Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.

The Day [4.1]

In the ocean of her memories a scene percolated to the surface.

She was warm, protected, encouraged. Someone was holding her.

Up above there was a great, massive firmament filled with stars.

At the very center of that sky, that stretched as vast and high as anyone could possibly see, was a circular, glowing blue presence that shone down upon them. It was beautiful and reassuring. It filled her with awe.

“That’s the moon, Elena.”

She was in a woman’s arms.

That woman pointed her toward that infinite sky.

“Someday, you’ll be able to see it, and the stars too. With your own eyes.”

“I can see them now, mommy! I can see them! You’re so silly!”

Elena smiled and laughed.

Her mother looked down at the ground around them.

A chill, an indescribable coldness and dread, entered the scene quite suddenly.

It had no form, but Elena felt gripped by it.

A shadow swept the kind woman away, and it shattered the beautiful sky overhead.

A shadow, bristling with devices to kill people, shining a bright red eye upon her.

Elena anxiety made her toss in just the right way to expose herself and end her dream.

White light crept in through the open window, climbing her bed across the span of a few hours until she finally turned her cheek into it.

On the windowsill, a bird pecked at breadcrumbs that had been carelessly left over from last night’s snack. It ignored a wide glass of wine that had been left alongside the crumbs.

When the bird was done with the crumbs, it chirped as if in protest.

“Ugghhhh.”

Her slumber was disturbed just enough to annoy her; Elena launched a stuffed fish toy from the bed at the window as if it were the true culprit for her disordered sleep. Though the projectile fell just short of its perch, the bird fled nonetheless. Its protests upon departing were far louder than its contented chirping, and finally shook the sleeping woman completely from her reverie.

Elena slowly pushed herself up to a sitting position on her bed.

She absentmindedly brought her hands up to her chest, soaked with sweat.

Chiffon clung to her skin. It was almost see-through. She felt embarrassed.

“Was I really sweating this much?”

It was not just the heat. She had the climate adjusted the night before.

No matter what she did, she was haunted at night.

She was beset by anxious dreams that she forgot as soon as her eyes opened.

“They’re probably about father.”

She sighed deeply.

She was clearly affected by his passing. No matter how much she denied it.

And yet she didn’t know even how she should feel about it.

Her culture and station mandated a period of mourning.

But what kind of mourning was there, for a woman who was isolated already, and could not even witness the death of the father she was meant to mourn? There were stipulations, like wearing black and avoiding public appearances– total nonsense. No one could see her or her choice of attire, and she was already strictly prohibited from “appearing” anywhere.

She brought her hands up to her eyes.

If she were going to cry, it would have been over the injustice of it all.

“I only ever really saw him in dreams; and now I suppose I can only mourn him in them.”

“Milady!”

There was a sudden, startling knock on the door.

“I can hear you mumbling. It’s 10:00 AM! Young ladies have already started their day. It is not good for beauty nor character to make a habit of sleeping in.”

“I’ll be right out.” Elena said half-heartedly.

“The lady Lichtenberg sent an acoustic message an hour ago! You need to get ready!”

At the mention of that surname, the young lady sat bolt upright.

She leaped out of bed with newfound energy.

Her gallant knight was coming!

“Why didn’t you say that first?” She cried out.

There was a deep sigh from the door.

“Because I hoped you would be more responsible of your own accord!”

That nagging voice belonged to the head maid, Bethany Skoll, a moody, dark-haired, over-dressed woman many years Elena’s senior, with eyes hiding behind her spectacles. Like the rest of the maids on Vogelheim, she was tasked not only with serving the princess but ensuring that she carried herself as a proper lady. So she always barking orders and complaints.

Elena put her out of her mind quickly; after all, Gertrude Lichtenberg was visiting!

Elena practically launched herself from bed and ran to the opposite wall. Her bedroom was spacious, and high up in the villa’s main building, so a fresh breeze was blowing through. It felt like an absolutely perfect day, and she wanted to dress for perfection. There was a discrete console attached to the wall that opened the door to her wardrobe. This was, itself, another large room.

There were massive glass containers on either side of her which contained long lines of dresses, blouses, skirts, shorts; another set contained full bodysuits, part bodysuits, swimsuits, sheer bodystockings, along with all manner of brassieres and undergarments. There was an entire display rack at the back that was filled with shoes. At the touch of a button, specific shoes moved down the rack to within arm’s reach. Her dressers also moved on a conveyor, handing her any garment she desired. It could do everything except dressing her up itself, which she preferred.

As she stood amid all her clothes, a series of mirrors and cameras captured a snapshot of her, displayed diagrams of her body on the various surfaces of the wardrobe, and began to calculate “vital data” about her weight, height and other changes. It started openly speaking to her in a robotic voice about perceived changes and dietary suggestions, as well as suggesting outfits to her.

Across every mirrored surface was the same image of a young, slender and slight woman, fair-skinned, with long lilac colored hair and bright indigo eyes. When she stared at this depiction, she saw a baby-faced girl who probably seemed as flighty and frivolous as a fairy at first glance, despite her 25 years and what she considered a series of personal hardships. She frowned at it.

“You can stop with that nonsense!” She called out to the wardrobe program, as if the computer could hear her disdain. “I don’t need you to take care of me. Just shut down already.”

Despite her protests, the data continued to churn.

Elena sighed and returned to her business.

She had all manner of clothes of various different fabrics. While some were synthetic, they were the highest quality. Her chiffon was actual silk, and she almost felt bad for how much she had been sweating in it. She only owned a handful of garments made with real silk. She pondered what she would wear for Gertrude, actively ignoring the computer’s suggestion to don a fluffy gown or a conservative habit. Maybe she would appreciate something slightly sporty today.

“I’ll take her out to the forest and the fields. Yeah; let’s do that!”

From the shoe racks she pulled out a pair of sturdy boots. She set them aside and found a white two-piece bodysuit to wear under a short-sleeved, knee-length blue dress. It was the perfect attire for an active day, she thought. Once dressed, Elana ran out of her room, giggling happily.

In passing, the computer in the closet rated her outfit selection as “unacceptable.”

At that point Elena was no longer listening to it.

She had a single destination in mind.

Every hall in the villa was broad and wide and filled with incredible treasures. The columns, walls and handrail joints had lavish carvings and etchings, depicting creatures and legends, and the mighty sun, Solceanos, who breathed warmth and life into the Ocean. There were beautiful paintings on the walls of landscapes that seemed almost to come from a world of dreams.

On the floor, the tiles formed intricate patterns that were mirrored on the vaulted roofs, which were several meters above. Everything was the warm brown color of real wood while boasting the clean, mirror sheen of polished steel. As she made her way from the second-floor staircase, she saw a variety of young women below in black and white uniforms and black bodysuits, ferrying laundry, cleaning up the lobby area and pushing carts with dishes for lunch.

Giving them no heed, Elena charged past the women with a broad, beaming smile.

“Milady! Please don’t run in the halls!”

Bethany called out to her, but Elana practically glided across the lobby, laughing.

None of the maids were offended. A few even clapped for the lady of the house.

With this beautiful, sealed-off world behind her, Elena pushed on toward freedom.

Through the double wooden doors, Elana exited the villa out into a bright, lush world far broader and grander than even the great halls of Vogelheim Villa. Far overhead, the heavens were clear and blue, with the sun shining almost directly in the middle of the sky. A gentle but delightfully cool breeze blew her hair and tickled her face. She giggled and spread her arms.

Even if it was all made by machine, the effect was so comforting, so human.

From the villa, a stone path split in half a vast field of red and yellow flowers that stretched the entire circumference of the hill that the villa was built upon. Farther afield, Elana could make out the edge of Vogelheim’s beachside resort town to the east, and to the west, the farms and forest. Directly in front of her, the path led to a circular clearing surrounded by pillars, like a ritual site.

Elena hurried to the center of the clearing.

She put her hands on one of the stone pillars, summoning a computer screen into the air.

On the screen, a diagram showed that entry had been made into the lower levels.

And something was coming up the elevator.

Excited, Elana dismissed the screen and stepped back.

Moments later, a warning sounded, and the ground in the center of the clearing split in half. Rather than dust, it was revealed to be a metal hatch, leading down into a corridor of blue LED lined walls with a massive freight elevator in between. This elevator, distinctly mechanical in stark contrast to the rest of the landscape, raised one person and a few drones ferrying crates of goods. They had all come up from a dreadnought that had arrived surreptitiously at the port: the Inquisitorial flagship, The Iron Lady.

Elena’s eyes drew wide, in awe of the visitor who had come for her.

She could not contain her smile.

Nor could she contain the spring in her step.

With an uproarious laugh, she leaped forward and threw her arms around the visitor.

“Gertrude! Oh Gertrude it’s been so long! I’m so happy to see you!”

In return, the visitor returned Elena’s embrace.

“It is a joy to see you as well, Princess.” She said.

Her voice was deep and rich.

“Ah, stop with the formalities. Come here, come here!”

