The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.11]

“…interconnectivity between stations has never been more stable and the throughput on wired connections is fantastic. Software has gotten really sophisticated too, so we no longer have to fear dropping transaction information midway nor having it intercepted. Because of this, I think it would only be a net benefit to completely, not partially, but completely digitalize– homph, excuse me– completely digitalize all transactions– slurp, sorry– and bring the financial infrastructure entirely out of the exchanging of credichips and polymer notes. What’s more, we can then implement decentralized, public ledgers that are citizen-auditable– mrrup, oh dear, sorry– and that’s how we can finally get out from under the heel of Eloim banking cartels and have fully party-controlled, volk finances.”

Once again, the tea table resounded with a singular clamor of national socialist eccentricity.

Hannah Schach devoured herb cream steak, expounding on racial theories of banking–

Adelheid van Mueller filled with a desire to dig fingers like knives into Hannah’s ribs–

Mia Weingarten silently shook her head, signaling a firm ‘no’ to Adelheid’s death glaring.

Her third guest, however, took an interest in the topic of conversation.

“Am I to understand then that the Eloim somehow clawed control of finances away from the Imbrians in the Imbrian Empire?” Astra Palaiologos said. Her face was completely impassive while Hannah Schach seemed genuinely surprised to have been spoken to at all. “Aren’t the Eloim mainly service and office workers? Are they strongly represented in the upper class? Do they have so many bureaucratic positions that allow them to enact policy?”

“Well, the management of the Central Bank of Rhinea has been influenced by the Eloim for some time. There are many Eloim politicians and activists. They favor tight monetary controls and conservative spending and have hampered our efforts to mobilize all resources.”

“What do you mean, influenced by Eloim? Do Eloim hold so much political power?”

“You might not understand, madam Palaiologos, but the untermenschen are aligned in their subterfuge against the racially superior– this is the biological basis for leftist ideology, you see. This is part of why the Blood Bund is so active near Hesse station– it is not a coincidence that the Reichsbank is based around the most demographically Eloim area in Rhinea!”

“And how large is this demography?”

“Ten percent of the Hesse station complex.” Hannah said, before forking a big piece of beef.

“Is there solid evidence of this faction’s control over Rhinean financial policy? I studied up before heading here, using the best available information– and I know that none of the heads of the major corporations of Rhinea are Eloim, except for monsieur Heidemann, now dead, who also does not count, because Eloim have matrilineal ties. So what do you mean?”

“Ah– but the matrilineality does not matter– all it takes is for the very base biology–”

Utterly caught off-guard Hannah seemed to babble in response–

Astra narrowed her eyes.

“I am no longer interested in this. Your analysis is groundless and useless to me.”

Hannah wilted in front of Astra and shrank away and stuffed more beef into her mouth.

Adelheid could have cheered for that gloomy, dressed-up shrimp. But she stayed quiet.

Mia averted her eyes, seemingly disconcerted whenever Astra spoke about anything.

Likely she was made to host her by Herta Kleyn and not of her own accord.

From what Adelheid had learned, Astra was an adult of eighteen or nineteen years.

Despite her stature, she was a young lady who had already debuted in her world.

More than that– she was a national leader, sitting at their table so nonchalantly.

“Miss Astra, have you been able to see much of the station during your trip?”

Adelheid asked– Mia still seemed too demoralized and anxious to do much hosting.

She didn’t want to ask what was going on, so she tried to help instead.

“I’m afraid not.” Astra said. “Our access is restricted. However I have looked at a variety of published material about the station and its commercial venues. It has been possible for me to order goods and have them delivered. There is a dizzying variety– it can be overwhelming. I must admit that while the arrangement of such an economy intrigues me intellectually, I genuinely prefer to study quietly in my quarters than to go out and gamble or shop.”

“I see!” Adelheid tried to smile, but this Warlord felt like an utter twerp. Not romantic in the slightest. “Well– how are you enjoying the sweets? Any treats from home you are missing?”

“The cakes are delicious.” Astra quickly replied, idly tapping her spoon on her plate. There were two kinds of cake on the table, a strawberry cream roll cake and a cheesecake. Astra had already devoured a slice of each and had a second slice of cheesecake. “Our sweets back home are never so– fluffy. We tend to have harder or pastier candies and confections.”

“Can you tell me about Katarran candy? I am intrigued.” Adelheid asked.

“Not Katarran candy, Viscountess.” Astra corrected. “Mycenaean candy. While we have a common heritage, the Warlord territories have had many unique cultural developments from one another– we have been separated for over a hundred years now.” Her tone of voice was direct but not harsh. She reminded Adelheid almost of Norn, at times– which might have made some sense considering her supposed lineage. Astra continued. “For example, the Pythian Black Legion of Northern Katarre and Mycenae both share a somewhat hard, flaky pastry known as Bougatsa. In Mycenae, it is eaten with a vanilla and cheese custard– Pythians omit the vanilla and fill it with melted salty cheese. Because the pastry is still buttery and sweet, the Pythian version is rustic and conflicting, but its also simpler and filling. The Mycenaean version is more luxurious. Meanwhile, the Hagian geniocrats fill their Bougatsa with mechanically whipped custard that makes it very airy, moist, almost foaming.”

“Wow! Thank you kindly, milord, I truly know so little about Katarre!” Adelheid said.

Her suck-up voice was thankfully extensively practiced.

Astra nodded her head and took another bite of her cake.

Adelheid could have sworn she saw her horn’s veins light up a bit purple, perhaps with joy.

“Imbrian manufacturing techniques avail themselves time and again it seems.” Astra said.

“I am glad you are enjoying it.” Mia said, finally speaking up.

It was an odd assortment at the table.

Hannah in her deplorable black uniform, Astra in her flashy and heavily decorated military coat, and Adelheid and Mia in more formal dresses. Adelheid wore a black dress with a sheer red half-length cardigan; Mia had on a quarter-length mauve cape over what Adelhed assumed to be a similarly cut dress, perhaps with a halter loop judging by her neck. Her dress was white and just a bit more modest than Adelheid’s high-fashion cocktail wear.

“May I call my servant to the table?” Astra asked.

Mia’s eyes darted to Astra upon hearing her voice. “Hmm? I mean– Yes– of course.”

“Raiza,” Astra called out to the door, for her servant, “come and try some of the cake.”

“Your majesty is far too kind.”

Through the open threshold into the estate, Astra’s Shimii servant and bodyguard crossed onto the balcony in measured, leisurely steps, pausing at the table to stand at her mistress’ side. She was taller than any woman seated at the table and looked almost humorously tall compared to Astra specifically. Yet she had such a demure manner and such a soft and sensual appearance, with her incredible figure, her two fluffy tails, fair skin, and long silvery hair. Adelheid could imagine her bending lustily in some lingerie advertisement.

Adelheid made note of the Mycenaean Shimii woman’s bold and exotic attire.

That gold choker seemed the only thing anchoring that flimsy white dress to her curves.

She thought of acquiring such a dress for herself and wearing it for Norn. Perhaps donning the provocative garb of Norn’s secret homeland would light a fire in her that simple Imbrian aesthetics could not. She might even dare to say, ‘take me like they do in the orient’? Would Norn’s animalistic side awaken then? Even if it did not, it would be fun to see her angry.

“Here. Tell me what you think of it.”

Raiza Sakaraeva bent close and spread her lips. Her ears folded slightly.

Astra brought a piece of cake to her mouth on a spoon and fed her.

“Exquisitely soft and moist. A refined sweetness– not too overpowering. Magnificent.”

A few crumbs were left on Raiza’s lips– Astra wiped them gently with her own fingers.

Raiza then stood back up to her full height. Her tails swayed majestically behind her.

“Do you think you could create something like this?” Astra asked.

“After having a taste– it should not be too difficult with the right ingredients.” Raiza said.

“We will see to it. Thank you Raiza.”

Raiza bowed her head and returned to her position a step inside the estate.

Astra turned to her host. “Thank you for understanding. Raiza is very important to me.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.” Mia said. “It does not bother us at all. She could come in–”

“No, Raiza is more comfortable guarding the doorway. She should not join us here permanently.” Astra said. “My safety is her most important charge, moreso than any temporary pleasures. She takes it very seriously, and I trust her with my life. I should not make her task any more difficult by continuously distracting her. My selfish moment with the cake was just that– a selfish moment. But thank you for considering her feelings.”

“No problem.” Mia said. She glanced at Adelheid.

Adelheid wracked her brain for something to talk about–

When suddenly, Hannah dropped her phone into the middle of the table.

“Let’s play a game!” Hannah said. Her mouth uncharacteristically bereft of meat or candy and therefore once again capable of speech. Regrettably. “My portable has a game with random icebreaker questions. We can catch up and get to know each other a little better!”

Hannah reached out and touched the screen of her portable to generate the first question.

She smiled and looked expectantly at Mia.

“That is– well, I suppose there’s no harm in it. Madam Astra, do you feel up to it?”

Mia began to speak, cut herself off, and then resumed–

Adelheid wondered what she was about to say before she gave up.

“Depending on the question I will have to refuse, but I am otherwise interested.”

“We’ll go in name order!” Hannah said. “Addy first, then Astra, myself, and Mia.”

Shrugging, Adelheid picked up the portable to see the first question that had popped up.

“‘If you could be an animal, which would you be’? Hannah, is this for twelve year olds?”

“C’mon Addy! Lighten up and play the game!” Hannah said, grinning wide.

Adelheid tried to throw out an answer without thinking about it much–

“I’d be a dog.” She said. She only realized directly after what that might imply.

“That’s kind of cute– though, isn’t it a bit too common?” Mia said, playful yet naïve.

Hannah looked surprised at the answer but also a bit conflicted suddenly.

A woman who called herself another woman’s prize pig could not possibly throw stones!

Astra started openly musing.

“An interesting answer. Looking beneath the surface of such a response, a dog is commonly positioned as servile, but all of its needs are supposed to be met by its owner– the dog gives herself up to the administration of the master in exchange for care and fulfillment without responsibilities. It does seem an idyllic life for the dog, does it not?”

Adelheid shot her a glance and felt embarrassment like roots creeping under her skin.

Did she switch pronouns in the middle of that sentence deliberately?!

“Anyway.” Adelheid said. “Your turn, Astra, please generate a question.”

Astra picked up Hannah’s portable and touched the screen where instructed.

“The question is: ‘If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend the extra time?’ One extra hour. I would likely spend it reading, after I had retired to my quarters for the day. Maybe I would spend it with Raiza sometimes– walking through the palace gardens perhaps. An extra hour is honestly more of a burden to think about than a blessing to enjoy.”

A truly droll and dispiriting girl– she had nothing of Norn in her after all.

Astra handed the portable over to Hannah.

“Tappity-tap! ‘What fashion trend would you bring back’? Tunics! We should all throw a toga party sometime– seeing miss Raiza’s dress made me want to look like that too.” Hannah said, tossing her hair and blowing a sultry kiss. Adelheid instinctively turned her head aside.

To think that revolting woman and her had the same idea!

“These questions are very silly.” Astra said.

Her tone of voice betrayed neither anger nor joy.

“That’s what’s fun about it!” Hannah said. She handed her portable to Mia.

Mia tapped on the screen and frozen when the question appeared.

Her gaze became even more evasive than before and she put her fists on her lap.

Hannah laughed. “That’s the face of a girl who’s gotta answer a juicy question!”

“She doesn’t have to do anything. Mia, you don’t have to.” Adelheid said.

“Is it fun for you to pressure others in this way?” Astra asked, staring at Hannah.

“Are you like being rhetorical or what? Of course it’s fun.” Hannah said, shrugging.

“I’ll answer it.” Mia said. She sighed deeply and shut her eyes before explaining. “Okay. ‘Who was your crush in secondary school?’ I don’t want to cause any offense. It was Adelheid– I had a huge crush on Adelheid. I knew it wasn’t okay– but she is just so confident and stylish.”

Hannah burst out laughing, nearly doubling over.

Adelheid was so surprised her mind went completely blank.

“Why is this funny? Childhood friends develop romantic interest all the time.” Astra said. “Raiza, if you will indulge me one final time, could I ask you a question for a game?”

Hannah started to recover from the laughter, and turned her attention to her steaks again–

However, her attention shot from the plate to the door, exactly as Raiza entered through–

With her hands raised and an agitated expression to her face.

And a gun to the nape of the neck.

Astra turned to face her, as did Adelheid, both frozen at the tea table.

Three white-uniformed soldiers with blue star armbands passed through the door, each armed with a large pistol, two with captives. Raiza and a barefoot woman in a hoodie were brought to the balcony at gunpoint. Both were cooperating with their attackers. Alongside the third soldier was Isaiah, who was very clearly not a captive. He walked casually to the table, and the gunman alongside him raised his pistol at Hannah Schach.

“Isaiah!” Mia cried out. “Who are these people? What are you doing to Orlan?”

She stood up suddenly, and for an instant the gunman aimed at her.

Isaiah condescendingly moved the man’s arm to make him aim at Hannah Schach again.

Adelheid caught sight of the gunman’s lips as Isaiah intervened. He seemed aggrieved.

Isaiah was not fully in control of this situation– these were not necessarily his people.

“Mia, come stand over here.” Isaiah said.

“No.” Mia said. In tears, her lips trembling. She stood by Adelheid and did not move. “You’re going to explain this to me. You’re not going to dismiss me again. Explain all of this. Does Madam Kleyn know what you are doing? That you are threatening her diplomatic guests?”

“You and my mother, both, are irrelevant to this.” Isaiah said.

“Irrelevant to what! Talk to me for goodness’ sake! Talk to me for once!” Mia cried out.

Despite the outburst from his fiance, not once did Isaiah look more than mildly annoyed.

“It isn’t necessary for you to know anything. Nor for you to leave that table.” Isaiah said.

The captive girl in the hoodie spoke up– “Mia– do what he says–”

Isaiah waved his hand and the white uniform holding the girl struck her in the head.

Bashing her against her ear with the fist holding the gun and then putting it to her neck.

She bent forward a bit in the captor’s grip, teeth grit and eyes weeping.

“Mind your own business, Orlan.” Isaiah said dismissively.

“Isaiah, no! Stop this!” Mia cried out–

“Mia, just be quiet. Don’t make things more tedious than they have to be.”

That was the last time Isaiah directly addressed his broken-hearted fiance.

Mia stayed by the table, struck dumb by the callousness and cruelty of her fiance.

Throughout this sorry scene, Astra Palaiologos had remained completely composed.

More stone-faced than Isaiah– perhaps as stone-faced as Isaiah wished he could be.

He turned to her next. Speaking to her in more detail than he ever spoke to Mia.

“Madam Palaiologos. The Katarrans are a young race in the lifespan of the world. They have done the Eloim no historical harm that needs to be redressed. I do believe our confrontation on the world stage will arrive someday– but not now. You and your forces may depart peacefully. I only have quarrel with the Volkisch Movement and the Shimii. I apologize for the trouble and I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive this offense for now.”

Astra narrowed her eyes at him. She glanced at the captive Raiza with clear discontent.

“Madam Palaiologos–” Hannah Schach spoke up. The gunman’s arm twitched.

Isaiah stared at him as if forbidding the soldier to fire. “Only on my command, damn it.”

“Madam Palaiologos. Five million Reichsmarks. For you to solve this problem for me.”

Hannah Schach spoke simply, smiled anxiously. Hands raised, a gun to her face.

Astra Palaiologos shut her eyes and sighed.

“That price is about right, Madam Schach.”

Murati and Karuniya did not usually awaken together.

Karuniya almost always awakened before Murati and was out of the room by the time she awakened– unless they had sex the night before. In such a case they fell asleep together in the same bed, and in the morning Karuniya extracted herself from Murati’s arms, waking her in the process. She would give the drowsy Murati a kiss, dress herself and go on her way. Murati would lay in bed for a few minutes more, grumbling, and then rise.

“Love you, Murati. Good luck with today! I’ll be in the lab as usual!”

“Love you too. I’ll see you later.”

It was 0700 and her go-getter wife was out the door to work.

It took until 0730 for Murati to finally rise out of bed.

She grabbed hold of her plastic bath robe from the wall closet and walked out wearing it.

In the shower, Murati hung up her robe and found a pair of robes already on the hooks. Her gaze wandered slowly to her left, and she saw Semyonova and Fatima standing under the hot misty water in adjacent showers. Judging by the ambient temperature of the shower area they must have begun recently. Murati took her place beside them and turned on the hot water herself, kicking up a bit more mist. The pair greeted her, and she smiled back warmly.

“Good morning, Murati!” Semyonova said. “Ready for another day as Captain?”

“Good morning! Ah– this will be her last day as Acting Captain, won’t it?” Fatima asked.

“It’s the final day of the United Front’s deliberations, so I believe so!” Semyonova said.

