Thieves At The Port [5.6]

Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.

It was the first step on their journey.

That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–

Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.

Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.

Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.

There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.

In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.

Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.

Alongside them were two members of the security team.

Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.

Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.

All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.

Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.

To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.

That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.           

“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.

“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.

While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”

“Acknowledged!”

For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.

Murati was filled with emotion.

Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.

Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.

Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.

After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.

In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.

“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”

At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.

“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.

She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.

“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.

She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.

Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.

“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.

“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”

“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”

Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”

Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”

“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.

Zachikova cracked a little smile.

“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”

Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.

Her mind returned to the task ahead.

Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.

On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.

Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.

For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.

Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.

On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.

While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.

Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.

People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.

She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.

However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.

Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.

All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.

“Real meat, huh?”

Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.

Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.

There was something bewildering about it for Murati.

Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.

So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.

Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of diary production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their diary in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.

It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.

Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.

Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.

He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.

“Are you hungry?” She asked.

“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”

“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”

“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.

“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.

Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.

Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.

A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.

“You little shit! Get back here!”

The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.

Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.

Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.

Murati stood speechless for a moment.

Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?

“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”

Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.

The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?

Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.

Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?

How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.

In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.

“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said.  “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”

“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.

“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”

“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.

“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.

Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.

Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.

Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.

She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.

They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.

Even in the alleys, there were people.

Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.

There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.

Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.  

Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.

To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.

But then– why was there so much tension in the air?

Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.

Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.

However, this particular statue had company.

There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.

She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.

“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”

Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.

One of the men responded with a kind voice.

“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.

Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?

“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.

“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.

How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?

“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”

Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.

“Hello? We have to keep moving.”

Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.

Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.

Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.

The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.

“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”

All of them resigned themselves.

Murati was briefly speechless.

She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.

She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!

How could they be abandoned here? Why?

“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”

“Like what, Nakara?”

Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.

“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”

“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”

Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.

“Contact the Captain for a moment.”

She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.

“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”

“Agreed.”

Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.

Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.

“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.

Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.

“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.

Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”

Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”

“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”

“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.

Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.

Again, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents.

Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”

“Ask her how much money we have available.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”

“Ask her.”

Murati stood her ground.

Zachikova sighed to herself.

“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”

Murati’s face briefly lit up.

“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”

Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.

That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.

She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.

Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.           

At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.

She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.

Murati spoke first.

“Captain–”

She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.

“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.

Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.

“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”

She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.

How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!

“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”

“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”

“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”

“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.

“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”

“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”

“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”

“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.

“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”

Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.

For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!

“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”

“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”

Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.

At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.

“Lieutenant,”

She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.

“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”

Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.

Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”

“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.

“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”

Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.

“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”

Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.

“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”

“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”

The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.

Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.

A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.

All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–

Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.

Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.

“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”

Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.

Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.            

That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.


Previous ~ Next

2.3 Iron Heart

This chapter includes violent psychological distress, violence, mild sexual content.

Iron Flag/Iron Heart: A nationalist, Otrarian-supremacist organization that arose in the 1990s in Otraria, Otrarian-managed territories in lower Nobilis, and Heles. While their street movement is relatively disorganized, they found a stable home and allies in upper class educational institutions, and particularly in magical academies such as The National. Their militant wing is known as the Iron Flag, which the movement at large disavows and calls itself the Iron Heart instead. Their driving ideology is that the decline of magic, and in turn the weakness of Otraria politically and militarily, is a result of an ongoing invasion of conspiratorial foreign peoples and cultures in Otraria. In their views, Otraria must rediscover its “Iron Heart” and cast out the “foreign degenerates.


“Cheryl! I’m home, sweetie.”

Lyudmilla knocked on the dorm door and teased her roommate before coming in.

Cheryl, however, was nowhere to be found.

There was a letter on top of the desk, beautifully written. Cheryl wrote with magical grace. When she took her time, her cursive was second to none in style and precision.

“Need to be somewhere else for a bit,” Lyudmilla read aloud to herself. “Head stuff.”

She read it from the bottom to the top. She sometimes did that.

Reading the letter, Lyudmilla wondered where Cheryl went for “head stuff.” As much as she wanted to feel close to her, this question provided such singular confusion at the time that Lyudmilla felt a little frustrated. At least she had been thoughtful enough to leave a note behind. It still sucked, in Lyudmilla’s own words, to be ditched like this.

They had not gotten to talk much since they survived Moloch’s summoning.

Dimly, Lyudmilla worried that she was being ghosted. But she didn’t want to believe it.

Maybe Cheryl just needed a quiet, lonely place to scream at the top of her lungs.

“I’m just being a bitch.” Lyudmilla said. “It’s not her fault.”

Cheryl must have been having a disastrous time of things.

Lyudmilla had only just come into Cheryl’s life, but her boyfriend and his family, her friends, and even more abstractly, the safety she felt at the school, had all been there for her longer. Now it must have felt like she had nobody; like her whole life just broke. Lyudmilla had been hoping she could have this time to talk to her, to thank her for sticking up for her and Minerva, to offer support. But perhaps it wasn’t time yet.

Especially because Cheryl was not alone in having a hard time of things lately.

Her own head was getting a little scrambled.

Magic and Tyrants; Summoners and the racist political group in the school; Agents of Noct and the scorn of the educational administration; what kind of world was little Milla living in now? Everything was so out of proportion to what she was used to, that she did not even know how to feel bad about it. She felt a vague sense of trepidation with nothing to tip her over into despair or hope. It was not like before, when she could look at all her problems down the sights and barrel of a gun. Maybe for the best.

She could have the gun back if she wanted.

She could have the gun back if she could pay the toll.

Sometimes she looked at her hand and imagined it again.

Sometimes she could feel it, and the bullets it made when it took from her.

Minerva said not to do it, however. So she wouldn’t frivolously call it forth.

Lyudmilla sighed. Why listen to her anyway? But despite everything, she did.

Her Master had her feeling the most ambivalent of all.

Who was she really? And was she worth putting her faith into after all?

Could she really trust her? When she was unused to lending anyone any trust?

“Ah, fuck it! I’m going to go out partying, this sucks. I’ll even fucking drink!”

Lyudmilla shut the door behind herself. It was customary of Cheryl to keep the door open, even if someone might see in at a compromising time. But Cheryl wasn’t there. With a moment of privacy, Lyudmilla threw her blazer, dress shirt and skirt on her bunk and picked out an outfit in the closet. Like everything she wore, it was a mix of what few cool clothes she owned, and a generous helping of Cheryl’s vibrant selections.

Her fashion sense was personal and organic. Lyudmilla thought she had a sense for cool, and she could just look at a pile of clothes and make it work. Cheryl’s closet was meticulously arranged, and so, she needed only to quickly scan for things and grab.

First she threw on her favorite black hoodie over nothing but a black sports bra, and zipped it only as far up as it needed to go to hold together. Her chest was mostly exposed, just like she wanted it. Anyone who said there wasn’t much to see could go fuck themselves, she thought. Lyudmilla could have gone louder, even: she would have preferred Cheryl’s skimpy bikini tops, but all of them were, well, oversize for her.

Next, she honed in on some fancy high-rise lingerie and a pair of black, glossy short pants with doubled-up legs. She slipped them on, tightening the pants with a heart-buckle belt. Finally, she would wear a pair of sneakers. Pumps might’ve been too girly. She wanted to show off, but she also wanted everyone to know she’d kick their ass.

She looked for her cigarettes, but Cheryl routinely threw them out whenever she found them. Then she looked for her weed; but that was just gone of its own accord.

Lyudmilla did not even want to smoke at that moment. She just thought it’d look cool to have when she went to the club, depending on the club she ended up going to.

On the table, she saw her grimoire, where she had dropped it as she undressed.

She almost left it behind. But on the way out, she swiped it, squeezed it until it shrank to the size of a little portable bible, and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie.

As much as she wanted to, magic was not something she could just ignore and forget.

When she left the dorm the horizon had consumed three quarters of the sun and the sky overhead was bright orange with the last throes of daylight. She knew a couple places that opened this early — but there were a few others farther away, that, by the time she reached them, it would certainly be dark, and they’d be throwing real parties.

She walked the streets, hands in her pockets, trying to make up her mind.

The Estate dorm was located near the center of the town that had grown around the National. There was a main thoroughfare just off of the plaza that led into the dorm buildings, flanked with shops and bars trying to entice the steady flow of students coming and going. The streets weren’t packed at this time of the day, after classes, but there was still quite a bit of foot traffic. Lyudmilla slipped in amid the small crowd.

She tried to think of where to go, but as she went over the options she started to wander the town without much direction. The sun started to go down. Lyudmilla had gone clubbing before but there was something about tonight that made her hesitate. Every venue she knew, she found some reason not to go to. The Eden might have been the place to go, but it was crowded and some of the regulars had been bitchy to her before. She could have stopped at Club Gravity, but found herself walking past when she saw the line to get in. InMotion was a cool spot, but they had a celeb House DJ that night so the music was probably going to suck. She could always go somewhere new.

Telling herself that, she started fiddling with her homunculus, spotting new places.

It started to get slow, however, as she scrolled past an endless list of clubbing spots.

Eventually, the screen went black again from disuse, and ceased to respond.

Her head was in the clouds.

She missed several of the clubs she had made a note of; she just walked past.

Soon she found herself just thinking about the walk, and consequently, just walking.

She was not going anywhere. She was stuck as she was now. Who she was now.

Lyudmilla Kholodova, a magician-in-training at the prestigious National Academy.

Out and about, just looking for a drink, hard enough bass, and girls to tease.

She developed her own romanticism; lost in her own little fantasy.

It felt pathetic somehow. There was no direction to it — “pure A.D.D.,” she told herself.

There was something about it. It’s not like she hated the trip so far.

Walking through town made everything seem so normal. There weren’t dragons and kobolds and spirits walking through town or floating in the air. There were no fireballs and lightning bolts slinging to and fro. Sometimes, she would see a girl with some kind of conjured cosmetic glamour, like a pair of cat’s ears or a tail. It was like she was not walking through a magical university, surrounded by witches and wizards. Maybe she was not; maybe most of the people here were normal people, minding restaurants and cleaning streets, and there were only a few actual magicians. Lyudmilla didn’t know.

She was a recent inductee into the life of the collegiate mage.

That had not been the way of things in her previous years.