Elana hugged her even tighter.

She drew back only briefly, taking a good look at her friend.

“It’s amazing, Gertrude. You keep going to war, and you come back looking ever more beautiful than you left. What’s your secret? Do you drink the blood of your fallen enemies?”

Gertrude flinched slightly.

“Compared to you, I’m nothing but a homely country girl.”

Elena disagreed strongly.

Gertrude was beautiful. That was part of her charm: her knightly, gallant aesthetic. Gertrude had always been much taller than Elena. She was older by three or four years, so as kids it was always natural for Gertrude to be bigger, but Elena never caught up. Gertrude was tall, strong, long-limbed. She was not particularly gifted with curves. Under her gold and black uniform, with its ornamented shoulders and long cape, and the tall, straight ceremonial hat that she wore, she looked even more physically “boyish.” And yet, she had a naturally regal countenance. Her aquiline nose, swarthy olive-tan skin and green eyes were striking. She had her dark hair tied up in a ponytail, bangs parted to either side, framing her face.

“Stop it with the modesty! Oh I could kiss your face Gertrude! I’m so happy!”

In a spur of emotion, Elena did hurl herself once more at her friend and kissed her cheek.

Gertrude paused for a second and rubbed the site of the kiss with a demure hand.

“Does it taste like blood, Princess?” She winked, trying to play it off coolly.

Elena huffed. “I’m serious, you know! I’ve been so lonely here! Come on, come on!”

She grabbed Gertrude’s hand, and led her off the elevator platform, toward the villa.

Gertrude did not resist for an instant. She laughed, a bit nervously, as the two of them ran.

Inside the villa, the maids led them around the lobby, past the kitchen and to a private table on a raised deck, overlooking the gardens in the rear of the villa and the vast stretches of flowers on the hill beyond the villa grounds. Gertrude and Elena took seats across from one another on the circular table. Bethany then arrived with a pot of tea and a tray of tiny cinnamon rolls.

“Lunch will be ready soon. In the meantime, please enjoy the tea, Grand Inquisitor.”

Gertrude smiled politely. Elena could tell that her countenance darkened ever slightly, when the too-formal maid referred to her title. It was something she and Elena rarely brought up.

“That would be lovely. Thank you for taking such good care of Elena.” Gertrude said.

“She’s a handful, you know; you should visit more often, it brings her spirits up.”

Elena groaned. “Hey, what are you saying? I’m right here you know. I can hear you.”

Gertrude giggled. Her laugh was the most girlish sound Elena heard her make.

Bethany took her leave, at Elena’s insistence. The two women looked out over the flowers. Then their eyes locked together, and they barely touched their tea. In the silence, Elena had time to think about what it was that she would say and do with Gertrude, what she wanted to talk about. A lot had happened since they last met one another. Elena was happy, boundlessly happy, to see her again. But she was also unprepared. Her head still felt quite scrambled recently.

Trying to buy collect her disparate emotions, Elena asked, “How is soldiery treating you?”

As soon as those words left her lips, they sounded ridiculous.

What a thing to ask a soldier! As if Gertrude was still in the conservatory or cadet school!

Elena’s cheeks turned a little red with this realization.

Gertrude smiled and sat back in her chair, her fingers rubbing on the handle of her teacup.

“Well, the voyages are always long. And I did actually see combat recently.”

“You saw combat?”

Elena was brought back to the moment where she pulled Gertrude’s arm.

She was being playful, dragging Gertrude around.

Had she seen Gertrude flinch at that time?

“Oh Gertrude, you’re hurt aren’t you?”

Elena almost stood up, but Gertrude waved her back down.

“It’s really nothing.” She said. As if to demonstrate she patted her hand over her chest.

Misjudging her own strength, perhaps, she induced herself to flinch a little bit.

“Oh no, Gertrude! What happened?”

A stark terror of a sort Elena never really experienced, entered her life just then.

She knew, intellectually, that soldiers put their lives in danger. As an Inquisitor, Gertrude was a special kind of soldier, whose work was even more abstract to Elena than usual. She was not so naïve as to not understand what it meant. Firing weapons, enduring the attacks of enemies; there had been a massive battle in Ayre recently, too! Her brother was supposed to be there.

Elena knew these things; she had learned them through books and videos.

And yet, nothing brought the danger so close and so real than her friend being injured.

“I wasn’t at the Ayre Reach if that’s what you think. So please don’t worry so much. An Inquisitor wouldn’t be the first choice for frontline troops anyway. I’m not in so much danger.”

Gertrude smiled, but Elena felt she was being coddled and did not like the response.

“So what were you doing then? Please tell me. I deserve to know.”

Elena almost let out the entire contents of her heart right then, to explain why she deserved to know. Gertrude for her part was not resistant. Elena could always turn her with a simple pout.

“I wouldn’t hold it back from you.” Gertrude said. “I was in Bosporus. We had a problem in a university. A group of students stole weapons and took over a building. They were organizing against the curriculum bans that the Central Directorate imposed. So I had to lead my tactical squad to disperse their occupation. We had conflicting directives from the University and the City Government and the Regional Government, so it took us a long time to get anything done and we couldn’t even negotiate. I was hoping we could try to flush them out of the building with flashbangs and a few stun baton strikes. But we had given the enemy a lot of time to dig in, and they had weapons. It got chaotic. Even with my shield, a bullet got me in the ribs.”

She seemed hesitant to say the last sentence. And it had a dramatic effect on Elena.

“What!” Elena shouted. Her eyes started to water. “You were shot Gertrude?”

“It wasn’t a penetrator!” Gertrude said. “It was just a rubber bullet. It was all blunt force.”

Just a rubber bullet? Blunt force? So, the difference between dead and limping around?”

“I’m not limping around. I’m fine.” Gertrude seemed more amused than anything. That attitude was really starting to rub Elena, who found this all terribly serious, quite the wrong way.

Elena wiped the few tears that had built up in her eyes. She sighed deeply.

“I wish you had chosen to do anything but go into the military, you know.”

“If I hadn’t gone into the military, I would be a peon who could never see you again.”

Gertrude sounded just a little bitter for the very first time in the conversation.

“I’m sorry.” Elena said. “I’m glad you’re safe. Let’s focus on the positive! Drink up!”

The princess took a sip from her tea. Her beloved inquisitor happily followed suit.

“It’s interesting. What a complex flavor. Nothing like the tea powder we get on ships.”

“I think Bethany’s put a bunch of herbs in it again to try to ‘improve my mood’.”

Elena eyed the teacup suspiciously.

Gertrude let out another laugh.

Looking at her reflection in the clean, clear tea, Elena found herself smiling suddenly.

“I’m so glad you came for my birthday.” Elena said.

She reached out a hand to Gertrude and Gertrude took it.           

Though neither of them could change the positions they occupied in the world, at least, in these kinds of moments, they could cherish the bonds they had nurtured against all odds. A soldier whose duty was to fight her own people; a princess that nobody wanted to see.

Elena felt in her heart that she could put her worries behind her and go back to enjoying the beautiful day she had planned, with her most favorite person in the vast, unknown world beyond Vogelheim.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.8]

Murati was in her element. Her breathing quickened; her heart pounded.

She was determined.

Her only anxiety was that she did not tell Karuniya she was putting herself in danger again. Hopefully, her fiancé could forgive her in this situation.

All of the Cheka’s controls were similar to those on a Strelok. LCD screens for the cameras and computers were hovering right in front of her, as she sat in the adjustable chair with joysticks, pedals and buttons for controlling all aspects of the suit. Using handles and adjustable guiderails on some of the equipment, she moved the screens and control elements just a bit. Then she could just sit back, grab the sticks, put her foot on the pedals, and she was ready to deploy at any moment.

Just like before; a whole other body had wrapped around her own.

Fully sublimating herself into the machine, she could almost feel how it would move.

Even though she was standing still, waiting for communication.

Through the ship LAN she connected with the bridge again.

On one of her screens, was the bright, shining face of the communications officer.

“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant! I’m Natalia Semyonova, communications chief. I’ll act as your liaison to the bridge. I hear the Brigand has a few tricks for keeping communications with Divers, so you might see some weird stuff happen. We’re still working out the details here!”

“This ship really is full of new equipment, huh? Tell the Captain I’m ready to deploy.”

On another screen, Gunther’s face appeared on one of the cameras.

Murati switched on a speaker to talk to him.

“Gunther, do you know how to set up a deployment chute for me?”

Gunther waved at her from below. “Of course! I’ve been with this ship for a few weeks now, you know. If I didn’t know how to work the chutes it’d be embarrassing as a Diver engineer.”

“Less talk, more action then!”

Gunther got to work on the console attached to the Cheka’s gantry.

In front of them, a faint sound of gas whistling could be heard.

A piece of the floor slid apart in a marked area of the hangar to reveal the chute hatch.

Gunther brought a remote-controlled crane arm over to deliver a weapon to her.

