she wanted to hit her! But she had to control it!

As much as correcting Selene might fill her with temporary satisfaction, opening up the avenue of violence for this mad woman would have invited a disproportionate reprisal. Shalikova had not yet learned all the psionic tricks Selene likely knew. And who knew if Selene had a weapon hiding somewhere (like in her fat stupid tits). If she had a gun on her all hell would break loose! There had to be another way to defuse the situation–

–maybe one in Shalikova’s hand all along.

While Selene was in the middle of gloating, Shalikova raised her polymer card.

In her mind, she was striking a cool pose. Selene just stared at her, however.

“Selene! We’re going to settle our grudge right here and right now!” Shalikova said.

Selene grinned, understanding– she produced her own polymer card from her pocket.

Perhaps in her mind, she was also striking a cool pose, trying to wave her card.

“Well, well, well. Now you’re speaking my language. I will destroy you. At video games!”

“I’ll completely flatten you– at video games! And then you’ll leave my sight for good!”

“You’ll never flatten me as flat as yourself, flattie. But if I win, you will bark like a dog!”

“Deal! Now shut up and put up! Or is all the silicone in your body slowing you down?”

“Why you–?! I’m all natural, just like the beating you are about to receive, vermin!”

Shalikova was beginning to forget this was a scheme to make Selene go away peacefully.

Not the actual rivalry she was allowing it to become by stooping to Selene’s exact level!

Locked in place like coiled snakes the two of them traded barbs and growls–

“Sonya, who is your friend? Are those real rabbit ears on her head?” Maryam asked.

–until the illusion shattered.

Those simple and sudden words sent a jolt of electricity down Shalikova’s spine.

She turned around in an instant and saw her girlfriend right behind her, smiling.

Her heart sank, her throat felt drier, her sunglasses almost dropped from her nose.

Caught in the throes of Selene’s temerity, Shalikova had completely forgotten Maryam.

“She’s NOT my friend!” Shalikova shouted suddenly. “She’s a sociopathic maniac!”

Maryam then crossed her arms and leaned toward Shalikova with a stern expression.

“Sonya– that’s not very nice. Friendly ribbing shouldn’t get into harsh details like that.”

“Hear that, Sonya? You are not being very nice to me right now!” Selene interjected.

Laughing uproariously. Her eyes darting with excitement between Shalikova and Maryam.

Who knew what was going on in that twisted brain of hers?

Worse– if they were both aggravated, the possibility of psionic escalation–

“Maryam, this is Selene. We have a bit of– friendly competition.”

Shalikova turned to Selene and somehow maintained a saintly calm while introducing her.

“Selene– this is Maryam, we’re– we’re together.” She said with a monotone voice.

As if Selene was anyone worth introducing Maryam to, or worth any courtesy.

Maryam looked at Selene and the purple on her chromatophores darkened a bit. Her eyes narrowed, she raised a hand to her chin, the fins atop her head flapped slowly. Scrutinizing Selene for a moment, her tentacles swaying in the air. Selene seemed just as curious about Maryam, so Shalikova had to put up with a long and strange silence.

“Sonya, I understand.” Maryam finally said. “I will step aside and cheer you on!”

Did she understand? Could she really have understood any part of this chaos, at all?

Shalikova nodded her head with a glum expression and awaited Selene’s response.

Selene grinned, shrugged, and silently pointed out a nearby racing game machine.

Together, the pair took their seats in the machine. Selene swiped her card to start the game.

“I commend you for having some shame in front of other people.” Shalikova mumbled.

“I just don’t want to sully my total victory in front of your girlfriend.” Selene whispered.

Was that some dignity and understanding? From this fiend? Shalikova sighed.

In front of them the familiar first-person perspective of the speedboat game appeared in front of Shalikova. She got ready to drive, when a notification appeared on her screen that Selene had “rolled the slots for a premium ship”– and was now the proud owner of a sleek and screamingly purple submersible with an additional hydrojet.

It was almost certainly faster than Shalikova’s own ship.

“Can you really call this a fair competition at this point?” Shalikova said.

“Who called it that? I didn’t say that. I said I was going to crush you.” Selene replied.

Fair enough. Sighing again, Shalikova grabbed hold of the steering wheel.

With materiel superiority on her side, Selene blasted out of the starting line.

And Shalikova struggled to keep up at all. She was solidly behind on every corner.

She expected Selene to be insufferable throughout the process but instead–

“Hah! It’s so fast! Look, Sonya! Look at whose coattails you follow behind!”

In the middle of the game, her malice seemed to melt away into the thrill of a young girl playing a game, and her gloating sounded much more good-natured and even amusing. She laughed and hollered and tried to show off for the audience of one trailing permanently behind her, taking weird lines on the corners and even slowing down at times so she remained on Shalikova’s screen to show off a trick. Despite herself, Shalikova found her manic energy somewhat infectious and laughed a few times at her antics.

“How much did that thing cost you?” Shalikova jabbed in the middle of the race.

“Whatever it was, it was worth it!” Selene jabbed back.

After the race, Selene practically dragged Shalikova by the hand, running to the next game.

Was that a smile on her face?

Maryam followed behind them and Shalikova could hear her giggling faintly.

They stopped in front of the puzzle game machines– which again, Selene paid for.

“Next stop on my tour of overwhelming superiority!” Selene said.

“What premium items are you going to buy for a puzzle game?” Shalikova said.

“Shut it and play, pentomino.”

Much like Maryam, Selene had a very aggressive style of play, dropping blocks as fast as possible and tolerating a few mistakes as her lines built up. However, she also had much better awareness of her board and upcoming blocks than Maryam, and she actually set up boards in order to create multiple line clears at a time, making for a more challenging match for the careful and deliberate Shalikova who obsessed with her placements. Junk blocks traded screens several times, and each salvo prompted pops of color on the screens to quickly indicate the attack to each player. Such effects happened in vicious succession as Shalikova and Selene were quite evenly matched in the battleground of blocks.

“You have guts! I acknowledge you as a worthy opponent, Sonya!” Selene said.

“Quit calling me Sonya! It’s Shalikova!” Shalikova said.

Despite her best effort not to, she was actually having fun with her rival.

Selene seemed to gradually forget the virulence with which she had begun the contest.

Even when she lost, her response was a girlish pout rather than a demonic scowl.

“Oh! I’ll get you next time, cutting board! This is the final round! Tie-breaker!”

Once again, Selene grabbed Shalikova and dragged her to a new set of machines.

Ones that Maryam and Shalikova had not played during their visit to Dorado.

However, they had experienced this style of game before.

Selene took them to the very back of Dorado’s game space, where there was an area full of table games. Every table looked initially barren, but with different accessories the tables could host an array of digital games with physical interaction. There were a few people here, playing pool and holographic ping pong. By placing a pair of plastic mallets on the board, the table would recognize and configure itself as a game of air hockey. Selene grabbed one of the mallets and she pushed the other one to Shalikova’s side of the table.

She grinned with anticipation.

“Oh, Sonya is very good at these!” Maryam said, standing to the side of the table.

“Oh really? Then she’ll have no excuses when she loses!” Selene said.

“No, because I’m more mature. But I am going to win regardless.” Shalikova said.

The pair took up their mallets and waited on their ends of the table.

In the center of the table’s LCD, the display rendered a little hatch opening.

Releasing a digital puck that by random chance flew to Shalikova’s end of the table.

Selene got herself ready in a defensive stance.

On the underside of the mallets there were lights that the table tracked for movement.

Shalikova wondered how much of her strength and control could transfer into the game.

She drew back her mallet a few centimeters and struck the digital puck.

It went flying against the opposite wall, near the corner, and bounced.

Selene responded quickly, striking the puck back.

The game was on–

but Shalikova had made note of Selene’s pose, how she held the mallet, how she reacted to the puck, her movement. How she swung from the forearm and had a restless grip on the mallet that she satisfied by turning it in place, a few millimeters side to side.

Now Shalikova understood better how the video game board reacted to her swing.

And how her opponent moved.

So she gauged the strength that she needed to launch a serious attack.

Drawing back and pushing in from the shoulder, hitting the puck dead center.

Sending it hurtling to the wall, behind Selene’s guard and into her goal at an acute angle.

Shalikova scored her first point.

“Dumb luck.”

“If it helps you cope.”

Shalikova grinned and Selene grinned back at her, remarkably composed.

When the next puck popped out of the board, it soared toward Selene instead.

She quickly threw a feint and Shalikova did not react, standing her ground.

Her gaze and reflexes were too sharp, she was not just acting on pure impulse.

With her feint read through, Selene settled for attacking the puck.

Unbalanced by her previous movements, she clipped the side of the puck–

But the computer registered this as a full-on, dead-center strike.

Shalikova, who had been watching Selene’s arms to determine how to attack and defend, misjudged how the puck would move and struck it far too softly, essentially serving it up to Selene for the perfect counterattack. She was unbalanced herself and failed to control her mallet properly, giving Selene an avenue to retaliate with a brutal strike on Shalikova’s largely unguarded flank. It happened too quick, and Shalikova lost the point.

She could only laugh at her own clumsiness.

“Good arm.” Shalikova said. She was having some fun.

“Good eye. You are indeed my worthy opponent. But I know your game now.”

No, now that Shalikova knew how the game worked and that it was somewhat glitchy, she could easily make the next few attacks in ways Selene could not possibly have predicted or reacted to. Selene did not have a lot of experience with air hockey and was playing a bit clumsily– she had a brief advantage because Shalikova was not used to the eccentricities of the digital machine and how it treated the physical inputs. However, seeing the sunny look on Selene’s face, and how much she had lightened up from calling her a flattie and threatening to destroy her– she became much less invested in winning.

Letting Selene win and preserving that smile was the best possible outcome.

It did not take much convincing to look convincing for Selene’s win.

Selene was favored by the digital puck, made her attack, and Shalikova defended it wrong.

Breaking the tie, giving Selene the victory.

Upon seeing the 2:1 in her favor, she burst out into laughter, softer laughter, girlish.

All of the demonic evil Shalikova had seen in her seemed to have been exorcised.

Shalikova walked around the side of the table and extended a hand for her to shake.

Selene, still smiling and gloating, took her hand and shook it vigorously.

“It was decided long ago! Of course, I was always destined to be the best here.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Shalikova said. She had some rough edges, but– she wasn’t all bad.

“You really put up a fight, Sonya Shalikova! We were truly fated to meet were we not? Do you know how surprised I was to see you here? But I knew immediately that I had been handed an opportunity to prove to myself once and for all that you were nothing but some girl in the end. And now I am in the victor, and I will take my spoils!” Selene said.

It was easier to let her grandiosity play out than to try to interrupt her with sense.

“Yep, you win. I guess I will bark like a dog for you now.” Shalikova said.

Trying to accept her punishment with a smile. At least she had resolved the situation–

Selene averted her gaze and crossed her arms. “Ew, no! You weirdo! Don’t do that!”

“But it’s what you asked for!” Shalikova replied, suddenly feeling desperate again.

“I’m changing my mind. Instead, you have to take me out around town!” Selene said.

She paired this with a haughty laugh but continued to avoid Shalikova’s eyes.

“HUH?!” Shalikova felt like a pair of cymbals had been clapped on her head.

“That’s a great idea!” Maryam said, clapping her hands happily. “Much better than trying to humiliate poor Sonya just because she’s so bad at games! I appreciate Selene’s magnanimity. It’s fun when friends are competitive, but you were both getting heated– you need to relax!”

Selene looked confused by how genuine Maryam was in her excitement.

“Uh, yeah–? Magnanimity– pssh, yeah, I mean, I got that in spades!” She said.

“I– I just–” Shalikova’s head was spinning. “I don’t– She’s not– I’m not–”

“You lost, and you admit you lost, so you have to acquiesce to the winner.” Selene said.

“Sonya, it’s okay! I don’t mind, and I think it’ll be good for you to hang out with a friend!”

Maryam cheerfully patted Shalikova in the back.

Did she actually understand anything?!

Maybe she was happy her Sonya ‘made a friend’ other than her–?

The same silly worry Shalikova sometimes had about Maryam becoming too dependant on herself? But it was ludicrous for her– because Maryam was a stowaway with not a soul in the world and Shalikova had an entire ship of people to befriend! Regardless, that would explain why she was suddenly so happy about Selene’s miserable proposal.

“Maryam, she’s not– oh whatever.” Shalikova sighed in surrender. “Selene, I’ll take you out around town tomorrow, but you have to agree, right now, that your–” If she called it a grudge Maryam might start to suspect something– so she hoped Selene understood– “You have to agree that our rivalry and debts are settled and that you’ll stop with– your particular brand of nonsense. Only then will we be able to go out together, okay?”

Selene’s eyes wandered slowly back toward Shalikova.

“Yeah. Totally. I mean– duh. I know how to protect my public image, you know?”

“Great.” Shalikova said. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow at the lobby. I’m broke by the way.”

“Of course you’re broke. Whatever. I’ll pay. See you tomorrow before noon.” Selene said.

Smiling, still smiling, after everything. Selene was smiling.

What a mess– but Shalikova supposed it wasn’t all bad.

After all, they had avoided fists flying, psionic or otherwise.

Maybe they could bury the hatchet.

Selene turned around and walked peacefully away.

Shalikova was filled with relief– until she heard a voice in the back of her head.

At first like a static-filled radio channel, until the words came into sharper focus.

You’ll be fine if you stay out of our way from now on. We are not going after you. I never even thought I would see you again. But if you do interfere– just remember I will have my orders.

Selene’s voice. She was speaking to her psionically, so that Maryam would not hear.

In that instant, she rekindled Shalikova’s fears and regrets.

Out of our way– meant her crew too.

Alongside that psychopath Norn the Praetorian and her crew.

Shalikova glared at Selene, but it wasn’t up to her whether or not that happened.

She did not want to fight her, she never wanted to– but she might still be forced to.

From my perspective there’s no more quarrel. I want to keep it that way!

She tried to reply to Selene in the same way as she had been spoken to.

Focusing her mind on pushing those words and on Selene being able to hear them.

Unsure at first whether she had succeeded, until–

I can’t guarantee that. But at least, there doesn’t need to be, tomorrow. Ciao.

Selene waved mockingly with the tips of her fingers as she walked away.

Watching her go, Shalikova sighed. She palmed her own face.

A mixture of frustration but also pity overcame her. It was so stupid, so pointless.

Selene was just an idiot like her– both barely adults, and both in such dire situations.

It was so unfair– and there was nothing Shalikova could do about it.

If their captains butted heads again then both would have their orders.

“Sonya, are you okay?”

Maryam took Shalikova’s hand into her own and rubbed it for comfort.

Shalikova met her eyes. Just looking at her brought comfort to her overburdened heart.

She tipped her head forward and kissed Maryam suddenly.

Surprised at first, her marshmallow accepted. It was a quick but healing gesture.

When they parted, Shalikova tried to smile, despite everything.

“I’m a bit troubled. Selene and I actually have a lot of bad blood.” Shalikova said.

She did not want to lie to Maryam, but it was hard to admit the fullness of how she felt.

“From my perspective, the two of you seemed to be getting along.” Maryam said.

“I know, but I fear that things could get worse with us. Far worse.” Shalikova said.

“Sonya, if that happens, trust in yourself. You are strong, and you know what’s right.”

Maryam smiled.

That confidence she had in Shalikova made everything sound possible.

Even if Shalikova herself worried about the worst possible outcomes.


“Welcome, welcome! Oh, what a pleasant surprise indeed– my balcony has seen so many illustrious people of late. It has been a fine week. Please sit down, and avail yourself of anything. Hospitality to guests of the Kleyn household means everything to me.”

“Thank you, Madam Kleyn. Such lovely accommodations. You know your tea parties!”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg took her seat, one of only two around the tea table this time.

Across from her, Herta Kleyn offered her sweet black tea and fluffy little pink cakes.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Herta asked. “I didn’t even know you were in Aachen!”

“I apologize for coming up so suddenly. I just happened to learn of your predicament.”

Gloria lifted a tea cup to her lips, after having spoken, recusing herself from elaboration.

Across the table, Herta smiled. “My predicament, dear? I am not sure what you mean.”

It had not gone unnoticed by Gloria how many Katarrans were handling security for the Kleyn estate now. Aachen contracted the Rheinmetalle-sponsored Uhlankorps for local policing and VIP security for the government– so why was Herta Kleyn dressing up mercenaries in her little suits and ties and having them screen everybody and patrol the grounds? Of course, she knew much more than that in her clandestine capacities, but that was the simplest surface-level excuse. There was anxiety in the air up here.

“Madam, these are trying times, are they not? Times of instability and scandal?”

Herta met Gloria’s eyes but remained guarded. “I am afraid they are, indeed.”

“I have a proposal for you that will solve a few problems I know you must have. You may have your own solutions, but you will have to sacrifice far less of your own position with me.”

“Is that so, Madam Luxembourg? I must admit, I am intrigued. I have had a lot on my mind recently, you are right about that. There are heavy decisions I must make that I will not be able to take back. However, I must ask whether this business is in my capacity as a station governor, or a private citizen. I have done business with megacorporations before– but not their leaders directly. And never as a civilian. So I have to look out for the optics, you see. Anything that I do will be judged heavily– my political career is part of my concerns.”

“I’ve never done business with a station government, but I have done business with private individuals from them. This concerns yourself primarily, but it also concerns Aachen, Madam Kleyn. We both know there is a black current that is pushing this way; we both know that navigating this current will be complicated and difficult in the coming weeks. It is getting fiercer, more turbulent. You will not be able to withstand it by caring about optics.”

Gloria fixed wicked eyes on Herta, upon whom the true topic of discussion began to dawn.

Herta lifted her own cup of tea at that point. Permission to continue speaking, perhaps.

“Katarran mercenaries won’t be very reliable when the tidal waves roll in.” Gloria continued.

“I am not displeased with my personal security, frau Luxembourg.” Herta replied sharply.

She clearly did not appreciate the advice. Herta Kleyn had been in liberal government all of her life. From consultant to campaign manager to councilwoman and now Governor. She had done everything there was to do, done it properly. For Gloria to suggest anything to Herta Kleyn must have felt quite annoying. Like a child telling the parent how things worked.

“I have more to sell than personal security.” Gloria said, a conceited little grin on her face. “And there are more people at stake here than merely you yourself, Madam Kleyn.”

Herta Kleyn looked, for the first time, openly disconcerted in the discussion.

Gloria laid a portable on the table without saying another word.

On it, were the excruciating details of a deal Herta would not be able to refuse.


Elena had a rough night of sleep at the Mahdist village.

It was difficult to regulate her own temperature, and the mattress she was given was tough and uncomfortable. Even the Brigand’s accommodations were a bit softer on her delicate body. In addition to her physical ails, she also had to contend with disquieting thoughts. Conny Lettiere– and what little information she parted with about Elena’s mother. All of the possibilities haunted her. There was so much that Elena could learn from Conny about her mother, so many things she had never known and thought lost forever.

Her mother had died– no, she had been killed when Elena was five or six years old.

In her teenage years, Elena had mourned plenty that she knew so little about her mother but also accepted that there was nothing she could do. Her father Konstantin von Fueller barely even spoke to Elena, much less about her treasonous departed wife. All of the imperial courtiers and noblewomen hated Leda Lettiere and were not worth talking to. Her brother knew very little about her. Bethany had always been too careful about what she said, embellished too much, Elena had always known it. She would not have told her the whole ugly truth– not like Conny, a member of her family, could have told it.

Elena still had family, right here. After she thought she had lost everything.

Family who knew all of the story of her mother that Elena could have never known.

But there was an inseparable wall between her and Conny Lettiere.

To out herself as Elena Lettiere– was to out herself as Elena von Fueller. Missing Imperial Princess; and why she was missing, who was responsible, what had happened. Elena wanted to help the crew of the Brigand. She sympathized with the communists so much. That ship had begun to feel like home. Their mission felt righteous. So she feared mightily that to admit her identity was to jeopardize their mission and even all of their lives.

Attracting unwanted attention, bringing untrustworthy outsiders into orbit–

it was unacceptable.

Despite this, Elena’s heart could not help but beat rapidly with fascination about Conny. Her aunt, an elven relation, someone who spoke so irreverently about her mother. Maybe in another life, Conny might have been able to take care of her. To give her a home and family and a place to build a new life, without the precarity and violence of military surroundings. It might have made her soft, but perhaps, it would have been more of a home.

Alas; oh well. Such soft thoughts, she already had too many.

It was hardness, toughness, that she needed more of. So she steeled herself.

Conny Lettiere would simply have to pass her by for now.

With her head filled with worry and yearning, Elena slowly fell into an uneasy, fitful sleep–

Dreaming of indigo hair swaying in the wind under the light of an artificial moon–

–and infinitely tall trees making up the sky,

Paesan, wake up. I’m afraid you and I have some business. Quick sticks; I’ve not all day.”

And awakened just as uneasy to a voice she was not expecting to hear.

And to the face of Conny Lettiere, hovering over her, hands behind her back, a mischievous grin on her painted lips. Looming, with a great pressure building up around her.

Paesan, I’m afraid you remind me of someone, and it has been weighing on my trust.”

Her eyes glowed– bright red rings traced the outline of her retina, indicating power.

Floating above her shoulder, a small metal rod like a conductor’s baton pointed at Elena.

“Did you know Elena, that Elven Medeis, Loup Volshebstvo, Katarran Mageia and Volgian Kudo, all reference sticks as an implement with which to divine? Directions, insights– safe passage in caves, finding graves and treasure, and of course, the direction of the truth? Fascinating, no? Such different cultures clinging on to similar remnants of a dead past.”

Elena, paralyzed in bed, felt the pointing of the stick to take an accusatory note.

“So tell me, Elena– what was your surname again?” Conny said.

Overhead, the stick stirred and glowed with a myriad colors.


When Homa awakened the next morning, Kalika was still sound asleep behind her.

Perhaps more because Homa slept lightly, than Kalika sleeping heavily.

It was still much too early. However, the day called to the once-sleeper.

As good as it felt being held, Homa was feeling restless and wanted to get moving.

Perhaps this was her chance to do something good for Kalika. Maybe bring back breakfast.

Regardless of what she did, her legs demanded of her to get up and move about.

Gently, carefully, she extricated herself from Kalika’s grasp–

and sat beside her a moment.

Kalika looked quite beautiful, sleeping so peacefully. Her makeup had begun to run a little bit, her hair was tossed about a bit, and her lips were spread slightly open as she breathed. Her ungainly pose in the bed was very charming. When she was awake, she was so composed and so elegant, in control and never betraying weakness. Homa felt grateful that Kalika trusted her enough that she might be seen like this, unwound, without façade. She sat for a minute watching her, before feeling like she was being voyeuristic, and departing.

In her mind’s eye, the image of Kalika at peace would not soon leave Homa, however.

Outside the curtains, the lights were still pretty dim. It was early morning.

There were people out, however, and Homa became one of them.

At the front of the village, the pieces of the broken taiza monument had started taking shape again. Sareh and Baran had also brought out a big metal pot and a large alcohol burner and dropped both near the stage and a stack of plastic benches. The layout of the festival was beginning to take concrete shape just like the taiza. There were already aunties singing and talking in front of the salon and the little café and bakery, recently stocked again with flour and tea from outside. Homa wondered whether they had competitive prices out of respect for their unique situation– but she didn’t want to find out anyway.

Slowly, more people began to awaken and to come out. Little kids met up around the front of the village and started to play and make noise. Young women assembled near the masjid, maybe waiting for school. Homa could not see a single man around. There was the Imam, and she had some recollection of a few elderly men in the crowd the past few days. Maybe some of the kids were boys, Homa did not know and could not tell, they were too little for that. No young men stood out at all, however. Maybe they had really all given up Mahdism and abandoned the village, starting their own families outside and forgetting it all.

Bastards. Homa was making herself mad just thinking about it all over again.

Then, as her anger started to simmer down again– it resumed a furious, instant boil.

She saw someone approaching the front gate that sent her heart pounding.

Her body tensed.

A tall, brown-haired Shimii woman, smiling, greeting the villagers as she entered.

At her side followed a dour blond Imbrian woman, her gaze falling sharply on every face.

Both wore black uniforms, and armbands with symbols of the Volkisch Movement.

And despite Homa’s wide-eyed fury, the villagers greeted Rahima Jašarević like a friend.


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.10]

“Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong– Jagdkaiser, launching!”

Underneath the Iron Lady, the lower hatch of the deployment chute opened into the bright, purple-flecked waters. The imposing Jagdkaiser dropped out, engaged its jets, and leapt into the unknown and alien landscape around the ship. Ingrid tightened her hands on the controls and tried not to let what she saw through her cameras bother her too much.

Maintaining her composure in the face of this environment was not an easy task.

Red rolling hills of flesh, massive fields of sinewy yellow reeds, thick vein-like roots dotting the landscape, crawling up the walls and the cavern ceiling. It was a complex landscape too, with rises and falls, peeking bone-like protrusions that were hopefully rock, long slightly sloping bare fields of ridged flesh like the foremost part of the palate. In the distance, there appeared to be great rises, like white mountains. Ingrid dearly hoped they were not bone.

As a pilot, what was strangest to her was the brightness and clarity all around her.

At civilization depth it was impossible for her to see through her cameras very far in any given direction. Not only was the zone of human activity extremely dark, the water reduced the effectiveness of any light, including the floodlights on a Diver. Ingrid had become used to split second tells that an enemy was upon her. She had the onboard computer, but her senses were not completely useless either. A flash of their floodlights in the near distance, the glint of a weapon caught in her own floods, even the faint movement of the marine fog disturbed by a rushing object, all of these could be picked up on in the moment.

In this place, she could see– as far as her eyes could see.

Not only was the cavity illuminated, it was as if the water was not taking effect on the light. She could see uninterrupted for what must have been kilometers worth of this fleshy landscape– and that enormous pillar in the distance commanding the horizon.

It was unnerving to have that blanketing darkness lifted from before her eyes.

Even more so when what it unveiled was so impossible to make any sense of.

“Ingrid, am I coming in clear? I should be– this is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

A voice from Ingrid’s communicator. It was the cute little voice of their Chief Engineer.

Ingrid knew she had been through a lot recently, and was relieved to see that she was working again. Monika thrived when she was kept busy. However, she would not let the Chief Engineer know of her concerns nor of her relief. It was enough to see that she was fine.

“Loud and clear. Shouldn’t the bridge be enough supervision though?” Ingrid asked.

It was not that Monika was unwelcome to speak to her–

but she had hoped for less–

“Normally yes, but we are being cautious.”

–intrusions.

A second voice– that Nile character, the doctor who suddenly appeared.

“Huh? What are you doing in my ear too?” Ingrid asked in a brusque tone of voice.

“I’m monitoring your health alongside the Chief Engineer.” Nile said calmly. “While I am not the foremost expert on its specifications, I know that the Jagdkaiser’s neural interface can have adverse effects on the pilot. We configured the machine to feed vital signs and brainwaves back to the ship for real time analysis. In the event that the Homunculus causes unforeseen issues, I have direct access to shut it down in order to keep you safe.”

“Okay, and what happens when the connection goes to shit because I’m too far away?”

“I can’t explain how, but our lasers actually have better throughput in here than they do at civilization depth, despite the Katov level.” Monika said. “Hopefully it remains that way.”

“I don’t need two people to dedicate themselves to babying me.” Ingrid grumbled.

Especially not when one of those people– was a particular person.

“It’s a unique situation.” Nile said. “I understand it must annoy you to feel that you are being minded, but we are here to support you. It is not out of disrespect or a lack of confidence but to support a vital asset. Once we have concrete data on how your brain and body are coping with the Jagdkaiser and the use of the homunculus this won’t be as necessary.”

Ingrid gritted her teeth with frustration, trying not to shout back at her.

Nile always gave some spiel trying to sound reasonable, she always said I understand.

Their one session at the clinic was full of “I understand” and “I know it feels like–

She did not understand shit! It was impossible for a freak like her to understand.

Ingrid was particularly sensitive when it came to other Loup, though she would not have used that word to describe how she felt. Northern Loup, her people, were in her view extremely conservative and largely only respected force and authority; meanwhile, to Ingrid, Southern Loup were more immoderate and unrestrained, arrogant, flighty. As the daughter of a notorious family, she had fought against Loup her whole life in different ways. Sticking up for oneself was absolutely necessary– a boot trod upon her once would never lift.

Khedivate Loup like Nile were weird outcasts, unwelcome everywhere, subject to incredible historical violence, and if she had been a more mindful person perhaps Ingrid would have felt some solidarity with that. But that wasn’t her– she always felt as though she had to compete with other Loup and that if she faltered, she ceded the ground that she was unworthy, a craven daughter of wicked blood. She could not just match them; Ingrid had to exceed every Loup, to uphold her family’s honor. Nile had already barged in and encroached on Ingrid’s territory in certain ways she did not want to acknowledge as particularly irritating.

Monika was a runt and a nerd– she incited no such urges.

In fact, Ingrid felt sympathetic with how much Monika must have struggled and endured.

But Nile felt like– real competition. Tall, dark, brunette; strong, smart, beautiful.

Put on the bare earth too perfect, and walking through the world too confident.

Ingrid had to beat her– she could not tolerate being under her boot.

“If the Captain has you on my case then I will have to put up with it, but log my protest.” Ingrid said. She had to accept her lot– she was still a soldier. One thing that all Loup respected was the chain of command. Authority was divine, every place was ordained, and humility and honor were exalted. To a certain point. “But if you annoy me too much I’m switching off the comms and both of you can twiddle your thumbs looking at your data over there. I only take orders from the bridge, and I prefer to be allowed to do my thing.”

“I am not here to interfere. Please feel free to do your thing, whichever way you do it.”

“Huh? What was that? Are you copping a fucking attitude Nile you fucking bitch–?”

“Ingrid.” Both Gertrude and Dreschner’s voice came through the audio line at once.

Ingrid grit her teeth and bore with the scolding silently.

Descending closer to the “seafloor” of flesh. She had strange feelings about her machine, the Jagdkaiser that was supposedly so mighty at the Battle of Goryk’s Gorge– despite its ultimate defeat. It was not as imposing after being repaired. Though it retained its demonic silhouette, the damage it surmounted, and the lack of parts, led to its regression closer to the Jagd it was based on. There was no use for the shoulder-mounted drone stations without any of the drones it used, so Monika replaced these with standard intakes and plate. The fixed gun on the front of the shoulder had been ripped out and was filled in with more control equipment for standard weapons. While this reduced the weight, the Jagdkaiser was still slightly larger than a Jagd and slightly denser, more armored and heavyset than its origin. Its original stock vibroclaw was replaced with an ordinary hand, but the other hand was taken up by the machine’s built-in secret weapon and would not be modified.

Finally, the machine was painted blue and green– a camouflage that was useless now.

Ingrid was not issued a cartridge for use with the main gun. Not on this sortie.

However, the claw could still deploy its magnetic field– she could find a use for that.

Her mission was to gather up samples of seafloor flesh for testing, as well as to test out the physical properties of the flesh through direct interaction and examination. Was it slimy or firm? Did it constitute an actual floor? Would the “cavern” react like an organism to being touched, to being scraped and having a cut inflicted upon it? These were unavoidable questions that needed to be demonstrated, and the Jagdkaiser was the most powerful equipment they had available– and Ingrid their most experienced, skilled pilot.

Through her cameras, she saw the vastness of the red, fleshy world around her.

She had seen what the inside of a body looked like.

If this was a body it was an incredibly warped creature of nonsensical bulk.

A whimsical idea popped into her head. Perhaps this was just one of its organs.

Some muscular cavity passing water, except now so massive as to encompass human lives.

Closer to the fleshy seafloor, Ingrid was surprised to find fauna scuttling about. Long, segmented bodies of crab-like creatures with multiple limbs, some rounded in shape and others serpentine and odd, things she had never seen before. They were sparse but they existed, perhaps more could be found in the reeds. By the way they walked upon the flesh, it seemed like the seafloor had a few different properties. There was a layer that resembled mocus or gel, semi-firm, upon which the creatures standing on the seafloor left rips and indentations. But the flesh below that seemed solid enough that once the wandering creatures stripped away the “topsoil” they could walk easily upon it.

“Some of these arthropods are definitely long extinct in the Imbrium.” Nile said.

Monika sounded her agreement. Ingrid could picture her, arms crossed and nodding.

“I don’t know my biology as well as my mechanics but– yeah. I recognize these. I mean, anyone would know the anomalocaris– it’s become popular among young girls now.”

There was a brief pause as Nile seemed to consider the implications of this.

“That’s– I guess I am more out of touch with what young girls are into than I thought.”

“For the record I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ingrid butted in to say.

“You don’t know about the anomalocaris Ingrid?” Karin entered the comms suddenly.

“I can’t even fucking pronounce whatever you just said.” Ingrid replied.

“I suppose you just aren’t active citizens of the Network!” Monika said.

“I’m not an active nerd like you.” Ingrid said, idly picking on her.

“Let’s focus back up now, Schicksal, Erke-Tendercloud, company.” Dreschner said.

His stern voice immediately quieted the discussion of the anomalocaris’ notoriety.

Except for one stammering little whimper picked up on the audio. “Why me first?”

With the peanut gallery silenced, Ingrid touched down upon the flesh.

Using the underside camera she monitored her own descent and the response from the surroundings. Initially, the flesh yielded a bit when Jagdkaiser’s feet touched the seafloor, but they held firm enough to be trod upon. She was instructed to stand in place for a moment and to gather vibrational data. But there were no errant vibrations.

It did not appear that the flesh was moving.

“Ingrid, use the collection tool we prepared to gather some flesh.” Monika said.

“We will need you to visit a few different sites and collect flesh from them so we can study it. We need different samples to determine if this is all one kind of organism.” Nile said.

“I’ll do my job whether or not you explain, so spare me the details.” Ingrid grunted.

She wanted Nile out of her ears so badly. But there was nothing she could do about it.

Ingrid flicked through the equipment touchscreen and activated the “special equipment.”

Reaching the Jagdkaiser’s hand partially around its backpack, she picked up a tube-like object that had been released from the mech’s magnetic strip. It had been charged from the mech’s battery to the simple and specific task it was given. Once she had grabbed hold of the equipment, she rotated the mech’s hand to align the flat bottom of the tube with the seafloor flesh. Some mechanism within the tube began to flex with errant suction.

Then with with a flick of a button and a forward on the sticks, she staked the flesh.

Down deep through the red surface, and well over one and a half meters into the ground.

Inside the tube, flesh and whatever else would be collected in layers to be studied.

When the collection tube sank into the meat, thin red fluid rose like a mist into the surrounding waters. There was not enough of it to completely alter the surroundings, which were lit up pale blue by the light on the water and dark purple by the katov mass. All three colors never mingled, and had a strangely mesmerizing effect on the water around her.

Ingrid dragged her sight away from the swirling colors and looked at her main camera monitors, one each to a cardinal direction, for any reaction to the stabbing. No tremors of some gigantic beast, nor any roars or sudden thrashing. Nothing immediate.

On one of her supporting touchscreens, the special equipment’s status was shown.

Whatever was beneath the red surface flesh, the tube had filled with it.

Ingrid reached down and pulled the tube from the ground and attached it to the backpack.

She moved the Jagdkaiser over the hole so her underside camera could look down into it.

It was hard to see anything of note. It seemed to be flesh as far as down as she had cut.

Blood seeped gently from the surrounding tissues, drifting upward.

For such a wound, Ingrid would have expected it to be filled with a lot of blood.

“Fascinating. I think I see a new layer at the very end. Maybe subcutaneous fat?” Nile said.

“I wish I had been able to make the collection tubes longer for you.” Monika said.

“For how short notice this all was, you should be proud of your work.” Nile said.

Ingrid rolled her eyes in her cockpit.

“You’re such besties, wow. Why not have a friendly make-out session too?” She said.

“On to the next site, Ingrid.” Dreschner interrupted. “It is marked for you.”

On her main screen, a green, flashing square target paint appeared in the distance. This was also reflected on a static sonar picture taken of the area by the Iron Lady, which she kept pinned up on a subordinate screen to get a better idea of how big the cavern was. Enormous hardly described it. This felt less like a cavern and more like her company had found its way into an entire contained little world that was only vaguely linked to their own.

Somehow, descending the trench seemed to have flipped everything around; water was bright, bandwidth was high, walls were meat. And the extremely extinct anomalocaris was popular with young, network-savvy girls. Would this flesh stretch onward forever?

No use thinking about it. No use thinking about a lot of things.

Yet she could not help but to keep thinking.

With her next target in place, Ingrid re-engaged her jets and leaped off the fleshy ground.

In her rear camera, the Iron Lady still loomed large in the background.

Holding position about 200 meters above the seafloor, still in line with the cave shaft.

A shiver ran its course through her body. She gripped her controls tighter.

Of course, Ingrid was unnerved. It was an unnerving situation.

Soaring through the water in an ethereal, too-still landscape of fleshy hills and purple snow.

Ingrid was a woman who felt her fears were simple things.

She did not care much for the grander scope of things in Imbria’s drama. Things that made her cry or made her shudder were exclusively personal. Her pain was not the world’s pain, nor was the world’s pain hers. People died, every day, in their thousands, hundreds of thousands, in their millions, men, women and children, youth in their prime and elderly ill deserving it– she didn’t know, she didn’t care. It was impossible for her empathy to encompass things too much greater than her orbit. In her experience, in the world that she had been brought up in, such things made you insane, and got you killed.

Whether purged by your own people for bringing disorder, disgrace and dishonor–

Or winnowed by the world itself for being too soft in the face of its unrelenting cruelty.

She was a subject of the world.

She submitted her soul to the proper order– but her heart was for the personal.

At all times she envisioned her journey in the Inquisition would have been quite mundane.

However, her Commander apparently attracted inexplicable things to herself.

“To think all my fuckin’ simpering led to this shit.” She chided herself in bitter mutterings.

It was difficult, it was colossal in its scope, to not waver in the insanity of what she saw.

But what scared her the most was something deeply personal.

That, in seeing this, she herself was forever changed. She could not just ignore this.

Nobody would ever understand. She was marked with it for life. Alone with this madness.

“Who would believe any of this?” She muttered to herself, in restrained frustration.

It was no wonder to her now that the Abyss had so many secrets.

Even if she returned alive nobody would believe her.

Her life was now a lonely myth.

The Jagdkaiser rose up the water table, despite its size faster and easier to maneuver than any Diver Ingrid had ever laid hands on. Effortless to pilot, easy to embody. She took in the “landmarks” that had been noted around the cavern, which was variously also referred to as “the cavity” by the more scientific of their crew members. The Iron Lady had made the final point of its descent the “starting point” of their exploration and by their instruments, the nearest landmarks all sat to the west of this point, although the cavity stretched farther east of them as well. There was a vast landscape of fleshy rolling hills with “fields” of yellow, sinewy reeds growing irregularly throughout, that made up much of the surroundings. To the north in this “field” there was a man-made structure resembling a blue and black rectangular station with a baseplate slowly fusing into the flesh on the ground– this was the most likely candidate for the “primary edifice” that Commander Lichtenberg was looking for.

However, this was not any one of the destinations for Ingrid on this sortie.

Instead, she had three positions in the flesh-field and its direct surroundings that she would survey, one closer to the Iron Lady, one among a field of reeds, and one atop a far hill closer to the main landmark inside the cavity. Several kilometers out from the shaft entrance and the primary edifice, the mysterious, and gigantic, silicate-looking structure, attached at its “peak” and “base” to enormous, sinewy growths of flesh. Like giant arteries attempting to burrow into the structure or command it or hold it in suspension. To Ingrid’s mind, it looked like the flesh was propping up the thing– but she didn’t really know anything.

It was colossal– seemingly looming over everything in the cavity.

Ingrid could look up and see it from anywhere she had been.

At the Commander’s request, it had been dubbed the “silica tree.”

Through a scan, the Iron Lady had found that a massive trench divided the flesh-field from the silica tree. Ingrid’s last collection spot was at the edge of the trench, and part of her task was also to see how deep this trench ran, whether anything was in it, whether it might lead anywhere– generally to get a camera on it. Then the nerds watching it could figure out the rest of the details themselves without much of her own input.

Ingrid tried not to be too wowed by everything she saw.

Her heart was in a mode to smother its feelings.

She wanted to retreat from feelings.

Feelings of beauty and longing and awe at the spectacle of the world–

They had no place in her– she had to get hard, harder, like she used to be before–

Before a certain woman bedeviled her and made her feel too special.

And yet– she also did not want to hate anything she saw, anything she felt.

That, too, was too extreme, too emotional. That too was softness.

Whether forgiving Gertrude and letting her back in was softness or hardness–

Ingrid could not say, did not want to contemplate, and put out of her mind as vexing.

“How are you feeling right now, Järveläinen-Kindlysong?” Nile asked.

“Captain Dreschner, do I have to answer this.” Ingrid grumbled.

“Yes.” Dreschner said. And not a word more.

Ingrid sighed audibly. Frustrated. What did this woman care how she felt?

“I feel fucking fine— alright? I am just peachy, it’s just me and the meat out here.”

“I agree that your conduct feels normal. Any physical–” Nile said and was interrupted.

“Okay? Hey, you know what, enlighten me– what do you think is normal for me, doc?”

“Speaking purely as a doctor observing a patient, you are hesitant to share your emotions, have a strong temperament and strong reactions in social situations. I would still like us to–”

“I never agreed to be your fucking patient! So speak like that again and I’ll fucking–”

“Ingrid! Please stop!” Monika cried out. “She’s not as bad as you think she is!”

“Take her side, why don’t you!” Ingrid shouted back. “Has she been fucking you too?”

Louder and sterner than anyone else, Captain Dreschner interrupted everyone.

“All of you for the love of God stop bickering over nothing! This instant and henceforth!”

His fist striking the arm of his chair was audible even to Ingrid.

It was rare to see Dreschner shout with such vigor.

Even he himself as he continued to speak seemed frustrated that he was pushed to it.

“Ingrid, you are tightly knit with this crew and this ship, and you are a proud person. I know that. I understand that. All of us greatly respect you. You have a lot to be proud about.” Dreschner said. “But a good soldier appreciates the advantages she is given, even if this means setting aside pride and tolerating conflicting personalities. Doctor Nile is assisting in this endeavor to help you. She needs to check in and monitor you, for your benefit. You would be at a grave disadvantage and even danger without her assistance.”

“I understand, Captain.” Ingrid muttered.

“I apologize for my role in the disturbance.” Nile added. Ingrid hated her for apologizing.

Dreschner sighed himself, and his tone of voice softened again.

“We need every advantage we can get. Continue to pilot that machine. And continue to accept the assistance and follow the commands of the Doctor and Chief Engineer. We are resuming this mission, and I want all future chatter to be productive to the mission.”

Ingrid hated that he felt he had to explain all of that to her, as if she didn’t know.

Old man Dreschner was somebody she respected, somewhat, for all the shit he took.

And he was like Gertrude’s dad– so she wanted to like him in that sense too.

Unlike many other people she would hate for this treatment, she did not hate him for this.

But she was frustrated that nobody shared her petty, pointless anger toward Nile.

That nobody else saw the introduction of her into the crew as a disruption.

A doctor– who gives a shit? They never had a doctor. They never needed a doctor.

All they needed was first aid and grit. That carried them through a lot.

Now Gertrude needed a goddamn doctor, didn’t she? Needed one a fucking lot now huh?

Lifting a hand from the machine’s control sticks to cover her own eyes, rub her own face.

Ingrid also hated herself a lot too. Her head was a mess of emotions.

She felt ridiculous.

And she hated that she became Gertrude’s nightmare vision of her. That she was petty, that she was jealous, that she was childishly angry at Nile, Victoria and the weird brainwashed freak they found in the last stupid building they went digging in. She was as possessive of Gertrude as she and everyone around her chided Gertrude for being over Elena and whoever else. Around Gertrude she had tried to suppress those emotions and work them out, but she had to be honest. Even if being honest with herself meant being miserable.

To think all this bullshit was in her head here. In the fucking sea of meat.

She shut her eyes hard for a moment. Trying to center herself again.

Felt her own sweat beads pooling up around the contact points affixed to her temples.

Opened her eyes again. Looked around the cockpit.

Apparently the Jagdkaiser had some kind of brain technology that helped to pilot it.

She wasn’t the cyborg freak that had been grown in a vat to pilot the Jagdkaiser originally. So she did not have anywhere to connect the gross spinal-tap looking implement. It was ultimately removed from the machine by Monika. Instead they would use the contacts, referred to by both Monika and Nile as “non-invasive electrodes” hooked up to Ingrid’s temples, the base of her dog-like ears and the back of her head, to connect to the homunculus. That “homunculus” was suspended in a box chassis above her head, separated from her by a sort of affixed metallic halo that provided structural support.

Thinking about it, she wondered whether her sense of the machine’s power was actually a sense that the hardware was better, or something the homunculus was doing. Were her reflexes and inputs enhanced by the homunculus, allowing her to pilot faster and more efficiently or was the machine faster and more efficient at the level of its base hardware? It almost made her mad again to have to consider such bizarre things.

That her life had become this parade of mysticism.

“All of this shit is going to get me killed.” She mumbled to herself.

But she had a mission, and the Jagdkaiser was approaching its next target.

Overflying a field of the yellow reeds and descending into and through the tall stalks.

As they swept past her in the cameras, she thought they looked plant-like.

Like thicker algae, mixed with celery– more stem than leaf, weirdly vascular, fibrous.

Turning away from the exhaust of her hydrojets just as they swayed with the currents.

Ingrid touched down on the ground amid the reeds, almost as tall as the Jagdkaiser itself.

More small animals, some crustacean, some almost like bony, scaly fish, swam away.

She maneuvered the Jagdkaiser’s good hand behind its back again to read for another tube.

From the equipment status screen, she was drawn–

To a yellow flash.

Her eyes darted toward her monitors.

An automatic target paint, suddenly, right next to her.

In a snap reaction she boosted away from the paint, and the movement in the reeds.

Something large rose up from mere meters away–

Her own hand swiped her weapon selector to engage her assault rifle.

The Jagdkaiser’s hand seized the weapon and turned it toward the field.

She held her fire, eyes wide-drawn, heart pounding.

Sluggishly, with almost lethargic movements, a white creature rose over the reeds.

Its body was smooth and slick, thick and cylindrical, serpentine, alien. Utterly pale, so pale its purple sinews were visible beneath its thin oily skin. No eyes on the surface of what Ingrid assumed was its head, and the barest semblance of a mouth that opened, nearly causing Ingrid to fire, testing her patience, her nerves on a burning edge. But there were no teeth, and it was only sucking in water as if to taste it. She held her place, kept her peace, and the creature lived just a moment longer. Paddle-like arms were placed irregularly across its body, which ended in a cephalopod-like tail. Four biological hydrojets blew a current of water and kicked up fleshy dust that was like shed, dead skin, and bits of broken-off reeds.

Even its ascent with its hydrojets was lethargic, slow, strangely peaceful.

It rose from the reeds, freeing itself from them, and it circled the Jagdkaiser once and from well afar before leaving the area entirely, undulating as it moved its long, cylindrical body, paddles gyrating, bio-jets giving it a lazy current to propel it away. As if the creature was just curious to see what had disturbed its environment and did not care to defend itself nor consume its intruder. Its movements almost reminded Ingrid of some gross malformation of a whale, playful, harmless, almost intelligent-seeming despite its grotesque form.

“Ingrid, I commend you on avoiding any violence toward that creature.” Nile said.

Ingrid dropped back against her seat, putting her hands over her eyes, kicking her feet.

“Fuck.” She grunted. “I don’t need commending! Warn me about it next time!”

“Sorry!” Monika said. “We’ll run more frequent scans from now on.”

“We have to balance information gathering with disturbing the environment too much.” Nile said. Before Ingrid could get mad, she continued, clarifying. “Scanning too often might attract other creatures. Possibly less docile ones than that. We are in a tricky situation.”

“Ugh.” Ingrid said nothing more, to avoid further confrontation.

Instead, she returned her rifle to its place and staked the ground to collect the meat sample.

Once again the flesh-field bled silently and without complaint.

“What if it’s a colony organism?” Monika said. “Like, zillions of little meat guys.”

“In a certain philosophical lens, the planet is already a colony organism.” Nile said.

“Huh. Yeah. I guess you could say, we are the zillions of little meat guys.” Monika said.

“I’m not a biologist so I’m a bit out of my depth with all of this.” Nile said. “Thinking about this from a medical perspective, one of my worries here is whether this organism is healthy. Is it alive or dead? How would we know its status? Does it respond to stimuli and how does it responds; whether it is affected by any pathogens; and what kind of relationship its anatomy and metabolism might have to us or our technology. Think about this– what if we inadvertently lead to the death or contamination of this environment? Could this be a crucial part of the Imbrium’s homeostasis that we were simply not aware of until now?”

“Think less about the organism’s well-being and more about ours for now, please.”

Gertrude made a rare interjection into the conversation at this point. Ingrid set her jaw.

Nile grunted a bit but continued to talk. “Of course, I am thinking about our crew above all else, or otherwise I would not ever have suggested to send the Sotnyk out there to collect samples. Were I completely against us exploring this place I would have advocated for us turning around– medically that is also the safest possible option. I am not blind to the scientific wealth we could find here. However, our actions still have consequences beyond our naked self-interest. You would do well to think on that, Commander.”

Gertrude did not respond. Dreschner curiously did not tell Nile to quiet down either.

Instead, the gentle scolding was allowed. Ingrid could imagine Gertrude sulking about it.

She was always so pathetic whenever something did not go her way.

Ingrid cracked the smallest smile imagining it.

“Personally, I am hoping this thing is too big for us to affect so easily.” Monika added.

“We are very small compared to our presumption of this ‘body’. That could very well be true if this is all one organism.” Nile said. “However, physically small organisms can have enormous medical outcomes on larger bodies– there are viruses that would strangle a human to death in hours, and to this organism, we could be one such virus.”

“Well, even if we kill it, I assume profit margins in the megacorps won’t take a big hit.”

Monika made a cheeky remark, and Nile had a small laugh at it in the comms.

“Humanity has survived a lot, but I still advocate for a bit caution. Just a bit, that is all.”

Grunting with indignation, Ingrid retrieved the stake, its insides filled with meat.

She attached the stake to the back. One more stake; one more location to scout.

“We painted your final target. Let’s get you going; and get you back safe.” Dreschner said.

“Acknowledged.” Ingrid said mechanically.

She pushed down her pedals and pushed forward her sticks.

Once more, the Jagdkaiser rose up higher on the water table and took off.

As the fleshy landscape scrolled by, Ingrid cast a glance at her rear camera, the Iron Lady becoming smaller and smaller in the distance behind her– but still visible. She cast a glance at one of the side cameras, facing the north of the cavern, and the mysterious facility standing amid the flesh almost like a massive and wide version of one of her stakes. A monolith impaled on the flesh. Who built that? Why did they leave it there?

She couldn’t help but be curious about it.

It was like nothing else in the surroundings. Alien within an alien land.

Gertrude would definitely be going in there– searching for God-only-knows-what.

“What am I even doing here?” She mumbled to herself. She felt like such a fool.

Unable to even sort out whether she was really angry, whether they could even be friends.

Clearly Gertrude was at fault, had treated her terribly– but she wanted to forgive her.

That woman as difficult as she was, had saved her life, stuck with her when she had nobody.

Had Gertrude not thrown herself at Norn’s mercy, Ingrid would absolutely be dead.

Captured by Brauchitsch and made a brutal and pointless example of.

Nobody would have missed her. There was only one woman who would have.

It wasn’t just Elena von Fueller who received some of Gertrude’s grace and protection.

She had genuinely sacrificed a lot for Ingrid’s sake too. She cared about her.

Everything that had happened to Gertrude was something Ingrid was also tangled up in.

Since the cadet academy, she always encouraged her.

Had they never met, Gertrude would have maybe never fought Brauchitsch too.

It wasn’t just that Princess who shaped her– Ingrid had a hand in making Gertrude!

Ingrid had wanted to be closer to Gertrude since they met. She was attractive! She was a good lay– even in cadet school Ingrid thought it would have been fun and when it finally happened she had her fun. Gertrude also proved she could be actually reliable when the chips were down– and that she was willing to throw anything away to achieve her goals. To stomp her own pride and debase her own honor. Ingrid admired that too, she was not a moralist, she was not impressed by peaceniks, reformers playing at being clean.