Rus had been in the throes of a civil war that hid in plain sight, while its anonymous yet frequent violence undid the great society little by little, fragmenting everything her people had once gained. For anyone in Rus-Moroz this was a part of their life, even if the world at large did not acknowledge it. For anyone there, bodies just turned up.

And people just killed each other.

There was not any official outrage or acknowledgment.

It was like everyone was being lied to even as the bullets went in their brains.

Living in that place, maybe Lyudmilla’s brain really was scrambled too.

She had been on the side of the former soldiers, against the church and mages.

When she was told she’d be leaving the war-torn north and going to Otraria as a refugee, Lyudmilla did not know how to conceptualize it. She was not like the other child soldiers. She had gotten paid and had gotten to live it up a little when she became more an adult. She’d gone partying in Moruma; she’d bought cool sneakers with the money she got for shooting up a guy in one of the Western Churches. It was not like it was for other kids; it was just business. She had nothing to feel gross about.

Or so she told herself, whenever she felt gross about it. Whenever it felt too heavy.

She tried to put it out of her mind. She was just Lyudmilla Kholodova. Just an ordinary edgy alt-girl who liked some shitty stuff, like anyone. An ordinary girl in a magic school.

Walking down the street, through all of this normality, Lyudmilla took a look at her hand; her ordinary, normal girl’s hand. She suddenly sent a current running through it.

Tiny sparks of blue electricity crackled between her fingers very briefly.

She had seen Minerva do magic without speaking, and she poked the idea in her brain until she did something similar. Tiny sparks was merely all she could do on a whim. Had she been able to concentrate even a bit, maybe she would have done better. Tonight was not a night for concentrating. Already her brain was accelerating to the next thing.

Still, she felt a strange sense of satisfaction, having done it.

Lyudmilla had always been good at learning by looking at things and practicing them.

Perhaps that is why she had held such a rare and different rank than the other kids.

All of the orphans from the war fought. Some wanted to; some got incentives to.

Some were forced to.

Killing mages, killing the clergy, those traitors; to take the country back for the people.

She was among the few child soldiers who did magic.

“What if I got laid tonight?” Lyudmilla told herself, feeling her head turning heavy. She chuckled. “I’ll find a hot older girl at the club and crash at her place, that’d be cool.”

What club? She had walked past all of them. There would be no club.

But she wanted her mind to race past pain and toward pleasure. She needed it to.

“I’ll give her a bit of jolt.” She chuckled to herself, rubbing her fingers together.

In response to her jests, her mind offered up a picture of a few other things she did with her hands, other than hot girls. In this case, she saw the stake in her hand that she threw at Moloch’s core in order to destroy it; and she saw, briefly, the same hand, and the same stake, become a loaded gun on a cold street, sending a blazing red light into the back of a man in a priestly garb, tunneling through his heart and out into the air.

“Fuck.”

Lyudmilla began to weep. She found herself weeping.

It happened that suddenly.

She was still walking, barely knowing where she was going, or what was around her.

People seemed to fade in and out of existence. Her head was a swirl of broken and confused thoughts. She wiped her eyes with the back of her fist, and felt her feet shaking as she walked, faster and faster until she had broken into a run.

“Fuck. Guess you’re not partying tonight Lyudmilla, you ditzy bitch.”

Her voice trembled as she chided herself. Her slurs rose to a scream.

She started to get pissed. At herself, but also at everyone around her.

Her mind was turning over at thousands of kilometers per second.

Nobody understood, and everyone was always fucking up with her. She felt like screaming more. Her country; her school; her class. Minerva. The Commander. Everyone had set her up wrong, everyone had abandoned her to this. Even–

Even Cheryl?

Nobody ever did right by her. Everyone just went their own way without getting it.

Cheryl didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed to know it wasn’t weird between them, and that she needed to know right now that she wasn’t being abandoned; Minerva didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed her to be perfect or else the fucked up turn her life had taken recently would be for nothing, because she needed to know Minerva really was special, so she could cope with having to follow her and trust her and admire her–

And it was certain that the school didn’t get that Lyudmilla was not just going to be ok with a dorm and food credits and going to class every day after spending life as a magical killer moonlighting as a schoolgirl in a country falling apart from inside out!

Nothing was going to be ok, and nobody seemed to get that!

“What is anyone supposed to feel now? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?”

Lyudmilla shouted at the top of her lungs.

She felt a rising, incoherent hatred for everything.

Her breaths started to catch in her chest.

There was no response from anyone around her.

There was nobody, around her. She was all alone.

She looked around herself. She did not know how far she ran, how much she shouted.

She turned her head, whipping around in a sudden paranoia.

People must have thought she was crazy– but she saw no one around anywhere.

She turned the entire landscape over, and there was not a soul.

Her eyes were clouded with tears, but she scarcely recognized the surroundings.

There were hedges and sculpted bushes. In the distant, hazily, she saw a fountain.

It was a park; it was her park, she thought. She came here for weed once or twice.

It was Eisenbern Park, she recalled. There was a statue of that man somewhere.

Right now there was just the fountain.

When she wiped her eyes, everything was still hazy. She felt she could barely see the tops of the trees, they seemed to loom over her. Maybe she was having a worse episode than she thought. Everything felt oppressive, like it was closing on her. She had not taken any medicine, but she was freaked out enough she almost considered it.

Lyudmilla started to walk the way she came. She wanted to hide in bed forever.

At her back, there was still a fountain.

“I didn’t fuck anyone but myself tonight.” She told herself, bitterly.

She stomped her feet for a moment as she walked.

“Stupid, just, fucking– stupid.”

What was anyone supposed to feel? Wasn’t she supposed to drink and smoke and party, wasn’t that living life? After everything that happened? Wasn’t that normal?

Wasn’t she a normal girl now, who did normal shit?

But she wasn’t. She was a magician, too. And she didn’t know what that meant.

Except going to this school and getting jerked around.

Fountain–

Lyudmilla snapped her head up. She looked around.

It was the same fountain again; the trees; the sculpted bushes.

“I’ve been walking.” She told herself. “I’ve never stopped. I should’ve been outta here.”

She started to walk again, paying close attention to the fountain.

As she went to cross the hedge, suddenly and without transition, she was walking with the fountain in the distance again. She should have crossed the hedges and been out of the park, but here it was. One step out of the hedge, and it was the fountain again.

In an instant of panic she repeatedly tapped the screen of her homunculus.

“Wake up! Hello? Can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

Her homunculus screen lit up with a progress bar that finished completion.

“Update completed. Initializing M.A.G.E. tactical spellcasting companion.”

First the homunculus screen went black, and then loaded back a red window with seemingly hundreds of gibberish lines scrolling quickly past Lyudmilla’s vision. There was one line on the screen that wasn’t scrolling, a copyright for some of the program’s code base owned by the Ayvartan government. Finally, the screen went black again and then loaded a sparse white interface with a few numbers ticking up and down.

“You were updating all this time?” Lyudmilla shouted at her wrist in outrage.

In the next instant the homunculus responded in its dull, droning voice.

“In an emergency, command input is still accepted during the update process.”

“I don’t care!”

Lyudmilla raised her wrist into the air and shook her homunculus this way and that, as if trying to get it to see the park around her. “Can you tell me what is happening here?”

Of course, the homunculus was not alive and showed no indication of distress at being jostled around. Lyudmilla had almost desired to hear a quivering or empathetic voice, but instead got a robotic, male-passing droning, characteristic of her wrist computer.

“Utilizing the same hardware extensions that allow for assisted spellcasting through light, sound, biometric and geographic awareness and projection, and running the gathered data through a military-grade algorithmic and learning environment, M.A.G.E. can run analysis on ethereal, spectral and vital patterns and waveforms. Data output will be partially verbal; scanning for compatible visual hardware to transmit to.”

Lyudmilla saw the camera on the wrist computer’s face flash.

“Hardware found. Please don the identified visual hardware for output.”

On the homunculus’ screen, Lyudmilla saw a wireframe image of a pair of sunglasses.

Absentmindedly she picked at the pocket of her hoodie and felt the sunglasses there.

“Really? These old things?”

She lifted the sunglasses, spread open the legs and pushed them up her nose.

As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the lenses, she instantly saw the information that was on her homunculus appear, hovering in front of her. It happened so quickly it felt like a light had flashed directly into her eyes, and she was momentarily disoriented.

“What the fuck? What did Minerva do to my smartwatch?”

At that moment, when Lyudmilla ceased to pay attention to the homunculus and for the briefest second caught a glimpse of the world around her, as seen through the sunglasses and the projection from the device, her predicament started to take a palpable shape. She could see trails and auras that would have once required great concentration to spot with her naked eyes. They were only slightly visible, but enough that she could identify them. She saw a dim multi-colored gas, a ribbon in the air, that ringed the park and discolored everything outside the perimeter it delineated. She saw a gray and blue aura emanating from the edges of the ribbon and spreading. Five or so meters from the thick center of the “ribbon” the colors diffused and disappeared.

It was clear, however, that some kind of spell was surrounding the park, and another was spreading through it in every direction. She was in a sealed-off space, and so, she surmised, whenever she tried to leave she was forced back to the last spot she had been in, inside the space. Lyudmilla was trapped, and she did not know by whom.

Her mind was suddenly shifting into the hyperactive clarity of a soldier in battle.

“If someone was after me they’d have gibbed me by now.” Lyudmilla said to herself.

She must have fallen in a trap meant for someone else. Whoever cast it was not even paying attention to her, and probably did not even realize she was around. She had been a sitting duck here for long enough now that it could not have been sheer luck.

“Homunculus, what kind of spell is this? Do you know?”

“Analyzing–“

In the enhanced view she was seeing through her sunglasses, Lyudmilla could see a faint light like a pen laser tracing a circle from her homunculus out into the air around her. A pulse emanated from the wrist computer and returned after the striking the barrier. She saw a column of numbers and letters on one side of the screen on the watch itself that were not mirrored on her glasses. It was doing something.

Finally ‘the robot’ — as Lyudmilla began to think of it — spoke up once more.

“Spell waveforms are consistent with the line of Helic spells known as ‘Laburinthos’. Strong illusion and conjuration magic focused on multiple points in plain space have recreated the maze of Minos in this area. It is not possible to escape the confines, until the sources anchoring the spell are found and dispelled deeper within the maze.”