Murati engaged the Cheka’s power unit.

She reached out and grabbed hold of the AK-96 assault rifle she was handed.

A small crowd began to form as more people suddenly noticed a Diver was moving.

“She’s clear, folks! Let her get through!”

Gunther parted the sea of sailors, retaining an affable smile. This was his moment too.

Everyone began to cheer and clap uproariously when the Cheka started moving.

The Brigand was deploying its very first Diver in anger.

Working with her pedals and sticks, Murati stood the Cheka up on its feet, put the rifle to her chest, and moved the machine step by heavy step toward the chute, and carefully dropped down into the tube. The hatch closed over her, and water started to fill the empty space in the tube. Soon she would swim right out of the underside of the ship, which would then rebalance.

Gunther had long since disappeared from her camera feed, but he soon resurfaced in a console feed, connecting to one of her screens. Murati took his call with great satisfaction.

“It does feel lighter and more responsive than a Strelok.” She said.

Even on the ground, the ease with which it moved was evident.

Until she got it in the water, she wouldn’t be able to tell by how much, but she had a hunch this machine was a league above the Strelok. Maybe it heralded an entire new generation of design.

“I told you so. Just ease into it, and don’t push yourself too hard.” Gunther replied.

He gave her a thumbs up and a salute. She switched from his console feed, back to cameras.

“Captain says you’re free to deploy Murati! We’re loading up the combat data for you.”

Semyonova reappeared along with a status bar for a download in progress.

“We’ll be sending a laser relay drone to follow you. You can laser to it, and it will laser back to us. It will effectively double the range of laser communications between you and the ship.”

“So that’s part of our new kit? I’ll keep it in mind.”

Below Murati, the chute opened up to the ocean.

“Good luck and good hunting!”

Semyonova saluted her.

Once again, Murati pushed herself across the metal threshold between ship and sea.

“Murati Nakara, ISU-100 Cheka, deploying!”

Above her, she watched the hatch close as her suit descended into the open water.

That dark-blue void that encompassed their entire world.

Water was all around her. Visibility was nil. There was no landscape around her.

There was only the Brigand, her metal frame and the incoming signals.

According to the diagram, the Leviathan was coming in from above, diving at a rapid angle.

Righting the Cheka as she dropped from the ship, she engaged main thrust.

In the span of a few seconds the suit went from 0 to 50 knots and climbing.

Bewildered by the speed, Murati overshot the deck of the Brigand as she rose.

Seeing the ship pass beneath her was amazing.

No number of diagrams and schematics could measure up to seeing a colossal ship cutting through the water with her own eyes. From above the Brigand did not look like the eccentric, boxy ship with the triangular conning tower and fins and its angled deck profile. It was a beast, roaring through the currents, protecting hundreds of people who now called it their home.

Bereft of the ship’s protection, floating freely in the ocean, Murati set her sights higher.

Her cameras analyzed the emptiness above using several different predictive models.

She got her rifle ready, and prepared to shoot higher, when she received a quick alert.

From below, the Brigand fired something out of a launcher built into the upper hull.

Murati’s rear and leg cameras followed the little object as it rose in a torrent of bubbles.

There was a request for laser communication. Murati accepted.

A picture of a professional-looking blond woman with a concerned expression appeared.

“Murati, can you hear me?”

Though the voice was immaculate, the image was lagging.

“I can hear you, but the video is practically a static image. It’s a good angle of you though!”

For the next few moments the image updated and froze on the Captain’s sighing face.

“We can’t overcome the effect of biomass. It’s fine. I’m glad we can do this much.”

“How’s the Leviathan doing?” Murati asked.

“At your depth, you’ll see it in about five minutes. Brace yourself, Murati. Don’t be a hero; we have Alexandra Geninov on standby with a torpedo ready. If you can draw it away from the ship, enough for the torpedo blast to not affect us, that’s all that you need to do. Don’t overdo it!”

Captain Korabiskaya was clearly worried about her.

It was an unpleasant situation. But there was no ‘being ready’ beneath the sea. Something could happen at any moment, whether it was enemy ships or Leviathans. Humans needed to sleep, to eat, to be distracted, to be disorganized. At some point, they would have had to fight under some imperfect circumstances. If this was their wake-up call, it was as gentle a one as they would get.

“I’ll be fine, Captain. I’m sure you’ve read my file. I’ve got experience.”

“I read your file. And that’s why I’m worried. Don’t be a hero. Korabiskaya, out.”

The Captain’s flickering, lagging image finally disappeared from the screen.

Murati clicked one of the buttons on her joystick to bring up weapon controls and the rifle camera. She then clicked another to extend the Cheka’s built-in hydrophone. All other audio feeds from cameras and monitor windows quieted so she could listen to the hydrophone attentively.

She caught the haunting cry of the Leviathan moments later.

A sound like a guttural, shrieking roar silenced everything else on the hydrophone. At first it sounded like the growl of a beast, low and gurgling, but as the cry tapered off it almost sounded human. It pierced through her body. She felt the roar right in the center of her gut. It was sickening.

“Endure it, Murati.” She said, catching herself shaking.

Her computers immediately pinpointed the source of the sound.

“It’s here. We can do this.”

Murati engaged full thrust and the Cheka soared into the dim blue above.

She wouldn’t see a diving Leviathan until it was dangerously close.

According to the computer visibility was fifty meters.

And the approaching object was bearing in at 60 knots.

“I’ll see it for a second.”

Murati grit her teeth. She stared through her cameras out to the water, helpless.

Suddenly, a yellow square on her screen appeared as the computer tagged an approaching object. While she still couldn’t see it, the computer flashed this warning when it was almost assured that the object matched all of the predictions of its behavior. Murati moved to center her camera and lifted her assault rifle to target the invisible enemy before it came within visual range.

Three rounds of supercavitating ammo flew off into nothingness.

That yellow square on the screen was followed by a rapidly reddening orange square.

“No chance!”

Crying out, she pulled the controls to the side with all her strength, smashing the pedals.

Engaging every Vernier thruster she could, Murati threw the Cheka sideways.

A massive, serpentine creature swept past, its sharp maw missing her by mere centimeters.

The Cheka shook and tumbled in the wake of the beast as it descended.

Murati knew this was only the beginning. She made a second sudden thrust away.

The thin, spiked end of a long tail swung contemptuously at her and missed her entirely.

Water evaporated in the red-hot wake of its supercavitating attack.

This caused enough of a disturbance for Murati to briefly lose control again.

As the Cheka struggled to correct itself, Murati opened fire.

A dozen rounds of supercavitating ammo hurtled toward the monster in a wild arc.

The Leviathan continued to charge with all of its weight, ignoring the blasts blossoming in the waters around it. It charged toward the Brigand on a collision course.

Holding her breath with terror, Murati continued shooting.

According to the computer she was landing shot after shot on the enemy mass.

“Come on! I’m shooting you! Fight me!”

She shouted at the top of her lungs as if the monster could hear.

At the speed it was moving, it was upon the Brigand in seconds.

One swing of its tail and the entire journey would end.

“Leave them alone!”

Massive amounts of bubbles blew out from around the monster.

The Leviathan suddenly swerved over the flat plane atop the Brigand’s conning tower.

Twisting its long, armored body in the water, the beast started to climb surface-ward.

Engaging its bio-hydrojets, all of its bulk thrust back toward the Cheka.

Murati had made an impression on it.

She felt both terror and relief in equal measure. Her rifle must have struck it and alerted it to the danger the Cheka posed. Enough for it to avoid the much larger and more obvious Brigand. Had it not been deterred it could have easily crashed through the conning tower and crippled the ship entirely. She got lucky. She got so lucky that she felt the anxiety brimming under her skin.

Soaked in sweat, her bodysuit never feeling so tight against her skin as it was then.

Murati now had to survive being the Leviathan’s main concern.

Her eyes drew wide as the enraged beast neared her. Her hands were shaking.

The Barding-class were serpentine fish the size of a Cutter or a Frigate, known for their armor. Their heads were sleek, whale-like with massive maws full of teeth and six eyes set in bony ridges. They had four sets of biological hydrojets fed through intakes under the head and neck and could suck in through the mouth to pump more water. Because its armor was segmented, its entire body was flexible, leading to its common attack: it could swing its tail so fast it supercavitated.

It moved too fast, and visibility was too low; Murati could not tell how injured it was.

There was a fin missing from its body, and she thought she saw a gash on its head.

Karuniya was the Leviathan expert, not Murati; but from dating her on and off for a few years, she had heard enough idle lunchtime chatter and oceanography pillow talk to surmise a few things herself. For a Leviathan to venture into the lightless aphotic zone from the bright, food-rich waters of the photic zone near the surface, it meant that either there was prey it was chasing, or it had been driven off. On the dive, its armor would be damaged by the higher pressure of the aphotic zone, but for pieces of its body to be missing entirely meant that something above had attacked it.

Something bigger and stronger even than the monster she was now seeing.