Her own sense of self was so rigid– she admired Gertrude being able to do anything.

That darkness inside Gertrude was attractive– until her fire burnt too hot.

“We got together at the worst possible time.” Ingrid thought.

Cursing her own luck. Gertrude was being stupid and wanton– Ingrid let herself be used.

It felt good for a bit, but with hindsight, it would’ve never lasted.

Of course anything to do with that Princess would have resulted in some stupid mess.

Of course they reacted in awful, hurtful ways about it.

Just like always– whenever they fought it always felt like both of them fucked up.

Gertrude would try to take all the blame; Ingrid would cautiously admit her own side in it.

It had happened over and over and their relationship surmounted it each time.

This time though, it was so heart-wrenchingly personal, so massive.

How could she forgive her for breaking her heart? Why would she ever do so?

“I guess I won’t.” Ingrid muttered. Something agreed too fast, and too half-heartedly.

Doing nothing to solve the conflict, which was raging in that soft, girlish heart she hated.

Her eyes, starting to tear up, scanned quickly across her monitors.

Looming closer, the absolutely massive silica tree, and its crown and roots of flesh.

Ahead of her, the red flesh-field took a steep dive. She could see the trench around the tree.

Cresting the final hill before the cliff, Ingrid set the Jagdkaiser down before the drop.

She removed the final stake, drove it into the ground, and waited, turning her cameras.

To have called it a cliff, and a trench, was a severe, almost biblical understatement. Ingrid felt as if she stood at the end of the world before a yawning maw that went straight into hell itself. She had no inkling of how deep Aer was supposed to be, how far down the ground upon which they trod would go and what was inside the planet’s deepest reaches. Whatever she was taught in school she forgot, it was ultimately just unimportant to her.

So in her mind, she was staring at the world’s center.

Staring at such things which made her feel like a gnat on the skin of a physical God.

First, suspended in the middle of everything, was that silica tree.

Larger than stations, like a mountain and a sun at once, bound by the flesh.

Over the chasm, the orifice down into oblivion.

There was a limit to how far down she could see because the light of the tree did not cut through the darkness with the same intensity that it illuminated the water in the cavity. Despite this she could see far enough to note the geological divisions, the strata of layered flesh and minerals. All of it was probably flesh, but its properties clearly changed deeper down. The layer of reddish flesh was surprisingly shallower than she imagined, and it quickly became darker, sinewy, and crossed with what seemed like stones and sediment.

And cutting through the flesh at irregular angles,

like spurs of dim flickering violet bone–

enormous, root-like veins of Agarthicite.

Some large enough and sticking out far enough to bridge the trench and reconnect the thick, tentacular flesh protrusions rising up like a column to hold up the silica tree from out of the endless darkness. Despite their contact with the flesh in many places they did not annihilate all of it, as they would have done to a similarly impaled human. Instead, brief sparks of Agarthic energy sliced small wounds into the flesh at irregular intervals.

Ingrid’s intruments read a slow but steady current coming up from below.

As if there was a flow from the chasm up toward them.

“Incredible!” Monika said. “How far down could that go? We’ve got to be at most like ten kilometers below the water’s surface right? We’re barely scratching the total depth of the ocean. However, the organism’s flesh extends farther down– what if this is only a small part of its body? Could there more cavities connected by more ducts and trenches?”

“Putting my foot down. We are not going to find out how much bigger it is.” Nile said.

“Nobody said we were going any deeper, relax.” Gertrude said, sounding surly.

They did not understand. They were not standing in front of this colossus.

With only a few meters of armor plate between themselves and its enormity.

Now the tears did flow from Ingrid’s eyes, and her ears folded, her tail curled.

And she looked upon the surface of the silica tree, and it seemed, for a moment–

That she felt as it did. That she heard as it spoke. As it sang– she saw as it did–

In front of her eyes she saw a great forest of many such trees as tall as the very sky.

Singing to each other, all as one, one as all, and yet many, songs of interwoven colors.

Older than age, ancient, arising mineral acritarchs, watching over carbonate puddles.

Full of love for all things, they sang to the creatures that slowly arose all around them.

“Something on the scans– it’s large– it’s approaching!”

An era of cunning, depredation, and conflict for survival played out at the feet of the trees.

Newborn creatures entered and exited, fought and ate, and grew and changed,

Never judged by the ones watching them, never thought unworthy.

“What– what the hell is that?!”

Then, suddenly, it was heard, that one creature sang back to the trees.

One creature of many, who from the means of singing developed thought and purpose.

Astonished, excited at the prospect, the trees wanted to nurture that nascent song.

“It’s firing! It’s firing– a missile!”

But before they could make themselves better stewards of this life, the trees met their end.

Cut down by a fated cataclysm of demonic, violet light that threatened everything.

Ending one song in sacrifice, to bury that fiendish power where it would not be touched.

Ushering another song in its place; a shuddering, embryonic song, the song of humanity–

Ingrid’s eyes flashed and she heard the multiple voices of all humanity as if they were one–

“INGRID! EVASIVE ACTION NOW! RIGHT NOW!”

Gertrude’s voice– shaking her from the stupor–

Pure fight or flight cleared the fog in her vision and Ingrid reacted in an instant.

Jerking her hands back and slamming her pedals so suddenly and so hard that it hurt.

Solid fuel boosters and the leg hydrojets threw the Jagdkaiser into retreat, leaping back from the cliff and the spot she had staked. Her breathing ragged as if she had been choking; a full-body quivering; salty, stinging eyes through the film of which she watched the enormous, dark thing on the screen that made its intentions suddenly clear.

Her cameras filled with the light of an explosion, ordnance detonating in front of her.

Ingrid knew to expect the inward force of the vapor bubble when she began her escape.

Fresh fear spread like a cold tap in her spine when she saw the purple tendrils emerge.

Water immediately smothered any explosive detonation, resulting in a vapor bubble that inflicted damage via the enormous shearing forces of its collapse along with contact heat from the blast. But this ordnance caused a phenomenon that Ingrid had never seen before. Within the vapor bubble, she could see glowing, misshapen “blobs” of material continuously smothered by the water but generating what appeared like thin tendrils of purple lightning that shot out of the vapor bubble and crashed into ground and spread wildly astray.

Several such bolts went flying past her machine as she watched breathlessly.

Her heart caught in her chest–

One bolt sliced across the fleshy ground and

whipped toward

filling sight overwhelming violet light,

jaw hanging entranced, no space for breath,

her final thought

a prayer

for another day, another hour, another second to decide–

granted

As the bolt annihilated one of her cameras, downing a monitor in her cockpit.

Ingrid jerked back against her seat, looking around the cockpit in a panic.

She had not imploded. She was not dead.

Her shaking body was there in all its parts.

She had breath, and pulse.

The Jagdkaiser landed on the fleshy ground several hundred meters from the cliff.

Several dozen meters where she had once been standing were annihilated.

Hexagonal wounds in a perfectly round crater.

Her remaining forward cameras fixed on the assailant, looming massively over the trench.

Ingrid had come under attack from a ship. An impossible ship that appeared suddenly.

Black and blue metal covered a boxy hull with beveled edges, bedecked with weapons. Cannon turrets, interdiction autocannons, missile bays. Water foamed from the rear of the ship, vaporized by enormous thrusters that were not hydrojets. A near size match to the Iron Lady, slightly wider, more utilitarian in its design, the ship moved in a languid circle around the silica tree, approaching but never crossing the edge of the vast trench.

“Ingrid? Ingrid! Come in! The Jagdkaiser is still operational– are you okay? Ingrid please!”

Gertrude’s voice again.

Ingrid lifted her shaking hands from the controls, hugging herself.

Her heart was thrashing in her chest.

And she felt a throbbing, a pulse, as if from coming from above her.

But she refused to look up at the homunculus.

Fearing she might become lost in inexplicable nightmares again if she allowed it.

Her eyes remained fixed on the mysterious enemy.

It had stayed its assault– for now.

Her remaining cameras zoomed in on the vessel and recorded everything they could.

Completing its run around the eastern edge of the silica tree, it began to circle away.

Exposing its flank, upon which there was text emblazoned on it which was–

Horribly, impossibly, mind-bendingly legible. Ingrid could parse it as Low Imbrian.

A.F.S.F Extinction Fleet — Enterprise

Along with a coat of arms composed of sharp hexagons forming a larger hexagon.

Lumbering out of sight as if it had deemed her unworthy.

Inexorable as a force of nature, its passage disturbing the water around itself.

Having driven her away from the trench, the mystery ship simply continued its voyage.

That fear which they had of disturbing this place felt almost farcical now.

Ingrid sat back in her pilot seat, holding her chest, unsure of what to think or feel anymore.

Watching an enemy that could have vaporized her in an instant simply ignore her.

Back in Sverland, when she fought that pup mercenary; and in countless battles she had fought as part of Gertrude’s crew– Ingrid had always sated what she felt was a Loup’s sense of honor and lust for bloodshed. She was a soldier, because all Loup were soldiers. The proper way to live as a hound was to bite; biting was the only thing she could do. She had lost her share of fights, taken her share of lumps, but she always gave back as hard as she could, and pushed Gertrude closer to victory. Even when that pup Raisanen-Morningsun got the better of her, she did not feel like an insurmountable enemy. Had she not been ordered to; she would not have retreated. She would have fought to death; that was her worth.

Now she was faced with an enemy that she could not– would not, chase after.

She could not move. Ingrid was scared. That monstrous ship gave fuel to all of her fears.

Scared to be annihilated in this horrible place and never be seen again.

Scared that she might die in this awful time of her life with so much undone.

And terrified that she would die without reconciliation, without resolution–

“P-Permission to retreat. I– I don’t think we can retrieve the last s-s-sample.” She said.

Her voice trembling, her body shaking, her eyes filling with tears.

“Of course retreat! We’re coming– we’ll meet you halfway! Retreat now!”

Gertrude was still in command of the comms.

Ingrid wished she was not– because she felt oddly comforted hearing her voice.

Hearing her clear fear and worry which felt so frustratingly honest.

Without further exchange of words, Ingrid fled from the face of the enemy.

Child of a kinslayer, dog of the Imbrians, hopeless beggar of love, and now coward.

Her heart was soft, it was weak, she had changed. She had been changed.

She was alive.


The Iron Lady entered combat alert and advanced deeper into the cavity.

That mystery ship, the so-called Enterprise, was automatically denying all hails.

There was nothing they could do. Nothing Ingrid could do but calm herself and retreat.

Ingrid closed in on the ship at full speed, slowing to a stop only when under its hull.

Entering an awaiting deployment chute, she let go of the controls, breathed a sigh of great relief, and let the engineers do the rest. Steel cables secured her machine, the door to the ocean closed beneath her, and the water drained out. A crane arm lifted her machine from the deployment chute and set it down in a kneeling position in the middle of the hangar, surrounded by engineers taking stock of it and getting ready to help her out.

She sat in the dim cockpit for a moment, pulling off the contacts from her temples.

Once her machine was hooked to its gantry along the wall, Ingrid opened the cockpit. Her instrument panels shifted aside, and an expanding sliver of light shone in her eyes. She stood with her head and back bowed, ducking under the roof, trying to make her way out–

but someone intercepted her on the ramp formed by the cockpit plate.

Suddenly taking her into a strong grip and pushing her against a warm chest.

“Ingrid! Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

Ingrid offered no resistance.

She craned her head to look at the taller Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Fuck no I’m not, do I look okay? You moron?” She cried out, her guard broken.

Both she and Gertrude had tears in their eyes. Gertrude hugged her again, tighter.

“I’m so sorry, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to lose you. I fucked up. I fucked up.”

On that ramp, regardless of who was around, it felt like an island only for them.

“You didn’t lose me, I’m right here, so calm the fuck down, you lunatic.”

But Ingrid herself was weeping and her heart felt a joy she characterized as stupid.

An idiot’s comfort from being in the arms of someone she wanted and loved.

That person just a chaotic mess that had dragged her life to the rocks where it was dashed.

Nevertheless, she could not deny that there was comfort– and even more, there was desire.

They had been through so much together. They were still here.

“Ugh. You’re so pathetic.” Ingrid said, returning the embrace. “I wish I could hate you.”

And of course, at that precise moment, Gertrude chose to be Gertrude–

“You can hate me. You can despise me. But I will still do everything in my power for you.”

Ingrid suddenly reared back an arm and struck with full force and without warning.

Gertrude quavered and bent, leaning on Ingrid with her teeth grit and her tears running.

Upon having visible effect, the fist which buried in her stomach gently spread its fingers.

“That’s for all the shit you pulled. I’ll call it even now. You’re welcome.” Ingrid said.

Her hand switched to nursing Gertrude lovingly where the bruise was sure to form.

“T-t-thank you.” Gertrude moaned. Smiling weakly, recovering breath. “F-f-riends again?”

“Would I have hit you so hard if we weren’t friends?” Ingrid grinned self-assuredly.


After retrieval, Ingrid was immediately sent to Nile’s clinic.

To give her time to rest and to be checked up on by the doctor, a debriefing and strategy meeting was scheduled for the next day. In the meantime, Victoria van Veka stepped up as the standby pilot– which mildly irked Ingrid. But she had to accept it. She headed for the clinic and found contained therein her next mildly irksome set of moments.

“May I request your cooperation in a quick checkup to make sure you are not injured?”

Nile, gently smiling, as if they had never verbally sparred.

The doctor bid her to undress, put on a gown, and to take a seat on an adjustable bed.

Ingrid thought of saying something combative, but her anger was smothered by her shame.

Despite herself, she followed the doctor’s instructions.

Nile gently ran her hands along her limbs, requested her to make motions, checked parts of her body for wounding, broken bones; checked her mental faculties with strange and annoying questions and requests; took her blood pressure, listened to her heart, listened to her breathing; and finally handed her a small bagged protein drink with a screw-off top straw and declared her fit. All throughout, her handling was incredibly gentle and patient.

“I recommend you stay in bed for a few hours just to relax and wind down.” Nile said.

Ingrid averted her gaze.

That tall, long-haired, ethereally beautiful doctor, always kind and understanding. Having dropped into her world from out of nowhere. She felt her reckless competitive urge rising. That part of her that wanted to dominate her own kind, to prove that she was not just worthy but better, that the outcast embodied the true spirit of tradition. Someone who could not be displaced; someone who could not be ignored or replaced by anyone.

But it was clear from their every interaction that Nile was uninterested in competing.

Unlike Samoylovych-Darkestdays or Raisanen-Morningsun, she lacked fighting spirit.

Nevertheless, Ingrid took her for competition. Competition for– a variety of things.

“You look tense. Is there anything I can do to alleviate your concerns?” Nile asked.

She sat on the bed across from Ingrid’s own bed with a smile. To look her in the eyes.

That softness she could so easily turn on anyone bothered Ingrid more than it should have.

“I don’t suppose you’ll let me punch you?” Ingrid said. A bad joke. She couldn’t help it.

Nile kept smiling. “Setting pride aside, I’d like for there to be less injuries going around.”

Ingrid grinned back at her. “Hah. So you do have some pride as a Loup after all?”

Nile sat further from the edge of the bed as if making herself more comfortable.

“The pride of a Loup, you say? Well– I recognize the value of our cultures in fostering community; and I recognize particularly the value of cultures that are challenged and tarnished by authority. Loup culture has been warped by war and servitude, but it is nevertheless ours. I do not begrudge anyone practicing or defending that culture. But I have been hurt by it. Which is to say– I understand why you act how you do towards me. I have pride enough I would defend myself, but I have no interest in proving myself.”

“Do you know how much I hate it whenever you say you understand me?” Ingrid said.

“I do; I am keenly aware of where that feeling comes from.” Nile said. “Look, Ingrid, I will not reciprocate any violent fantasies you may have toward me, but I respect where you are coming from. I will not vilify you for being wary of an outsider, I will not judge you for your pride, nor for wanting to prove your strength or stake out your territory.”

Her territory– Ingrid felt so stupid when it was spelled out so obviously.

What had she been doing? Blustering and antagonizing people all this time– for what?

Such a thing, her territory, was so infinitely small and pointless to the world.

It was still hers– it was still priceless to her. But had she really protected anything?

Or had she prevented her world from getting any bigger, for no one’s sake?

“Ugh. Fine. Look– I’m sorry. Okay? I’m acting ridiculous and I know it. I’m sorry.”

Uncharacteristically, Ingrid felt ashamed of her own conduct– but Nile didn’t judge her.

Nile reached out a hand to Ingrid, offering her a shake. She looked upon her kindly.

“Believe me, I know how it feels to be an outsider who found a place in the world. I know how it feels to want to do anything to protect that place and sequester yourself inside it. I am not a peerless automaton– I know envy, I know anger, I know distrust, I’ve felt it. I want to do what I can to show you I am not an antagonist. To me, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, you are my patient, whom it is my duty to understand, respect, and to care for.”

Ingrid wanted to bite down and sever her tongue entirely; such was the shame she felt.

“God damn it. I hate how reasonable you sound. You better not make me regret this.”

She reached out, accepting the doctor’s slender fingers into her own slightly rugged ones.

Looked her in the eyes, and tried to see someone that she did not have to fight.

Tried to accept Nile as someone who was part of her world now too. Part of her territory.

When their fingers parted they remained seated on opposite beds. Nile’s tail began to wag.

“Nice work out there. I look forward to many more positive health outcomes.” She said.

Ingrid burst into a laugh; Nile having spoken so seriously. “You’re such a goddamn nerd.”

It was not much yet; it could become the beginnings of something.

Nevertheless, in place of the shame, Ingrid felt as if the tension insider her lessened.

She could smile again, and maybe she could even smile in Nile’s presence.

“So hey, tell me then, is Gertrude just a patient to you too?” Ingrid asked, in good humor.

“In this room, she is just a patient. But– she’s quite amusing, isn’t she?” Nile replied.


Time passed, and the Iron Lady cautiously resumed its exploration of the cavity.

“Why are you following me everywhere now?”

“Should I wait in your quarters then, master?

“N-no– no. You can keep doing what you are doing.”

“Then I shall keep a close eye on opportunities to I render assistance, master.”

“May I assume you are done pushing your sexuality onto me, then?”

“I shall leave such suggestions to the evening hours, master.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg turned to look over her shoulder.

That tone of voice, that little twist of her inflection every time she said master— and how she found a conceited, coy expression on Azazil’s face when she looked. That face reminded her of– Norn. Norn and Korabiskaya– when they teased her with their experience. She felt like bringing this up would look more pathetic than simply enduring it silently and with grace.

Looking at Azazil, with her unblemished, ethereally pale skin and her flawless makeup–

“Did you find your quarters acceptable? I take it you have all of your living essentials.”

“Any quarters are fine by me. I ask for very little and need even less.”

“How is your makeup so pristine if you didn’t request any supplies?”

“That is a mature woman’s sorcery– you wouldn’t know, nor can you be taught.”

Gertrude turned to look over her shoulder. Azazil winked and blew a mocking kiss.

“I feel like rather than a servant I have a harasser with me at all times.” Gertrude mumbled.

Her destination was a small meeting room, one of their few soundproofed rooms with full A/V, used for officer meetings. Inside the room waited Monika, Ingrid, Nile, Victoria and Karen Schicksal. All dressed for work. They sat around a square table with a digital whiteboard surface, flanked by a pair of long couch seats, with Karen at its head in control of a video screen on the far wall from the door. There were pouches of cream coffee and vitamin jelly strewn about the center of the table. Gertrude noticed that Ingrid was sandwiched between Victoria and Nile and despite this looked strangely calm about it.

Taking a deep breath, she walked inside and shut the door behind Azazil.

“Gertrude! Welcome! Sit down here!” Monika said, patting the empty space next to her.

Nile, Ingrid and Victoria all looked toward the doorway at the same time.

Victoria without expression, Nile smiling, Ingrid just slightly more disgruntled than before.

Such pointed staring made Gertrude feel as though she was in danger.

Without further dallying she took her seat next to Monika, who was cheerful as ever.

Directly across from Ingrid, who raised her fingers and waved.

While Victoria simply acknowledged Gertrude with a curt little nodding of the head.

Azazil sat down next to Gertrude, receiving a few stares from across the table too.

Well, Gertrude Lichtenberg, this is what you asked for, wasn’t it? This is what it takes.

She sat across and between all these quite familiar women, boxed in by them.

All women that she respected, cherished, loved, or was fascinated by– in some way.

Seemingly all getting along with each other though with complicated relationships to her.

Navigating some of this initial awkwardness was necessary for that to continue or improve.

As she sat there with everyone staring, she had to admit to herself she was a bit unnerved.

“Commander, glad to see you!” Karen said, breaking the awkward silence. “And thank you all for attending this meeting! I know we have had some frictions here and there, but I do appreciate everyone’s cooperation and everyone’s input is valuable is here. We are all uh– important stakeholders. I arranged this meeting to go over some of the data we have collected throughout our journey, and the forensics analysis we have concluded.”

“Before we begin,” Gertrude spoke up, “I wanted to ask how everyone is feeling so far.”

“Ah!” Karen said. “I’m– holding up!” She gave a thumbs up. Gertrude did not believe her.

“I’m excited and nervous in equal measure. But I’m here to care for everyone.” Nile said.

“I find this cavern rather disgusting, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Victoria said.

“You know how I’m doing, I’m just so fucking positive, aren’t I?” Ingrid said.

“I think I’m kind of, desensitized to horrible meat landscapes now.” Monika said.

Gertrude interrupted before Azazil could say how she felt and shook her head.

“As you say, master. A silent woman is a precious jewel to you, isn’t she?” Azazil said.

“Be quiet. As in don’t say anything else until asked.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Hey Gertrude, why are we trusting this chick? Why is she here?” Ingrid asked.

She crossed her arms and threw an accusatory glare across the table at Azazil.

“Ingrid, she’s here to help, just like with Nile and Victoria.” Gertrude said.

For a moment she felt like appealing to the present cases might help her argument–

“You didn’t just dig up Nile and Victoria from some hole, it’s not fucking the same.”

Shot down immediately– in a way Gertrude was not even expecting.

“I share the apprehension. Azazil should be under strict information control.” Victoria said.

Gertrude gave Victoria an annoyed look as if to say, ‘didn’t I get you on my side already?’

“I’m afraid I have to agree– though I of course still accept her as a patient.” Nile added.

Not Nile too– Gertrude fumed at everyone taking each other’s side against her.

She felt suddenly cornered, staring at the three women glowering across from her.

“She’s connected to the structures! We can figure them out with her assistance!” She said.

“I’m with Gertrude on this! We need to keep that weird lady!” Monika said suddenly.

She raised her arm and wiggled her ears and tail and smiled with a mischievous vigor.

Monika– the only ally Gertrude had in the room. She gave her a fond little look.

“Why the hell?” Ingrid asked. “You of all people should understand the danger here!”

“Well– I feel like she needs someone on her side.” Monika said, sidling closer to Gertrude.

“We’re all on the same goddamn side.” Ingrid said, sighing.

“I am on my master’s side. After everything else has slipped through her fingers like so much sand, I shall still be at her side to watch the dust with her. Such is my solemn duty.”

Azazil said, her tone grandiose, gesturing toward Gertrude with a small, conceited smile.

“Uh, was that supposed to be a dig at you?” Ingrid asked, grinning at Gertrude.

Gertrude wanted to sink against the table and never lift her head again.

“Please just accept my decision and move on.” Gertrude said, nearly gritting her teeth.

“We should table this for later.” Nile said. “We’re wasting time and not getting anywhere.”

Azazil once again spoke up without being prompted.

Master can be stubborn, but I believe with the faculties she possesses, she has deemed me worthy of assisting your mission. As one designed for such things, it is my pleasure to assist her. You may assess the master poorly right now– but my assistance can elevate her.”

“Uh. Huh.” Ingrid replied, staring at Azazil in confusion but also a slight amusement.

“I told you to be quiet. I told you not to speak until spoken to.” Gertrude mumbled.

“I am providing assistance which seemed sorely desired, master.” Azazil said.

“Don’t provide assistance. Do exactly as I tell you. Exactly. Okay?”

Azazil, smiling serenely, nodded her head at Gertrude, who supposed she was being quiet.

“Ah, well, I’m glad we have such a– lively– rapport–?” Karen said, clearly nervous.

“I suppose I can live with this situation and just keep an eye on her.” Victoria said.

“Ugh, alright, fine, whatever, I’ll drop it. Look at me getting along so well.” Ingrid fumed.

“Well, I guess we can call it settled?” Monika said. “Welcome aboard, Azazil!”

Gertrude wondered if they were all turning around only because Azazil was being so snide.

After the commotion over Azazil finally subsided, Karen introduced the first real issue.

“Forensics has completed its analysis over all the data logs and footage gathered from the anarchist-branded Cutter in the trench. We have evidence to support the Cutter being the shared property of a cadre of Bosporan outcasts. Apparently they advocated for a fringe ideology within the anarchist movement and were pressured to leave their former communities. I’ll play some footage for you that we isolated of their last day.”

Karen pointed her clicker-remote at the screen on the wall.

On the video, there was a view of the main hall of the cutter erupting into pandemonium. There was screaming from every direction, people running from something, trying to barricade themselves in the rooms in which Victoria and Gertrude found them– and suddenly dropping dead where they stood in a variety of places. What was missing from the video was any visible assailant– it looked like the people in the footage were running away from something, as if they were trying to avoid a concrete threat. They moved in certain directions, ducked away from invisible attacks, and died as if attacked invisibly as well.

“This is security footage. We also inspected the video diaries recovered, but we found these a bit too personal to show. The diary belonged to a minor who was wrapped up in this expedition and met her end– much like here, she was chased to her final resting place, but we can’t make out an assailant. We believe it might have been a mass psychogenic illness.”

Gertrude flexed and controlled the muscle of her psionics, activating her advanced sight.

Red rings appeared on Victoria and Nile’s eyes as well.

Ingrid had no powers; Monika seemed to struggle a bit with it; Azazil looked disinterested.

To those with the sight, the assailant in the videos became clear.

Ragged red cloak over a sinewy, black, wraith-like body that was only visible through the smallest gaps in the billowing cloth. Faces covered by bone-white masks with expressions cut into the seemingly hard material. Unlike the blue creatures Gertrude had seen first-hand, these red beings had cartoonishly furious expressions etched into their masks, and their claws were sharper and less overgrown, easily swung as weapons that pierced through the unprepared sailors. Nile and Victoria glanced at the creatures and then at each other.

Perhaps all of them had seen these creatures before, in that insane shared dream.

These red ones moved nothing like the lethargic blue creatures that seemed almost pitiable.

Malice seemed to guide them, and rather than sleep, their touch brought pain and death.

It was not something they could reasonably clue Ingrid and Schicksal about, not right now.

“Mass psychogenic illness. We’ll leave it at that.” Gertrude said sullenly, burying it.

Nobody else in the room objected. She had spoken seriously, leaving no room for dissent.

“Any progress in contacting that mystery ship.” Gertrude said, changing subject.

Karen shook her head. “We attempted to hail it but all kinds of messages we have tried have been denied automatically. In case of incompatible protocols we even tried generative free interface association– but even that did not yield any different sort of result. For now, we will have to assume the ‘Enterprise’ is both malicious and resisting communication.”

“What about our other interests in this area?” Gertrude asked.

“We are still testing the flesh that was recovered. That will take some time– we have to be very careful with it.” Karen said. “Doctor Nile will assist in these efforts. We did also analyze some of the food packaging, political symbols and the various sundries that were recovered from the technological site that we found at 3000 meters depth. None of it was particularly enlightening– this Aer Federation had industry and packaged goods like our own and, well, the site was a human habitation of some kind. More fruitful than that– we do also have testimony from Miss Azazil here, acquired during her capture, interrogation and processing, that purports to elucidate some of our findings relating to ‘Island-3’ and its ‘edifices’.”

Karen played a few different pieces of video of conversations with Azazil that had been captured. These were disparate remarks and answers from various interactions. They had been edited to include only relevant information and exclude any unimportant remarks or speech given by unimportant personnel. Only the context of Azazil’s responses was shown in the videos, with some context given by Karen if any clarity was desired.

Azazil was quiet and uninterested as the video of her speaking played out.

“Of course, I can elucidate for you. You see, this facility is part of the Island-3 complex. The Island Series were originally intended to begin a process of underwater habitation, commissioned by the Aer Federation, but Island-3 was purchased separately by private investors out from under the Federation. The Island-3 modules were very flexible and meant to spread out to create a larger underwater network of interlinked facilities, but during their descent, several modules were lost. Only two modules successfully linked up– the Crown Spire and the Primary Edifice, separated by thousands of meters of depth. For some time now I have been a piece of equipment registered to this particular station.”

“This edifice, the Island-3 Crown Spire was meant to be one of the nerve centers of the completed complex. It had offices, a laboratory, food storage, an Advanced Neurological Model and biomechanoid servants, and other such amenities. With the loss and disconnection of most of the Island-3 modules, it was rendered largely useless as such, unable to carry out its administrative and scientific functions. It was then abandoned until the current era’s biomechanoids began to take unwanted residence within it.”

(Karen noted that Azazil seemed to refer to Katarrans as exclusively ‘biomechanoids’.)

“What am I? I am a biomechanoid servant designed to take care of humans. I can act as a social or sexual partner to adults, or a nurse or minder to children, and as a protector when needed. My combat capabilities? I am able to defend myself adequately, but I am not capable of bringing about the death of a Genuine Human Being. I would consider myself capable of overpowering most of you. Shimii? Well, I suppose I do look like that, don’t I?”

(She then dodged the question of whether she was a Shimii with overwrought sophistry.)

“Yes, that hexagon symbol is the Aer Federation standard. It represents utter perfection.”

“The Aer Federation is the ruling polity of the planet known as Aer. The Aer Federation is based in the Center of the Known World, located in Turkiye, a country that is part of the Nobilis Confederacy. What do these names mean? Oh, these are surface names. Well, a long time ago, the Confederacy of the Nobilis continent was the rival of the Ayvartan Union in the Extremis continent and the Federation of Northern States in the Occultis continent. However, all three polities were greatly weakened by a series of pandemics known as the Three Great Ravages and were driven to the brink, losing much of their influence and autonomy. Due to its role in resolving these crises, Turkiye’s Aer Federation would grow into a supranational body with near-total control over all of Aer’s social development and global security, as well as regulating key technologies like STEM and biomechanoids.”

(Karen explained that Azazil’s answers attracted more random questions and idle chatter.)

“Even though you have not heard of the Aer Federation, I assure you it is the ruling polity of the world. You may not know or understand it, but you are part of it. My evidence for this is that Genuine Human Beings continue to exist, and the Aer Federation is the supreme and eternal authority of all Genuine Human Beings. As you continue the search for Perfection and make use of Agarthicite, you are still advancing the Aer Federation’s goals and ideologies. As a compromise, perhaps we can say you are successors of the Federation.”

(Karen explained that at this point, Azazil became less cooperative regarding information.)

Gertrude turned to face Azazil, who put on small but polite smile in response.

“You know a lot more than you let on. Why did you stop talking?” She asked.

Azazil continued to smile quietly, fluttering her eyelashes.

“You can talk again now.” Gertrude said, exasperated.

“I was asked questions which were not safe to answer.” Azazil replied. “Or rather, I felt that the answers would endanger the people asking, so in order to preserve the peace, I refused to answer them, and I still do. Even you, master, cannot prompt certain answers from me– because it is my duty to insure health and safety, and avoid undue harm to humans.”

Gertrude hit the table. “The hell kind of ‘servant’ are you, just constantly disobeying?!”

“Gertrude, calm down. Don’t let her jerk you around so easily.” Nile scolded her.

“To be frank, most of the information she gave us was pointless anyway. We cannot make use of almost anything she wanted to tell us.” Victoria said. “It does not matter to us what the Aer Federation was like or where it was located. Whatever she says, we know that this polity is extinguished and has no influence on us. Right now, what we want is to extract information and technology that is immediately useful to us, isn’t that our focus?”

“What she said, Gertrude, these history lessons are a waste of spit.” Ingrid added. “Make her tell you what kind of shit is in this cavern! Like the ship that nearly fucking killed me!”

“Should you desire to access the primary edifice, I will do what I can assist you.”

Azazil remained unbothered by all of the anger and skepticism that surrounded her.

“It’s not even worth being pissed off at her, it’s like her skull is full of air!” Ingrid said.

“Gertrude, I am, if anything, beginning to trust her even less.” Victoria said.

“Look, I know its weird, and I no longer have any idea what direction my trust is going either– nor does that actually matter!” Gertrude said, greatly irritated, “What I do know is that we need her, she’s our only connection to these places. Right now, if we don’t break into that Primary Edifice then we are leaving here empty-handed except for lumps of meat and bad memories. If the Aer Federation isn’t around then I should help myself to what’s left.”

“I do not wish to cause discord between my master and her crew.” Azazil said.

She stood up from her seat, with everyone watching, and bowed her head, still smiling.

“Allow me to work to earn your trust and provide excellent service.” She said.

Ingrid averted her gaze as if it was embarrassing. Victoria stared dead-on at Azazil.

Gertrude ordered her to return to her seat, and the ‘biomechanoid’ smilingly conferred.

“Well– in the words of the captain, we do need every advantage we can get.” Karen said. She then clicked the projector, switching the videos of Azazil’s confession out to images captured by the Jagdkaiser of the enigmatic black and blue ship that had attacked Ingrid. “We called off the combat alert because it appears this ‘Enterprise’ is just circling the silica tree for the moment. For now, this can be considered the primary threat to our exploration, but we do not believe it is an immediate threat– it is not actively seeking battle with us.”

“Azazil, is it possible for that ship to still be crewed?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes, it could have a biomechanoid crew still following a given directive.” Azazil replied.

“After nearly a thousand years, or maybe more?” Nile asked, bewildered.

“I am a product of the Aer Federation, and I am still here.” Azazil said calmly.

Nile looked disconcerted by the prospect– an immortal apprehensive about immortals?

“Are we sure it won’t make a sudden beeline and attack us?” Ingrid asked.

“We have observed its appearances around the silica tree for the past day.” Karen said. “When we arrived we did not detect it, so we believe it was acting much more slowly or was completely inert at first, and only became active when it detected us. We believe it has sped up its rounds since we first made contact with it, but it has not left the side of the tree at all since then– if it wanted to attack us, we believe it would have already done so.”

“From our preliminary analysis of current footage and data,” Monika joined in, speaking of the ship with evident enthusiasm, “We believe the ‘Enterprise’ is the size and complement of a Dreadnought and that it is made up of the same metal as the Primary Edifice– which makes sense if they are both Aer Federation constructions. Since it appears to be keeping a tight course around the Silica Tree, I propose we first test whether or not it will act to protect the Primary Edifice. If it does not, we can study the structural integrity of the Primary Edifice to learn more about the Enterprise and perhaps devise a strategy to knock it out.”

Karen pointed her clicker at the screen again and displayed footage of the ship’s attack.

Particular attention was called to the glowing orbs within the vapor bubble.

“Ingrid, what do you think about the nature of the Enterprise’s attack?” Karen asked.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? That thing shot some kind of Agarthicite weapon.” Ingrid said.

Her words caught mid-sentence, and she looked disturbed to even say it.

“To be more precise than that,” Monika said, “I believe this weapon leverages different states of matter than we are used to for Agarthicite. Our civilization uses Agarthicite near-exclusively in its solid form since melting undepleted agarthicite is so dangerous. But Agarthicite is matter, and like any matter, it has different states. It’s theoretically possible for there to be liquid, gaseous and plasma Agarthicite. However, because Agarthicite is so volatile, it can only be handled via ultrapotent magnetic fields, ultrasonic water cutting, or within ultracold chambered gasses– we need extreme environmental conditions to prevent it from annihilating matter. I believe that the Enterprise has Agarthic pseudoplasma weapons– the behavior in that footage reminded me of plasma globules.”

For a moment, everyone in the room (except Azazil) had a somber look on their face.

The crew of the Iron Lady had their own mysterious, powerful agarthicite weapon, and they had been awed by what they knew of its power and brutality in the hands of Norn and Selene– but this was levels above even the technology of the Sunlight Foundation. More verboten than the verboten. In the middle of this alien abyss, the Aer Federation, once hegemon of the world, left them a final messenger of its dominating power.

Regardless, however, Gertrude had come too far to allow a ghost ship to deter her.

“Agarthicite or no, there are still limits to what it can do. We figured out that the delivery mechanism is still just a missile. It even missed.” Gertrude said. Her words brought upon her the attention of the women in the room again. “We have to be careful about Agarthicite’s properties, but we’ve shot down missiles. We can shoot these down. For now we will leave the thing be– but we will eventually confront the Enterprise, and triumph.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be you if you didn’t propose something foolhardy.” Ingrid sighed.

She did look like she was smiling just a bit even as she said that.

“I fucking hate the feeling of running away, so fine. I’m down to pay it back.” She added.

“Preliminarily, I agree with this course, but only preliminarily.” Victoria said calmly.

“If you get annihilated I can’t do anything about that– but I’ll support you.” Nile said.

“It’ll be fine!” Monika said cheerfully. “I’ll find its weakness and you’ll all sink it!”

“I will, of course, continue to render excellent service.” Azazil added.

Gertrude smiled, feeling confident, and even a bit greedy about the prospects.

Based on the capability of the ‘Enterprise’, this could turn out lucrative beyond her dreams.

With such weapons on-hand, could she think of entering the power struggle herself–?

For now, she just had to focus on what was directly ahead for them, and to wait and see.

“Karen, keep watch on the Enterprise, but shift the focus of the drones and sensors toward collecting data on the Primary Edifice.” Gertrude said. “Have forensics analyze every bit of data we can scratch out of that box, I want sonar, LADAR, spectrography, heat maps, whatever you can get, I want spy tentacles on it, I want our camera drones crawling in it. We’ll devise a plan, assemble multiple teams, and assault the Primary Edifice as soon as we are ready. This will be a complete operation. We’ve seen the kind of obstacles that these structures can have, such as STEM and biomechanoids– we won’t take chances. I want an assault team, demolitions, security, the works. I will lead the vanguard personally.”

Her body felt electrified with a sudden thrill as she finally gave concrete orders to the ship.

Everyone around her had gone from their somber moods and began to pick up energy. They had direction again after the latest set of tumults, given an objective, an expected enemy, a puzzle to solve– the drive to move forwards again. Everyone looked at her with more determination in response to her convictions. In this room, Gertrude had a lot of powerful allies, and a lot of cherished companions. It brought her a measure of comfort. This was much more like the picture she painted in her heart of living amid their gazes.

She would hold on to that idea strongly and tried to have it carry her through the terror.

“Any questions or objections?” Gertrude asked– and her heart went cold for a moment.

Ingrid raised her hand– but she winked, with a mischievous wiggle of her ears.

“Question, Commander,” she said in a slight mocking voice, “Do we start right away?”

Gertrude smiled with relief, to a few gentle laughs around the room.


Far into the night, a tall, swarthy figure wandered the halls, clad in a fitted robe with a coat.

Gertrude could not sleep. She felt restless.

The other night, she had worked out some of her energy with Victoria and slept soundly. Now with an entire bed to herself to writhe in, she felt strangely too aware, and began to wander the halls, long since after anyone but a few late shifters would be working. The Iron Lady’s familiar, grandiose halls, devoid of their music, lights dimmed and emptied of sailors and soldiers hurrying about– they were not helping Gertrude’s condition.

She decided to wander down to the hangar. At least it was a broader, more open space.

To her surprise, stepping out of the elevator, she saw flashing and sparking in the distance.

With the lights dimmed, gloomy shadows pervaded the empty hangar. However, someone was working. Gertrude could hear the fizzing of a hand welder and see brief lights dancing on the far walls whenever the heat was engaged in erneast. She crossed the hangar floor from the elevator, approaching a familiar gantry, holding up the remains of the ‘Magellan’ class Diver. Since she had last seen it, the hull was connected and standing on its own, no longer a heap of parts. Most of it was covered by a tarp– almost ready for action.

She walked around the hull, drawing closer to the source of the sparks.

Right beside the gantry, a crane held in place a large joint piece, a roller.

Under it, doing some quite late night welding, was Monika Erke-Tendercloud.

She wore a face-shield, and she had fireproof gloves and coveralls and hard boots, over which she also wore her white coat. Over her golden-furred dog-like ears were a pair of fireproof covers with small holes to allow sound to still come through. Her blond hair was tied up to the back of her head, pinned up messy. She did not seem to notice Gertrude approaching. Her tail wagged fiercely, and her small, wiry body was utterly engaged in the act of welding. She bent under the metal piece, she stood beside it, she observed it.

Gertrude smiled, watching her work so hard. But after several minutes, she approached.

“Monika, you should get some rest.” She said.

“Oh!” Monika’s tail and ears stood on end.

She turned around and lifted the shield over her face and smiled brightly. Her pretty features were smudged with a bit of grease. Perhaps welding was not all she had been doing. Gertrude did notice a lot of other bits of equipment scattered about. Gertrude approached her, took a cloth from a nearby equipment table, and wiped Monika’s cheek. Monika allowed it for a few moments before pushing away the cleaning cloth.

With laugh, Gertrude discarded the cloth in a nearby recycling bin.

“You shouldn’t be up at 0200; and you definitely shouldn’t be working.” She said.

“Funny you should say that, because I see you’re also up at 0200 with me, ‘Trude.”

Monika put her hands on her hips and leaned in a little, grinning.

Gertrude leaned forward with a similar grin. “I’m here to make sure you don’t collapse.”

“I’m doing fine!” Monika said, before an involuntary yawn stopped her.

It was a long yawn too– plenty of time for Gertrude to stare at her while she exhaled.

“Are you having trouble sleeping because of the blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

Monika looked at the piece suspended on the crane, avoiding Gertrude’s eyes in the dark.

After what she experienced– it made sense that she would view sleep very differently.

“Monika, I promised to be there for you. You can talk to me.” Gertrude insisted gently.

In response, the smaller Loup first sighed. But she eventually began to speak in small, reserved voice. “I feel silly about it, but yes, I’m apprehensive toward sleep. I want to finish my work too– it’s not just that I am nervous, but when I think about the possibility I might not wake up tomorrow– I get so terrified. I feel like I might become lost if I just go to sleep, and that nobody will know what happened to me. I’ll just sink into those pools.”

“Would it help if you had someone to keep you company?” Gertrude asked suddenly.

Monika stared at her suddenly. Her ears twitched. “Um– what do you propose?”

Smiling, Gertrude approached Monika, bent slightly, and picked her up into her arms.

Lifting her up with a hand on her back and another under her knees– a princess carry.

Despite her exhaustion, Monika was light enough, and the darkness gave Gertrude courage.

Flush-faced, flustered, at first Monika struggled to muster a response to being lifted up.

“G-G-Gertrude! I’m– I’m really fine– you don’t need to go through any trouble–”

Gertrude looked at Monika in the eyes, enjoying the weight and warmth of her petite body.

“I’m also having trouble sleeping.” She said. “I’d love to have you tonight, Monika.”

She locked eyes with Monika, turning a gentle expression to her, feeling just a little silly.

However, she had to admit to herself, that it felt divine to be carrying a girl like this.

And it would be just as divine to have her in bed.

Monika took a deep breath in response.

She finally pulled off her face-shield and ear covers and let them drop to the ground.

“Okay, alright– I guess– I do– I kind of want someone to comfort me.” She admitted.

“Please trust me– we’ll wake up tomorrow, together. I promise you.” Gertrude said.

Gertrude felt Monika’s tail gently brushing against her as she wagged it incessantly.

“Are you really going to carry me like this?” Monika asked, looking bashful.

“I intend to. All the way to bed. Unless you want off.” Gertrude said confidently.

Her directness seemed to throw Monika off, and she averted her gaze again.

“No, this is– this is nice. But– where– where are we going?” Monika asked, fidgeting.

“I’m taking you to my quarters. We can share my bed tonight.” Gertrude said.

Monika’s eyes drew wide, but she said nothing, remaining quiet. Then she leaned closer against Gertrude and spread her arms and held her. There was a lovely, blushing smile on her face. Cheek to cheek with Gertrude– she was so soft. With the Chief Engineer in her arms, Gertrude strode back to her room feeling terribly fulfilled. She almost felt like laughing– how greedy of her to do, but it felt so good. It felt fantastic to have Monika in her arms.

Whatever happened tomorrow, it would be preceded by a good night!


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.5]

Red lights flashed silent alarm across the UNX-001 Brigand, while a calm voice spoke through every implement from which sound could be heard. “Alert Semyon!” She said, careful not to shout or betray anxiety, while still speaking in a clear voice. Alert Semyon would only be raised verbally three times and then Fatima would go quiet on the audio system.

Everyone on the ship understood what this meant. Sailors hurried to their positions, crossing paths in the halls. Sailors who had been resting in their barracks rushed to their assignments upstairs; sailors eating in the cafeteria or taking a break in the social pod rushed downstairs to the hangar. They checked on the walls, were bearing monitors indicated current information of the threat and ETA until probable active combat.

Upstairs, the sailors assigned as rapid response had their tools handy. They would watch out for any malfunctions or damage and make spot repairs. They would sound the alarm if they thought circuitry or water system functions were threatened by the stresses of the battle. Several of them received a new assignment that had been worked out during training in Kreuzung: clearing out and locking down the social pod and cafeteria and other unnecessary facilities with anti-flood barriers, to prevent a repeat of the scare that resulted when the Antenora breached their sidepod in Goryk, almost destroying the social area.

Downstairs, the main focus of the sailors was in getting the Divers ready.

Batteries were checked twice a day and refilled if necessary, so there was not much charging that needed doing to top the Divers off. All repairs and maintenance had already been completed on the main combat units. Owing to the recovery of Homa’s “DELTA” as well as the stripping-down of one of the reserve Streloks, there was an area of the hangar that was quite messy and in disarray, but the mess was pushed to the far side. Deployment chutes were prepared to be opened into the hangar in case of mobilization. Weapons were loaded and equipment attached to the Divers based on the pilot’s stated desires.

Throughout the ship, people communicated in whispers, sign language and hand signals, or by writing on portables and showing the words to one another. Sailors were trained to walk quickly with soft footfalls and to work with precision and care so as to not bang on metal. This minimized the amount and intensity of identifiable noises that an enemy could potentially pick up prior to combat. It was very little, and the ship was not entirely stealth capable, but it could be very quiet if the distance and conditions were right. Once the cannons were firing, all bets were off, but until then, there was an eerie combination of haste and silence as the alert was sounded, and then executed upon.

Many of the upper pods were soundproofed, however, and the Bridge was no exception.

On the bridge, Captain Korabiskaya arrived and took her seat, followed by Commissar Bashara. At their side, Premier Erika Kairos also arrived along with her bodyguard and attendant Olga Athanasiou, both taking their places. Kalika Loukia had briefly held the bridge while the rest got ready to coordinate another day’s worth of rationalizing the inventories of the Brigand and Rostock and connecting the two ships and their crews– but that work would be put on hold. Fatima al-Suhar stood from her station, ready to give her report. She pointed at the main screen, where the simulated silhouette of a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate appeared along with those of Imbrian Cutters and Frigates, as well as an old, very large and bulbous shaped cruiser, two generations old, a Serclaes-class.

“Captain! Our situation is as follows–”

One more time, the door to the bridge opened.

Scurrying inside and trying to appear as if they had not interrupted–

Murati Nakara, in the company of an unfamiliar face.

A young lady that had the same uniform as the rest but making her first appearance on the bridge. Cheerful-looking, her pretty face unbothered even as the red alarm lights cast an eerie color over her– the brown-haired Loup with the ponytail and makeup elicited a few curious glances. Murati wanted to say nothing upon entering the bridge, but practically everyone was looking at her directly, even Fatima, who was also waiting to speak.

“Sorry to interrupt– I was kept– taking care of something. Um. This is my new adjutant.”

Stumbling over her words, Murati at first gestured toward the woman beside her.

Almost immediately she underwent every conceivable human emotion in an instant.

What would anyone think if Aatto talked some nonsense? She nearly interrupted herself–

“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. I will give everything to support your cause.”

She spoke politely and vowed her head and held her portable computer to her chest.

Wearing a demure and innocent smile.

Murati stared at her for a moment. She could not believe what she had heard.

And everyone else’s gazes shifted between Murati and Aatto with confusion.

“Okay, thank you, Aatto.” Commissar Bashara said, clearing her throat. “Fatima.”

Standing next to the sonar station, Fatima al-Suhar’s ears and tail stood on end.

“Oh! Yes. My deepest apologies. I was simply being polite. So, the situation–”

Ten minutes ago, Fatima first detected distant noises in the water that to her golden ears registered as explosions from middle caliber ship ordnance. Soon after the predictive computer parsed the same sounds as ordnance, and in addition, detected a wide-area active sonar pulse. Per protocol, Fatima responded to being picked up by active sonar with a return pulse scan from the Brigand, and the Rostock responded similarly.

They discovered the combatants several kilometers away in the northwestern direction. There was a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate, so called for its two rows of guns in fixed positions integrated into the ship’s bow– chasing it was an Imperial Marder-class Frigate, a fairly ubiquitous class that everyone on the bridge was familiar with.

Complicating the situation, the Marder, having acquired a Republic Frigate and begun to chase, also reported the discovery to other nearby Imperial ships. Converging on the republicans were three additional Frigates from the North-Northwest as well as an old Serclaes-class Cruiser from the North. All of these ships were assumed with reason to have belonged to the Rhinea patrol fleet. If these patrol ships received the retrofit that other Volkisch Frigates did, then this entire force could be said to include 20-30 Divers in addition to the ships themselves, as each ship likely carried 4-8 Divers. Though she did not know the reaction her command would have to these discoveries, Fatima called for Alert Semyon just in case– they had been detected by sonar, so they had to be prepared.

“That was a quick and sound judgment Fatima. We commend you.” Ulyana said.

Fatima’s ears wiggled slightly and she smiled.

“Now we have to decide how to respond.” Aaliyah added.

“Right now, we have some cover for our actions, I believe,” Erika said, pointing at the screen, “As far as they know, what they have on sensors is a dumpy-looking hauler, no offense,” she smiled and waited a second as if to allow anyone to take offense if they would, but finding nobody disagreeing with her on the Brigand’s comeliness, she continued, “and an Imperial Ritter-class. Much of the time we have found that low level patrols will ignore the Rostock’s movements because they assume Ritter cruisers are led by big shots who they couldn’t hold accountable for anything if they tried. So we end up slipping by without effort.”

“In that case, all of those forces will converge on the Republicans.” Ulyana said.

“They won’t be able to survive it.” Murati said. “They will absolutely be overwhelmed.”

“Zachikova, get a graph of all enemy positions on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

“Yes ma’am.”

On the electronic warfare station, Zachikova got to work. Arabella peeked over the top of her desk curiously, having been sitting beside it the whole time. After a few seconds of typing, the predictor displayed for everyone in the room the surrounding area.

To think they were so close to Aachen’s hydrospace– but this situation was even closer. Murati took a few steps from the entrance to look more closely at the main screen. There were no landmarks to speak of. Any battle would take place in open ocean. So everything came down to the state of the combatant’s equipment, their tactics and formation, and whether they could gain any advantage in the information space. In terms of pure hardware on all sides, the Brigand and Rostock could be put at a disadvantage.

There was something of a plan forming in her mind, but she did not have enough data–

“Would it not be prudent to avoid this battle entirely?” Aaliyah asked.

Murati turned around and stared at her. Aaliyah seemed to notice but ignore her gaze.

“I’m positive if we decided to intervene, we could also still get away.” Erika said.

“Right, but– the Republicans in this area have all carried themselves awfully and they did not even want to join the United Front to begin with. They have caused us major inconveniences, they wasted significant manpower, and for what? Very nearly destroying a station full of innocent people. We could just leave them to their fate and speed on to Aachen.”

“That’s a bit cold.” Ulyana said. She smiled a bit nervously at Aaliyah’s words.

“But not unwarranted.” Aaliyah said. “Our intervention could cost us lives and equipment.”

“You are right.” Ulyana said. “Our most practical response is just leaving this be.”

“I will defer to your counsel in this matter.” Erika said, crossing her arms.