Lyudmilla blinked. “Do you know who you’re asking to do this stuff?”

She was flabbergasted. She barely understood anything ‘the robot’ had said.

Obviously she was trapped in some kind of magic; the particulars of that explanation were a lot to take in. How many anchors were there? How could she dispel them? She did not know any dispelling magic beyond ones like Herrcher’s Arcane Unmaking or Kabukov’s Unraveling Arrow. Would they be enough to break down magic this strong?

“Loading morale module.”

At once, the voice of the homunculus became that of a sweet woman with a thick accent. “Soldier, you can do anything you set your mind to, for country and comrade–“

Lyudmilla’s face flushed. Could it tell that kind of thing about her?

“Oh shut up! Never do that again!” She shouted.

“Unloading morale module.”

“Never!”

“Uninstalling morale module.”

At that point Lyudmilla heard the leaves rustling on the hedges.

This noise intensified to become crunching and stamping.

Then, from the hedges across the fountain, Lyudmilla saw figures falling through.

“Vital waveform detected,” said her homunculus. “Low resonance and impact.”

Soon as the robot said the word ‘impact,’ Lyudmilla heard a bone-crunching punch.

A black-clad figure landed atop another as they fell through the hedge and delivered a series of sharp punches that smashed the defender’s arms out of the way and then cracked his helmet as he fell back. He was a clearly wearing repurposed bicycle helmet with a coat of metal paint, and it splintered like a plastic toy when subjected to the attacker’s violent blows. Spittle flew out of the mouth of the man absorbing the punch, and he fell to the ground as if there was no weight to his legs, instantly out.

Then the attacking figure swiftly swung back around to face the hedge.

In the very next instant, a second grey helmet and mask plunged through the green.

Though not taken by surprise, the swift puncher could only grapple with the new enemy, who was significantly bigger and had not spent as much of his stamina. There was an aura around him also — around both of them. Lyudmilla could not tell what the enchantments were, but there had clearly been a melee going on longer than this.

When the two opponents collided, they locked arms and struggled, grappling and shoving and then striking wherever they could get an opportunity to free their hands from each other. The featherweight puncher shoved back, created space, and threw strikes; but the big guy was on his guard quickly, and just as quick to grab again.

This was a fight, a real fight; a street fight! People were getting fucked up here!

Lyudmilla lost her inhibitions and charged headlong toward the fountain.

As she neared, the figures revealed their true forms. For the one throwing punches, Lyudmilla could see they were wearing a heavy-duty black jacket with a hood pulled up over their head, and a surgical mask and sunglasses. Near completely anonymized; but Lyudmilla saw markers of a familiar sex. Even with how thick that jacket looked there was an impression that there were breasts beneath, and the jeans the puncher wore clung close enough to fill in the rest of a womanly figure. Those savage punches had not been thrown bare, either. Lyudmilla saw a rust-brown strip over each knuckle.

And over each strip, the faint billowing of an aura of some kind. On one wrist, barely concealed, was a homunculus flashing warning lights. The featherweight was a mage.

Meanwhile, both the grey helmet knocked flat on the ground and the bigger one still fighting were dressed in almost military-style coats and pants, all grey. On their wrists, they too bore the magical implements of National students. Not just spellcasters generally, but specifically students. Lyudmilla could tell. All of them wore the same school-issued model, in the stock grey with a sturdy, basic faceplate and touchscreen.

They were the fascists, Lyudmilla knew. She had seen them before.

She recalled how the boys under Ajax’s command dressed and acted.

Power-tripping racist savages spoiling for someone weaker to hurt.

“These guys must be one tier up from those sackless fuckwits.” Lyudmilla told herself.

They had real coats at least.

That was more than Cheryl’s boyfriend and his friends got.

But who was that they were fighting?

Some street punk?

Lyudmilla cleared the fountain at full sprint, running up the steps to it and past the water basin. As she did, the hooded puncher she’d begun to think of as ‘the featherweight’ got shoved back and struck in the side of the head with a fist.

They stumbled back, clearly losing their balance.

Sensing opportunity, the fascist charged, descending on the punk.

One of his fists glowed dimly green and purple.

He threw a second punch, and left some of that aura on the punk’s shoulder.

Lyudmilla felt her skin brim with the urgency of the situation.

No time to reach for the grimoire. She acted entirely in the moment.

“Spellcasting detected, assisting–“

Her homunculus felt it in her biometrics a second ahead as Lyudmilla cast a spell.

“Lord Pherkan, unveil the fury that clouds the boreal skies! Molniy!”

She shouted the incantation, and the fascist stopped momentarily to face her.

Leaping into the air over the last steps down from the fountain, Lyudmilla’s raised a hand with fingers brimming with blue bolts. An insubstantial javelin of metal-aligned lightning magic formed in her hand and twisted like a struggling snake in her grip.

Without time, a longer incantation, a casting tool, or all of them, the bolt was going wild in her hands. She could barely contain it. Its heat was stinging between her fingers.

Barely able to hold the projectile she had created, Lyudmilla leaned into the descent of her own jump and then used all of her momentum to hurl the shimmering bolt away.

She focused with every fiber of her being on harming, killing, striking, shocking.

Harmful magic came in a multitude of forms. One could try to cause an enemy to become sick with a pox, or turn to stone, or burn up, or be pierced with spears; any torment one could imagine, magic could visit upon an enemy. But just thinking about the pain you would cause was not enough to inflict it. Because of their auras all humans and all living creatures had inherent defenses against magic. They could make it weaker, or absorb it altogether, or warp the effects out of usable shape.

Perhaps the “associations” Minerva spoke of also had something to do with it also.

When she cast the spell, when she channeled it in her hands and finally when she fired it, the agitated Lyudmilla had wanted a bolt of lightning to shock the fascist to death.

Instead, the bolt struck him in the stomach as if it was a blunt instrument.

There was a surge of electricity that was clearly coursing through his body. His legs danced out from under him, and a dark stain crept along his pants as he very clearly pissed himself from the attack. But there was barely any heat transferred, nothing burned, nothing was pierced. Blue sparks deflected in numerous directions as the bolt struck him, dissipated, and knocked him back, eyes wide, jaw hanging, limbs twitching.

Most students would have only known one generic magic missile with which to defend themselves with. Killing magic and hurting magic was not taught widely. One could learn it, and anyone motivated to do so would; but it was not productive or practical, the things magic needed to be to compete with science. So it was not prioritized.

Watching the result of her attack unfold, Lyudmilla briefly understood some of the things Minerva had taught her. Magic was imagination and could take any shape; but a duel between wizards was a battle of wills. You never knew what would happen. To truly crush an opponent with magic there had to be greater wits and power at work.

For Minerva to have defeated Moloch, it must have taken her a titanic effort.

Lyudmilla felt in that instant both powerful and powerless. She had so far to go yet.

Even though she was already so far ahead of her peers in certain ways.

She clenched those hands of hers, those normal, abnormal hands.

And yet, there was no time to feel pity. Lyudmilla was in the middle of something.

There was work only violence could accomplish, and Magic was her one weapon.

Quickly after her attack, she took stock of the situation.

Her fascist was out like a light. Not dead; perhaps that was for the best.

In her anger, Lyudmilla had not considered she was not meant to be a killer anymore.

Once she was sure the enemy was down, she sprinted toward the stumbling, hooded figure who was still in the midst of disorientation and about to fall into the hedge.

That was not an ordinary punch they took. Nobody was throwing ordinary punches.

Her featherweight looked quite dizzy.

Lyudmilla grabbed the featherweight before they could fall to the ground.

“Are you okay? Say something!”

She immediately raised their category to welterweight as she held them up.

In response, the hooded figure coughed violently and gagged.

“Whoa!”

Lyudmilla tried to hold on to them. Something was quite wrong.

“Poison detected. Conjured poison is weaker than the original strain.”

In disbelief, Lyudmilla brought up her homunculus, staring incredulously at it.

“What am I supposed to do then?”

In her hands, the hooded figure writhed.

Coming just short of vomiting, the figure coughed with horrible force.

Between each cough was a sharp, sucking gasp.

This was followed by a brief muttering.

“Spell waveform detected–“

Lyudmilla’s ‘robot’ spoke just as the hooded figure’s own ‘robot’ acted.

Assisted by their homunculus, the hooded figure’s hand glowed bright.

Featherweight smacked themselves in the stomach with a shining palm.

For an instant, the mask came loose on their face.

Lyudmilla caught a brief glimpse of a soft face and bright eyes before the figure realized the fullness of their senses, and covered their face with their other hand.

Regaining their breath, perhaps having counteracted the poison, the figure shook Lyudmilla off, shoving with their shoulders and taking a brusque step back from her.

Once more they nearly stumbled into the hedge; recovering from the sudden tumble, the featherweight stood and adjusted their sunglasses, mask and hood in a brief panic.

Anonymized once more, the hooded figure turned sharply to face Lyudmilla.

“Whoa! Fucking, cool down, okay? I just saved you from him!”

Lyudmilla pointed at the downed fascist, a pool steadily spreading about him.

Chest rising and falling with deep breaths, the hooded figure opposite Lyudmilla appeared almost contrite in their body language all of a sudden. They hunched their shoulders forward, and stared at the ground. They stuffed their hands into their pockets. Was that shame? Was this punk really sorry they turned on Lyudmilla?

“You did save me. Thank you. I’m sorry about that shove. It’s been a night, you know?”

When she finally spoke, the figure’s voice was gentle, almost out of place.

This was no ordinary street punk, in a multitude of ways.

“It’s a night for shoving, I guess. And all kinds of other things.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She was disarmed by the character of the voice, and by the casual tone that it took. By the softness, and reasonableness of it. Lyudmilla would have been throwing f-bombs. “Yeah, you can say that again. You might not have noticed but the park’s under some kinda curse. Who are you? Some kinda hooligan caught up in this?”

Slowly the figure straightened up. She dusted herself off, and cracked a grin under the surgical mask. Lyudmilla could tell through the paper, and her cheeks had moved too. Whatever kind of cool this mysterious boxer had, she was definitely getting it back.

“You can call me the Samaritan.” She said.

“Oh I get it. You’re one of those street punks that fights these guys all the time.”

Lyudmilla had heard of something like that; violent counter-protesters.