Perhaps a mating battle? Perhaps territorial conflict between broods? It could be anything.

This terrifying conjecture did not really change what was in front of her.

But when faced with such insanity hurtling toward her at 60 knots, anyone’s brain would race to explain what was happening and put it in context. And holding on to an idea that this was a natural phenomenon helped her remain steady. This was an animal, acting like an animal.

Like any animal, it could die from violence.

At the speed it was moving, Murati had a scant few seconds to react whenever she saw it.

USL-96 roared, shaking the water around it and sucking more for its hydrojets.

Its sleek maw parted to reveal rows of saw-like teeth.

Murati thrust herself away from the beast’s second charge, aiming the assault rifle down at its head and releasing bursts of practiced gunfire. The 37mm shells impacted and exploded all over the armored hide taking bits and pieces off it. In pain, the beast roared and averted its advance.

Instead, it twisted over itself twice over in a loop meant to gather momentum.

From below, the tail swung with even greater speed.

All the spikes that had grown on the end of its tail launched toward Murati.

A hail of projectiles suddenly peppered the water around her.

Like the tail itself, the spikes sheared the water with a supercavitation effect.

Six or seven tracking boxes appeared for the briefest instant.

Murati had no time to dodge. She briefly let go of her assault rifle.

She engaged the diamond cutters on both of the Cheka’s arms and swung them.

Two spikes burst apart on impact with the cutters, scattering bony shrapnel into the water.

A third spike sliced the side of the Cheka’s leg, causing a brief alert on her console.

“Cosmetic damage.” She mumbled to herself in a rush.

Done spinning, the Leviathan threw itself directly up at her once more.

Murati grabbed hold of her assault rifle again, floating in the nearby water.

Holding it in one hand, she thrust aside the Leviathan’s bulk as it stormed past her.

“Not this time!”

In a mighty effort, she thrust the Cheka back toward the monster, fighting its current.

Her joysticks gave her stiff resistance, and the entire cockpit was shaking.

Groaning with effort, Murati forced the Cheka’s arm through the currents and bubbles.

For a brief moment, her diamond cutter entered the Leviathan’s armor.

As the monster rocketed past the Cheka, its flank sliced wide open.

A burst of red fluid spread into the ocean around her, tinging the water and thickening it.

There was no time to admire the wound.

Murati was blown away as the monster made a sudden turn, blasting water everywhere.

Her diamond cutter’s chain and blade went flying in pieces, shattered by the force.

She struggled to right herself, watching the beast flail away, increasingly erratic.

On the hydrophone nothing could be heard but overwhelming cries of agony.

Murati had finally inflicted a real injury.

Another alert appeared on her screens: red biomass warnings.

She ignored them. She knew exactly where the red had come from.

Diagnostics were okay on everything that mattered. All thrusters green.

The Leviathan swam up surface-ward and disappeared from Murati’s physical sights.

Her computer did its best to continue tracking it.

She then received an alert about an object below.

Briefly switching to the underside cameras, Murati saw a little drone creeping its way up.

From a beacon on the machine’s round hull, a laser shot up to the Cheka.

Murati accepted the connection, and the smug expression of a brown-haired young woman appeared on her screen. She was making a gesture with her index and middle finger spread in a sideways V-shape over one of her odd eyes. Because of the lag, she was frozen like this for a while.

“Yo! It’s Alex, resident torpedo wizard! I need more distance for a shot ‘Rati!”

It took Murati a moment to process that.

“Ratty? Anyway I’m not sure I can get you a lot of space here. Hold your fire for now.”

“Heroics are banned, miss!” Alex said. “Captain’s orders! Let me shoot it down!”

“Too late for that!”

Murati engaged full thrust, breaking the laser connection momentarily.

From above, the Leviathan dove straight down.

Murati swept horizontally away from the Leviathan, avoiding the toothy maw and the wake of the leviathan’s charge. Her gut reaction had been perfect. She had gotten familiar enough with the Cheka’s weight, and seen enough of the Leviathan’s wakes, to dodge with time to spare.

She was steady enough to spot the Leviathan twist much tighter than before.

Unlike its previous charges, it recovered exceedingly quickly, and its tighter turn radius allowed it to throw its maw back toward the Cheka in an instant. It was no longer just charging.

It was chasing.

Those teeth bore down on Murati’s rear thrusters far sooner than she had imagined.

Now her gut had been completely wrong. She was certain she would be struck.

“Come on! Give it everything!”

A notification appeared on one of her consoles.

In the heat of the moment, Murati glanced at it briefly as she did with all her other alerts.

Energy Recovery System: Fully Charged. Deployable power available.

On her joystick, a green light shone from an out-of-place, additional button.

Heedless of what it would do, Murati jabbed the button with her finger.

All of her diagnostics screamed; power output to the main engines rose sharply.

Murati thrust straight up.

There was such a burst of power from the engine she nearly lost control.

Beneath her, the Leviathan that was about to bifurcate her hurtled well below her.

Once more it made it a tight turn with its long body.

When it swung back toward Murati she had renewed confidence in the Cheka’s power.

The Leviathan’s maw snapped several meters over the Diver’s head.

In one fluid motion she avoided the charge and swung her remaining diamond cutter.

Red biomass burst from the Leviathan’s underbelly.

Suffering further injury, the Leviathan roared and thrashed, swinging its tail, blowing water through its jets haphazardly, snapping its jaws. Witnessing the monster throwing its body and stirring up the water around it, Murati could feel its anger palpably, vibrating through her suit.

One of her eyes darted to the diagnostics.

She had 80% ERS power remaining. After that it would have to recharge.

Which meant fighting the Leviathan as fiercely as she had all throughout, on less power.

Unable to reconnect to the laser drone for assistance and forced to make a snap decision, Murati threw herself back into the fray to force a close fight. Assault rifle in one hand, and her diamond cutter extended in the second, she peppered the Leviathan with bullets while closing in.

A series of titanic exchanges ensued.

The Leviathan was no longer charging. Twice injured by the Cheka, it had coiled itself in defense, and cornered as it was, began throwing its jaws and swinging its tail at the Cheka while floating in place. Empowered by the ERS, the Cheka was moving faster than Murati had ever seen a Diver move. It was already quick, much quicker than a Strelok, but with the additional energy, she was moving so fast her guts were shaking. She rolled out of the way of the jaws, strafed around the massive tail, closing meter by meter with each evasive maneuver she performed. Each time the Leviathan swung, she deftly outmaneuvered it, and the beast struggled to launch another blow.

Counting the meters as she danced closer, Murati’s eyes darted between cameras, diagnostics, overlays. She had become the machine. Those were her eyes, and she could work her eyes, and she could think, and she could move her “body” and it was simultaneous. The Leviathan’s jaws flexed less, its neck muscles tightened, its tail swung more limply.

Holding her breath with anticipation, Murati made it inside the monster’s range.

She lifted her diamond saw to strike the scar on its head.

One of her monitors switched to a camera with a purple overlay on the image.

Glowing veins on the Leviathan’s body were highlighted in this view.

She was distracted just long enough for the Leviathan to draw its head back.

Her enemy was giving her the most desperate form of its fury, fear and respect.

It’s discharging agarthicite!

Murati saw the Leviathan’s head take over the entire forward camera, opening its massive maw. Inside, tongues of indigo-colored bioelectricity played about the Leviathan’s flesh, jumping and sizzling and collecting with greater intensity as the Leviathan charged its legendary breath weapon. Its bio-jets seized, and its tail hung limp at its back. All of the body seemed to suddenly find support only in the head, eyes drawing back and glowing blank, jaw spreading ever further.

All of the Leviathan’s energy and whatever consciousness it had was focused on this.

In much the same way that all the energy she had spent had gone out in the ERS burst.

For a moment, Murati understood something about the monster she had only known intellectually. Bearing witness to the beast in such a close battle, all by herself, alone in her suit of armor in the middle of the vast ocean that would not, in a just world, have had to be her only home.

Murati realized that these monsters had taught her people so much about their world.

“Sorry; too many people are relying on me right now. I can’t take pity on you.”

Faced with the teeming mass of annihilating agarthic energy, Murati did not turn away.

From behind the Cheka’s hip armor, she withdrew a grenade and hurled it at the monster.

Blowing the last of the ERS battery, she threw herself back, firing her AK-96 into the maw.

With an explosive force that could have opened a hole in a Frigate’s armor, the grenade detonated inside the Leviathan’s maw and split its jaw open, blasted its eyes out of their sockets, and launched its brains out into the water through the gash in its head. While much of the armored shell survived, the soft flesh was mutilated by the pressure blast. All of the agarthic energy that it had been pulling from the minerals in its body discharged haphazardly. Throughout the creature’s body, hex-shaped holes were scored by the menacing, flickering wisps of indigo energy that discharged red biomass like geysers. Robbed of life, the corpse twitched with fading agarthic energy, and then it lay there, briefly floating, then slowly falling toward the ocean floor.