“Ah– sorry to be so nosy, Acting Captain.” Fatima said, ears folding a bit.

“Good morning! No need to apologize Fatima, as far as I know you are completely right.” Murati said. “Captain Korabiskaya should not be indisposed again after today.”

“Would you like a horoscope for your last day as Acting Captain?” Semyonova said.

“I would rather find out for myself what the future holds.” Murati replied.

Semyonova reached for one of the dispensers of soap on the wall and a splash of gel landed on her palm which she began to run through her blond hair. Fatima washed her face, while her ears periodically flicked rapidly and cast a spray of droplets. Due to all the new guests, Semyonova and Fatima had been roomed together. Murati thought them an unlikely pair– Semyonova was the bubbly and beloved idol of the Brigand, like their own pretty pop star on the comms, while Fatima was seen as a bit reserved and kept to herself. Fatima was notably pious even among the Shimii crew, and Semyonova had a fixation with the occult, ghost stories, astrology, fortune telling and magic tricks, all of which a Shimii should not get involved with. However they worked together well on the bridge at least–

“Fatima, do you need help washing your tail?”

“Not today. Thank you. I’m sorry for seeking your assistance with it.”

“No, it’s perfectly fine. I have trouble washing my back, I can’t imagine having to reach for the base of a tail in addition to that. Maybe I’ll lobby the captain for some bathroom brushes.”

“Ah– but if we get brushes, Natalia, then I won’t get to ask you to clean my tail!”

Fatima and Semyonova exchanged smiles and laughed together under the water.

Murati glanced aside at them quizzically.

They seemed to be getting along.

For the most part, Murati tended to not interact with whoever she was bathing with.

She spoke if spoken to, but otherwise she just spaced out in the shower.

However, it was rare for her to find herself in the same bathroom as the women considered the prettiest on the Brigand. It brought to mind how Murati was considered a ‘prince’ by the gossipy sailors and her thoughts and gaze began to wander about. Compared to the two of them, particularly Semyonova’s quite curvy and plump frame, Murati could not help but consider whether she was perhaps a bit too thin. Minardo did get on her case for not eating well enough. Was this the reason she was ‘prince-like’ perhaps? Fatima’s hair was really long too– would Murati become a ‘princess’ if she grew her hair out? Her mind drifted around in such directions during the largely automatic actions involved in bathing herself.

“Ah, Murati, before I forget–”

Semyonova called her attention again and Murati turned a bit sluggishly to face her again.

Her mind unwound itself from its travels and returned to the present.

“You’re doing a fantastic job as Captain!” Semyonova said suddenly. Murati, at first stone-faced, smiled in return. “I know it must be stressful having to manage that much stuff Murati– I used to work communications on a Frigate that had half the crew and space as the Brigand and even that frayed the captain’s nerves a lot of the time. But you have been cool as a cucumber the whole time! I think everyone is happy with the job you’ve done.”

Since she had been complimented, Murati’s mind fished for a compliment in return–

“Thank you kindly. I can’t praise myself much since we haven’t been out at sea, but I appreciate the vote of confidence. I wanted to say also, it seems like you are getting up much earlier now! Your initiative is not unseen, and we all appreciate the extra effort you put in!”

Semyonova turned a bit red and froze up. She looked surprised at Murati.

Was this that effect Minardo had said she had on others?

She started mumbling and Murati could barely hear nor understand what she was saying.

“Ah, yes, well– Thank you I’ve– I’m not oversleeping– Actually I’ve never overslept– nor have I ever ran out in my pajamas in a panic– I have a great handle on my sleep nowadays–”

“Hmm?” Murati did not know whether she had offended her in some way–

“Ah– sorry, I’m an early riser, so she oriented her schedule around me.” Fatima said.

Semyonova turned to Fatima with a helpless expression.

Fatima giggled and splashed some water at her.

Murati still did not quite understand. “That is quite comradely. I am glad for you two.”

Eventually, Semyonova recomposed herself but did not speak for the rest of the shower.

“I’ll see you all on the Bridge. I have to do a few rounds first and find Aatto.” Murati said.

“Aye aye, Acting Captain!” both Semyonova and Fatima saluted, splashing water.

Murati transitioned from the shower to her room, and from her robe to her uniform.

She looked herself in the mirror. Her hair really was starting to dip below the shoulder.

Maybe she would let it grow longer and see what people thought about it.

Once she was ready, Murati laid her hand on the wall to engage the ship computer.

Scanning the ship access logs she knew that Aatto had left her room. She was probably in the hangar, as she did not usually take to the bridge alone unless ordered to do so. Murati left her room and took the hall to the elevator, in order to take the elevator down into the hangar. Along the way, she looked into the cafeteria, feeling peckish.

Breakfast was already served– Minardo was usually up in the early shift. By 0800 she already had the first batch of bread baked and the morning entrée already served.

When Murati peeked in, Minardo spotted her and waved from the counter.

“Murati! Good morning! We’ve got a bit of fusion today– gazpacho with dippable blini!”

“Can I get some to go?” Murati said, approaching. There were few people in the cafeteria.

“Of course! Rising with the sun today, Acting Captain? Head start on all the work?”

She was acting like Murati was never around in the mornings.

0900 was not so long after 0800! She took a minor umbrage at the insinuation.

“It’s not that much earlier than usual.” Murati said.

Minardo had a bit of a laugh at her expense while passing her a cup of gazpacho and a warm blin folded into a tube and wrapped in plastic foil. Murati thanked her and got back on her way. She ate on the way to the hangar, and was surprised by the gazpacho. The kick of the pulsed raw aliums was almost as powerful as having chilis in the mix. It was deliciously savory for a bunch of blended-up vegetables– truly Minardo had done it again.

She dipped the blin in the soup and ate that way to reduce the pungency.

Out in the hangar, the mechanics were already working, running the morning inspections.

Even though none of the machines had been used, and all repairs were completed, they still inspected them every morning without fail. When it came to the equipment and maintenance, any amount of neglience could mean certain death. Murati waved at the hangar mechanics and crew and found Aatto in her black Commissar-like uniform standing under the Agni. Tigris was with her, and Murati felt a pang of anxiety.

She hoped that Aatto was not bothering the mechanics.

However, Tigris was all smiles and Aatto looked to be entirely calm.

Only becoming excited and wagging her tail rapidly at the sight of Murati.

“Good morning, Master!” Aatto said. “How did you sleep?”

Murati sighed internally– it was a lost cause. She would have to get used to being ‘master’.

“Good morning Aatto. I slept quite well, thank you. Good morning, Tigris.”

Tigris put her hands on her hips, puffed out her chest and grinned.

“Good morning! Feast your eyes! At my latest masterpiece!”

She pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the Agni.

Murati raised her eyes up.

When they acquired the Agni it was just a bit taller than their other Divers and thickly armored, which made it slower but more resilient. It had been designed to operate in the Deep Abyss, within the Gorges, and to engage in the collection of scientific data and samples. It was equipped with a variety of gear but was less capable as a weapon– its greatest virtue was the HELIOS drone-based imaging network developed in part by her parents. Tigris had obliquely hinted at a “Tigris Pack 1” to up-arm the Agni– Murati had not known what to expect and been too busy to keep up with Tigris’ work.


“Why is it blue and yellow? The blue is so dark– and the yellow stripe is really gaudy.”

“What do you mean? It’s a super cool shade of blue and a super cool yellow stripe!”

“Uh huh.”

“I think it suits Master quite well!”

Despite her slight misgivings about it aesthetically, there had been noticeable changes that intrigued Murati. The chassis had been very slightly widened, which might improve the weight balance with the shoulder-mounted drone nests. Some of the armor had been omitted, giving the machine a slightly svelte appearance, but the cockpit had been redesigned to have sharper front angles. This made it much less likely that a round would detonate on a flat surface. On the rear, two of the backpack jets had been moved out, lengthened, and anchored to the upper back, just below where the “nape” of an actual human being was located. They could not swivel as much as the backpack, but at first glance seemed able to process much more water through the turbines.

“Don’t those stick out a bit much?” Murati asked, pointing her soup cup at the hydrojets.

“It’s a risk, but I think it’s a worthwhile risk!” Tigris said. “Everyone has been too conservative with the jets, hiding them in the backpack, both the Union and the Empire. But you will run out of room for small jets, we can’t have eight or ten back there–the design space has to move into bigger jets. I’ve been thinking for a while about machines moved by two large jets– like the pictures of the surface era ‘jet fighter’ that Yangtze used to obsess about.”

Due to the extraction of the bigger jets from the backpack to a direct back-mount, there was some loss of fine maneuverability that Tigris compensated for adding a few additional fin surfaces including a middle of the packpack “shark fin” control surface. She pointed out that all of the fins were now fully retractable into the hull when moving forward at full speed, reducing water drag. Due to the installation of Union-style hands, the Agni was completely compatible with all Union Diver weapons, while retaining the arm-mounted grenade launcher and its jet anchors. Overall it looked potent and aggressive.

“Well– I can only praise it, I think. Praise it and hope not to have to use it.” Murati said.

Tigris began twirling a pen in her hand with a smug grin. “Haha!”

Aatto clapped her hands thrice. “With this weapon, Master will surely defeat any enemy!”

“Aatto, what do you think? You were here before me– did you inspect it?” Murati asked.

“I did inspect it!” Aatto said cheerfully. “I think the combat performance has improved on all fronts. The previous model needed its armor density to enhance durability in the depths– but for our purposes, the current armor package is much better optimized. Higher speed performance matters much more to us. Now it’s using more Union parts too, so it’ll be easier to maintain. All of its weaponry is already known to Master– madam Tigris did well!”

“Thank you Aatto.” Murati said. “I appreciate you getting ahead of that for me.”

“Thanks, but stop with the madam already, I am just Tigris. By the way, while this gal was here, I let her into the cockpit.” Tigris said. She pointed at Aatto with the pen she was holding. Aatto continued smiling plainly. “And I was surprised because the homunculus was tuned to your brainwaves, Murati– but she actually got a reaction out of it.”

“What does all of that mean?” Murati said, dreading the answer.

“It means she can pilot the Agni with you if Maharapratham is indisposed.” Tigris said.

Aatto’s ears perked up, but her expression did not change.

“Okay. I’ll– take it under advisement.” Murati said.

She looked at Aatto, and Aatto wiggled her ears a bit. Remarkably self-controlled.

Then Murati noticed some motion off to the side of the Agni’s leg.

When she looked, there was a disc-shaped figure about the size of a coffee table standing on multiple silvery steel legs. There were intakes on its body for two small hydrojets and fins on its upper surface. On the LCD panel in front of the disc, there were digits that seemed to suggest a pictograph, like the smileys sent in BBSes. In this case, the face was rendered as “>w<” and made the object look mildly distressed. The fins looked like its ears– it resembled a moderate-size creature with a disc-like but somewhat cute body. Murati stared at it, and it seemed to hide just a bit further behind the Agni’s leg as a result of the attention.

It was one of the HELIOS drones– outside of its enclosure.

“What are you staring at?” Tigris looked behind herself and frowned at the sight of the drone. In turn the drone made a “O_O” face on its display when spotted. “God damn it. I tweaked their survival programming to make them get out of the way of battle more efficiently– but now this one’s roaming around the hangar terrified and being a nuisance. But none of the other ones do it! So what the hell is wrong with this one?!”

“I don’t know what to say to that. Just get them under control.” Murati replied dryly.

“Perhaps this little guy has a different prompt. All of our computing is based on predictive programming, so maybe each member of the formation was uniquely trained.” Aatto said.

“Well– I didn’t do the initial programming, so I have no idea about that. This thing is just part of the HELIOS network– so that was all Murati’s parents and Ganges. But the tweaks I made, I made to the network and its routines, not to any one of these stupid little things!”

“I’ll ask Zachikova to access it and send it back to the nest when she gets on.” Murati said.

Tigris sighed. She shot an angry glare back at the HELIOS drone. It then took off running.

After that episode, Murati and Aatto left the side of the Agni and made their way back up.

“Master, just so you know, we are a bit low on personnel.” Aatto said. “Yesterday half of the pilots participated in a Shimii festival in the Wohnbezirk and received permission to stay the night from the captain. They have yet to return. Also, before she left, Captain Korabiskaya gave permission for Valya Lebedova to temporarily leave the ship as well for a walk.”

“Then our only pilot is Shalikova? Can we get her woken up and on standby?” Murati said.

“Absolutely. I will have the security team knock on her door.” Aatto said.

“Thank you.” Murati said.

She felt an initial moment of disquiet at being largely deprived of her Diver squad– however, she expected this would be an ordinary and peaceful day like all of the ones before. It was highly unlikely for anything to happen that might involve them. And even if there was an issue, it was unlikely to be so urgent as to obviate simply recalling their pilots to the Brigand. They were docked and protected in a major commercial port with the dock workers on their side, an official alibi, and no reason for anyone to come looking for them specifically.

“Aatto, I don’t like that so much of the team is gone.” Murati confessed.

“I agree.” Aatto said. “We should always have at least a two-man unit available.”

“I’ll talk to Semyonova about putting that rule before the Officer’s Union.” Murati said.

It would probably annoy the pilots, but this should not have been acceptable.

“That being said, I am sure they will awaken and return soon. Those were the terms given to them by the captain.” Aatto said. “So in an hour or two everything will be well.”

“How much can go wrong in an hour or two?” Murati said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Everything– but for us, probably nothing.” Aatto said, mimicking the shoulder shrug.

When they stepped back into the bridge, they found Evgenya Akulantova in the Captain’s chair, clearly a bit uncomfortable with the amount of legroom at the station. It was a rare pitiable moment for the formidable “Chief Shark” of the security team, who was in line for command behind Murati. Nevertheless, Akulantova smiled, waved, and vacated the chair readily as if she had been waiting for anyone to take it off her hands. Murati and Aatto let her through to the threshold and reassigned her to her usual duty.

“Should we get that adjusted?” Murati asked her, pointing at the chair.

Akulantova shook her head. “If it ever falls to me permanently, I’ll just disband the unit.”

Murati did not appreciate the humor of that but said nothing and let the Chief on her way.

She knew the Chief did not mean such a thing.

Murati had known quite a few Union-born Pelagis as well as Katarrans in the Union and they all seemed to enjoy a somewhat sarcastic demeanor. But in each case their commitment to communism was some of the strongest she had ever seen. Murati greatly respected them– and Katarrans fascinated her a bit– so she tempered her petty automatic responses.

When she took her seat, she found only Semyonova and Fatima at their stations.

Of course, it was only around 0850 or so– too early for the late shifters to come back.

“Captain on bridge!” Semyonova declared playfully to the empty bridge.

“That’s my line.” Aatto said, sounding just a little bit defensive.

Semyonova giggled and Fatima shook her head a bit as if to note her disapproval.

They were not alone for long.

At around 0915 Zachikova walked in through the door and Arabella followed behind her. Zachikova sat down at her station beside Fatima and put down a portable computer she had been carrying on the desk surface. Arabella walked a few more steps to the side of the electronic warfare station and sat down on the floor with her back to it. This was against the safety regulations, but it was a common allowance that Captain Korabiskaya let the two of them have. So despite Murati’s own misgivings she allowed Arabella to sit there.

After all, Zachikova was one of the most important members of the bridge crew.

In terms of mission value and efficiency, her skills were unique and irreplaceable.

“Good morning, Acting Captain.” Zachikova said. “Any tasks for me?”

Turning a gloomy expression on Murati, waving half-heartedly, black bags under her eyes.

“Yes, there’s a HELIOS drone making a scene in the hangar. Coax it back into the Agni.”

“Huh. That’s pretty weird. I guess I’ll give the naughty guy a spank then.”

Zachikova laid her hands on the desk surface and took in a breath.

Her eyes became cloudy, and the LEDs on her ear equipment began to blink rapidly.

An empty gaze fixed on her station, a vacant body sitting slightly limp.

“Semyonova, main screen hangar camera nine.” Murati ordered.

“Right away!” Semyonova said cheerfully.

In front of them the large main screen filled with live video from a camera situated near the middle section of the ship’s lower deck. On the video, the HELIOS drone which had been previously running wantonly about suddenly stopped. A few mechanics who had been chasing it paused around it. On its front LCD, the pixels once used to form smileys now formed the word “PWNED” and the drone wandered hazily back to the Agni. It climbed onto the leg, hopped on the shoulder and slotted itself dutifully inside the drone housing.

Once the shoulder slot was shut tight behind the drone, Zachikova’s eyes regained color.

Half-turning on her seat, she grinned and gave a thumbs up.

Murati gave her a thumbs up back.

With the excitement now over, they resumed the routine for these ‘Acting Captain’ days.

“Semyonova, main screen interactive station model, and captive cameras 110, 205, 315.”