She was at a loss for what she heard them called, but the Samaritan elucidated.

“You could say I’m antifa, yeah. I’m not exclusively antifa, but yeah, I do it too. I’m just your all-around concerned citizen.” She stretched an arm toward Lyudmilla, fist curled up. “Wanna pull up your hood with me too? Right now the fash outnumber my crew.”

Lyudmilla put on her own grin. She felt a bloodthirsty kind of hype in that moment.

Truth be told, it was also the kind of night where she felt like tearing some shit up.

“I’m not afraid of these guys. They can look at my pretty face all they fucking want. Tell me this though, is your crew still outnumbered if I come with?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Lets just say my odds would double with you along.” the Samaritan replied.

“Well then.”

Lyudmilla stretched out her own arm and bumped her fist on the Samaritan’s.

“Can you clue me in on what these cosplaying shitheads are doing here?”

The Samaritan raised her homunculus and showed Lyudmilla something on it.

It was the layout for something like a forum, or a text message thread.

“They’re after somebody. She called for help, and the Samaritans are answering.”

<<< Previous / Next >>>

The One Who Will Die (35.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Kansal’s Ambition (24.7)

 

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, SDS Memorial Park

Putting a body count on the Ayvartan Revolution and Civil War was difficult. When did the Revolution start? Was it truly in 2007 when Daksha had taken over the radio station and declared war on the Imperial Authority? That was a stunt to get attention. She never thought that a year after that she would be in Solstice, shooting guards and police, arming workers.

When did it all end? Did it end with the creation of the SDS? Given the current circumstances it certainly didn’t feel like the revolution was complete. It had merely been postponed.

There were so many who had fallen for one reason or another. Even when she couldn’t see their faces in her mind anymore, if she had seen their blood even once she could still see it. Cracks of gunfire, slicing of knives, and the blood, dribbling down the inside of her closed eyelids.

Not everyone had graves and the graves that existed did not always have the right plaques.

There were too many people who did too many things. Daksha barely remembered them all. She barely remembered those she killed and robbed; she barely remembered all of those the police and the guards took from the movement and never gave back. There were fragments of memory that flashed most brightly, like lightning, and then vanished, perhaps for good.

Not everyone deserved to be remembered. But she still felt cowardly for forgetting.

It had been her idea to make an ostentatious memorial park. It helped her to remember.

But there was only so much that could be recalled and stricken on a metal plaque.

There was at least one person, however, whom she could remember perfectly well.

In the memorial park, one grave stood sentinel above the rest. It had the largest plaque.

Lena Ulyanova, born 1968 in Narodnaya, Svechtha. Died, 2022 in Solstice City.

She had lived to see the SDS formed and died before she saw it squabbling and falling.

Her death had been peaceful, happy, among friends and admirers. Her accomplishments were many. Too many to list, and there were many listed. Mother of revolutions; giver of weapons rhetorical and material; fierce fighter in papers and backstreets both. Daksha knew everything about Lena. When she closed her eyes she could still walk hand in hand with her as if seeing it in a film from her own perspective. She could never forget any moment with Lena.

She touched the plaque, first with her hand, and then touching her forehead to it.

“I’m sorry.” She said simply. She couldn’t offer her mentor anything but her apologies.

She had left her ambitions lying by the wayside; she had forgotten the future.

At no point had the revolution stopped. They had all merely decided to put it aside.

“Daksha, it’s me! I’m approaching from behind you! It’s Kremina!”

She turned around; Kremina was walking in from the other end of the park. There was no one else around — it was getting late in the day. Kremina knew Daksha was very jittery and so she never surprised her, she always announced her presence. It was thoughtful. It made Daksha smile. She stood up from the grave and spread her arms, embracing her lover.

“What’s the word from the Council?” Daksha asked.

They separated for a moment. Kremina shook her head.

“Are they passing anything?” Daksha pressed.

“They’re passing some parts piecemeal. Debating the others.”

Daksha grunted. “I didn’t give them an action plan for them to pass bits and pieces they liked. They have to do everything or nothing is going to work. What is Yuba doing?”

“Trying to keep it together. Councilors are resigning over this. It’s gotten messy.”

“Tell him I’m exasperated. I’m going to set them all ablaze soon!”

“Yuba is exasperated too. Is your speech ready for tomorrow?” She asked. “It’s important. He agrees that the speech will help give everything momentum, if you pull it off right.”

“I wrote all of it this morning.” Daksha replied. “Did you make the arrangements?”

“Yes. It will be televised; people in canteens and tenements and villages that have a communal television, and the few people with private televisions, will be able to see it on the national channel. You will also be live on the radio. We expect the audience to be significant.”

“Good. I want them to hear and consider me over the foolishness of their councilors.”

“Council has never addressed the public on television or radio. We’ll catch them off-guard.”

Daksha nodded. She glanced sidelong at Lena’s grave. She did not want to return to this place in a year and feel the need to apologize again — or worse, have no place here to return to.

With one hand on the grave for strength, she promised to commit to the future.

Her other hand procured an item from her pocket. She knelt down before Kremina.

“Is something the matter?” Kremina asked.

“Will you marry me?”

Daksha raised her hands, presenting a small box with a ring in it.

Kremina’s eyes drew wide.

She was overcome with emotion. She took the box. She couldn’t speak.

She raised a hand over her mouth, and started weeping.

“Yes.”

Daksha didn’t think she heard it right. “Yes?”

“Yes. Yes! I want to marry you!” Kremina said.

“Twenty years late, I think. I’m sorry.” Daksha said.

Kremina knelt and threw her arms around Daksha. She kissed her.

“We’ve been married all this time in my eyes. We’re just going public.”

Daksha nodded. They bowed their heads, foreheads touching, and wept together.

 

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Memorial Park

KVW Warden Daksha Kansal’s Emergency Community Address

Televised and radio-aired at noon on 45-AG across national channels.

Comrades of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice!

We must collectively open our eyes and awaken to the facts!

The Nocht Federation is nothing but a paper tiger!

Their technology is no better than ours!

Their strength of arms is no greater than our own!

Their vaunted morality, their claim to civilization, no more valid!

There is no area in which Nocht has an advantage over us!

To think ourselves inferior to them is to condemn ourselves to slavery!

Nocht is a false democracy that intends to rule the world with violence!

Nocht accrues cowardly victories by launching surprise attacks on peaceful nations!

Nocht’s industry, Nocht’s politics, Nocht’s beliefs, in no way grant them superiority!

That they have come this far is no testament to their strength!

It is a warning to us that we must further our own strength and resist!

Elements in our government and military have swallowed up the false words of despots like Achim Lehner and Mary Trueday and now believe that our struggle is hopeless. I cannot express to you with words the magnitude of the error that we commit in believing these lies.

For over 15 years the Nocht Federation has claimed a moral superiority over us, and over the nations of the world around us. They speak of their international trade and how it enriches nations; they speak of their democracy and free speech and private enterprise; they speak of their advances in science and medicine; they speak of their religion and ethical character. Nocht would have you believe they live in a golden age while the world wallows in the gloom.

But unclouded eyes should be able to see that Nocht and its virtues are an illusory edifice!

You can pick apart the fantasies one by one and discover that the Emperor has no clothes!

Every Republiksmark earned in their network of so-called international trade has been strong-armed out of nations that have been cheated out of their freedom and resources at the point of a gun. I remember a time not so long ago when Nocht condemned Bakor and the Higwe as nests of “pirates” and “barbarians,” chastising them for “blocking sea routes” and “terrorizing merchant shipping.” That rhetoric turned to gunfire not soon after that!

Nocht wants to wipe this history from the record! Nocht praises Bakor and the Higwe for their democratic governments, free markets, and for their newly relaxed international trade agreements. They treat the puppet democracies of Bakor and Higwe as if these nations had risen out of the ground one day, fully formed. But did the Bakoreans and the Higweans choose this state of affairs? Tell me, what language is spoken today in the Bazaars of Pampala?

So-called democracy has served only to submit unwilling people’s to Nocht’s will!

So-called democracy fell on Bakor and Higwe and displaced people in the name of profit!

So-called democracy crushed popular movements in Cissea for the benefit of capital!

Is this barbaric so-called democracy what they mean to bring to our shores as well?

I scoff at the insinuation that Nocht is a leader in Democracy. Nocht and its succession of eight-year dynasties have not earned the right to preach to anyone about Democracy. They have no right to speak to other nations about Freedom; it is evident Freedom is their least concern!

As I speak, Northern Aviation, General Oil, The Signature Motor Company, and many more corporations stand to profit immensely from the trampling of foreign peoples.

Violence is exported from the Nocht Federation across the sea, most recently to us, to Ayvarta. At the beck and call of massive arms-makers and resource-hoarders that reap massive profits, Nocht has dragged us into chaos. Can the liberated and enfranchised democratic peoples of the world cast their vote to stop this? Can those in opposition to this expansion and aggression, exercise their free speech and expression and representative democracy to stop this?

Is there a field in the ballot that asks the Nochtish people whether they want this brutality or not? What use is the Nochtish democracy if it cannot stop the Nochtish greed!

Achim Lehner was a name on one of those ballots once. What did he represent on that ballot? Did his competitor represent something different? Was there a man whom the Nochtish people could vote for that did not represent aggression and subjugation and misery the world over?

No! Their so-called democracy exists only to legitimize their adventurism and nothing more.

And yet, they have the gall, these Northern men, to claim they are superior to us!

Achim Lehner will tell you that he is a man of science, that Nochtish science has cured disease and revitalized industry and enriched its people; yet Achim Lehner must have never heard of the revolutionary sciences founded in Svechtha and brought to us by the Zaidis in the new millennium. Because his miracle cures for disease are all locked away in the chests of doctors who demand loot in exchange for health; his revitalized industry has come at a cost of workers laboring in awful conditions for interminable hours, under constant threat of replacement; and despite the rising of abstract numbers of jobs created, stocks and bonds and other monies traded, people still starve, still wander the streets homeless in Rhinea, right under the eyes of his administration! Is this the shape of a civilized, golden age? It is obvious: No!