All of her fear washed off her, leaving her feeling an anxious reverence.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this. Thanks for everything you taught us.”

She felt compelled to say that, witnessing the horrifying result of her violence.

Her ERS battery was fully drained, and the Cheka switched out of its highest performance mode, and back to merely being a bit quicker than a Strelok. Murati sighed. Though she hated the sight of the monstrous corpse and the red biomass spreading from it, she allowed herself to float, to breathe. The machine was no longer her body. She was sweating, and she wanted to vomit.

Once more, the floating drone managed to catch up to her and connect her to the Brigand.

She saw a wide camera shot of the bridge crew clapping their hands and celebrating.

It then zoomed in and focused, side by side, on the bright and smiling face of Captain Korabiskaya and the slightly smirking Commissar Bashara, seated at the highest point in the bridge. Together, they offered Murati two pairs of clapping hands, the same as everyone else.

“I don’t want to reward your recklessness, but that was brilliant.” Said the Captain.

“I will add to your record that on short notice and low on resources, you managed to single-handedly stop a Barding-class Leviathan, Lieutenant.” The Commissar said. “Thank you for your cooperation, and I hope you’ll forgive our Captain for the disorganized nature of this operation.”

Captain Korabiskaya turned to the Commissar in shock, raising her hands defensively.

“Hey, what do you mean? It wasn’t my fault! Everything was a mess because of that bastard slave-driver Nagavanshi. I needed to follow the itinerary, it’s not like I could delay the launch–”

The Commissar’s cat ears twitched with anger.

She turned a look on the Captain that instantly shut her up.

“We’ll discuss that later. Return to the ship, Lieutenant, unless you like the water.”

Murati laughed at the two commanders. “Oh I hate it out here right now. I’m heading back. You know, it’s good to see the command staff are getting along so well in my absence!”

Both Commissar Bashara and Captain Korabiskaya turned evil looks at the screen.

Feeling quite happy-go-lucky, Murati simply shut off the video feed.

Wasting no more time in the increasingly reddening waters in the middle of the Thassalid plain, Murati navigated the Cheka back to the Brigand, swam beneath it and up into an open chute. Beneath her the hatch closed, the water drained, and the pressure was adjusted. Then the top hatch reopened, and Murati used handholds on the side of the chute and climbed up into the hangar.

As soon as the head cleared the top of the deployment chute she saw the crowd gathered around her. The crowd gave her space as the Cheka took its first steps into the hangar. She bowed the suit’s body and opened the hatch, since it seemed like everyone wanted to greet her. When she stepped off the cockpit chair and out into the light of the hangar, everyone clapped.

“Murati!”

From among the mechanics and engineers, a familiar dark-haired young woman leaped up onto the Cheka’s knee and seized Murati by the TBT half-jacket, baring teeth at her.

“I turn my back for thirty minutes, and you do this!”

“Karu, I–”

Karuniya’s eyes moistened, but rather than cry, she pulled Murati into an abrupt kiss.

People started to cheer. A few of the younger comrades turned away with embarrassment.

“Welcome back, hero.”

Karuniya smiled.

Her relief that Murati had returned safe seemed to overcome her anger.

“I’ll leave the heroics to someone else for the next few days. Sound like a plan?”

Murati scratched the back of her head and acted cute.

Karuniya let go of her jacket and dusted it off. “That’s a deal then.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.1]

“Ferris, the iron wall of the Union. Oh how you sacrifice for us, to this very day.”

Looking out of a false window in her shuttle, an LCD with a feed of their surroundings, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar mused on the region farthest from her direct influence. A rocky, mountainous, grey place, lightless place at the bottom of the Ocean. While the political center of the Union lay in Solstice, its military heart was the border of Ferris.

This austere place was where their truest warriors were born and lived.

Soldiers from all around the Union mustered at Ferris to defend the border.

“Did the Empire underestimate us? Or did we overestimate them? I wonder–“

Amid this mobilization, the Premier herself was also summoned.

Beyond just speeches and reassurances, she wanted to see Ferris for herself. She would give nobody the excuse of saying she hid in Solstice while the border turned hot. A few days had passed since the battle, and she had made the journey as soon as she could. Her trip was public knowledge and there were a lot of appearances she planned to make with military and civilians.

There were also a few private matters she needed to take care of.

“Nagavanshi always gets out ahead of me somehow.” She said to herself.

Her reflection in the glass began to wane.

In the distance, the center of human life in Ferris took her place in the murky picture.

Thassal Station stood like a deformed pillar rising high above rolling hills of pockmarked stone and stripped out ore quarries. Reinforced titanium modules and the occasional glass hexagon made up the habitats, berths and weapons stations that stuck out all around the central rock formation, at once grafted upon the surface but also upholding it. Deep in the center of the mound, a Core Pylon served as a foundation, shouldering the lives built up over the rock, tethering everything, and hiding the Agarthicite reactors. It was their purple glow that made this life possible.

“And there’s my first destination.”

Sitting on the rock next to Thassal Station was a massive structure. Like a bubble of glass and metal, resting atop a massive base laden with berths, to which dozens of ships were docked. Premier Jayasankar recalled the glowing report she gave at the start of the year about the expansion of agriculture in Lyser, and how this structure represented it. Now it was going to be used for war.

It was in this Agri-Sphere that she would decide the Union’s next military actions.

Dragged in from Lyser, this sphere now served as “Hammer-1,” temporary base of the expanded Ferris fleet. Thousands of personnel had arrived at Hammer-1 to organize logistics and supply, to run maintenance and to build stockpiles. As it was originally intended for agriculture, both hydroponic and with treated soil mediums, Hammer-1 was divided into flat, broad stories with rows of adjustable space and a lot of lamps. All of it was now taken up by cranes, Divers, shipping containers and makeshift warehousing. People were hard at work to make it war worthy.

Amid this build-up, Premier Jayasankar’s shuttle arrived at Hammer-1.

Alone, without bodyguards or attendants, she headed into the depths of the structure.

As far as anyone knew, she was much too early for her first public appearance.

She was right on time for Nagavanshi’s secretive little meeting.

A meeting that could decide the fate of the Union, she had said.

Arriving in a dark room, she became part of a troika of powerful interests in the Union. Gathered around a large table equipped with a touchscreen surface, they were there to discuss the direction of the Union in the face of imminent war with the Empire. At Nagavanshi’s behalf, they would examine all of the intelligence they had on the Empire’s direction and formulate a plan.

Vain as it was, Bhavani believed herself foremost among the attendants. She was a vision of self-control and professionalism, casually confident in expression, her face only lightly weathered with experience despite her years. Tall and athletic, with her hair in a bun and wearing a black synthetic suit with dark tinted glasses, she resembled her own bodyguard more than she did a desk worker. She was the people’s Premier. She walked among them easily and casually.

Her reflection on the table was magnificent, and she felt in command of everything.

“Commissar-General, and Grand Admiral” Jayasankar bowed her head lightly toward her two counterparts. “We last met to discuss what a good year it had been for shipbuilding and agriculture. I can’t help but wonder if we are all being punished for the barest hint of complacency at the moment. Our shipbuilding is far too slow for our predicament, and now our agricultural plans are also on hold. Nevertheless, I want it to be clear that I believe in us. Let’s not be too doom and gloom.”

Grand Admiral Sorokin Klasnikov was the only man in attendance. He was a tall, bronzed gentleman with a full beard, pristinely in uniform. His beard was quite long and flowed with a greater breadth even than the hair on his head. He kept his hands behind his back and stood firmly.

“Premier, it is good to see you in cheerful spirits, despite everything,” began the Admiral, soft spoken, “I don’t believe Eloah is so merciless as to fault us for merely being optimistic.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi meanwhile looked the youngest in the room. She had suggested they hold this meeting but hid her feelings about it behind a careful, neutral expression.

“Well, Admiral, I don’t believe in any Gods, as this Union is beyond such mysticism.”

Nagavanshi had a talent for sounding both polite and openly contemptuous.

Her face lacked even the subtle crow’s feet evident around Jayasankar’s eyes and lips, and she was very obviously of a nearer vintage than the pockmarked old Klasnikov. Her hair flowed freely from under her peaked cap, adorned with a golden serpent, and her rich brown skin had an even sheen as if it had been laid over body uniformly, unmarred by light or touch.

Her golden eyes seemed bottomless, like they might devour what they viewed.

“Everything that is happening is a result of material forces that are well understood.”

She spoke quite casually, and Klasnikov looked ready to snap at her.

“Now, now,”

Premier Jayasankar interrupted before anyone could continue that particular topic.

“Religion is something best not discussed among friends.”

She swiped her fingers over the computer screen set into the middle of the table.

A map of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans appeared on the screen. The Premier touched closer to the north Imbrium sea, where the Occultis continental line separated the North Imbrium, ruled mostly by the Empire, with the northwestern end of the Cognitum Ocean: waters that the mighty Republic shared with a few other states. The Great Ayre Reach, an expanse of calm water, with simple geography at shockingly low depth, separated the Empire and the Republic.