“They’re our allies! You’re going to hand out a death sentence to this one frigate crew?”

Murati raised her voice near to a shout, her hands curled up into fists.

Ulyana stared at her a bit in disbelief; Aaliyah rolled her eyes; Erika smiled suddenly.

“It’s true that the command of the Republic fleet in this area supported a heinous atrocity for very little strategic gain. It’s the truth that they went out on their own, foolishly. They could have never held Kreuzung. It was more likely they would destroy the core than successfully occupy it.” Murati said. “I am not denying that. But it’s horribly disproportionate to abandon these soldiers to die for that, when we could rescue and recruit them!”

“Then moralizing aside, our personnel could die carrying out this rescue.” Aaliyah said.

“That’s always a risk! It’s a risk of anything we do! That in itself is not an argument!”

“Now who is being cold toward other’s lives, Lieutenant?” Aaliyah spat back.

Having that statement turned on her gave Murati a brief pause to consider her words.

Her chest felt like it constricted and prevented her from making an angry response.

Was she being callous toward her comrades lives–?

Her head fogged from the sudden anxiety.

No– of course she was not– she was just trying to get them to see sense–

There was a loud clapping of two hands from the side of the bridge.

“Enough!” Erika said.

Firmly but not unkindly.

A sound that prompted Murati to take a deep breath and right herself.

Erika seemed more amused than aggravated about the argument. “Murati is correct. For the insurgent any action taken is done at the risk of their lives. If we wanted to preserve our equipment and lives we would bury them in a hole and do nothing, but that does not advance our objectives. So then the question is, how do we turn the cost and benefit of this situation to our advantage. In this, Aaliyah is not wrong to say, we have no idea what we are dealing with when we deal with the Republic here. We could be fighting for nothing and thus dying for nothing. So it is not so easy as to rush in and save the day at any cost either.”

For a brief moment, the room was silent– until one still-unfamiliar voice sounded.

“In that case, we just need to come up with a battle plan that will lower our risk.”

Stepping out from near the door and joining Murati’s side was Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.

Murati looked almost surprised to have her support despite her supposed adjutant status.

“I strongly believe we can succeed if we entrust our strategy to my master!” Aatto said.

She gestured toward Murati as if framing her with her hands, smiling brightly.

Murati felt like her heart dropped lower into her chest.

Eyebrows furrowed and raised all across the bridge in confusion.

Ulyana stared at Aatto, speechless; Erika suppressed laughter; Aaliyah looked livid.

“What did she say? What did she call you? Is this your instruction, Murati?!”

“I– It really isn’t– she’s just–” Murati tugged on her own collar with growing anxiety.

“Now, now,” Ulyana spoke up suddenly, “it’s my turn to say not to indulge in silliness.”

She patted Aaliyah’s shoulders as if gently trying to prevent her jumping over the divider.

“Ms. Jarvi-Stormyweather is not wrong either!” Erika said. “I’ve read the files; this is Murati’s specialty, is it not? Her tactical plans have turned around some bad situations before! I do think having the Republicans in our debt might be advantageous in the future– and besides, the destruction of five patrol ships, including a Cruiser, can only be helpful to us.”

“I am not being silly.” Aaliyah said. She sat back in her chair. “I just want to clarify.”

“Don’t worry. We all understand you, Commissar.” Erika said, amused.

“It is my job to provide perspective. I am not mad and I am not being silly.” She said again.

“Yes, that’s very true. Thank you Commissar.” Ulyana said, also amused.

“Okay, okay, the first matter is concluded. We are intervening.” Olga said, sighing audibly.

Murati breathed a sigh of relief herself. She then made eye contact with Aatto.

Putting on such a furious gaze that she almost sent a psychic wave out to her.

Aatto seemed to notice and looked bashful for the very first time since they met.

You will ask permission to speak!! Murati shouted in her mind.

It was very rare that she spoke like this with anyone, so she was not sure it worked–

Yes, master!! A million apologies! No, a billion! I will accept any punishment!

Thankfully it seemed Aatto really did have some modicum of psionic experience.

Where she got it from and how far it extended was a question for another time.

For now, it was good enough that she did actually support Murati when it mattered.

As objectionable as some of her language and habits were– maybe she could actually help.

“Since we are intervening, we need a plan and we need it soon.” Erika said. “Tarrying too long will be effectively the same as abandoning this ship– they are taking fire as we speak.”

Murati knew this quite well. She turned back to the main screen.

At the moment, her thinking was that this reminded her of the Battle of Thassal.

That Republic frigate could hold out against that single Marder, if not in the long term then at least for the moment. In this scenario the real problem was the reinforcements. They were divided up and trying to converge on one target to overwhelm it. Murati was trying to think of a way to keep them from coming together and thereby disrupt their operation. She could not assume that each element of the patrol was moving closely and with coordination the way that the enemy fleet groups were in Thassal, however. Depending on the speed of each different element, the timing to defeat them in detail might be too tight.

One solution could be splitting their own forces. Should she recommend the Rostock engage the Marders while the Brigand commits to the rescue? That would depend on whether the enemy Marders were modified to carry more Divers, like she knew other Volkisch units had been. It was possible if they sent the Rostock alone it could be overwhelmed by that many Divers. The same might happen if the Brigand went alone. The more she thought about it, dividing their own forces was out of the question. She grunted. What was the answer?

“Aatto.” Murati said. “Is the Serclaes-class roughly as fast or faster than the Marders?”

Aatto smiled. “As a matter of fact master, it is actually slower than a Marder.”

“Really?” Murati asked. “Tell me more about it. I know it didn’t see front-line service.”

Behind them Aaliyah seemed to want to ask why Murati kept being called “master”–

Ulyana continued to work to calm her down, however–

“It’s true, the Serclaes class never saw service in the Grand Fleets.” Aatto said. “Because the class is heavily overburdened compared to thrust and while well-armed and armored, it was considered a crippled design due to its lack of speed. After all, a fleet is only as fast as its slowest element, and it is unacceptable for a Cruiser to be that slow. It was used in Imperial propaganda to emphasize its size and armament and was dubbed a ‘Heavy Cruiser’ but that was all it was, propaganda. Few were built and only used for interior defense.”

“Then out of this group, the Serclaes will surely arrive last.” Murati said.

“Significantly so, I predict.” Aatto replied.

A small smile crept across Murati’s features. Newly energized she turned left.

“Zachikova, can I get a more accurate depiction of the distance between the Marders?”

“I’ll try to get the computer to rerun it with greater fidelity. No promises.” Zachikova said.

On the main screen, the Marders were zoomed in on. A different became apparent.

In the broader picture of the scenario, the Marders looked like they were grouped together.

Upon zooming in on them, however, they were not arrayed in a standard arrow-head.

Two were coming in a line together and were not observing a shooting formation.

And the third was two kilometers behind the rest and moving as if to flank, not join them.

Murati pointed at the screen as if her finger would stab the frigates out of existence.

“I’ve got you!” Murati said excitedly. Her smile turned into a bloodthirsty grin.

Aatto wagged her tail and joined Murati in smiling– hers more admiring than violent.

“Captain, Commissar, Premier, I have a plan. But once we deploy, we have to be quick.”

Murati turned around to look her superiors in the eye. Determination swelling in her chest.

Even Aaliyah was not looking so skeptical as before. Ulyana looked a bit relieved.

“Go on, Murati. I’m ready to see your sorcery in action.” Erika replied.

For a moment, Murati was surprised to see it referred to as sorcery– but she liked it too.

At no time was she as conceited as when she figured out a problem like this.

“First, we need to converge all forces on the Republic In-Line-2 and rescue it. Then–”

Murati laid out her thoughts before anyone.

Though she felt her observations were not so revolutionary– people were impressed.

“Remind me to doubt you a bit less next time, Murati.” Ulyana said, as the plan unveiled.


Orders from the bridge relayed down to hangar engineering, and to the Rostock as well.

The Brigand and its new sister ship changed course, veering north-east together.

On the Brigand’s hangar, the pilots of the 114th rushed to their machines and suited up in black, thermal-padded pilot bodysuits. Murati Nakara ordered a quick huddle and advised on the overarching plan. For the pilots, it was not anything too complicated.

At first, the overall goal for everyone was to eliminate all targets and secure the Republic frigate from enemy fire. Then they would have to switch strategies. Dominika Rybolovskaya and Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun, with their Strelkannon and Cossack, would be tasked with guarding the fleet from ordnance and Diver attacks. Khadija, Shalikova, Valya and Murati would intercept the incoming enemies and look for openings.

“We can’t be too reckless, but speed is of the essence. Unless we can break through each enemy in turn, it is possible that we may be outnumbered and encircled.” Murati said. “Rostock and the Brigand outgun the enemy ships significantly, so our focus needs to be the enemy Divers. If we allow the enemy Divers to act freely then we will be defeated.”

Around Murati, her fellow pilots nodded their heads in acknowledgment.

“Any questions?” Murati asked. She intended this to be about the plan, but–

“Yes. Who is that?” Khadija, smiling mischievously, pointed over Murati’s shoulder.

Behind Murati, a set of tall, brown-furred dog-like ears wiggled; a very fluffy tail wagged.

“That is my new adjutant, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Murati said, as if it was enough.

“Huh?! Isn’t that the woman who was threatening you in Kreuzung? Isn’t she a fascist?”

At Murati’s side, Tigris spoke up, her jumpsuit stained with accidentally spilled lubricants.

“She defected– we’re working on it– she’s– she’s a reform fascist.” Murati said nervously.

“What? What does that even mean? Are you okay, Murati?” Shalikova said, confused.

“I am not a fascist anymore. I am for the supreme power of the proletariat.” Aatto said.

“Do you mean the national proletariat?” Khadija said, suppressing laughter.

“The proletariat is the proletariat. It’s all the same isn’t it?” Aatto said, shrugging.

“She’s a reform fascist.” Murati said. “Stop asking me about my adjutant and move out!”

With a few laughs and stares, the pilots left Murati’s side and headed to the machines.

Tigris stayed behind for a moment. She pointed a wrench in her hands at the Agni.

“I’ve got some fancy ideas I haven’t gotten around to, but for now, it can hold a gun.”

“Thank you, that’s all the capability I really needed.” Murati said.

“I also removed some of the ‘hadal armor kit’ I developed. Since it won’t be going below 3000 meters deep or encountering Leviathans, probably– with the extra weight off, it’ll be faster. I recommend you do not try to play the hero. Hang back, and act as support for now.”

Tigris briefly explained the changes and then left Murati’s side to assist around the hangar.

All of the pilots were taking care of final personal and practical matters before deploying.

“Aatto,”

Murati turned to face her new adjutant. Her heart was a bit heavy.

Certainly she was sympathetic to Aatto or she would not have tolerated being a made to look foolish in front of people to cover up for her. She knew Aatto must have been dealing with trauma. And she was beginning to see first-hand what she hoped to get from Aatto– someone who had lived in the Empire, worked for them, had access to regional knowledge Murati lacked. In the best case, Aatto would not just take over some of Murati’s busywork, but she would help cover up her blind spots or gaps in her strategies. That was the role of an adjutant– like the Commissar and Captain, who had a productive rapport.

However, Aatto had a long way to go in terms of fitting in with the Brigand.

Murati could not help but feel, still to that moment, that this might all be a mistake.

“Yes, master?” Aatto said.

“Ugh.” Murati gave up on dissuading her from saying that. “What do you see in me?”

Aatto seemed to understand Murati wanted a serious answer.

She took a moment to think before speaking.

“I see power, intellect, determination and the will to sunder the petrified Imbrium Ocean.”

“I think you have me wrong. I’m not that big of a deal. I’m not vying for power here.”

“Perhaps not yet. But I see it in you. You want to topple the current order, don’t you?”

She recalled the things Aatto said in her cell. Some of them with great nervousness.

“I want to topple it because it hurts people. Not for my own sake– or because of Destiny.”

“That’s more than enough for me, master. I will assist you in this endeavor regardless.”

“You need to do more than that. You must realize there is a burden to being a defector.”

Murati took Aatto’s digital computer from her hands and showed her the files on it.

“There are books on Union politics. Read them. You’ll take the pledge too.”

Aatto nodded her head. She had a demure smile throughout. It reminded Murati of cafeteria workers. Service personnel had difficult jobs, and smiling was a part of the job. In the Union cafeteria workers were treated well, and they were respected, because they had been entrusted an important task. But it was strenuous labor that they would often perform regardless of how they were feeling. That smile was just a part of preparing and serving food. Murati felt that Aatto’s smile was for her, and so ‘part of the job’. It hid whatever Aatto was feeling inside. That was why she would not stop smiling for anyone on the ship, even after all she had been through. It troubled Murati that she felt this was the case.

But there was nothing she could do about it in that instant.

“I would say, ‘good luck, master’ but I have the utmost confidence in you.” Aatto said.

“And why is that?” Murati asked, meeting her eyes and trying to smile.

“Because I saw the look in your eyes when you realized your strategy. You don’t just want to carry out your duty solemnly for its own sake. You want to destroy this enemy.” Aatto said.

At first it was Murati’s snap reaction to deny to herself that this was the case–

However, it was entirely true.

Murati wanted to punish the imperials and bring justice to them since she was a child.

At Thassal she had gotten her first taste of their blood.

Standing amid Imperial ships exploding, thousands of their people dying, she thought,

All of you deserve this.

So she could not deny what Aatto was saying– but neither would she acknowledge it.

“What kind of plan would you have come up with, Chief Petty Officer?” Murati asked.

Aatto kept her answer succinct– after all, it was almost time to deploy.

“I would have just abandoned the Republicans. But– I like your way much better.”

“Well. Thank you. It’s your first day on the job, so do your best.”

“In service to you, I will never falter, master.”

Murati turned around and left Aatto’s side, heading for the Agni. Her heart remained heavy.

At the foot of the Agni, she found her fiancé Karuniya Maharapratham in her pilot suit. She had been tasked by Murati with overseeing the loading of the HELIOS drones into the shoulder binders on the Agni. Upon Murati’s arrival, she turned to face her, put her hands on her hips, smiled and leaned into Murati’s personal space. She had a strange look on her face.

In that moment, Murati feared for the worst.

“Soooo, I heard a weird woman is following you around and calling you ‘master’ now.”

All of Murati’s fears cascaded over her shoulders until she thought she would fall.

“Who told you that? It’s nothing. She’s– she’s just a little– odd in the head.” Murati said.

Karuniya continued to grin and stare at Murati. Chest out, hands on her hips, smug.

“Nothing untoward is happening! Why are you looking at me like that?” Murati whined.

“Oh nothing~– to be honest, I’m glad you made a friend. Maybe you can be besties.”

“Karuniya, I have friends.” Murati said suddenly. “I have no problems making friends.”

“None of the officers count. And I don’t count either– I’m your wife~” Karuniya teased.

“It’s not fair that you don’t count– okay, fine, let’s just drop it. We need to get moving.”

Similar scenes seemed to play out at some of the other gantries in the hangar.

At the foot of the Cheka, Sonya Shalikova held hands with Maryam Karahailos.

“Sonya, I believe in you! Score super awesome kills and become a Diver Ace!”

Shalikova blinked. “Maryam– that’s a bit macabre– it isn’t a game you know–”

“Oh, but I heard that for every kill you get to put a notch on your Diver, and at five–”

“That’s not untrue, some people do that– but it’s kinda weird when you just say it.”

Between the open cockpits of the Strelkannon and Cossack, their two pilots met.

The taller Sameera looking down at Dominika, who put on an aggrieved expression.

“I’m warning you to reign in your gallivanting attitude this time.”

“I will control myself if you promise me a reward when we get back.”

“Sameera–! You–!”

Meanwhile–

In front of the Strelok One~bis, a tall and pensive blond woman stood with her head bowed. Compared to the Shimii she was speaking to there was a visibly humorous contrast of their size difference and the level of deference of one to the other. Sieglinde von Castille was nearly bowing to Khadija al-Shajara, who looked none too amused by the body language and nervous stuttering. She waited for a moment for Sieglinde to struggle with speaking.

“Khadija, I– I’m here because– I just wanted to– for you–”

“Oh come on, hold your head up! Speak clearly! This is pathetic!”

Khadija reached out and with one index finger forced Sieglinde’s chin up.

Sieglinde looked briefly stunned by this level of physical approach.

For an instant she seemed to flinch as if she was expecting to be struck.

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that really what you wanted to say to me?”

“No.” Sieglinde sighed. “I wanted to wish you good fortune. On the sortie.”

Khadija put on a smug little smile, her tail waving behind me.

“Unlike you, dear, I don’t need good fortune. It’s all skill in this cockpit.”

With a teasing little wave, Khadija hopped onto the ramp and ducked into the open Strelok.

Sieglinde stood watching as the cockpit closed as if in disbelief of Khadija’s response.

And rushed out of the way when the gantries released the trundling mechas.


“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’! Sameera al-Shahouh, deploying!”

Mother’s surname again. Perhaps it just felt right for Eisental.

Under the feet of Sameera’s modified Strelok, the deployment chute piped in water and piped out any air until the chute equalized to the outside and then opened its hatch, releasing the machine into the ocean beneath the Brigand. Because the Brigand was moving at speed, Sameera had to immediately hit the pedals in her cockpit in order to begin generating thrust and avoid being left behind by the ship. Once she got to speed, she could keep up with the ship easily. Her feet on the pedals, her hands on the sticks, fingers ready to flick switches and press buttons installed by the stick housing or on the stick itself.

Sameera quickly checked her cameras.

She had a multi-sectioned screen in front of her that was technically split into 16 regions that could have different pictures. Most of the time, she split the picture only three ways. One main forward camera occupying half the real estate but directly in the center of the monitor; a rear camera on the left quarter; and a variable camera on the right quarter of the screen that she flipped between an upward and a downward camera, sometimes compulsively.

Below her camera monitors her communications equipment was installed. This box parsed communications data and piped it to her headset and monitor. Presently neither the Brigand nor a fellow pilot was in direct communication so the picture contained only her camera feeds. By default, communication was wireless data brought by laser, the most efficient means of data transmission underwater. Acoustic data transfer was the first fallback, because laser was incredibly range dependent, while acoustic wave decoding was less so. Imperial communicators, and old Union communicators, had a second fallback to radio, but radio equipment was not installed anymore on the latest Union designs as it was nearly useless underwater. They saved a bit of weight omitting traditional wi-fi and radio.

At the moment, there was nobody on the screen, and the communicator was silent.

That state of affairs would not last much longer, however.

From an adjacent chute, Dominika’s Strelkannon dropped out soon after.

Her machine was designed for heavy fire support.

For this mission, however, the heavier shoulders of the Strelkannon had been equipped with two pods each housing a double-barreled 20 mm ‘gas gun’, the same sort that ships equipped. With this equipment her role was ostensibly to fire light caliber munitions at dizzying rates hoping to intersect enemy munitions. Sameera, meanwhile, had to make sure she got to fulfill that role by killing anything that got too close to her.

Sameera quite fancied such a protective role.

She had set her sights on making Dominika her woman, after all.

“Dominika, how’s the water?” Sameera asked cheerfully.

“Dark like always.” Dominika replied, her disinterested voice coming out of the earphones.

At that moment Dominika’s expressionless face appeared on a corner of the screen.

“Unquestionably it is dark– but I don’t feel like it is ‘dark as always.’”

It was her first time out in it, and Sameera felt that the water in Eisental was much darker.

Fighting against Leviathans in Lyser, or against the imperialists in Serrano, there were still blues and greens to be seen in the water. Faint, but nevertheless apparent. In Eisental, an additional thousand meters down from those locations, her spotlights parted nothing but pitch black water. Not even with strained eyes could she see any green or blue.

“Sameera, I’m going to conserve ammo as much as I can. Can I count on you?”

“Got it. Don’t worry about a thing. They won’t get through me.”

“Also– I’m serious when I say this. Don’t run off like when we were escaping Serrano.”

“I won’t. I have someone who needs me now. I don’t need to impress anyone but her.”

For once, Dominika did not respond to that with sarcasm or a sour remark.

Soon after, the entire squadron formed up under the Brigand.

To the right of the communicator there was an LCD with sensor output. For most Divers the only capability of this device by itself was to display directional sound acquisition, and this was nearly useless in combat. However, in the presence of a ship, the Diver could sync with its higher-fidelity sensor data and acquire a sonar picture and even LADAR topography.

Once the 114th had formed up, this screen began to display a map with marked targets.

Updating in real time as the ship and the squadron approached their objective.

And even marking distant boxes on the camera feeds using overlays.

On the monitor corner, Dominika disappeared.

There was a priority shared feed to all pilots from the squad leader’s mecha, the Agni.

Karuniya Maharapratham in a pilot suit smiled and waved.

“Operator Maharapratham here! How is everyone? We will begin scattering the HELIOS drones shortly. Scanning and network propagation will follow after. It’ll take some time, but please wait warmly and look forward to all the data goodness coming soon!”

“Karuniya…”

Distantly in Karuniya’s audio, Murati could be heard saying something.

Sameera laughed to herself for a bit.

Between her comrades’ speech, she could hear distant sounds of ordnance.

Low volume booming that seemed to wash over her.

As they neared, the sound was accompanied by vibrations that stirred her machine.

On the map, the object marked “VIP” and the object marked “TARGET 1” approached.

“It’s time, disperse!” Murati ordered. “You know your roles! Begin the operation!”

“Yes ma’am!”

On Murati’s command, the Divers of the 114th launched out from under the Brigand, breaking up into loose sections of two units in mutually supporting range. Sameera led the way for Dominika, the Cossack and Strelkannon grouped closely together as they charged out into the black, empty expanse in front of them. There was neither seafloor beneath them nor sky above them and the Brigand grew distant in the marine fog.

Soon they knew of its existence only in the tracking data.

Similarly both VIP and enemy vessels were nothing but overlay elements and map blips.

Until they came into view.

First as brief flashes of ordnance in the water. Stronger vibrations accompanying each.

Then in the middle of the void of water appeared a long, rectangular silhouette.

Lines of gas gun fire burst from its midsection and aft, intercepting torpedoes and middle caliber rounds hurtling toward it every minute. Specks of light going off by the dozens followed by much larger explosions from the intercepted ordnance. The ship was fighting for its life, enduring explosive fire every minute. Though she could not yet see the Marder-class chasing after the frigate, she could track it, based on positional data which her computer would update in real time using logic given by the Brigand during the sync. In this way, she knew where her enemy was relative to the ship that they were trying to rescue.

“Captain Korabiskaya has made contact with the Republic ship.” Murati said to her pilots.

Regardless, they would have to be careful of its gas gun fire.

Having confirmed the position of the VIP ship, the 114th veered eastward away from it.

Moving towards the enemy instead.

“Avoid enemy ordnance, but intercept if you have a shot.” Murati said.

“I’ve got a hundred shots a minute, Lieutenant.” Dominika replied.

“Use them judiciously.” Murati instructed.

Dominika acknowledged, moving her Diver closer to Sameera but farther behind her.

“Acknowledged. I’ll take the lead.” Sameera said.

On her diver’s arm, she revved up the engine on her diamond spear in preparation.

Rotation was good and smooth. No motion lag– it had good heft when she moved the arm.

She grinned to herself, leaning forward just a little and flooring her pedals for more thrust.

Minutes after contact with the VIP, a second silhouette began to emerge from the dark.

Along with six figures disturbing the water, as they broke away from the “Marder” frigate.

Their first enemy had shown itself and the battle was joined.


Republic “In-Line-2” class Frigates resembled the Union Soyuz class in overall silhouette, but in the sum total could not have been more different. Integrated main guns on the bow meant that the Republic frigate had very stable shooting and twice as many barrels as the Union vessel, but could only bring its main guns to bear on targets it was directly facing.

This design was born out of the Republic’s obsession with breaking out from Ratha Flow and through the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach, reasoning that there was little opportunity to maneuver in that type of warfare and not caring what would happen in a prolonged campaign in Imbria. Everything else seemed designed to paper over this.

Beveled surfaces on the bow and aft gave a rounded and aesthetically pleasing appearance to the ship, unlike the boxy, completely rectangular Soyuz. Because of the guns in the prow it had a flat face that was not efficient in water-breaking. Integrated hydrojets in an armored stern gave the ship’s thrusters greater resilience, unlike the Imbrian-style exposed hydrojets that only had a flared skirt around them, but this also added weight. Despite the supposed higher efficiency of the Republic hydrojets, the added armor made the craft only slightly faster than a Marder or Soyuz. While viewed from the side the ship appeared to be a single rectangular block, the design actually possessed two broad sections. There was a very slight taper near the midsection to a thinner rear. It was there that the rear fins attached. They had a different design from Imbrian fins, slightly diagonal and strangely adjustable.

In total, this meant the In-Line-2 could never completely outrun a “Marder” or “Soyuz.” Whenever a Republic ship turned, it lost maneuver efficiency compared to Imbrian designs. On the maneuver this meant that despite higher top speed, the nimbler Imbrian frigates would catch up. All they had to do was keep shooting to force the Republic ship to snake.

Thankfully, the Republic ship in this particular chase had outside assistance.

As the 114th moved to engage the “Marder” chasing after it, the UNX-001 Brigand and the Volksarmee Rostock moved to cover it. The Brigand moved parallel to the Republic frigate while the Rostock sailed past and moved to engage the chasing Volkisch Marder-class along with the 114th Diver Squadron. Diver gunfire would soon begin trading.

Captain Korabiskaya sent an acoustic message to the Republic frigate along with the shared Union-Republic diplomatic cipher attached. This would inform the ship computer on the Republic side that it was allied traffic being received. Even if the Republic ship wanted to do anything drastic out of paranoia, it had to turn around to face and fire at them, so neither the Rostock’s Captain Daphne nor Ulyana on the Brigand felt threatened.

“Captain, the Republic ship answered.” Semyonova said, her fingers slowly brushing some of her blond hair behind her ears as she spoke. “They are identifying themselves as the ‘R.N.S. John Brown’ and the Captain is requesting a laser transmission to speak with you.”

“Right. Is HELIOS up? Can Daphne join the video meeting?” Ulyana asked.

“HELIOS coverage is at 43% but there are drones we can bounce to.” Zachikova replied.

“Semyonova, Zachikova, hail the John Brown and Rostock and connect us.” Ulyana said.

On the main screen, the picture displaying the LADAR topography and the sonar-based live target tracking was shrunk and pushed to one side. Still visible as needed but subordinate to an incoming laser call taking up most of the screen. In a picture-in-picture, there was a small square with Daphne, who was muted because she was soon to engage the enemy directly– but the larger picture unveiled the captain of the John Brown. Ulyana had not known what to expect, as she had met few Cogitans in her life and knew little about their demographics.

She was still somewhat surprised to see a woman around her age.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya. I can’t thank you enough for your assistance. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Eithnen Ní Faoláin — in the Republic database this is rendered as Ethna Whelan to simplify. I, technically, am the Captain of this fighting vessel.”

She had given two slightly different pronounciations.

Ulyana was not sure her Volgian accent could handle either of them well.

The John Brown’s bridge was notably more cramped than the Brigand’s as there were several heads of hair visible around on the bottom edge of her main camera picture. Eithnen was a fair skinned and good-looking woman, the middle of her face full of freckles, her cheekbones high and slim, with brown eyes and a slightly long nose. Her hair was long and voluminous and shockingly red, so bright that any individual darker strand seemed to stand out, of which there were few. Parted more to one side with longer bangs on that side as well. She was dressed in a button-down shirt that was partially unbuttoned over sweat-slick skin, along with a blue military coat worn loosely, paired with a skirt and tights. There was a hat hanging on a guard-rail off to her side. Eithnen’s bridge seemed to be tight and concentric, with herself in a small central enclosure without much legroom and surrounded by her officers on a ring slightly below her. The door seemed to be directly behind her.

Certainly such a design was efficient, but Ulyana could not imagine fighting like that.

“Our nations stand united, and so do we, Captain.” Ulyana said. “What is your current status? More enemies are on the way from the north. We have a plan to attack each approaching enemy group to rescue your ship; but your support would maximize our success.”

“My crew is exhausted, Captain, but we have been exhausted for days. We will continue fighting to the best of our ability. To do otherwise would mean lying down to die.” Eithnen replied. Her expression did not change as she relayed her situation. She had a look of almost amused resignation in the face of this danger– bitterness, too. “We lack in almost every human need except ammunition for the ship’s guns. No medicine, eating a meal a day, and with nary the supplies to do more than keep the ship afloat if a bit leaky.”

“Those are desperate conditions. Should we prepare an evacuation?” Ulyana said.

“No, the ship can endure a bit more yet. I appreciate your concern.” Eithnen said.

“Then once the waters are calm again, we can at least make sure you can get to Aachen.”

“I do not relish returning there– but you are right, there is no other choice long-term.”

“It is admirable that you have maintained control of things in such a situation, Captain.”

“We have a new lease on life Captain– we can almost see the light at the end. While at first I and my crew consigned ourselves to death, we disabled the trap that was set to detonate our ship in case of our escape from our Republic Navy captors. Therefore I would greatly enjoy living at least a little bit longer– and in that, we do require your assistance.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes in confusion. “What happened to all of you?”

Eithnen’s eyes drifted away from the screen, as if she was looking at her crew below.

She sat back in the little seat cushioning she was given in her tight bridge.

One hand running through her hair.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I hope you can be sympathetic even knowing this– but the John Brown is a penal ship. We are the 808th Penal Battalion.” Eithnen said. She spoke quickly as if she did not want Ulyana to have time to react before hearing her whole story. “We are all former prisoners and in fact former prisoners slated for execution. However, none of us here are violent offenders or sexual exploiters! All of us are victims of social and economic discrimination! That we are trapped here is a horrific injustice, Captain!”

“Captain Faoláin,” Ulyana smiled while troubling the pronunciation she had heard from Eithnen, “Regardless of your circumstances I would not just abandon you to be killed by the Volkisch Movement, having taken painful efforts to reach out to you. I have seen first-hand that the Republic can be quite unjust despite its promotion of ‘liberty.’”

Eithnen bowed her head to Ulyana, her hands clapped together in a gesture of submission.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Captain. If I am the last Republic officer alive here that can be held to account for the Core Separation at Kreuzung then I will submit to any punishment. I understand I have participated in heinous actions and that my own survival is not an excuse. I only want the rest of the hundred innocent souls on this ship to be safe.”

“There is no justice in punishing you in place of those who coerced you.” Ulyana said.

“I agree with the distinguished Captain Korabiskaya as well.” Daphne said suddenly, her first shared opinion in the discussion. “Forgive my interruption, I am Daphne Triantafallos of the Katarran communist ship ‘Rostock.’ I will be leaving the call now– battle will soon be joined!”

Daphne looked strangely cheerful to be on a collision course with an enemy ship.

Her face disappeared from the picture in picture, and the square disappeared with her.

“Communist Katarran mercenaries?” Eithnen asked.

“Communist Katarran comrades. Much more reliable.” Ulyana said with a smile.

“I see. Captain, allow us to join your attack. We don’t want to sit helplessly.” Eithnen said.

“We’ll take every gun we can get. Do you have any Divers?” Ulyana asked.

Eithnen shook her head. “We were not trusted to serve as more than interdiction support.”

“So human shields essentially.” Ulyana said. “The Republic– I’ll hold my tongue for now.”

“Hah! Insult that rubbish country all you want. I’ll gladly join you there too.” Eithnen said.

Ulyana found herself full of compassion for the plight of that lone frigate. Judging by Eithnen’s expressions and hesitations, her story felt genuine. Increasingly she felt such a distaste for the Union’s ‘greatest ally’– but for now she had to settle the immediate account.


One by one the missile hatches atop the forward deck of the Marder-class sprang open.

Trails of bubbles floated up from each bay as its Sturmvolker diver launched, six in all.

These modified Volkers lost their round chassis for a body plan closer to a Strelok.

Looking more like the intimidating footsoldiers they were meant to be, armed with 20 mm Diver caliber submachine guns, the Sturmvolkers dispersed from the side of the Marder they were meant to be guarding, charging into an expected melee. None of them stayed together in units. In every direction a lone Sturmvolker went, hunting after the blips on their synced sonars. One particular unit shot straight up over the battlefield before pulling into a steep dive, employing gravity and its superior position to attempt to meet its enemy with an advantage in maneuver. It moved with great confidence as if it would surely score a kill.

In the middle of its dive, it crossed the path of Sameera’s Cossack as she darted forward.

Stopping, turning, raising its submachine gun to open fire believing it had taken her back.

And meeting a spinning drill that instantly bored through the thin chassis of its SMG.

Through arms that shredded to pieces–

Into the hull directly through the cockpit seams in the chest armor.

Water pressure doing bloody work.

Perforated, the Sturmvolker imploded suddenly.

Bursting pieces deflecting off the drill.

Nothing but a cloud of red foam and formless metal shreds gently falling down the water.

Sameera retracted her blood-flecked drill and accelerated away from the debris.

“Finally got to debut this Diamond Spear. Simple, yet delightfully brutal.”

Anyone in a mecha she was ordered to kill was no longer a person in Sameera’s mind.

Like Leviathans in Lyser, they were just things to be hunted.

For a moment, she had thought, “would it be more taxing to kill humans than Leviathans?”

Then, in battle with those humans it never crossed her mind. She had her orders.

On the hunt for humans doomed to the wrong side of her attentions.

Because there were as many enemies as the attacking mecha of the 114th, the battle was not immediately intense. Pops of confused gunfire from the Marder’s gas guns sounded the loudest and punctuated the chases transpiring around its hydrospace, but these fusilades were ineffective. The dispersed Sturmvolkers swam in directionless arcs, briefly firing their SMGs at the flitting shadows of the Union mecha darting all around them but failing to make contact with their targets. Shalikova and Khadija took to the chase, and went after a Sturmvolker each as soon as they saw one. Murati and her Agni hung back. Valya drew away one of the Sturmvolker from the reach of supporting units. Sameera scored first blood.

“HELIOS will be up momentarily!” Karuniya replied. “Zachikova, you can start!”

Sameera spotted Zachikova’s vaguely cetacean-shaped drone go swimming past.

Dragging behind it a crate on a hook that it was taking to the east.

“Moving to block the laser relay.” Zachikova informed the team.

“Sameera, Dominika, can you tie up the Marder’s guns?” Murati asked.

Sameera waited a second for Dominika to speak up first.

“Acknowledged!”

So she could then say: “I’ll do you one better than tying them up, Lieutenant!”

Though the battle had begun far enough from the Marder to only vaguely see its outline in the distance, the ship was only a hundred or so meters away– and closing. Flashes from its 20 mm defensive gas guns shone brighter and faster but began to dim anew. Owing to the 114th attacking, the Marder ceased to shoot at the John Brown and turned northward, away from the Rostock. Sameera wondered if they knew the Rostock was an enemy.

“Dominika, can you follow me as close as possible?” Sameera said.

“The gas gun pods aren’t as heavy as the cannons, I can keep up.” Dominika replied.

“Awesome. This is how we used to do it to bigger Leviathans in Lyser. Floor that pedal!”

Sameera began the attack run approaching the Marder-class from the starboard side. Gun pods on the Marder were divided into four bow, two aft, four keel and two each port and starboard. Hurtling toward the ship on final approach, Sameera was acquired by two of the bow guns and one of the starboard guns, turning and opening a flurry of gunfire. She approached high and threw herself into a diving turn to break through.

A dozen shells detonated in a long trail sweeping over her.

Flashing light briefly overcame her cameras.

Booming noises; tinnitus in her ears.

Heavy vibrations transferred into her cockpit, rattling over her back and under her fingers.

Explosion after explosion, bursting in the surroundings, blossoming fiery bubbles–

“Dominika!” She cried out.

“Still here! Focus!” She was relieved to hear a response.

Shrapnel bounced off her armor, pockmarked it, she could feel each impact–

Nevertheless she broke through the interdiction fire with minimal damage.

Sameera and Dominika swept across the broad side of the ship, too close to be fired on.

Close enough that the forward camera view was like a looming horizon of metal.

Within seconds the skirt of armor around the hydrojets came into view.

“Near the aft; up and on the deck!”

“Got it!”

The Streloks climbed suddenly, swept gracefully over the aft armor skirt.

Turned sharply, banking in a half-moon arc–

and began to cross the length of the deck, passing the conning fin,

completely under the firing arcs of the gas guns.

“Now cause some havoc!”

Taking the neck of the ship, its Divers too distracted to come to its rescue.

Sameera reared up her drill as she charged, and landed on the deck with a thrown punch.

Thrusting her diamond spear through a gas gun pod and gouging its magazine from inside.

Meanwhile Dominika planted herself in the middle of the three remaining deck guns.

From the Strelkannon’s shoulders, quick, controlled bursts of gunfire hammered the pods.

Perforating the housing and detonating each gun into a bubble of gas and debris.

“Rostock, the deck guns are out!” Sameera called out.

The Rostock’s Katarran operator picked up the message immediately.

“Got it! Torpedo incoming!”

Having created an opening, Sameera and Dominika thrust up with all of their power.

Within seconds the enormous sword-shape of the Rostock penetrated the shadows.

Filling the hole in the Marder’s defenses with fire.

Sameera noticed the brief flash of the explosion on her underside camera.

Faster than she could see in the darkness, the torpedo hurtled toward the starboard side of the Marder’s deck detonated just short of a direct hit, but it was enough. Enormous shearing forces caused by the detonation, expanding and contracting as the air bubble “stuck” to the ship’s side. Such was its fury that it tore a gash separating parts of the deck from the starboard plate. Water rushed in. Atop the ship, the main gun turret was paralyzed.

Though the watertight interior was not penetrated, the Marder listed.

Tilting just enough to expose the upper deck directly to the Rostock’s 150 mm guns.

From behind and under Sameera the guns thundered.

Twin massive flashes lit up the deck of the Rostock for a brief instant.

Lancing across the water splitting the sea, the munitions put two massive holes in the deck.

Penetrations too violent and too near for the anti-flooding measures to prevent.

In moments the Marder began to unravel beneath Sameera, bulging apart with successive compartment implosions until it was split open like a ration box. Everything transpired with devasting speed. Debris and blood, foaming clouds of shredded humans and ripped steel and crushed objects, lines of ripped-up cabling. From the top of the disemboweled hulk that was once a ship teeming with life, everything that had constituted its strength now bled out into a homogenous cloud. Its remains slowly descended to the sea floor.

For a moment Sameera floated amid that macabre geyser with a neutral expression.

Another hundred or so human souls cast into the water never again to return.

“No– it isn’t as hard as killing a Leviathan.” She said to herself.

Too low for the communicator to pick up and transmit.

When she took a Leviathan’s neck and drove her weapons into it, wrung its life out herself.

She had to see the face of a dead creature before her and meet its lightless eyes.

Something she saw moving with vigor and purpose just seconds ago, became extinguished.

With humans, in their ships and Divers– there was too much metal between all of them.

That was quite lucky. She wouldn’t be much use to anyone if she could not kill people.

“Sameera, are you alright? Don’t just suddenly go silent on me!”

Through the communicator, Dominika’s voice. Her lag-distorted face on the screen.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been through much worse.” She said, smiling at the screen.

Once again engaging her controls, Sameera’s Cossack rejoined Dominika’s Strelkannon.

Diving back down to where the sinking Marder once was, and now the Rostock settled.

“Marder down! No danger of agarthic detonation!” the Katarran operator called out.

Murati’s voice sounded next.

Sameera realized the fidelity of her sensor package had now improved. HELIOS’ high-bandwidth information network was established and she could see the surroundings much more clearly both on her map and even on her cameras due to the predictive overlays. It was as if there was actually some light and air down here in the depths of the Imbrium.

“All enemies down. Good work! But it’s only the first phase of the operation.” Murati said.

“Distress signals from the Marder to the relay were successfully intercepted by the net.”

Zachikova’s voice. In the distance Sameera could see an unfolded, massive sail-like object.

An X-shaped rigging between which there were enormous sectioned aluminum nets.

The Marder had been slain, and due to the laser-blocking net, its communications with the nearby laser relays were blocked, preventing its allies from knowing the details of its final fate. Nevertheless, despite the flawless execution of the first phase, the enemy, to whom the plan was unknown, continued making their own adjustments to alter the situation.


“W-what’s going on? Is there fighting? They’re fighting the Volkisch?”

At first Homa could hardly believe any of this was happening.

Soon she felt that the truth was washing over her like ice-cold water.

She was going to die.

From her hospital bed, Homa watched the bearing monitors on the wall. Hands shaking, teeth chattering. She felt suddenly cold because of how much she was sweating, and her chest quaked with the rushing of her heart. She felt that if she took her eyes off the monitors that would be the moment where her life suddenly ended. On every wall there was an update on the battle– the enemy ships, cycling topographic maps.

Along with a message, also cycled every so often–

Steel yourself and keep fighting! These monitors were meant for the sailor’s edification.

This propagandistic affirmation did nothing for Homa, however.

In her mind, this felt like the same hopeless folly she had engaged in back at Kreuzung.

The steel colossus of the Volkisch, immense and immovable, was coming for them.

Homa was not safe. She felt this in every centimeter of her skin.

She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to–

“Homa! I’m so sorry, I was setting up the aid stations. Are you okay?”

“I’m– of course– I’m not–”

Homa struggled to breathe and speak. Alarmed, Dr. Kappel rushed to her side.

Dr. Kappel held her by the shoulder and laid a hand on her forehead.

“Your temperature feels normal. I thought you might be having a rejection symptom–”

“How can it be normal?!” Homa cried out.

For an instant the doctor looked surprised by her shouting. She was not angered, however.

“I’ll get you a serotonin inhibitor– it’ll help you calm down.” Dr. Kappel said gently.

“How are you so calm?!” Homa shouted. “They’re going to kill us all!”

Dr. Kappel sat beside Homa’s bed, still smiling gently.

She reached out and carefully held Homa’s hands in her own.

“I understand your fear. But I’ve seen them do miraculous things before.” Dr. Kappel said.

Homa’s eyes filled with tears. She could not stop shaking. She looked down at her hands.

“Is– Is Kalika out there too? Where– where is she–?” Homa stammered heavily.

“Kalika is not fighting. She is helping in the hangar. She’ll be fine. I’m here for you.”

Dr. Kappel stayed at Homa’s side in the infirmary. Stroking her hands and comforting her.


“HELIOS is at full propagation! Please enjoy the scenery and thank your gracious host!”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s cheerful voice rang throughout the Brigand’s bridge.

On the main screen the prediction overlay on the camera feeds became clearer and slightly brighter. They could almost see the seafloor and the undersea mounts in the distance became outlined as if in fog. It was impressive, but even a miracle technology like HELIOS could not perfectly part the sea in such a dark and deep place as Eisental. It was comparatively far less rich in visual quality than it was in Goryk, when they first used it. They would not be able to navigate exclusively by sight even with the HELIOS network.

However, they were not using it for the visual overlay effects.

High-fidelity real time positional tracking and seamless laser communication with all of the pilots and ships in the fleet was the actual boon– and that was still working quite well, even over 2000 meters deep. On the Brigand’s bridge, the faces of their six pilots appeared on the main screen. Everyone had come out unscathed after the last sortie, but this was only the halfway mark. After a quick evaluation of the battlefield, the 114th returned to the Brigand as the Rostock and John Brown also formed back up around it. In an arrowhead formation, they headed for the next set of Marder-class. They had about twenty minutes before the next sortie, so the divers stayed in their deployment chutes.

Sailors passed charging cables and additional ammunition to them.

There was light damage on the Cossack and Valya’s Strelok that was assessed to not to be compromising for the machines. Shalikova and Khadija had each scored two enemy kills and received light shrapnel damage from close-range SMG munition bursts, while Sameera had taken out one enemy diver and Valya another. Murati’s Agni was the least worn and torn of the divers, as she had done no combat maneuvering and only focused on giving orders and covering for the HELIOS drones. While Ulyana ribbed Murati on her passivity in the last sortie, Tigris actually spoke up to agree with her decision to stay back.

“I’m recommending the Agni not engage in intense combat if possible.” She said.

“So when is Murati going to be required to do any work again?” Ulyana teased.

“Why is everyone suddenly acting like I’m lazy? This isn’t funny!” Murati shouted.

“She can go crazy once I’ve finished up the ‘Tigris Pack 1’ for the Agni.” Tigris said.

“Very well, I can accept that for now.” Ulyana replied.

“Why are you ignoring me now?!” Murati cried out, to a few laughs from the pilots.

On the video feed, they could see Karuniya’s hand reaching down to squeeze her shoulder.

Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah shook her head with a sigh, and turned to Zachikova.

“Can we get an updated picture of the incoming frigates? Has their course altered at all?”

Zachikova nodded her head and did as she was told, prompting the main screen to update.

In place of the pilots, the tracking map with predicted movements of the enemy returned.

Showing the two Frigates still in a line as they approached– and the third now closing in.

“It appears that their formation is tightening relative to what was calculated before.” Zachikova said. “We will meet them all together. No more than a minute apart.”

For a moment, Murati seemed to freeze up.

There was an unexpected change in the enemy’s composition.

And it was the most dangerous group too– those Marders and all their Divers.

Regardless, if Murati was afraid she was not showing it.

“We will adapt then.” Murati spoke up. “Captain, are we willing to use our missiles?”

“They’re difficult to replenish so I hoped to save them for a worse situation.” Ulyana said.

“Well, this situation is worsening. I think this a good idea from the Lieutenant.” Aaliyah said, gesturing to the main screen, where Murati’s face once was. “With the Rostock also shooting, we could drop sixteen missiles right into the core of their formation and cause a lot of chaos if not an outright rout. Patrolmen might not retain cohesion after that.”

“I’d gladly spend some missiles to seize the day. The Rostock will assist.” Erika said.

“Very well. We’ll prepare the missiles to fire.” Ulyana said. “But what about the timing?”

“Good point. Fatima, have we detected any more active sonar?” Murati asked.

“No, not since they sent us into alarm.” Fatima said. “They’re likely going quiet now.”

“Zachikova blocked the final communications from the other Marder. Jamming started before the Rostock attacked the Marder. It’s likely the enemy is missing some critical details about that battle.” Murati said. “They will know there was fighting and they will know something of our composition depending on what the Marder reported. But do they all know that the Rostock was also their enemy? We could use the situation against them by constructing a false narrative to have them take up a predictable formation.”

“How can we manipulate them in this situation? They’ll be on alert.” Aaliyah asked.

“Does the Rostock still have its original Imperial communications equipment, Premier?”

Erika smiled. “I think I see what you’re getting at Murati. Yes, we do have it.”

Zachikova altered the main screen picture so Murati’s face could be seen over the map.

“You said that regional patrol crews assume the Rostock is an imperial vessel with a higher command authorization than themselves. That means they are not aware of each specific ship in the inventory and they are not doing due dilligence and demanding authentication.” Murati said. “Zachikova could use the Rostock to send an Imperial-encrypted acoustic communication to the Marders informing them to predeploy their divers in a boxed defensive position. We will pretend we are chasing the Rostock toward them.”

“Clever.” Erika said. “I quite like the idea. Let’s contact Daphne to set things up quickly.”

“Zachikova, do you think you can do it? And do it quickly?” Murati asked.

Zachikova stared at the picture of Murati in her cockpit with clear irritation.

“Who do you think I am? This is technically really easy to do. But will they believe it?”

“Is it underestimating the enemy’s intelligence if we all agree they’re not too bright?”

Murati smiled confidently on the screen. Zachikova sighed once more and got to work.

The Rostock pulled out ahead, deliberately being missed by a small amount of gunfire.


Alerted to enemy activity but not exactly what kind, three Marder-class did their best to pull tightly together before making their final approach to the expected battlefield. Hatches opened on all three, their missile bays releasing sixteen Sturmvolker divers divided into sections of four, each occupying a cardinal direction as to guard their intended ships.

As far as the patrol knew their mission had changed. From capturing a Republic vessel that had somehow penetrated Eisental’s defenses, to stopping a large-scale enemy operation that was even threatening a Ritter-class Cruiser responding to the nearby battle. Since their local heavy support, a Serclaes, was lagging behind as usual, the brunt of the response was their responsibility. They were just patrol– they would not question orders.

Approaching to within a kilometer range was the Ritter-class that had sent the orders.

Trailing behind it as expected were a pair of enemy vessels launching ineffective attacks.

Aside from the Imperial cipher the ship had attached no relevant authentication.

Nevertheless, the patrol crews could come up with their own excuses for that.

When a brand new Cruiser like that gave an order they simply complied for their own sake.

The Marders in their defensive box sailed confidently. With a Ritter, they had the numbers.

Then, within 750 meters, the Marders spotted a series of successive flashes.

From behind the Ritter– and from the Ritter’s own missile bays.

Over a dozen lines cut across the water. Supercavitating missiles had been launched.

Both Imperial Taurus class missiles and Union Biryuza class hurtled toward the flotilla.

At this range the Marders had roughly 7 seconds to respond to being fired upon by missiles.

In that time gas guns could engage and fire a few rounds in haphazard directions.

Divers could be issued and execute single-word orders.

It was not enough.

“INCOMING!” was all that went out across the patrol flotilla.

Explosions blossomed violent gas bubbles across the top of flotilla’s hydrospace.

Gas gunners and divers struck some of the missiles, but even those intercepted munitions traveled too close to the fleet. Such turbulent detonations inflicted shockwaves that shook the frigates and sent Divers flying out of place. Cavitation bubbles formed by the explosion expanded and collapsed, pulsating violently. The walls of these bubbles “stuck” to steel when expanding and inflicted shearing force on the same metal when collapsing. Unlucky Divers caught in their wake imploded, torn open; ships within the radius of the explosion had armor and gun turrets and sensor bundles torn off their hulls and cast out into the sea.

Each missile warhead caused an explosion large enough to engulf two divers.

Tightly packed and not expecting such an attack, the flotilla quaked from the blasts.

No direct hits were scored, but significant damage was inflicted to turrets, fins, towers.

In an instant, combat capability had dropped from near-overwhelming to nil.

A predictable formation and a well-chosen attack made the difference.

Ephemeral flames and streams of bubbles and clouds of hot vaporized water spread a fog throughout the formation that the flotilla’s ships and divers struggled to escape. Once certain that they had survived, the individual ships lost cohesion, realizing it was a trap, and began to flee outside of mutually supporting range. In the confusion their divers floated helplessly, gathering their wits and tentatively fleeing in random directions.

Little did they know that while focused on the death raining down from above,

their keels had been taken.

Beneath the enemy flotilla, several divers shot up and attacked from the sea floor.

Khadija al-Shajara was at the head of the group and rushed at heedless speeds, her targeting computer putting a yellow box around a nearby Sturmvolker that had been spotted on her path. She reared back one of her swords as she climbed, sweeping up and just over the Sturmvolker suddenly. Twisting her Strelok’s body, engaging the jet on her diamond blade and cleaving diagonally through the center armor around the cockpit.

Saw-teeth chewed-metal disintegrating in front of her as her target imploded.

“One more for me, little Shali-Shali~!” Khadija said sweetly.

“It’s not a contest! Focus up!” Shalikova shouted back.

One blade in each hand; Khadija engaged both saws and rushed to the next target.

She was unaware of how many enemies had survived, she was not looking at her sensors.

Her mind had a honed instinct for moving quickly and attacking without hesitation.

Above them, there was a Frigate trying to climb away–

From the distance, a thundering cannonade. Three blasts perforated the side of the ship.

The Rostock, Brigand and John Brown were bringing firepower to bear on the flotilla.

Thanks to HELIOS, they did not have to worry much about hitting their own divers.

Metal rained down from heavens. Khadija navigated the debris of the dead and dying ships.

Pieces of the ships deflected off her armor as she charged.

Snaking toward a Sturmvolker overwhelmed by the chaos.

Within the rain of blood and iron it sprayed its SMG haphazardly.

She could almost hear the pilot screaming and shaking within the cascade of death.

Bursts of ineffective gunfire grazed her shoulderplates and hurtled past her hip armor.

Not once did she slow down; not once did she lose confidence in her approach.

Khadija crashed into the enemy with her swords in front of her and tore across.

Ripping two massive gashes in the metal, severing an arm, engulfed in skin-color foam.

Barely recognizing a kill before engaging her vernier thrusters and kicking off the carcass.