Meanwhile Mary Trueday claims that she has been enlightened, and that she has access to a font of knowledge that supports Nocht as a moral leader in the world. Mary Trueday, in the face of all the heinous acts committed by her hosts, will without shame parade herself as a spiritual woman who is guided by a higher faith. Has Mary Trueday lost her mind? She has gone from a sniveling aristocrat to a deluded buffoon! Wherever Nocht goes you see the blind believers of the Messanic church wandering in their wake to explicate their atrocities. Mary Trueday is a coward and a zealot who has taken up this wicked mantle for a new generation of demagogues.

By adopting Messianism so strongly Mary Trueday has fully turned her back on our people! Because if you read their scripture then you will know that Hers is a religion whose texts outright condemn our culture’s expressions of identity and even sexuality; that believes in an eternal hell where we burn if we do not follow her strict dogmas; that condemns women like herself as the devil that brought ruin to mankind; that posits a ridiculous mountaintop battle where demons and angels will decide our final fate for us, because we are sinners and weak flesh and ignorant and eternally consigned to hell since the birth of our species.

What do these fairy tales prove to us? Do they justify the deaths and carnage that they have wrought in our country in a mere 27 days? Again, I say No! We must strongly resist these ideas! Nocht cannot write the world’s history any longer! Nocht is a paper tiger, comrades! Hands have folded and painted it and made it fearsome, but there is no flesh there!

Today, comrades, I beseech you to gather your strength and resist Nocht!

We are a socialist nation, comrades; we put, ahead of all consideration, the provision of food, shelter and health for all our people. Life is our value. I am asking you, comrades, to put ahead of everything the preservation of the communities that you hold most dear.

Right now, Nocht threatens to obliterate everything you have gained. Your food gathered by their bureaucrats, priced and sold outside the reach of your wages; your homes taken and valued above your means to live; your services, such as healthcare, the trains, the union cars that drive you to work, the civil servants who help you when a natural disaster strikes, all of those people and those resources will be taken from you to be sold at a profit to those who can afford to pay the better price. Nocht seeks to unmake everything that you believe in!

Nocht has come to put you to the sword, to cast you out on the street, and to make you beg for its scraps! They will rewrite your history to fit the narrative of their superiority.

We did not fight for close to a decade for our freedom to give it up to another Empire. So-called Empress Mary Trueday prattles about her birthright as though you, her people, are a trade good that she can buy and sell — those who talk of entire countries as their birthrights are nothing but despots! There is only one birthright here that matters. Your birthright as a human being to lead a life of dignity, free of preventable starvation, disease, homelessness.

That is what we fought for. And that is what we must keep fighting for.

Because of the cruelty and immediacy and totality of this attack upon us all, there is confusion in our government. There are many Councilors undecided as to what course of action to take. Over the years they have given themselves more and more responsibilities and yet now they forsake them! There are among them people who believe that we can appease Nocht. To appease Nocht, however, is to declare Ayvarta extinct. That is what they want most of all.

Nocht wants to destroy our way of life, because our strength calls into question their own.

It would be the darkest tragedy of our history if the craven indecision of a few doomed us all.

I am calling on all of you comrades, all of you who are truly free and still live in a free nation, to beseech your councilors, to beseech like the Nochtish people cannot, and through the true democracy of the proletariat, to prepare this nation to defend itself at all costs. We must awaken and make our voices heard; it must be shown to all that we will not rest until all our refugees and wounded are evacuated, rehoused and fed, until our army is rebuilt to defend us, until our most powerful weapons are being built and brought regularly to bear against the hated enemy, and ultimately, until Nocht is driven entirely from our lands.

Soon, it may come to pass that half of our beautiful lands are all that remains to house and feed a population meant to live on all of our beautiful lands. But we have a duty to each other that supersedes any hardship. Today, I am calling on you, because this country needs your support! We must secure the future of this nation, which has been so hard-fought for!

Comrades! Today you must awaken! You must shout! You must shout loud enough to awaken this country!

You must shout so loud that your comrades will hear, alive or dead! Your words cannot be misinterpreted!

You must shout so loud that the undecided councilors in the People’s Peak hear your voice unequivocally!

You must shout so loud that the factories, the fields, the streets, are filled with the sound of your resistance!

Let your voices be heard today! Speak before the imperialists take your voice away as they have already taken so many! Shout in the name of that great provider who has cradled you selflessly! For the Motherland, comrades! Lift your right fist, and shout, for Ayvarta!

Awaken, my proud and powerful country! Crush the paper tiger under your boots!

 

* * *

Night fell on Solstice after another busy, lively day in the capital. Everyone welcomed it.

Hours had passed since the speech, but the cheers were still with her; the wall of fists raised into the air in near perfect synchronicity to her own was still in her mind. Such a powerful response from the crowd boded well. She left the Memorial Park with her head up high.

When she returned to her office in Central she received reports that recruitment centers in Solstice City were being swamped with prospective trainees, and that they had run out of informed consent literature to hand out to laborers and students considering joining the armed forces. Reports from other locations in the nation were still forthcoming, but the response seemed promising. Daksha didn’t necessarily just want soldiers however. She needed people to pressure their councilors. She wouldn’t know whether that was happening right away though.

Still, she believed that this could be an entirely new beginning to the fight. Everything up to this point, the invasion, the loss of Shaila, Madiha’s rampage in Bada Aso, was only a prelude to their resistance against Nocht. She believed it; she had to believe it. The future rested on it.

She took her place behind her desk, committed to returning to the war work of the KVW.

But her head was still in the clouds. She toyed with her pen and stared at the black and white picture of Kremina she had on her desk. They were standing in arm in arm in the photo, during the naming ceremony for the SPV Kansal, their most modern naval Battleship to date.

They planned the wedding for 24-HF-2030. Daksha wanted it to be small and discrete.

Perhaps by then Madiha would be back in the city. Daksha wanted her as her best lady.

Madiha was the only person she had something of an amicable connection to who remained from those old, bitter days of revolution. Kimani was invited, but not “best lady” material.

She let out a long, fond sigh, thinking about it. A married woman; married to Kremina.

Her mind was strangely peaceful. The flashes of violence had subsided momentarily.

Someone let themselves into the office; Daksha looked up. But she didn’t snap like usual.

“Whenever Kremina comes in she gives me a warning, Yuba. For my anxiety.” She said.

At the other end of the room Councilor Yuba crossed his arms. “Sorry, Warden.”

“Have you come to deliver good news, or with more baffling legislative arcana?”

Councilor Yuba smiled at her. “How arcane does ‘Premier Kansal’ sound to you?”

 

Read The Next Chapter || Read The Previous Part

Kansal’s Ambition (24.6)

 

This story segment contains some violence and death.

 

???th of the ???’s ???, 200? D.C.E

Core Ocean — Kuhamisha Isles, 75 km west from Bada Aso.

At the beginning of their exile the women did not talk at all, and it was torture for both.

Kuhamisha III was called Regret island. It was a kilometer from Kuhamisha IV and connected by traversable shallows. These two islands together comprised enough territory to feel like something other than a prison, despite their total isolation from civilization and the lack of absolutely anybody on them. Each island was the same — an irregularly shaped ring of sandy shore and shoal leading to ranks of palms and an interior of lush rainforest. A cool, salty breeze swept through the pale, sandy beaches, and the water was thick with fishes and crabs.

On every beach, the exiles could stand and see nothing but blue ahead for an interminable distance. Ayvarta was back out there somewhere, but it was far out of their reach.

Imperial Guard took them by boat to the islands, and showed them the eastern beach where the dock of Kuhamisha, a crude structure of wooden planks, had been erected. Despite the pistols in their hands the Guards were almost cordial. This punishment was lenient, and they were not really being treated as a threat. Kremina thought the guard must have been confident in their traitor within the Zaidis. She also thought that Daksha might decide in a moment of irrational rage that it’s the foolish navy C.W.O who was to blame for this all, and murder her here.

But when the guards unshackled them and departed, Daksha simply went off her own way.

On the beaches of Kuhamisha the air was cool and inviting but the sun was always bearing down. It dawned on her that they would be stuck on these islands for over four years if they served out their sentences, and that escape was essentially impossible. She looked into the forest, and she looked at herself, barely a few hours into exile. She was dressed in a plain white shirt and long pants, the only articles of clothing she had left. Daksha was much the same.

The Guards promised them a supply of food, water and any necessities to be delivered weekly. But there was no introductory shipment. When the boat left it left them only with the clothes on their backs, perhaps hoping they would die of neglect. During that first day, Kremina ate berries in the forest. She saw no small animals that could be hunted. She didn’t even see insects on the plants. She kept to the shade inside the rainforest and on its edge, avoiding the sun. As a Zungu of a particularly light and dusty pigmentation she would have burned badly under it.

Kremina didn’t know what Daksha did during the first few days because she didn’t see her. Daksha kept on walking. There was a shack near the southern beach on Regret that had been constructed for exiles. There were some containers there, presumably to save water, as well as a hammer, a flint and steel set to start campfires, a rudimentary fishing pole, and a bundle of colorful cloth. Kremina removed her pants and wore a flowery curtain as a makeshift skirt. She unbuttoned her shirt and slept in the shack. Daksha stayed missing the whole time.

Next morning it began to rain, and Kremina drank from the water sliding down the tin roof of the shack. She then set the containers out to start collecting rain. Much of that day she spent inside the shack, staring out at the sand, alone. She thought about Daksha, out there.

It gnawed on her. She had nothing to think about but that there was only a single human being out there, one who abandoned her, who might hate her, who might have awaited in this bush or that one to leap out and attack her. It started to occupy her dreams after a while. She didn’t know enough about Daksha to make a judgment, but under these extreme conditions her brain was fueled by this paranoia. She felt she would have a completely blank mind otherwise.

An undetermined amount of time later — the sun had gone up and down at least twice and perhaps five or six times but Kremina hadn’t the presence left to take note of it — there was cause for reunion. A horn sounded in the distance. There was a ship approaching Regret.

Daksha reappeared on the southern beach, though Kremina had no idea from where she had come. She had unbuttoned her shirt, and ripped her pants legs shorter. Her neck-length, bob-cut black hair was messy and dusty, windblown and clearly covered with sand. She was taller, leaner, stronger than Kremina — she looked like more of a soldier than the C.W.O. They stood together, quietly awaiting the ship on the dock. Daksha’s face bore a tired expression.