Ayre could have been a powerful economic asset for the Republic, able to sustain several stations on flat, easy ground within a stable climate, but instead it had been the stage of the Republic’s righteous aggression against the Empire for what seemed like eternity. Every few decades there was a terrifying campaign over the Great Ayre Reach that ended in crushing Republic defeats, allowing the Empire to occupy the Reach and block the Republic’s access to the Imbrium Ocean, until the next time the mighty foes exchanged it. A communist scholar, Mordecai, once believed that the Empire and the Republic did battle over the Reach in order to destroy surplus production of goods and stymie political and social progress.

That last point was neither here nor there, but it was on Jayasankar’s mind as she surveyed the map.

“Anyone have the early score from the latest Empire vs. Republic game?” She asked.

Nagavanshi glanced over to Klasnikov, with a bored look on her face.

Klasnikov gave her a critical look back. He cleared his throat loudly.

“Our intelligence indicates that the Republic brought 800 ships divided into five fleets to the Ayre Reach. The Empire brought the Grand Western Fleet. The latest estimated strength for that formation was 1000 ships divided in seven fleets. It is our understanding the Empire won.”

“Of course they did.” Nagavanshi said.

“We should not act as if this was all foretold.” Klasnikov said. “It was not merely numbers that sealed the fate of the Ayre Reach. From information we gathered over the past few days, the Republic made major strategic missteps. They feared being too outnumbered, so they adopted a wide formation to try to cover Imperial flanking attacks. This allowed the Imperials to use their numbers in a different way. Instead of matching the breadth of the Republic deployment, they concentrated their attack and crushed the Republic center, isolating the wings of the formation.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “At that point, the Republic should have swung a trap around them.”

“We can say what we want from the comfort of this chamber.” Klasnikov said. He seemed almost to pity the Republic forces. “Perhaps if they had fought on, they could have used the wings of the formation to inflict bitter damage on the Imperials. But that would have been asking troops to sacrifice their lives when they had come prepared to fight on even terms. You can’t pretend you were laying bait for the enemy just because it becomes convenient; preparing bait means that the bait was prepared for its role. For the Republic forces, they saw hundreds of their ships and thousands of their comrades killed in front of them. I can’t fault them for escaping at that point.”

“I can.” Nagavanshi said. “Because the ones picking up the pieces could soon be us. Some allies the Republic have turned out to be! Don’t give that look Klasnikov — I read the same acoustic messages you did. I don’t need explanations.” She raised an accusatory finger at the Admiral. “The Republic had a center of 200 ships and wings of 300 ships a piece. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fleeing instead of pressing into Fueller’s flank and crushing him.”

“As far as the Republic’s politics are concerned, they don’t win from just killing the Prince if they have to sacrifice 800 ships to do so.” Klasnikov said. “They aren’t like you, Nagavanshi. You can isolate and kill an individual with your spies and thugs, but you can’t do it with a fleet.”

Nagavanshi narrowed her eyes at Klasnikov.

Jayasankar then raised her hand like a student in a classroom, smiling.

“Everyone is getting so spirited but let us move beyond the hypotheticals. The Republic has suffered another defeat and the Empire will again occupy the breadth of the Ayre Reach. They would still need to cross the North Occultis canal to advance, so the Republic will be fine. In fact they probably won’t even try to move farther than Ayre Reach. Ratha Flow is too fortified for the Empire to press on into the core Republic territory an ocean away. My concern is that if this battle did not hurt the Empire too, too much, we will be the next target. Am I correct in my assumption?”

“You very well could be.” Klasnikov said.

“No, you are absolutely wrong.”

Nagavanshi procured a series of documents and slid them across the table.

This was a symbolic gesture more than anything, because the table itself scanned the documents as they crossed and was able to project all of their data on tabbed windows close to the other meeting participants. By the time the papers’ momentum stopped just short of Jayasankar she was already reading what had been scanned. She brought her hand up to her hair to fidget.

Should the information in those papers prove correct then yes, Jayasankar’s assumption might be very wrong. It was not in her character to get giddy over every piece of idle speculation that came her way, however. So after reading the information, she turned her gaze on the head of the Ashura security and intelligence forces, Nagavanashi, who clearly knew more than she let on.

It had been her all along who suggested this meeting, after all.

Klasnikov, meanwhile, was reaching for the papers themselves as if he could not trust the scanner to have gotten the information correct. He flipped through all the papers, brow furrowing.

“Parvati, your most prominent source is this girl from the wreck of the Strasser. I assume you corroborated this news with other survivors from the Imperial fleet, and you’ve got your own tricks for finding information far afield. I want to know what other sources you have that you aren’t writing about on the record, and what information you’ve learned beyond this one event.”

Despite Jayasankar’s tact in describing it, this event was no small matter.

Nagavanshi did not convene meetings unless her information was explosive.

According to the documents, rescue teams found a survivor from the Imperial Fleet, who had connections among the nobility and military. In exchange for her life, not knowing that the Union intended to imprison rather than execute her, she attested to the Emperor having fallen with a terminal illness and being pronounced all but officially dead. The Grand Duchies, the major states that made up the Empire’s territory, were eager to back their own claimants to the throne. All of this, while Prince Erich von Fueller, the heir apparent, was off in the Great Ayre Reach fighting the Republic. According to the source, the reason for the Southern Border Fleet’s attack on the Union was the ambition of Admiral Gottwald to form his own faction in the coming strife.

He had been too eager, however, and suffered resounding defeat against the Union. He was killed in Thassal.

For the Emperor to be gone so suddenly was monumental.

For as little as the Premier made it seem in her casual speech, this was earthshaking news.

Upon the eve of his coup, Konstantin von Fueller had dared the aristocracy to move against him.

For almost fifty years they slumbered under his control. Now he was dead: and now, they would awaken.

“Mere imperial troops would not have had access to that kind of information. That would have only been known to Admirals and their associates, as they freely cavort with the aristocracy in a way that none below their rank are truly able to. So there was no need to interrogate the lower ranking survivors. Simply put, I trust the girl’s information. I believe we should act on it. By the time more overt signs of its veracity manifest themselves we may be too late to take advantage.”

Nagavanshi was prepared for the questioning.

After all, she did not get to her own position without being meticulously confident in her words. As necessary as intelligence agents and internal security were for the Union, the power invested in them meant that not just anybody could be given the position. Her predecessors had each been politically purged from their offices. It was a lot of power to afford anyone.

Jayasankar grinned. “Good answer. But I know that there is more being left unsaid.”

Nagavanshi said nothing. Her expression was purely neutral. She was hiding something.

“You used the ELF, didn’t you? I know you contacted someone with it.”

No response from the Commissar-General. In her place the Admiral was confounded.

“ELF is only for emergencies.” Klasnikov said. “And it can only contact ships.”

“Absolutely.” Jayasankar turned her gaze from the Admiral and back to the Commissar-General, putting her hands on her hips, still smiling. “Nagavanshi communicated with a ship.”

Klasnikov blinked. “Which one of our ships is going into Imperial waters?”

“Before we tightened our shipbuilding program, we supplied militarized civilian ships to Campos Mountain that were equipped with our ELF.” Nagavanashi finally said. Klasnikov stared at her in confusion. “I acquired such a ship and transferred it to an important asset who operates in the Imbrium Ocean. Satisfied?”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, grinning. She’d gotten her; of course she did.

The Premier had already won this exchange before they even entered the room.

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” She asked.

“I had ultimate oversight over Extremely Low Frequency comms.” Nagavanshi said.

“You’re not the only one with agents everywhere, Parvati.”

Fiddling around with her pocket, Jayasankar produced a vaporizer and nonchalantly took a sweet drag from it that smelled of strawberries. She had hoped to see Nagavanshi wither in the silence, but unfortunately, the Commissar-General was simply too strong, too well-kept together.

“Your predecessors were purged for this sort of behavior, you know?”

She pointed the vaporizer at the Commissar-General.

Nagavanshi did not stir. Though she was caught out, she was never cornered.

“I was acting for the greater good of this nation. I came prepared today to divulge a lot of information and make the case for my methods. Foreign intelligence is an absolute necessity for modern warfare. Without the assets I have put into place, we will become increasingly blind to events in the Empire. Already, we failed to ascertain the disarray of the border forces, and their intentions. I will not allow such lapses again– but I shall accept whatever decision our esteemed Premier makes, of course.”

Her voice was sweet as honey. She had really turned up the charm for that declaration.

Despite how much of a fucking bitch she was, Jayasankar admired Nagavanshi’s drive.

Being stricken from the communist party was not something that would bother her.

She was a purely material person who did not care one bit about appearances.

It was certain that if she were shut out of official power she would find power elsewhere.

At least she’s my little tyrant, Jayasankar told herself.

Those other Commissar-Generals served under other Premiers anyway.

“You can contact your agent via ELF. How did you get information back?”