Zachikova had managed to find hundreds of unsecured cameras throughout the station that had fallen prey to her uniquely gifted cyber sleuthing. They were able to watch those video feeds at any time and most were live at all hours, including some very useful ceiling cameras operated by the station climate control service. These were the cameras Murati requested, along with the interactive model of the entire station. Murati liked to have the model on the main screen, as the wealth of live-updating data gave her some comfort.

As soon as the model appeared on screen and fully updated with the live data, Murati could see at any time how many people were moving about the station, where traffic was flowing, as heat maps and path predictions. They had marked the positions and rotations of Uhlan guards, and could track their activity near the Volkisch Gau, and the Oststadt where the United Front was meeting, and other locations of interest. With the model up, the heat maps displaying and everything up to the minute, Murati finally laid back in her chair.

Her eyes briefly glanced over the model every so often out of curiosity, but her anxiety was stabilized by the knowledge that she had so much data at her fingertips. Information was power, and intelligence positions defined so many battles that she had directly experienced and many that she had only read about. With the model, she was confident in her ability to respond to anything that might happen. She had an informational coup on the Uhlans.

In one of her glances, however, she noticed a lot of heat mapped in the second tier.

“Zachikova, can you find any information on why the Uhlan are gathering so tightly?”

They were practically leaving every post on the first and third tier unguarded.

This was unprecedented in terms of the patrol routes they had mapped.

Zachikova began to type into her station keyboard, looking for information manually.

“Aside from a few scouts and technicians here and there,” Zachikova began, having found information on the open web, “it seems the Uhlan are being called to their HQ for a snap audit. There was a clause for this set in their contract negotiation apparently– the station wants to review their budget. So they have to assemble and turn in their gear. Rhineametalle apparently instructed them to comply with all of the provisions of the audit.”

“Is the station’s business that important to them?” Murati asked.

“As a matter of fact, Master, it is invaluable.” Aatto said. “Shall I expound?”

“Please do.” Murati said.

“You see, the Imbrium’s military development has gone through certain stages– it was all founded on the personal armies of the nobles who followed Emperor Nocht, but over time, these shrank into essentially personal and property guards.” Aatto said.

Murati knew some of this history, but she wanted to see where Aatto took the story.

“After that, Ducal forces acting as divisions of a combined Imbrium-spanning Imperial Navy force rose to prominence, nominally obedient to the Naval HQ. Then there was the liberalization within the Fueller Reformation that allowed the Duchies to organize some of their own defenses. Since the liberalization, Rhinea stressed its independence. They had more trust in for-profit, private sector entities than in Imperial officials.” Aatto said.

That makes sense, Murati thought.

Rhinean stations were immediately different than Serrano in how much the corporations and their goods were sold, advertised and relied on in every inch of the stations. Everything in Rhinea was different– they had handheld computers and screens flashing at them in every direction. It made sense that their defense would also be different– and for-profit.

Aatto continued. “Corporations and stations in Rhinea began employing Katarrans, or Loup Grey Wolves, or some other private security forces, and using them in place of Imperial police. This is where Kreuzung’s K.P.S.D arose, for example. It is also where Rhineametalle founded its three security divisions– one division guarded Rhineametalle structures, the second guarded the corporation’s raw materials logistics, and the third division was the Uhlans, who were meant to be a for-profit security venture contracted to other Stations. Rhineametalle wanted to build and keep a large personal security force to both test its weapons and to insure its self-sufficiency if another Imperial crisis arose.”

“But they don’t want to pay too much for it.” Murati said, predicting what Aatto might say next. “So the Uhlankorp have to secure external profits, and the other two divisions are just doing jobs that Rhineametalle would have had to pay a third party to do anyway.”

“Exactly, master. But there is more– the rise of the Volkisch Movement to power in Rhinea upset the stage for these private forces. You must have read about how the K.P.S.D. treated the Stabswache in Kreuzung– they came to blows over security concerns frequently. The K.P.S.D had to continue to assert their value to protect their pfennigs even as the world changed. The Volkisch are immensely far removed from the liberal promises of the Fueller Reformation. They want complete security control over every square centimeter of Rhinea. Now, the Uhlans are part of Rhineametalle, who in turn are in bed with the Volkisch through Violet Lehner. So they do not have to worry about bodily harm coming from the Stabswache– but they must still worry about being made redundant.”

“This sounds ridiculous. How much money could all of this possibly make?” Murati asked.

“Security forces are incredibly overvalued in the Imbrium master!” Aatto said. “With all of the chaos and all the violent ideological actors at play– it’s an extension of why there is such a culture of mercenary and militia work in the Imbrium. The Uhlans make great money for their parent corporation. Crime in Rhinea had been at record lows, but the demand for security forces is irrational– it doesn’t matter what the statistics say. Rhineametalle got to set the price, and even after this audit, they can expect to make a great profit, or they would not be bothering with the whole thing. So the Uhlans just have to go along with it.”

Murati crossed her arms. It made perfect sense, and it was eloquently described.

“Imbria is a bizarre place. Thank you, Aatto. I’ve truly learned something today.”

Aatto beamed with unbridled joy, her tail thumping rapidly against the seat.

“Any time, Master! I live only to improve the quality of my service to you!”

“Let’s– not get too carried away–” Murati said, trying to shush her down.

Semyonova snickered in the background of this display of servile affection.

Fatima shook her head.

Zachikova groaned audibly, not caring if Murati heard her displeasure.

“All of this means the Uhlans will be out of our way today.” Murati said, settling back down against her chair. “Let’s keep an eye on the second tier just to be sure we see when they start streaming back to their posts. We can inform the captain to avoid them.”

“Will do.” Zachikova said, turning a bored expression back to her station.

Murati brought the arm-mounted monitor on the captain’s chair to the front and closer to her, with a mind to check the maintenance logs and make sure nothing was neglected– however, mere minutes later Zachikova called for her attention.

Mildly startled, Murati pushed away the monitor and stood.

“Acting Captain, I found something quite strange.” Zachikova said.

“Anything you can display on the model?” Murati said.

“I’m trying to find a working camera of some kind around there.” Zachikova said. “There was a shock in the second tier maintenance hull, near where the core station meets the Aachen Massif. Flood mitigation went off and that section of the hull was completely sealed off.”

“How serious is it? Is the station taking any kind of action about it?” Murati asked.

“The station computer reported it, but there’s been no acknowledgment.” Zachikova said.

“Perhaps it’s not dangerous. Have you found a camera out there?” Murati said.

As callous as it would sound to say out loud, the health of Aachen station was not their particular concern. Anything that threatened the lives of their personnel was their problem, but if the station underwent a failure, that was up to the station to respond to– they could not risk their mission to intervene in a search-and-rescue mission. They were a combat vessel, too, not equipped for heavy-duty engineering. If the maintenance hull was failing, Murati’s concern was whether they needed to evacuate and when.

Zachikova’s far-gone eyes stared into the middle distance for a moment.

Her consciousness was fully committed to a different “device” than her own body.

When she began to speak, she was still half-slumped over her station, eyes glassy.

“I found a salinity buoy with a camera. It doesn’t look too good, but we can use it.”

Her voice sounded distant and a bit weak, when her mind was committed as it was.

“Put it on the screen.”

Overlayed over the model of the station and the other camera feeds, a temporary square window appeared with a brand new camera feed. Drifting up and down on a line along with the vagaries of the deep currents, the buoy had a rotating camera with a limited angle and a few different visualization modes. It was difficult to tell what it was looking at in the moment– Murati could just barely make out the rock wall of the Aachen massif, and the edge of a steel structure. Everything else was marine fog. Nothing seemed to be happening.

“I was able to access previously recorded images and I found something interesting.”

Zachikova cut the live video feed and replaced it with a few static images.

Mini Zachikova appeared on the screen, pointing her little club hand at one of them.

“Oh! It’s the cute little Braya!” Arabella said, pointing at the screen cheerfully.

“This buoy saves still images for backup as a trio, with a spectograph and a thermograph along with a normal picture. Acting Captain, look at these snaps and compare the two.” The cute little Zachikova on the screen smacked her little hands on the images and they zoomed in further. Her voice was much sharper when it came out of the sound system.

On the live image there was a white flash captured in the corner.

In the thermographic image, the source of this flash was intensely hot.

“An explosion?” Murati said. “Did someone try to breach the station?”

“Judging from the station blueprint, this location has an emergency hatch.” Zachikova said. “Someone might have tried to blow open the hatch to enter the maintenance hull. But it’s a stupid plan– blowing open the hatch will just set off the flood mitigation. If you want to break into the station this way, you need a ship to prevent a pressure incident.”

“Zachikova, run those two images through the predictor and tell it to look for more steel structures within the image.” Murati said. “We might just find our ship inside the mess.”

Sure enough– once the computer processed the images, there was an outline of a ship.

Or at least– there was a large steel structure now adjacent to the station.

“It could be hallucinating.” Zachikova said. “However, it fits pretty well.”

She sharpened the outlines on the processed image manually.

To Murati it truly looked as if the explosion happened at the end of a boarding chute.

“How often does the buoy take pictures?”

“It takes more when there is activity– one second and I will run them as a sequence.”

Once the computer was through processing the sequence of snaps from the buoy–

There was an indication of an explosion, and then a violent scattering of metal.

“Can you query the station supercomputer? Is the station responding at all?” Murati asked.

“One moment.”

On the screen, the mini-Zachikova crossed her arms.

“Arabella, could you adjust my body, so I am up against the desk? I’m uncomfortable.”

“Of course Braya!”

Arabelle got up from the floor and laid Zachikova’s head on her arms, leaned over the desk.

There was something a bit strange about watching her tenderly relocating Zachikova’s half-limp and dead-eyed body– knowing that the mind meant for it was active elsewhere.

“Thank you.” Mini Zachikova turned to face Murati. “Murati, something is wrong here. The Station supercomputer has not acknowledged any responses to this breach. Aside from the automatic deployment of flood mitigation, it’s like the computer doesn’t have permission to do anything about it. No alarms, no emergency services sent to the maintenance hull. Even if the flood mitigation managed to take care of everything, the breach cannot be left like that forever. Either everyone is sleeping on this problem, or the computer’s lost authority.”

Murati felt her heart begin to pound. Something was wrong– and she was missing crew.

“Can you explain the loss of authority? Is this like the Core Separation?” She asked.

“No, the computer is still functioning. Anything it was already monitoring, or anything that is set up to happen automatically, will continue to work. The Station systems will not suddenly stop working. But any new authorizations to the computer are not being answered. So for example, if someone in the government sector noticed these events, they can’t declare an alarm state now. They also cannot open any new communications channels.”

“Who has authority then?” Murati asked. “Can we find out what is really happening?”

“I’m not sure. There are a few ways– It is possible to delegate computing authority to an emergency unit working as a decentralized processor.” Zachikova said. “It is used in case of emergencies or disasters or if the station needs to reprogram the supercomputer’s security processor, which is the main thing handling requests at the station-level. Essentially, a smaller supercomputer with all the security programming handles the requests using the supercomputer’s memory banks and subordinate cores– like a brain moving someone else’s muscles. Other than that, I guess you could subvert the security processor, but this is very difficult. If authority isn’t delegated cleanly it locks down and sounds an alarm. To avoid this you would need both physical access and current leadership credentials.”

Murati felt fear like an infinite spiraling chain wrapping around her skull and heart.

“And if someone has everything they need, they can just silently take over the station.”

She had heard enough now– with the timing of the Uhlan audit, something was going on.

Panic was unproductive, but her hands had begun shaking as she gripped the seat.

“Semyonova, alert code Semyon! I want everyone in positions right now!” Murati said.

“Yes, Captain!” Semyonova said, with none of the cheer she had previously shown. She opened a channel and in a calm, speaking voice, called all of the crew to duty “Semyon.” This was the highest level of alert, indicating that combat was inevitable and imminent. Everyone had to rush to their duties and begin work immediately. While the current situation did not entail combat yet, Murati would rather have everyone rush to alert Semyon just in case.

“Aatto, is Shalikova ready?” Murati asked.

“She is in the hangar and awaiting orders, master.” Aatto said.

Unlike everyone else, there was no sign of anxiety on her face. She was eerily calm.

Perhaps the one strength a person with no regard for her own life could have.

She had been working diligently and without distraction this entire time.

“Have the Cheka prepared. If I give the order, I want Shalikova ready to launch!” Murati said.

“Acknowledged! Leave the hangar to me.” Aatto said.

Overhead, the red flashing alarm lights soundlessly indicated the alert state.

Within five minutes, every sailor on the ship was up and had taken their respective positions. Unnecessary pods were sealed off. Vitamin drinks and energy bar rations were handed to each sailor and pilot. Doctor Kappel had set up her medical station, and security unlocked their weapons. Alex Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa rushed to their stations, and they were even fully dressed. Helmsman Kamarik took his position quickly after.

“Zachikova, send all information and our conclusions to the Rostock and John Brown. Tell the Rostock to get in touch with Kalika Loukia to bring all personnel back from the Wohnbezirk.” Murati ordered. “Semyonova, contact the Captain, Commissar and Premier and inform them about the situation. Tell them to begin to retreat along the predetermined route.”

“Yes, Acting Captain!” Both Zachikova and Semyonova set to work immediately.

Everything was in motion. Murati tried to calm her pounding chest.

Regardless of the outcome, she was doing everything she could do now.

She was meeting the task head-on– all she had to do was keep a cool head and–

“Murati,” Semyonova spoke suddenly in a low whisper, broken by her ragged breathing, calling her by name, “Murati, I’m afraid– I’m– no response. The Captain and Commissar are not responding, Murati. I will keep trying– but nobody is picking up at the Oststadt–!”

Murati’s heart sank.

Her eyes and head grew hazy– and her hands shook all the worse.

For seconds that felt like years she sat frozen still until the cameras caught something–

One attempt to take advantage of the Uhlan’s audit failed before it even started.

However, its engineered failure assured the success of a parallel attempt.

Throughout the morning the Uhlan guards filed into the second tier of the station.

Across the park, their barracks were divided by a wire fence from the street. A meager defense that was largely unnecessary since the bulkheads into the barracks buildings and armory would prevent any casual incursion by themselves. Behind this fence, the Uhlans stood in their sandy yard in their orderly ranks, turning over their personal weapons for inspection, stripping off their body armor and nanomail hats, their vibrobatons and sabres, their grenades. Standing at attention along with their officers. Auditors called the roll, meticulously accounting for each person, their identification and their gear.

Inside the armory building there was a similar accounting. Every locker was opened, every storage container exposed, each individual item down to the last rifle, the last ammunition belt, disposable rocket tubes and each of the rockets contained inside. Manually hand counted and double checked by a second hand. Aachen’s administration wanted a thorough audit and they would receive one. Every last pfennig of what they paid and got away with would be tabulated. Every last hand of the Uhlan would be engaged in the work.

All of this activity played into the hands of those who had been watching.

Mid-morning, across the park from the Uhlan barracks–

Multiple individuals in fireproof hooded jackets rushed to the edge of the trees.

Each carrying a large backpack perhaps at one point meant for a musical instrument.

They dropped to their knees for a second set of individuals to unzip their cargo.

Supported on their backs were launch rails concealed in the packs.

As soon as they were unzipped, and the rails were raised, drones already hooked onto each unfurled their wings. Before the audiences in the cafes and sitting around the trees could barely gasp at what they saw, they were quieted by a series of loud hissing launches. Hot gray contrails filled the air over the beautiful canopies of the second tier’s trees.

Suicide drones sailed over the park and within moments they had flown over the fence–

and crashed among the assembled Uhlans.

Each drone was relatively small– each warhead was improvised from one or two grenades.

Dozens hurtled into the Uhlan yard causing immediate pandemonium.

Striking in and around and between every column of the assembled personnel.

Successive detonations sent torsos flying from limbs, turned standing men and women into thick mist and thin fluid, blew apart pistols and ripped up long lines of body armor set on the floor. Flying and falling and rushing bodies struck each other dumb. Thin grey smoke and upturned clouds of sand blew up from the yard and hid the carnage from the eyes of anyone outside. There was screaming and the reek of iron and steel and passersby ran in every direction from the attack unknowing of whether there would be a second one for them.

Hundreds of Uhlan guards and officers were killed or cast among the gore awaiting death.

For the attackers, there was no pause. Drawing handguns and grenades, they rushed in.

Those hooded operatives soon joined by pristine white uniforms disciplined in execution.

The bridge crew of the Brigand caught sight of the attack immediately as it happened.

Watching the sheer bedlam unfold as perhaps the first to understand the magnitude of it. From ceiling camera 205, they saw the drones rushing over the trees in their dozens and saw the Uhlan yard, once filled with people, disappear in a curtain of smoke, sand and blood. They saw the civilians fleeing without direction and saw gunmen begin to approach and probe the fences. The remaining living Uhlan could hardly resist their executioners.