A small coast guard boat sidled up to the makeshift docks. Guards with rifles kept them at bay while a small crane lifted a crate and dropped it on the dock. Once more they sounded the horn and then left the dock. The exiles watched the ship sail off and disappear in the distance.

Silently, Daksha pried open the crate with a small bar affixed to its side. Inside there were two jugs of fresh water, a box of citrus powder to combat scurvy, rolls of bandages, boxes of millet, and bottled, pickled dates. There were a few books, including, perhaps as a joke, the complete Ayvartan penal code. There were a few plain white shirts and long black pants. One large bundle of rough cloth caught their attention. Daksha pulled it out — it was a hammock.

She shot a look at Kremina, who shrank back several steps from her in a sudden reflex.

“If it is alright with you, we can share the hammock.” Daksha said. She sounded calm.

Kremina blinked. She laughed nervously. “I suppose we could. You aren’t angry with me?”

“Why would I be? If you were a spy you wouldn’t be here dying slowly with me.”

“It could be part of a long con.” Kremina said. She felt ashamed for her fears so far.

“Foolishness ill suits you, C.W.O. Keep your wits about you and don’t let your brains bake any worse under the sun. I’m not planning on staying here for 4 years.” Daksha said.

“I see. So you’ve got a plan? When do we leave?” Kremina said excitedly.

Daksha averted her eyes. ” I don’t have a plan, but I’m thinking. Give me some time.”

Kremina sighed. “Well, until then, at least we won’t lose our minds from loneliness.”

“Yes, I am sorry I left you behind. I was still vexed about the situation so I went exploring and aimlessly wondered through Regret and onto Sorrow.” Daksha said. She looked overhead. The sun was rising toward the center of the sky right over their backs. “Let us get out of the sun.”

Side by side, they returned to the shack. A wooden frame with a thin roof and no windows. It had no door and no floor. Kremina had slept on the sand the past few nights, and she had hung a curtain over the doorway. Daksha did not even want to go inside. “We’ll find a way to get a roof over our hammock and sleep outside. I’m not too fond of cramped spaces like that.”

“I see. Any particular reason why?” Kremina asked.

“Bad memories.” Daksha said.

A few paces inland from the shack they found a pair of sturdy palms and hung the hammock between them. There was enough shade in the morning and noon from the cluster of nearby palms that they could avoid the sun while resting. Both of them climbed on the hammock and got comfortable as they could — there was barely enough room, but if they huddled together they could be warm and more accommodating than sleeping on the hot sand.

“What did you see on the islands?” Kremina asked. Daksha lay behind her.

“In the middle of Sorrow there’s a little freshwater pool we could drink from if we ever fall into dire straits. There is also thick bamboo that we can cut for tools, like a fishing spear. Or a guard-killing spear.” Daksha said. “There might be animals. I can’t be sure.”

Kremina nodded. “I’m glad I’m not alone here.”

“Me too. Don’t worry. We won’t waste four years here. We won’t.”

Kremina laughed. “I feel that even if we spent all that time here, it would not be wasted.”

Daksha chuckled. “Perhaps not.”

Time felt distorted on Kuhamisha. Kremina didn’t know how long she had spent on it. She did not know what day it was when the exiles reconciled and she stopped counting the sun’s journeys and the moon’s appearances. But she felt happy to have Daksha behind her back.

It was not just the isolation. Daksha’s words, written on the newspaper, had brought Kremina out of a dark place. She had nursed admiration for the mysterious socialist rogue. It was strange meeting her and finding the authentic person behind those words. Daksha might have been a thief and a rebel and a killer in the lore of wanted posters and street gossip.

For Kremina, who had always thought her skills in life to be a waste, and going further to waste, it felt like an opportunity to meet someone who was making a real difference in the world.

 

But in real life Daksha was a person who spent her days in exile fashioning crude tools and chasing after crabs and fish with limited success and no thought of resignation; a person who told bawdy jokes while taking a long walk around the beach; a person who looked at the night sky and fashioned her own constellations out of people she knew, Kaushik, Ulyanova, Grabin, Foana, Bastogne, Qote, and invented stories whole cloth about them; a person who recited old stories and religious hymns and folk poetry to lull herself to sleep; a person who awakened first and somehow always crept out of the hammock without waking her companion.

As time went by that presence became more intimate, and it was harder and harder for Daksha to leave unnoticed. Kremina grew used to those hands holding her by the waist and breast, to that face resting on beside her own, to the playful nibbling on her shoulderblade and the sliding of Daksha’s fingers across her thighs. Whenever Daksha left the hammock now, Kremina woke, and took her hand by the hand and pulled her into a kiss. Often it convinced her to remain.

Exiled on Kuhamisha, Kremina got to see the human behind the myth of Daksha Kansal, the monster that stalked the streets and papers of Bada Aso. She grew to love her more than the myth, not for the things that made her rare but for all the things that made her ordinary.

Ordinary things like her dreams, her childish-sounding, unpretentious dreams.

“I want people to grow up free of the pain that I felt and feel.” She would say.

Her phrasing was different, but it was her socialism distilled to its human core.

 

26th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2006 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

You couldn’t find a decent socialist paper in Bada Aso these days even if you tried.

Various circumstances had driven The Union Banner out of print. With it, a lot of the irreverent fervor of the revolution had quieted down. The Social Democrat’s paper, Sparka, gave gracious room to Zaidi figures like Lena Ulyanova, the mysterious Mr. Bastogne, and a rising star still known only as “M.Sky” or “Malinovsky,” who had all but switched sides to SD point of view. However they had rigid guidelines and a heavy editorial hand that frustrated the Zaidis.

Sparka was trash; Daksha needed only give it a good look a few hours from reaching the mainland, hooked on a piece of steel debris from the exploded IAS Cheche, to realize this. Dressed as sailors she and Kremina seized copies of the paper from a child courier and found the articles disappointing. Though well-written, the subject matter was far too tepid.

Only one thing about it inspired curiosity — why it was still printing in the first place.

There was also an answer to this and it was also easy to grasp from the paper’s contents.

Sparka was still illegal, but aside from the occasional inflammatory Zaidi rants it was seen as harmless and conciliatory with the Bada Aso government, and the Guards had for the most part given up on finding the latest hiding place for its precious secret printing press.

Setting out into the city to find the answer themselves seemed a daunting task at first. But it took Daksha only a few hours to shake and smack around the correct people to uncover its location, so she surmised that Sparka existed only because the Guards had gotten lazy.

“Do we attack now?” Kremina asked.

“At night — less potential collateral damage that way.” Daksha replied.

Ducking behind a steel garbage bin in an alley, the two women waited for the dark.

Because it printed only at the end of the week, and printed only three long pages, the SD printing press and the so-called editorial bureau of Sparka was based out of the basement of a small sports club along the Umaiha riverside. Daksha picked the lock and the pair stole inside. Past an entry hall lined with kickball trophies and storied team photographs, they found the door to the basement, drew their revolvers and tiptoed into dark below.

Behind stacks of old unused furniture, nets, cases of balls, and other sporting implements that dominated the room, there was one uncongested corner with a desk and the SD’s printing press, smaller even than the one at the Union Banner. On the desk, a young man slept near a flickering candle that could have fallen and set alight his papers at any moment.

It very nearly did when Daksha kicked the desk and awakened him. He sat up and looked every which way as though surrounded. He turned his eyes to Daksha. Dark bags had formed under them and gave him an even more nervous expression. He was paler, thinner than before.

“Kansal.” He said in a hushed voice. The word was almost lost under a panicked breath.

“Janta Mahapuri, or should I say, Malinovsky, in the papers.” Daksha replied.

“Daksha, where– Why are you dressed like that?” He asked. He started to shake. “And your hair is so long. I haven’t seen you in a while, I was so startled. Who is she, with you?”

“I am Kremina Qote. Pleasure to meet you. I was never a fan of your articles in the Union Banner, but a comrade is a comrade, right?” Kremina said with a big grin.

Daksha walked around the desk and hooked her arm aroung Malinovsky’s throat as though to choke him, but instead she gave him a friendly shake and messed with his hair.

“You should be happy to see us! We just got through hitching a ride on a naval cutter from Kuhamisha and then killing everyone and blowing it up.” Daksha said.

“You’ve got to be joking.” He said, still trapped in Daksha’s grip.

“It’s easy when you know exactly how bored ensigns patrol the deck.” Kremina said.

Malinovsky stared sidelong at Daksha while she laughed and toyed with him.

“Don’t you think the sailor suit fits me?” Daksha said, shaking him again.

“A little, but I think the um, the gentleman sort of look, fit you best.” He stammered.

“Perhaps, but I like trying new things. I wore my hair long all through my childhood. I kind of miss it, to be quite honest. My mother liked it a lot.” She said casually.

“I’m sure she did.” He said. “I’m sure she was a woman of great taste, like yourself.”

Daksha pressed the barrel of her revolver to his head and squeezed off a single shot through it.

“That was too good for you, you traitorous piece of shit.” She said. It was an odd relief.

His neck went limp against her elbow. She let him go. While his body fell aside, she took everything that was on the desk, stuffed it into his pack and took it around her shoulders. There were unfinished articles, SD codes and other things. Daksha urged Kremina out and the two of them ran out the back and disappeared into the tight streets and alleys of Bada Aso.

 

* * *

Under the name Lydia Kollontai, Lena Ulyanova had acquired a small apartment in the central district of Bada Aso, right under the nose of the Imperial Authority. Though her own country had overthrown its particular imperialists, Ayvarta lurched to freedom in fits and starts. Many in the Zaidi movement had been jailed or killed; she had more contacts left with anarchists than socialists these days, and begrudgingly published what little writing she did with the SDs.

She was waiting for her pupil to return. She had news to give her; a burden to give her.

Her feet had swollen some and she found it difficult to walk. So she could no longer stand under moon or rain, as she did in the past, waiting for Daksha to appear. She had the urge to do so, as if every night she did not spend watching the street was a night she delayed the return of her little star — but she simply did not have the ability. So she waited at home, hoping that the door would slam open one night and her child, covered in rain and mud, would return.

On the 26th, she felt under the weather and did not even leave the apartment to pick up a paper. A little boy courier dropped an edition of the Sparka through her mail slot but she had no motivation to read it. She laid on the couch in her little living room, eating paneer koftas, little fried balls of cheese and bulgur and bits of leek, and drinking sweet palm wine.