Jayasankar stabbed her little vaporizer into the air for dramatic effect as her interrogation continued.

Nagavanshi continued to betray no emotion over being put on the spot in this way.

“That’s true,” Klasnikov realized. “You can’t open laser or acoustic contact with the Empire.”

“And she’s had nowhere near enough time for an agent to physically travel back here.”

Come on, Parvati, fess up, the Premier was certain that Nagavanshi had more to unveil.

Nagavanshi withdrew something from her pocket and connected it to a serial port in the table computer. After the table had read the contents of the diskette and found it to contain nothing dangerous, it gave the attendants access to the contents. The Commissar-General drew everyone’s attention to one specific item, which was displayed on the table as a floating holographic diagram of what looked like a coilgun shell, albeit a very strange one. No warhead; only a transmitter.

Once the diagram was available, Nagavanshi explained its significance.

“I’ve been putting serious research consideration into our operational capacity behind enemy lines. We’re too sentimental about ‘revolutionary warfare’, but guerilla war is a viable path for us if we consider communications and logistics. This transmitter shell allows us to fire a radio out to the surface, where we can use waves through the air transmit information. We’ve installed a buoy in the calm water over Lyser. While the surface corruption over most of the Imbrium will damage the transmitter, it will be active long enough to send a message to our buoy.”

She swiped from the diagram of the transmitter to a diagram of the buoy.

“Information from the buoy is transmitted back to us in the aphotic zone via cable. Due to animal activity, and the surface’s corruption, even in the calm waters at Lyser it is likely that the buoy will be severed or destroyed, but we can replace it if needed. At any rate: I contacted my agent via ELF to tell her to deploy a radio-flare with the most up to date information she had.”

“Did you come prepared to divulge this information?” the Premier asked her.

“It was going to be part of my overall proposal.”

Klasnikov had been staring at her with eyes wide open.

“So, to summarize. You gave a ship, and experimental technology, to somebody out in the Empire and they have confirmed to you, via these circumspect methods, that the Emperor is dead?”

“They’ve confirmed a lot more than that, but yes.” Nagavanshi said.

“Premier, this is rather outrageous, wouldn’t you say?” Klasnikov said.

Jayasankar ignored that remark. “How trustworthy is your source?”

“She is a hero to this country. She is prepared to give her life for me, and I for her.”

Both Jayasankar and Klasnikov were stunned.

That was highly uncharacteristic of how the Commissar-General ever spoke.

And as far as Jayasankar knew, it was the sort of thing Nagavanshi didn’t believe in.

There was no denying the expression on her face, however. Gone was the peerless calm.

It looked almost as if Nagavanshi herself could not believe what she had said.

She had the face of someone who knew they had committed a youthful indiscretion.

And done so amid her venerated, powerful elders.

Jayasankar sighed heavily. For her, the expert political operator who had come prepared and plotted everything meticulously, this was the first truly unpredictable event of the day. She almost wanted to ask if Nagavanshi and her agent had ever fucked. It was an open question now in her mind. And what kind of powers did it take to chisel through the rock to Nagavanshi’s heart?

Nagavanshi knew precisely that the only way forward was for her to bare some of her soul.

And for that, Jayasankar could only think she was an even more manipulative piece of shit than she had previously imagined. To have honesty and vulnerability become your trump cards–

“You’re horrible, Nagavanshi, but I am impressed. I think at this point, you should just tell us what you convened us for and lay out your plans. This gathering has become too messy.”

Nagavanshi let out a breath with visible relief.

Klasnikov shook his head solemnly. “Let us move forward with honesty.”

He sounded as if he himself could not hope for such a rosey outcome.

“I will be blunt then. I propose we launch an operation to infiltrate the Empire. Our goal will be to make contact with dissident forces and attempt to organize them into a broad revolutionary front as the Empire fragments.”

At Nagavanshi’s behest, the diagrams of the buoys and radio-flares disappeared.

In their place there was a diagram of a ship.

Then, in the next moment, that diagram became a camera feed of the actual ship.

It was, at that very second, docked in a VIP berth in Thassal.

“You probably find this ship’s exterior unimpressive. We used old hauler hulls to make it seem civilian. However, inside, it is a radical new design. This ship is intended to carry and support Divers in battle. It can hold up to 18 Divers. Its name is the Brigand, and I have classified it as an Assault Carrier. It will carry out a long-term mission to contact and organize Imperial dissidents.”

The Brigand was a two-tiered ship with a rectangular silhouette, almost diamond shaped due to the angles that made up the top deck and keel, with rounded flanks and fins, and bearing a thick, pointed prow. It was not impressive: it did look like a hauler, down to the rusty color. Its shape was not quite hydrodynamic and it looked heavy. The conning tower was thick and square with an additional triangular surface atop. There appeared to be no weapons along its surface.

“The Ashura put this together?” Jayasankar asked. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. They were a military force. It was still impressive that they kept it so close to the chest.

“We had help from the shipbuilder’s union at Central Yard.” Nagavanshi said.

That would explain it. The Yard was the strongest labor union in Solstice.

“And your intention,” Klasnikov interrupted, “is for this ship to sail into the Empire and make contact with dissident groups? What will it do when it reaches them? If by Eloah’s mercy it manages to reach any group, without being destroyed or captured by the Empire along the way?”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Soon the Empire will be plunged into civil war. Its defenses will be porous. The Brigand is a state-of-the-art vessel, like I told you, don’t judge it by its appearances. It is fast, survivable, and has systems in place for stealth or escape. Not only that, in addition to its Diver capacity it also has a cargo hull that we will fill with more weapons and goods for our foreign comrades. It is my intention that we will supply weaponry to insurgent groups to foment terrorism in the Empire. However, our true objective is to advance one major resistance movement and prime the Empire for a revolution.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms. Nagavanshi’s true motives were unexpected.

It was true that the Union was in a difficult situation.

Militarily, their combat power was maybe 1/5th of the total Imperial power. Divided across its Grand Duchies, the Empire had thousands of ships, while the Union’s total Navy was just over 1000. The Republic slammed 800 ships into the Empire, barely made a dent and lost. Conventional warfare would eventually see the Union being overwhelmed and destroyed.

However, if indeed the Grand Duchies turned against the central government, and there was a power struggle between Prince Fueller and several other factions, that gave the Union a board with entirely different rules to play with.

The Empire was powerful if it could concentrate its forces.

Otherwise, individual fleets were on-par with the Union.

This had been borne out in Thassal already.

Jayasankar ran the options as she saw them in her own head.

One potential reaction would be to launch a Union invasion of the Southern Empire. Such an open attack, however, could potentially unite multiple Duchies into a mutual defense pact which would lead to the Union being overwhelmed or outflanked, and which would distract the Imperial nobles from Erich Fueller, who might gain the upper hand while this Noble Alliance is distracted.

They could attempt to contact and ally with Erich Fueller, to parlay support for time or legitimacy. However, Erich was in the best position of anyone, with the strongest and most loyal military forces and civilian subjects. He was pragmatic, inheriting none of his father’s eccentricity. He was born under the uncertainty of his father’s coup. He was always ready to fight for the throne.

Allying with any one Grand Duchy would be difficult ideologically. All of the Imperial boyars shared a great hatred of the Union, and the Union was held together in part by its fear and hatred of the Empire. For the Union to “upset the game,” it would need to build and deploy power entirely differently than the Empire. It could not count solely on traditional measures against them.

At least, not in the beginning. Opportunities could potentially arise, but–

By tapping into its own history of armed, worker-led revolution, Nagavanshi crafted a uniquely Union response.

While Jayasankar could definitely complain about the instruments carrying out the Commissar’s will, it was an ambitious plot. There was a lot of discontent among the lower and middle classes of the Empire, and due to its size the Empire had difficulty policing thoroughly its various territories. It had a vast underworld and many hostile borders. That the Union existed at all was a testament to the power of imperial dissident movements. The Union’s states were initially settled as penal colonies.

“Ultimately, your idea is to gather a dissident army in one place and spark a rebellion. So what movements can you contact, and in which territories?” Jayasankar asked Nagavanshi.

“We have a few in mind.” Nagavanshi said. “And as circumstances permit we want the Brigand to meet all of them. However, our major ally in the region will be the National Front of Buren.”

“Not Bosporus?” Jayasankar asked.

Bosporus was supposed to be special, Jayasankar thought.

Historians could easily say the Union was born in Bosporus.

Even after the revolution, the two states shared a connection that was greater than merely one of historical population movements. Goods, people, currency and secrets flowed out of the far north, crossing the poles and arriving in the southern oceans of the Union. In return, Union influence spread into the Empire through the underbelly of Bosporus. Dissidents from the Empire always sought asylum within the mordecist experiment of the Union. Bosporus would be the Premier’s choice, if she had to make a decision as to where to grow Imperial dissidence.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “It is true that Bosporus is the most ideologically developed of the Imperial states in its intellectual dissidence, and the secessionists there have a leftist character that I did take into account. But Bosporus is a hotbed for communalist ideology. It would create another place like Campos Mountain, and be an ineffective partner for us. The Bureni nationalists have vanguardist organization, militancy, a leader, and mordecist leanings.”