For a moment, the carnage almost caused Murati Nakara to feel a faint hope.

Was this an uprising of the People (her People, communist People) in Aachen?

Who else would kill the Uhlan but a revolutionary force?

However– if it was that, she might have heard of something of it before–

And might have heard back from her superiors–

“That wasn’t all of the Uhlan.” Zachikova said. “There are still a few scouts and technicians scattered around the station. I’m seeing signs of them trying to report in. But it was most of them. Whoever has this capability, they won’t have any trouble finishing the job.”

Those sudden scenes of raging battle had distracted Murati from Semyonova’s ominous discovery– as much as she tried, she could not get ahold of the Premier, Captain or Commissar. All of whom should have had encrypted communicators.

All of whom should have been reachable.

There was no holding her breath on that any longer.

Already, she had faltered by hesitating and felt ashamed for her weakness.

Through her thundering heart and throbbing sinews she had to remain in command.

“Zachikova, run a spectrum analysis when Semyonova tries to reach out to our officers. We need to know if there’s even the slightest evidence of jamming.” Murati said. “And– get a camera up that has a good look at the bar Oststadt. This situation is our utmost priority right now. We can forget what about what the Uhlans are going through for now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Zachikova said.

For a moment the mini-Zachikova sat on the edge of the screen looked deep in thought.

Zachikova’s physical body twitched slightly with the effort.

“Wait, what’s happening– to what officers–?” Geninov asked from the torpedo station.

“Be quiet, Geninov, please.” Murati said, almost pained to have to say so.

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa exchanged a worried glance with her station-neighbor.

Both seemed to understand the urgency of the moment and did not push back.

“Semyonova, tell Illya and Valeriya to gear up and come to the bridge.” Murati said.

“Yes, Acting– Yes, Captain.” Semyonova said. Replying to her through tears.

Murati almost wished she hadn’t corrected herself.

On the main screen there was a brief flash as camera 205 swapped with camera 328.

From a high angle, looking down from the right, the camera had a view of some of the glass façade of the “oriental bar” the United Front has chosen as its venue. Murati’s unblinking eyes caught motion and everyone on the bridge turned to see– there was shattered glass spilled on the floor outside of the Oststadt and someone was dragging a body with them. There was distant, tinny sound being caught by camera 328–

“Gunshots! Sharpen the image! Identify those people!” Murati called out.

“I’m trying! The camera is shit and the computer is being slow!” Zachikova said.

On the screen the image sharpened, losing some fine detail but filling out the figures better.

Both the woman dragging, and the woman being dragged out of the venue–

Had white uniforms and handguns.

Someone from inside the venue was shooting at them!

The dragging woman desperately shot back as she pulled the other out of the door.

Sporadic gunfire struck the floor near her. She ducked around the corner of the facade.

Her companion was bleeding heavily– her white uniform was stained dark.

With the computer prediction of what the video feed should look like, their uniform details went in and out of focus, but in some parts of the footage they had armbands with an indiscernible symbol on them. Neither of them had cat’s ears, or horns, or tails, and they were clearly not dressed like anyone they knew. This was an unknown faction.

Had there been an attack on the venue? Was the Captain fighting back?

“Can’t identify. It’s not anyone we’ve ever seen.” Zachikova said, sighing with relief.

Murati felt twisted between elation and terror. Her eye developed a small spasm.

She did not see Captain Korabiskaya dying in front of her on video–

but it was yet to be determined whether she would see her alive–

“Spectrum analysis– the computer is seeing some spurious signals.” Zachikova said.

“Would you say it constitutes an attempt at jamming?” Murati asked.

“If I had to call a shot, yeah.” Zachikova said. “Clearly the venue is under attack.”

“We know there’s someone in there fighting these white uniformed figures.” Murati said. “I need to know what we can do to help, or what we might have access to. Zachikova, recheck station statuses– I want to know the state of the elevators and other automated services.”

“If I had to guess it must all be locked down. I will take a whack at it though.”

At their side, the door to the bridge opened, and Illya and Valeriya entered.

Dressed in their nanomail bodysuits, assault rifles affixed to their tactical harnesses.

Along with a variety of other gear– grenades, additional magazines.

Valeriya had a diamond sword strapped to her back; Illya had a missile tube with spares.

“We’re ready to move on your call. What’s the situation?” Illya asked.

Murati wished she was as confident as she would have to sound about the situation. In the back of her mind she wasn’t even sure the captain and commissar were alive! And– thinking about that almost made her want to burst into tears with Semyonova! Her emotions were evident in the dismal little shakes that wrung through her hands periodically.

That was all that she could allow herself to feel. To shake, to keep the fear inside.

Aatto reached out and laid her hand on Murati’s forearm. They shared a brief glance.

In that moment, she recovered more of her composure. She appreciated the sympathy.

However, as soon as Murati was about to speak, the situation changed once again.

Semyonova called out to Murati again with a haunted look on her face.

“Captain– someone is trying to contact us directly. From the second tier.”

Adelheid glanced between each of the faces of the assailants on the balcony.

Wild eyes, shaking hands, ragged breathing.

Their oversize pistols weighing on their hands.

They held their captives as if they could lose control of the situation at any second.

These were not career soldiers– but they would not choke pulling that trigger.

Certainly they had enough of a mix of shamelessness and terror to kill someone.

Then– Hannah Schach’s words in the midst of the situation shook her.

At first, Isaiah seemed to treat the whole thing as a joke.

“Five million? Well, why don’t we bid? How about six?” He looked at Astra.

In his arrogance he seemed to seek a shared understanding that this was ridiculous.

However, Astra appeared to be taking it quite seriously.

“Monsieur Kleyn, out of respect for your mother and fiance, who have been gracious hosts. I would advise that you unhand my servant and turn your weapons away from Madam Schach. I am only tolerating this level of mistreatment of my servant and client in an attempt to deescalate. Should this situation continue you will be suppressed with force.”

“Your client?” Isaiah looked at Hannah Schach with a scoff. “This woman is not–”

“The ‘Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening.’” Astra said.

Adelheid could feel her own heartbeat accelerate in her neck and chest.

“Madam Waldeck will absolutely pay anything for my safe return–”

“Shut up.” Isaiah interrupted Hannah as she began to speak. “Madam Palaiologos–”

“This is your final warning.” Astra said. “Are you making an enemy of Mycenae?”

Mia sat throughout this debacle frozen, her face a rictus of heartbreak and despair.

Looking down at her hands on her lap, rivulets falling from reddened eyes.

Isaiah had not looked at her since he last put her down. As if she did not exist to him.

It was this charade of power that he valued over her.

Of course– so-called high-class men were always this way toward their high-class women.

“I’m afraid that even if I wanted to relent, you are in my house, and I can’t see a way for you to leave here having threatened me. It is you who made an enemy of me– you two–”


One word to answer Isaiah’s near stuttered threats–

All that Adelheid heard next was the sound of two loud footsteps.

In the midst of the assailants and the captives appeared a silver-haired woman with a knife.

First step–

Her blade entered the neck of the gunman holding Raiza and tore through the adam’s apple.

All it had taken was the flick of a wrist, blade in, blade out–

As soon as the knife left the man’s neck Raiza jerked aside and disarmed the corpse.

Second step–

Odyssia flipped the knife in her grip in the middle of a swing.

Angling the blade to the wrist of the gunman turning away from Hannah Schach.

Steel met flesh without pause.

Severing the hand with the gun and sending the man reeling with agony.

Odyssia planted her feet as blood dribbled from the man’s gored limb.

Raiza, now armed, fired over Odyssia’s shoulder and struck the remaining assailant.

Smearing half of the woman’s cranium on the doorway.

Releasing the hooded girl from her grasp. She tumbled to the floor.

It had been seconds. Adelheid felt like it hadn’t even happened in front of her.

She felt as if her mind was backfilling motion to explain the bloody scene in front of her.

Raiza aimed her stolen gun at Isaiah’s head with a furious expression.

At the back of the table, Hannah Schach cracked a grin and sat back.

“Kill him.” She said calmly.

Astra nodded her head once.

Mia stood up and screamed, reaching out a hand.

Raiza shot Isaiah through the forehead before he could even speak.

Perhaps before he could even acknowledge the sudden loss of his power.

Blood and gristle and bits of bone and brain sprayed on everyone around the table.


Adelheid rushed to her side, took her in her arms. But there was no comforting her.

Covered in her husband-to-be’s blood, inconsolable, screaming, gripping Adelheid tight.

Both of them nearly jumped as Raiza executed the remaining assailant.

“Oh god! Please! Please no!” Mia cried, pushing tight as she could against Adelheid.

Adelheid stroked her hair, and tried to whisper to her that it would be okay.

Unsure of whether any of them would be next in Hannah’s horrific spectacle.

Holding onto Mia as tightly and as helplessly as Mia held on to her.

“Err– who’s that anyway? Who are you?”

Hannah Schach, comfortable at the back of the bloody table, pointed at the hooded girl.

She had been brought in as a captive too– Mia had called her ‘Orlan’ had she not?

Adelheid did not know anyone by that name, however.

Though she had been friends with Mia in school, their circles didn’t always overlap.

Adelheid could hardly see over the table and around Mia but–

It looked like Orlan had been kneeling near Isaiah’s body while Hannah harangued her.

“Hey, I’m talking to you. Why did those white uniforms have you captive huh?”

No response.

“Are you a burglar or something? Look, I don’t care– just get out of here.”

No response.

Meanwhile, Astra finally stood from her chair.

She walked up to Raiza and held her hand and used a handkerchief to clean her cheek.


“Thank you as always.” Astra said simply.

Raiza tipped her head in a slight bow, smiling.

“Milord, we should prepare. There may be more of them coming.”

Odyssia sheathed her knife behind her back.

Astra nodded. She then reached into her pocket for her own portable computer.

“Everything’s been wired over!” Hannah said. Astra seemed to confirm it with her portable.

“Yes. Thank you for the additional donative.” Astra said. “What shall we do next?”

“Err,” Hannah crossed her arms. “Figure out what happened. Find Madam Kleyn.”

“We will establish a defensive perimeter in this sector. Is that permissible?” Astra asked.

Hannah looked thoroughly aggrieved to be making any decisions.

She pouted at Astra.

“Do anything you need to, to insure my safety, and so things can go back to normal!”

“Splendid.” Astra put on a little smile.

She picked a glass from the table, cleaned it, and produced a flask from her coat.

Filling the glass with a clear blueish liquid.

“It is customary to toast on the commencement of a business venture.” Astra said.

“Oh, thank you. You’re really too good for mercenaries. I don’t drink much– but I’m curious about Mycenaean stuff. I’ll just take a little sip and you can have the rest, how’s that?”

Hannah Schach reached out, accepted the glass, took a sip.

She started the motion to return it, but her fingers slackened, and her upper body followed.

Astra moved forward and caught the glass– but she left the rest to fall.

With a slight groan, Hannah collapsed forward onto the table.

Mia gasped with renewed fear– but Hannah began rather quickly to snore.

Only the size of her breasts kept her head from planting face-first over her cream steaks.

Astra had knocked her to sleep.

“Troublesome client. Wouldn’t want her trying to micromanage.” Astra said.

With some measure of contempt, she splashed the remaining liquor on Hannah’s face.

She turned to Adelheid and Mia. Her impassive expression unnerved Adelheid.

“I am not going to hurt you. I can’t let you leave, but you will not be hurt.” Astra said.

“Why the hell?” Adelheid cried out. “What do you stand to gain from this?”

Mia descended into fresh sobbing, shaking even harder than before.

“I am entreated to reduce any risk. You two represent possible operational risks. That is all. Once the situation is under control, we can perhaps discuss further. For now–”

In front of the table, the strange hooded girl quietly rose to a stand.

Her makeup running, breathing disturbed.

Shaking hands slowly found their way into her hoodie’s pockets.

Astra and her servants watched her. Odyssia’s hand reached behind her own back.

“Who exactly are you?” Astra asked. Her voice still sounded untroubled.

The girl took a long breath. “Inquisition Jagerkorps. Codename Grun. Grun the Verdure.”

“You haven’t left after my client dismissed you. So then– what do you want?”

Between irritated breaths. “Let Mia go. Or I’ll make this shit not worth the wire transfer.”

No third party should have known about the Brigand enough to have an interest in hailing them specifically. Murati figured that the hail from the second tier must have had something to do with the overarching situation– which was perhaps engineered to include them. However, she was not about to play into someone’s game that easily.

Offering a bit of resistance might mask her current status.

“Semyonova, patch the hail through to me, but set it to audio only.” Murati said.

“Yes ma’am.” Semyonova replied.

She had looked quite frayed throughout the events of the morning.

However, she was beginning to regain her composure.

She had never failed them.

None of them had ever failed– Murati trusted every single one in this moment.

Murati wished she could offer sympathy– but there wasn’t the time.

Trust would have to do.

When the audio waveform appeared on her monitor, Murati spoke first.

Trying her best to sound confident and untroubled.

To sound like Captain Korabiskaya did when dealing with troublesome persons.

She had listened to those calls with Lichtenberg and Norn von Fueller before–

“I don’t know who this is, but we are currently occupied. Call again later.” She said.

Semyonova and Fatima glanced nervously at Murati. But she knew what she was doing.

On the other end, the voice immediately responded–

“Now, now! Don’t leave me on audio and don’t hang up! I know all about your situation, UNX-001 Brigand! I know about your Captain Korabiskaya and your Commissar Bashara and your puffed up Katarran pretending she is a politician. Put me on video and put me in the main screen! Or I won’t be responsible for what might happen to these individuals.”

A woman’s voice, a bit on the low side, and betraying a jocular demeanor.

This was a rather conceited person with access to inside information.

Murati muted her own audio, and quickly unmuted it again.

In between, she said, “Leave Camera 328.”

Upon unmuting, she address the hail directly. “Very well. Main screen our guest.”

Mini-Zachikova stepped aside, and the screen was taken-up by a video feed.

One that was slightly shaking– it originated from a handheld portable computer.

Off to the side of it, Camera 328 documented the white uniforms in front of the Oststadt.

Injured, pinned down outside the venue, exchanging gunfire blindly–

Still without reinforcements–

“Ah, there you all are! Greetings, communists! My name is Menahem Halevi!”

On the main screen, the handheld camera turned–

from the destruction wreaked in the Uhlan barracks,

to the face of a young woman.

Fair skinned, red-eyed, smooth dark hair falling long and neat, in straight locks and bangs. Grinning to the camera. Her makeup was still immaculate. Shoulderboards and the collar of a white coat, a white shirt, a blue tie. She had a badge that was the shape of a blue star, hair clips the shape of that same star, and a blue armband– likely festooned with this star-shaped symbol as well. Not a speck of blood or dirt on her clothes despite everything.

Behind her, Murati got the impression of moving figures.

Rushing into the Uhlan yard– more fighters? Was she an officer in this group?

“You must be Murati Nakara, right?” Menahem asked.

“Stop wasting my time. What do you want?” Murati said.

Menahem looked delighted with her response. She raised her free hand to her chest.

“You should be much nicer to me, you know. I have a lot of lives you value in my hands.”

“You also like to hear yourself talk. What do you want?” Murati asked again.

“Tch.” Menahem made a little noise. “Very well. It’s quite simple, really. We have all of your officers hostage right now. I’m going to trade you the lives and safe return of your Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, and your so-called Premier Erika Kairos– in exchange for your little fleet of ships. I want your Cruisers and I want the little Frigates you claim you have swimming around in the periphery. That’s the deal. The only deal we will give you.”

“Cut her off now.” Murati said.


Menahem’s face instantly disappeared from the main screen.

In her place, Camera 328 took over the entire screen, showing the front of the Oststadt.

With the white-uniformed troops still struggling to even breach the entranceway.

“She’s bluffing.” Murati said. She pointed at the screen as if to demonstrate to the crew.

Murati nearly doubled over on her chair, breathing heavily. Chest thundering with fear.

Aatto reached out and patted her on the back. “Master, you are doing magnificently.”

“Thank you– Aatto–” Murati struggled to speak. She raised her hands to gesticulate–

But she stopped herself from doing so. “Thank you. Thank you.” She tried to speak.

“Master?” Aatto asked. Everyone on the bridge was looking at her with concern.

She could not lose her voice now. Menahem would call again soon, any second now.

“Zachi– Camera 215– please–” Murati called out, shutting her eyes, breathing hard.

To steel herself, she tried to focus on what she had learned and what she knew.

There was a force of white-uniformed paramilitiaries with the capability to strike the Uhlan at their base with overwhelming firepower. They were likely attempting to breach the Armory, in the background of Menahem’s video call– as well as on Camera 215, which showed the force prowling around the Uhlan barracks. Menahem had inside information on the United Front– since the Anarchists were already compromised by the Omenseers, it was perhaps not a stretch to think they had also been compromised by this “white force.”