Her computer had already identified the next enemy within the storm.

She reveled in it.

“Looks like I’ll be the one carving a notch on my cockpit today, Shali-Shali~!”

By the time Serclaes-class Cruiser arrived, it was to the scene of a slaughter.

Heavy and roughly spearpoint-shaped, the Serclaes bristled with 76 mm guns on its angled surfaces, as well as a single 150 mm gun turret with one barrel designed for precision fire. It would avail itself of none of these accoutrements. Arriving blind, having received only a few panicked transmissions from the Marder-group and nothing more, and now unable itself to reach the nearby laser relay to communicate with the rest of the patrol, it saw an enormous field of mutilated debris spread out before it– and two enemy Cruisers banking away.

Drawn to the enemy it could see, the Serclaes moved to bring its guns to bear on them.

Unaware of a third enemy, the original target of the chase, that had been laid in wait.

Coming in quickly from the opposite flank just as the Serclaes committed to turn.

Four resounding blasts from the 100 mm guns on the John Brown impacted the Serclaes.

Tightly grouped, the shots punched deep into the armor in quick succession causing the ship’s interiors to disgorge from the wounds like a bag turned inside-out. Water violently filled the ship and disgorged each compartment in turn. Once the remains of the ship began to list, it seemed a beast wounded, red frothing humanity and steel innards copiously bleeding from the perforations as its body gracefully arced toward the sea floor.

Demonstrating the inflexible but brutal firepower that characterized the “In-Line-2” class.

“They called us cowards. But here we are.” Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin solemnly declared.

Not even a murmur got out about this engagement. The Serclaes died quietly.

In the distance, an aluminum sail folded back into its rigging and ceased blocking the relay.

Within the cockpits of several divers, pilots broke out into laughter, tears, or sighs.

Inside each ship, the officers and sailors stood briefly speechless at the circumstances.

Before breaking out into celebration.

Five ships, twenty-four divers, over 500 enemy lives. No casualties of their own.

Mere minutes decided whom would pay the balance with their dead.

An advantage that would have seemed overwhelming swung from one side to another.

Quick decisions; lucky guesses; irreparable mistakes, parceled out between combatants.

Incomparable levels of experience played a part; but so did the plan and its execution.

So did quick thinking and the determination to do battle in the first place.

For the Volksarmee it was an unlikely victory against the type of enemies they would have once run away from. Fighting the patrol in open water– it signaled a change in the era.

“All of you really have me believing in miracles here.” Erika Kairos said. “Good work.”

In each pilot’s cockpits and throughout the Brigand and Rostock, her voice broadcast.

Even after all they had been through, it proved that their survival had not just been a fluke.

Somehow, almost before they even knew it, they fought and won the Battle of Haaren Hills.

Opening the way to Aachen, testing their cooperation, rescuing a stray Republic ship–

And catching the attention of several different forces, once word of the event spread.


“We’re recovering the Agni! Get the crane here! C’mon, don’t leave our hero waiting!”

Chief Galina Lebedova shouted amicably at the surrounding sailors in the hangar.

Everyone had a smile on their face as they got the mobile crane over to the deployment chute and hooked the chain to Agni, pulling it up and onto the floor of the hangar. When the cockpit door opened, Murati stepped out into a wave of hands, patting her back, shaking her shoulder, clapping. They called her a hero and a genius. They saluted and cheered.

Ulyana had credited her with the battle plan.

Murati wilted under all the attention. She barely knew how to take a step forward.

So many people were smiling and laughing that she could not help but laugh awkwardly.

And she had some experience speaking in front of people, so it was not stage fright.

Rather, the sheer size of the group in the hangar led her to realize–

how many lives were at stake

in her conceited decisions,

recalling the Comissar chastised her

was all of this what she put at stake–?

“Hey, hey, don’t crowd us like this, I have a migraine! We need to rest!”

Karuniya stepped down from the rear seat of the Agni, gently pushing Murati forward.

Murati silently thanked Karuniya for being there with her.

Urged by Karuniya, Murati stepped off the cockpit ramp.

All of the sailors made way for them to go through to the elevator. Partway through they started clapping. Murati did not know why but the clapping bothered her a lot in that moment. It sounded much louder in her ears than it should and it rattled through her chest. Booming, thundering, vibrations transferring from metal through to her– no not from metal she was out of the metal. It couldn’t have been so loud as to move through the floor. She could barely meet the eyes of the sailors– they became an indistinct mass around her. Did Karuniya see all of this? Murati thought that she might stumble and fall–

“Please allow the Lieutenant through! She must attend her post-combat checkup!”

At the entrance to the elevator the crowd cleared away from a shouting Aatto.

She helped Karuniya to usher Murati through the elevator door.

Once the doors shut, all of the sounds shut out with them.

It was like a pair of hands had clapped in Murati’s ears and awakened her from a dream.

“Murati, are you okay?” Karuniya asked. “You look so pale– and you’re shaking!”

“I’m fine.” Murati said. “Really. I haven’t eaten today, I must be hungry.”

“Jeez. I should have had you eat a survival bar or something.” Karuniya said.

Karuniya turned from Murati to the Loup woman who had entered the elevator with them.

“You must be Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! It’s our first time meeting isn’t it?”

“I believe so! I was only officially elevated to this role this morning.”

Aatto reached out a hand across Murati’s chest to shake with Karuniya on the other side.

Karuniya shook her hand with a strangely cheerful expression.

“I’m Murati’s wife, Karuniya Maharapratham. Pleased to meet you.”

She emphasized the word. Was she angry? Aatto had no reaction to this.

Between the two of them Murati felt like she had been trapped in a cage.

Everything was happening across the length of her like she had been made an object.

A firm hand shake. Smiling faces. An almost mock-saccharine atmosphere.

Aatto’s fingers then slipped from Karuniya’s grasp, to hold her hand by the tips instead.

She leaned forward in front of Murati and kissed Karuniya’s hand.

Karuniya went red. Murati drew her eyes wide.

“The Queen herself!” Aatto said. “I can already see it– a worthy partner to a king!”

Murati almost wanted to scream at her–

But the two of them were chirping too much for her to get a sound in edgewise.

“Oh my! She’s such a charmer!” Karuniya laughed.

Now it was Aatto’s turn to smile in a strangely cheerful fashion.

“I studied the roster. A formidable scholar is a perfect match for a consummate soldier.”

“Oh ho~! Murati, I already like her. You’ve got a keeper here.”

“I am flattered you think so. I simply wish to support unique talents in this world.”

“Thank you Aatto. My hubby can be difficult, so please be patient with her.”

“Of course, of course–”

“I’m the one who is being monumentally patient here.” Murati spoke up, fists tightening.

Aatto and Karuniya both giggled at the same time and in a frighteningly similar fashion.

Murati wondered if she might break their camaraderie by reminding Karuniya that Aatto had been a non-commissioned officer of the Volkisch Movement, but she decided against it. She did not want to hurt Aatto’s feelings when she could just be the bigger woman and endure her wife joking as she always did. It might even do Karuniya some good, Murati thought, if she made a friend. For as much as Karuniya joked about this, the same rules of friendship that she used to say Murati was friendless applied just as much to her.

At least the two of them were not fighting.

Karuniya could have easily decided to be offended by Aatto rather than amused.

After the door opened to the upper tier, it revealed Erika Kairos standing in the hall.

Murati saluted to her. Erika waved for her to put her hand down.

“Ah, Murati. May I accompany you for a moment? I wanted to talk.” Erika said.

“Of course.” Murati said. She turned to look at Karuniya and Aatto.

Karuniya waved her fingers as if to tell Murati to go on ahead, staying with Aatto.

Erika started down the hall with Murati following at her side.

“How are you feeling? Triumphant?” Erika asked.

“Not really. A little shaky I guess.” Murati said. “I haven’t eaten today.”

She was beginning to suspect it was more than food and maybe her nerves were shot.

But she did not want to admit that nor seek support for it.

Preferably, it really was just hunger affecting her.

“Does it feel surreal, to come out the other end of a successful plan?” Erika asked.

“A little bit. I don’t know whether to feel like we clawed out a victory, or won too handily.”

“When a battle starts, there are no even odds between the combatants. Nothing is fair and nobody is keeping score. There is just, always someone who will triumph, and someone who will die. You know– I felt that you are someone who would not appreciate being called a ‘genius’, so I called you something whimsical on the bridge, a ‘sorcerer.’”

“Even that feels unearned.” Murati said. “I’m not special for just making observations.”

“Perhaps not, but you are the one who spoke up. You had the courage of conviction.” Erika said. She smiled a bit more than she was before. Shutting her eyes and grinning with satisfaction. “Murati, what I find special about you is not how much you know about military matters– it’s what’s in here.” Erika reached out and suddenly tapped her fingers just above Murati’s breasts. “Before you chastised us, we were going to leave those people on the John Brown to die. I was leaning that way too. It was your words that saved their lives. It was your determination to abhor injustice even if looking the other way was the easier path.”

Murati had honestly never given her ‘attitude’ such as it was, that elevated sort of merit.

In her mind, what mattered was all the time she spent thinking about war, studying history, trying to determine correct understandings. Her heart, was just that of a communist, she thought. Anyone could have made that judgment; anyone with her knowledge could have made that plan. Everyone in the world should have had her convictions.

“I’m of the opinion you could use a bit more malice.” Erika said. “But I also just like you.”

Erika met her eyes with such a fond and gentle gaze.

Murati felt a bit embarrassed suddenly.

She felt like she needed to justify herself better to someone like Erika.

“I wouldn’t have made the suggestions I did, if I did not believe we could win.”

“And when the situation changed? You know– we could have run away at many points!”

“I still believed we could rout them. And I believed it was the best action long-term.”

“Keep believing wholeheartedly. Speak when you must, and then argue with whoever you need to, including myself. If needed, I’ll put my foot down as the malice that you lack.”

Erika reached her hand out again and patted Murati on the back.

Murati smiled at her and felt her head clearing just a bit more than before.

Her heart just a little bit less heavy than it had been. She felt just a bit less burdened.

She was not singularly responsible for everyone’s lives, not today, and not ever.

They had not done all of this just because Murati said so, but because they believed her.

Someday, if she was wrong, if they thought she was wrong–

There were many people with their own judgments around her who would guide her.

Murati was stubborn, she knew she would argue her own way no matter what.

But everyone was responsible together. Erika was right.

She needed to have confidence.

Sometimes the most callous thing toward life was to stand by saying nothing.

“I appreciate it, Premier. But I am not afraid to deploy the little malice I have.”

“Then I won’t underestimate you again. How do you feel now?”

“Better.” Murati said. “Could you tell I was troubled?”

For an instant, Erika flashed the red rings around her eyes that indicated psionics.

Then she crossed her arms over her breasts, shut her eyes, and looked a bit smug.

“You could say it was a mix of my own judgment as a leader; and a little diagnostic.”

“I see. Nevertheless– thank you, Premier.”

“My pleasure. Ask me someday to tell you the story of how I stole the Rostock.”

“Was it a plan comparable to what we pulled off today?”

“It was so much better. Intrigue, death-defying risk, with Katarran soul. Pure noir.”

“I thought noir stories are supposed to have bad endings?”

Erika remained quiet to that question but continued smiling to herself.

Eventually she ducked into another meeting room and bid Murati goodbye for the moment.

Murati thought that perhaps the story of the Rostock did have a bad ending.

And that there could be ‘bad endings’ where Erika still lived to tell that story anyway.

Whatever else she intended to communicate, Murati was simply glad for the reassurances. When she arrived at the infirmary some of the cheer she lost the past few days had returned.


After the sinking of the patrol fleet’s Serclaes-class Cruiser, the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown quickly fled the scene of the battle. Though each fleet had been prevented from transmitting to the relay during battle and therefore to the rest of the patrol, it must have already been common knowledge that the flotilla was moving to engage a Republic ship in the first place. If that specific operation took too long and suddenly went out of contact, then more of the patrol would immediately be sent to the area to investigate.

Ulyana gave the order to depart as close to combat speed as possible without raising further suspicion from any arriving patrol fleet vessels. An object moving too fast underwater would stick out too much– commercial vessels and off-duty military ships all traveled at restricted speeds either due to hardware, legal or doctrinal limitations. The Volksarmee had to get to Aachen as soon as they could, but without raising too much dust in the process.

“According to Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, the patrol fleet in Eisental was stripped pretty bare so most their newer ships could be assigned to the Volkisch navy and their war in the south. However, we must retain a sense of urgency. Even a dozen Cutters can be a problem. Furthermore, we have to assume that Violet Lehner’s forces will be moving north to secure personal control over the region. They will likely be far more formidable.”

That was Erika’s assumption but Ulyana supported it, having watched video of her speech.

Violet Lehner’s “Zabaniyah” would be their eventual biggest problem.

For the moment, however, the state of the John Brown was the immediate concern.

To that end, Ulyana contacted Eithnen Ní Faoláin.

In the hangar, the Brigand’s shuttle was prepared.

Over the past week they had gotten some good practice with shuttling people and supplies while on the move between the Brigand and Rostock. This time the shuttle would be loaded with a large crate of tightly packed dehydrated ration bricks, making up a week’s worth of meals for 150 people eating three bricks a day. Part of the Brigand’s survival stash– but it would last the John Brown a bit, and provide needed calories efficiently.

Along with the crates, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara would hitch a ride.

The Brigand’s shuttle was a wide, semi-cylindrical craft. It exited the ship via a moonpool that essentially acted as a much bigger deployment chute near the back of the hangar. Its cargo bay could hold one Strelok lying on its back, but was most useful in ferrying people and cargo crates to and from ships and stations without docking. Just like the Brigand, the shuttle had undergone an upgrade too. Its cargo bay and crew pod pressurized separately, so it was possible to actually dump out a Strelok somewhere as a neat trick.

Ulyana had no idea when they would make use of that, but Murati had suggested it.

So she would defer to that wunderkind’s judgment on such matters.

Aaliyah and Ulyana boarded the crew pod, containing the pilot and co-pilot’s seats and compartments where they could store emergency equipment and personal effects for their own use, and behind them, one long seat that could hold six passengers. Additional passengers could ride with the cargo. The seats were slightly stiff but comfortable enough for a quick shuttle trip. With just the two of them, the ride was not too cramped.

For this trip, their pilot and co-pilot would be Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse.

The two young stars of the Brigand’s security team, frequently seen patrolling together.

Over their security team armored bodysuits they wore work coveralls with grey hats.

Both of them had tied up their hair into buns. Klara was all smiles and amused with herself.

Zhu Lian retained a professional demeanor, while occasionally cracking a grin at Klara.

“The Captain should not visit another ship without an escort.” Lian said as they stepped in.

“I understand, but,” Aaliyah spread her jacket to reveal her revolver on a holster.

“Chief Akulantova insists.” Lian said, opening a compartment to reveal a submachine gun.

Klara showed that there was a grenade launcher under her chair in addition.

“I don’t think we’ll need any of these things, actually! Please calm down!” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse engaged the electric power of the shuttle and locked down the compartments. Much like every other vessel, the shuttle was completely windowless. Cameras were used for navigation instead, and like a Diver, the shuttle could sync to the Brigand’s sensors as long as it was within laser or acoustic data range, receiving sonar and LADAR updates from it to navigate more accurately. For the passengers, a “window” was projected on the walls at their sides. Pilot and co-pilot had a multi-section display that could be divided among the shuttle’s cameras. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were not dedicated pilots, but every marine trained enough to be a capable shuttle pilot.

Below them, the moonpool filled, and the shuttle descended.

Once the hatch above them was closed, the hatch below opened to let them into the sea.

Hydrojets propelled the shuttle, quick enough to keep up with the ships in the fleet.

Their journey would only take a few minutes, but Ulyana still laid back against her seat.

She had not been on a small craft for a very long time.

Looking out the projected window and at the ocean next to her. On the bridge, the main screen picture made the ocean look so much smaller and easier to understand. While the view she had in the shuttle was no more authentic than that which she had on the bridge, it still felt closer, and the water outside felt darker and more vast. At the head of a ship, there were so many people and so much equipment working to give Ulyana a sense of what was out in the water with them. She never had to contemplate it herself for an instant.

In this shuttle, there was only her eyes and the unvarnished feed of a camera.

And the endless, teeming darkness of the Imbrium yearning to swallow her whole.

It unsettled her, momentarily. It made her feel weaker than she otherwise thought she was.

None of their pretensions mattered to the crushing, overwhelming fury of that water.

“What do you see out there, Captain?” Aaliyah asked.

“A lot of nothing.” Ulyana replied, covering up her brief bout of introspection.

“Truly? You looked like you would say something poignant about it.” Aaliyah smiled.

Ulyana looked amused. “Our pilots go out there all the time; none have come back poets.”

Aaliyah had a friendly laugh at the remark, sitting back along with the Captain.

Maneuvering with ease through the waters disturbed by the passing of the ships, the shuttle approached the underside of the John Brown. A hatch opened and a cable anchor helped guide the shuttle up into the ship. The hatch under them closed, and the top hatch opened. Three cranes lifted the shuttle from the water and the hangar hatch closed beneath them, setting the shuttle back down. Zhu Lian and Klara checked to make sure the atmospheric pressures inside the Brigand and John Brown matched, which they did– then shut off the motor and opened the side doors, putting down a step-ladder using a crank.

“You two will unload the cargo.” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse both stared at her.

“Unload the cargo and stay here. We’re not going to have any trouble, I assure you.”

However, regardless of what Akulantova said to do, the Captain’s orders were absolute.

So they remained behind, watching like a pair of predatory birds while unhooking the crate.

Outside, Ulyana and Aaliyah stepped out onto a comparably very small hangar.

For whatever reason, everything was painted some shade of an odd and unwelcoming set of greens. Compared to the Brigand’s hangar it was narrow and the ceiling was low, which Ulyana expected, but the degree to which it was both of these things still took her by surprise. It was tighter than a Soyuz’s insides. There was only barely enough space for the shuttle in the back. The John Brown perhaps had the space for a Diver or two on the other half of the hangar, but there was only a single deployment chute, and no gantries. There was no workshop. The John Brown did not have stitcher machines of any kind.

If they kept any equipment here, it would be tough to maintain it.

Perhaps owing to the lack of space there were very few sailors in the hangar. All of them wore blue jumpsuits, and they were sitting and lying, overturned in various corners. Blankets and pillows had been given to them, as if the hangar had been converted into an infirmary. Someone who looked like they might be a nurse was tending to them, but had no supplies on hand. Several men looked only partially conscious. Simple hunger was not the only cause of this. Ulyana recalled that Eithnen told her they were without medicine also.

These sailors were ill, and going without treatment.

“You can see plainly our situation here, Captain. Thank you again for your support.”

An elevator opened near the shuttle bay and Eithnen Ní Faoláin stepped out to greet them.

She was accompanied by a shorter, comely woman with a thinner figure, properly wearing the blue Republic military skirt uniform that Eithnen wore only loosely. She had very dark skin, and black hair that was tied back into a braided tail. A pair of sleek glasses perched on her nose. Atop her head, she had a beret. Because the uniform was blue it reminded Ulyana of the cadets of the Union’s Academy in Mt. Raja. However, she recognized her uniform from her diplomat training. Eithnen’s companion must have been part of Republic military intelligence as an attaché. Not every ship in the Republic navy had an officer like that.

“Let me introduce you to my indispensable adjutant, Tahira Agyie.” Eithnen said.

“Pleased to meet you. On behalf of the crew, thank you, Ulyana Korabiskaya, and you as well, Commissar Bashara. We could scarcely hope for any relief. We were prepared to die.”

Tahira shook hands with Ulyana and then Aaliyah in turn. Hers was a quick, efficient shake.

She wore at all times a measured expression on her pretty face, betraying no emotion.

Ulyana did not judge her for this. It was not easy to smile in their circumstances.

Eithnen on the other hand was very affable, so it was an interesting contrast.

“We come bearing some gifts. Enough food for the journey.” Ulyana said.

She gestured to the back of the shuttle, where Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were working on getting the ramp down using cranks to conserve battery. Once the ramp was down they hooked the heavy crate to a winch and gently slid it down to the ramp and onto the floor of the hangar, before unhooking the crate and leaving it. While they were doing this, the Captain, Commissar and their counterparts continued their conversation off to the side.

“We can shuttle in medicine next.” Aaliyah said, glancing at the lethargic sailors.

“I can’t thank you enough. Some of these men, we have known about their deteriorating conditions for weeks now. Some have chronic illnesses, others just picked things up in Aachen. Most got worn down over time from lack of food, but kept working to keep us afloat.” Eithnen said. “Before the fleet was dashed to pieces in Kreuzung, our ‘commanders’ treated us like dirt. We were afforded nothing and kept locked up inside this ship.”

“That is horrific.” Ulyana said. “We’ll do what we can to assist your crew.”

“Thank you again, Captain.” Eithnen said. “Let us move to a meeting room in order to talk more comfortably. They’re also pretty cramped, but at least we can sit down there.”

“Of course. We can discuss the situation in-depth.” Ulyana said.

“This way.” Tahira gestured to the elevator.

Before leaving, Aaliyah turned around and shouted for Klara and Lian.

“You two put on some masks, get the first-aid kits and help out where you can!” She said.

Aaliyah pointed at the shuttle and then at the medical staff looking over the sick men.

Klara and Lian, sitting on the crate, looked helpless for a moment before moving to comply.

They were not medical staff, but Union marines received basic aid training too.

At least it gave them a different context for interacting with foreign sailors than suspicion.

“You’re all frankly amazing to me. I haven’t died and gone above, have I?” Eithnen said.

“We’re communists, it’d be a sad sight if we just sat around while people suffered.” Aaliyah said. “Trust us that you’re quite alive; we just have a different spirit than the Republic.”

Tahira stared at Ulyana and Aaliyah wordlessly for a moment before averting her gaze.

Eithnen put on a big, cheerful grin. “Well then! God bless the commie spirit!”


Aboard the Brigand, the door to the medbay slid open and closed quickly.

Hurried clacking steps from a pair of heels.

“Homa, are you okay? We’re out of danger now. I’m sorry I couldn’t support you.”

“It’s whatever.”

Homa recognized the horns and ponytail first, at the edge of her vision.

Kalika had come to visit.

Homa was lying sideways in bed, clutching her blankets as Kalika took a seat beside her. Even though she had her prosthetics installed, she was under observation until she had a few days’ worth of therapy. Her gait was still clumsy, though she was making progress.

More than that, she did not want to leave the infirmary during the commotion–

Because her heart had been gripped by an ice cold fear.

A shameful, chilling, awful fear.

Even now, lucid and medicated, she felt like she had been dowsed in ice water.

“Thanks to the crew, we were able to pull through.” Kalika said. “You’re safe now.”

Homa grumbled. She was ashamed. Ashamed of how frightened she had gotten.

“Did you go out and fight?” Homa asked, her lips trembling.

“All I fought were a few leaking pipes near the infirmary and the cafeteria. And some of the anti-flooding shutters.” Kalika said. “I was just doing this and that, trying to help out.”

“Why did they go pick a fight with the Volkisch?” Homa asked. “It’s just crazy.”

“They were rescuing some poor folks.” Kalika said. “It’s just the way they operate.”

“It’s useless– trying to be big dumb fucking heroes like that– they’ll just get killed–!”

Kalika did not respond. Homa snatched a look at her face. She was just silently smiling.

For some reason Kalika never judged Homa, never called her an asshole or a coward.

Sometimes it infuriated her. She wished someone would just slap her across the face.

Someone should just tell her already that she was worthless and lower than dirt.

They should just leave her crippled husk behind! Just launch her into the sea!

There it went again– she was crying. Crying and blubbering and shaking.

It was all she could do. Unlike Kalika, she could do nothing. She was utterly broken.

“Kalika,” Homa whimpered, “Can you– can you get me that necklace– on the table–”

Kalika nodded her head. She picked up Homa’s necklace from the bedside table.

Kneeling close to Homa’s bed, she put the necklace in her fingers directly.

“Rest up Homa. When you’re feeling up to it, we’ll resume your therapy.”

Homa did not respond to that. Once she had her necklace she hid under the blankets.

She clutched the necklace tight against her chest with her biological hand, crying openly.

Wishing she could hear the stupid little voice calling her ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ again.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.4]

Through the Osmium shutters, a hair’s-width of purple rays still bled through.

Dim purple sliced the shadows of the upper wall of the reactor engineering pod– leaving the steel thankfully intact. Just a hint of purple touched down upon the tea table set down incongruously below the raised reactor structure in the back of the pod.

Enclosed within enormous osmium and titanium structures flanking the main reactor were steam generators, circuits, converters, backup batteries, and turbines, that captured and converted and stored and transmitted as much energy that reactor had to give as possible. The heat of the agarthic reaction, the motion of the core array suspended in water, the erratic flashes of agarthic radiation that were characteristic of the lower grade agarthicite used in ship cores compared to station cores. All of it was the life-giving gift the sovereign mineral gave to its After Descent subjects. None of it could be wasted.

God lifted and encased upon its throne of carefully alloyed minerals.

At the back of every ship, this was the face that He showed to his subjects.

And within this temple, a few officers infrequently held tea parties.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were both in attendance, on the opposite end of the table. Between the table and the reactor there was a protective shield of lead and osmium for the occupants. Aside from thin, stray rays of agarthic light, the only illumination was a wax candle that had a musky, mineral-like scent. Compared to an electric torch, this knickknack was a waste of resources– but the woman who requested it received any such thing she wanted. She had a supply of such charms for the journey.

“Thank you for once again indulging me, Captain, Commissar.”

“Of course. Compared to everything else, this is an oasis of calm.”

“Strange, isn’t it? I have to consider the end of my life every second of every day that I reside here, but even so, every day is so peaceful. I could not ask for a better place to spend my final days. Even when the ship is shaking, and battle raging– I just have to tend to the temperatures and monitor output. If the worst happens– I’ll be painlessly erased.”

“Ah– no need to be gloomy, Chief! I’m sure you’ll have many long years ahead!”

“Oh, don’t worry. It has no bearing on my mood. I’m simply being realistic.”

Across from the ship’s leadership cadre was the least often seen of its officers.

Chief Core Engineer, and Hero of Socialist Labor, Iessenia Kurchatova.

Iessenia was a few years older than Ulyana but her actual age was not too evident. She was a pale and petite woman, pretty and vibrant, with girlish features and very long hair that had been dyed green to cover the drain of their color over time. Long locks fell over her shoulders, reached down her back, and she had fluffy bangs swept to either side. She wore a touch of lipstick, a bit of eyeshadow– but a lot of blush, coloring the middle of her face. She wore the Treasure Box button-down shirt and tie with a black mini-skirt and tights, with a white coat over it. On her wrists were steel cuffs attached to collapsible mobility aids that, in their resting position, stretched partway down the length of her arm.

More noticeable than these basic facts of her appearance were the vestiges of her vocation.

In several places in her body there were hexagonal burns, colored purple-black like bruises. There was a stretch of these burns across the upper left corner of her face, having claimed one eye which was replaced with a cybernetic implant. Her eyelid and eyebrow were reconstructed such that when she smiled and shut her eyes it looked pretty natural. Bits of less severe patches of burns could be seen on her neck and creeping over her right breast, slightly visible due to a few undone buttons. In the dim illumination in which Iessenia kept the room, there was a dim purple glow from the sinews on her neck and arms.

Ulyana knew this was owed to the level of agarthic salts in her bloodstream.

On her remaining biological eye, the color had been slightly altered as well. Purple was creeping in from the lower right quadrant of the eye. Close inspection revealed that the purple was actually made up of tiny hexagons, as if the visible pixelation on a low quality video monitor. Iessenia disclosed to Dr. Kappel that her circulatory system was largely colonized by Agarthicite in its microscopic “salt” form. Eventually enough agarthic salt inside her would react, causing an annihilation that would maim her internally.

It was likely that she would die from this– and not painlessly as she hoped.

Thankfully, that did not seem to bother the smiling woman who offered the Captain tea.

Unlike all the coffee-drinkers in the ship, she had this special dispensation as well.

Much like her scented soy-wax candles.

All for the comfort of the Union’s Agarthicite genius, awaiting her untimely demise.

Iessenia, like most core engineers, was the sacrifice at the altar of God.

For the sake of Humanity– so anything could be spared for her happiness and comfort.

“Today’s tea is my favorite. Masala chai. Black tea with sweetened milk and spices.”

Iessenia stared at her teacup quietly for almost a minute before taking an indulgent sip.

Ulyana lifted her cup to her own lips. Sweet and creamy and with a complex flavor from the aromatic spices. It was the richest cup of tea Ulyana had ever tasted. Like almost everyone on the ship she had a strict coffee habit to keep herself going during the long hours– but she could appreciate the delicate craft of preparing a nice cup of tea.

Minardo was a quiet genius with tea.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah took a delicate sip.

For a moment, her stony demeanor melted, her ears folding, smiling with pleasure.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? I try to limit myself to one good cup of tea a day– I don’t want to be greedy, you know?” Iessenia said. “Minardo always makes an exactingly beautiful cup.”

“It is pretty good.” Aaliyah said, as if downplaying her earlier reaction.

Behind them, there was a sudden racket from sliding metal.

Double locks on the door into the pod automatically undid themselves to allow access.

Another young woman, also rarely seen among the ship’s population, joined the tea party.

Dressed in the treasure box uniform with a pair of black pants, she was younger than Ulyana and Iessenia and maybe even younger than Aaliyah too. Characterized by short dark hair that was a little bit curly, and light brown skin and a serious face that made small movements in its expression. Her figure was slightly fuller than Iessenia’s but not by much. Her body had not yet incurred any agarthic damage common to her chosen vocation. She was in as good health and spirits, or better, than the typical crew member.

In her hands she had a tray of snacks from Minardo.

Biscuits with a mayonnaise spread flecked with finely chopped pickles; and simple doughnuts filled with an equally simple jelly and cream. There were not a lot of provisions on the ship for fancy cafe desserts, but something could always be baked, and with sweeteners, preserved fruit and powdered milk a lot could be done. The new arrival set the tray in the middle of the table and took seat beside Iessenia with a small smile.

“Thank you for fetching the snacks, Petty Officer.” Ulyana said.

“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the young woman in a quiet and serious voice.

She was once Iessenia’s intern and student. Now closest companion on the voyage.

Petty Officer and Assistant Core Engineer, Nina Srivastavi.

“I’m thankful to you for helping our Hero of Socialist Labor over here.” Ulyana teased.

Aaliyah’s ears twitched slightly as if she picked up something in her tone of voice.

“It’s truly nothing major.” Nina said.

“She has been utterly indispensable to me.” Iessenia added, laying a hand over Nina’s own.

Aaliyah’s eyes darted down to the hands. She sipped her tea as if in lieu of speaking.

Ulyana noticed Aaliyah’s growing concern and steered things back around to business.

“We had a concern we wanted to share with you, Iessenia.” Ulyana said.

“Not about my social life I hope?” Iessenia smiled.

Aaliyah averted her gaze, still sipping tea.

Ulyana laughed it off without a direct response. “It’s about the shield we installed.”

“Oh yes!” Iessenia said. She raised her hand and gestured behind her as if waving to the reactor. “Clever little piece of tech! I am glad we got it to work in the end. I was aware that the ship had channeled paneling installed during its construction– such things have been theoretically possible for a very long time, but a bit useless in a fleet context, so it was not seriously pursued except by the Ahwalia administration. Ahwalia’s people wanted to have a very small, very high tech and elite navy– Jayasankar promoted a doctrine closer to that of the Imbrian Empire. Lots of ships, lots of fleets, lots of shortcuts. In a contest between dozens of ships, a shield on one or two just doesn’t matter to the end result.”

“In our context, it could be incredibly useful.” Ulyana said. “If it could work.”

“Indeed! It sucked a lot of power at Kreuzung, even threatened to blow a few circuits!”

“Initially we believed it was because we were running it out of the water.” Aaliyah said, finally entering the conversation. “But looking back at the maintenance logs, it seems like even with proper cooling we might not be able to sustain the shield for long. What do you think?”

“As far as the reactor is concerned, we certainly have enough capacity for it.” Iessenia said.

“Our problem is the ancillary parts, I think. I recall there being issues there.” Nina said.

Iessennia raised her index finger to her lips. She took a moment to think about it.

“I think the issue is with the converters. Reactor behaviors have to be converted to usable energy. We need to look at the steam capture, heat transfer and electric transformers. That is the bottleneck– the reactor’s effective power is as high as the converters can actually introduce to the rest of the system. So the converters– and then perhaps higher-tolerance cabling from converters to boards. That should enhance energy transmission.”

“Thank you both.” Ulyana said. “It’s a start– I can float the idea by Euphrates and Tigris.”

“My pleasure.” Iessenia said. “Say, can you arrange a meeting between us?”

“You and Euphrates and Tigris?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes! We have only met on brief business during the refit– I’d love to sit down with them as a social occasion and pick their brains. There are not many people in the world who are aware of systems like agarthicite shields– these are high-end theoretical pseudophysics with very little practical use or development. I want to know what else they worked on. I want to talk about stuff that only comes out of dreaming big, like Project Red Star.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was a little bit more brusque.

Iessenia spoke more fondly about the scientific developments of the Ahwalia regime than anyone else on the ship. Project Red Star was like a bad joke to the Jayasankar regime– Iessenia had been right there in the middle of it, however. Given heaps of resources to “dream big” despite practicality and giving her all to advance science. None of the rank and file on the ship knew enough to begrudge her participation with Ahwalia’s biggest policy failure– but Ulyana thought it might have been the reason Nagavanshi consigned her to this dangerous journey, rather than keeping her working in the labs in Solstice.

“They’re busy, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” Ulyana said.

Her voice was gentler as if trying to smooth out what Aaliyah had roughened.

Iessenia did not look like she minded at all. She continued smiling.

“Thank you, Captain. If you have any other questions, I am at your full dispensation.”

She took another delicate drink of her tea. Her hands slowly began shaking.

“Ma’am, I think it’s time for your Neurotin.” Nina said.

“Oh, true. Can you be a dear and fetch it please?” Iessenia asked, putting down her cup.

Nodding, Nina stood from the table.

She crossed a door on the side of the room, entering a small shielded living space in which she and Iessenia slept and cleaned up and stored their things. She searched for the medicine.

Back at the table, however, the tea party simply continued.

“Silly hands.” Iessenia said, ever smiling. “But that’s just part of doing what you love.”

Perhaps in reactor engineering, the mood was always a tea party.

For those fighting aboard ships in this fallen era, perhaps life had to be like a party.


“Homa? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Hovering over Homa’s eyes was a hand, with only the middle and index fingers raised. On each finger, the nails had pink and blue colors beautifully patterned. To acknowledge the owner of that hand, Homa slowly raised her own hand with two fingers up, the “peace sign.” Only, she found that the arm which she had raised, and the fingers which were at its end, were completely black and had a sheen to them. She stared at the fingers, flexing them in front of confused eyes. She had not known what to expect– they were just limbs.

Each digit was visibly articulated, as if exposed bone. She could see the jointed metal bones turn as she flexed. Her fingers were slightly thicker than she was used to, but only slightly. They had tips that seemed soft, like plastic padding, but– Homa could not feel that they were soft. There were some sensations that terminated at her shoulder. Though she was moving something, there was a missing bit of feedback from her new limbs.

“I– I can’t feel it–” Homa mumbled. Talking mainly to herself, as if alone in the room.

“I’m sorry Homa, for military prosthetics, we do not carry nerve stimulators. We had to make some concessions between comfort and utility. It is certainly possible to reinstall the prosthetics with stimulators in the future, once the– current troubles– are in the past and we have the benefit of safety and better supplies. But these prosthetics are very durable and responsive. You will be able to live independently again in no time, I assure you.”

Through a mind fog, Homa vaguely recognized the voice of Dr. Kappel.

She followed the fingers that were adorned with pretty nails, up the arm, and to the face, with its blue makeup and multi-shade blue hair. Dr. Kappel smiled at her, and wrapped her fingers around Homa’s prosthetic hand. Homa could not feel the touch. Right in front of her eyes, she could see contact between skin and the prosthetic, but it lacked the warmth she expected to feel. This made the gesture just a little bit frustrating to receive.

Nevertheless, Dr. Kappel smiled brightly at the result.

“Good. Looks like the basics are in order. All the kinetics parts are working, the plastic sleeves are flush. Don’t make dramatic movements yet. Between the anesthesia and getting used to the neural interface, your arm may not exhibit the fine control you are used to– yet. I can assure you with time, your standard of living will be exactly as it was.”

“Except for the beef pot– I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that for now.”

“Ms. Loukia– please.”

Homa weakly turned her head and saw Kalika sitting on a chair beside the operating table.

She smiled a little.

Kalika smiled back, and playfully waved the fingers of her prosthetic hand.

Rather than the medbay, the operation had taken place in Dr. Kappel’s office, on a table that was set between the door out of the office and the door into the medicine vault. The table was pulled out of the floor and folded out, and would be folded and pushed into the floor when Homa left it. Anesthesia had been administered in the medbay, so Homa was only then getting her first look at the new surroundings. Her head was swimming.

“If it helps, I do not use nerve stimulators.” Kalika said. “I’ve become accustomed to swinging an unfeeling arm. It allows you to push it to its limits. Makes a handy shield too.”

“It will be a little more troublesome to have a leg that you cannot completely feel under you.” Dr. Kappel said. “But only a little. Most of the focus of our physical therapy will be to get you walking, Homa. With confidence and a good balance. We can begin soon. For now, rest as long as you need. You’re almost at the finish line, so no sense in rushing.”

Homa nodded her head. Despite the anesthesia wearing off, she was extremely tired.

There was a small part of her that was a bit sad and a bit bitter.

She had hoped that the surgery would dramatically change how she had been feeling the past few days. That she would wake up on the operating table like nothing bad had happened to her. Feeling whole again– not just functionally but in spirit. There was a part of her that felt that an arm was not simply a tool for grasping, but that she had been afflicted with a condition in which she lacked possession of an arm. She lacked a completeness of self. With that arm many things had been torn from her. Her future, the people she knew, her home. That arm had a spirit– it was touch, it was warmth, it was a sense of tenderness that flowed from her heart, through her veins, into the flesh. That arm was the things it had done just as much as it was the things that it did. That arm was an interlocking part of the puzzle of Homa Baumann’s life. With the prosthetic this was simply just not so.

Perhaps she would feel differently once she was off the table and active again.

But she could not help but to feel disappointed with the result.

Functionally, she could have the things which an arm did returned to her.

However, she still felt anxious at the idea that she would never be whole in her parts again.

Those anxieties festered into self-criticism of her own ungratefulness to the communists.

That ungratefulness, however, finally led her to think–

I never asked to be rescued. I could have been left for dead.

What do I have to be grateful for?

It was so presumptuous of them– my life should have just been over.

I have nothing– no home– no reason to live–

–not even all of my own body.

How am I supposed to live like this? How do any of you live with all of this?!

In the throes of a growing distress, she started to fall asleep once again.

Before she could find the energy to shout or be frustrated she dozed off completely.

Her head, fogged by bewilderment and confusion and pain, emptied completely.

Flexing in her sleep the fingers of the metal thing that had taken the place of her.


“Illya, I’m coming in.”

Shalikova stood in front of the door to Illya’s room for a moment, enough that she should have been acknowledged. When she heard nothing and realized the door was completely unlocked she delivered her intention and walked right through the door. Inside, Illya was surprisingly missing. There was only Valeriya, in a corner of the room, standing near a pull-out desk surface on the far wall. If Valeriya was there, Illya must have been fine.

“Oh, sorry for barging in, Valeriya. I just wanted to see whether you two were okay.”

Valeriya nodded her head silently.

There were a few curious details about the scene that drew Shalikova’s attention. Valeriya was dressed in an atypical fashion– she had a pair of underwear shorts and a flimsy little tanktop but her thin and fair figure was mostly covered up by what looked like a synthestitched plastic apron. On the apron there was a design of a teddy bear with a chef’s hat. It reminded Shalikova of one of her rejected designs for Comrade Fuzzy. Valeriya’s long, blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she had thick plastic gloves.

Hanging from her neck, and sitting atop her breasts, was her tactical mask.

She did not look in a hurry to wear it, even though Shalikova had walked in on her.

On the desk in front of her, a small metal frame had been set up. A recyclable canister of alcohol fuel had been set beneath the frame. To Shalikova’s surprise this canister produced a clean flame that was heating up a small metal cup-pot with something bubbling in it.

Shalikova dimly recalled these items.

Her Diver had a survival kit with food and a petroleum-derived ethylene fuel burner just like this. It was mainly a placebo– Shalikova could not imagine a scenario in which she would need to heat up food to survive inside her diver, where she was not already doomed.

“What are you up to? Is that a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked.

Valeriya nodded her head.

“You are cooking a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked again.

“I am a wife now.” Valeriya mumbled. “So I am cooking.”

Shalikova stared. “Not sure I understand. You’re a wife now?”

Valeriya nodded her head.

It began to dawn on Shalikova what that must have meant.

“Wait. You’re serious? Did Illya– did she really–?”

Valeriya nodded her head again.

Shalikova whistled with surprise and a bit of sudden cheer.

“Wow. I thought you would just shack up forever. Congratulations!”

Valeriya smiled.

A small smile, but for her, it was brighter than the sun.

Even a reserved girl like Shalikova could not help but feel a swell of joy for Valeriya.

For all the time that she had known her, Valeriya had been Illya’s shadow. As teenagers they were always together, and even when Zasha was around, it was clear who Valeriya had a crush on. They went to school together; they went into the Academy together; they went to war together. Even in the special forces, as far as Shalikova knew, they were inseparable. And now, on the Brigand’s historic mission, Valeriya continued to follow Illya without pause. Shalikova knew that Illya reciprocated Valeriya’s feelings romantically, but she also had a low estimation of Illya’s ability to commit– she figured Illya would have sex with Valeriya all her life without even saying the word ‘girlfriend’ to her much less ‘wife.’

In Shalikova’s mind, Valeriya deserved this marriage proposal.

“It’s vinaigrette with beans.” Valeriya said suddenly.

She pointed at the cup-pot, beginning to come to a boil over the alcohol-burning element. Normally in the Union ‘vinaigrette’ referred to a salad of chopped boiled root vegetables pressed together and dressed with vinegar and fat. Usually beets, carrots, potato, onion, and to add protein, red or white beans. Normally all the vegetables used would be pickled, or canned in salted water. Valeriya was cooking from a last resort block, so all the items were vacuum-pressed and dehydrated. She had brought water to a boil, to create essentially a mushy last resort vegetable stew. Judging by the flecks of fat in the water and the smell of vinegar, the vegetables were dressed before dehydration and compression.

Valeriya looked a little proud of herself as she stared at the bubbling little pot.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your meal.” Shalikova said. “Will there be a ceremony?”

“Not now.” Valeriya whispered. “We’re being punished.”

“Oh! Right– I had wanted to ask what happened at the disciplinary hearing.”

Valeriya pointed at the cup. As if to silently say that was the punishment.

“I see. Well– I don’t know whether to say ‘you got off light’ or to wish you luck enduring the torture.” Shalikova said, crossing her arms. “I guess it can’t be that bad when cooked.”

Using a steel spork, Valeriya mixed the stew up as it cooked.

Shalikova realized then that throughout all this talk, Valeriya had never raised her mask.

“You can pull your mask up if you want to. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I want to talk to you.” Valeriya said. Her voice was still quite whispery.

“I see– just don’t push yourself just to be nice to me.”

Valeriya quietly nodded her head again.

Quickly stirring the little stew, breaking up pieces. She looked dedicated to the work.

“Sonya– how do you feel about Illya? Do you still admire her?” Valeriya asked.

Without meeting eyes, she asked the question, still stirring the stew.

And what a question it was– it caught Shalikova by surprise.

What kind of answer did she have to that? What DID she feel about Illya?

Shalikova stuck her hands in her pants pockets.

“That’s– I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? So it’s kinda complicated now.” She took a moment to consider the question. For Valeriya, she tried to be honest. Sometimes Shalikova was quick to be difficult to Illya, but she tried to be kinder to Valeriya. “I don’t idolize her or anything– but like, I got on hormones because she did. I wanted to be a cool soldier like her and Zasha. Illya always encouraged me, even against Zasha’s wishes. So like– Illya is family to me. I care about whether she’s okay or not. I ask her for advice. But we’re both soldiers now and I am an officer too. I can’t ‘look up to her’ anymore like a kid does.”

“She would want you to respect her more than admire her.” Valeriya said suddenly.

Still not looking her way, just messing with her stew.

This was perhaps the most words Valeriya and Shalikova had exchanged in years.

“I guess that’s what I do. I am trying to take her seriously when she says I need to stick up for myself and make my own arguments. That’s something I’m trying to do with her too.”

“That’s good. Thank you for answering.”

“Alright?”

“I love Illya– more than anything in the world. And she cares about you.”

“So in the transitive property of doing the exact same stuff as Illya, you care about me too.”

“Yes.”

“C’mon– don’t just say ‘yes’ to that– I was teasing you–”

Shalikova felt instantly ashamed at her own mean-spirited humor.

Valeriya simply smiled and worked on the stew.

Behind them the door opened once more.

Illya walked in through the door, absentminded.

She had begun partially unzipping her security uniform bodysuit. She must have been working. She zipped it back up when she noticed Shalikova was in the room. Valeriya removed the cup-shaped pot from the spent alcohol burner and laid it down on a separate pull-out desk surface as if to set the table for dinner. She then waved at Illya.

“Sonya, what a pleasant surprise. Came to see whether I was still alive?” Illya asked.

She cracked a grin that Shalikova did not return.

“Uh huh. Looks like you’re good though, so I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Not staying for lunch?” Illya’s continuing sarcasm. Shalikova did not play along.

“Maryam is waiting for me.” Shalikova said. “But– Illya, you better treat her right.”

Illya stared at Shalikova. “Hey, where do you get off on telling me that?”

She was not mad– she looked more amused by the rebuke than anything.

No one knew better than Illya herself all that had happened with her and Valeriya.

“Sonya.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head gently.

“Nah, it’s okay. She cares about you.” Illya said. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

Shalikova sighed but she had essentially said what she had come in to say.

“Maybe I’ll have a bite, just out of curiosity.” She said.

From the floor, Valeriya pulled up a pair of metal seats around the pull-out desk. There was nowhere for Shalikova to sit, but she did not intend to stay long. Illya sat across from Valeriya, each with their own metal spork, and the reheated and boiled vinaigrette mush between them. Valeriya took a sporkful of the stuff, which was tinged red from the beets, and blew on it– then she gestured for Shalikova to taste it from that spork.

In order to satisfy her curiosity, Shalikova leaned in.

“It’s just like when you were a little beet yourself.” Illya said.

Shalikova felt immediately more embarrassed about it, but still ate from Valeriya’s spork.

She did not know what she expected from it. It was a bit– challenging.

There was some flavor. A bit of tang from the vinegar, some savory notes from MSG.

Owing to all the root vegetables, it was very starchy, and a little bit sweet.

However, the foremost characteristic of the meal was its lack of texture. It was impossible to discern an individual bit of carrot or beet despite the sizeable bite that Valeriya had gathered. All of its elements had become homogeneous mush. Even baby food was more of an eating experience. It was not so bad as to make her spit it out, but anyone with even the slightest sensitivity to the mouthfeel of their food might have felt disgusted by it.

With an untroubled expression on her face, Illya began to eat.

Valeriya retracted her spork and waited with a smile as if for Shalikova’s response.

What did she want her to say? She cooked a last resort ration, so her cooking was gross.

Still– it was impossible to be mean to Valeriya. Even about this culinary misfortune.

“Um. It was lovely. Thank you. You’ll– you’ll make a fine wife, ‘Riya.” Shalikova said.

Valeriya nodded quietly, looking pleased with herself. Just like Illya, she began to eat.

Neither of them looked troubled by the meal. They ate almost mindlessly.

For a moment Shalikova just stared at them. What a husband and wife they would make.

In the back of her mind she wondered whether Maryam knew how to cook anything.


“Aww, I hate to see those bright little cheeks of yours frowning. What’s on your mind?”

“Ugh. I’m feeling worried. There’s nothing I can do– Marina really stepped in it this time.”

“Oh dear. I would characterize what she did as much more than just step in it.”

“Agh, sorry– I don’t mean to reduce what she did, she really sucks– I’m just– blegh.”

“My, oh my. A lot of undignified noises coming out of the princess today~”

“I’m not a princess! Proletarians have the freedom to make noises.”

“Anyway, is it even your problem whatever happens to Marina? You’re your own person.”

“I mean– I don’t want her to be hurt. She was my mom’s– uhh– bestie.”

“You don’t say?”

On the Brigand’s cafeteria, a young woman laid over a table, making faces.

She was seated close to the front serving counter, with her head and arms on top of the table. Sometimes her arms would hang, while at others she would hide her head in them. She was easily identifiable to the crew by now: long purple hair, unblemished and heavenly-soft looking skin, a girlish and simple prettiness to her face. Were it not for the partial elfin ears which she had — and the perhaps exotic color of her hair, which was natural — it would have been easy to call her the perfect picture of the Imbrian woman.

Teasing that young elf woman was the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Seated on the opposite side of the same table, taking a break. She pulled off her cap and set it down on the table, loosening up her sweat-slick, wavy black hair. Minardo was a formidable lady, with a big chest and wide hips and thick legs, lean muscled arms and shoulders. Atop that shapely figure was a soft face with a bright smile, eyes like jewels, red lips and gentle eyeshadow. Elena had begun to think, maybe she appraised older women differently from younger women. Maybe, just maybe, she had something of a thing for them– but even besides that, Minardo could only have been seen as staggeringly beautiful.

She must have been seen as such by anyone else too.

Thinking about that, Elena averted her gaze.

“Should I not be at this table? I can let you sulk if that’s what you want.” Minardo said.

Gentle, with just a bit of her ordinary teasing tone of voice.

“No, it’s fine. I should stop. There’s nothing I can do.” Elena mumbled. “Even if I could do anything I think Marina deserves to be punished. She’s been so– awful.”

They were talking around it, but Marina’s participation in the Core Separation Crisis was a deed of such disgusting callousness toward innocent lives that it was hard to quantify it. The Captain and Commissar had spoken briefly with Elena about it and seemed more concerned with the breaches of trust, or at least that was what they told her– but maybe that was just processing the horror that lay in the moral dimension of the transgression. Marina nearly abetted the deaths of potentially thousands. Millions? Elena hardly knew the scale.

In her own mind, it was such a crime she could only sulk about it.

She could not possibly process the actual scale of what had happened.

It was simply too big, and she, too small in its shadow.

“Cheer up, she’s just locked up. She’ll be out again.” Minardo said. “You know– I put in a word with the Captain, alongside Dr. Kappel, that I hope Marina will not be mistreated beyond what is necessary to instill discipline. She is a– troubled person– and I sympathize.”

Elena looked up at Minardo’s hesitating tone voice. She narrowed her eyes a bit.

“You’re friends with Marina too? I’ve never seen you together.” She said.

It sounded more accusatory than she wanted it to– but she did not take back the words.

Minardo looked more amused by this response than anything before.

She smiled and laughed and laid her head on her hands while staring down at Elena.

“You’re not her shadow! She can move when you aren’t around.” She said.

Knowing the kind of woman Marina was Elena could imagine she made passes at Minardo.

Something about that annoyed her but she did not interrogate this feeling any further.

Elena remained collapsed against the table and hardly moved except to turn her head away.

“Well– whatever then. I’ll stop worrying.” Elena said.

“Why are you so pouty all of a sudden?” Minardo asked, poking Elena’s cheek.

“Oh, looks like someone is a bit jealous?”

From seemingly out of nowhere, a second attractive older woman swooped in.

Elena let out a groan as Khadija Al-Shajara sat on her side of the table.

“Can you two go easy on me?” Elena moaned. She was practically surrounded.

“I just showed up, and already my character is under question?!” Khadija said.

Her wine-colored lips turned in a little grin; winking a heavily wine-purple shadowed eye.

“She knows what you are.” Minardo said. “Don’t worry Elena, I’ll protect you.”

“Uggghhhh.” Elena put her arms around her head.

Khadija made a cutesy shrug.

Those two played together far, far too well, Elena thought.