“I don’t like this.” Klasnikov said. “This is a suicide mission, Bhavani.”

“With our current naval power, can we win militarily against the Empire?”

Jayasankar asked Klasnikov this. The Admiral was reticent to answer.

“Not now, but we can build toward the future if we don’t send this prototype ship out to die in Imperial waters. I believe we should keep it here and augment our frontline power with it.”

Jayasankar smiled. She was sympathetic to that.

But more and more she realized it was not their reality.

“Hope springs eternal.” She said cryptically. Klasnikov furrowed his brows.

“The Brigand is useless in a defensive war! Its characteristics are purposely designed for guerilla warfare. It has less direct combat weapons than any cruiser its size, and its larger than many cruisers! It was designed purely for endurance. I refuse to assign it to meaningless fleet tasks.” Nagavanshi replied.

“Right now, Sorokin, if we keep waiting, I feel the situation will only worsen for us.”

Jayasankar stared the Admiral in the eye, calling him by his name.

“Bhavani, I know you trust this woman, but I don’t, and I can’t agree to this.”

Klasnikov stared back. Nagavanshi held her peace in the middle, between the two.

“She has already violated our trust several times.”

His eyes were almost pleading. Jayasankar was not moved.

She did not get to her own position by being fully honest with everybody.

Even in the Union, a state that was a mother to its people, politics was still played.

“Sorokin, Parvati is correct here. At the moment, if we wait and engage in conventional tactics we will lose everything. But we can take a gamble; and though we may sacrifice a few souls in so doing, we stand to fundamentally alter the world.” Jayasankar said. “You know why it has to be the Duchy of Buren. If Buren has a revolution, it will cripple Imperial Agarthicite production.”

“I understand that perfectly. However this counterveils every hard-fought lesson we know about war. How will the Brigand be supplied? How will it remain in contact? How would we even know that it is alive or dead in the waters at any given moment? After we launch it, we’ve lost control of the situation, and furthermore, have no way to aid it inside of Imperial territory.”

Nagavanshi brought up a map on the table computer.

It was a map of the broader Empire, with the Nectaris and Imbrium both represented. There were several spots on the map, tracing a potential route. She pointed at three different spots where the route brought the Brigand back to Nectaris. At other times, it was deep in the Imperial core.

“We can have it take a circuitous route that brings it close to our borders at a few points. That will allow us to check back in with it. We can also employ the E.LF. and my special methods to communicate with it. As for the rest, they will rely on their wits. I’m putting together a crew of people with many different skills. And in addition, if we clue in the Republic, they will use their own networks to help us also.”

“Just a few minutes ago you were attacking the Republic as a weak ally.” Klasnikov said.

“Weak, but useful and willing. If there’s anything good about them it’s their intelligence.”

“Will we see a crew roster?” Jayasankar said.

“I’ll share one when it is ready.” Nagavanshi replied.

“You really are a terrible girl. You think you can do anything you want.”

Jayasankar scolded her, but it was almost more motherly than authoritarian.

“It’s time to move quickly.” Nagavanshi said. “Do you accept my proposal?”

On the table, dozens of windows appeared with additional information.

All of it was at first shaded, but with a quick swipe of her hand, Nagavanshi dramatically decrypted every document. Names and faces, vast sheets of logistics math, numerous tables. The work of years of secretive planning, thousands of communications, all of it laid bare. Again the Admiral and the Premier were left speechless at the apparatus that Nagavanshi had constructed. Her Ashura, the serpents tasked with keeping order, had built a ship, and plotted a revolution.

“I’ve laid out everything I’ve planned, and everything that is available to me. There are no more secrets, only work that lies ahead of us. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make sure nothing compromises our purpose. Without taking revolutionary action, our revolution will be destroyed.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, smiling. She took a long drag of her vaporizer.

“Well, we can’t very well just dump all this effort in the sea, can we?” She finally said.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.1]

The Imperial Southern Border Fleet had an impressive advantage in numbers over the Union defenders at Thassal. With over 70 vessels to around 30 combat-ready Union ships, even with basic barrage tactics they would have easily routed the Union vessels. But Fleet Admiral Gottwald wanted more than a rout. He would accept no less than the Union’s total destruction.

 In his view, the way to achieve this was to preemptively split into two fleets in a strategy to trap the Union forces amid a barrage from two sides. Kampfgruppe Kosz, commanded by the Admiral’s most trusted officers, remained on course for Thassal. He expected the battle would be joined in the broad, open plain just before the trench fissure itself. He would command the rest of the fleet personally, carefully maneuvering through a series of rocky highlands known to the Union as Konev’s Mountain, and then descending on the Union flank once they were out in the open.

Admiral Gottwald was convinced of the genius of his strategy. Had those Union thugs even conceived of a flanking maneuver? Did they even post scouts? They would fall to the Imperial art of war perfected over generations. He would win; he was already planning his next move.

It was not the Union that concerned him most. He’d make worse enemies soon.

Taming the barbarians was just a steppingstone to his rise.

“I’ll have to give my thanks to that moron Groessen in hell. If there was one man in this Navy who would shoot first no matter the cost to himself, it would be the good old Duke.”

In the vast, throne room-like command pod of his flagship, the Strasser, Admiral Gottwald stood above his command staff, whose stations were recessed below his own and arrayed around him. All of them had been well taught to mind their own business. There was one voice of sheepish dissent that came from his secretary. She clutched a circular medallion on a chain and mumbled.

“Sir, with all due respect, is it truly proper to slander this man in death?”

“Who’s to say it is slander? You?”

Had it not been his niece, he certainly would have treated her far worse. Instead, he found it amusing to argue with her. As a devout Solceanist she was an easy target for logical argument.

“We don’t know what happened sir–”

“What happened is immaterial. We’re already set on our course.”

Once upon a time, Duke Groessen had been the nobleman in charge of a large portion of the Thassalid territory. Upon the Union uprising, his stature vastly diminished. All Dukes had to perform military duties for the Emperor. Groessen’s domain shrunk to such an extent that all he could do was patrol a strip of border and wait with his hands on his lap, cursing his fortunes.

He was easy prey for Gottwald’s machinations. All he needed was a mission to die for.

With his death, there was immediate cause to reprimand and suppress the Union, but that was less important. There was also no legitimate claim to much of Union territory anymore.

Lands, and vassals to tap into, would soon play a major role in Imperial politics.

Gottwald was not a noble. He was pure military. He had no domains of his own, either to govern nor to exploit for advantage. However, in the coming storm, blood would only go so far. If he could capture the materials and industry of the Union, he would be a Duke in all but name.

“That old bastard will soon perish. There are already significant factions marshalling all of their resources. With Prince Erich deployed to the Ayre Reach, this will be our only chance for us to secure a potential base of power. The Southern Border Fleet is the weakest fleet in the Empire. But with the resources of Ferris at our disposal, we will be undoubtedly relevant to the outcome.”

There was a dawning realization upon the gentle eyes of his niece. As a God-fearing woman, the Lèse-majesté would not have upset her, for the Solceanists believed in the Light-Giver above the surface and placed their faith in him over their imperial duty. Perhaps, however, the scope of current events had finally struck her as an everyday citizen amid the coming chaos.

She made no comment about the state of the Empire. But her expression was troubled.

“Can the Southern Border Fleet truly overturn the Union sir? After all these years?”

Admiral Gottwald smiled.

“We have never seriously tried. They are mere gnats. If it were not for the Republic putting pressure on us, we would have crushed them already. It was the hope that Prince Erich could bloody the Republic enough for a ceasefire, allowing us to march on the Union freely. But that’s a future that’s not worth speaking of, except for this: the Union stands no chance against us.”

On a computer screen hovering just in front of his chair, was a map of the Union territories, with projected enemy deployment and the projected pace of both of his fleets. Soon the pincer would wrap around the enemy’s forces, and their total defeat would inevitably follow. Admiral Gottwald would cease to merely be the Empire’s lookout on the wild frontier. In his own right, perhaps, he could become a king. Or he might just settle for being among those to crown the next.

“Besides, we don’t need to conquer all the Union. If Ferris falls, those cowards will simply hide in the fortresses at Solstice and wait for better tides. We need only cow them into obedience. They were slaves once. A sufficient drubbing from their masters will render them docile.”

Admiral Gottwald sat back on his chair and silently bid his niece to stand at his side.

Obedient, yet sheepishly clutching her little sun icon, she joined him.

“All stations report. We should be seeing the enemy, and our allies.”

There was a generalized murmur among the specialists charged with sonar detection.

On the Admiral’s minicomputer, the sonar readings and their interpretation appeared.

Admiral Gottwald stared at it, dumbfounded.         

His hands were shaking. He could not accept what he saw.


Previous ~ Next