It was either the anarchists or the social democrats.

The Volksarmee was not perfect– but it was much harder to infiltrate them.

As a force of Union communists and Katarrans, anything “out of place” would stick out.

Since all of them were, already, themselves, “out of place.”

Menahem’s stated goal was to hijack their ships. She must have been hungry for weapons.

For this, she had the United Front “hostage.” However, Menahem was not able to carry out the fullness of her threat. Murati had a camera on the Oststadt bar that showed that, at the very least, it was a struggle. She did not have everyone inside clapped in chains. Menahem’s forces seemed not to be kept at bay– and in all this time they had yet to receive any reinforcements. That could happen any moment, on camera– but it was not. Instead, they had a man down and another barely able to trade shots with the interior of the bar.

“She has limited weaponry. She needs the Armory to be confident in pushing on us.”

Not only that– but it was also likely her forces were concentrated on the second tier.

She might have had scouts or infiltrators in other areas, but not a mass.

Otherwise, surrounding either the Oststadt or the Brigand completely and overwhelmingly would have been among her first priorities, rather than trying to call Murati to scare her off and unwittingly revealing her own position. Trying to bluff meant that her position was weaker. She must not have had complete information– she did not know that Murati had access to camera feeds, and perhaps she did not even know the status of the Oststadt. Perhaps the Captain and her allies had killed the moles– leaving Menahem blind.

She had learned certain facts about them, some confidential information–

But was she up to date? How had she gotten her information? How current was it?


Menahem needed Murati to either surrender or slip up and reveal her own desperation.

That call– they were trying to read through each other, but Murati had more information.

All of this was conjecture– but it left Murati in a position to speak confidently again.

“Captain,” Semyonova said, “Menahem Halevi is hailing us again. It’s her portable again.”

“She’s even using a consumer device to hail us. She’s got nothing. Put her through.”

Semyonova looked surprised at Murati’s confidence– she even cracked a tiny smile.

When Menahem reappeared on the main screen, she looked livid–

And Murati was seated upright and smiling at her with her fear purged from her face.

Menahem grunted. “Murati Nakara. You do that to me again–”

“We’re not turning over anything.” Murati said. “Surrender to us and end this peacefully.”

Menahem narrowed her eyes, predictably scoffing at this notion.

“Do you not care about your dear comrades then? Are you so cold-hearted?”

“Yes. You are absolutely correct. And I may yet show you exactly how cold-hearted.”

“Hmm. I see.” Menahem’s expression relaxed. She surveyed Murati’s reaction. “You can take your chances if you want, Murati Nakara. Right now I have more than enough resources to just come and take your ships for myself. Choosing to confront me is choosing to put your people in danger, including your precious officers. You will also risk the civilians of this station if you engage my troops in open warfare in these walls. Feel free to surrender at any time– my offer remains open. Some of you just might not be alive enough to take it.”

“It seems we have nothing to discuss then. I’ll see you here then– if you survive that is.”

Menahem’s expression briefly soured before her video feed cut out again.

“Heh, good show, Acting Captain.” Illya said, crossing her arms with a grin.

Murati raised a hand to her chest and breathed a sigh. She was not so proud of it.

However, she was certain it had the effect she intended.

Menahem had probably not extracted too much new information from Murati.

“Keep a few of the second tier cameras up. Zachikova, are the elevators operational?”

Zachikova’s physical body finally rose from its slumber.

She shook her head drowsily, regaining her senses as her mind “unplugged.”

“No, I’ve been checking. They’ve gone into lockdown mode.” She said.

At her side, Arabella reached up a hand to stroke Zachikova’s arm for comfort.

“I thought so or Menahem would just attack. But — who locked them down?” Murati said.

“At this point I am sure it was not the Kleyn government.” Zachikova said.

“I agree,” Murati replied, “it’s someone who is profiting from this chaos.”

Could the Volkisch Movement be taking advantage of Menahem’s assault somehow?

Perhaps– were Menahem and her forces an affiliate fascist group?

All of this business was simply too convenient. The audit, the computer failing, Menahem.

There was too much that they did not know or only had vague conjectures about.

She should have goaded Menahem into speaking more about her beliefs–

but there was no time, everything was simply moving too fast–

“Semyonova, set up a conference with Daphne and Marina.” Murati said. Semyonova nodded her acknowledgment. “Illya, Valeriya, I will be advising you on what we will do soon enough. Retrieve Chief Akulantova and begin the process of distributing light caliber weapons among the crew. If the worst happens I want everyone ready to fight.” Illya and Valeriya saluted and departed promptly with their orders. Murati turned to the rest of the bridge and addressed them. “Events have been moving too quickly to properly brief everyone. Right now there is an emergency threatening the life of the Captain, Commissar, Premier, and other comrades. I refuse to leave anyone behind– and I am confident we can rescue them all. Remain at your stations, see to your tasks– I believe in all of you and I have plans. Let’s get to work.”

Across the bridge, the officers responded as one:

“Acknowledged, Captain Nakara!”

Though each of their faces showed their own teetering between hope and despair–

It was enough that they acknowledged her and retained the determination to fight.

Blood had gotten on her tunic and shoes– as usual, but still annoying.

Odyssia looked down at her legs, a bit disgruntled.

Bending down a bit and swiping at the hem of her dress, catching glances of the empty eyes of the corpses she had left behind. The young lord of the Kleyn estate had been completely disfigured, his head a gory mass barely clinging to the remains of his jawbones. At his side on the floor, a strange girl knelt, stared at the remains and wept silently. She had been a captive of the white uniforms along with Raiza but seemed distraught over the younger Kleyn.

None of that bothered Odyssia– rather, she had expected to cut a bit cleaner.

Then again, she had not gotten to flex her muscles in quite a while.

Thank you for waking me, milord.

Odyssia sent a mental missive to Astra.

In response, Astra sent a mental image of herself giving an unsmiling thumbs up.

A silly expression that she was too dignified to make physically but could make in secret.

Odyssia smiled.

She had been hiding downstairs, nodding off behind the estate in secret.

To head off just such a possibility of assassination, Odyssia had snuck into the tier.

Even when uninvited she had a duty (and a desire) to protect Astra from harm.

To think anyone would try such a thing on the Warlord of Mycenae.

Though she was not dressed for combat, she never went anywhere without her kopis.

And a Katarran who couldn’t kill with their bare hands was a sorry sight anyway.

Once Hannah Schach was put to sleep and the hostages were properly informed of their state, Odyssia had half a mind to simply walk away and call up the troops and find someone more organized to relieve her. Herta Kleyn had allowed for Astra’s Varangian Guard to accompany her. Several of the officers and numeroi were allowed to stay in the special accommodations Astra had been given in the top tier– the Kleyn “guest house.” She needed to inquire about their status– but she pitied any white coats that tried to attack them. It would be far messier than her knife cuts on the poor salps lying about the Kleyn balcony.

But Odyssia hardly got to take a step from Astra’s side.

She reached for her knife. The girl weeping beside Isaiah Kleyn’s corpse stood up.

Her aura as she put her hands in her pockets flared a vivid red and black.

Its texture erratic, like thorns wrapping around flesh.

This “Grun the Verdure” was not in her right mind.

Eyes unblinking, a red gaze fixed on Astra. Colorful hair tousled, makeup running.

“Let Mia go. Or I’ll make this shit not worth the wire transfer.”

“Madam–” Astra began to speak–

Monsieur.” Grun hissed at her, interrupting her, a discourtesy she was unused to.

Astra stared impassively. “Monsieur Grun. I am uninterested in the Inquisition’s business. I am familiar with all the whispers surrounding your Jagerkorps. If I squandered your mission I will take responsibility for it when necessary. For now, I will ask that you be on your way.”

Grun put on a grin Odyssia recognized, having made that face herself.

That last hopeless laugh as if to ask oneself: “Am I really doing all of this?”

“It’s actually personal.” Grun said. “It’s actually a matter of love, is the thing.”

“I see.” Astra replied. Voice monotone, expression unchanging.

Grun laughed so hard that he coughed.

“Isn’t it stupid? God, I’m so stupid. I’m just– fuck. I hate this fucking guy.”

Odyssia stepped in front of Astra and withdrew her knife, holding it front of herself.

“Sorry pal. But you really ought to just get out of here.” She whispered.

“The thing is– I intend to.”

Grun removed both of his hands from the pockets of his hoodie–

Palms red with bloody flowers blooming oozing sticky flesh

and covered in a chalky bony pollen–

petals flapped once like horrid wings and released a cloud sweeping through the balcony

“Katarran constitution is tougher than that!”

Odyssia charged forward, but her eyes had been stung, not because the cloud had irritants but because of its thick texture and the fact that she had been so close when it blew out. She thought she would be poisoned but it was not Grun’s intention. Everything was red and sticky and dense troubling her vision– she heard the tableware clatter and realized–

Grun had moved past her.

She swiped at the table on pure instinct and felt the wake of Grun running off it.

“Take her, go!”

Adelheid van Mueller shouted–

Next thing Odyssia saw through her tearful eyes was Grun leaping off the balcony.

With Mia Weingarten safely in his arms.

“Hmph.” Amid the dirty pollen a small, stoic figure stood undaunted.

In the next instant, Astra flexed the strands that hung within her hair.

Emanating a wave of invisible force that dispersed the cloud.

All that power contained in that short frame–

“Send Antandre after them, to delay or capture alive; she will appreciate the fulfillment.”

Odyssia nodded her acknowledgment. She looked over the balcony.

Grun was really moving, running pell-mell– but he had nowhere to go.

Astra approached Adelheid van Mueller, standing against the balcony railings herself.

“I’ll jump too. I’m starting to like my chances.” Adelheid said.

“I’ve already said I am not going to hurt you. I am not keeping you here for my own personal enjoyment, you know.” Astra said. “I can’t stop you from hurting yourself, but I intend to do what I can to secure your release– once all of this is over and I am sure you won’t either leak something, cooperate with an enemy or otherwise compromise my position.”

Adelheid cracked a grin. “You’re already compromising your position. Norn is going to come after me no matter what. You really should release me before she comes get me herself. She is not known for her level-headedness. She is going to tear all of you, limb from limb.”

“I am not afraid.” Astra said. “If she does invite a confrontation then we will have to meet it. Right now I am beholden to the Volkisch. The situation is complex, and I cannot brooke any missteps. If I were in any other position, I would have just let you go, madam. Convey these thoughts and my sincere apology to Norn the Praetorian when you next meet.”

“Hmph. Fine. But she will come. Mark my words.” Adelheid said.

Despite her threats, Adelheid van Mueller was compliant enough to follow the Mycenaeans as they re-entered the estate, leaving the corpses on the balcony. She was unarmed and alone and had already seen what Raiza and Odyssia were capable of– and she might have even felt Astra’s own power when she dispelled Grun’s smokescreen. If she tried anything too clever, Odyssia would sense it immediately and put a stop to her.

There was nothing to worry about from her.

Odyssia was still worried about the rest of their circumstances.

They had no idea who the white coats were or where Madam Kleyn had gone. Isaiah had not been after Astra’s life– he was trying to kill Hannah Schach. And Hannah Schach was just a rich racist– which meant, he was probably after the Volkisch generally.

Was this an open rebellion?

In the middle of the connecting hall to the balcony, Odyssia stopped abruptly.

“Milord– are we perhaps getting in over our heads here?” She asked.

Astra and Raiza stopped when they realized she had done so, and they turned to look.

What could she have expected? Her master was stoic and toneless as always.

“No.” Astra said. “It’s an opportunity. I want to show Labrys something unnerving.”

That toneless unwavering voice that nevertheless delivered such a handsome conviction.

Odyssia bowed her head. At least this was a dramatic decision if nothing else.

“I apologize for holding things up. I shall get the troops in order, milord.”

This girl– this woman, was the future of Katarre.

On the captain’s seat, the arm-mounted monitor was split by two video feeds.

On one half, Marina McKennedy represented the John Brown, to which she had recently been assigned. On the other half, Daphne Triantafalos represented the Rostock. Murati had called both ships to a conference to discuss the ongoing situation. All three ships had lost their highest ranking officers, with Eithnen Ni Faoláin, Erika Kairos and Ulyana Korabiskaya all out of contact. They had inherited leadership of the Volksarmee in this predicament.

Murati wanted to talk to Daphne most. She was an experienced Captain in her own right.

“Did everyone get a chance to review our findings and conclusions?” Aatto asked them.

“I did, thank you, and thanks to Captain Nakara.” Daphne said.

“Yep, took a look. How are you holding up, by the way? Must be rough.” Marina said.

Marina was not someone Murati particularly liked, but she wouldn’t let that affect her.

“We’re still working effectively.” Murati said. She reached a hand out to pat Aatto’s back.

“Murati, I followed up with Kalika,” Daphne said, “the Wohnbezirk went under lockdown and there is a situation at the village– she is doing what she can, but we may not be able to count on your pilots or Kalika for the time being. I instructed her to attempt a breakout when feasible. Chloe is mobile, so I am having her head upstairs. Dimmitra is available as a pilot.”

Valya was still missing too– Murati crossed her arms and sat back on her chair, sighing.

They could not spend time flipping through every camera trying to find them.

“Zachikova set us up with the goods.” Marina said. “I regret to say it, but I actually have intelligence on who this enemy force is if you are interested. I recognize the armbands.”

Murati leaned forward again. “Tell me. Anything you have is invaluable right now.”

Marina looked almost ashamed to have this information. She spoke with some reticence.

“These are Eloim terrorists. That star they wear is called the Star of Judea. They believe that the Eloim were like the fucking rulers of the world in antiquity and have grievances against the Imbrians and Shimii for supposedly stealing their lands and destroying their true culture and language. It is not the first time a group like this popped up. But this one was armed by Kitty McRoosevelt. See those huge handguns they are using? Those are 10 mm McCarthy pistols– huge fuckin’ things, if one plugs you in the shoulder your heart explodes. They are popular with gangs, that’s how Kitty got them. Released from police custody, pushed from Ratha Flow, to Trelleborg, and out to wherever they can do the most damage.”

There was no reason for Murati to get mad at this and yet she could not help but be angry.

From the position of Alayze it made sense to assist any group that might harm the Imbrium.

Murati herself had a mission to foment unrest in Imbria.

She should not have had qualms about the method. However, it had been too many times already that they ended up haunted by the ghost of some Republican misdeed. And too many times that Marina McKennedy was connected to the problem in some way. Because she could not rationally criticize anything Murati remained quiet– but she could hardly hide the anger in her body language except by averting her gaze from the screen.

“That makes sense as to why they are as well armed as they seem.” Daphne said.

Marina crossed her arms and averted her own gaze. Perhaps stricken with some shame.

“Kitty would have given them plenty of handguns and explosives, the lightest and most transportable stuff that she could have gotten her hands on. Grenades, maybe some body armor. Probably not any bigger stuff. Some of what they have their hands on baffles me.”

“Yes, those folding drones are the Imperial reconnaissace model Biene. We have some in here– but ours don’t explode.” Daphne said. “They have launched a great many of this type today. To have modified those Biene means they had a source of chassis, parts and explosive, and enough technical know-how to put together the modification and deploy it.”

“We don’t know how long they have been preparing.” Murati said.

However, if today was a long time coming, they had few big guns to show for it.

Maybe they only acquired those Biene drones and modified them recently.

If there was some kind of supply ship hijacking– or if they had security connections–

“Daphne, I wanted to ask your opinion about our next move.” Murati said.

Daphne sat back on her own captain’s chair.

“If you are correct Murati, and the Judeans are concentrated on the second tier, then they could possibly split their forces to go after the Oststadt and confront us as well– but if they like their chances enough, they could try to overwhelm us instead and ignore our VIPs. Especially if they are mainly after the ships in Stockheim. I do not believe for a moment they will only try to hijack ours.” Daphne looked off to the side– perhaps at her own main screen and the camera feeds there. “I’m worried about the situation at the venue. The Judeans have two people there, and they are only trading sporadic fire, but the people inside the Oststadt are not trying to escape either. They could have wounded in there or there might be close quarters fighting inside that we cannot see. We need to mount a rescue operation.”

Murati feared the same but had not wanted to admit it to herself or to the crew.

She had wanted to operate under the assumption that the captain might still be fighting.

It was still possible– but Daphne was not wrong in her assessment.

They could not know what was truly happening– they needed to act quickly.

“Since the elevators are not running, everyone still needs to climb to tier three manually.” Marina said. “You lot might want to try to break through the Judeans, but I think it would be worthwhile to send someone to sneak out to the Oststadt and see what’s really up.”

Daphne grinned in response. “Are you perhaps volunteering, madam G.I.A.?”

“Yup. If you’ll excuse me, I gotta get geared up and get going– and don’t say no.”