“I’m just here to have some lunch. I don’t know what anyone is talking about.”

“Ah, but where’s your new lady friend, Khadija?” Minardo teased.

Khadija averted her gaze with a suddenly sour expression.

“We’re not friends. She’s helping move crates around for the inventory and shuttling.”

Minardo laughed. “She is such a big lady. Glad to see she’s helping out around here.”

“Checking her out?” Khadija accused.

“What? No. But there’s no way to look at her without thinking she is big.”

“Well. You ought to help too. Those guns of yours could use some action again.”

Khadija reached over Elena to poke Minardo’s bicep.

“I do plenty.” Minardo replied. Like Khadija was finally getting under her skin.

“You both are doing plenty right now.” Elena mumbled childishly.

“Elena, did you know? Minardo was an absolute combat monster once upon a time.”

Khadija looked pleased with herself at how annoyed Minardo was getting with her.

“What was it they called you?” She acted dumb for a moment, letting the question hang.

“That was a long time ago.” Minardo grumbled, as if to signal Khadija to drop it.

“You’re not proud of it? Elena, our esteemed cook once earned the title of ‘The Human Stronghold’. Can I tell the story?” Khadija stared at Minardo with her tail swishing merrily behind her. Elena slowly sat up and looked at the two of them with a dull expression. Minardo sighed and shrugged and waved as if to say ‘fuck it, just go’. Khadija took exactly that meaning from it. “Elena, Minardo was part of a landing party in the revolution– all by herself, she held a narrow passage into the Sevastopol port structure, keeping a way open for close to an hour. She killed 26 imperials, turning back their assaults and protecting our beachhead in the port. Then she joined the arriving assault sappers and charged deeper into Sevastopol, and killed 26 more imperials in close quarters.” Khadija punctuated the numbers in her speech each time. “Those station battles were absolutely brutal. It was necessary for us to get foot-holds inside stations to evict the current, disagreeable occupants. And the defender always has the advantage inside of a station’s confines.”

Elena blinked, staring at Minardo for a moment before catching herself.

In turn, Minardo grunted and sighed and looked a bit helpless for just a moment.

“Those Imperials were pansies. It wasn’t much more to say you killed 26 or 52 than to kill two or four, when it came to close quarters battle.” She finally said, grudgingly acknowledging Khadija and her story. “By the time of the revolution I had already been doing like ten years of hard labor. The slave colonies were like a vacation for imperial nepo babies. I was slaughtering stupid kids, not even the guys who clapped the chains.”

“Well, they all deserved to die, and I’m glad they’re burning in hell.”

“Khadija.”

“But yes, it’s that brutal energy now kneading bread and stirring soup.” Khadija said.

“From an old friend to another, please drop it already, kitty-cat.” Minardo said.

“Of course, I’ll win the round graciously.” Khadija replied, winking and pawing.

Elena looked between the two of them with an appraising expression.

She was impressed by Minardo’s strength–

but seeing that it bothered her, she buried her reaction.

She did not want to hurt her feelings.

“Are you actually friends or do you hate each other? I can’t tell.” Elena mumbled.

Minardo and Khadija both looked at her pouting and snickered to themselves.

“Khadija is like this with almost anyone who gives her an opportunity. It’s fine.”

“Minardo needs my labor in the kitchen far too much to ever be rid of me.”

Elena stared at them with the same narrow-eyed look she once gave Minardo.

Minardo reached out and pinched Elena’s cheek suddenly.

“Are you jealous?” Minardo said. “Elena, we’re not romantic at all. You’re so silly!”

“I’m not jealous. I do not care!” Elena whined, pulling Minardo’s hand off.

“Minardo is not my type. You, on the other hand, have a chance, little Elena.”

Khadija winked again, leaning closer, chest on the table.

Elena averted her gaze again.

“Why do I keep trying to come here to relax, when you two don’t let me live in peace.”

“It’s because the practiced teasing of a mature woman wipes away all troubles.”

Elena suddenly broke out into a laugh. She could not stifle it that time.

Khadija was completely right– Elena felt much less troubled than when she first sat down.

Though she would not admit as such with the two of them waiting for a reaction.

She appreciated what they were both trying to do and felt– cared for.

There were other troubles she had in mind that she just could not tell Khadija and Minardo about. Things they would not understand. But coming here and getting fussed over did instill the feeling that these two women cared about her well-being in their own way. They wanted to see her smile and laugh, they wanted her to feel special and receive some attention. Attention that she took for granted when it was easy to come by– Bethany would not have approved of her being so needy and bratty, but it was nice to have that freedom.

“So– what’s for lunch today?” Elena asked. She raised herself back to a proper sit.

“Oh, good idea! You’ll love this, I’m certain. We’ve got gazpacho, eggplant fries, and a little sandwich with pulled soy, brown sauce and tomato pickle.” Minardo said proudly.

“Sounds delicious.” Elena said. She smiled at her companions as brightly as she once did.

For just a little bit she would allow herself to luxuriate in Minardo and Khadija’s attention.

Maybe having someone to fuss over was something those two appreciated as well.


“Braya.”

“Hmm? What’s up?”

“Do you think I should be nervous about my check-up with Ms. Maharapratham?”

“No.”

“What do you know about her? Can you tell me more?”

Braya Zachikova briefly put down her computer and looked over her shoulder.

Their shared accommodation was completely dark except for the light from the portable computer, and a bit of bioluminescence produced by strands interspersed in her partner’s blue hair. Behind her, Arabella smiled, her hands hovering just around Zachikova’s waist, squeezing and loosening in turns. They were sitting together on one bed, as they often did since meeting, Arabella’s back to the wall and Zachikova’s back to her.

Zachikova leaned back against Arabella, her head resting on Arabella’s breasts.

Arabella raised one of her hands and toyed with the end of Zachikova’s spiral ponytail.

“Back when you were a Leviathan, in order to keep you safe, I had to partner up with Karuniya Maharapratham and make you a subject of study.” Zachikova said. It was almost surreal to think back to that time, just weeks ago, when she knew nothing. “During the work we did tracking you and studying video of you– I thought that Maharapratham seemed very compassionate towards you. She cares about animals. I’ve seen how other sickos in the Union think about Leviathans, like it’s free target practice until they fuck up and get eaten. She really cared, and she wanted to prevent unneeded harm. You’ll be fine.”

“I see, so you entrust me to her. I feel relieved then.” Arabella said, smiling.

“You make it sound way too dramatic. She’s just going to take your blood or whatever.”

“Braya, do you think any differently about me now? After all that’s happened?”

“Yeah. You’ve ruined me for life and I can’t get away from you.”

“Hmm? I’m sorry– I’m just nervous is all.”

“I’m joking.” Zachikova sighed.

She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say.

Even as she spoke, it felt like it did not convey the fullness of what she felt about Arabella. She still tried with every new word and did not relent even as she let her passions slip. “I don’t think any differently about you. If anything I feel closer to you than ever. I’m also someone whose head got fucked with– not as maliciously as with you, but I’m still not normal. Like– I’m just a nobody. Before the surgeries, and going into the Academy and then the spec ops, I was just some orphan of slave parents who died. I was nothing. When I think back, I’m still kinda nothing– I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fuck around with other girls in my school or win a video game championship or whatever. I can remember all the nothing I did but when you think about it, I effectively have no fucking memories anyway.”

“I see. In that sense– I guess our situations are more similar than I realized.”

“Memories don’t make you Arabella to me. You’re Arabella right now.”

Zachikova reached down and intertwined her fingers with Arabella’s own.

Arabella started to wiggle happily behind her back.

“Braya! Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” She said.

“It’s fine. I know you’re scared and that a lot of horrific shit has happened to you. But I’ll help you– and there’s good people on this ship too. I think it’s insane how much you’re taking on your shoulders. It’s not your responsibility, to make up for your sister, or the fucks who created you, or anyone else– but I’m still here for you anyway. Whatever you want to do, I support it. God knows it’s not like I have my own ambitions anyway.”

“We’ll find you an ambition while we search for my memories too.”

Arabella leaned down on Zachikova’s shoulder, rubbing her cheeks against it.

She was so warm.

A few weeks ago Zachikova might have pushed back.

Now, she was still a little annoyed– but she wanted to feel Arabella through her skin.

Until she felt a bit of a sting–

“Hey.”

Arabella nibbled on her childishly.

“If you need blood, just say it. Don’t just bite me out of nowhere.”

“Oh, I’m fine for blood. I ate a lot of human meat back there–”

“Don’t remind me–”

“–I’m biting you out of love Braya.” Arabella’s voice turned suddenly coquettish.

“That can wait until after hours. I’m working right now.”

Zachikova picked her computer up and stared down at the screen while Arabella’s head remained firmly on her shoulder. She felt another little nip from her lover, a deep nuzzle, and even the warm slickness of her tongue sliding over Zachikova’s neck, her fingers prodding her belly. She did not allow it to distract her. She was setting up a digital co-working space for the Nationale Volksarmee and Brigand to communicate together– essentially a glorified self-hosted BBS. It was a simple program. Much of the code was “in-strata” from similar programs and the predictor computer generated a decent user interface for it after a few proddings for it to do so. But she had to put it all together in a day or two, while her leg still hurt, and then also make sure it was not horrifically insecure or buggy.

On the Brigand, anyone who wanted to talk to someone could go and find them and talk to them in person. And in a fleet context, the only thing that mattered was following orders and the battle plan. Inventory comparisons only mattered to the logistics officers in the fleet command. One ship was not shuttling junk to another ship unannounced. Two ships did not randomly send engineers to each other to share ferristitcher blueprints or coordinate dangerous underway repairs. Fleet coordination was just totally different.

But the Volksarmee and Brigand were not two Union ships in a Union fleet with a grand battleplan drafted by a dozen Rear Admirals and a Fleet HQ with responsibility for all logistics. There was no huge staff to plan things. They had to exchange a lot of information between two ships on almost impromptu basis. Their work was like an ongoing conversation between new friends, and it needed a place to happen. Engineers did not have standard protocols for cooperating with each other, and there could be miscommunications. When the Captain approached Zachikova for a solution, she felt that a BBS was a more permanent and simple avenue than staging hundreds of video calls between the ships.

Such a piece of software was not in demand in the fleets, and was only used by civilians.

Sailors could use it to goof off; it could also engender bad information management habits.

Nevertheless for the specific use case of the Volksarmee and Brigand, it made sense to her.

It would likely be okay since the first version was deliberately extremely boring.

Nobody would be sharing nude pictures or lewd audio logs ZaChat.

It could not do so.

Or so she hoped. Computer programming in Zachikova’s era was a bit…odd.

Still, ZaChat was a predictable and simple thing.

Eventually she would upgrade it– but by then there would be better access controls too.

Her work was nearly complete.

She had released the beta version of ZaChat to a control group of officers and engineers. She monitored usage closely. Making sure every message was encrypted in transit between the ships, that chat logs were being retained on both the Brigand and the Rostock, and that data and access credentials were not coming or going anywhere they should not. So far everything seemed to go smoothly, for a thing Zachikova simply threw together.

“What are you working on?” Arabella asked, staring over Zachikova’s shoulder.

“It’s a program for people to message each other across ships.” Zachikova said.

“Can’t they reach each other and talk on the computer screens?” Arabella said.

“We want to keep Semyonova from going insane with hundreds of inter-ship calls.”

“Oh, true. You’re so considerate Braya. What are they saying on the program now?”

Zachikova looked at the board.

So far, the top posters were Erika Kairos and Murati Nakara, by orders of magnitude.

Largely talking to each other. Zachikova sighed audibly.

Utterly hopeless dorks talking about history and music in their own little thread.

In a few other threads on ZaChat, Katarran engineers from the Rostock were thankfully having productive discussion with Brigand crew like Chief Galina Lebedova and her nibling Valya Lebedova. They were hashing out work and equipment transfer schedules that worked for both crews as well as discussing events candidly in open chat threads. The atmosphere seemed jovial and there was actual verifiable progress being made.

Judging by that alone, Zachikova felt she could declare ZaChat a success.

Soon she could talk to the Captain about opening it up to more users.

Hopefully the sailors would not be too rambunctious–

It dawned upon Zachikova at that point she may have to moderate ZaChat–

She shut her computer off after a wave of stress.

“Arabella.” Zachikova said, sighing. “I’m taking a break. Bite as much as you want.”

Behind her there was a contented little noise.

Arabella drew her closer, pressing their bodies tight.

Once Zachikova felt the teeth start to dig,

and Arabella’s hands snaking down her belly, under her pants, between her legs,

she felt far more relaxed– until the first tight, warm contraction shook her skin.


“Ahh! That’s the end of the day for me– well. Until the fucking night shift anyway.”

“Indeed, gamer– do not so easily forfeit the call that beckon us to the dance of shadows.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.”

It was late in the afternoon and the weapons officers on the Brigand’s bridge were taking their leave for the “day.” They would be back in six hours to attend the “night shift” that was their main assignment during noncombat duty. Until then they had unstructured time to do with as they pleased. Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were meant to use some of this time to catch up on sleep so they could be ready when needed.

However, Alexandra, at least had other plans for today.

She kept them to herself– for now.

“So I got to the part where Ythyria starts looking at the prince– I thought this story was supposed to be lesbian? Like what’s going on there.” Alex asked Fernanda.

“Gamer, oh Gamer– how easily you lose faith upon any confrontation with intricacy! As with any endeavor, tribulation and torment enrich the quintessence of experience!”

Fernanda laughed openly while Alex stared at her as they walked down the halls.

Alexandra Geninov, self-described “sexy biracial chick,” with her light brown skin and messy brown hair tied back in a messy bun; Fernanda Santapena De La Rosa, with her fairer skin and straight blond hair with purple streaks. Blue and brown mismatched eyes alongside bright pink-red irises, the work of lenses; tall and short;  pants uniform and skirt uniform. Their animated chatter filled the halls, Alex’s deeper voice and Fernanda’s nasally tone.

Despite their contrasts, they seemed to always arrive anywhere as a set of two.

Arriving at their shared room, they dropped onto their individual beds and sighed audibly.

“Hey, Fernanda. Before nodding off, can I show you something?” Alex said.

“Is it about video games?” Fernanda said, briefly dropping her pretentious diction.

“Yes. But– before you stop me. It’s a kind of video game you would like.”

“I’ve told you already, that I have played games before– it’s not like I hate them.”

Two sentences without any thee’s or thou’s? A rare undressed Fernanda indeed.

“Okay, then you won’t object will you? For me? Just this once.” Alex said.

“I’m well aware it won’t be ‘just this once’– but sure. I have nothing to do.”

Fernanda sat up in bed. Smiling and laughing, Alex crouched next to her own bed.

From the set of drawers under the frame, Alex pulled out something wrapped in plastic.

She ripped apart the taped-up plastic wrap and unveiled a little beige plastic box.

“What? How did you get a Dendy?” Fernanda asked, staring incredulously at it.

Alex grinned, rubbing a finger over the slightly rough textured plastic on the case.

For now she would not comment on Fernanda being able to spot a Dendy instantly.

“A Dendy II, actually. One of our new allies uncovered this for me.” Alex said.

One of the Volksarmee officers, Chloe Kouri, loved video games and she apparently had something of a knack for infiltrating even crowded Imbrian places and going mostly unnoticed. After discovering this one morning in the Brigand’s cafeteria, Alex got the scheme in mind to see if Chloe could return to the street market and search for a video game console. Through sheer luck the console in question happened to be a Dendy II–

even Chloe did not realize it as she picked it up and brought it back.

Alex did not tell this story out loud– not wanting to try Fernanda’s patience.

It was enough to say that her scheming had paid off, in the familiar beige box in her hands.

Fernanda blinked. “So there was a Dendy in Kreuzung? And you bought it?”

“I also got a few classic Union storytelling games that run on it.” Alex said.

“I am a bit speechless. What the hell was a Dendy doing in Kreuzung?”

“I’m sure there are Imbrian enthusiasts curious about Union gaming.”

“But how would they get access to it? The Union does not have trade with Imbria.”

“Smuggling or something? Who cares– let’s play!”

Alex pulled out a serial cable that was rolled up in a little shelf in the back of the Dendy and found a serial port on the wall to plug it into. She flicked the switch, and in moments, the wall monitor created a window near the pull-out desk in the back of the room. Alex stuck one of the game cards into a slot on the side of the box and pressed a button to lock it. From the front of the Dendy, Alex pulled out two little controllers, with a cross-shaped directional pad and three buttons. She handed one to Fernanda and kept the first one herself.

At first the screen appeared completely black, and then appeared a block-font DENDY logo.

Then, a message from the Union Commissariat of Entertainment stressing that eyes strain, repetitive strain on the hands, headaches, and addiction might result from playing video games too much. The player had to tab through many screens of guidance and informational health material required by the Commissariat of Entertainment specifically for video games. Once this was done, another Commissariat of Entertainment screen urged the player to set an amount of session time, after which the Dendy would automatically save the game progress to battery memory and shut down. Alex set the session time for four hours, which was as long as the Commissariat would allow a single session to stretch.

“We are not playing this for four hours.” Fernanda warned.

“I knooooow.” Alex said. “Relax.”

Fernanda stared at her, sighed and picked up her controller.

They sat on the pull-out chairs near the pull-out desk and watched the screen.

Watching the little crab dig down and down as the game was prepared.

It was the kind of screen that, to a citizen of the sea, screamed– video games!

Perhaps incongruous– perhaps deeply mysterious.

Displayed on the screen, was a true miracle of underwater entertainment, recently arisen.

Each pixel in itself represented the combined efforts of hundreds of years of computing.

Of course, Alex knew all about how video gaming came about.

In order to truly understand “Dendy”, as Alex did–

one had to first understand the “Strata Crab” seen digging so industriously on screen.

Overwhelmingly, small devices in the Imbrium civilizations were thin clients, deferring some or even all of their computing to a vastly powerful supercomputer in their range, either part of a station mainframe or a ship supercomputer. These larger computers were referred to as “Predictive Computers.” True to their name, their primary design function was to assist in underwater navigation, identification and communication through analyzing data and “predicting” environments, trajectories and other partially known conditions with a degree of accuracy. Predictive computers were designed to take many sources of information, acoustic, visual, thermal, electric, and allow ships and stations to see and speak underwater– two things that were far more troubled by the deep than on the surface.

Predictive Computers performed these functions as part of their advanced and highly stable Base Code. This Base Code ran flawlessly in less than seconds and performed incredible computational feats in its specialized functions. Beyond prediction, the Base Code was imbued with a few other useful features. It could store information in databases, accept human language requests for data or analysis, decode acoustic text messages, and compare any number of like things with each other– byproducts of its function to guide humans on their underwater odyssey. However, there was one problem that the Imbrium civilization and, presumably, every other underwater post-surface society stumbled into. They did not understand how the Base Code worked. It was something of a black box.

Presumably, the Base Code had been worked out as a highly advanced form of machine learning, at some point. Predictors were often updated with new data for ordnance and vessels so they could properly identify them. But what the computer did behind the scenes with the data was a mystery– this design remained largely inscrutable to Imbrians.

It was impossible for a human to read the Base Code because there was far too much of it and none of it was legible in Low Imbrian or even High Imbrian– it was inherited from the surface world and went into widespread reproduction after the Age of Strife with the founding of the Nocht Dynasty. Even the scientists and engineers that had survived the Age of Strife had no idea how to actually read Base Code– seemingly, everyone just accepted the Base Code as an immutable part of computing that was inherited from the past.

Much like Agarthicite reactors, the form of the thing could be replicated, but it was not fully understood. Rather it was painstakingly observed to deduce workable interactions.

Base Code was simply copied onto new computers from old ones, making new predictive computers that all had the same functions. Base Code limitations and uses became readily apparent upon observation. It was possible, at times, to get a predictive computer to spit out a breakdown of a base code function through direct querying, but the predictive computer’s own understanding of base code functions was found to be utterly false.

Direct querying became a technical process of its own. Predictive Computers could be asked in various ways to attempt to do things outside of their known stated functions. Results would vary widely. Predictive Computers processed human language querying in bizarre ways, only answering consistently to known functions of the Base Code. A bad query would simply return false information or pretend to be doing something while doing absolutely nothing. This led to the widespread belief in the unreliability and inaccuracy of predictive computing. However, one miraculous function that was discovered was the ability to run subordinate instructions. This allowed the “Base Code” to be expanded through grueling trial and error with the foundations of civilian computing, “Strata Code.” Strata Code was, as its name suggested, piled atop Base Code in a variety of troubled ways.

When Braya Zachikova coded, or Alex Geninov played video games, or Homa Baumann read books on a portable computer, they were interacting primarily with features of Strata Code– these were the Programs most legible and understood to them, built on top of “Strata Functions” that were discovered to work through the expansion function of Base Code. Code that was not itself Base Code but was understood by the Predictor Computer. Knowledge of working Strata had been uncovered throughout the run of the A.D. years.

Therefore one arrived at the venerable “Strata Crab.”

There was a popular illustration of how computers worked in the Imbrium, known as the “Strata Crab.” The Crab was a program that wanted to do something, and its intended functionality was a tasty worm hiding somewhere beneath the sand. However many layers of sand, and the trajectory of the crab, illustrated the layered execution of Strata Code. There were several layers of cruft the Crab had to dig through to find its meal. A Program hit all of the working strata code in the right succession– dug through the layers correctly– to ultimately execute correctly. Of course, this was a simplification that also obscured the fact that a program, or crab, could also itself dump more sand on top– new Strata Code.

Or that most modern Strata Code was executed by flavors of “Silt Code” written in different, simpler programming languages developed over time that varied quite widely.

And so, on screens everywhere, the crab could be seen to dig, loading complex programs.

For those still following along with the history, the worm was in sight– video games.

One of the things Base Code could do was generate graphics. One of the things it did poorly was generate new graphics on command, rather than synthesizing environment graphics from natural sources. Strata Code was eventually invented to provide a graphical display layer for more things than just dataset text or predictive imaging graphics from sonar or LADAR data. However, this code ran devastatingly poorly at first. In addition it was difficult to eke out more performance from supercomputer hardware without impacting its ability to perform Base Code. Owing to a variety of economic, political and social reasons, the Imbrium did not put any of its engineering prowess behind the development of accessible computing or code execution for a very long time. But ultimately, enterprising generations of Imbrium engineers embarked on the creation of ancillary hardware, such as the various thin clients, which were in some ways more sophisticated units than the supercomputers– because they assisted in the running of feature-rich Strata Code.

Thus, the stage of history led inexorably to the video game console.

An ancillary piece of hardware specialized in innovative video game code and associated strata functions, to a degree previously thought impossible. Creating new, rich content experiences for civilians. Not simulations of military hardware, nor the realistic machine graphics used by films, but a brand new form of entertainment all its own. Beautiful, state of the art sprite characters easily generated by small devices, which could be moved on command by the players using various inputs. This allowed the setting of challenges for the player to overcome, the creation of stories for the player to experience and highly stylized characters some might have even considered more beautiful than life.

And it all began, with the hopelessly inscrutable Base Code, and the humble Strata Crab.

As for the Dendy itself– it was a somewhat sloppily reverse-engineered form of an Imbrian video game device that Alex Geninov played as a teenager in the Union during the Ahwalia years, where civilian entertainment products had a boom. That it ended up back in the Imbrium ocean where Imbrian video game enthusiasts became fascinated with this strange foreign device and its games, perhaps said something profound about society.

Or perhaps about Katarran smuggling predilections.

“I already have a headache.” Fernanda groaned.

“Huh? We haven’t even gotten to the title screen.” Alex said.

“I feel like just turning this thing on is radiating tedium.” Fernanda replied.

“I don’t get you. Just hush, you’ll love it when it actually starts.” Alex said.

On the screen, several progress bars appeared, and a graphic of a little crab digging.

Building pixel stores– compiling silt codes– pre-organizing post-routines–

Finally the title screen appeared: “The Solstice War.”

There was a young woman in a military uniform, looking through the glass of a digital porthole at a sphere of annihilation going off in the distance from a destroyed imperial ship. Everything was rendered in gorgeous 12-bit color 2D graphics. Sophisticated and stylized designs lent a certain beauty and attractiveness to the characters and made excellent aesthetic use of the color restrictions. Such was its style that gamers throughout the Union had fallen in love with the brooding, handsome, and charmingly autistic protagonist of the game, whose default name “Madiha” was used to represent her in various fanfictions and fanarts, erotic fancomics and even in small tribute fangames continuing her story.

Alex renamed the character upon starting a new game, to, of course, “Alex.”

“Why am I even here, gamer?” Fernanda grumbled.

“You haven’t played this one? I thought I’d get you to admit you had.”

“I have only read the erotic comics and fanfictions of it.”

“There’s a second player. You can name her after yourself.”

Alex pressed one of the buttons to move to the next screen.

Fernanda turned a bit red. She must have known what this entailed.

That second player had the default name “Parinita”– “Madiha’s” love interest.

Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed, renaming her to “Færn.”

Alex stared at the odd spelling. “Wait– is that like your–”

“Just get on with the game.” Fernanda warned.

At first blush, “The Solstice War” seemed like any standard “dungeon” game.

There was a protagonist and a supporting party member, they had parameters that determined the success and failure of certain challenges, they had items to collect. Maps of locations were presented to the player with “nodes” to which they could travel– these would then expand into “screens” of the dungeon that players could interact with in greater detail. There were battles, talking to NPCs, and puzzles to solve, either with logic, collected tools, or keys or other knickknacks uncovered along the way. Both Player 1 and Player 2 were asked to make decisions and could even separate, splitting the screen in half.

But “the Solstice War” was not known as a “dungeon” game, but a “storytelling” game.

Many challenges could be skipped with a careful eye to the character’s personalities and predilections. Charisma was the most powerful parameter, and a keen understanding of the magic spells, called “tactics” due to the game’s militaristic flavor, could enable the player to sidestep many difficulties. There were hundreds of thousands of lines of text to enrich the story and characters. Developing the love story between Player 1 and Player 2 was one of the game’s joys. Players 1 and 2 were sometimes asked to talk about each other.

Combat was there for those who desired it, but it was not strictly necessary.

This was all quite unlike “dungeon” games, known for their violence and treasure.

A collaborative storytelling experience about a romantic story.

Even across just the first hour of the game, Fernanda seemed to arrive at a burgeoning understanding of what made it special and unique among video games. Alex, who had played the game before, led Fernanda down a path that was richer in stories. She was gripped from the first scene, where “Alex” executed the corrupt military commander who had been verbally abusing “Færn” and blaming her for the many inefficiencies of the outpost. Just as “Færn” was stricken at first sight by the melancholy beauty of “Alex”, Fernanda herself realized they were written as tragic lovers and her face began to light up.

In the next scenes, the two navigated an attack by an Imperial force that outgunned and outnumbered the characters’ and the outpost’s forces. But through their bond, and timely decision-making, as well as “Alex” uncovering her hidden powers, they turned back the tide and bought the Union precious time. There would be more tribulations to come.

So began a story of war, conspiracy, betrayal, and sapphic love.

“Gamer. I hardly knew you had it in you, to appreciate culture like this.”

Alex grinned. “So what do you think of video games, huh? They’re an artform aren’t they?”

Fernanda grumbled. “Hmph! I never said I hated all video games! Don’t act so smug.”

It was not all rosy– some systems and solutions were a bit inscrutable.

Dialog was sometimes very convoluted. Fernanda loved this, Alex not so much.

And the audio was not great– especially on an old, well-traveled Dendy like this.

Room computers and wall-windows were not the best interfaces either.

Without a dedicated “gaming monitor” the fullest beauty of the graphics was lost.

However, by the second hour, the two were practically leaning against each other.

Unaware of their proximity due to how engrossed they had become in their roles.

Talking like one was Madiha and the other Parinita, working through the various challenges– and Alex pretending not to know the solutions, gleefully roleplaying along and letting Fernanda take the lead on what objects to interact with, who to talk to, what conversation strategies to use, what fights to pick and how to succeed. Though they would eventually have to go to sleep to get ready for their shift, Alex felt quite elated.

By the time they shut off the Dendy, Fernanda had Alex promise they would play again.


“Ah! I haven’t had such a good workout in forever! It’s nice to be back to the routine!”

“Hm. I guess it’s nice when the gym is kind of empty too. Though– it could be emptier.”

“Hey. You wound me. I spotted for you and everything.”

“Yeah you were a great help, and you had an amazing vantage point on my tits I bet.”

“Again, your sarcasm wounds me. Ascribing such impure motives.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I don’t actually care anyway. Take a gander as long as you like.”

Aside from the two figures in conversation, the Brigand’s gym was completely empty.

Just past the social area of the Brigand, also nearly empty at peak working hours, was the gym, a vital part of the operation. Everyone got a chance to use it if they liked, and everyone was encouraged to. Physical activity was important to keep a healthy body and mind on the ship and to pass the time healthily. To that end there was something for everyone. Running machines, staircase machines, and stationary bikes were popular. There were of course weights of all sizes, and racks for climbing and pull-ups; punching bags, a small sparring arena with a padded floor; and even a ten meter long range with adjustable targets for archery or air-guns. A dispenser for electrolyte-rich bottled drinks in two different flavors, stationed near the door, reminded everyone to keep hydrated as they worked.

Standing near the exercise machines, pilots Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun and Dominika Rybolovskaya stretched their arms and legs on top of padded plastic mats. They had just gotten done with their daily workouts. Not all pilots took exercise as seriously as they did, so they were often seen together at the gym even when it was nearly empty otherwise. This happened enough Sameera had begun to notice Dominika’s preferences– she was drawn to the archery range, the stair climb and the weights. Sameera in turn loved to push the exercise bike hard, and then she took out a lot of steam on the punching bag. She thought that perhaps Dominika was just more meticulous than her.

Lately, she thought a lot of things about Dominika.

Under the glow of the yellow sunlamps and the white LEDs, Dominika’s pink skin glistened with sweat as she stood to full height from stretching her legs. She went still for a moment, catching her breath, staring down at the floor in her shorts and sports bra. So lightly dressed, more of the chromatophores on her body were exposed, small bumps on her skin that glowed gently. They ran down her chest, on her hips, her back. Interspersed within her long red and brown hair were black-striped, fleshy strands dimly glowing.

And her eyes– bright pink with a blue limbal ring. Absolutely captivating.

They met, Sameera’s admiring gaze and Dominika’s narrow-eyed look of disdain.

Rather than scold her, Dominika sighed and turned around.

“You’re catching a shower too, aren’t you? Come on.” Dominika said.

Sameera was quite sweaty herself. Even the fur on her ears and tail was moist.

She smiled and followed behind Dominika.

To their shared surprise, the Brigand’s shower room was also pretty empty.

Dominika quickly threw off her sports bra and pulled down her shorts. She started walking toward the showers without acknowledging Sameera. Behind her, Sameera disrobed a bit slower. Dominika was so thin and lean and her figure almost nymph-like that she could not help but watch as she left her side. That she was a head taller than Dominika was a fact that buzzed around in her brain infrequently, and always ended up somewhere else.

After a truly laborious removal of her own sports bra and shorts, Sameera followed her to the showers. She sat next to her, set the temperature and dispersion of the showerhead, and relaxed as cool water crashed over her head. Two backs to the wall, smiling with relief as the sweat washed off them. Sameera undid her ponytail, and her long, wild brown hair fell over the sides of her and down her back. Her tail splashed on the water. There were no sounds but the running water and no smell but the shampoo and soap dispensers.

“Nika.”

“Sameera.”

Sameera laughed. “I heard there’s some kind of social function going on tonight.”

“You want to take me out on a date.” Dominika said. She shrugged. “We’re just on the ship it’s not like it’s anything special. So whatever– I’ll go with you. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic.” Sameera wagged her tail excitedly.

“What’s with you?” Dominika asked with evident, narrow-eyed disdain and skepticism.

“What are you asking?” Sameera replied, acting dumb.

“I mean–” Dominika reached behind herself and switched the water from falling in a mostly uniform stream to widely dispersed pattern. “I had fun on our date in Kreuzung, but if you think I’ve fallen in love with you or something– I’m not so easily impressed. You can’t just act like it’s a given I’m letting you have me. You’re not so charming that you can just–”

“Oh? You want to be pursued more aggressively then?”

Sameera practically sprang. Cornering Dominika under her showerhead.

One arm on the wall, another on the floor, their faces centimeters from each other.

Eye to eye, nearly nose to nose. Dominika lying back against the wall. Sameera atop.

Locked eyes, a bigger body, a hunger in her eyes and mischief on her face.

Sameera inched forward and took Dominika’s lips into a kiss.

Tasting her briefly, feeling her out, tentative but energetic–

At no point did Dominika struggled or kick her off.

Encouraged, Sameera slipped her tongue past Dominika’s teeth.

Raising a hand to hold Dominika’s cheek, closing her eyes, kissing her with ardor.

She had demonstrated her intent.

Approached, played, savored– and stepped back.

Smiling with the width of a finger between herself and Dominika.

“Was that more impressive?” Sameera asked.

Dominika averted her gaze, keeping a neutral expression.

“Only– a little– playboy.” She said, struggling to catch her breathe.

Never had such critical words made Sameera so contented.

She winked and got off of Dominika and sat next to her again, laughing.

“At least I know the right direction to take!” Sameera laughed.

Dominika grunted, but smiled just a little.

As much as Sameera liked when Dominika played hard to get, reciprocity was far sweeter.

In the shower, Sameera’s hand laid over Dominika’s hand and was not refused.


Having sailed for months by now, the Brigand’s crew was used to the rhythm of daily activity and they had gained some confidence in their response times should an alarm sound. Union ships valued a balance of readiness and morale. Because the crew had been through so much recently, Captain Korabiskaya had the idea to stage a screening of a film so everyone could get together, relax and have some communal fun for a few hours after work.

She left the decision of what film to show–

To First Officer Murati Nakara. Whose eyes drew quite wide upon hearing the news.

“I– this is– this is a bit sudden.” Murati said.

“Just look at the ship library and see what interests you, Murati!” Ulyana said cheerfully.

“You need to get used to making command decisions again.” Aaliyah said bluntly.

Murati blinked. “I’ve– I’ve been making decisions– I’ve been working hard–”

Even she knew this was not exactly the case. Certainly, Murati had not been doing nothing this whole time. She had been in important meetings. She had delegated a few tasks to her own subordinates. She had gone over Diver combat data working with Valya, and wrangled Aatto– but she had also been writing her book an awful lot handn’t she?

And mostly posting a lot on ZaChat the past day–

Neither of her superiors would have it– Murati had a command decision delegated to her.

“Just pick something, Murati. We’ll show it tonight. It’ll be fine, pick anything.”

“No, Captain! Murati, don’t just pick anything. Pick something that will improve morale.”

Two pats on the back was all she got after that. Murati was left to make the decision.

A few minutes later, she had made her way further to the back of the ship.

Walking stiffly and with a clearly troubled expression.

Crossing the door into her wife’s laboratory.

“Hubby! You’ve come to visit! I haven’t seen you in days!”

Karuniya Maharapratham called out in a sweet voice and clapped her hands together.

“You see me every day.” Murati mumbled this so as to be just barely audible.

“So what has dragged you away from your book, to see your boring old ball and chain?”

“Karu– please– I’m not that bad to you am I–?”

Eventually Karuniya stopped teasing Murati and invited her to a desk around the back of the tree. They sat together and Murati confided her predicament to her wife. It was not necessarily that Murati did not know any films. She had seen films, played video games– she had experienced entertainment. However, none of those things were her first choice for distractions. She was much more of a reader. What movies did sailors enjoy?

Weren’t they rowdy and rambunctious? She had always been cloistered among officers.

“I’m so glad you confided in me, Murati.” Karuniya said. “Your salvation is here.”

She raised an index finger pointedly and winked at Murati.

“Are you a film fan Karu? I really had no idea. We always went to restaurants or concerts.”

Karuniya crossed her arms, and smiled with great confidence.

“I am not an expert. But I can make trivial decisions without thinking about them so much.”

Murati raised a hand over her face. “Karu– Come on– This is serious here–”

“I don’t understand why you are soooo anxious, Murati.” Karuniya said, giggling.

“This is a command decision Karuniya! Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah must be wondering if I can handle the burdens of a commissioned officer and judging whether I can be promoted. I let my guard down and kept working on my book and testing Zachikova’s program, and now this. This can’t be something trivial– they are testing me.”

Karuniya stared at her for a moment, laid a hand over her mouth and stifled a laugh.

“Murati, you really are so cute. I’m so glad I have you wrapped around my finger.”

In turn, her hubby met her eyes with a helpless expression.

That was what it took for her to realize she was being just a bit ridiculous.

“I’m glad you think so, though I object to this characterization.” Murati said, sighing.

Karuniya reached out and squeezed Murati’s hand for comfort.

“I’ll look at the media library with you, and we will pick a movie together.”

“I’ve only got a few hours to pick something. It’s going on tonight. It’s just so sudden.”

“It’ll be fun! Just don’t take it so seriously. Between the two of us, we’ll find something.”

Silently, Murati thanked Karuniya so much for deflating all the tension in her chest.

Taking up a chair next to Murati, Karuniya brought a portable computer for both to use. She accessed the Brigand’s onboard media library, which served the books, music, comics, art collections, programs and films that were approved by the Union Navy. With a few taps of Karu’s slender fingers, she brought up the library of films. There were hundreds of films to choose from. A few independent or classic Imbrian films with “appropriate ideological content” were canonized as part of the Union’s “film history.” But the Union also had a film culture that had produced a few hundred films in the nation’s twenty year existence. There was movie-making going on even during the Revolution.

As soon as there had been a Union, there had also been Union film-making.

Everything from comedies to dramas, romances, morality plays, action stories, and propaganda pieces. They could sort the media library based on a lot of criteria, like the year and the genre, but they looked through everything just to see what was on offer. Karuniya arrived at a good suggestion as they scrolled through. She figured that sailors would appreciate a good comedy. Everyone could use a laugh, and even the cheapest jokes could draw one out, but not all people had a taste for romantic films or dramas.

“That is a very good point. Narrows it down, but it’s still so much.” Murati said.

Karuniya tipped her head closer to Murati, leaning into her while showing her the films.

“Oh, look at this one. A comedy about a ne’er-do-well father-in-law ending up being cared for by his son and the son’s newlywed bride. Sounds like universally-beloved shenanigans!”

“I don’t know that I want to sit and think about these particular themes for an entire night.”

“Huh? But your taste shouldn’t matter– well, look here! There’s a raunchy sex comedy!”

“The Commissar would absolutely object to this! I don’t even know how that got in there.”

“It’s there because we’re all adults who fuck, Murati. Jeez– okay, how about this?”

“A comedy about an Imperial falling into a coma and waking up in the Union during the early years of the Jayasankar regime, experiencing culture shock–? I don’t know. I think we have enough culture shock right now. We want them to take their minds off things right?”

“How is it you’re being this sensitive? They’re sailors–! Oh! Look at this one!”

Karuniya pointed her finger at a movie called “Supply Ship Groza.”

Physical comedy taking place in an inter-station supply ship. It seemed light-hearted.

“Karu, I think this might be the one!” Murati smiled.

Suddenly, she put an arm around Karuniya, pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you! This is perfect. I’ll send this to Semyonova. She’ll help set up the projection.”

Karuniya rubbed up against Murati with a placid little smile.

“You’re welcome. But I require a reward for my services.” She said mischievously.

“Oh?”

“First, you’re going to take me to the movie tonight.”

Then, Karuniya raised a hand to Murati’s cheek and drew her in for a deeper kiss.

It was a quick embrace– but her tongue crossed Murati’s lips in its span.

When Karuniya drew back she looked Murati in the eyes.

“Second, you’re going to do more than kiss me after the movie.”

That coquettish grin on her face said it all.

Murati felt the tensions of mere minutes ago wholly leave her body.

To be replaced by other, more electric sensations.

“You know I can’t ever say no to that face. I’m all yours, Karu.”


Semyonova announced the movie night on every screen in the Brigand, so everyone was instantly made aware of it. It came as a pleasant surprise with immediate effect. There was a burst of excitement from all corners, slightly deflated when a clarifying announcement was issued that there would not be liquor rations. Still, the mood was electric, with everyone in the halls wondering what movie would be shown and looking forward to it.

Homa Baumann was not planning to go watch the movie.

She had woken up in the afternoon and had her wholly vegetarian dinner and felt off.

From the operating table in Dr. Kappel’s office, she was back in the infirmary.

Waiting.

“Sorry Homa! I got pulled aside to take care of the bridge for a bit!”

Through the door into the infirmary, Kalika Loukia reappeared with a bag in hand.

Homa stared at her with an unfriendly expression.

“Was I gone that long?” Kalika asked.

Homa sighed. “Whatever. I don’t care.” She raised her voice, almost without meaning to.

Kalika smiled. “I hoped the prosthetics would cheer you up a bit– I understand though.”

She unzipped the bag and laid some clothes on the bed where Homa was seated.

There was a sleeveless white button-down shirt, a teal half-length jacket with long sleeves, a pair of pants and a skirt both of which were black, a set of white underwear, a green tie, and a pair of shoes. This was the uniform she had seen most people on the ship wearing. Everything was cheaply synthestitched, and the shoes especially looked a bit formless and unappealing. Homa would have to ask if they could give her work boots back.

“I’m not wearing a tie. Can they synthestitch me some casual clothes?” Homa grumbled.

“No~” Kalika bent down a bit and flicked Homa’s nose gently.

For a moment, that little teasing brush felt almost scandalous. Could she do that?

It was the momentary outrage that gave Homa some perspective on her own behavior.

Still– she was not able to fully control herself. Her tone of voice remained a bit elevated.

“Ugh. I get it– I’m being a brat. I’ll just– I’ll just shut up then!” Homa said.

Kalika remained bent forward in front of Homa and leaned even closer.

Speaking almost nose to nose with Homa’s face. A small smile on her red lips.

“I’ve told you, I understand you’re frustrated. I’m not going to ask you to pretend everything is fine. But I also am not giving carte blanche for you to yell at me all day. Let’s cool it a bit. Take a deep breath.” Kalika looked at Homa expectantly. “Deep breath, Homa.”

With Kalika right in front of her face, she could not refuse.

Homa drew in a deep breath.

Then she let it out.

There was nowhere for it to go so she practically blew right into Kalika’s face.

Kalika did not look bothered by it. She looked more content than before.

“Feel any better?”

“No?”

Her head and chest felt a bit less tight and knotted after she let the air out.

But she did not want Kalika to be right.

So she denied anything changed.

“Alright.” Kalika drew back from Homa and gestured to the clothes. “Pants or skirt?”

“That’s actually a really hard decision for me.” Homa said.

“It’s not a final decision, though. You can always wear one or the other.” Kalika said.

“I don’t know, Kalika. Do I look like I should be wearing a skirt?”

“You would look lovely in a skirt. Take it from a real fashionista.”

Homa’s ears folded against her head. She averted her gaze.

“No offense– I’ll just take the pants for now.”

“None taken. Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like my help?”

“I’ll do it.”

Kalika turned her back to Homa. “I can whip right back whenever you want me to.”

They had already seen each other completely naked before, but Homa appreciated Kalika having discretion nevertheless. If she struggled with dressing herself, Homa did not want someone staring at her and trying to gauge whether to jump in to save her or not. That would have made her furious. It made her a lot less self-conscious about relying on Kalika to assist if she could choose at any time when to cut her out or let her in.

Homa reached the end of her hospital gown.

Her biological fingers, and the fingers of her mechanical hand, closed around the hem.

She pulled it up and off of her body. As natural as breathing.

Nothing odd happened.

So far the prosthetic was responding fine.

Homa grabbed the synthetic brassiere, put her arms through.

Reached behind her back.

Her mechanical fingers dropped the clips a few times. It was a tiny bit frustrating.

Nevertheless, with time, her quite modest breasts were quite modestly covered up.

Similar to the brassier clips, it was a bit of a challenge to button up the shirt. Holding really small things in her hands and manipulating them precisely was strange. Her fingers on the prosthetics would drop and slip over the buttons, and even if she tried to switch the hand she was using, it was tough to hold the fabric around the button-hole open. Her hand was just so much clumsier than she was used to, and she could not feel it, no touch, no smoothness of synthcloth nor the roughness of the hard button.

Just as with the brassiere, however, the shirt was buttoned up in due time.

Homa clenched her jaw and let out a low hiss.

With the shirt on, she put on the panties and the black pants she had been given.

No problems with those. Everything fit fine and the efforts to put them on were simple.

Finally, she slipped the shoes right on. Cheap shoes like these just fit like a thick sock.

“I’m done.” Homa said.

Kalika turned around. She clapped her hands. “Look at this handsome young lady!”

“C’mon.”

“You really were serious about the tie huh? Don’t you want to look really professional?”

“Not interested.”

“Fair enough.” Kalika held out her hands.

Homa looked at them for a moment before raising her own arms and taking them.

Entwining her fingers and Kalika’s own. Kalika gently urged Homa stand.

To get her legs off the bed, Homa turned sideways.

She set her prosthetic leg on the floor first. Shifted her weight on it, tested its strength.

Everything seemed firm but–

For a moment, as she made the effort to stand, she could feel the flesh weighing on metal.

There was an uncomfortably cold sensation because of this.

Alarming as it was at first, Homa choked the feelings down, and made to stand straight.

Kalika held her hands tightly, supporting her.

“Do you want to try taking a step?”

Homa nodded her head. She lifted her prosthetic leg, inched forward, set it down.

Again she felt that cold sensation where the metal met flesh, but it was not as bad as before.

However, as soon as she set her foot down, she felt her weight slide a bit.

Kalika steadied her as she stepped back herself.

She cooed to Homa as they walked. One solid step; one clumsy step; one solid step.

“Good, good. Take it easy, one step at a time.”

“Okay.”

“Everything in the world worth doing can be done one step at a time.”

“I don’t need your amateur therapy during all this.”

“One step at a time, and you’ll be less grouchy in no time.”

Kalika laughed a little. Homa grumbled.

She held that hand tight however, felt Kalika’s own steel fingers with her own flesh.

Mirrored her steps, relied on her guidance, leaned into her when near falling.

For a moment, holding Kalika’s hands and walking step by step, almost with grace–

It almost felt like dancing, which Homa had never really done. But she had read about it.

Seen it in films; fantasized about it, maybe, once or twice. Dancing with someone nice.

Homa was not some hero, she chastised herself.

Kalika was not her storybook princess.

But–

it made it easier, and feel better, to think of the infirmary as a grand ballroom.

Her fingers closed tighter around Kalika’s hand.

She met her eyes more closely than before.

Step, by step.

Their little clumsy storybook dance down the aisle across from the beds.

It made Homa feel a little bit more whole than she was before.

Her steel walls and the plastic smell, took on color, took on a floral scent, took on grandeur.

“See? You’re doing great. Soon you won’t need to hold anyone’s hand.”

A chill ran down Homa’s back that she would not admit.

Because she immediately thought–

“I still want to hold your hand.”

She did not say this out loud. She did not want to admit it. She felt ashamed of it.

Such feelings were useless to hold for someone who only pitied her.

And Homa had already been hurt a few times by allowing herself such vulnerability.

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.


“Sonya’s taking me out to a movie! I could turn gold with happiness!”

“What ‘taking you out’? It takes minutes to walk down from my room–”

“Sonya’s taking me out~ Sonya’s taking me out~”

Shalikova looked at Maryam bobbing her head happily and simply smiled.

They walked down the hall holding hands, toward the social area.

Game tables, couches and other furniture were moved or folded into the floor. Chairs were set up for the movie watchers; there was not enough space for everyone so a similar arrangement was made in the middle of the hangar so more would get a chance to join a movie-watching party. Dispensers for pickles, bread, broth and watered-down juice were moved from the cafeteria to the social pod and hangar to give everyone easier access to snacks. On the stage a black rectangle appeared on the wall to demonstrate where the film would be displayed from. As Shalikova and Maryam approached and took a seat at the back row of chairs, there were already dozens of people seated and chatting lively.

There was a lot of curiosity, since the film to be shown was kept secret.

“Sonya, I bet you’ve seen so many movies.” Maryam said.

“Not a lot actually.” Shalikova said. “I preferred the arcade when I was bored.”

“Oh right! You did say you were the ‘terror of the tables’!” Maryam said.

“Not so loud.” Shalikova whispered. “But yes I played a lot of table games back when I was in school. Pool, and table hockey and tennis and all that. All the student lounges had a bunch. Solstice had nice arcades too. I liked going around town looking for them. You could wander off in any direction and find lounges and games. Theaters were a bit less prevalent.”

“I haven’t seen very many movies.” Maryam said. “Do you not like them, Sonya?”

She must have noticed Shalikova’s sour expression as she waited for the movie to start.

“No, it’s just– theaters are really crowded. With pool or whatever it was just a few guys.”

And just like a theater, the social pod was now quite crowded.

Shalikova endured it for Maryam’s sake, however.

It was very difficult to infect Shalikova with enthusiasm, but Maryam was so happy that she could not help herself but to crack a little smile. Watching her on the edge of her seat, hands on her lap, staring at the screen with stars in her w-shaped eyes. Bobbing her head with enthusiasm and waiting for the scenes to fill with color. Maryam had been through so much– and she was on this damn ship now going through even more tribulations.

She deserved a moment of excitement and levity.

To be taken care of and made to smile.

Everyone on the ship deserved it, really. These were the moments they worked hard for.

So when the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up with the film and everyone clapped–

Shalikova reached out and squeezed Maryam’s hand in the dark, for her own happiness.


Movie night came and went, with applause, laughs and a brief respite.

“Supply Ship Groza” became a new favorite among the sailors. Around the halls and hangar they could be heard quoting the jokes at each other, and calling each other Mykolas, after the clumsy protagonist. Having a social function was good change of pace. For everyone, they spent some cherished time shoulder to shoulder, but the work, as always, continued. It was a new day, the Brigand and Rostock were ever closer to Aachen.

It was busy again, and might soon get even busier.

Officers led a different life, however.

On that morning, Murati stood outside of the brig.

She was quite happy with last night. But the task in front of her was a daunting one.

Once the door opened– out walked the task. In full Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Bushy brown tail swinging behind her, now coming out of black uniform pants. Her brown hair tied into a very professional ponytail, a garrison cap between her tall ears. Shirt buttoned up completely this time, a brand new jacket in freshly synthestitched teal. Afforded a ration of makeup she had used to doll herself up quite presentably.

An almost comically saccharine smile on her face upon seeing Murati.

“Chief Petty Officer Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! Reporting for adjutant duties!”

Murati could hardly believe these were words she had to hear.

“How do I look master? It’s such a cute uniform. A very clever disguise.”

“I told you not to call me ‘Master’. How many times do I have to say it?”

“But it befits your great stature and the profound respect I have for you!”

In fact, Aatto had made out like a bandit.

Normally, defectors were viewed as something of a burden to their new country. They probably had a limited amount of intelligence, and limited military utility. Under normal circumstances, unless it was a Katarran mercenary with a crew, a defector was unlikely to be allowed to keep their military rank, or join the host nation’s military. Defectors were usually just a small influx of specific intelligence, and a moral victory for the host.

Because of the Brigand’s unique situation, however, Aatto was getting golden treatment. The Brigand had to be open to defectors as a way to acquire manpower. She had actually been advanced a rank– in the Volkisch, she would now be a Scharführer instead of a Rottenführer. Special assignment adjutants to commissioned officers could not be entry-level Petty Officers. Delegating work to someone with minimal clearance who lacked the rank even to organize the specialists was a waste of everyone’s time, so Aatto had to have a senior non-commission rank. If it worked out with Aatto, raising the Brigand’s practical skeleton crew of officers by one was a significant boon to acquire.

Of course, it might not work out with Aatto. She was a former Volkisch after all.

“We are not going to have a big fight about this. It’s decided. She’s your responsibility, Murati.” The Commissar had said. “I believe you when you say she wants to turn over a new leaf. The Captain and I had this conversation prior– we can’t refuse even Volkisch defectors at this point, and you could use somebody to assist you. But you can consider this a test of your judgment. We are trusting you, not just her; and if she burns us, it’s on you.”

Murati could be putting everyone at risk, and even moreso, her chances for a promotion.

With a sigh, she turned over a portable computer to Aatto.

She then set her shoulders, took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the Loup.

Taking one step into her personal space and standing taller than her counterpart.