It wasn’t vodka, but it kept her throat from getting too dry while lounging around.

She felt miserable and started to question everything. What had she been able to do for Daksha all her life? Only get her into trouble. Only lead her to worse and worse things.

Perhaps if she had remained a compliant rich brat everyone would have been better off. She could have overcome her aversions and married and led an ordinary life, raised children, oversaw matters in narodnaya. She could have just given up and accepted the name–

No– that was the exhaustion talking. It was unconscionable. She refused to succumb to it.

She had to fight, because otherwise she left the blade of history in the worst of hands.

She had to fight to wrench it back, in whatever way possible.

Someone had to fight; someone had to sustain that fight.

But it couldn’t be her alone; it couldn’t be her in the lead anymore. The very fact that she was contemplating these things meant that her days in the forefront of this vanguard were done. She would not be the person who would free Ayvarta. She was not this land’s future.

It had to be someone to whom the Ayvartan sun had lent its fire.

Someone who was not averse to its heat like she was.

She heard a sliding noise and bolted up from her couch.

Daksha waved from the door. Her companion removed her own hat and smiled.

Lenochka,” Daksha said happily, in the way Grabin used to say it.

Shacha,” Lena said. She almost wanted to cry, but she was too tired for tears.

 

28th of the Postill’s Dew, 2007 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Madiha felt a bit of trepidation working with the Zaidis. Though she liked Daksha well enough, and she seemed like a nice lady, other street children had told her not to get involved because the Zaidis were, as the children put it, “crazy.” They weren’t like the ordinary gangsters.

Still, Madiha liked Daksha. She wanted to follow Daksha wherever the woman went. She was tall, dark and graceful, long-haired, strong. She dressed in a suit and had a black fedora.

In a little corner of her mind Madiha wanted to dress in a suit and have a black fedora and shoot bad guys and rob banks, all the things she had heard others say about the Zaidis.

Perhaps, Madiha thought, she herself was also crazy. After all, she had killed a man to save Daksha several days before. Not one other street child in the world had ever shot a man in the head for anyone. Street kids didn’t fight, they ran. Fighting didn’t pay for a street kid.

There was something about Daksha, about the Zaidis, about their conduct and their ideas.

Everything fit with her own. She was tired of people hurting her and hurting others.

Justice attracted her, like her very own pied piper leading to the dark below of Bada Aso.

So she followed Daksha to a small butcher shop, and a basement drying room full of whole hogs hanging by hooks, completely skinned and looking disturbingly leathery. Madiha rarely ate any meat, and the sight did a lot to dissuade her from eating much in the near future.

Ducking under and squeezing around various hogs they came to a cleared area where a large machine with plates and rods and wheels stood next to big rolls and tall stacks of paper.

With a gentle smile on her face, Daksha scooped a stack of papers into a basket, and handed the basket to Madiha. It was a little heavy — she had to carry it with both of her hands.

“This is the Zaidi newspaper, Saca.” Daksha said. “I want you to distribute it on the streets. It costs 2 shells or 235 coral. You will not let go of a single issue until you get your money for it, no matter what. Stand at a street corner and act cute, and shout something in your cute little voice like ‘Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!’ to gather attention and get sales.”

Madiha blushed. She did not really think of herself as cute, though she was supposed as she was eight years old it was inevitable, even despite her size and bashful demeanor.

From the desk, Daksha withdrew a hat with a white ribbon and a small five-shot revolver.

“Here, wear this beret while you do it. You’ll look even cuter and maybe we’ll sell more papers. Those SD fools don’t have a cute little mascot.” She adjusted the hat on Madiha’s hand, and secured the gun in the basket, behind the papers. “And if someone gets funny, use that.”

“Um, whenever I shoot a gun, you should know, I always aim for the head.” Madiha said.

Daksha scratched her hair. “Can you, well, not do that? Can you shoot their legs or something?”

“I can try.” Madiha said. She had only handled a gun twice in her life, but before that she had handled rocks and bottles and bricks — her hand always tried to go for the enemy’s head.

“You don’t want to kill them, really, just make them think twice before bothering a Zaidi courier, whatever her age.” Daksha said. “Killing can get messy, maiming is just casual.”

“Will I get paid for this?” Madiha asked. She tried to put on a serious face.

Daksha smiled and rubbed the beret against Madiha’s head.

“Yes, I will pay you. You’ll also get to sleep somewhere nice, though whether it’s a guest bed, a couch, or a dog basket with blankets on it, will depend on who can host you.”

“That sounds good. All of that, I mean. I slept in a gutter a week ago.” Madiha said.

Daksha patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll have no more of that.”

“I want to ask you something else too, Ms. Kansal. I want to read the paper; I want to learn about you– about the Zaidis. About the things you said before; about sociabilism.”

“Socialism.” Daksha corrected.

“Socialism, right. Sorry.” Madiha flinched a little. It was reflexive. At the orphanage if you failed to recite an appropriate passage from the good book when asked, you’d get in trouble.

“It’s fine. At your age I didn’t even know it existed. I couldn’t even read well.”

“I can read. I memorized all of the Good Book. I had to or the sisters got mad.”

“Well, forget all of that, because it’s worthless rubbish fairy tales. Here, read this.”

From her vest pocket, Daksha withdrew a little pamphlet and put it in Madiha’s own vest pocket. It stuck out like a handkerchief and made her look a little more refined.

“It’s a primer for factory workers, written by Lena Ulyanova, one of our many genius writers. You’ll see as soon as you open it; if you’ve read that wretched messianic book then this style of writing will be easy for you to digest. And I’ll answer any questions you have later.”

Madiha smiled brightly. She felt excited suddenly. Socialism! She was going to learn with Daksha! She would sleep indoors tonight! Surely she would be the envy of the street kids. She hauled her little basket out the basement, up the steps, out the butcher shop front and all the way to the street corner. She set down her basket and looked around the crowd.

“Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!” Madiha cheered. “Only 2 shells!”

 

Read The Next Part || Read The Previous Part

Kansal’s Ambition (24.5)

 

This story segment contains some mild drug use.

 

10th of the Postill’s Dew, 2003 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

4 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

27 Years Before The Solstice War

In the basement of a fine clothes atelier in the great city of Bada Aso a secret printing press noisily churned out illegal pamphlets and newspapers denouncing industrial farmers, the regional guard, the imperial authority, and, at times, the other illegal publications.

The Zaidi socialists of southern Ayvarta were fast applying the lessons of the Svechthan revolution. An official newspaper was a valuable tool for disseminating information to committed socialists and building socialist conscience in an undecided and unknowing proletariat. In Adjar, Dori Dobo had its Zaidi newspaper, Sitara, running for two years now.

In Bada Aso the struggle was still comparatively young, and the Union Banner stumbled up the basement steps of the atelier and out into the streets at an inconsistent pace, with an inconsistent page count and inconsistent personalities. That was all soon to change.

Through the glass door of the shop, an odd pair walked in. There was a pretty, dainty woman, barely taller than a young teen, complexion pale as a ghost’s, boasting ice-blue eyes and long blue hair, and a dress fine enough to hang on one of the mannequins in the atelier; beside her stood a tall woman, brown skinned, broad shouldered, hair cut short, wearing what would be considered a man’s ensemble vest, jacket and pants, along with a plain black fedora.

She was carrying an ordinary leather suitcase with her.

A young woman greeted them from behind a desk. She had her dark hair done into numerous luxuriant curls and her bronzed skin heavily flushed with cosmetics. Her eyes glanced at the suitcase but did not linger — she made eye contact with them quickly. “Welcome to Atelier Soie! We carry the finest fashions from Franz. My name is Genevieve. How may I help you?”

First they exchanged pass phrases. “Do you carry anything snakeskin? Hydra perhaps?”

Genevieve was all smiles. “Only for the valued customers.” She winked at the pair.

“Daksha Kansal.” The tall woman tipped her fedora at the girl, who giggled pleasantly.

“I must say, for a lady, I can only think to describe you as handsome.” Genevieve said.

“Her lady-ness only accents her handsomeness. I am Lena Ulyanova,” replied the Svechthan.

“I was informed of your arrival. You may head on down the back.” Genevieve said. “Unless this charming rogue wishes to keep me company on a lonely shift.” She smiled at Daksha.

“I’ll be just as charming in thirty minutes.” Daksha wryly said. Genevieve giggled again.

Lena gently nudged Daksha with her elbow, and the pair walked around the mannequins and sewing machines and took a door down to the basement steps. They descended into a room lit only by a few electric bulbs hanging from their cables, and sectioned off by large leather and fur and linen curtains hung as if to dry from a network of cables. Behind several such makeshift screens, they found the printing press in a corner along with the rolls of paper to be fed into it, and the front desk of their impromptu editorial office, currently presided over by two men.

“Ah, the central committee finally send someone to bail us out? Pity we couldn’t take over the big city ourselves.” Said the older of the men. He had black skin and curly brown hair that escaped from under his fedora, and a good suit. He spoke leisurely and seemed relaxed. “Name’s Bastogne. At least, that’s this week’s name. Sorry about the mess — we had to move this thing from a butcher shop a few days ago. It still reeks of offal, in my opinion.”

“I’m the new editor-in-chief, Lena Ulyanova.” Lena said, taking his declarations in good humor. She reached out a hand and she shook it softly. “Who is this young man with you?”

Bastogne hooked his arms around a skinny, bespectacled bronze-skinned youth with a bashful expression and slick dark hair. He avoided eye contact until Bastogne lifted his chin and pushed his cheeks up. He didn’t struggle — he looked permanently unamused, however.

“He’s our largely inanimate main writer. Introduce yourself for ancestor’s sakes.”

Cologne,” he said, “that’s my fake name when we got in here anyway. My pen name is Malinovsky. Trying to pretend like it’s Svechthans running this– did I pronounce it right?”

Lena smiled. “You did! I didn’t think knowledge of it would disseminate so quickly.”

“Well it has been a few years, and you are our inspiration in the struggle.” Malinovsky said.

“I’m glad to hear it. I look forward to reading your work, Malinovsky. My companion and protege here, Daksha, will write for us as well. She’s become quite a scribbler lately, and has no end of fire to deliver against the bourgeoise.” Lena said, gesturing to her pupil at her side.