Marina shot Murati a look. Murati in turn shut her eyes. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

“I owe Korabiskaya and Bashara too much. I’m going. Just keep the Judeans off me.”

Suddenly Marina shut off her screen and left the call.

Murati laid a hand over her face.

There was simply no keeping that woman out of trouble nor keeping her in line.

“Don’t worry about her. She probably has more experience sneaking in and out of places than any of us. Burke Zepp can handle the John Brown– unless he goes with her. I can send Chloe to back them up– Chloe also has a knack for getting around.” Daphne said.

“Do it. Can you also keep an eye on the John Brown for me?” Murati asked.

“Of course.”

Murati was eternally grateful for Daphne not making a fuss about seniority.

Technically as an Acting Captain, Murati should have been deferential to her instead.

She had not once questioned where command lay– Murati respected her temperance.

“Aatto, do you know much about the Judeans?” Murati asked.

Aatto folded her ears and shook her head.

“I know that Eloim terrorists have been active in Bosporus for generations, but since I’ve been working in intelligence, I have been working primarily in Rhinea. I do not recognize the symbol and I cannot speculate as to their predilections. Their open hostility did not extend to this region until now– though I can confirm we have always had a problem with arms smuggling in Rhinea. It would not surprise me if arms from around here made their way to Bosporus and then back here. I’m sorry Master, I wish there was more I could say.”

“You’ve been magnificent Aatto. I would go insane without you.” Murati said.

While Murati had been shouting orders and answering calls Aatto had been working quietly and efficiently. She monitored compliance with Alert Semyon, sought out the status of missing crew members, and insured the readiness of the hangar for battle. She had worked with Semyonova on communications and helped disseminate information to their allies in the Volksarmee fleet, and collected any information they sent in return.

Murati felt that without Aatto she would have been acting as half a person in this situation.

“Daphne, we should make preparations for a land incursion through Aachen.” Murati said.

Daphne nodded her head. She reached out and touched something on her monitor.

Some dossiers appeared on Murati’s screen after that.

“The Rostock has our own team of special forces, the Ekdromoi. Only three, and they don’t have as much experience, but they’re Katarrans, and Katarrans are good in a fight or they’re nothing.” Daphne said. She was smiling at Murati with a calm demeanor. In turn Murati felt a little bit more centered. In this fight, she would rather have Katarrans than anyone else. Daphne continued. “Every sailor on this ship is a hot-blooded Katarran who is good in a pinch– but just like you, I hesitate to send maintenance and engineers into the fight.”

“I agree– we don’t want to invite mass casualties. Unless we become absolutely desperate I do not approve of sending out a human wave of sailors. We should pool our veterans and special forces and come up with a small team that can fight smart and quick on their feet. Aside from Illya and Valeriya I have a few more people I am willing to call up for this.”

“You have a lot of war veterans with you. Judging by the two terrified white coats outside the Oststadt, the Judeans might be working through a deficit of experience. I agree with this course of action, Captain Nakara.” Daphne winked at Murati who felt just a bit affected by the teasing. “I will get the Ekdromoi to transfer over to the Brigand and inform them to work under your BEAST unit. I trust that you have one of those miracle plans of yours in the works– so I will leave the fighting to you and focus on administration here.”

“Thank you, Daphne. You have no idea how grateful I am for you right now.” Murati said.

Daphne laughed. “You’ll make a woman blush with that kind of talk, Murati. Take care.”

She disconnected shortly thereafter. Leaving silence in her wake.

Murati looked over to Aatto and she reached out and briefly squeezed her hand.

Both for sympathy and for her own comfort. “Thank you too.” Murati whispered.

Aatto smiled back. Wagging her tail. “It is my pleasure to serve.” She said.

“Captain, while you were socializing, I caught something that might interest you.”

Zachikova called on Murati in the middle of her exchanging soft eyes with Aatto.

She had a smug little smile. Murati hoped she wasn’t getting any lurid ideas.

“What is it?” Murati asked, gesturing for Aatto to resume her work.

“Someone is speaking through the presidential address system.” Zachikova said.

“Isn’t the station computer compromised right now?” Murati asked.

“It’s a radio system, so they can always use it.” Zachikova replied. “I captured the audio.”

Zachikova swiped a finger on her station touchscreen and sent the audio to the main screen.

A waveform appeared and began to play for the entire bridge.

It was a woman’s voice– or perhaps’ a girl’s voice. Inexpressive but somewhat young?

“–This is Astra Palaiologos of Mycenae. In accordance with established private security practice, the Mycenae Military Commission of Southern Katarre has gone into action around the Presidential Estate. We will defend the Government Tier of the station on the authority of the Volkisch Gau until the end of the current emergency. Any unidentified persons attempting to enter the fourth tier will be fired upon. Remain in a safe place away from tier four and await the reestablishment of public order in the station.”

Murati felt the voice reverberate inside her head– her mind was racing suddenly–

“Zachikova, can you try to contact the presidential estate somehow?” Murati said.

Zachikova looked at Murati with narrowed eyes. She then sighed out loud.

“Ugh, maybe. You’ve got that real troublesome look on your face again.”

Murati had not even realized she was smiling like a demon. “What look?”

After the fires in which the Uhlan perished, a white boot trod on the ashes.

During and after the attack, the word among civilians began to spread, through posts on Rhinean public messaging services and in terrified texts and group chats, but no official sources were forthcoming with information or directives. No alarm sounded; no civil servants guided the civilians away. Government web pages failed to update. The government sector in tier four went completely silent except for, as if a final judgment on their civilian charges, imposing a lockdown that forced civilians to crowd through the long stairways or the emergency insterstice accessways between the station’s massive tiers.

For most of the civilians, they were running from their workplaces or leisure activites and rushing to their homes in either the third sector or the residential tower adjacent to the Aachen core station. Because the tram was not running, people took their chances running physically across the long emergency accessway between the two colossal station structures. There was nobody to supervise them– there was pushing, trampling, even fights as tensions frayed and people taught to distrust rather than rely on each other saw everyone around as a possible enemy. Anyone could have been wearing one of those white coats and blue stars that were fast becoming mythical symbols of terror.

That enemy– looked too much like the rest of them for comfort–

Not Shimii, not Katarrans, not “communist barbarians”–

However, the Dibuqim did not deter anyone’s escape, nor did they attack any civilians.

Anyone who ran past them managed to escape.

Anyone who stayed to watch was encouraged to follow them and “see justice done”.

And enough people stayed behind whom, rather than run away, ran toward them.

Not in fear or anger, but with excitement.

For some it was mere hooliganism that spurred them–

A significant portion of the stragglers had loftier ideas.

Those ideas began to spread until hundreds of people believed them in an instant.

For years they had heard meaningless promises and seen little change. Wages were stagnant while prices rose; food products became more packaging than contents; a wealth of high tech, expensive gadgets became increasingly necessary to find good jobs; all this amid a rising current of fascist violence that at first felt confined to ghettos and back alleys but became more and more public, until its organizers were legitimated by the political system. Now those thugs wore uniforms stitched on the public dime to deliver official beatings.

Enough was enough; they felt the explosions like a new heartbeat.

In their minds they were sure this was the moment– the spontaneous uprising against the Volkisch that many of them had dreamed of since Heidemann lost the presidency to that despicable Adam Lehner. The election of 979 ended the previous era of activism with an uncertain future for the next. When the drones exploded in the Uhlan barracks it activated in the onlookers scenes that they thought they would have to bury in their brains forever to continue living. Ambitions that they thought lost since the fateful night. Images of the coalition of activists trying to hold Herth Park against the fascist mob in the days leading up to election night, and in that same night, fighting to survive its surging tide. To them the conflict in front of them was the simplest call to action that they had ever been given.

In their minds history had an inexorable arc toward justice moving invisibly, automatically.

Evil tried to bend the elastic bar that Good represented until it rebounded, struck back.

It was these people, and the people watching them on video streams, and the people whom they contacted via messaging, and the people with secret whisper networks that stretched back to the ambitions of the activists in Hertha Park– it was they who would form the barricades and loot stores for supplies and extract personal weapons long ago hidden along with their hope– it was they who formed that very morning the tragic instrument that would come to be known as the Aachen Citizen’s Guard. Under the watchful eyes of Menahem Halevi, a self-described anarchist, the crowds watching in front of them the burning corpses of the police who had beaten them, and the shattering of the fences and doors that had barred them from power, the knocking-down of everything that had set them up– it was they who would form the greatest mass of the Dibuqim’s fighting power within Aachen.

Unknowing of the agendas that had spurred them to action.

But without anything to animate them but that sudden spark through their frozen bodies.

And nobody to stop them with the bodies of their oppressors going cold in front of them.

If anything, it was better that it was spontaneous— it gave them no time to doubt.

“We are working on breaching the armory!” Menahem said cheerfully. “Once we are in, everyone who wants to join the uprising will receive weapons! And then we will storm upward and bring down the government tier, and we will rush into that vile structure of the Volkisch Gau, and we will head to the Wohnbezirk where the fascists’ closest collaborators are now hiding! Justice is spreading its fire through this place! Rejoice comrades!”

Nobody asked who ‘we’ was– everybody cheered for the white-uniformed benefactors.

“Please wait out here, and we will begin distribution shortly!” Menahem said.

Urging the groups away from the Uhlan barracks as her forces worked.

As something invisible to their eyes trundled closer to assist in the effort.

From the forces assembled in the Uhlan yard, stepping over the mass of blood and shredded flesh, a woman approached Menahem Halevi, waving a hand to catch her attention. For a moment, Menahem briefly lost her little grin at the sight of the woman. She was the only woman in a white uniform also sporting a set of rounded cat’s ears on her head, and with a thick, bushy bobtail sprouting through a gap in her pants. Her cape was even cut halfway to allow her to sport her tail openly despite the implications of such biology.

She had slightly narrow eyes, and a strong nose, a tanned face with light green makeup, and long shiny blue hair on head and similarly colored fur on her ears and tail– she was a looker and done up well despite the smoke in the air and the gore tracking on her boots. Her green eyes scanned the surroundings with the sort of mirth that Menahem wore on her lips instead. Menahem turned to face her and waited for her to speak first.

She held the superior position.

Menahem was Aluf, “Champion.” Aside from the Manhig she was the highest ranked.

This woman, Tiferet Hadžić, was ranked only Seren, a “Lord.”

Not only that– but she was also a half-breed, and what a breed her lesser half was–

“Our little stunt triggered the Uhlan’s automated defenses. We have cleared the yard and have eyes on the remaining Uhlan in the station.” Tiferet reported. “The armory is sealed off by triple-deep bulkheads, military-grade. We do not have powerful enough explosives to breach, nor access to appropriate breaching tools for the job. You should let that doll of yours take a crack at it or we might never get anywhere– at least on time.”

“Already thought of that– but thank you for your keen eyes as always.” Menahem said.

Tiferet grinned, lifting her index finger to her lips. “You are welcome. Where should I go?”

“Take care of this for now– you’ll be sticking close to me for today.”

“I look forward to it. Got any more tests of loyalty in mind?”

Tiferet casually, perhaps thoughtlessly, sucked on the index finger she had raised.

“Perhaps.” Menahem said.

Menahem left the tending of the crowd to Tiferet and waded through the Uhlan courtyard herself, fidgeting with a star-shaped badge. Across a pockmarked sandy field, still littered with bodies and parts of bodies kicked about and trampled a dozen times over, stood an enormous titanium armory building, perhaps as thickly armored as the station hull. Behind its ludicrous bulkheads were the heavy weapons of the Uhlans. While the pile of surviving pistols and rifles outside was a decent haul, the true prizes lay past those doors. Weapons with which they could force their way into a military ship– or destroy it.

If a prize could not be theirs it would be nobody’s– such it was with gold, land or weapons.

That was the bitter way that extermination had to be fought against, and survival won.

“David, my doll, you can show yourself. Open this door for your beloved Menahem.”

Upon hearing the name ‘David’, every one of the Dibuqim soldiers around the Armory kept their distance and made space in front of the bulkhead. Several of them withdrew cloaking shields, took up formation and set them in front of themselves– creating an optical illusion that made the front of the Armory appear empty of what Menahem had summoned.

Lifting a more sophisticated optical cloaking from herself, David became visible.

In front of the armory, raising a mechanical hand against the door.

At first, David appeared to the world as a power armored soldier, but there were some clear visual discrepancies that dispelled this notion. Two and a half meters tall, David stood higher than any of the Dibuqim. Much of that height was a result of the armor’s long, slender and reversed-jointed legs made up of several parts, into which no human anatomy could have fit. The upper torso was sleek and angled forward, with a pivot point in the center that was another curious sight. High, strong shoulders supported a pair of strong arms. Both of these arms bore weapons, one the housing of a long blade, the other some kind of projectile launcher with a rectangular, wide opening and internals integrated into the arm.

Atop the slope of the torso there was a helmet– or perhaps, a head.

So angular it looked like a beak, with a wide and round glass visor.

A voice emanated from the armor. It sounded like a young girl’s voice.

On the glass, there was the impression of a similarly young, pretty face–

“Menahem, I’m opening the door.” She said.

In an instant, David put her arm to the door and forced her blade through the bulkheads.

Tongues of purple energy consumed the material in the way of the blade as surely as the kinetic force of the attack bent and deformed the metal. This symbiosis of technology and brutality punched a hole through the armory doors, through which David’s hands could fit and push apart the bulkheads. Forcing open the triple-depth doors, a third at a time.

Unveiling the terrified remnants of the Uhlan auditors huddling with the weapon crates.

Too shaken by the monster in front of them to even employ any of their bounty.

“Menahem. The task is complete. Was I good?”

“You are such a good girl, David. My beautiful doll.”

Menahem laid her hands on the steel armor, caressing her gently.

Her fingers running over a hexagonal symbol that had been defaced with a Judean star.

While they shared this moment, Dibuqim soldiers opened fire into the building.

Soon, the white uniforms emerged from the Uhlan barracks, bringing with them crates of weapons which they cracked open and thrust into the crowd. People cheered and picked at the caches with a fervor, seizing submachine guns, hand grenades, encryption-enabled radios– but the Dibuqim held back their own spoils of machine guns, ATGMs and plastic explosive. Everyone clamored for justice as Menahem wanted them to; and Menahem watched them run off with glee. Organized into their little impromptu squadrons, different levels of training and experience, but all of them clearly believing in their own justice.

A great opportunity! Let them all believe without direction!

“Will you shoot these Imbrians, Murati Nakara? Because I can get them to shoot at you.”

Unlike the disparate and meagre culture struggling amid the Imbrians, tending to the ashes of the little rituals that remained of their former unity, Menahem was not a simple Eloim. Under the blue star, she would steal anything, kill anyone, destroy anything, for their Nation, their race, for their single, overriding Destiny. Murati Nakara was nothing but a little speedbump– Aachen was but one destination in the journey they had begun. First a brigade, then a fleet, then a navy, and soon, a Power in the chaos of Imbrian dissolution.

“I hope you have something defiant to say when my boot is on your head.”

All would acknowledge the Eloim, not as a quaint bygone superstition, but as the object of their greatest fears– as a united race in charge of a mighty, ruling Judean nation.

“David, let us move out. Grander things– the grandest things, await!”

Walking away from the fires she set, with her great armored shadow at her back–

Menahem smiled and flexed her fingers in anticipation of the war unfolding.

“Well, I did my best!”

Zachikova turned over her shoulder and shrugged.

Murati sighed in return.

On the main screen was a scrawled message, crudely drawn in a paint program, that Zachikova had overlayed on the screens of every appliance LCD in the presidential estate after cracking several of them. The image asked Astra Palaiologos to “please contact” the Pandora’s Box at their berth terminal address so they could “hook up.” According to Zachikova, she had found no means to access the presidential address system remotely, and the best she could do was compromise some of the smart home features of the presidential estate after finding that many appliances still had a default vendor password. The Mycenaeans would have to become interested and then call the Brigand themselves.

“It’s about the best we can hope for. Thank you, Zachikova. You can take a break.”

Zachikova laid her head down on her station. Arabella reached out and patted her back.

At Murati’s side, the doors into the bridge opened.

Two familiar, comforting faces: Karuniya and Euphrates had arrived.

Murati stood promptly and nearly leaped at her wife, taking her into her arms.

Karuniya, so swept up, embraced her as well, and laughed a bit.

However, when they separated, Murati looked down at what she was wearing–

–a pilot’s bodysuit, the one set aside for her use when piloting the Agni.

“We came to offer moral support.” Euphrates said.

“I’m quite grateful.” Murati said. She looked at Karuniya again, a bit confused. “Karu–”

“Looks good, doesn’t it? It always makes my ass look so amazing.” Karuniya said.

“Karu–” Murati tried to smile and follow up the joke, but her words were failing her.

“She has made a determination, Murati.” Euphrates interrupted to get the two on task.