“This is yours because it is crucial to your work. It’s disconnected from the network and contains all the data your clearance allows plus some educational products. For now, you will work off this device and if you need anything not on it, you will request it through me. Prove to me that you are reliable and trustworthy and you can get access to the network. Just know and understand this, with great specificity, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather: if you scheme against or betray us, I’ll follow you to the ends of Aer to tear you limb from limb!”

Murati jabbed her finger into Aatto’s chest, frustration clearly spilling out of her.

She had hoped to sound commanding and intimidating, but lost control to her passions.

Her speech had an effect, however.

Aatto’s eyes drew wider, her grin more twisted, smoldering with a bizarre euphoria.

She clutched the portable computer to her chest, her entire body shaking.

“There it is! That grand and dominating power dormant within you–! Such radiance–!”

“I’m being serious!” Murati shouted back at her.

“Of course– of course–” Aatto’s breathing became briefly troubled. “I live only to support you and witness your deeds! I will absolutely, without a doubt, employ every part of this body in most excellent service! Master, what ordeals will you subject me to today?”

Why did she sound so happy to be subjected to ordeals?!

Just as Murati struggled to think of a reprimand Aatto would not somehow enjoy–

There was a voice, low but with an undertone of distress, coming from all directions.

Accompanied by flashing red lights from high on every wall.

It hardly had to be said– before she understood the voice Murati felt she already knew.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon! All personnel shift immediately to duty Semyon!”

Fatima al-Suhar was sounding an alert from the sonar station on the bridge.

One that they had heard a few times already– alert Semyon meant combat stations.

“Master, is this a combat alert?” Aatto asked with vivid excitement in her voice.

There was no time to try to correct her bizarre fascinations.

Once again the currents were sending sharp steel the Brigand’s way.

Murati and the rest of the crew would have to hurry to meet it, for all they held dear.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.3]

Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Tell me– what you’ve forsaken.”

In the shadow of the Patriarch, standing raised upon the church stage, a great gold sun disc hanging on the wall at his back– there was a girl in her blue sailor uniform, ears folded, tail held straight and alert. Around them the church was like a suffocating cage of hard-edged shadows cut only by candles and torches on the stage. A red gleam exposed the severe expression of the Patriarch from around his long hair and thick beard.

“Answer me, Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Do you know better than God?”

She knew the answer she would not speak.

Just as he knew her name and would not use it.

Loup were born into servitude.

Servitude to God, through worship; Servitude to the state, through following of the rightful authorities; Servitude to the Family, and to the Father above all. God, the King, the Father of his House, they were all tiered delineations of the same principal figure of absolute power and respect. Loup valued order, authority, and were born to defend both.

“Salvation is a grueling process.” Said the Patriarch. “It begins, it continues, it never ends, until the Sun finally shines upon you and takes you into the firmament. Salvation requires baptism, its beginning; then it requires supplication and worship, to sustain it. Loup, Gefreiter, are a people of great humility and supplication. Our virtue is to toil in life so we can smile in heaven. But look at you; an apostate under my roof. You wear the uniform of a state you betrayed; given life by a God you swear against; and so you wear the skin of a people you reject! You spit on everything that we are. You humiliated us; humiliated me. ”

“She was my mother.” The Gefreiter finally spoke. “She was your wife!”

Tears formed in her eyes. She cast a helpless, wavering gaze up at the looming Patriarch.

“You were supposed to protect her! You speak of my betrayal; you betrayed her!”

From the stage a swift kick struck the girl in the neck and knocked her on her back.

“Silence! You are truly her child! You hellspawn! I ought to split your skull open!”

“That’s enough Gregor. Or you will meet the same fate to which you consigned your wife.”

White light cut across the center of the red streaked darkness of the church.

Casting the Patriarch into the long shadow of another man much like him, approaching.

Dressed in a black and gold uniform, a tall hat. On his ears and tail, the fur deeply grayed.

At his side was a younger woman in a similar attire, swarthy-skinned and dark-haired.

The two Inquisitors approached the church stage to shield the girl from the Patriarch.

When the girl reached the side of the Gefreiter she made to assist her–

“No, Gertrude. Not yet.” Warned the older man. He turned to face the Patriarch.

“Samoylovych. The southern heretic.” Said the Patriarch, disdain ample in his voice.

“Gregor.” High Inquisitor Samoylovych replied. “I’ve come to reclaim Imbrian property. That’s how you see us, isn’t it? I am appalled with you. I cannot stop the Council of Officers from enabling zealots like you; but Aatto is completely innocent. She was not in league with anyone, nor plotting anything; she is just a scared girl witnessing the destruction of her family. You cannot charge her with capital crime as you see fit. Even in the Host.”

Never once did the Patriarch cede from his position. His tail swayed gently behind him.

He was not rattled by the words of the High Inquisitor. In his eyes there was only zeal.

“I have done nothing in my life out of convenience.” The Patriarch said. “I have only ever done what was required of me by God or country. To have brought a child into the world with a liberal and a blasphemer and traitor, is a shame to me, a shame to my country and a shame to the Church; and I have done my duty in setting it right. I was tested; I stood with God.”

“And what? You will murder your daughter for God? Is that in the Revealed Truths?”

“Salvation is a grueling process.” The Patriarch said. “None of us can escape the Destiny that God sees in the instant of our birth, Samoylovych. That is why we must submit to the church and the Revealed Truth and set aside our hubris. Leniency nurtured vipers in my home. You ask what I will do? I will repent until my death; and remain devoted to the rightful order.”

The Patriarch turned his back on the Inquisitors and disappeared into the back of the church.

High Inquisitor Samoylovych grunted. He stomped his foot on the floor.

Putting a crack in the tiles. He let out a wheezing cough from the exertion.

“Inquisitor Samoylovych,” Gertrude Lichtenberg asked, “what will we do with the girl?”

“We’ll take her, of course. She can still serve in Rhinea or Veka.” Samoylovych sighed.

On the floor, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather looked up at the gold sun on the wall of the church with terror in her face. As if staring at the candle-lit face of God itself, a horrifying God of blood-letting that longed to devour her. That sign of the collective immiseration of the Loup in the pursuit of further submission to the will of the Divine. That Sun and the God it represented and the teachings that were associated with it had destroyed more human lives than anything in the world; they had destroyed all of Aatto’s life as she had lived it and everything she cherished. In an instant, it had blinked, and the force of its shutting eyes ended her long-held stability. Submission to what family? Submission to what state? Submission to what God? She had nothing and was helpless to do anything!

Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s life as she had known it ended without warning.

“None of us can escape Destiny.” She mumbled to herself. Weeping profusely.

“He’s wrong.” Samoylovych said. “The power to defy Destiny exists. But those who wield it have turned their backs on the Loup and on the atrocity of the Host. That is the truth.”

Aatto would ponder those words for years. Perhaps far longer than Samolovych intended.


Since they left Kreuzung, the Brigand resumed a feverish level of activity.

In the halls, sailors and technicians and engineers, of which the Brigand had well over a hundred, went from repair jobs to meetings, from the hangar to the cafeteria, from work to bed, having but a lunch and three twenty minute breaks throughout the day with which to decompress. It was busier than it had been during their expeditions in Goryk.

Chief among the reasons for this heightened activity was the depth. In Thassal, Cascabel and Serrano, the average depth of human activity was between 900 to 1500 meters deep. It was in these depths that the Brigand had been built and though it was tested at up to 2500 meters in the Nectaris Continental Rift, it was not ran for weeks and months in such depths. Eisental’s floor was on average 1800 to 2800 meters deep, just narrowly avoiding Hadal or Deep Abyss depths. The Brigand would be at this depth for an indeterminate period.

As such, the Brigand was subject to close to twice as much strain from the depths, since the deeper the water, the greater the pressure on all systems of the ship. There was no fear that the Brigand would suddenly spring a leak and explode completely– if that were the case all of humanity would have gone extinct already. Pressure hulls were very sturdy, and advanced forms of flood mitigation, as well as the presence of sealant gel in the centers of plate structures and between the armor and pressure hulls, meant that strikes from ordnance were actually survivable for the internal modules. It was very rare for a ship to implode from mishandling. It had to be considered as a possibility, but it was still rare.

However, the actual routine problem was with small parts. Particularly, the water system and electrical infrastructure. Water for the hydrojets was sucked in through intakes using powerful turbines and pumps– from there, some water was diverted into internal tanks, the crew water system, and reactor cooling. Then the water would go back out eventually, either directly through the hydrojets or fed out of waste chutes or reactor control pipeline.

Pipes inside the pressure hull were prone to leaks, and because the water system had to work harder and under more stress, it demanded more electricity, stressing the electric systems and possibly stressing the reactor core array as well. Sailors and technicians’ time at these depths was spent monitoring for leaks, actively monitoring power, swapping any electrical and electromechanical parts that were stressed or failing, and most importantly, tightly planning maintenance, replacement and recycling of such crucial parts.

Almost anything on the Brigand could fed into the ferricycler to be turned into mineral mush that would then be fed into stitcher machines to make new usable parts to cycle back in. But at some point, new, unrecycled parts had to be introduced back into the system– there were unavoidable diminishing returns involved in recycling parts continuously.

Other things that broke with some regularity included doors, kitchen appliances, the games in the social area, and most of all, the Divers. Divers had to be considered “broke” the instant they left the ship, because their anti-corrosion coatings would start wearing off, joints would take a beating, and small instruments like the sensors would certainly receive some abuse. This was before the sailors considered any battle damage the Divers took on top of that unavoidable wear. As such the hangar saw frequent spikes in activity.

On mission, the sailors kept pretty busy. There was always something to do.

Therefore, the Brigand’s halls and hangar always saw at least some people moving through.

Sonya Shalikova, meanwhile, had precious little to do on any ordinary day.

As an officer and a pilot, she had the privilege of relaxation.

In exchange, she braved the ocean in defense of the ship, risking her life every sortie.

Not everyone was cut out for that.

There were some people who had panic attacks just seeing the empty black ocean all around them, their spotlights unveiling only the endlessly falling rain of biological matter known as the marine fog. Others became greatly sick from the way the Diver moved out in the water, as the Strelok or even the Cheka cockpit was poorly stabilized. Still more refused to have anything to do with the endeavor, as unlike a ship, it was quite easy for a Diver to receive any sort of damage and fail catastrophically, since their hulls were much thinner.

For Sonya Shalikova, throwing her life into this maelstrom was all she knew how to do.

It had never been a question of whether or not to pilot a Diver.

Piloting was all she had to give to the world. Or so she thought.

Lately, at least, she had experienced a few positive additions to her worldview.

She had forgiven herself for the death of her sister Zasha.

Rather than throwing away her life because she felt useless and listless doing otherwise–

Shalikova now wanted to fight to protect her crew and many precious persons aboard.

To uphold Zasha’s memory and the wishes she had for Shalikova.

Fighting to enjoy her moments of happiness; rather than fighting out of a sense of misery.

So now, as she wandered the halls full of sailors, with nothing to do herself,

rather than think,

I’m so useless– all of these people are the real heroes,

she instead reminded herself,

I need to relax more– no use being high-strung then flaming out when it matters.

Taking care of herself and her body and mind was part of her responsibilities as a pilot.

Her free time, that privilege, was also part of the needs of the job.

But–

Ever since the escape from Kreuzung’s core station, something had been bothering her.

They had an encounter outside Kreuzung. Shalikova recalled not only the psionic powers of the enemy pilot and her fearsome aura, but also the sturdiness of a new type of Diver she had been piloting. It had withstood several close bursts from the Cheka’s AK-96 assault rifle. Firing from a distance at a moving target would have severely diminished the effectiveness of the rifle’s 37 mm supercavitating rounds. These weapons had an effectiveness that sharply declined beyond 50 meters or so. In the water, if you could see something to shoot it, it was only then that it was in the effective range of a Diver assault rifle.

However, Shalikova had fired from close range on a stationary enemy, several times.

Everyone else seemed to overlook this freakish durability, but Shalikova could not.

Murati might say that with appropriate tactics, they could still defeat this new model.

Shalikova, who experienced it first-hand, began to believe they needed stronger weapons.

She was not savvy enough to determine what they could do with their current resources.

So she ultimately decided to take the concern to someone who could research it better.

“Valya, do you have a moment?”

“Oh! Shalikova and Maryam! Just a sec!”

These days Shalikova never went anywhere without her brightly smiling marshmallow.

So even as she walked the halls, Maryam was always following along.

Valya could most easily be found in the hangar, where they had increasingly taken on the role of the squad mechanic for the 114th, the Brigand’s assigned Diver unit. In the center of the hangar, along the walls, there were several gantries, each of which held a Diver aloft. Metal arms assisted the Diver so it would not need to stand under its own power while recharging and while undergoing repairs. They also held the machines in place as the ship maneuvered. Shalikova met Valya in the shadow of a Strelok, still the most common mecha in the hangar despite several recent acquisitions. It was the mainstay of the Union soldier.

Like all Divers it was roughly person-shaped, with an oblong cockpit encased in explosive-resistant armor plates that met precisely on the center of the chest, where they could open to allow entry. A hip section attached a pair of legs slightly offset of the cockpit, while a pair of shoulder sections affixed the arms. Atop this stocky body plan was a rectangular, roughly square head. Two cheek plates held together an array of cameras and sensors hidden behind bullet-proof glass, the “eyes” of the machine. Behind the machine were the main thrusters, fed by water from the shoulder and hip intakes. Mounted on a multi-sectioned “backpack,” the jets could rotate as two independent sets for greater maneuverability.

Shalikova whistled when she saw the state of the machine. This Strelok was receiving some specific attention. The unpainted steel plates on its legs having been taken off along with the cap on the hydrojet intakes set into the Diver’s knee that fed its legs jets. In addition, the support thruster for that leg had been removed and set aside. Known commonly as a “vernier” or “solid fuel” thruster– the latter moniker had come to refer to the fact the thruster was not electric, and in truth the fuel used by the Union was usually cheap liquid, though staged-burn solid compounds were higher quality. Under the armor, additional structural plates had their bolts removed and were peeled off, exposing flexible pipe, wires and the inner workings of the Strelok’s knee, such as the mechanical joints.

Inside the exposed metal there was a layer of black-brown grime that had accumulated.

“Coming down!”

Climbing down from a ladder, Valya removed their goggles, leaving a streak of grime on their own cheek. They smiled at Shalikova and Maryam with a refreshingly sunny demeanor. Dressed in a black sports bra beneath a half open gray jumpsuit, soaked in sweat and smelling of grease and metal. Some grime had even streaked over Valya’s salmon-pink hair, which they had not put a cap over while working. With a heavy tool in one hand, and the other waving jovially, Shalikova thought Valya was truly in their element.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you! It looks like a lot of work.” Shalikova said.

“Well, I’m already down! So it’s fine. There’s plenty of time to get back at it!”

Shalikova had thought of Valya as a reserved person, but they seemed to light up more when they were able to work on the machines. Despite the clear grueling effort they were going through, they never seemed to shine as brightly and talk as confidently as when they were covered in grime with a tool in their hands and safety goggles pushed up over their hair.

“Is something wrong with the Diver?” Maryam asked.

One of her tentacles flicked toward the Strelok’s bared knee.

Valya followed the tentacle with their eyes, then laughed.

“Just a routine checkup. It’s filthy inside, isn’t it? This is the Strelok that Ahwalia trashed back in Goryk, and then it got fixed up and returned to the reserve. Recently a sailor piloted it to go out and check how the missile launch bay covers were holding up in the water. When the sailor was on his way back, the leg jet started getting sticky. I think it had microfractures this whole time in the leg so the jet was losing a tiny bit of water into the plates.”

“Wouldn’t it explode or something?” Maryam asked.

“Nope, the leg interiors are not pressurized, but it is still a problem.”

“I see, I see.”

Shalikova patted Maryam on the shoulder, silently asking her to defer questions for now.

Maryam noticed and nodded her head.

“Valya,” Shalikova turned to the salmon-pink haired pilot, “I need to talk to you.”

“Ah, they’re in high demand today I see.”

Valya and Shalikova both turned to meet the owner of a familiar voice.

Elegant, enunciated in a sultry and playful fashion.

From behind them approached a familiar Shimii with long, blond hair and a strikingly glamorous affectation. Her sophisticated radiance was undeniable and it was hard to turn away when she was taking up attention. Heavy wine-purple eyeshadow and well-applied blush, glossy lipstick adorning a confident grin. A hint of wrinkles around the eyes and neck seemed as though an artful exposure of her maturity. On her, the standard uniform shirt and skirt seemed to flatter her curves, black tights accentuating the contours of shapely legs. Her ears and tail were perfectly manicured and had an almost divine appearance of fluffiness, while her tail was exceptionally brushed and strikingly silky and clean.

Her every movement oozed the easy confidence earned with age.

Shalikova averted her eyes before Khadija al-Shajara teased her for staring.

“Aww, I saw you turn away Shali-Shali.” Khadija said. “Don’t hurt a lady’s pride now.”

“It’s not that at all.” Shalikova said, turning a little red.

Teased anyway; there was truly no escaping from Khadija!

At her side, a cheerful Maryam waved to Khadija with both her tentacles and hands.

“Greetings to the lovely V.I.P. as well!” Khadija said. “You two arrived first, so you should conclude your business with Valya first before I steal them away.”

“That’ll have to wait Khadija– I still have to finish this one too.” Valya said.

“Oh, but I need my Strelok to be ready for standby.” Khadija said, leaning closer to Valya.

She put on an expression that was both pouty and somehow still flirty.

“You’ve got a point. I guess I can just leave this here.” Valya said, leaning back a little.

“Why is Valya doing all this work around here anyway?” Shalikova asked.

Valya shook their head. “Too much to get into– but I can handle it, so don’t worry.”

Khadija crossed her arms and leaned back on the leg of the Strelok, waiting her turn.

Her ears were clearly piqued to try to catch some gossip, however.

Shalikova sighed and laid out her request.

“Valya, did you get a chance to look at any data from the Cheka? Or Khadija’s data?”

“Uh huh, I’ve looked at everything with Murati.”

“I’m worried about the model of Diver we fought around Kreuzung.” Shalikova said.

Valya nodded. “That was Rhineametalle’s Panzer model. We actually have data on it from R&D leaks that were turned over to Union spies– but that was two years ago. We didn’t even load that stuff into the dive computers because we never expected to run into it.”

“I nearly emptied my magazine into it and it did nothing.” Shalikova said.

“You’re exaggerating, dame Shalikova.” Khadija interrupted. “You managed to fend it off and we are unsure of how much damage we did to it. Combat damage is more than just dramatic armor penetrations. For all we know it was limping away without life support.”

Shalikova felt mildly irritated at Khadija’s condescension– but it was pointless to pursue.

“Had the Brigand not been close I’m almost sure it would have kept fighting.” She said.

Khadija did not respond, preferring to continue leaning with arms crossed and eyes shut.

“I can try to comb over the data more thoroughly.” Valya said. “I’ll talk to Murati about it too– if she thinks the 37 mm guns seem ineffective against that Panzer we can explore solutions. I think I know what she’ll say though. One encounter is not a lot of data.”

“We don’t even know if they have mass produced the thing.” Khadija replied.

“I just think we need to keep it in mind.” Shalikova said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Khadija winked. “You need to have more confidence in yourself, lady prince.”

“It’s not about self-confidence! One of us could lose our lives if we underestimate that thing in the middle of a fight! It’s senseless not to prepare every possible advantage!”

“Good answer.” Khadija said. “You do make a finer leader than me, Shalikova.”

Shalikova had raised her voice to Khadija, who seemed far too satisfied with the result.

“Hey, c’mon, relax you two. Khadija, you can stop teasing her.” Valya said.

“I’m relaxed. I said what I wanted to say. Come on Maryam.”

Over Valya’s scolding of Khadija, Shalikova turned around and left the hangar.

Trying to work out the frustration that she knew she felt, and hated feeling.

Despite her anger she had grown up just a bit, enough to have more perspective.

In her heart she understood what Khadija was doing.

It was the same thing Illya had told her in Kreuzung. She had to speak up her convictions, even against her experienced seniors. If she was wrong, she was wrong, like Illya said– if she was right then she had to be ready to meet the confrontation and prove herself right. That was part of being in the military alongside war heroes like Khadija and confident theoreticians like Murati. Shalikova had a fearful conjecture and Khadija challenged it with her own knowledge and experience– they didn’t know if there would be more Panzers and they didn’t even really know what effect they had on Nasser’s Panzer. Khadija probably wanted her to stand up for herself and her ideas instead of turning cheek.

Shalikova just was not used to having arguments and resolving confrontations.

When she was assigned to the Thassal fleet she just did whatever she was ordered.

She never would have thought she would have the ability to influence a mission long-term.

Some part of her hated the idea of ‘being a leader’ more than anything.

It was annoying! It exposed her to stupid contradictions! It meant talking to people!

But another part felt that it was necessary. Especially in this case, she couldn’t keep quiet.

“Sonya, are you okay?” Maryam asked. “Are you mad at Khadija?”

They got on the elevator to ride back up to the Brigand’s upper tier.

“I’m annoyed. I felt like Khadija was treating me like a kid.” Shalikova said.

“I think she respects you a lot! I’m positive she just wanted to help!” Maryam said.

“You’re too nice, Maryam.” Shalikova sighed. Her softie marshmallow at it again.

“It’s okay Sonya. I think everyone on the ship thinks highly of you!” Maryam said.

“It’s not that– whatever.” Shalikova simply let things lie at that point.

Once the elevator doors opened, Shalikova led the ever-cheerful Maryam back to their room. As soon as she was through the doors, Shalikova threw herself on her bed and hugged her hand-sewn teddy bear plush, Comrade Fuzzy, tightly against her chest. It was cathartic to hold something tightly. She needed a few minutes to decompress and she wished for silence– and Maryam had seen this enough by now to know. Shalikova heard her girlfriend sit on her own bed, and then no other sounds of cuttlefish activity. She felt grateful for the silence, and even more grateful that at least Maryam truly understood her.

“Maryam, just give me a minute. I’m sorry I haven’t been great company today.”

“It’s okay Sonya! You take all the time you need. I completely understand!”

Shalikova could see Maryam smiling in her mind’s eye and it warmed her heart.

Another thing she never thought she would find herself doing, back at Thassal.

In just a few months, she had changed a lot, hadn’t she? It all felt so– silly.

She hugged Comrade Fuzzy less tightly and a bit more tenderly instead.

Tension was slowly leaving her body. The voices in her ears began to quiet.

I’ve grown a lot I guess– but damn it if I don’t still have a lot of work to do.

Shalikova sighed to herself.

Nothing could ever be easy– not for every long.

Not for soldiers out fighting at sea.

After a short rest, Shalikova turned around in bed, still cuddling with Comrade Fuzzy against her chest. She faced Maryam’s bed and found Maryam seated cross-legged on top, with her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her chest. Her top fins wiggled gently and her tentacles swayed within her hair. She breathed in and out with a deliberate timing. Her soft facial features were slightly screwed close, furrowed brow and cheeks pulling up.

“Trying to concentrate?” Shalikova asked.

“Oh! Sonya! No, I was just relaxing.” Maryam said.

She opened her eyes and smiled. Shalikova’s face sank into Comrade Fuzzy.

“Maryam, don’t keep things from me. You’re no good at it.”

“Ah– well, alright. Since you caught me.”

Maryam shut her eyes, crossed her arms and put on a confident little expression.

“Sonya– I have been finking about our royal cuttlenundrum.”

Maryam grinned.

Shalikova groaned.

“Did you think about it beyond what fish puns to make?” She said.

In response Maryam turned red and puffed up her cheeks, prompting Shalikova to be quiet.

“Okay, sorry–! I was just making fun! Go ahead.”

Maryam shut her eyes, lifted an index finger and looked deep in thought for a moment.

Shalikova stared at her while she puffed herself up for whatever she was about to say.

“Sonya–”

Lifting her pink hands and putting one fist on the other palm like a gavel.

“–it’s time to ask Euphrates, because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah I kinda figured we would arrive there eventually.”

Shalikova laid a hand on her own forehead, lifting up her bangs and sighing.

“After I confessed I was psionic to Murati she told me Euphrates and Tigris were helping her– so I guess it’s okay. As long as Murati does not become involved.” She said.

“Sonya, why are you so against the Lieutenant? She seems nice.” Maryam asked.

For a moment Shalikova imagined Murati fussing over her and Maryam and grimaced.

“Because she’s annoying. Let’s leave it that.”

Maryam gave Shalikova a scrutinizing look before dropping the matter herself.

Shalikova hid fully behind Comrade Fuzzy again.

While the two of them were staring from across the room, something lit up on the door.

In the middle of it a picture appeared in a square computer window.

Short blue hair, wavy and messy, on a youthful, fair-skinned face.

Euphrates was right outside the door, politely requesting access to enter the door.

Shalikova stared at the door with mild surprise.

She half-expected anyone looking for her to be like Illya and just bang and shout on it.

“Speak of the devil. Come in!” Shalikova called out.

Across the room, Maryam had a conflicted expression for a moment and averted her gaze.

Shalikova let go of Comrade Fuzzy and sat up, tossing her hair.

“Good afternoon, Maryam, Sonya Shalikova.”

Euphrates and Tigris crossed the threshold and closed the door behind themselves.

It was the first time Shalikova had a meeting in private with the ship’s “technical partners.”

Shalikova waved quietly in response. Maryam continued averting her gaze.

“I’m surprised she hasn’t turned tomato-colored yet.” Euphrates said.

In response, Maryam puffed up and went red and continued quietly refusing to respond.

“We just came to check up on you.” Tigris said. “On both of you.”

“In fact we just got done covering up for you.” Euphrates said.

“What?” Shalikova stood up straighter in bed. “What does that mean?”

Euphrates put her hands in her coat pockets and smiled.

“Your ability to use psionics came up in conversation– the Captain and Commissar were a bit alarmed to hear that Maryam was psionic as well. I knew she had to be responsible for the Ensign’s psionics.” Euphrates said. For a moment Shalikova went wide-eyed with burgeoning panic. Euphrates must have noticed, as she took her hands out of her pockets to make a comforting gesture. “No, no, no, don’t be afraid. We vouched for Maryam’s trustworthiness and made ourselves responsible for preventing such surprises in the future.”

Shalikova sighed. Maryam continued to give Euphrates and Tigris the silent treatment.

“I figured Murati would have to tell them eventually.” Shalikova said.

“Don’t blame Murati, she has been incredibly discreet.” Euphrates replied.

“Fine. So then– what are the two of you checking up on us for?” Shalikova asked.

“We’re supposed to–” Euphrates began–

“Slow down with the we,” Tigris interrupted. “You volunteered to compile everyone’s psionic potential on the ship. I’m a mechanical engineer, I have things to do. So you have fun covering up all the staring you’re going to do at people on this ship. I am not helping.”

“Can you help me just this once? I really need your assistance.” Euphrates said.

Tigris averted her gaze in the same direction as Maryam. She crossed her arms.

“Whatever. Whatever! I’ll stick around this once.” She said.

“Thank you. Now, take a look at Ms. Shalikova here– you’ll see the problem.”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes, meeting Euphrates and Tigris’ gaze with quiet consternation.

She saw red rings appear on their eyes. Tigris in particular scrutinized Shalikova for longer.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tigris said. “I can’t see anything, no matter what I try. What the hell?”

“Indeed.” Euphrates said. “Ensign, are you employing psionics at the moment?”

“No, I’m not.” Shalikova said. “This is something Maryam said too. My aura is weird.”

Tigris took a deep breath and looked at Shalikova again with renewed intensity.

Shalikova heard Tigris’ speaking in the back of her mind–

Oracle’s Voice: Epexegesis.”

Shalikova instinctively responded with her own psionics having detected Tigris invoking a power. She then saw several thread-width lines of colored light, connecting the fringes of Tigris’ aura to her own– or perhaps to where her own aura should have been. Except, the threads stopped just short of Shalikova and hung in mid-air utterly disconnected from anything. She knew right away that whatever Tigris had attempted to do failed.

“Now you can see why I wanted you to try.” Euphrates said.

“Yeah? But I still can’t understand anything even with Epexegesis.” Tigris sighed.

“What are you two up to?” Shalikova asked. “Why are you trying to read my aura?”

Despite the sudden intrusion and strange behavior of their guests Shalikova was not fearful. This was because Maryam, on the other side of the room, was still pouting and staying out of it as if it was just any other casual occurrence. Maryam would have definitely rushed to defend Shalikova from anything violent or harmful. In addition, Shalikova almost felt like she had her own voice in her mind which was telling her that it was harmless, or perhaps more accurately, it was making that knowledge implicit to her understanding.

Shalikova felt like she had always known, somehow, what this power was meant to do.

It was meant to read auras more deeply than was possible by simply looking.

“Aura reading is something common to psychics. It should not offend you.” Euphrates said.

“She has a right to be offended.” Maryam said. “It’s not up to you.”

“Finally, my dear former pupil deigns to speak with me.” Euphrates smiled.

Maryam stuck out her tongue at her.

“I’m trying to read the aura to get a feel for your psionics, but it’s impossible.” Tigris said.

“And we’ve never seen anything like it.” Euphrates added. “So it’s quite novel.”

“Okay? I have no idea what means for me.” Shalikova said.

“Neither do we.” Euphrates said. “But you don’t look unhealthy, at least.”

“She’s fine.” Maryam said. “Sonya is special! She will use her powers for good.”

“Right. And she’s particularly special to you, isn’t she?” Euphrates said.

She reached out and poked one of Maryam’s head fins, causing Maryam to flinch.

“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a kid.” Maryam said. “I’m not the same as I was!”

“No, you are not. You’ve traveled, found a purpose and people to care about. I think that is lovely, and it was never our intention to bar you from it.” Euphrates said. “You can disagree as vehemently as you want with our ethics as you see them. But to me, you will always be a special pupil whom I had a wonderful time teaching. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Hmph. No thanks. All you taught me was to do the opposite of you.” Maryam said.

“She’s become such a cuttletrarian.” Euphrates said.

“Ugh. I’m leaving.” Tigris mumbled.

“Wait.” Shalikova said, raising her hand. “We need your help with something.”

She turned to face Maryam. “Maryam, tell them. You yourself said we needed them.”

Maryam’s colors went dull for a moment. Her fins and tentacles deflated a little.

“Maryam, please.” Shalikova said. “We promised to help, remember?”

“We did promise.” Maryam had an uncharacteristically disagreeable expression.

With her eyes narrow and an unfriendly glower, she explained their predicament.

Recalling how Elena Lettiere told them that Norn prevented her from using her psionics.

Euphrates and Tigris were quiet as Maryam explained Elena Lettiere’s predicament.

At various points in the story they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes.

Shalikova noticed it– Maryam might have not, or not cared.

After the conclusion of the story, Tigris looked conflicted and Euphrates unmoved.

“So– I dunno, you tell me. How do we exorcise a psionic effect from someone?”

Maryam asked with some of her quiet innocence returning to her mannerisms.

“Maryam– tell me this. How do you define what is real?” Euphrates asked back.

She smiled as if she had just said something very profound.

Maryam’s face instantly turned tomato-red and her eyes went suddenly wide with fury.

“I knew it! I’ve had it up to here with you! Goodbye! I’m not dealing with this again!”

In an instant Maryam stood to leave–

but just as fast Shalikova stepped forward and grabbed her by the jacket.

They stood in the center of the room, with Maryam frowning as she was ensnared.

“Maryam, c’mon, have some patience! For me!” Shalikova pleaded.

Arms crossed, face boiling red, cheeks puffed up, Maryam sat back down on the bed.

This time Shalikova sat beside her to comfort her while Euphrates and Tigris stood.

“I know how you feel– but try to endure it. I get what she’s saying.” Tigris sighed.

“I’m not that annoying, am I?” Euphrate asked. “It’s actually important to consider for this scenario, Maryam. You heard Elena Lettiere describe her experience and drew a conclusion, but think about it: what makes an experience ‘real’? Is there an objective quality, extrinsic to humanity, that makes information, experience, or sight, concretely ‘real’?”

Maryam stared at Shalikova and gestured toward Euphrates with exasperation.

“I’ll answer.” Shalikova said, before Maryam could say something rude or irascible. “I’m not the biggest brain around here, but I’ll try my best to answer earnestly. In the Union, we are taught to be materialists. We believe that the world and its laws are knowable– thinking comes from material conditions. So I guess that, whatever someone experiences, comes from a condition of their material existence. So– whatever you think, it is rooted in something which is real. So Elena must have a reason for what she saw.”

“That’s a good answer– but, do you think you fully verified Elena’s ‘experience’ here?”

“We took her at her word. She told us what she felt.” Shalikova said.

“But people can misinterpret fraught subjects such as these. Especially naïve people.”

Even Shalikova was starting to get agitated. “Look, I’m not a philosopher.”

“Alright, let us set aside the frameworks.” Euphrates said. “Let me clarify what I mean as much as I can. Maryam has presupposed that Elena is ‘under some kind of curse’ that ‘Norn put on her using King’s Gaze’ which then ‘prevents her from performing psionics.’” Euphrates held out fingers for each of these conditions in her argument. “However, how do we confirm this is the case? These are some big leaps of logics. I actually have a counterexample: it is also possible that Elena simply believes she is incapable of performing psionics due to Norn’s influence, without the existence of an actual ‘curse’ at all. You said you read Elena’s aura, but that aura is primarily borne of her own emotions. Even if you think you can feel a trace of Norn there, you do not know why or how. It could all still be ‘in Elena’s head’.”

“That’s what she means by whether something can be objectively real.” Tigris said. “How can we be sure of what happened to Elena? It’s actually easier to believe that Norn influenced Elena’s behavior like, on a traumatic level perhaps, without it having anything to do with ‘curses.’ It could be Elena’s got some learned helplessness to deal with. Or she’s been in Norn’s shadow enough to have internalized a fear of her retribution.”

“Why does any of this matter?” Maryam said. “You’re just philosophizing not helping!”

“I never said I wouldn’t help.” Euphrates said. “But you have to understand, where psionics is concerned, we have to be really careful to consider the variability of the human psyche and of human emotions. My answer from experience is that there is only observable reality– therefore we must be careful what we make others believe to be real. Maryam, if you had tried to ‘remove a curse’ from Elena without understanding what is truly happening, you could have irreparably influenced her mind and damaged her sanity. Imagine if by tinkering around with Elena’s mind within this rhetorical framework of ‘removing Norn’s curse’, you caused her to irrevocably believe Norn is her enemy? You have to be careful.”

Shalikova nodded along. She was a bit fascinated by Euphrates’ logic.

She supposed human minds were still highly complicated, even to experienced psychics.

Henceforth she would have to be careful when she encouraged Maryam to use psionics.

She had not realized she could so much harm to a mind.

“Human minds are conceptual spaces. To their owner, the information that their mind can process is the only thing they can confirm to be ‘reality’. The information and ideology they acquire throughout their life is a function of their material circumstances, that is very true. But what you see, hear, and even smell or taste can still be altered by the condition of the mind. There are people who see things that are not real, and staunchly believe in things they cannot substantiate.” Euphrates said. “Knowing this to be true, you have to be wary of executing a ‘conceptual attack’– using psionics in a way you think is helpful, but that could alter their reality in a way you might not have intended. Not only will the effort be very taxing on your psionics, the end result could be horribly disruptive to your patient.”

“Norn doesn’t even need to use her King’s Gaze to affect Elena.” Tigris added. “For example, if she got to Elena as a kid, when her mind was the most pliable and vulnerable, she can make her believe anything. She could have already been under conceptual attack– we don’t know.”

“It may even be simpler than that, far simpler. At least, simpler in comparison to a decades long conspiracy.” Euphrates said. “Before we do anything, Maryam, I need to talk to Elena Lettiere myself. I want to ask her about Norn and their relationship and then see how she feels. To take it for a given that she is under attack by Norn, and try to tinker with her mind to change that– it could be a horrible mistake. You can’t do such things lightly.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Maryam said, averting her gaze, crossing her arms and pouting.

“It’ll also have to be another day. We’re kinda busy, you know?” Tigris said.

“I understand.” Shalikova said. She turned to Maryam and touched her shoulder for support and affection. “Maryam, I know you wanted to be the big hero, but they’re right. Elena should not just go along with our conjectures. Even if we have the best intentions we need to be careful. Let’s get everyone together and try to figure out more, okay?”

“Sheesh.” Maryam snorted. “Fine, fine, fine. I never said I wanted to force her or anything.”

“Of course. You just got a little over-enthusiastic. It’s part of your charm.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph. I’ve not forgiven you two.” Maryam said. Pointed glaring at the two women.

“Forgiven us for what? We haven’t ever done anything to you.” Tigris said, exasperated.

“For being bad and selfish people!” Maryam said, raising her voice.

“Huh?” Tigris cried out, taken aback by her tone and forcefulness.

“Hmph!” Maryam averted her eyes and puffed her cheeks up.

“Tigris is extremely altruistic. You can be pointed and say it’s my fault.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph!!” Maryam puffed her cheeks up to an even greater degree.

“I won’t disagree with you either.” Euphrates said. “I am– amending– my ethics a bit.”

For the first time her words sounded just a bit hesitant and unsure.

Maryam opened one curious eye to stare sidelong at Euphrates.

Even Tigris started staring at her too.

Euphrates held her hands together in a plaintive gesture, still smiling.

“Inaction and indecision– played more of a part in my thinking than I’d like. I admit it. I allowed events to spiral out of control. I lost perspective.” Euphrates said. “Being on this ship has made me feel that time is moving again for me. And that I must move with it. I can’t remove myself from culpability. I am looking to set things right. Norn, Mehmed, Ganges, Yangtze– any pain they caused is my shared responsibility. I accept it now.”

“Great. Could’ve fooled me.” Tigris replied, glaring at Euphrates again.

“I am not asking for forgiveness, Maryam. But I’d love to have your help in the future.”

Euphrates adjusted her coat, and bid farewell, with Tigris following close behind.

Still arguing about what Euphrates meant and whether she was serious.

That conversation was not for the two left behind, however.

When the door shut, Maryam let out a breath that must have been held long.

She then leaned heavily on Shalikova, squishing her cheeks up against Shalikova’s chest.

“Sonyaaaaa that was super annoying! You have to be really nice to me now, okay?”

“Sure, Sure. Come here. You’re still a big hero to me. A big, squishy softie of a hero.”

Shalikova held Maryam close, stroking the fins on her head and laughing a bit.

Thinking about Maryam and Euphrates, she felt a bit silly about her feelings toward Murati.


After what she considered a somewhat embarrassing appearance at the ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’, Murati made for the brig. Hardly knowing what to make of it that the enemy officer whom she had captured had requested an audience with her specifically. She had no investment in whether or not she would be effective in extracting any information from the captive, so it made no difference to her and she was not exactly anxious.

But she was perplexed and a little bit annoyed.

What would she even say to a fascist, face to face?

Murati had argued with fascists in her head for years.

Anyone who studied theory would likely have had similar moments– putting together a worldview and acquiring a set of convictions required challenging their competing notions in her own head. In Murati’s mind, she had argued with the Imbrian Empire, and lately she had argued with the Volkisch Movement as she learned more of their ideology while continuously refining her own. Why was she not a Fascist? Why was she against Imperialism? Answering these questions was necessary to arrive at the truth of communism.

But she had never thought about what she would say to a living fascist in a discussion.

She had at most thought about what she would say if she had to execute a fascist.

“The People make up a Nation; you’ll never build a Nation without lifting them up.”

Then she would pull the trigger and turn around without even looking at the gore.

Maybe it could use some refinement–

At any rate– on the walk over, Murati wandered what she would say.

To Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, sitting in the brig, requesting to speak with her alone.

Without much progress made in refining a concept of this encounter in her own mind, Murati stood at the door to the brig and gathered her breath. When the door slid open, Murati saw Dr. Kappel jotting something down on her portable clipboard computer. The doctor noticed Murati at the door and gestured for her to wait before coming in. She then stepped outside the brig and shut the door and bid Murati follow her a few steps away, so they would be farther from the brig when speaking. Murati figured she had been evaluating Aatto, and caught a glimpse of a photo of Aatto taken with the computer camera for her file.

“Murati, I completed a preliminary evaluation of Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Dr. Kappel said. She clicked the switch to shut off her computer. “This evaluation was performed for the sake of her health, as one of my new patients– and I will not disclose any specific physical health conditions, or anything she specifically confided in me. But I thought that it might help you to speak with her more effectively if I gave you my basic assessment of her first.”

Murati bristled a little bit. “So the fascist also has medical rights on this ship?”

“Murati, everyone has rights on this ship. As long as I am the ship’s Doctor, we will not deny captives basic treatment. It would be senselessly cruel.” Dr. Kappel sternly said.

“Fair enough.” Murati replied. She felt a little embarrassed in her response.

However, she was also too stubborn to apologize, and still felt she was justified too.

“At any rate. I am not a psychotherapist, but I am trained enough to serve as a counsel for the ship, and I performed some initial assessments of Aatto’s mental health. Are you interested in hearing them, or would you prefer to form your own?” Dr. Kappel asked Murati.

“I’m interested. How coherent is she? Is she holding up well in the brig?” Murati asked.

“She’s quite coherent.” Dr. Kappel replied. “She is willing to talk and is in fact affable in conversation. She answers questions and does not appear distressed by her current predicament. She has realistic expectations about her captivity, but has not expressed any anger, frustration or anxiety about being imprisoned. Her physical health is adequate. However, despite her attitude– I would say her mental health could be at risk.”

“How so?” Murati asked.

“I believe she might be a suicide risk.” Dr. Kappel said. “And my true motive for speaking with you is that, during your interrogation, please be wary of Aatto and if needed, stop her from hurting herself. She has expressed that she holds her life in low regard, and made a few morbid jokes without prompting during our discussion that trouble me. Coupled with the certainty and confidence she projects, I fear she may decide to– escape, in that way.”

Murati was a little bit shocked. She was briefly unable to speak as she processed.

More shocked about her own reaction than anything– she felt a bit of a pang of nerves.

Why would she care if the fascist does anything to herself? They were lower than dirt.

And yet– she didn’t want to be party to someone trying to hang or stab themselves either.

Not in this sort of environment. There was no battle raging in here.

“I won’t bring in anything into her cell, and I’ll watch her carefully.” Murati said.

“Thank you. I don’t expect you to treat her kindly– but remember we have standards.”

“I know.” Murati said. Internally, bristling at the idea that Aatto deserved anything.

Dr. Kappel nodded her head in acknowledgment and turned to leave.

“Wait, Doctor.” Murati said. Dr. Kappel paused to hear her out. “Do you know why Aatto wants to talk with me? Did she tell you anything about that? The Captain and Commissar have not had time to properly interrogate her just yet– but they wanted me to acquiesce to her request. I do not know what benefit she gets out of talking to me.”

“My fear aside, I think it may be a matter of pride or respect for her.” Dr. Kappel said.

“That makes sense. She confronted me directly and I made a fool of her.” Murati said.

“Right. She may want to look into the eyes of the person who captured her, to hear her voice, to be processed by you, as a form of accepting and coping with her failure. I will keep to myself exactly what she said, and like I said, I won’t ask you to moderate your voice.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I will do my best to try to handle things– humanely.” Murati replied.

“That’s all I ask. She may be unworthy of our respect, but she’s still our responsibility.”

Dr. Kappel reached out a hand and Murati shook with her, leaving on better terms.

Now, however, Murati was actually troubled by the idea of meeting Aatto.

Her situation became more complicated than ‘yelling at the fascist.’

Nevertheless, Murati returned to the brig with her hands closed into fists.

Farthest from the door were the few barred cells on the ship. On the right-hand side were the solitary confinement cells, all of which were now unoccupied. Just past the door, standing between the landing and barred cells, Zhu Lian stood guard. Murati found her in the midst of untying her long, dark hair and retying it into a ponytail. She dressed in the same nanomail bodysuit she usually wore, with thicker plates of separated armor on her chest, gloves, waist and leg guards. She had a collapsible baton hooked to her belt and no other weapons. Murati waited for her to be done with her hair before speaking.

“Greetings, comrade. How’s the prisoner doing?” Murati asked.

Zhu opened one eye and let go of her ponytail. “Oh! Hello Lieutenant. She’s behaving.”

“I’ll be stepping in to talk to her.” Murati said.

“Yeah, I heard from the Commissar. She’s all yours. Where should I wait?”

“You can stay here for now. Has she said anything?”

“She said she was excited to meet you. Weird, huh? Like I said, she’s quite well-behaved. I expected her to be more aggro but she has been remarkably quiet and polite.”

Murati nodded her head, walked past Zhu Lian and stepped up to the bars of the cell.

As soon as her shadow crossed the bars, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s gaze lifted to follow her every move. Aatto was seated on the fold-out bed provided in the cell, her hands crossed on her lap with eyes cast downcard. She smiled and raised her head upon seeing Murati approach. Aatto had been stripped of much of her uniform. Her coat was gone, her boots were gone, her hat, all of her pins and collar patches and armbands. Aatto was only allowed to keep her button-down shirt, sans tie, as well as her pants, sans belt.

Even her brassiere had been taken– exceptionally evident with her shirt halfway open.

Dark blue eyes meet auburn; Murati stood across the bars.

Aatto stood in turn to meet her.

“Thank you for granting my request. I’ve been dying to meet you.” Aatto said.

“I am just following orders. I’m only curious to know what you want.” Murati replied.

Aatto smiled, a little too happy for Murati’s taste.

She was shorter than Murati, though she would not have called Aatto short overall. She was a well-proportioned young woman, busty, average in figure, decently fit. Fair skinned, dark-eyed, with sleek cheekbones and a small nose with a tight bridge and slightly rounded end– she certainly could have been described as attractive. Her long, brown hair was well-kept, silky and shiny even with minimal hygiene the past few days. Blunt bangs covered her forehead, while the rest of her hair was long and straight. Her tall, sharp ears had abundant fluff while her tail was bushy and bristly, widening with fur across its length.

Her body language was confident and quick. Her hands moved a bit as she spoke.

Unlike her stern commands in Kreuzung, her voice in captivity turned somewhat sweet.

“I would like to throw myself upon your mercy, and under your power.” Aatto said.

She bowed her head, at first– then dipped into a stage bow, with one arm out.

“No mercy is necessary. As far as I know, nobody intends you harm.” Murati said.

“It’s more than that. It’s about my purpose.” Aatto said. She stood back up to full height.

Her voice reverberated through Murati’s chest like a shockwave.

Those dark-blue eyes flashed a strange gaze at Murati’s own.

In that instant, Murati pulled her internal trigger in reaction.

Red rings glowed around her eyes which met their counterparts in Aatto’s own.

They were reading each other’s auras– Aatto had some psionic ability.

Not only that– Murati could see in her aura the bizarre euphoria slowly becoming evident in her expression as they stared each other down. Aatto’s tail began to wag so strongly it started striking the bed repeatedly. A cheek-to-cheek smile flashing white teeth; embroiled in a white and blue flame of an aura, impassioned, exuberant, sublime–

With a texture like a waterfall, like rushing silk, an unbroken current–

There was no denying what was going through her mind.

“Murati Nakara, please take me as your own instrument! Let me be of use to you!”

Murati was stunned to silence. Those words completely shattered her composure.

There was not a hint of aggression or hesitation in Aatto’s aura or her body language.

She was sincere; utterly sincere. Her every emotion was sharply focused on Murati.

“I want nothing more than to serve you! I wish I had been born a part of your body rather than all of mine. I want to see your power! Let me defect and I will show you how useful I can be! This body– you can do anything you want with it! All of my life has led me to this moment. Take me, or strike me down, whatever you wish! But I know that in life, I can be a great asset to you! I will tell you anything you want about the Volkisch! And I’m not just an informant; I’m a great analyst and organizer! Let me be your personal adjutant!”

Aatto’s speech continued to rise in volume and her expression grew wilder.

As if by continuing to speak she was making herself more and more excited.

When she finally finished, there was an enormous void where her shouting had been.

Readily filled anew– by the roaring indignation within the object of her admiration.

“Are you insane?” Murati shouted back. “You want to defect because of me?”

“Yes! Please take me under your command! I will do anything!” Aatto said.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! I would never–! You insane fascist!”

“I’m not a fascist! I’ll be whatever you need! Please let me join you!”

“Do you even hear yourself? Have you any shame? How can I possibly trust you?”

“Give me a chance and I will absolutely prove myself worthy of trust!”

Murati and Aatto shouted back and forth at each other, as if neither was listening.

Nothing could have prepared Murati, this situation was in none of her plans.

None of the possible conversations she imagined with this woman led to this outcome.

Aatto did not seem suicidal, at least– but she was certifiably, completely insane!

It shook Murati– the kinds of words she had never heard in her life.

Murati had never been so admired, no one had ever thrown themselves on her.

And all of this desire was coming from the imprisoned fascist?

Some part of her was susceptible to the flattery– but she categorically rejected it!

“Why me?” Murati asked, sounding like a mortified girl. “What’s wrong with you?!”

“Of course it has to be you!” Aatto said. “You demonstrated true power to me, Murati!”

“Power– right! You’re also– no, shut up, one moment–!”

Murati turned around suddenly. Near the door, Zhu Lian stood with her mouth covered.

She saw Murati turn to face her, and silently realized the reason for her doing so.

Zhu Lian, nearly laughing, left the room instantly. Hopefully she would be discreet.

Murati turned back to Aatto to find her holding the bars with her face against them.

That demented smile as if a permanent feature of her expression.

In her mind, Murati superimposed the black uniform full of fascist symbols over her body.

She shook her head, balled up her fists with frustration. Her head filling with violence.

Stepping up to the bars herself to lock eyes with Aatto, so close she could feel her breath.

“Be completely serious. Nobody is listening. Tell the truth. Now.” Murati said.

“You know I am telling the truth. You can see it. I am not lying to you.” Aatto said.

She was not lying to Murati. She was completely earnest, completely certain, and peaceful.

That smile on her face that seemed like it would never wipe off was utterly sincere.

But none of it made any sense!

“Who are you? Who are you really, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather?” Murati asked.

“I was but a living corpse until the sight of you made me want to live again.” Aatto said.

“Ugh! That’s insane! That’s nonsense! Stop making shit up! I won’t fall for your tricks!”

Murati knew Aatto was not tricking her. Murati knew that Aatto was telling the truth.

However, in the landscape of what should have been true, her answer was impermissible.

“Tell me the truth! The actual, whole truth, Aatto! What are you trying to do?”

“Murati Nakara, the Loup are a warrior culture of the Imbrium Empire. We are born to follow the orders of unworthy masters. I was nothing but a soldier, but hardly any good at direct combat– in Rhinea, they made me into an intelligence analyst and then a field agent. I did this task for the Imperial Navy and then the Volkisch inherited me like an old coat left in a closet. But I was never loyal to the Volkisch– in fact, I actually saved many Liberals from persecution! I falsified information, rerouted patrols! I betrayed the Volkisch!”

“Like I believe that.” She was telling the truth. Still telling the truth. Her aura was bright and untroubled and unmistakably clear. “Do you have any proof?” (She was telling the truth.)

“Ask the social-democrats in Aachen about Illaria Howell and Heimdall.” Aatto said.

“I suppose I will.” Murati said. Her resistance remained firm. “But why would you spy on or turn against the Volkisch? Why help the Liberals? What was in it for you? I know you possess powers yourself. You just showed them to me– I’m sure you meant to do so as well.”

“Yes, I meant to show you– though my power is far weaker than yours. I can only see.”

“Fine. Answer the question. You had personal power and standing– why risk yourself?”

Aatto’s smile wore steadily away as she answered.

“I helped the Liberals because I thought that they would take up arms and fight against the Volkisch. It all came at me like a flash. Several most-wanted persons cases fell onto my lap. In the course of my typical work, I had the opportunity to fix papers and assist in the escape of Illaria Howell, a big liberal politician, before she was purged by the Sicherheitsdienst. We met briefly in the course of events, and she vowed that she would form a resistance network, and I agreed to help save more liberals in order to help her do so. My heart fluttered– I wanted to see the Liberals destroy the Volkisch and reassert their place in the world– I wanted to see if they could overturn what seemed like their wretched Destiny.” Aatto said. Murati noted her darkening demeanor. “But all they wanted was to escape with their lives. Illaria had lied, none of them resisted. They simply wanted to go into hiding and avoid any danger. Their cowardice sickened me– I endangered myself for nothing. So– I resigned myself to return to the Volkisch, to what seemed like my own fate. Then I was captured by you.”