Daksha had checked out of the conversation a while ago; she was examining the press instead.

On form factor alone, their press was laudable: it was a fairly small unit, capable of being taken apart and carried off in a hurry if necessary. In their line of work this was a great boon. However it came with the obvious drawback that a small press could only print a limited amount each day. Daksha knew enough about presses from her previous jobs in Dori Dobo to know that they would not be making the Union Banner a daily paper with this machine.

However it could certainly print enough for a workweek edition and a crucial Seventhday paper for the whole city of Bada Aso; six big pages, five or six articles, and some poetry or comedy.

Daksha set the suitcase down on the desk and undid the catches holding it closed. Inside were a few envelopes. She fished out a specific, larger envelope and tore it open. She handed Bastogne the manuscript and quickly began to explain its significance to him. “My first article; since I knew I would be moving from Dori Dobo soon I wrote about something universal, the character of a socialist state compared to a capitalist one. I’ll start researching for some more local articles soon, but since you seem hard-up for writing you can print that front-page.”

She had spoken very quickly and precisely, with a casual confidence that awed the room.

“Wow! A real firebrand.” Bastogne laughed. Malinovsky looked mortified for a moment.

“Oh ho ho; of course Daksha would come prepared.” Lena said, patting her pupil in the back.

“What’s in the rest of these?” Malinovsky said, picking one up with slightly shaking hands.

“Money to fund our operation.” Daksha said. “I gathered it. There’s 10,000 shells.”

Malinovsky dropped the envelope and scrambled a few steps away as if it was alive.

“That’ll keep us printing for a good while indeed.” Bastogne said. “How’d you get it?”

“Some of it was donated.” Daksha glanced at Lena, who smiled back. “Some expropriated.”

“Expropriated?” Malinovsky asked. “You mean stolen, but from whom?”

“People who deserved to be stolen from. I made personally sure.” Daksha sharply replied.

Malinovsky turned slowly away and stared at the wall as though in deep contemplation.

“Lad’s still new to all this, but he’s a pretty good writer.” Bastogne said softly.

“Have you got anything coming in?” Daksha asked, addressing the brooding young man.

“Not at the moment.” Malinovsky replied. He avoided eye contact, fidgeting with his glasses.

Daksha sighed. “Can you write filler material? Poetry? Write six or seven worker’s poems, about hard labor and bad bosses and such; something to get people riled up for a fight.”

“I don’t know. I can try.” Malinovsky said. He certainly didn’t seem the type to rile up.

“They don’t have to be great.” Daksha said. “They’ll be part of the back matter. I’ve got a few contacts who may be willing to submit articles, or I can write more. We should be ready–”

“You’d think she was the editor and not me.” Lena interrupted. Bastogne burst out laughing.

“Indeed! She’s taking the reigns right from the hands of all of us old-timers.” He said.

“I’m sorry.” Daksha said. She hadn’t been aware of how enthusiastically she was talking over everyone. “I meant no disrespect Comrade Ulyanova, I am just thinking that–”

“I understand! You’re excited. Big city, big work, girls already going after you.”

Daksha blushed; now it was her turn to grow bashful and avert her eyes. In turn Malinovsky looked like he wanted to be buried under the earth to avoid all this conversation.

Lena patted her cheerfully on the back, and hooked her arm around to pull her close.

“Let me handle the drudgery Daksha,” she said, “you focus on your specialties, alright?”

“Yes ma’am. Speaking of,” she grinned, “I don’t want to keep a lady waiting.”

 

57th of the Dahlia’s Fall, 2004 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Bada Aso was moving into the Aster’s Gloom, but it had not yet experienced the seasonal rains. They began irregularly, anywhere from the end of the Dahlia’s Fall to the start of the Hazel’s Frost. On the night of the 57th the sky was clear enough to count the stars and a fresh breeze blew across the streets carrying a hint of salt from the sea. It was a cool, bustling night.

Daksha waited for a contact in a dance hall off Penance road, sitting in a curtained-off booth table. While the singers and dancers gave it their all on stage and the couples on the floor stepped, kicked and twirled energetically to the beat, she drank old warm rice wine with a rough, woody taste and stared. She had bought a 2-liter bottle of the stuff to keep her busy.

Her social life could be exciting when she wanted it to, but lately she had been focusing on bigger things. The Union Banner; the Social-Democrats and the Anarchists and other groups bent on change; and plans for a few more expropriations. The Ayvartan Revolution couldn’t survive solely on Lena’s money — especially when she had given away most of her wealth and bourgeois status when the Svechthan revolution was completed and secured 4 years ago.

She didn’t want Lena to go through more difficulty — she felt that this was her responsibility. It was her country, and her people, and she should be the one handling the affairs here.

Early on she asserted her independence and initiative and it was paying off now.

A military contact was risky, but Daksha was confident in her ability to make a play.

She had agreed to meet in the booth, but Daksha keep peeking outside. It paid off eventually. She found her contact walking aimlessly toward the bar and into the dance floor. She was a woman with sand-colored skin and wavy, black hair tied into a high ponytail. She wore her naval uniform to the meeting, the fool; thankfully she had none of her pins or medals.

She turned her head and finally spotted the booth. Daksha waved her over and they sat together. She was good-looking; an understated, casual beauty. She was not a foreigner. Daksha was sure she was a Zungu Ayvartan. Judging by the tips of her ears, perhaps part-Lubonin. But she could be part-Nochtish too. For Zungu of long lines, it was hard to tell.

“Spirits defend, did Malinovsky not tell you to look discrete?” Daksha said.

“This is discrete! I’m sorry, I recently came ashore, and I’ve no civilian clothes.”

“Fine. But if we are to meet again, you’ll get a dress or a pants suit or something.”

Her new contact nodded her head. Daksha laid against the plush seating with her hands behind her neck, stretching. She’d had a couple drinks already, but they had little effect on her.

They sat in silence for a moment, sizing each other up. The naval officer decided to be friendly.

“Chief Warrant Officer Kremina Qote,” the woman said, extending her hand. Daksha shook it. “Logistics, Core Ocean Fleet. It is a pleasure to meet you. Pen name Shacha, right?”

“Corporal Shacha.” Daksha said playfully. It was one of her identities, at least.

“I didn’t know you were infiltrated in the army.” Kremina whispered.

“Do I look like I’m in the army right now? I go in and out as it suits.”

“I see. You’re every bit the mysterious rogue I thought I’d find.”

Kremina sat back in the booth, drumming her fingers on the table.

Daksha looked her up and down. She looked genuine. Nervous, but genuine.

“So, let us sort out our affairs. You’re willing to risk everything to spy on the navy. Why?”

“You inspired me.” Kremina said. “I first read your primer on the agricultural exploitation in Dori Dobo in the summer last year, and then I also read your Topic Of 14-AG, where you laid out various points against the army and government and the Empire. It dawned on me that I was not protecting our people in the navy — I am part of a government causing harm.”

“I see!” Daksha smiled. She took a sip of rice wine, and she felt terribly flattered. Though she tended to have a dim view of her own writing, she was proud of the Topic Of 14-AG. Even the curmudgeonly Social Democrats and the professional contrarians in the Anarchists had given her a hat tip for that piece, and it had made her a name in the city. To hear that it had turned a naval officer turncoat delighted her. She never expected it to be half as useful as that!

She poured from the bottle of rice wine and pushed the glass across the table with her fingertips. Kremina took it in hand and shook the ice up but seemed reluctant to drink.

“Alcohol not part of your aesthetic?” Daksha said.

“I can’t drink, I’m technically on duty–”

Daksha put her hand over her mouth to stifle laughter.

“You’re not on duty. Drink up and then tell me about good ships to rob.”

Kremina took a sip, and it loosened up her lips; she both smiled and started to talk.

Daksha’s main interest these days, aside from the paper, were expropriations. But stealing money that then had to be hidden or converted or otherwise quickly disposed of was troublesome. She had started thinking instead about stealing weapons and ammunition — things that could be distributed and used in the struggle. They had pistols and shotguns and vermin guns and even a few guardsman battle rifles but more would be good.

Bombs were a particular item on her wish list. She could do a lot with a good bomb.

She was thinking that with the proper information, a sea heist could prove lucrative. If they knew what armaments ships bound from Lubon to strike, they could potentially make off with modern automatic weapons bought from abroad to suppress the Empire’s enemies. Hit the ship in the right location, and they could toss the cargo overboard and dive for it later or rush it out to uninhabited islands and pick it up again at their leisure. It was a reckless plan, but if they had someone on the inside it was possible, and could yield a great reward.

Perhaps it was the liquor, but the more they spoke, the more Kremina grew quite confident that she could deliver a ship of increasing size to Daksha’s hands. First a merchant, then a frigate, then a destroyer, and soon Kremina was laughing and promising a Battleship would go turncoat and help Daksha bombard Bada Aso’s police stations to pieces for the struggle.

“I swear, on that handsome face of yours!” Kremina chuckled. “I’ll get y’the fleet!”

Daksha smiled and patted her in the back and, ultimately, took her over her shoulder and walked her out of the booth. All of the energy had drained from her, she was holding her hand to her mouth, limping along, turning frightening pale. Daksha propped her up and carried her out the door of the dance hall and into the street. It was long past midnight.

She looked out to the street, and found a pair of bayonets pressed to her neck.

From both sides of the building a dozen police officers appeared as if from thin air, armed to the teeth with bayonets, rifles, clubs, leather jerkin armor over their uniforms, black masks. They looked like they were readying to fight an army rather than some buzzed women.

Several years ago after murdering a man and setting alight his house, Daksha had imagined what she might have felt if caught in the act by the police. She thought she might have died on the spot, died at the feet of the guards, her heart collapsing by the weight of sin.

Dimly (perhaps it was the liquor) she congratulated herself on the fact that her reaction was one more mildly annoyed than desperately mortified. She smiled at them.

Knowing she was outnumbered, she absentmindedly held out her hands to be cuffed.

Kremina fell to the floor, dead drunk, spittle trickling from between her lips.

“I can take ’em. Lemme at the pigs. For socialism.” She moaned from the ground.

 

Read The Next Part || Read The Previous Part