“Murati,” Karuniya’s voice took a softer but serious tone suddenly, “Tigris told me about Aatto and the Agni,” while Murati’s heart sank hearing those words the ensuing was not at all what she initially imagined. “I know you might have figured this out already, but it also means that Aatto and I can pilot the Agni. You must consider that an option as well.”

Murati wanted dearly to be able to say something like–

I won’t endanger you like that–

However, she knew that she would. If it came to it, if the worst happened.

She would use anyone available to her– any option to succeed.

“Thank you, Karuniya. If it comes to that, I’ll trust you and give the order.”

So she answered her wife’s conviction with equal determination.

Karuniya smiled at her and held her hands gently. She glanced past Murati.

“Aatto, I hope you’re good with a Diver, because I’m certainly not.” She said.

“I will strive to be a magnificent charioteer, my Queen.” Aatto replied.

“She always knows what to say.” Karuniya said.

“You’re just incredibly easy to flatter.” Murati replied.

“Maybe so.” She let go of Murati’s hands and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll be waiting downstairs with the Agni. Please keep in mind what I just told you, okay? I’m also a tool in your toolbox. I know you can be conflicted about this sort of thing– but I don’t want to sit around in the lab during an emergency where our comrades need everything we have.”

“I won’t belittle your conviction.” Murati said. “Go, and I’ll support you however I can.”

Karuniya tiptoed slightly and kissed Murati.

Winking and smiling, she left the bridge with a steady, fearless stride.

Murati could only taste her lips for an instant. This burgeoning war called to her.

“Aatto, be ready to run downstairs if I give the order.” Murati said.

Aatto wagged her tail. “Absolutely, master.”

“And– are you actually a pilot?”

“All Northern Loup receive combat training.” Aatto said. “I would not endanger your Queen, and myself as your proud servant, purely to serve my own hubris. Should it become necessary, you will witness the ferocity bred into us in the northern host.”

Murati nodded.

Just as she would not belittle Karuniya’s resolve, she would trust Aatto’s.

“Well, let me scoot over to the side here.”

Euphrates walked past Aatto’s and Murati’s chairs and sat adjacent the wall.

A space usually reserved for Premier Erika Kairos, who was sadly among the missing.

“I’ve availed myself of the available information. Things seem rather dire.” She said.

“Your guidance and assistance will be appreciated.” Murati said.

“Of course. I will do everything I can.” Euphrates said. “I have come to esteem Ulyana Korabiskaya, Aaliyah Bashara and Erika Kairos quite dearly since I had the pleasure of meeting them all. To that effect, I also have something a little dire to say, much like your wife– remember that I am much more durable than I seem, Murati.”

“I won’t stop you if you decide to intervene, but please value your life in the moment.”

“I value my life, Murati– but it is a thing I am completely certain that I cannot lose.”

She whispered the last words– few people knew of the extent of her immortality.

Murati feared she might be treated as a science experiment again if anyone discovered it.

Though people had seen Euphrates survive horrible wounds, conjecture was all they had.

Even Murati, who knew the truth, still did not want to treat her as someone immortal.

“Captain, you have a call!” Semyonova said excitedly. “It is the presidential estate!”

“Send it to my monitor. I don’t want to scare them off by exposing them too much.”

Murati felt her pulse in her fingertips, under her skin, as she brought her monitor closer.

Every second before the Mycenaean appeared on her screen was sheer torment.

Continuing to force herself upright with so much burden on her back was becoming painful.

Her head pounded with dim weariness as her heart thrashed with anxiety.

“Who am I speaking to? What is the meaning of this childish defacement?”

“Madam Palaiologos, I deeply apologize. I had no other way of getting your attention.”

When the time came, her voice managed to leave her lips despite the trembling in her chest.

Directly in front of Murati appeared a rather slight young woman in a rather ornate yellow military uniform. Her features were gentle and her face was soft and beautiful, pale with stark red eyes, an austere dignity in her expression, and voluminous white hair with an orderly part. Multiple dark horns with purple veins around her head seemed almost to form a crown. Similar but softer forms of these horns fell like reedy strands interpersed within her hair. Despite her petite appearance, Murati felt that she was dealing with someone formidable. An unwavering gaze, a confident voice– and a sensation of power that caused Murati unease even though she had not dared to use psionics to read her.

Murati, this is the Warlord of Mycenae– her name harkens back to an ancient princess.

Euphrates’ psionic counsel in her head. Thankfully, Euphrates was off-screen from Astra.

Astra’s expression was completely impassive, as if she had no emotions whatsoever.

“Your offensive stunt has taken my attention solely because your hubris intrigues me.”

Murati opened. “My name is Murati Nakara. I am– a businesswoman, with a proposition.”

“Your hubris continues to intrigue me, Madam Nakara, but it will not impress for long.”

Murati wondered how many times someone had “called out” to Astra in any way.

She learned a lot about Katarrans and their varied cultures from many cherished comrades.

She tried to situate herself in the mind of a Katarran warlord.

What was Astra’s life like? She looked like a beautiful doll someone dressed as a soldier.

What did she crave? Did she want to be taken seriously? Did she invite a challenge?

Keeping such things in mind would be crucial to Murati’s next few exchanges.

“I am an information broker.” Murati said. It was as good a cover as any for her plan. “But more than that, I am an investor, and I am part of a group of stakeholders who have a lot to lose financially from this current spate of chaos. Right now, madam, there is a lot of property and a lot of people in Aachen’s upper tiers that lies poorly guarded– but a watchman has appeared that can protect them, and I desire the watchman to begin a patrol.”

Murati tried to keep in mind the various dealings the Brigand had with Imbrium cultures.

Whenever they approached something altruistically it would be seen as suspicious.

However, everyone could understand a purely mercenary motive.

So Murati tried to couch her requests in the language of transactions and self-interest.

“I knew eventually someone like you would turn up.” Astra said. “I’m already being paid.”

Yes– being paid in figures on a bank account, on a ledger–

–but not in what Katarrans held to be legendary, to be utmost among riches!

“There is something you stand to gain that no amount of Reichsmarks can buy.”

Astra cocked one eyebrow. It was the most expressive she had looked in a while.

“Everything in this part of the world is purchasable, madam.” Astra replied.

“Reichsmarks can buy a lot; but there are things only violence can purchase.”

Murati smiled and Astra blinked at her. She crossed her arms.

“Milord Astra Palaiologos,” Murati began, trying to look and sound confident, “I humbly request that you expand Mycenae’s cordon to the third tier of Aachen station. You will come into contact with an organized military force that is looking to commit acts of violence and looting within Aachen, and you will have to fight– but in so doing, you will make a show of force to everyone in Eisental and in Imbria’s state of chaos. You will back up your words of Mycenaean power and prestige with deeds, and the station’s elite will indebted to you. And they will know two things: you are worth the money, and nobody can fuck with you.”

For a brief moment, Astra’s eyes drew a little wider.

That recognition of what was possible flashed in her blood-red gaze.

Murati saw it.

“Doing so puts me at risk of interfering with Volkisch business.” Astra said.

“I am prepared to offer you a hedge against any such problems.” Murati said.

“Oh? In your capacity as an information broker, perhaps?”

“Indeed. Accept a direct data transfer from us and you will see.”

“Why should I trust you? You might hack the estate again and then flee.”

“I am responsible for the safety of several V.I.P’s in the third tier. I cannot flee, milord.”

Murati compromised some of her position in the hopes Astra might do the same.

Perhaps with a more hardened operator this may not have worked–

But she was young, and bright-eyed and hungry–

In the next instant, there was a request for transfer from the Mycenaeans at the estate.

“Zachikova, send them a copy of our station model.” Murati said.

Zachikova bolted up in her chair, looking baffled. “Captain?! That’s–!”

“It’s an order, is what it is.” Murati said.

Sighing and grumbling, Zachikova initiated the transfer.

Within moments, Astra had the model of the station at her own fingertips.

“What is this?” She asked. On Murati’s screen, she was clearly looking at a subordinate monitor in whatever lavish room she had taken as an office. She reached out and touched that screen and quickly found that she could manipulate the model. “This is rather sophisticated. An information broker you say. Sounds a bit too humble.”

“I am a humble person and it is within my humble capabilities. I sent you a predictive model of the station, based on up to the minute data.” Murati said. “Let’s just say that it is not strictly speaking a legal venture, so perhaps you should be rid of it once you no longer need it. But for now, it will give you an intelligence advantage. Cameras, traffic, station status– using this, you are no longer blind as to what is going on. Now you are in charge of it.”

“It is a– partial, solution– to my concerns.” Astra began choosing her words. With such deliberation and care that the pauses became rather evident. She began to look conflicted– these expressions made her look even younger. Almost immature. “I am concerned about you, Murati Nakara. It seems clear to me that you have skills and resources, but I am not sure they match who you say you are, and I am not sure that I understand your stakes. Nor do I feel like I understand your ambition. It is difficult to maintain a partnership like this.”

“That station model is a few million Reichsmarks worth of my sort of work.” Murati said.

“It is not money that I am interested in now.” Astra said. “It is you. Who really are you?”

Was she losing her? But why? What was she missing? Murati didn’t understand.

Perhaps she needed to be a bit more honest. She could not panic at this juncture.

“I am somebody who needs what you have– and you might yet need what I have. You have ground forces; I have intelligence and some naval assets. We can’t be seen openly working with each other, but we can assist each other under the table, and overcome this situation together. Both of us are in a tight spot right now. You appear to require my business.”

“I remain unconvinced that I need the business of some unknown character.” Astra said.

“Mycenae has words in this ocean, but not deeds. This will be quite a deed for you.”

“Quite a deed– one that advantages the Volkisch Movement. How do you feel about that?”

Why did she care? “I am more in need of work done than moral affirmation, right now.”

“You are lying to me, Murati Nakara. And that– somehow, it disappoints me.”

Could she see through Murati? Was she using psionics? Murati had not seen the gleam.

Certainly Murati was withholding information, but how did she know? Why did she care?

Mycenaeans were ultranationalists with a thirst for gold and glory!

“You stand to make so much money as a security enterprise in the Imbrium.” Murati said. Astra looked uninterested still. “I will do everything in my power to make you whole if you lose any money. We need your cooperation right now, Warlord Palaiologos.”

“Hmph. Good day, Murati Nakara.”

Why was she not accepting these conditions?!

Financially everything only made sense!

Murati grew instantly desperate. Her nerves were frayed to their last fiber.

“I’m a communist! I’m a communist agent. I need your assistance for my mission.”

Astra had been in the middle of turning away and looked back the screen.

“At this point– how can I trust anything you say? How do I know what you truly want?”

She had lost. She had completely lost everything. She had fucked everything up.

Murati felt like she was drowning. She suddenly felt herself losing the Captain, and the Commissar and Premier, and their allies from the John Brown, and Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and everyone at the venue– without this gamble it would be almost impossible to reach them. They would die abandoned in there! Menahem Halevi and her white uniforms were able to step up from the second tier to the third in force at any time and raze the Oststadt and completely eliminate their comrades. Murati could not think of any way now that she could get there in time to stop them. She had lost; Menahem had won.

Mentally she had staked everything on her ability to coax the Mycenaeans to attack.

She had given up her hand too quickly to Astra Palaiologos. She pored over her mistakes.

But she was not even sure what she did wrong. All her analytics went up in smoke.

Murati was no Ulyana Korabiskaya. She had failed.

She was unfit to be Captain– she was not ready for a real fight, not like her.

A romantic fool with nothing but her ideas and convictions, with no real experience.

How can I trust anything you say?

Murati lifted her head up with her eyes filled with tears, looking at Astra on the screen.

You can trust that I am a romantic fool with too many ideas.

Suddenly, Murati reached for Aatto’s hip holster.

Captains were not issued weapons and Aatto was not issued a firearm like Aaliyah Bashara.

However, she was issued a knife, because she earned the trust to protect Murati’s life.

And a Commissar’s knife was exactly what Murati needed in that moment.

“Master?” Aatto cried out in confusion but dared not interrupt.

Murati, what are you doing? Euphrates called out psionically, but she trusted her.

Nobody moved to stop her in that insane and crucial moment–

Even as Murati unsheathed the knife, and in front of Astra Pailaologos,

carved a slick vertical line of blood and pain down her palm

revealing glistening hot-black blood that shone

and quivered with the words of power–

Astra watched, shaken, rapt, almost trembling– “Her blood– like a Katarran–?”

“I, Murati Nakara, knowing the legacy of the darkest seas and the dreaded deeds, swear the Pythian black blood oath. I swear the fearsome oath from which no Katarran can escape. When the Time of Polemos comes, Astra Palaiologos, I will lead your forces to victory. I will do everything in my power to see you reunite Katarre under the banner of Mycenae and restore Katarre to your rule. Until the Time of Polemos I beseech you to take me under your protection, and on this dark day, to assist me in rescuing my comrades. I beseech you.”

Murati grinned, tearful, shaking with pain, barely able to hold her hand up to the screen.

Euphrates and Aatto looked at her with horror, and the rest of the crew watched, confused.

Astra watched too, speechless for a moment. She then shut her eyes.

Had she lost her again? Could she even live with herself if none of this worked out–?

“I, Astra Palaiologos, spill my blood and complete the oath. Knowing the legacy of the darkest seas and the dreaded deeds. I complete the fearsome oath from which no Katarran can escape. I vow to abide by the oath and I lend my protection in exchange for service.”

Astra reached down and withdrew a small sabre, and cut her own hand.

Raising it up to the screen. Her own cut, across the palm, perpendicular to Murati’s cut.

Their blood was both black but glimmering– droplets fell forward onto the screen.

Floating in mid-air without a physical reason–

Attracted to one another– connected by the legendary Mageia of Pythian dark arts.

In that moment, Murati knew– it was not a trick, it was real. It had always been real.

All the stories, all the merc legends and Katarran superstition– there was something there.

They had been doing psionics– maybe without knowing it as such–

It was all real–

“Murati Nakara, the oath you swore you will not easily escape from. Nor will I– we are bound together by those words now.” Astra said. “However I must dearly apologize to you. I failed to read the strength of your convictions and the lengths you would go. You are worth trusting– and you might make an admirable Merarch. I want to understand you more– for now, consider us partners in crime. Keep a line open. We will talk again very soon.”

Astra disconnected from the feed, openly smiling, clearly quite pleased.

All of the conviction that had been propping Murati up seemed to leave her body then.

Her hand burned with a horrendous inner knowledge– she could feel the Time of Polemos.

Far, far away, yet– but someday nearer, someday sooner.

Murati collapsed forward on the monitor, Euphrates and Aatto standing to check on her.

She secured her gamble, but what had it truly cost?

“This is going to be so fucking huge. This is it. This is it!”

Like the first tier, the third tier was divided into platforms surrounding a grand atrium. Each platform was connected by staircases. On the top platform, a barricade had gone up in front of the stairways and elevator banks leading up to the government sector. Since the word went out from the Aachen Citizen’s Guard, similar barricades had begun to be erected around the tier. At first, they were manned exclusively by unarmed activists, by small time journalists with a cause, by local literati– and sympathizers who were not prepared to turn back an assault. Then, more people began to filter in with personal weapons, illegally stitched handguns, petrol bottles, homemade tear gas bombs. These people feverishly read up on every detail in the messaging services. They were ready for the moment.

All of them bypassed Menahem’s foremost goal in the third tier.

None of them even looked at the bar Oststadt even as they broke into stores nearby.

Menahem did not want them to know. They were not useful in that way.

Particularly, because she herself did not know as much as she wanted about the Oststadt.

So the barricades went up around the tier, made up of stolen kevlar shields and fancy steel furniture, overturned containers, captured cleaning drones. More plainsclothes, armed anarchists began to gather at them, fortifying the station. They had wild dreams of the demands they would make of both the Volkisch and the liberal government of Aachen, both of which had begun to blend together in the imagination. Those barricades were their chokehold on the power which had been choking them for long enough.

Freedom and agency was what they would wring out of them.

Anarchism was all of their disparate wants, the height of freedom that Bosporus achieved.

And it would happen, overnight, by serendipity–

Until, a cold voice resounded throughout the tier, and it began–

“Due to the alarming incidence of looting, property destruction and assaults on citizens, the Mycenae Military Commission has extended our cordon sanitaire to the third tier of Aachen’s core station. We will deter all unlawful actions. Return to your homes. Failure to comply, as well as any threats to Mycenaean forces, will be answered by prompt suppression.”

At the uppermost barricade, the assembled, self-described A.C.G. militia watched in disbelief and growing alarm as the elevator banks in front of them began to blow open one after the other, pouring out smoke. From the empty shafts, rapelling figures hit the solid steel floor of the third tier with weapons in hand, nanomail and power armor, grenades, vibroaxes and AR-80 assault rifles. One individual in golden power armor stood a head taller than the rest, and she strode to within sight of the barricade, facing them without fear of reprisal.