She raised her head again to look at Murati. Some of her bright cheer slowly returned.

That way she looked at Murati– with such fondness and tenderness– it was frightening.

“You rescued me from them, Murati! From my indenture to those weaklings!”

“Stop calling me by name, I don’t know you!” Murati grumbled.

“Oh! Of course. Of course! Forgive my impudence. You are someone who is worthy of the utmost, strictest respect. What is your rank– or should I just call you my Master?”

“What?! No! People will misunderstand! Don’t call me Master! I’m nobody’s Master!”

Murati stepped away from the bars while Aatto kept a thoroughly fixed gaze on her.

“Of course. Whatever you say.” Aatto replied. “You are my King.”

“Absolutely not! I’m nobody’s King!”

Exasperated, Murati turned her back on Aatto to avoid her eyes.

Behind herself, she heard a sharp intake of breath as she took steps toward the door.

“Please don’t go! I’m sorry! Please! I’m truly serious! I am defecting! Please!”

Murati fully intended to leave and did not immediately pause when she heard the cries.

“Please don’t abandon me! I truly can get better! Please! I want to change my fate!”

Close to the door, Murati fully stopped. She sighed to herself. She laid a hand on her face.

Aatto was openly crying and screaming and begging like she had been beaten.

I want to change my fate.

At no point had Aatto been lying to Murati. She knew that well.

Maybe even without psionics, she would have felt Aatto’s bizarre sincerity as well.

Her demeanor had changed entirely like she had swapped one identity for another.

It was shocking– but it was also hard to trust anything she said.

However–

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Murati asked, still not turning around.

She felt a pang of a truly wretched sympathy.

“My father once said– the world is a barrel-organ that God turns. We are just spectators to a song already recorded on the drum.” Aatto said, breaking out into outright sobbing and weeping. Her voice cracked– Murati thought she heard a banging on the bars and recalled Dr. Kappel’s words. She turned around immediately and found Aatto thankfully unharmed but drooping against the bars with all of her brightness and strength sapped. “I was born to be a servant– to unworthy rulers– but I don’t want the fate of the Loup– I don’t want the fate of the Loup–! Please, don’t abandon me– don’t– when I found hope–”

“Be quiet!” Murati said. “Just for a moment– be quiet. Please. I won’t leave yet.”

Aatto seemed to have spent all of her exuberance. But she dutifully quieted down.

Hanging against the bars as if holding them was all she could do to stay up.

Her eyes running red, tears down her cheeks, lips quivering with sobs.

If this was all acting– it was terribly convincing.

(And could her aura even lie about such clear and open intentions?)

Murati was torn in half by opposing instincts.

There was a part of her that reveled in the power to cause Aatto suffering.

That voice said,

“this fascist should die screaming with the agony the Volkisch inflicted on the world.”

There was a part of her that softened to the plight that had reduced Aatto to begging.

That voice said,

“this girl should be able to overcome the ideology that has had her captive for life.”

How was it that a person lived ‘inherited like an old coat’ by an evil military regime?

But then again– Murati did not know that much about Imperial Loup culture either.

What was the fate of the Loup? What would Murati be consigning Aatto to suffer?

What had Aatto suffered already that led her to this place? To her present mania?

Murati walked back to the cell and stood opposite Aatto once again.

Aatto raised her head and stared at Murati. Not smiling anymore– broken down.

It was tough to look at her now, having seen her previously carefree smile shatter to this.

Knowing that all she did was turn her back once to cause this to happen.

“Do you believe in the racial superiority of a class of ubermenschen?”

Murati’s question momentarily perplexed Aatto. But Murati did not follow up.

She did not even meet Aatto’s gaze until the captive provided an answer.

“Of course not. I’m a Loup. I wouldn’t be considered as such.” Aatto whimpered.

“Do you believe there’s an untermenschen class unfit to have agency in their lives?”

There was a heavy note of bitterness in the next answer.

“I believe the Imbrian people are largely a smooth-brained rabble.” Aatto replied.

Murati’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you believe there is ‘life unworthy of life’ such as social parasites and degenerates?”

Aatto paused for a moment, catching her breath. “Well– It depends–”

Murati frowned. “Do you believe that all Imbrians form a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ that must carry out their unique racial destiny through the conquest of enemy racial communities?”

“I guess my definition of Imbrian is pretty broad, if I were to submit it–”

“Do you think there is a conspiracy of enemy races against the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’?”

Aatto put on a small carefree grin again.

“Well– I think, if you look at the evidence, the Cogitans and Hanwans recently–”

Murati slammed her hands on the bars in exasperation. She failed every question!

Aatto drew her eyes wide with surprise at the striking on the bars.

“You think exactly the same as a fascist! You’re still a fascist with fluffy ears and a tail!”

“Please forgive me! All I’ve ever known is the Northern Host and the Volkisch Movement! I can change if you help me! Show me your books! Teach me what you believe!” Aatto said.

“Damn it, you’re just saying whatever I want to hear?! You manipulative bitch!”

“No! It’s the truth, you know it’s the truth! You can see it! Please– I’m begging you.”

Aatto lifted her hands from the bars and clapped them together, shaking.

As if in prayer or reverence, a supplicating gesture. Her ears folding, tail dropping.

Murati was utterly exasperated and out of sorts with this whole charade, but–

No matter how much she wanted to harden herself and cast this woman into the fire.

It may well have been cruel and inhumane to simply walk away and ignore Aatto.

She could feel what she believed to be truth in her heart and it weakened her front.

There was no equivocating that Aatto was an Imperial officer and had worked for the Volkisch. Wearing that uniform was an atrocity. She tried to do some good in her position, maybe– but she had warped reasons for doing so. Even if she was perhaps not an ordinary fascist she was certainly an elitist and a mystic. That idea of hers– trying to find someone who would fight the Volkisch to “overturn Destiny,” it was clearly a gigantic delusion. Aatto could have easily just been fishing for the winning side to save her own skin.

But– it felt more difficult to condemn her after seeing her break down.

Murati started to retrace the path of her own current convictions, searching her heart.

Child to labor organizers who were punished with slavery, and who died in the service of communism. A nun and a traveler who became scientists, who became communists, who became fighters willing to kill for their beliefs. They had changed over time. Like all citizens of the Empire they had not been born communists. They had arrived at that conviction.

Murati became a communist in the nation her parents helped to found, and now she could judge Aatto for what she thought with a lifetime worth of living and studying under communism. Her material conditions led her to her present state. It could have all gone quite wrong somewhere in the middle. Even in the Union, there were still nonbelievers in communism and even people who still held on to nationalistic or liberal ideas.

Murati had an opportunity that was explicitly denied to someone like Aatto.

Aatto had been brought up to an entirely different set of circumstances. She could have been said to have been a slave herself. Loup were a racial minority in the Empire, raised and valued as military manpower. That much Murati knew, even if she did not know the exacting cultural specifics of the Loup Hosts. She did not know much about their religion or traditions or family lives, and had only superficial knowledge that the Northern and Southern Hosts differed culturally. She did know that Imbrians could put Loup in torpedoes and shoot them at enemy ships to try to board them. She did know that the royal family once upon a time had a tradition of keeping a royal guard brigade half-composed of Loup kidnapped from their homes as children and raised as soldiers entirely within the captivity of Heitzing.

Even if that tradition had been overturned by the Fuellers– it still spoke to something.

Imbrians saw the Loup as inferiors. They were not equals in society. Far from it.

They were all objects; instruments of war that could only thrive in the military.

Despite this, there were plenty of Loup still fighting for imperialism and the Volkisch.

There were many Loup who still internalized fighting for this status quo as a virtue.

But there was one Loup, in front of her, begging for a chance to do otherwise.

Perhaps a Loup could not be a fascist in the way an Imbrian could. It was more complex. Perhaps that was only an excuse Murati was making for herself, for this Loup. For this fascist— specifically. Because she could see her hurt right in front of her eyes. Even despite her convictions. Even despite everything she had come to believe. Her rationality told her that it was too convenient to view Aatto as a special case among the fascists.

Aatto had not been without choices. Her condition could not be entirely given onto fate. She could not be seen as entirely helpless. Even if she seemed to believe that she had been led to this by the nose, she always had choices. All humans did, even if those choices were grim and hopeless at times. To wear that uniform and work as a fascist, was a horrific choice– but she had also made the choice to rebel. More than once. And perhaps given a chance, Aatto could rebel enough to make amends for whatever circumstances led her to Volkisch service.

To condemn Aatto to “the fate of the Loup” as she put it– Murati did not have the steel in her chest to do that. As much as she felt like she was betraying her own convictions for not hating Aatto with every fiber of her being, for not stepping past those bars and beating her into a pulp the second she tried to beg for forgiveness. None of that would actually be justice. None of that would overturn the yoke the Volkisch had on anyone else. It would just be petty, senseless vengeance, in effigy, for the same monsters that probably tormented Aatto greatly herself. Murati grit her teeth at her own soft-heartedness.

Defectors existed in all causes to all causes– by that rubric, Aatto was not hopeless.

For everything else, Murati could only have faith and hope she would not regret her choice.

“I will talk to the Captain and Commissar about your defection.” Murati said.

She tried to keep a stoic tone and would not meet Aatto’s eyes any longer.

Aatto stared at her and smiled through her tears. Her face instantly brightened.

“Thank you! I won’t let you down! Your magnanimity is radiant! You are a true saint!”

“I’m not guaranteeing you anything!” Murati said sharply. “But I will talk to them.”

“Of course. I know you don’t have absolute power– though you deserve it–”

“Ugh. Don’t make me regret this.” Murati said. “You better be serious about it.”

“I am serious! I will be more than an adjutant! I will bear your scepter! I’ll be your knight!”

Murati could not have balled up her fists any tighter hearing all of that nonsense.

What kind of a mess am I getting myself into with this woman?

She tried to focus on material things. There was too much idealism in the atmosphere.

A Volkisch defector could be a great asset!

Aatto had been part of the Volkisch intelligence, the Sicherheitsdienst. If she truly had the kind of access to divert prisoners, fool patrols, and falsify documents, then Aatto could be a trove of information on the Volkisch and their operations and processes. Even taken with a grain of salt, it could help. And if she was telling the truth, she was crafty enough not to be caught, and she had connections with the liberals. They could use Aatto to help them find more Volkisch willing to turn and talk, or act as spies, perhaps. Even if she also insisted on being Murati’s adjutant– well, Murati could always use the help. She had been incredibly busy lately. But Aatto’s slavering displays of devotion were incredibly vexing.

It would be terribly embarrassing if she spent all her time trying to lick Murati’s boots.

But– Murati had given her word now. She had set her mind to being responsible for this.

Having Aatto locked up until she lost her mind and hurt herself was not a solution.

Maybe accepting her defection was not a perfect solution. But it was comparatively better.

So, Murati could say, in a unforeseen and surreal way, this was a productive outcome.

She could say that to herself repeatedly like a mantra until she shouted down her anxiety.

Still– Aatto’s behavior was unnerving. Something had to be done.

Something had to be said.

She turned her back again and found the words to voice her worry.

“I’m leaving. By the way, I have a wife. So– if you’re after me for– baser reasons, you had better not get your hopes up.” Murati said. She felt insane for feeling like she needed to clarify such a thing. But Aatto’s behavior had to be corrected somehow.

“I see! Well, that’s not a problem for me.” Aatto casually responded.

Murati was not facing Aatto but could practically see her expression in her mind’s eye.

Her mind was briefly overcome in a storm of emotions.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? WHAT–?!

Murati vocalized nothing of the screams and expletives going off in her mind.

She simply and silently put one foot in front of the other and vacated the brig.

Her head throbbing and pounding– but her heart lighter and less aggrieved.


“Marina, we’re back here again. Again! After all the times you withheld information from us that ended so well.” Ulyana said sternly. “What do you have to say for yourself now?”

“At this point I am not sure I’d ever trust another word out of your mouth.” Aaliyah added.

“I have nothing to say in my defense. I apologize profusely.” Marina mumbled.

“You apologize– and yet keep choosing to lie to us every time anyway!” Ulyana shouted.

For their final disciplinary meeting of the day, Ulyana and Aaliyah saved the worst.

Marina McKennedy in her suit and button-down shirt, with her hands cuffed behind her back. Seated on a table across from Aaliyah and Ulyana, with Klara van Der Smidse looking over her. Out of everyone on the ship who had taken some misguided action, Marina was the only one being treated as actively dangerous. Ulyana felt like she had ample reason to think so. Marina was the only one who had consistently been in a situation like this and simply never reformed herself. In every situation since they allowed her aboard Marina had deceived them. And now Marina was also the one who had caused actual, verifiable harm.

For Illya or Zachikova, their last escapade was the first time they disobeyed orders.

Both of them at least had a noble reason– saving their comrades.

Marina, meanwhile, had aided and abetted in the Kreuzung Core Separation Crisis.

She confessed to everything with hardly any prompting.

“I was looking for information on an old partner of mine– a scientist named Asan. In the course of that, I ran into Kitty McRoosevelt, a GIA agent who was behind the Core Separation plot. I knew what Kitty was up to, she told me up front. I tried to dissuade her from it; but then I assisted her. I helped her secure mercenaries and refined her plan. I knew if I didn’t do anything, she would just get herself killed. I could see it in her eyes that she was ready to die. I thought if she succeeded it might create an opportunity for you and that it might save her life. I was wrong. I knew I was the moment I saw those lights start flickering.”

“You’re damn right that you were wrong!” Ulyana shouted. She could not help but feel incensed at the unfeeling delivery of this excuse, for the degree of evil that had been committed. “Marina, potentially torching an entire station is not worth an opportunity! You assisted this madwoman in attacking a reactor! You could have compromised the entire structure! Citizens of a station have nowhere to run to or hide from that! If you destroy the tower they will die crushed within it! Without hope of escape! Anyone who could escape would be the rich or the Volkisch! Is this truly how the G.I.A. operates?”

Unlike in past confrontations, Marina did not try to excuse herself.

She did not meet Ulyana’s shouting with her own, nor did she continue equivocating.

Instead she looked down at the table, her hands tied behind her back.

Unable to meet the eyes of her now captors.

“An apology is worth nothing to us Marina. The scale of your deceit here is intolerable. You almost certainly have the blood of innocents on your hands for this.” Aaliyah said.

“I’ve always had the blood of innocents on my hands.” Marina mumbled.

“Don’t even try it.” Ulyana said. “You’ll find no sympathy from us with that excuse.”

While the Republic of Alayze and the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice were strategic allies against the Imbrian Empire, Ulyana would not tolerate Marina’s lazy and callous defense. The G.I.A. could lie, cheat and steal all it wanted, but all was not fair in the course of war– there were things which were beyond the pale for even special forces or spy agencies to do. There had to be a level at which brutality was not worth success– and there was one.

On a material level, attacking stations was difficult for any combatant under the ocean, because a station was an enormous prize that was easy to destroy, and thereby condemning and annihilating everyone inside it– but useless in such a state. Capturing stations was the most difficult part of any armed conflict, more difficult than fighting fleets. There were ways to do it. Compromising the electricity or blowing it up was not on the table.

It was taboo– because it was foreclosing the possibility of human life itself.

Such wanton brutality did nobody favors. It moved humanity closer to total extinction.

Even the greediest and most sadistic madmen of history had avoided the cardinal sin.

There was nothing but water out there– the human world was inside the stations.

Whether to plunder, whether to build power, or set people free– the stations had to stand.

To attack a station with the intent of destruction was to attack human life in itself.

Nobody would gain anything from it. All of humanity would simply, permanently lose.

“What can I even say to this anymore?” Ulyana said. She had shouted herself out of breath.

There was nothing more to say. Marina had gone too far. They could hardly fathom it.

It was hard to speak of punishments for something like this.

Somehow anything they said or did felt like it was not possibly enough.

Still, they had to reach beyond the emotional and assert a realistic response.

“I advise we strip Marina of the rank and credentials we afforded her.” Aaliyah said.

“I’m still on your side. I still want to help.” Marina said. Still staring down at the table.

“You have gone too far this time Marina. I am not able to excuse what you did, to myself, in any fucking way.” Ulyana said. “You’re damn lucky. We are not about to have an execution carried out on this ship. Your words are meaningless; but your actions may yet redeem you. For now what you’ve earned yourself is two weeks of solitary confinement, and the loss of your rank aboard the ship. Once you come back out, you’re a civilian to us.”

“An untrustworthy civilian who will be monitored stringently.” Aaliyah added.

Marina smiled bitterly. “You’re right. I’ve been lucky one too many times haven’t I?”

“Sit in the brig and think about what you did. It’s you who has to live with that.”

Marina grit her teeth. She still could not lift her gaze to meet theirs.

“Damn it. You’re both soldiers too. Where the fuck do you two get off on judging me?! Commie bastards. How many people wouldn’t you kill for a victory?”

From across the table, Ulyana suddenly raised her arm and slapped Marina across the face.

With such vehemence she knocked Marina sideways out of her chair.

Aaliyah had no admonishment for this act of impulse.

She quietly stood up from her chair and with Klara’s help got Marina up from the floor.

Marina weakly struggled in Klara’s grip, but could not escape the security girl.

From her expression it was evident she knew she was completely out of hand.

“Take her away.” Ulyana said sternly. Klara nodded and led Marina out of the room.

The last Ulyana saw of Marina that day, was the glint of tears in her eyes.

When the door shut, Ulyana broke out into tears too.

The Captain’s whole body was shaking from the anger and shame bound up inside her.

How could all of this mess have happened, under their watch?

Were they that useless and helpless?

“Captain, we trusted her and had that trust violated. It wasn’t our fault.” Aaliyah said.

“I know.” Ulyana wiped her eyes in vain. “It’s just– god damn it. It’s so senseless.”

Aaliyah returned to the Captain’s side and rubbed her shoulder for support.

“There’s always going to be a horrid, bloodstained line between the need to take action and the need to take the right action.” Aaliyah said. She was not weeping, but had a tender expression. “We can’t hold ourselves up too high– we can be as ethical as the situation allows us; we can try to avoid unnecessary, senseless violence. But our actions against the Empire will have consequences like this– or worse. We have to be ready.”

“I know.” Ulyana said. She lifted a hand to her face to cover her weeping eyes.

Deep down what hurt the most is that only a very thin line separated them from Kitty McRoosevelt. Would they ever become as desperate as she had been?

Ulyana could not deny it– not decisively. That was the worst feeling of all.

“You have a good heart Captain.” Aaliyah said. “You don’t have to bear Marina’s burden.”

“Thank you.” Ulyana said. “I just feel responsible. She admitted to it so callously.”

“Can I be frank with you, Captain?” Aaliyah said.

“Always.”

“Don’t let this become another Pravda for you.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Aaliyah for a moment. She swallowed the shock.

Despite a brief surprise she quickly recognized Aaliyah’s support for what it was.

“Thank you for your candor. I won’t break down. I just need time to process.”

“Thank you. I understand. It has been a heavy few days for you.”

“For us, Aaliyah. You are invaluable to me. I’d go insane without you.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. I believe you’re stronger than that.”

Aaliyah smiled at Ulyana. Despite her tears, Ulyana smiled back.

They remained together in the room for a few moments, decompressing.

Then, the meeting room door blinked, a bright computer window opening on its surface.

Murati Nakara was requesting access to the room.

Unexpected but not a problem.

Ulyana wiped her tears.

Aaliyah sat beside her and verbally commanded the door to open.

“Greetings. Captain. Commissar. I spoke with the prisoner– it’s funny, actually–”

Murati walked into the room and sat on Marina’s chair– she had on a strange expression.

They had never seen her so apparently nervous, and yet almost laughing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah followed her with their eyes. Murati had a manic sort of energy.

When she spoke, she started gesticulating with her hands in a rather dramatic fashion.

“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather– is defecting to become my personal adjutant. There are a few things we can confirm to be sure of her sincerity, but I will take responsibility for her.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah blinked at her silently for several heavy heartbeats.

In both their heads a calculation of the circumstances seemed to play out.

Their facial expressions went through several increasingly darkening shifts.

“I guess we need to discuss what to do about her rank right? I have some ideas.”

Murati added this while nervously picking at her own tie and collar.

Speechless, Captain and Commissar both laid their heads against the table.

As if a wave of exhaustion had suddenly claimed their ability to stand.

Instantly, the room went silent, save for Murati laughing a bit, nervously still.

For several minutes the Captain and Commissar simply groaned in response.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.2]

A pair of dark-furred cat-like ears stood up straight and engaged in a subtle wiggling.

“I’m hearing an Imperial ship! Ritter-class Cruiser!” Fatima al-Suhar called out.

Several bridge officers stiffened up in their seats.

The Ritter-class encompassed quite a few ships that had given the Brigand and its guests substantial grief in recent events. The Aleksandr detected near the end of the battle for Kreuzung; the Greater Imbria that had chased Elena Lettiere out of her home; and worst of all, the Antenora, flagship of the fearsome Norn the Praetorian. Ritters were high-tech types of vessels that could fight toe to toe with the Brigand if not give it pause outright, with comparable 150 mm guns, secondary 76 mm guns, missiles, torpedoes, drones and Divers.

“Check for the IFF before getting nervous.” Olga Athanasiou said, in a blunt tone of voice.

There was a rare configuration of command on the bridge. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya was out taking care of ‘personnel issues’; Commissar Aaliyah Bashara joined her; and Premier Erika Kairos meeting the sailors and thus, also indisposed. Prior to their adventure in Kreuzung this should have made Murati the next-in-command on the bridge as First Officer.

Instead, Erika’s right-hand woman Olga Athanasiou was given the bridge, sitting in the big chair in her black hoodie and long casual pants, her pale hair tied up in a ponytail. This was more of a mercenary situation than the strict military regimentation the crew was used to.

On the main screen, a small Zachikova model appeared and nodded her head.

She pointed her round, tiny hand at waveform graph that appeared beside her little body.

“This signal perfectly matches the ‘Day Code’ given to us by Premier Kairos to identify the Volksarmee’s acoustic beacon IFF. I am certain that this is an allied vessel.” She said.

Olga smiled and leaned farther back in the Captain’s chair, putting her feet up.

“That’s the Rostock then. Helm, rendezvous with them. Signals, send an acoustic hail.”

“Yes ma’am!”

Kamarik and Semyonova worked as instructed, efficiently and without complaint.

“So– do you think she is ever going to learn our names?”

On the opposite side of the bridge from signals, Torpedo Officer Alex Geninov grumbled.

“Gamer, tis been but few moons since she joined our band. Silence your errant tongue.”

Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa whispered back with typical verbosity.

Olga sighed audibly at the two of them.

“Rejoice you two; I know your names, because you get scolded the most!” She said.

Fernanda shot Alex a glare as if to say ‘you got me in trouble again!’

Alex squirmed in her seat, under both Olga and Fernanda’s glowering expressions.

Even with Olga in the Captain’s chair, there could still be an air of familiarity.

Soon after, the National Volksarmee flagship answered the Brigand’s message. Within 30 minutes the two vessels closed enough to one another for laser-based communications. On the main screen, the Rostock came to loom massively within 50 meters of the Brigand in the otherwise empty-seeming, near-black landscape of Eisental. It was the first time since they had left Thassal Station that the Brigand was face to face with an Imperial model ship on assuredly friendly terms. Quite a unique image to be seeing in ultra-high resolution.

The Ritter-class, also known as the “Sword class,” resembled what its nickname suggested. The prow of the ship was sharp and roughly triangular, while the gently flared rear armor over the hydrojets resembled a sword’s handguard. Atop the slight curve of the top deck rested the main gun turret, its dual 150 mm barrels and their chunky drainage housings permanently engaged, unlike the Brigand’s retractable guns. But the Rostock had a few modifications. Most obviously, it had a livery, dark green with a red stripe running across the bow. In addition to the interdiction gas guns and the secondary 76 mm cannons, there were also additional jet anchor pods installed on the front and rear of the ship. Sixteen cells of vertical missile launchers were evident as well. How had Erika acquired such a vessel?

Olga always answered the same– that is a story for another day.

So the crew remained curious but nonetheless professional as they could be.

“Yeah, that’s her all right.” Olga said. “Accept the hail, Sig– Semyonova. Main screen.”

Semyonova smiled at Olga. “Yes ma’am. Right away.”

She promptly routed the communication from the Rostock to the main screen situated on the forebridge. After a few seconds a woman appeared, saluting the entire time, rendered massively in front of everyone due to the size of the main screen. Like Olga and Erika, the captain of the Rostock had the same rectangular horns coming out of the back of her head pointed up, barely visible from behind her peaked cap. Her skin was lightly pink with orange mottles visible around her neck. On her cap, there was a silver badge that had been evidently defaced, a crude star cut over whatever it had once represented. She dressed in a long red coat over black pants and a cut-off black top, and wore her dark blue hair quite long.

“Comrade Olga. Captain Daphne Triantafallos of the Rostock is reporting in.”

Her voice was serious and her enunciation was very deliberate.

Olga cracked a little grin upon seeing her.

“How have things been, Daphne? We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we’re going to have do it while on the move. It is going to be pretty annoying, you know, so get ready for that. But until Erika gets back from chatting, we can take it easy for a little bit.”

Rather than respond, Daphne glanced around.

From her vantage, she could see some of the Brigand’s bridge crew.

“These are Union soldiers, Olga?” Daphne asked.

“Indeed they are.” Olga replied dryly.

“To think– I will fight alongside the great liberators of the southern sea. It is my honor!”

Semyonova narrowed her eyes with confusion as Daphne adopted a more compliant tone.

“May I attend the Brigand for a spell in order to observe their operations? I’m sure we can learn something that will improve the Rostock’s efficiency!” Daphne said, with a little smile.

Olga laughed. “Sure, sure. We’ll have a lot of people coming and going.”

“Are we that special?” Geninov whispered, but not low enough–

“Have some faith, torpedoes!” Olga declared almost as quickly as Geninov spoke.

Geninov frowned, and there was some light giggling throughout the bridge at her expense.

On the leftmost edge of the main screen, beside Daphne, a second figure peeked into the picture. Daphne turned to acknowledge her and bid her to come closer and greet everyone. In the next instant, a round-faced and pretty young woman took the opportunity to jump in, cling very close to Daphne and fully enter the picture. Dressed in a plastic, hooded coat with numerous pockets that seemed like it had either been sloppily dyed red over or blue; or that it had faded from red with specks and streaks of blue dotting its surface. When she pulled her hood down, she rendered visible her brown hair, collected into a big braid. Her skin was a brownish-grey with spots of white, but most peculiarly, she had a single horn stretching from the top of her forehead, a few centimeters long before it was broken off. Big orange eyes and rosy cheeks, gave her a more girlish and soft appearance than Daphne’s sleek edges.

“Greetings everyone! I am Nomia Grammateas. I am Daphne’s adjutant. Nice to meet you all.”

She spoke in a voice so dulcet-soft she earned an easy comparison to Semyonova.

“You can catch up later.” Olga said. “Daphne, we should not stay put for much longer. We need to get the show moving. Pull the Rostock alongside us, we’ll synchronize navigation data. We can use shuttles or Divers to ferry personnel between the ships in motion.”

Daphne acknowledged with a shallow nod.

In a corner of the main screen, a camera picked up movement and brought up a picture-in-picture showing the ocean ahead of them and what had been detected. There was only one sight to see. The Rostock began to pull water through its jets again, leaving the area of the forward cameras to be picked up by side cameras. Slowly circling around the Brigand to face in its direction while maintaining a fifty meter distance from starboard. Olga ordered Kamarik to get the Brigand moving also; the two ships resumed their journey together.

Olga sat back in the Captain’s chair and shut her eyes for a moment.

She thought of the amount of work ahead of them before Aachen. They had to synchronize the data of both ships; come up with a slew of protocols for working together; collate a shared inventory; make communications routine enough that both crews became habituated to working together and making joint decisions; all of this just in the middle of the ocean while hurtling toward greater troubles. There would be even work at Aachen, and even more to do once they worked out any kind of plan against the Volkisch Movement.

As with all previous events that transpired– Olga simply grinned to herself.

There was a lot of toil ahead, and she would certainly complain.

But she was excited to be out of that stuffy Kreuzung station and back in the ocean.

In the ocean, where there was a fight, there was the possibility of change.

Victory or death.

Erika’s dream was one step closer to being realized.

And that was all that mattered to her. A world where Erika would not need to work.


At Dr. Kappel’s request, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya visited her clinic.

Of the many meetings on her schedule this would be the first.

She was grateful for the opportunity to put off the disciplinary meetings with Illya and Valeriya– and Zachikova and Arabella after them. She also had a meeting with Erika, Murati, Euphrates and Tigris to catch up on the events surrounding Arabella, the Omenseers, and “Psionics.” Then she had to finally reprimand Marina. Compared to all of those topics, talking to Homa Baumann, if not any lighter, would at least be easier to approach.

Ulyana walked into the clinic and made note that all of the disciplinary hearing subjects had already been collected from their beds by Akulantova and taken to the meeting place. Aaliyah was likely already there with them. There were a pair of sailors helpfully assisting in putting away the plastic screens that had been installed between each bed. It made the clinic look a lot less occupied. There was one barrier at the end that would not yet be moved.

Behind it was Homa Baumann.

(And Kalika Loukia, seated beside her and in the middle of conversation.)

Ulyana arrived swiftly, interrupting the two and introducing herself.

“Greetings, Homa Baumann. I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Let’s have a little chat.”

In her bed, Homa Baumann looked– small.

She was not necessarily a very short girl, and it was not necessarily because Ulyana herself was taller than average. Rather, Ulyana felt that Homa was making herself small, distant. She was nervous and closed off. Whether voluntarily or not, she seemed like she was shrinking back from Ulyana. Compared to when Ulyana had last seen her, when she was brought into the ship, Homa was cleaned up and healthier, her dark hair attaining a lively luster again, her eyes brighter. She was looking even skinnier than she did in Kreuzung, when she greeted Ulyana at the port. But she was eating again, so she would be restored in time.

“Do you recognize me, Homa? We actually met when my ship arrived at Kreuzung.”

Homa briefly glanced at Kalika and then back to Ulyana.

“Yes, I do recognize you.” Homa said. “I remember. The Pandora’s Box– I always knew you guys were shady.” She averted her gaze. “Two days ago– I had just been operated on and I was really freaked out. But I get it– I’ve ended up on a mercenary vessel. Isn’t that right?”

“Close. I suppose you could say that about our present situation.” Ulyana smiled.

Homa narrowed her eyes.

“Are you going to try talking in circles around it too?”

“No. I will tell you everything you want to know. Then you can decide whether to stay with us or part ways. So just ask. I can spare ten or twenty minutes. You can ask me anything.”

For a moment, Homa was warier than she had ever looked.

“What happens if you tell me your secrets and let me go, and I snitch to the Volkisch?”

Kalika sighed openly and put her biological hand over her face in response.

Ulyana smiled, because it was such a farcical proposition, and such a prickly response.

She was not threatened in the slightest.

This outburst came from a place of hurt.

“Nothing will happen to you. At least not by our hand.” Ulyana said. When she spoke her voice was gentle but firm. “You can go directly from our ship to the Gau office at Aachen. Nobody will stop you. You can say what you want to say to them, and certainly we may be inconvenienced by it, but more than likely you will end up being arrested by them and we will just escape and find another way to conduct our business. You have some lurid fantasies if you think I’m going to silence a helpless girl as a threat to our security. We operate just a bit more ethically than that. Besides, you hate the Volkisch too, don’t you?”

That final point was the most important one.

Knowing what Ulyana knew about the situation, made it much easier to sell things softly.

Had Homa been any more ambiguous– she may well have had to cover off the possibility.

But the sad, withdrawn girl in front of her was no threat to anyone right now.

She would not do anything to merit extreme measures.

“What makes you say that?” Homa said bitterly. “There’s a lot of Volkisch Shimii now.”

Homa could not meet her eyes. She had never once looked at Ulyana directly as they spoke.

Poor girl. Her voice was trembling. Her state made Ulyana’s heart quiver with pity.

“You fought them in Kreuzung. You killed them too. You threw yourself right at them.”

At the sound of the word ‘killed’ Homa seemed to flinch and stare down at her own lap.

“Homa. Please. Nobody will hurt you.” Kalika finally interrupted.

She reached out a hand to comfort her– and Homa gently shied away from it.

“It’s not that.” Homa said. Partially through gritted teeth. Her hand clutching her blanket.

“Homa,” Ulyana said, believing it was time to just put everything on the table with finality, “I’m a Captain of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s Navy.” She waited a moment for Homa to draw her eyes wide. “You may have heard of us referred to as rebels or bandits; but we are communist soldiers and we have not come here to plunder or enrich ourselves. We are here to help the people of Eisental to resist the Volkisch Movement.”

“The Union?” Homa said. Her lips quivered. “So you’re not mercenaries. You’re real soldiers.”

Her initial shock seemed to quickly abate, but she still could not lift her eyes from the bed.

“Before either mercenaries or soldiers, we’re all communists.” Ulyana said. She bent over slightly to try to get closer to capturing Homa’s eyes. Homa continued to avoid her gaze. “We don’t want to cause you unneeded suffering, Homa. When we dock at Aachen, no matter what, you will have a chance to leave. But we know that you fought the Volkisch at Kreuzung. If you are opposed to their injustices, then we can be your allies in that regard.”

Homa narrowed her eyes. Her ears folded. She looked more conflicted than before.

“You don’t have to make any decision right now.” Ulyana said. “You don’t even have to decide when we get to Aachen. Take your time and think about it. Staying with us will put you in a lot of danger– but as long as you remain here, we will feed you and take care of you. You’re not the only guest we have. We don’t have infinite capacity but we can certainly help you. We’re not in the habit of abandoning innocent girls to the elements. We will not make you fight either, so you do not have to worry about that. You can still do what you want with yourself. But if you want to leave, you can leave. We’ll do our best to assist you.”

Homa bowed her head. Her hair fell messily over her face, enough to cover her eyes.

“Why?” Homa asked. “I don’t understand why– why would you be like this? Didn’t one of you look at the data from my machine? I was afraid you wanted me to fight. So– why–?”

Ulyana suppressed a laugh.

She must have gotten wind of Murati’s thoughtless intentions.

“I’ll tell Murati Nakara off if she gets too excited. I am not recruiting you Homa.”

“I don’t understand!” Homa cried out. “Why would you be this accommodating? I’m just some nobody! No, even worse– I’m just a big target now! I killed Volkisch back at Kreuzung. I killed dozens– no, hundreds of them! So I’m a murderer and a criminal! They’ll find me and hunt me down and make me pay! Meanwhile I’ll just take up space, eat your food, and you’re even giving me a free surgery. I don’t understand why you would do any of this for me!”

Homa had made her own voice crack several times. She was losing control.

Ulyana tried to reassure her again.

“We are doing this much for you– because it’s right, Homa. Because causing you harm or neglecting you is the senseless, needless option.” Her calm gaze met Homa’s impassioned eyes directly for the very first time in their conversation. “Because I couldn’t live with myself throwing you out of this ship knowing you have no means to sustain yourself. Because what is convenient for me is not what is right or just for the world. That is why, Homa. We can adjust the rations; we can get more medicines; we can move around people so you can have a place to sleep. But we rescued you; we have a responsibility to help you!”

That screaming which had shaken itself out of her chest seemed to leave Homa hollow.

“I– I–” Homa began to weep. “I see. I see. I– I don’t have any more questions. Sorry.”

She turned suddenly in bed, wrapping herself in her blankets, turning her back and sobbing.

Ulyana looked at Kalika, silently requesting her input.

Kalika shook her head and made a waving hand gesture as if to say ‘go, I’ve got this.’

Ulyana nodded back.

She turned her own back on Homa’s bed for now and walked away.

In her years as a Captain she had built up some experience dealing with traumas like this.

And she herself had a complete breakdown too– after the Pravda incident in the Union.

Back then she had completely blamed herself for the accident.

For the sinking of the newest Union dreadnought and the loss of hundreds of lives.

Ulyana knew the sound of those words that Homa spoke against herself.

Blame and self-hatred and confusion. After the Pravda sank, the questions would torment her mind for years. “Why did I live when others lost their lives?” “Where did I go wrong?” “How can I keep living like this?” To silence those voices, Ulyana drank and fucked and retreated from the world. She ignored her friends and shouted and spat at any stranger who tried to drag her back or to give her a way out. Only Nagavanshi succeeded.

She saw so much herself in Homa that it was almost painful to bear witness to it.

Ulyana had grown too, however. She was not still the woman of mere months ago.

For a woman in her mid-30s, the last few months had done the work of years.

Overcoming had been slow– but she forgave herself.

She would not avert her gaze from Homa. She had to meet that girl’s eyes at her level.

She also knew that trying too hard to help could become its own torture for poor Homa.

Instead Ulyana hoped that Homa would slowly accept the everyday kindness of living on the ship and come to a decision for herself. Exposed to the frequent and unexceptional kindness that everyone on the Brigand would receive in their time of need. She hoped that given the right opportunities to fight her own helplessness, Homa would take them and it would build her spirits back up, so that she felt like she had found her own power and purpose again.

That was what the Brigand and its mission, had done for Ulyana herself.

Ulyana had learned to forgive herself for the Pravda.

All she wanted for Homa, was that she could forgive herself for her own tragedy.

At least Kalika had put herself at Homa’s dispensation. Having a friend would help.

There was not much Ulyana could do. She walked out of the clinic feeling ambivalent.

Walking slowly through the hall to have a moment’s peace to decompress.

Before all of the exhausting meetings about to come.

“Homa Baumann is the least of my problems.” Ulyana said to herself.

Still– that meeting had been nowhere near as simple as she had hoped it would be.

People could hurt so badly– in every piece of them, the cruel Imbrium could put a scratch.

Just like the Brigand itself, sailing immaculate before being patched up over and over.

All Ulyana could do was keep patching, to keep the water out.

Several doors down the hall, her next problem awaited in a nondescript meeting room.

There was a table, some chairs, the blue walls, nothing exceptional or different.

Akulantova at the door; Aaliyah waiting on the other end of the room, alone.

And between them, Illya Rostova, her arms crossed; and Valeriya Peterburg, avoiding eyes.

Perhaps one of her most dangerous set of problems.

“Have they been behaving?” Ulyana asked upon walking in.

“They know better than to piss me off worse than they already have.” Akulantova replied.

Her voice was gruffer than usual. She was more unreservedly blunt to these two.

Neither Illya nor Valeriya made a sound despite being mentioned so roughly.

Ulyana walked around them and took a seat next to Aaliyah.

“Are we ready to begin, Captain?” She asked.

“We have to be.” Ulyana said. She meet Aaliyah’s eyes– her Commissar looked wary too.

Together, the two of them faced Illya and Valeriya on the other side of the table.

“Let’s cut the bullshit.” Ulyana said immediately. Aaliyah’s ears stood on end. “You two don’t respect me or Chief Akulantova. You are probably laughing to yourselves because Akulantova values human lives and I was just an ordinary ship Captain. You probably don’t respect Aaliyah because she’s ‘just’ a Commissar too. Am I wrong? You believe your special forces clique are the center of the universe don’t you? That you are all above the law?”

“Captain–!” Aaliyah gasped with surprise.

Ulyana did not draw her eyes away from Illya.

Even Akulantova had her eyes drawn wide at the Captain’s aggression.

Illya raised her eyes from the table, her icy gaze meeting Ulyana’s passion.

“Dead wrong.” Illya said. “I believe no such things, Captain.”

“Then I misread you. I sincerely apologize. Let us put it behind us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand to shake. Illya looked at it and quizzically returned the gesture.

Neither of the two made any sort of show of their hand shaking.

Just an ordinary firm shake. As if nobody had shouted.

When their hands retracted, Ulyana crossed her arms. She let out a breath.

“Tell me why you and Valeriya left the ship without authorization, in full combat gear.”

Illya shut her eyes. “To rescue Zachikova.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Do you think I would have forbid her rescue?” Ulyana said.

“I worried you might put the mission ahead of a single crew member.” Illya replied.

“And you wouldn’t?”

“I don’t leave people behind if I can help it.”

“People, writ large– or people, as in just your former squadron?”

“We would have done the same. For you.”

Valeriya finally spoke up in the middle of them. She was covering her mouth with her hand and would not make eye contact with anyone. Both of them were dressed in the Treasure Box uniforms, and Valeriya was not given her tactical mask back to wear. So she was covering her face and speaking from behind her fingers. While Illya’s body language was firm and determined, Valeriya looked shaken and unable to hold her gaze on anything.

Despite this, she spoke up when she needed to.

Ulyana sighed. These two weren’t necessarily ill intentioned– just difficult.

Difficult girls whose history Ulyana was not allowed to know.

For the first time Ulyana felt that it would be difficult to make friends here.

She had to be the boss, rather than the inspirational figure or the ship dad.

“You misjudged me as well, Illya Rostova. In that situation, I would not have abandoned Zachikova. Our mission has paramount importance, of course– but I need my crew to complete my mission. I need Zachikova, you, and Valeriya. More than that– I am responsible for you. It would take the most dire circumstances for me to abandon you.”

For the first time, Valeriya briefly glanced at Ulyana directly.

“It’s my responsibility– what we did.” Illya said, raising her voice as if hoping to center all attention on herself. Meeting Ulyana’s eyes while reaching out a hand and gripping Valeriya’s shoulder to comfort her. “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I own up to it. You’re partially right, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I do not know you as a Captain. So I would rather break a few plates, and be yelled at, and learn my lesson, than lose my chance. So I went out and brought back Zachikova. Because she was a comrade– and friend. So I just broke the plates.”

“Does this mean henceforth you will correct your behavior?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes.” Illya said. “Next time this happens, I’ll follow protocol and trust you.”

“We’ve been pretty speedy decision-makers when it has mattered. We could have avoided a lot of trouble.” Ulyana said. “Anyway. Let me be clear about where we stand. You are all valuable members of my crew. I have decided to punish you, and the punishment has been decided too. But I will expect both of you to continue doing your jobs, and to perform with excellence. I expect you to follow orders. You want those guns out of their lockers, you request it from the Chief. You have a situation, you report it to me or to the Commissar– or hell, even Murati! We just can’t afford to be completely in the dark. You had that scuffle with Ahwalia, and now this. You will learn to cooperate with others properly. That is the only thing you are missing. You must recognize that you are part of my team. Understood?”

“Yes, Captain.” Illya said. “I intended no disrespect. I am not trying to subvert command.”

“Good. And while you intended no disrespect, you disrespected me nonetheless.”

“I apologize, Captain. I will do whatever it takes to rectify the situation.”

“Just do your job. Do it right. Look at Klara and Lian for examples.”

Illya seemed to bristle ever so slightly at that suggestion, but said nothing more.

Maybe she was a good girl after all.

Ulyana turned to Valeriya and spoke to her directly.

In that instant Illya looked more alarmed for a moment.

“You care about Illya quite deeply. But don’t just do whatever she tells you. I want you to be able to exercise your own judgment and rein her in if you must. Are we clear?”

Valeriya nodded her head quietly. It was difficult to be firm with her.

“Good. You two have demonstrated a lot of skill– I will be needing you. So shape up!”

The Captain turned her attention back to Illya and smiled.

“Now, let bygones be bygones, agree to do better next time– and accept your punishment.”

From a corner of the Akulantova, who also had a grin on her face, picked up a box.

She dropped the box in the middle of the table between Illya and Ulyana and chuckled.

“You are all cordially invited to café Last Resort Rations. Three meals a day, two weeks.”

Ulyana opened the plastic box to unveil several compressed bricks of food vacuum packed in transparent wrappers. Each of them had a sticker with the packing date, fall-off date and the name of the item. She held up one which was a muddy dark color and had specks of green within it. It was evident through the packaging that the brick was dense and crumbly.

“Look! Soy sauce cabbage congee! Amazing!” Ulyana said, putting on a sadistic smile.

Aaliyah picked one up and showed it off with the exact same expression as Ulyana.

“And here we have red rice with beans and peppers. Scrumptious.” Aaliyah said.

“But we’re not monsters here. You’ll also have water from your rooms, and one of these.”

Ulyana produced from the ration box a tiny two-piece alcohol stove, a pack of fuel tablets for the portable stove and a little steel cup. An entire portable mess kit for survival use.

“You can bite straight into the food bar, or you can dissolve the contents into a little stew.”

“Three a day.” Aaliyah added. “We will be checking in on you to make sure you eat them. If you even as much as look at Minardo’s cooking we have some creative ideas to make this worse, so it’s best to steel yourselves for it now. While you eat, think about what you’ve done and the social contract for being on this ship. I don’t care how classified or not the two of you are; you’re under the Captain’s command and my supervision. End of story.”

Enjoying herself far too much, Ulyana pulled out a third bar and waved it gleefully.

“Straight out of our old homeland: buckwheat with mushrooms and algae!”

Aaliyah followed her, producing a fourth block. “Homestyle tofu rice with green onion.”

“I get it, I get it.” Illya said. “We’ll eat out of the box and be good girls from now on.”

Valeriya nodded her head alongside Illya.

Even she looked a bit more amused than before at the nature of the punishment.

“Did you think we were going to vent you of an airlock?” Ulyana asked.

“No, more like shoot me in front of the crew as an example.” Illya said.

“We’re not putting that entirely off the table on a repeat offense.” Aaliyah replied.

Now it was Ulyana’s turn to look momentarily shocked at her Commissar’s aggression.

Off to the side of the table, Akulantova made a face and averted her eyes.

Illya and Valeriya looked completely unphased by the comment.

“Well– I suppose that is most of what needed to be said on this topic.” Ulyana said trying to fill in the sudden silence, and wanting to move on to her next meeting. “Illya and Valeriya; we will be monitoring you more closely from now on. I want us to have a better relationship. My style of leadership is that I want to trust that everyone working for me is an adult with an ethical compass who can do their job correctly and communicate well. I am grateful that you were able to bring Zachikova and Arabella back safely. But you have shaken my trust in you — needlessly — and it will need to be rebuilt. But I want to believe in you two.”

Illya nodded her head. “Acknowledged. I will endeavor toward excellence, Captain.”

“See that you do.” Ulyana said. “Is there anything more you want to tell me?”

“Actually, there is, Captain. There is something you can do for me.”

Ulyana awaited for Illya to explain– instead she got up from her chair.

Akulantova stiffened up– Aaliyah was about to shout for her to sit until dismissed–

But everyone quieted when Illya kneeled beside Valeriya, taking her hand.

“Valeriya Peterburg, will you marry me?”

In that moment, Valeriya’s eyes drew wider open than Ulyana had ever seen them.

She was rendered perhaps more speechless than usual.

“I want to take care of you forever. I never want to leave your side.” Illya continued. “So much has happened to you for following me all of this time. For every one of my horrid decisions, you have supported me. At my every lowest point, you have been forced to watch me struggle to stand. Whenever I falter, you are forced to save me. When we were in the middle of a firefight again, I trusted you with my life, but I was– I was so deeply afraid for yours. I can’t pretend like this will make up for everything, but it’s a real commitment I can make to you right now. I want to spend the rest of my life treating you like a queen, Valeriya.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana stared in mute surprise. They glanced at each other helplessly.

Valeriya lifted her hand from over her mouth– she was smiling, a little bit.

“Y-Yes. Thank you.” She whimpered, her voice lower than ever.

Her eyes glinted with a hint of tears. But she was smiling, happier than ever.

From her kneeling position, Illya turned to face the others.

“As soon as possible I want this to be completely official. The Commissar is a communist party official, so she can notarize; and the Captain and Akulantova are our two witnesses. We have cohabitated for years. I want to marry her. You don’t have to put me on any lists for bigger rooms or whatever the fuck– just fill out the form for us. Please.”

Illya sounded far more serious than she had been during the entire conversation before.

This meant even more to her than her life, Ulyana thought.

These two– they really were very difficult women. But very tender too.

Aaliyah sighed. “I’ll add your paperwork to my unending list of things that need doing.”

“Thank you, Commissar, Captain, Chief.” Illya said. “Truly. Thank you for everything.”

“You two are always the biggest pain in my ass.” Akulantova said. “Congratulations.”

“Congratulations.” Ulyana said, helpless to add anything more substantial.

“Congratulations.” Aaliyah added in a monotone voice.

All of the reluctance in the world had taken residence in her. She was nearly shaking.

Regardless, there was a confession and everyone accepted it.

Illya and Valeriya stood up, and Valeriya threw her arms around Illya without hesitation.

In return, Illya kissed her with her own unreserved passion, the audience be damned.

Neither of them stretched out the scene any further. After the kiss, they were dismissed.

Illya took the box of rations and carried it, beside an uncharacteristically smiley Valeriya.

Akulantova watched them go with a critical expression, jaw twitching with irritation.

And so concluded that piece of business.

“Well,” Ulyana said, “Never knew this whole mess would end in a wedding. Fun, huh?”

Aaliyah stared sidelong at Ulyana, frowning, her arms crossed, seated back on her chair.

“Personally, I must express disapproval. But administratively, I will comply.” She said.

Ulyana laid a hand on her shoulder with a smile. “That’s our charming Commissar.”

“Hmph.” Aaliyah’s ears folded, but she did not shake Ulyana’s hand off her shoulder.


Another meeting room door opened in the wake of the Captain and Commissar.

Seated across the table from Arabella and Zachikova this time. Both of them out of their hospital beds and back in uniform. Arabella had been retrieved with some truly grisly wounds, and had recovered exceptionally. However, ever since she was brought aboard she had refused to take on any color in her skin or hair. A pale girl with completely white hair and pale eyes, even the once flush and vascular tips of her horns were stark white.

Meanwhile Zachikova was still quite herself, but she was nursing a serious injury to her leg and sat on a wheelchair during the meeting. For once she had an emotion on her face.

She looked nervous.

As soon as Ulyana and Aaliyah took their seats across the table, Arabella bowed her head.

She bowed so low that her hair covered her face. Aaliyah sighed.

They heard her sob but could not see her tears.

“I apologize for the danger I brought upon all of you. I am so deeply sorry.” Arabella said.

Zachikova remained quiet, her hands on her lap with the fingers curled into fists.

“We are still almost completely in the dark about what this danger was,” Aaliyah said, “and about your role in it,” she then turned to face Zachikova, “and why you snuck out to go after her without telling anybody. More than punishing anyone, we need to understand the circumstances. We can leave some things to a report, but I want a motive.”

Zachikova raised her eyes from the table and met Aaliyah and Ulyana’s gazes.

“She went missing and I had a feeling she was in danger. So I went after her.” She said.

“When a crew member goes missing, Braya Zachikova, we form a rescue party, and then we know where everyone is, what they are doing, and we can coordinate them. When we work together we have a much higher chance of bringing everyone back safely!”

“I had an emotional response.” Zachikova said. Averting her eyes.

“It’s not that I can’t sympathize with that. We are all emotional on this ship.” Ulyana said, entering the discussion. “But when another crew member’s life is on the line, we need to temper our emotions with rationality. We can’t act on pure impulse. There is always enough time to make sure the crew knows what you are doing and can back you up. Zachikova, the way you decided to do this could have jeopardized your life, that of Arabella, and Illya and Valeriya, who also went after you in secret. You could have all died without us ever knowing where you were, or what had happened to you. Akulantova had to run out to find you! You should thank her for your lives. We can’t allow this to repeat ever again.”

Zachikova paused to think for a moment.

But even she seemed frustrated with her own response when next she spoke.

“I understand perfectly well. It’s not like me– but Arabella isn’t like anyone else to me.”

“It was my fault.” Arabella interrupted. “Please do not chastise Braya.”

“I must chastise her.” Ulyana said. “Because she knows better than to have done this.”

“I know– but what I mean is, I called out to her in a panic. I called out to her to save me.”

“You’re talking about psionics, aren’t you?” Ulyana said.

Betraying a sudden weariness.

Arabella nodded her head. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms.

“Zachikova heard my psionic screaming. That’s the reason she came after me.” Arabella said.

“You don’t have to make excuses for me. I made my own decision.” Zachikova said.

“Let her talk.” Ulyana said. “Arabella. Why did you run away in the first place?”

Arabella looked utterly defeated as she spoke.

They could barely see her face and she was weeping.

“When you came back from your meetings with the United Front groups, I caught the scent on you– the scent of some awful people of my own kind. They are known as Enforcers of the Syzygy. They are brutal and they disdain hominins. I was terrified that they were plotting to trick you and kill everyone here. I felt that I needed to go after them– that only I could do it– in order to protect Braya and all of you. I prepared for a few days by gathering my old memories and then I escaped to go after them. Perhaps it was also the hunger– pushing me into conflict with them. But ultimately, I did what I did. It was reckless and useless. I did enormous damage to my mind and body, and betrayed your trust, for nothing.”

“Have we really just not engendered any trust in you all?” Ulyana said sternly.

Somehow, she felt more saddened that nobody reported to her when they were in need.

Perhaps because that was something easier to grasp than the rest.

“You caught the scent of your kind on us?” Aaliyah asked. “So we met with Omenseers?”

Arabella nodded her head.

“So these Enforcers you mentioned– we can rule out Erika and her troops, or Arabella would have made her scene on the ship rather than vacated it. We can also rule out the demsocs, since Gloria was not physically present but Orlan is on the ship and getting along–” Ulyana felt her heart beat faster. She recalled the strange behavior of the anarchists, utterly false in their ideology and confessing that they believed some bizarre theories.

“It was Zozia and Ksenia then.” She finally said. The Imbrium was cruel indeed.

“I might be able to describe their hominin likenesses for you.” Arabella said.

“So you were not successful in eliminating them.” Aaliyah said.

“I’m afraid not.” Arabella said. “They almost killed me. I wasn’t strong enough.”

“Then we’ll be running into them again at Aachen.” Ulyana said gravely.

Aaliyah’s tail stood up straight. “We need more info– how do we even respond to this?”

“Arabella, are you okay with telling us all of this? You don’t have to do this.”

Zachikova spoke up in defense of Arabella. Aaliyah shot her a furious look.

Ulyana laid her hand on Aaliyah’s shoulder and shook her head to stop her going further.

“Zachikova. Arabella saved our lives back at Goryk. We deferred prying into her affairs back then. But now we need more information. We are not doing this out of convenience– if we want to protect her from her enemies, who clearly meant her harm, then she has to work with us. She can’t keep going around behind our backs anymore. Do you understand?”

In response, Zachikova quieted and averted her gaze. Arabella held her hand briefly.

“It’s okay, Braya.” Arabella said. She put on a brave face.

Facing an Ulyana trying her damnedest to smile, and Aaliyah’s fiercely skeptical eyes.

Arabella began to speak, and she told Ulyana and Aaliyah something new.

“My name is Arabella– it is what I was originally called. Arbitrator I– that was something my sister made up. Her name was Caderis– now Arbitrator II.” Arabella began. Then her tone grew impassioned, and the things she said made both Aaliyah and Ulyana stare fixedly. “My sister and I were created as weapons. Biological weapons. By people up there.” She pointed at the ceiling. She clearly meant the surface. Ulyana and Aaliyah followed where her finger pointed with wide-eyed confusion. “They used DNA from the original Omenseers to make us. We were meant to be extremely adaptable weapons that could be used to control the hominins. Hominins were more scared than ever, and fighting each other, and the world was in a truly horrid shape. When I was born, the sky was already purple. ‘Biomechanoids’– as they called us– did not need fuel or munitions, and we could repair ourselves– and we derived our fighting energy from the most abundant resource left in the world. Expendable, infinitely replaceable hominins. We could kill them, eat them, and then kill more.”

Ulyana could hardly believe what she was hearing. She did not know how she could reply.

Or at least, that was her snap reaction.

After a few moments she realized the world had been overturned and made a farce in front of her eyes so many times already. She could believe almost anything after she overcame her initial shock. Then again– judging by Homa’s reaction, to her, communism was as incomprehensible as the idea of talking to a surface world bioweapon. So perhaps musing on the weirdness of the particulars here was nothing but good old human emotion.

Aaliyah did not raise her voice to interrupt either.

She had her arms crossed, she had her eyes to the table. Mulling over as Arabella spoke.

Hearing no interruptions, Arabella caught her breath, continued– but quickly deteriorated.

“I wish I could tell you more– about my self or Caderis or the original ancient peoples. I wasn’t lying when I said it takes me some time to remember my memories. I’m sorry. It’s because I’m not a real person– I believe you are all real people, and I’m a fake person. Back then– the hominins came up with the idea that there were ‘Genuine Human Beings’ who had to survive. But I’m not one of those– because Genuine Human Beings have a normal brain, and they have a soul too and God loves them. I’m a ‘Biomechanoid’– I’m only conscious because of a DNA computer inside me. Not because I’m a person. And–” Arabella grew more distraught as she spoke. Zachikova started to look at her with clear distress. But she also did not interrupt. She seemed as shocked as everyone else. Arabella looked like she had to make a physical effort to control her stuttering and complete her sentences again. “I know it must sound dumb, and I’m really sorry! But I broke the computer! I wanted to get all of the data blocks out of it and read them again but I was careless and now I can’t remember half the things I should know anymore. Back then– I put them all away, because I was scared of everything and I wanted to run away! But then when I wanted to be brave all of the blocks are broken and I cannot read them now! I’m really sorry! Now I’m useless to everyone!”

“Arabella, please calm down!” Ulyana said. She reached out and held both of Arabella’s hands in her own, giving her knuckles a gentle squeeze with her thumbs. “It may be cold comfort to you– you have experienced things we can’t possibly imagine– but I believe you are a human being! Humanity is more than just your biology. You’re human to me– I care about you.”

Hands smashed down on the table from beside Arabella.

“And it doesn’t matter if she isn’t a human being!” Zachikova said suddenly. Angrier and more emotional than she ever had been. She stole one of Arabella’s hands from Ulyana and held it herself. Arabella turned to look at her, Zachikova with her cybernetic eyes that still wept, her brain implants and her antennae-like ears. “Humans aren’t the only things worthy of existing in the world and having their lives respected! I know– I know what it is like to not feel human. Arabella, you don’t have to be ‘a person’– you’re important to me! To hell with the computer too! You’re more than the data some bastards left behind! I don’t care about it!”

“Braya–” Arabella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry– I broke it– I’m–”

“I told you before. I need you. You’re not useless– never say that again. Never.”

Zachikova squeezed her hand.

Arabella shut her eyes and smiled. She took in a deep breath.

“Thank you. I won’t say it again Braya. I won’t say it again. I’m so sorry.”

Both of them wept and held each other’s hands and fixed their gazes.

Intertwining fingers, tearful smiles.

Ulyana could have almost cried herself.

Zachikova had changed a good bit since the Brigand had set out too.

She had found the person who, in the entire ocean, brought out her warmest feelings.

“Arabella, we’re not here to torture an innocent girl for information.” Aaliyah said, piercing the silence that had befallen the room as the lovers comforted each other. Ulyana could see that it was taking her some effort to hold her own passions in the midst of all of this emotion. “I can understand that with the trauma and injury you’ve suffered, which would have killed any ordinary person, you are unable to recall what has– apparently– been an incredibly long life’s worth of complicated information. I’m not going to insist on wringing your memories out of your mind. The Captain is correct– before we are military officers, we are communists. For now, try not to stress out over your lost memories.”

Arabella looked from Zachikova over to Aaliyah and wiped her tears.

Her eyes shut–

and in an instant, her skin flushed, turning a light brown with a slight pinkness.

Color surged across her skin like a time-lapse of a flower blooming. Her hair became dark purple-blue, shrunk to back-length, with somewhat disorderly bangs. When she reopened her eyes they had become blue and purple as well. Her horns glowed with thin purple veins. She gave off a very different kind of presence. No longer slouching and defeated.

As her lover had found her warmest feelings; Arabella found her colors again.

Zachikova stared speechless at the rapid transformation, still holding Arabella’s hand.

Arabella squeezed that hand with a fond expression on her face.

She suddenly looked much more like herself.

“Thank you, Commissar, Captain. I’ve been a lot of trouble, but– I won’t run away again. I promise. Even if my brain is more scrambled than ever, I know what is important.” Arabella said. Her tone started wistful but slowly became firmer again. “You are all so incredibly kind to me. I feel ashamed of what has happened. I will take responsibility for myself. I want to protect Braya. I want to protect her friends too. I will do whatever you say, Captain.”

“Arabella– you don’t have to–” Zachikova began to speak, but Ulyana interrupted.

“You’re not going to reject her determination, are you? She’s trying to move forward.”

Ulyana smiled. Zachikova narrowed her eyes and grunted but then quieted.

She averted her gaze but then found herself looking at Arabella, who was also smiling.

Zachikova seemed trapped between the two of them and bodily relented.

“Fine. I’ll be there every moment, anyway, so I needn’t worry.”

“You really are getting emotional huh?” Aaliyah interjected teasingly.

“We’re not treating her like equipment.” Ulyana said. Also teasing the self-described ‘robot’.

“Captain, you know how I feel about that already, so please just drop it.” Zachikova said.

“Alright, alright.” Ulyana said, smiling.

Aaliyah crossed her arms and stared at the table, shaking her head.

“I was already planning on doing so, but we need to have Maharapratham look at her.”

“Maharapratham?” Arabella said. “That’s the mushroom lady right?”

“She would be so upset at you calling her the mushroom lady.” Ulyana said, amused.

“She’s our resident scientist and lab technician.” Aaliyah said sternly. “She was supposedly a wunderkind at the academy– even has two degrees supposedly. Recent events got me thinking that with Arabella’s cooperation and consent, Maharapratham might be able to learn more about Arabella’s kind through lab tests. I think it is worth trying.”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova expecting an overprotective comment in response.

But Arabella also turned to Zachikova after hearing Aaliyah’s suggestion, smiling brightly.

The attention of the two women caused Zachikova to wither, silently disgruntled.

“Braya, would you be okay with your mate becoming a science experiment again?”

Arabella smiled again in the silly way she once used to address the world around her.

As if to remind everyone that this purple-haired, darker-skinned version was still herself.

“Do what you want.” Zachikova grunted. “But I want to be included in the project too.”

“It’s settled then. I’ll inform Maharapratham. It’ll have to be later– I’ll have to catch her up on all of this.” Aaliyah said, gesturing around herself. “In the mean, Zachikova, you will assist in gathering Arabella’s testimony. Compile all intelligence about the Kreuzung Omenseers into a detailed report. That way when we get to Aachen we can more easily disseminate information to the Volksarmee about the fake anarchists to keep everyone safe.”

“Sounds good. Just one more agenda item on the unending pile.” Ulyana sighed.

“Don’t forget we’re also punishing them.” Aaliyah said. “Go on and punish them, Captain.”

“Punishing us?” Zachikova said, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh that’s right! I almost forgot. You’re going to eat nasty food for a week.” Ulyana said.

Ulyana got up from the meeting room table, ready to show the pair a packaged ration–

“Whatever. I don’t care. I’m not even sure if Arabella can taste food normally anyway.”

Zachikova deflated the performance before Ulyana could even put down the ration box.

“I’ll eat anything for Braya! No matter how gross! She was going to eat a man for me!”

Arabella called out in solidarity. Zachikova flinched and stared daggers at her in turn.

Out of surprise and consternation, Ulyana dropped the ration box on the table with a thud.

“Wait! She was going to do what?! Back up! Say that again?!” Aaliyah shouted.

Ulyana felt her poor pitiable heart start banging up a storm again inside of her chest.

“Let’s– Let’s just leave that– for the official report Zachikova will be writing for us.”

“No–” Aaliyah said, her voice sounding distant and distraught. “I need to know now.”

“I’d– I’d really rather not today. I’d really rather just read about it later.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah and Ulyana gave each other the most haunted gazes they had ever shared.

“It better be in the report.” Aaliyah said, staring at Zachikova. “It better be in the report.”

“God damn it.” Zachikova grit her teeth. “I didn’t eat anyone. I was trying to feed her.”

Realizing too late what she had just said, Zachikova suddenly shrank further in her chair.

Arabella was all smiles, as if the atmosphere in the room had not become a thunder cloud.

“It better in the report.” Aaliyah said again, dangerously. “I’ll be– displeased– if it isn’t.”

Ulyana, similarly shaken by what she had heard insinuated, supported the Commissar.

“You better write an entire novel explaining what happened in grotesque detail.” She said.

“I’ll type everything up. I’m really sorry.” Zachikova said. “You’ll know everything.”

“Two weeks eating the bricks.” Aaliyah said suddenly, raising her fingers in a V-shape. “Don’t even think about going near the cafeteria. Or I’ll make you wish you were a cannibal.”

“Yes ma’am.” Zachikova said. She had never sounded so compliant as she did right then.

In Ulyana’s eyes everything was a surreal blur and in her ears words rang distant.

Zachikova and Arabella were ultimately ushered out of the meeting room by Akulantova.

While Ulyana and Aaliyah stayed, staring at the metal table surface and middle distance.

“Well. I guess– actually, is there even something in the regulations about–?”

“Please, Ulyana. Just. Please.” Aaliyah put her head down on the table.

Ulyana reached to stroke her ears gently.

They stayed together for fifteen minutes, sighing, before the next meeting.


Euphrates waved with a sunny smile as if she had not a care in the world.

“So compared to the rest of your day, how easy do you think this one will be?”

“Don’t even joke about it. If I wasn’t the Captain I’d call in sick tomorrow.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah wearily sat down in an even smaller room than before with even more people than ever. It was their most familiar meeting room yet. Because it was the room they worked out of the most, during their stay in Kreuzung. While the two of them looked quite worse for wear, the rest of the participants seemed quite fresh. Euphrates in her spiffy sportcoat, her shoulder length messy blue hair having just barely met one more comb than usual; Tigris in brown overalls and a long-sleeved white shirt, her red hair tied into a long ponytail, without a drop of grease on her; Erika Kairos, sharp as ever, her coat and business attire pristine and her smoke-blue hair silky and shiny; her companion Olga, her feet up on the desk, wearing a black hoodie and long, tough pants, her white hair collected into a ponytail framed by her horns; and Murati Nakara in a uniform worn perfectly, shoulder-length hair disorderly, having grown out a bit since the start of their journey.

“Wait, who has the bridge right now?” Aaliyah asked.

“Kalika is up there, don’t worry.” Erika said. “Homa Baumann is sleeping.”

She added the last detail with a little grin.

“She’s really taken to that kid huh? I didn’t know she could be so nice.” Olga replied.

“She can be a bit tetchy about politics, but she’s not heartless.” Erika said.

Once everyone was gathered and seated, Ulyana and Aaliyah took a moment to compose themselves before diving into the meeting’s topics. Since Ulyana felt she would leave any meeting with Arabella having more questions in mind than answers in her pocket, she had requested that Euphrates and Tigris meet with her directly afterward for a session to discuss the session. Euphrates was amenable to more discussion surrounding the Omenseers and suggested they also review what Murati had learned about psionics so far.

“We now convene the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff.’” Ulyana said.

“Take it seriously.” Aaliyah sighed.

“How should we begin?” Euphrates asked. “Anything on your mind, Captain?”

There was so much on her mind it was hard to narrow it down. “By any chance, are you familiar with DNA-based computers?” Ulyana asked. “We just got done talking to Arabella and she claims her consciousness is in the form of a computer inside her that is now broken, so her amnesia won’t recover. I’m inclined to believe her– if she meant us harm, she would have caused her ruckus inside of the ship rather than sneaking out. But does that mean every ‘Omenseer’ is also some kind of flesh computer? Can her ‘data’ be recovered?”

“Tigris, any ideas?” Euphrates said suddenly, smiling at her companion.

Tigris had her arms crossed and her head down and looked surprised to be addressed.

“Why the hell are you asking me? I work with machines not with meat.”

Euphrates shrugged comically. “There you are, Captain. I’m afraid it’s beyond us.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know anything! Idiot! You agreed to this meeting!”

Erika raised her hand as if in a classroom.

Ulyana was surprised to see her interject. Having access to the Brigand’s classified operational data for a few days already, Erika knew at least as much about Omenseers and psionics as they did. She had been included in the meeting on a purely informational capacity– their political leader should just be aware of these ‘classified’ subjects. There was no expectation she would have information of her own to share about the situation.

Instead the Premier smiled mischeviously once she was given the room.

“I am here to make an important disclosure– which is why I brought Olga.” Erika said.

“I’m an Omenseer.” Olga said suddenly, crossing her arms and averting her gaze.

Everyone else in the room turned reflexively to stare at Erika and Olga.

“What? You’re not going to be nervous around me now, are you?” Olga grumbled.

“She won’t bite.” Erika said, calm and affable.

“C’mon, don’t put it like that.” Olga replied, further annoyed.

“Well, it looks like my work here is done.” Euphrates replied, shrugging again.

“No it’s not! You’re going to talk if they ask you something, you clown!” Tigris shouted.

“Time out!” Aaliyah said, forming a ‘T’ with her hands. “We need to speak in turn!”

“Premier,” Ulyana started, still grasping for what to say, “How did–?”

“Much as with you and Arabella, my dear Olga stumbled into my life a mystery. Over time I slowly unraveled a few parts.” Erika replied, remaining calm and amused despite the attention. “But I have never needed to know more than what she wishes to tell me. I have never demanded any more. She has never intentionally hurt me. I trust her more than I trust any other person in the world. So I will request that you do not try to force any information from her– or from Arabella either. Regardless, she and I are at your disposal.”

“It’s about time to tell the bits I know.” Olga said. She sighed again. “Look, Arabella is not incorrect in what she told you. She might not be able to recover some of her memories again. Omenseers’ heads work differently than those of ordinary people. Think of it like having two sets of memories: there’s your everyday stuff, and there’s more tucked away somewhere. You kind of know it’s there, but ‘thinking’ about it is more complicated. I think that is what Arabella is talking about with ‘DNA computer’. In my head, I know it is called STEM.”

“Okay. So, are you going to tell me that yours is broken too?” Aaliyah asked.

Olga put her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “Yeah. I am. Mine is incredibly fucked up by this point. See– the STEM stuff is in our bodies, right? I don’t know whether it’s DNA or what it is exactly. It’s inside this body, the data is stored in my flesh or organs somewhere, but it is different. Then– Well, Omenseers can shape our bodies into different forms. It’s called ‘biokinesis’. Doing that, we can recover from injury faster, or grow weapons. Look.”

She raised one hand out of her pocket and waved it in front of everyone.

Ulyana stared at her raised index and middle finger, which Olga pressed together.

Until they joined to become one combined digit that was sharper than before.

Then in the next instant, with seemingly great ease, she split the fingers apart again.

Perhaps a more dramatic version than what Arabella commonly did to her own body.

“Now think about the data that is stored in my body. I do not know where it actually is. I do not know how this STEM or whatever inside me works, I just know I have it and that if I think in a certain way I can try to access it. But it’s in this body that is constantly changing, getting fucked up, getting patched up– of course after a while the data has to be scrambled up some. So if I tried to access my STEM it would be like an insane dream.”

“Well. It’s a bit surreal to watch it in action, but it makes sense.” Ulyana said.

“I guess it does.” Aaliyah said, putting a hand on her forehead as if nursing an ache.

“Olga, how did you come to be an Omenseer? I still don’t understand that.” Murati asked.

“Before, Arabella told us she was a thousand-year old member of a ‘culture’ but now she is saying she was a surface-era biological weapon that was made from the DNA of– I assume– a member of that ancient culture. I am having a tough time squaring it.” Ulyana said.

“Huh?” Murati nearly shouted. “A bio-weapon? That’s– that’s incredible if it’s true!”

Her eyes had lit up like twin jewels with the excitement of discovering an ancient weapon.

Ulyana was torn between thinking it was cute and thinking it would be annoying.

“Don’t get too excited.” Olga replied. “I don’t know anything about that. It’s definitely not how I ended up here. But who knows– maybe Arabella is just special and different.”

“Don’t bother Arabella, Murati– or Homa Baumann, either.” Ulyana said.

“Wait– why Homa Baumann?” Murati looked suddenly helpless.

“Be quiet, Murati. It’s not your turn.” Aaliyah said, raising her voice.

Murati turned a downcast expression at her corner of the table.

Erika covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.

“Olga, can you tell them your story? I’d love to hear it too.” She said.

Olga met Erika’s eyes. Her stern expression melted in one softer and more relaxed.

When they looked at each other it was as if they were alone in the room.

Ulyana thought this was an opportunity for Erika too, not just the Brigand’s crew.

And that Olga was not resentful to have that opportunity.

“Damn it, you already know the important bits Erika. You’ll just be bored.” Olga ran her fingers through her hair and chuckled. “But fine. Whatever. Believe me if you want or not. But I was actually a Leviathan before. Weirdly, I remember what I looked like– I was thick and kind of blunt, all tail but with a horned head. That’s where these are from.” Olga poked at her horns. “Most of my life is a huge blur to me, but sometimes, I see it in my dreams– the ocean, being huge again. I feel like if my STEM worked it would have those memories.”

Not exactly coffee-table conversation, but everyone around the table kept quiet.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah and found her screwing her face up and folding her ears.

Whenever she was met with something wild like this, she would physically resist it.

She was quiet, however. Quiet, and listening, and with eyes inquisitive.

Even if her face looked like she had just tasted soap.

“Omenseers now, are Leviathans that became human. Over time Leviathans just get more intelligent I guess. Honestly I barely remember when I changed, and what happened afterwards. I see it in my dreams and I want to believe it was true– that one day, I got sick of fighting for my life every single day like an animal. I discovered that I could be something less violent and less rapacious and I took the chance. But I don’t really know.”

“Being an Omenseer seems like a pretty psychedelic sort of experience.” Euphrates said.

“C’mon, I’m baring my soul here. If you think it’s useless I can just shut up.” Olga said.

“I think it’s lovely.” Erika said.

“I agree, and I can relate.” Euphrates said. “To knowing something only in dreams.”

“Well, maybe you ought to tell the room yours.” Olga said. “Anyway– one day, all my bulk was just gone, and I was like this. Floating in the ocean. Somehow I was not crushed by the water or eaten by a monster– but I was visited by something truly demonic. Arbitrator II.”

“The Autarch of the Syzygy.” Euphrates said.

“You’ve mentioned it before.” Ulyana said. “You and Tigris have history with this being.”

“We killed her. A long, long time ago.” Euphrates said. “The Sunlight Foundation briefly became interested in abyssal exploration, and to make a long story short, we came into contact with the Syzygy and it tempered our ambitions quite harshly. Arbitrator II confronted us personally as we began to dive more frequently and deeper, and we were forced to attack her. I can hardly claim that we succeeded. We never went that deep again.”

“So we’re dealing with an immortal cult leader here?” Ulyana asked, sighing.

“Olga,” Aaliyah said, “Are all Leviathans human, then? Can they all become like you?”

Ulyana felt her chest tighten– she had not put together this suggestion herself.

Certainly it matched everything they had learned so far.

After Goryk, Euphrates had referred to Omenseers as ‘humanoid Leviathans.’ Arabella had been a Leviathan once. Olga confirmed this was not necessarily anything special– there was, in front of them all, a second person who had once been a Leviathan. With this information, it was reasonable to believe that every Leviathan had the potential to become a person. And therefore, that perhaps all Leviathans were already humans, to some degree.

And, if Arabella was to be believed, that meant Leviathans were anthropogenic.

Perhaps they were made with that ‘original Omenseer’ DNA too.

Perhaps they were all bio-weapons.

Perhaps they were all humans.

To think then– that they had spent all this time killing them– no, it did not really matter.

Ulyana was a soldier. She had been killing humans already, in less complicated ways.

Whatever happened– there was simply no reasoning with a giant, dangerous animal.

Olga shrugged at the question that had shaken Ulyana so much.

“Yeah? I think so. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself.” She said simply.

“Olga, the Autarch found you– she did not make you into an Omenseer?” Euphrates asked.

“Right. Sometimes she just finds strays, like me. But I’ve also seen what she can do. She has troops go out looking for Leviathans with psionic potential. We captured them, and she would use psionics on them and have them shed their forms. That’s her preferred method of recruitment. I changed myself– but I do not know how many of us leave our leviathan forms naturally or how we are different from the ones Arbitrator II makes. Except for one detail. For the ones she changes she can brainwash. She could not brainwash me.”

Euphrates looked for the first time truly captivated by what Olga was saying.

“So she seeks out potential in Leviathans and baptizes them– interesting.”

Her jokey demeanor had faded slightly. But she did not follow up that statement.

“What does the Autarch want? What is this ‘Syzygy’ doing all of this for?” Aaliyah asked.

“I mean, like anyone, she wants control over people.” Olga said. “She wants control over humans. It makes sense when you think about it. Now, don’t freak out at this next bit, it’s annoying if you do– Omenseers feed on people. You guys knew that right? Arabella had to have had at least human blood or she would go crazy.” Olga scanned the room and saw Ulyana, Aaliyah and Murati making faces. She threw her hands up in frustration.

“I’ve been feeding Olga my blood. That’s one of the things we do in private.” Erika said.

“Premier– we did not need the clarification that you do more than that in private.”

Leave it to Aaliyah to be more offended at the insinuation of sex than the cannibalism.

“Quit gawking!” Olga said. “I’m really good at controlling myself and I have Erika. You don’t need to be fucking scared, okay? Anyway– you can put two and two together here right? If the Autarch can build up her army, she could basically start her own human farm and never have a worry in the world again. She needs to rule over the humans to eat them more easily. I’m not just painting a picture with the farm stuff either– she literally can capture humans and grow a kind of crop from them. Her own sick little garden in the abyss.”

“That’s– that’s actually– a lot more dangerous than we imagined.” Ulyana mumbled.

She could hardly even imagine it in full– she supposed ‘biokinesis’ was responsible.

Responsible– for turning a human into a sick little garden.

Aaliyah heaved a weary sigh. “Yes, that is disturbing, but I am not impressed with Omenseers yet. For example, if Akulantova is to be believed, she nearly punched one of those Syzygy fighters to death, and a small and well-trained spec ops squadron can fight it out with them and kill a good half-dozen. They are not yet ‘Imbrium-conquering’ level threats.”

“The rabble is not– the officer ones are a lot scarier, but there are not enough Enforcers to just overthrow humanity overnight. That’s why they are trying to sneak around and join a faction here, I guess.” Olga said. “I know the Enforcers are searching for something. But as a whole Syzygy are biding their time. Gathering intelligence, forces, and useful idiots. Just like you, I suppose– you’re in a little race with them for the Imbrium. Who will win?”

Olga leaned back and grinned to herself as if amused by the mental image.

“Obviously I intend to win that race.” Erika said. “And you will be at my side.”

“Of course. Between us, I’d love to rip out the Autarch’s throat myself.” Olga said.

“For a taste of your own kind?” Erika teased.

“Hey– shut up. I mean for justice or whatever.” Olga said, turning slightly redder.

“Somehow I doubt ripping her throat out will do much justice.” Euphrates said.

She sounded much more wistful than normal– but it was not followed up on.

“Then I suppose we can only do what we came here to do.”

Ulyana sat up straight and stretched her arms, feeling a bit sore from sitting tensely while she listened to all of this bizarre knowledge being shared. She tried to relax her muscles and to still her heart. There was only solution to this– they were just as prepared for the Syzygy right now as they were for the Volkisch. They did not know the total strength of their forces, they did not know their logistics, they had not found their bases or political supporters or the locations of their officers, and so they had no plan of attack. They could not allow themselves to be mystified by the more esoteric side of this situation.

They had to gather more intelligence and be prepared for a fight.

It was an uphill road, but the Volkisch controlled the government and the Syzygy did not.

Within the framework of the Imbrium, the Volkisch Movement was currently immortal.

To the layperson, they were just as mystical as this Autarch.

Just as powerful, indefatigable. Just as disturbing and cruel.

Nevertheless, the Brigand plotted to fight the Volkisch. It was an essential inevitability.

That was their mission. They had taken it up, knowing it was that difficult.

Nagavanshi pushed them hard. She was a damnably persistent recruiter.

But she had known that every single member of the crew would take up the challenge.

All of them were here because the impossible called to them, and they dared stare it down.

“At Aachen, next time I see Zozia, I’ll punch her right square in her jaw and see how her makeup holds up to it. I’ll scuff that well-to-do fuckboy coat she always wears.” Ulyana said.

“I know what you’re capable of– so I truly hope you are joking.” Aaliyah said.

“Sometimes I want to be the manly sort of Captain who pops off.” Ulyana said.

“Not that I mind popping off, but let us be delicate at Aachen, specifically.” Erika said.

“Of course, Premier. I would only pop off with your permission.” Ulyana said.

Her ridiculous declaration seemed to clear in the tension in the room just a little bit.

“Are you all satisfied or do you have more questions?” Olga asked, sounding annoyed.

“Is it too personal to ask how you and the Premier met?” Aaliyah said.

“It won’t elucidate anything about the Syzygy. That part is simple– the Autarch never had control over me because I was not an Omenseer that she made. So at one point, I got sick of being ‘Hunter I’ and I saw an opportunity to escape. I just ended up in Katarre after a lot of struggle that is pointless to recount. The rest is irrelevant. Hell– some part of me thinks the Autarch put no effort into stopping me either. She is not threatened by deserters.”

“Alright. Then–” Aaliyah turned to Erika. “Premier, are you psionically capable?”

Erika smiled. “Yes. I was going to disclose it when you were done with Olga.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Aaliyah said. “I was mainly wondering for your own safety.”

“I am not in Olga’s thrall.” Erika said. “If that is what concerned you.”

“I could not control this insane woman even if I tried with all my strength.” Olga said.

“Apologies. I rest my case.” Aaliyah said. “Anything more can be the subject of a report.”

“I am not offended. It is your job to consider every possible dangerous angle.” Erika said. “I quite like that about you, Commissar. To be clear, I knew much of what Olga had said– she said certain things to me, and now disclosed others to you. I wanted to be part of this meeting not just to play a perfunctory political role, but as a resource. Ultimately, however, Olga does not have encyclopedic knowledge that can answer existential questions about her origins and nature; anything she knows about the Syzygy’s tactics, I am sure she would willingly disclose in a report or some other official dissemination.”

“Right. I’m fine with that.” Olga said. “But there’s not much to say. There is regimentation like in a normal army. I was a ‘Hunter’ so my role was to move from the deep abyss up to the human world and carry out reconnaissance and retrieval missions. I hardly did much– I was not trusted, since the Autarch did not personally turn me. I joined her because I was lost and had nothing, and she and her Enforcer cronies were there to shelter me. Once I was grown a bit more into my new form and had my own thoughts, I wanted to escape. I do not know much about the other types of Omenseer beyond the surface level.”

“Do you have any ideas as to what Omenseer bases survive to this day?” Euphrates asked.

“Good point. You said they live in the deep abyss– so there was a Syzygy base at Goryk?”

Ulyana asked, recalling the rising of that enormous leviathan at Goryk, Dagon.

Arabella had told them back then that it was a Syzygy battleship.

They had not taken it seriously enough in the moment. Now it made much more sense.

“When I was part of Syzygy, I operated out of northwestern Veka.” Olga said.

“That is kind of close to the farthest Goryk aperture. Maybe they are linked.” Ulyana said.

“We’re just guessing. Nobody has an accurate abyssal topography.” Aaliyah replied.

“Not even among present company, I’m afraid.” Euphrates said.

“We wanted to try to do it someday– the Agni was partially for that.” Tigris added.

Breaking a long silence in which she had mainly crossed her arms and harrumphed a bit.

“Alright. Well. A lot of exciting reports going into the drafts today.” Ulyana said.

“We wanted to ask Murati how she was doing with psionics.” Aaliyah reminded her.

Murati, who had been mainly making faces quietly in her seat, suddenly revived.

Like a flower that had been splashed with water, she stood up straighter and more alert.

“Ma’am–”

Murati addressed the Captain but then paused without speaking further for a moment.

“Um– I guess I don’t actually have much to report. I’m still evaluating things.”

“Are you feeling hale and whole?” Erika asked in a sweet voice.

“I suppose so.” Murati replied. Clearly confused at Erika’s sunny, impromptu check-up.

“You’ve seen her handiwork recently, Captain.” Euphrates said. “She’s a fast learner.”

Euphrates looked pleased with herself. Probably as much genuinely as teasing Murati.

Ulyana knew that this ‘handiwork’, however, involved turning a Volkisch guard squadron into a mess of shattered bones and crushed organs on Alcor’s blacktop. This was something that a grenade could accomplish with much more control– and it was easier to teach anyone to throw such a grenade. While it had been undoubtedly helpful, Ulyana remained wary of psionic powers. She wondered how much use they actually could be.

Murati averted her eyes. “I have a little trouble controlling my own strength.”

“I will preempt the obvious question that the Captain and Commissar must be preoccupied with,” Tigris spoke up suddenly, “and say that no, I do not think the rest of the crew should be taught about psionics yet. Not until we figure out what’s going on with Murati.”

“There is nothing going on with me.” Murati said. “I just need more practice.”

“At any rate, we can’t consistently teach anyone else right now.” Tigris said.

“Murati, what about Shalikova?” Ulyana asked. “How is she doing?”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about that.” Euphrates interrupted. “Maryam will support her.”

Murati raised her index finger and then put it back down immediately.

“Maryam?” Ulyana said. “Is Maryam psionic too?”

Aaliyah’s ears perked up again.

“Who else is psionic around here?” Aaliyah cried out. “This is out of hand.”

“I’ll tell you what– I’ll write a report on everyone’s psionic potential on the ship.”

Euphrates smiled congenially despite the tension she had reignited in the room.

Aaliyah and Ulyana dropped back into their seats.

“Thank you, Euphrates.”

“Fine. Fine. Just fine.”

They were both clearly stressed to their limits by this conversation–

Until a firm voice spoke up from beside them and excised the disquiet.

“Captain, in situations like this, we must center rationality and ethicality in our response.” Erika said. Her tone was still gentle but she sounded much more declarative. This was the ‘Premier’ speaking now, Ulyana thought. Erika pointed a finger up and circled it as if to encompass the room. “You have used this rubric a few times in these conversations before– we have reasoned that the ‘guests’ aboard this vessel, like Arabella, or Maryam, have had ample chances to sabotage it, subvert your control, alert your enemies, or otherwise cause grave inconvenience. None of this has happened. There is no reason to believe that some kind of secret plot is brewing. I believe we should formalize that logic and establish a standard that a crew member in otherwise good standing, who is found to possess psionics, is not ipso facto a threat to the mission. In this way we can avoid circular debates about the loyalty of particular individuals, and in turn, avoid wasting time and resources.”

“You’re right. We shouldn’t keep stressing out about this.” Ulyana replied.

“Premier, that is a reasonable standard.” Aaliyah said. “While I am continuously surprised at how much esoteric information and concepts keep getting wrapped up in our humble guerilla mission, it is unproductive to become paranoid. However, I must insist on a different standard for Omenseers and psionic users other than our current roster. Any future psionics users that we meet, we must be wary of and more wary than normal.”

“I don’t disagree.” Erika said. “But also, I think we already have wonderful standards and procedures by which we gauge our trust in strangers. We must also have a view toward the utility of dealing with the Omenseers, including Syzygy, and psionics users like our friends Euphrates and Tigris. We must keep our goal in focus. In Eisental, the law is not written by this Autarch– we must seize every opportunity to inflict defeat on the Volkisch.”

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah said. She did not sound completely satisfied.

But she would follow orders. Both Ulyana and Aaliyah had thrown in their lot with Erika.

And Erika thankfully seemed to keep a clear head even in these bizarre situations.

“Anything further should be part of classified reports. We cannot trust that we will retain verbal information indefinitely and we all have other jobs that need doing.” Erika said. “Package every report and everyone in this room will commit to read them, request any further deliberation, and then rationalize a final version. Then we will be on the same page vis a vis Omenseers and psionics in the future. Does everyone agree?”

There was a hearty nodding of heads and a few salutes in the room. As always with some answers and ever more questions, the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ thus concluded. Ulyana tried not to let the sensationalism get the best of her.

Truly, however, the Imbrium Ocean was deeper than she had ever thought possible.


Erika and Olga left the meeting room and made their way back to the bridge. Despite all of the shouting and turmoil throughout the discussion, Erika was, in her heart, quite pleased with the events. She walked with a light step and was even humming a tune. Ulyana and Aaliyah had one more visit that day and would not join them, leaving the bridge to the Volksarmee officers for now; and even Murati had someone she needed to talk to.

Everyone was working hard.

“Erika, did that go how you wanted?” Olga asked.

“Nothing ever does, because my imagination is too extravagant.” Erika said. “But I have full confidence in our alliance. They have been thrust headlong into events of incredible magnitude, but retain their heart and spirit. They are like us. That satisfies me.”

“I can write up more in the report, I guess. It just feels kinda pointless.” Olga replied.

“If you don’t think it’s important to say something, I trust you completely.” Erika said.

“I know you do.” Olga said. She put her hands in her hoodie pockets, grunting. “Part of me just feels guilty I’m not wracking my brains to tell them every little thing, and I do wish I could access my STEM better, but like– they’re fighting a war, and what Omenseers eat or how my Nest used to look or whatever, that does not really help them out. My dreams about living under a big silver tree. All of that just feels pointless to say.”

“Dreams are important! But you’re right, they’re not militarily actionable.” Erika replied.

Some secrets hardly mattered to anyone; some secrets changed the world.

It was impossible to tell which was which to women with as many secrets as them.

Whenever Erika told anyone even an inkling of the secrets that she shouldered–

She expected bedlam to follow. Despite this, her load was now lightened.

Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara had already seen impossible sights, after all.

More so than psionics, the dream of liberation felt impossible until it was achieved.

Maybe in the future she would tell them about her own DNA.

“Olga, do you know ‘The Union Officer’s Pledge’?” Erika asked.

“No?” Olga replied, narrowing her eyes.

Erika put a hand to her chest and shut her eyes while reciting.

“I am an officer of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. My rank is proof of the faith placed on me. I accept the responsibility of living up to my title, with honor; to serve the Union, with distinction; to acquire correct understandings, with humility; and thus to lead the downtrodden masses by example. I agree to live and die a worker, without a name.”

“That’s intense.” Olga said. “Do they all have to say that?”

“They all did– I found it in the ship’s files. It’s part of the commission process.”

Erika looked ahead.

She imagined everyone, from Murati Nakara to Ulyana Korabiskaya to Alex Geninov reciting this pledge. How did they feel? Did they know the power of their words?

All around her, she was surrounded by the people of the Union, just walking this hall.

That pledge was everything she wanted to be.

An impossible dream for a girl in the gutters killing to survive every day.

And yet, she saw it!

In their humble, everyday demeanor that they themselves never questioned.

In their minds, perhaps they did not think themselves communists, nor anything special. All of them took this pledge for their families or homeland. But to even be a communist, to accept it, to say it out loud, required immense bravery. All of the world told them they were insane, dangerous, even evil– but they fought on for those taboo ideals.

It was electric.

Her Rostock in formation with this ship full of quiet, impossible dreams.

She felt a bit embarrassed, but she wanted the Volksarmee to take the pledge too.

Without realizing it at first, Erika put on her sunniest smile yet.

“Psionics and Omensight both pale in comparison to the sheer power contained here.”

Olga smiled. “I am not sure that I agree with any of that, but I’m glad you’re happy.”

She was happy– she could see her dream in this place.

Arriving on the bridge, Kalika stood from the captain’s chair and greeted them.

“It’s been uneventful. The Rostock is alongside; operating normally.” She said.

“Glad to hear it. Olga and I can relieve you.” Erika said.

Kalika’s brow furrowed and she put her hands on her hips.

Erika could foretell the scolding.

“It’s not necessary.” Kalika said. “You’re the one who could use some rest, Premier.”

“Nonsense,” Erika replied. “I’m feeling spry and the coffee here is fantastic.”

“Olga, please tell her that she works too hard.” Kalika said.

Olga shrugged. “You can tell her all you want; when it comes to work, she won’t listen.”

Kalika shook her head and relented. “Alright, if you insist. I can go find something to do.”

Erika and Olga stepped aside and allowed a reluctant Kalika to leave the bridge.

“Order on bridge!” Olga called out. Imitating the Commissar; she was grinning in fact.

“We don’t need to be stuffy. At ease everyone!” Erika called out right after.

While the Brigand made its way through unoccupied territory, there was hardly anything for the bridge crew to do moment to moment. Over on Erika’s left, Natalia Semyonova had a deck of cards and was perhaps practicing some kind of divination or magic trick; Fatima al-Suhar read a book on a portable, still wearing the sonar station’s earbuds; Braya Zachikova was still only present as a cute miniature on the main screen. On her right, she saw that Alex Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were discussing something about ‘shipping’ that Erika came to think was not logistics-related; and Abdulalim Kamarik looked over the ship’s autopilot every so often while listening to music on a communication headset. Or so Erika assumed from his casual body language. They all heard and acknowledged Olga’s declaration before returning to their hobbies. A rather homey atmosphere.

“Olga, I think they’ve earned a bit of peace, don’t you?” Erika said.

Olga shrugged. “Until we run into a patrol or something.”

Erika took seat in the captain’s chair, while Olga occupied the Commissar’s beside her.

“Semyonova,” Erika said, “could you message the Rostock and put Daphne on my screen?”

“Of course! Captain Triantafallos assured me she was at your disposal at all times.”

Semyonova cheerfully swiped her finger on the screen of her station to wake up the display.

Within moments, Erika had Daphne on the computer affixed to the captain’s chair.

“Premier!” Daphne saluted the screen. “I am elated beyond measure to see you!”

“I’m happy to see you too Daphne. How has the crew been?” Erika asked.

Daphne seemed quite pleased with herself as she answered. “Our cadres remain well supplied, amply motivated, and operationally efficient. Our consumption is controlled and we have not had any encounters. Magdeburg and Gera are presently lying low around Rhein-Sieg-Kries, awaiting orders. We can collect them on the way to Aachen if you desire, just say the word. Enemy activity remains low. Patrols are clustered around the Ayre border– their last order from Thurin was likely to guard against Palatine troops. We noticed the patrol fleet are avoiding Stralsund and the edge of Khaybar, so the east is open.”

“Unfortunately, that’s because of the Mycenae Military Commission. They simply do not want to cause a confrontation.” Erika replied. “So the east is still not open to us. Thank you for the report nevertheless, Daphne. I wanted to ask if you had collected any broadcasts from Kreuzung in the past few days. Some newly arrived tenants are likely to be our main concern going forward. The Brigand has been disconnected for a while.”

“As a matter of fact, we did capture a speech by the ‘newly-arrived tenants.’” Daphne said. “Kreuzung’s station broadcaster pushed it through every laser line and every channel carried it. They intended to make a nation-wide statement. In a matter of hours, northern Rhinea has been declared ‘Reichskommissariat Eisental’ and this Violet Lehner is now in charge of the place as its ‘Reichskommissar.’ No response yet from the Thurin Reichsgau.”

“We need to gather as much information as we can on this event. After Aachen we will have to make a pit stop in Trelleborg to see what the underground knows.” Erika said.

“Trelleborg?” Olga said. “The madwoman there wanted to bite you last time.”

Erika looked a little embarassed. “It will be fine Olga– nobody will bite me.”

“Nobody will bite the Premier on our watch, Olga.” Daphne replied, sounding deadly serious. “Premier, about the current tasks. Tomorrow we will begin work on operational integration between the Brigand and Rostock. It will be a tight few days. I am not sure we can complete all the necessary work before we reach Aachen. We have to sync the computers, rationalize supplies, set up recurring channels, appoint cadre liaisons–”

“Don’t worry, Daphne. Aachen is not the deadline.” Erika said. “Whatever you can get done during the journey is appreciated, but it will be an ongoing process to get everyone talking and working together. It will be gradual. I am not expecting it tomorrow.”

“Acknowledged, Premier. Your magnanimity is appreciated. Shall we reconvene later?”

“We should plan to meet. For now send me the video. I am curious about the rhetoric.”

“Of course. I look forward to shaking your hand and saluting in person, Premier!”

Daphne disappeared from the screen. In her place, a transfer bar appeared.

Once it completed, Erika played the video of the broadcast from Kreuzung.

The Rostock had captured the event in-progress.

Partway through an introduction by a state news anchor, who was cut from shortly after the video started. When the camera finally captured its intended subject, it was clear that Violet Lehner was settled into the old office of Kreuzung’s governor. Everyone in Eisental had seen the room used in broadcasts before, by old Werner. Now, rather than reflecting sky or grasses, the projection walls around the stately old desk projected instead red banners each with a central white circle. In one circle was a black sonnenrad, and on the other a diagonal hooked cross. Neither of these symbols were common to the government in Thurin, who preferred to identify with iron eagles, bundled arrows and straight, steel crosses.

Rather, the bannered symbols belonged to the ‘Esoteric Order’.

Within the broader Volkisch Movement, the Esoteric Order was not the most extreme nor the most niche group. Erika was aware of far smaller and far more violent elements. Esoterics were instead characterized by a greater radicalism. Ordinary right-wing elements sought to preserve or harken back to ‘better times’ in the past– to turn back the ‘progress’ of liberalism. The Esoteric Order had a complex transformative rhetoric. They believed in the new– they believed that Fascism was ‘modern’ and that through Fascism, a new mode of being could be discovered. Rather than harken back to the past, they believed the Nation was yet to be attained, that the ‘Volk’ had to struggle to be worthy of it. Their racial destiny was not in the past, but in the future. The Nation could not be moved to suit the fascist ubermensch; the fascist had to become ubermensch to suit the Nation. They did this through personal ritualization, religious mysticism, and bizarre nouveau racialism.

Erika had not been aware that the esoterics had an armed wing, however.

And that this armed wing was now personified by the woman with the long two-tone hair.

Violet Lehner sat behind the desk, in her black uniform, surrounded by esoteric symbols.

A lean, striking and pretty young woman with just a hint of exoticism to her appearance.

Her eyes had the slightest slant; her nose just a bit of hook; her skin tone just slightly deep.

To the most extreme elements of the Volkisch, she might’ve been too racialized in fact.

In the Esoteric Order, however, she was racialized enough.

As if Violet Lehner herself was an example of the all-encompassing Nation.

“Good greetings, citizens of Kreuzung, Stralsund, Rhein-Sieg-Kreis, Aachen, and many such places in the Eisental region– and to those watching from farther afield, perhaps! I appear before you today by way of introduction and to pledge my commitment to you. It is unlikely that many of you have seen or known much of me before recent events. Events that saw me thrust from a position of humble servitude in the backdrop of the Volkisch revolution, to the peak of Kreuzung in search of justice. My name is Violet Lehner. I am the only child of the Fuhrer Adam Lehner. My parentage has been heretofore a secret, albeit an open and unguarded one– I simply wished to forge my own path in life, and that is that.”

“By education, I am a laywer and a businesswoman. In my life, I have been a student, a shareholder, an advisor, a writer and in recent months, formally a military officer. It is with this eclectic character that I view the state of the Nation with anger and sorrow. Since the profligate Konstantin von Fueller saw fit to finally abandon the territories he had grown bored of plundering and toying with, and seek the retribution of the next world, our economies nearly collapsed, and we became surrounded by enemies.”

“We could have allayed the consequences of the Imperial collapse with decisive action, but the liberals and their committees and subcommittees hindered our response until death was at the doorstep. It is only through the brave actions of our National Socialist Navy and the Stabswache that we were able to deal with the saboteurs and meet the enemies; and only because of our swift and innovative Corporations that we forestalled material collapse. I am here following the examples that have been set. Eisental has suffered crisis after crisis, abetted by the remains of the liberals, by the saboteurs, and by the political-academic elites, who led the working men astray, sowed division within the Volk, allowed infiltration by foreign elements, and stifled and strangled our economic prospects.”

“No more will this be tolerated. Today begins a new era for Eisental. I and my forces have already arrested all of the criminal elements who had entrenched at the top of the tower; liquidated the foreign elements who went mad with bloodthirst and rampaged under Adolf Werner’s knowing eyes; and we will soon take all needed measures to restore the dignity of Eisental’s people and resume production of all the needed goods and materials to revitalize the economy, and pump blood back into our Volk and our Nation. We have stricken down the liberal elites and put men and women of sense in charge of everything.”

“Starting today, I have accepted the mandate of Reichskommissar of this territory, the Reichskommissariat Eisental, to oversee the return of order and the restoration of the Volk in this area and advance our shared cause. Eisental is the motherlode and breadbasket of Rhinea. Restoring Eisental to glory is to restore the Nation, which has been grievously wounded; and restoring the Volksgemeinschaft that has been splintered into a million pieces on spurious, ideological bases by the liberals. Starting today, you will recognize you are all Imbrians, and are all blood-siblings of the Nation. All of you are one.”

“Our task is monumental, and the stakes are high. We have everything set against us.” Reichskommissar Lehner raised her voice. That camera focused on the desk zoomed closer to her impassioned expression. Before she had spoken calmly, but she allowed greater fervor to bleed into her voice until it raised. “We are surrounded by charlatans who seek to plunder our wounded nation and erase the Volk! The victor shall always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused: we fight not just to exact justice, but to enshrine our struggle as the world’s truth! Should we fail, they will forever laugh at us for our toil. But we will prevail! Because unlike the liberals we have not turned our backs on the Nation!”

“Ethnicity, class, sex– these identitarian categories are part of an antiquated ideology that prevented us from achieving our shared Destiny. But I know the truth, the secret, that the liberal order wished for us to never seek; we are the one Volksgemeinschaft, one Imbria! Our Nation bleeds and cries out for all of us to save her! So we will unite under black sun and the wolfsangel! National Socialism gives us the path to our revolution! Our Nation calls us to action! We answer as one people, one struggle! All that matters is this: will you work? Will you fight? Will you answer her call? Those who turn their back on the call will be shunned by Destiny! They will be left behind to die with no one to save them! But to those who fight for Destiny’s favor we can say: you have all of the Volk behind you!”

“So come tomorrow, when you clock in to work, when you return to school, or when you pick your gun on patrol, or when you set sail for battle, think of this with seriousness. I am an Imbrian! What can I do to advance the Volk? What can I do for my Nation? Who are those around me that reject the Nation and seek to drive us back into squabble and misery? Who are those around me that will march alongside? All of you are the Nation! Your individual actions and decisions are what will make up the whole of our success! Kill the sniveling liberal in your brain who tells you that you the Nation is not worthy of you! By your actions, make yourself worth the glory of the Nation! Endsieg shall be yours!”

Violet stood up from her desk, and raised her right hand, from the shoulder, straightened.

“In your workplaces, in your places of worship, in your homes; you are one people with one united struggle! You all work toward fulfilling one immutable Destiny! You all work toward one Nation and will seize victory together! Stand proudly, and prove yourself worthy! Today begins your very own National People’s War! SIEG HEIL!”

Around her, the walls with the banners instead displayed several uniformed soldiers.

All of them were Shimii. Black uniforms, decorated in the same symbols on the banners.

And all of them hailed victory behind Violet Lehner with perfect precision.

Curiously, Erika noted, the victory salute was not followed by a salute to the Fuhrer.

As should have been customary: Sieg Heil, Heil Fuhrer. An omission rich in meaning.

“Violet Lehner is staking out for herself.” Erika said. “Her Nation will not include Thurin.”

“She’s a fucking lunatic.” Olga replied, peeking in over Erika’s shoulder.

Erika shut off the video and laid a hand on the screen as if she could make it disappear.

All of this was an opportunity– if they could seize it. If they were up to the task.

But the sight of Shimii soldiers doing the fascist salute was somewhat disquieting.

They were not the only ones fighting for the souls of Eisental’s dispossessed peoples.

Could Violet’s fascist subsumption of the will appeal to the broken masses of Imbria?

How many Shimii, Katarrans, and the Imbrian poor would be taken by this rhetoric?

Led astray by honeyed steel from a false savior, in the hour of their greatest desperation.

In that moment, Erika’s grand dream finally, truly met its nightmarish competing vision.

Past tragedies; present tensions; and the uncertain future all bled in front of her eyes.

Even in the quiet, empty ocean of middle Eisental, it could be felt–

the currents carried, along with Violet’s voice, and the cries of salute,

the brimming violence of the Nationale Volkskrieg.


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