“Out of the way. Dismantle this thing and surrender your weapons now.”

To which the moment responded–

“Fuck you! Kiss my ass, Katarran cop!”

But before a petrol bomb could even be thrown the rifles already hissed with power.

The Optimatoi of the Mycenaean guard began their charge with that first barricade.

And within moments, it seemed, overturned it with unquestioned strength.

Murati hardly knew what she had unleashed and upon whom she had unleashed it.

On the Antenora, a silent alarm of blaring red lights colored the halls.

When the deployment chute opened, a single woman walked through.

Clad in a suit of imperial power armor, armed with a vibrosword and an assault rifle.

Slightly shaking hands checked the magazine. Reaffixed it, pulled the charging handle.

Shaking hands– not with fear, but with immense anger.

An anger deep and dark enough to hide the fear, to drown it, to bathe it in red–

“Milord, I’ll find you a path of least resistance– but every path has something right now.”

A trembling voice, Amur, who had urged caution–

“Guide me to the fastest route, Amur,”

Norn stepped onto the landing at Stockheim, amid panicking dockworkers invisible to her.

“Irrespective of dangers. I’ll kill anyone and destroy anything. Get me there fast.”

She cracked a grin as she stared up at the hundreds of meters of station barring her way.

Because if she did not grin at the sheer bleakness of her fate, she would weep instead.

“Wait for me.” She whispered to herself alone. “Come back to me. Adelheid.”

Gear checked and secured, Norn breathed deep and charged headfirst into Aachen.

Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.10]

“You want to abandon me. I have not performed to your expectations.”

Impassioned words, spoken on the verge of tears, and met with silence.

This was the first exchange of words between Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and Daksha Kansal in days. They had been out of touch since the United Front deliberations began. In Gloria’s imaginary there could only be one reason for this– and so, she had begun maneuvering of her own accord in order to obviate the participation of Daksha Kansal in the Front’s business, and future. She had made her own moves, with a hard one coming.

However– her pride (and her fear) still called on her to confront her “beloved mentor.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg donned her pure white dress and made up her soft pink hair, looked herself in the mirror, practiced smiling, and left her apartment first thing.

To meet someone at their private quarters for business rather than pleasure.

For her efforts, she was met exclusively with Daksha Kansal’s back.

Surrounded by her spartan apartment, barely touched from when the lease was signed.

There was nothing she could have been staring in there that mattered.

“Turn around and look at me.” Gloria demanded. “I won’t disappear if you look away.”

“You’ve gotten quite demanding.” Daksha replied, in a low voice.

“You are awful, Daksha Kansal! Awful! I cannot believe you! I did everything you asked. I gave you money and I gathered everyone together. You have already decided, without any basis, that you can’t make use of me.” Gloria could not help but put on a bleak grin on her face, her heart pounding. She started speaking out of malice, out of wanting to find any way to needle or hurt her mentor. “It’s accelerating, I think! You spent ten years in the General Strike movement– and four or five years in the Union, right? Maybe a year with the Bureni nationalists– and now in a few months you’re rid of me. You’ve gotten so efficient.”

Daksha Kansal turned around. Crossed her arms. She looked exhausted.

She could not make eye contact with Gloria, and that hopeless smile Gloria wore.

“Gloria, I don’t know who you have been talking to– but you don’t understand anything. You have no idea how important communism is to me, nor how important it is to the survival of the human race. It is for that reason that every decision I make is absolutely critical.”

She was right. Gloria did not understand. Nor did she care.

That Gloria Luxembourg who stood in that room–

had been pushed beyond her ability to care.

“You can’t even use me. You can’t even treat me as a tool. You just want to discard me.”

Gloria had been more than willing to set aside her pride for someone else to give her a path.

She had begged Leda Lettiere, but she was killed before she could even answer.

She made connections with Herta Kleyn and the liberals, but they tacitly accepted defeat.

She founded Raylight Beauty, played the corporate game, made millions– but none of it gave her power and none of it absolved her of either her guilt or her sense of responsibility.

Then she gave herself to Daksha Kansal and now even she would throw her away.

Nobody wanted responsibility for Gloria– nobody could give her power–

nobody could grant her agency–

nobody could purify her sins– and nobody could save her– Nobody could– die in her place– protect her from the consequences of her scheming– protect her–

So– there was nothing to do– but to risk her own neck and die in the slaughter–?

“Gloria, please.” Daksha said. “Please. I’m not throwing you away. You have surpassed my expectations. You have your own strength. You have done everything I desired and planned. It is the next step which concerns me– you do not understand how crucial it could be!”

“Why haven’t you appeared at the United Front even once?” Gloria asked.

Daksha paused for a moment. She sighed. “I’ll put in an appearance. Tomorrow.”

“On the last day.” Gloria said. “Will it be a send off then? What will you even say?”

“Gloria– I don’t know what to do. I wish I had something I could say to placate you in this moment.” Daksha said. “That is the actual truth. I don’t know how I feel about the state of the politics in the Imbrium, I don’t know how I feel about my own actions. I don’t know how I feel about the people I have now or the ones I left behind. This struggle is so vital and so necessary and I am feeling its weight for perhaps the first time. You’re right, I ran away before. I decreed my business done or my colleagues unworthy. You and others have called it running away– I agree and I’m conflicted about everything. Is that good enough for you?”

Gloria looked at Daksha in the eyes. Her expression softened.

For only a moment– because staring at the listless expression of her mentor made her mad.

Her most childish part of herself wanted to say– you led me into all of this.

It was not true. Gloria had led herself from the very beginning.

Choosing when to hide, when to duck her head, and when to take all of the credit.

Ever since she avoided the student protests–

Ever since she witnessed the failures in leadership and the imminent collapse–

Ever since she began to desire power–

it had been her choices that led her to this day.

Whether she was brave or bold, whether she was cowardly– she chose that.

Nobody else.

But it would have been so much easier if someone would take her by the shoulders–

–and stop her before she crossed her rubicon.

It was not fair that the great Daksha Kansal was as confused and scared as she was.

It was not fair that she was not perfect despite her words being so powerful.

“Tomorrow. Alright. We’ll meet and discuss everything among the Front.” Gloria said.

Daksha drew in a deep breath. “I promise– I’ll have made a decision by then.”

“Me too.” Tomorrow, everything would have to be decided one way or another.

Gloria recalled the image of Leda Lettiere walking austerely to her execution.

There were only publicized images of her being taken– never of her dead body.

Would Gloria be afforded that much dignity? No– she wasn’t living in a dignified time.

She was living in an evil era where there were no heroes she could count on.

And– for as much as her pride wanted to say otherwise, she felt like a failed hero herself.

Daksha Kansal turned her back on her again, to stare at the walls again.

For all her fear, Gloria tried to maintain a dignified expression as she wept, unseen.

Beginning her own march toward the gallows.

“Come in, I’m just taking my tea– ah, Murati! How nice to see you!”

Through the door into Euphrates’ room, the tall, somewhat gloomy Murati Nakara walked inside, as always meticulously dressed in her Treasure Box Transports uniform. She looked around the room in order to fix her eyes on something other than Euphrates, but the scientist kept very little in terms of possessions. The room was tidy and furnished the same as any other, the immortal having little of value that she carried beside her vast memories.

However– Murati also knew that Euphrates had another possession, which she needed.

And so, she visited, feeling ashamed of the transactional nature of her appearance.

“You can pull up a chair next to me. I know you’re acting Captain and all, but if you pulled yourself away from the bridge, you must have some time to sit down with me.” Euphrates gestured toward her side. Murati did as instructed and pulled a seat up from the floor and sat down at the table. It was the same type of the table on the far wall of every other room.

“I do have some time. I left the bridge to Aatto.” Murati said.

“Have some tea with me then.” Euphrates said.

She touched the wall, and it opened up, revealing a few synthestitched cups in storage.

On the table, there was a small electric kettle and a small bottle with yellow-brown tabs.

Euphrates dropped one of the tabs in a cup and poured hot water over it.

Quickly dissolving the morsel into a cup of instant tea which she handed to Murati.

Murati took a sip. It was sweet and a bit tangy.

Euphrates smiled at her and sipped her own tea alongside.

“Union instant tea is much nicer than the Imperial kinds– but it only comes in one flavor.”

“It’s the same with the coffee.” Murati said. “You don’t really need that many, do you?”

“Ah, but there is a world of amazing flavors to be found in tea. There are people who drink for pleasure that would be angry with you. Different leaves, treated differently, with different additives.” Euphrates said. “However, you are right in a way– for me, I am only after a bit of caffeine, so the convenience factor of the instant tea is invaluable.”

“It’s not like we don’t have leaf tea in the Union. We don’t need that many instant teas.”

Murati put on a bit of a sour face and Euphrates laughed girlishly at her side.

“You don’t need to be upset, Murati. I think the Union way is quite commendable.”

“I’m not upset– I don’t really care what you think about the Union–”

“That pout says otherwise.” Euphrates said. “I’m sorry– I will stop teasing you now.”

As ever, Euphrates was dressed in a formal sort of outfit with a sportcoat and vest worn over a button-down shirt with matching slacks. The cut and fit of the clothes, which was rather austere and dignified, and reminded Murati of a commissariat clerk, or lawyer or a politician. There were suits of this sort that were dynamic and flashy and gave off a sense of modernity, but those were not the kind that Euphrates liked to wear. Because Euphrates was a relatively waifish woman, young looking as if her pretty face had been frozen in early adulthood, with her jaw-length blue hair barely combed back in voluminous and messy waves– she sometimes gave Murati the impression of a girl with a grandfather’s fashion sense.

Murati knew that she was an immortal and therefore felt that perhaps her sense of fashion was something that she had carried with her on her thousand year jaunt.

Or maybe it was all just Murati’s own biases about who wore such suits in her own life.

“Um.” Murati found herself a bit at a loss for words– and embarrassed at her inability.

This happened every so often– but more often lately as she was confronted with people and the difficulties that they represented. She lifted her hands slightly and tried to gesticulate, moving her fingers as if trying to express the handing of something over from one hand to another. She repeated the gesture helplessly. Euphrates looked at her for a moment, and then tenderly raised her own hand and took Murati’s in it, stroking her knuckles.

“Unfortunately, Murati, I am not able to understand your nonverbal cues as your wife can. I am sorry if I have contributed to this stress for you.” Euphrates said. “It is okay if you came here to ask me for something. I do not think you should be anxious about that. However, if you will allow me to collect a toll– I would like to talk to you about three little things first, and then you can proceed with your request, with full confidence. Is that okay?”

Murati nodded her head, starting to find her words again. “Alright. Sorry about this.”

“It’s fine.” Euphrates said. “It might be embarrassing to admit this, but I do like talking to you because– well, I have felt a sort of filial attachment to you developing since we met. Perhaps I am too quick to become affectionate toward people who I find endearing, maybe it’s a flaw– but I do think of you as someone close to me whom I wish to advise and nurture. Perhaps a mentee, perhaps a student, perhaps something like a– a niece, perhaps. I hope that this is not presumptuous of me to say. Does that offend you at all?”

“No, it does not.” Murati said. “I am– flattered. I respect you greatly.”

Murati was someone who had holes in her heart where family was concerned.

They had known each other a short time but Euphrates was easily the closest thing Murati had to a mother at any portion of the life which she remembered– having lost her mother as a very small child who had little opportunity to know her besides. Deshnov had not been a particularly nurturing figure for her. Euphrates was someone who offered advice and taught her things and supported her. Someone whose approval and respect she sought willingly. Someone whom she wanted to protect and even to care for– to keep from harm.

And now– someone whose resources she needed.

“You seem to be regaining your speech.” Euphrates said cheerfully. “So, my first item.” She extended her thumb in one hand. “Murati, have you continued to practice psionics?”

“Not as much as I would like to. I’m still exerting too much force.”

“I will devise a method so that you can work on that. Give me some time.”

“I trust you.”

“Good! I believe you will only become more skilled with time.” Euphrates smiled. “Murati, I want to teach you another psionic exercise that you can do basically any time– provided there isn’t someone with psionics who would think you’re gawking at them.” Euphrates lifted her hand, and moved it side to side slowly. “While you’re out and about or sitting down at the bridge perhaps– try to watch people’s auras moving along with their bodies.”

Murati pulled her internal trigger and her eyes glowed with red rings around her irises.

She watched Euphrates’ hand and tried to focus on the aura surrounding it.

“It looks like your aura is taking up the entire space your hand is moving.”

“That’s what it looks like now.” Euphrates said. “What I want you to focus on is to try to conceptualize the aura not as an undifferentiated mass that has occupied the entire space of my arm’s motion, but rather, to notice the differences in the aura where my arm is going and has gone. Do you understand? As people move, try to notice any hint of difference in their aura as they go. Does it detach in any given place? Does it move before their body?”

Murati strained her eyes but could not notice any difference at all.

Euphrates’ arm moved in the same predictable motion, for upwards of a minute–

However, the aura remained a static gradient of green and blue occupying the entire space.

There was not even the tiniest speck of a difference in Murati’s perception.

“It would be unfair to demand you understand this instantly.” Euphrates said, withdrawing her hand back to her plastic cup. “All I ask is that you try it as much as you are able, that you keep an open mind, and that you temper your frustrations. This is a conceptual exercise that will help open your mind further. You have already made incredible progress.”

Murati grumbled.

“You keep saying that– but I don’t feel like I have achieved much at all.”

“You, my dear, have achieved more than most of the human race, in this particular field.”

Euphrates smiled and took a contented sip of her tea.

Murati was not satisfied with that answer at all. However, she did not respond.

This was her way of trying to temper her frustrations, as Euphrates asked her to.

On the hand extending a thumb, Euphrates then extended her index finger.

“My second item of the promised three.” Euphrates said. “Have you opened the chronicle?”

Some time ago, she had bequeathed to Murati a chronicle left by her parents.

“I opened it.” Murati said, and said no more, leaving out a crucial detail–

She had not looked at hardly any information inside of the chronicle.

Her courage allowed her only to check that it worked.

All she saw was the first page and only briefly.

When she saw that it was a profile of Kutchicetus DNA she became demoralized.

Why would they have left data about some extinct animal genetics to her?

What was the point? They left that chronicle for her– did they think she would care?

She did not want to see the rest after that. But she could not tell Euphrates that.

Euphrates looked too delighted with her response.

“I’m glad. I do not need to hear about the contents– it is yours and only yours. It was only good fortune that led me to have possession of their work so that I could protect it. I am happy that I was able to turn it over. I collected everything I could, but I want you to understand Murati that they left it all to you. That chronicle contains their wishes for you.”

Murati felt guilty, and possibly Euphrates suspected something, but she said no more.

Regardless, she would not yet look at the full contents of that chronicle.

She did not feel ready to have the past intrude upon her present, not right now.

Perhaps– not ever–

“My third request of three– and thank you kindly for sitting with this old woman.”

Euphrates lifted her thumb, index, and middle fingers together.

She winked at Murati with a little grin, drawing a laugh out of Murati in response.

“I told you yesterday I want to form a new organization– I am not trying to recruit you or any Union military personnel on this ship of course.” Euphrates quickly pointed this out when Murati started to wear a troubled expression. “I just wanted to talk to you about my ideas.”

“I’m listening.” Murati said. “But you know– you don’t need to.”

Out of all of them– if anyone tallied up their suffering, Euphrates’ life would outweigh it.

Murati dearly wished this woman could be safe and uninvolved–

“–Ah, Murati, don’t deny an old lady her little hobbies, alright?” Euphrates teased.

As much as she joked, Murati knew Euphrates had a very strong sense of responsibility.

“Anyway.” Euphrates continued, since Murati had nothing to say in response and merely sipped on her own tea. “The Sunlight Foundation had as its chief goal, finding a way to reclaim the surface for human habitation. We had a lot of ideas of how this looked– for example, it would have been acceptable to us if we could construct a habitat that could survive the state of surface. We were not going to reverse however many centuries of destruction. We were not so foolish. Regardless we did not accomplish that. At this point, I can declare our goal a failure– but I always had a subsidiary goal I was pursuing too.”

“I truly feared,” Euphrates continued, after a little pause to sip her tea, “that Agarthicite would be abused as I knew that it had been on the surface. On the surface, I was a captive for much of my life, so I learned very little about how the world operated in any great detail. However, I knew, from the experiments on my body, and my very brief glimpse of freedom on the surface, and my long life under the ocean– that the ocean was technologically stunted in comparison. But it was only a matter of time before the crude instruments of survival which the ocean pioneers were given would develop into weapons along similar lines to those employed by the surface hegemony. So I set myself the task of interceding as I could on affairs related to agarthicite. I am not proud of it– but I still think it is necessary.”

Murati thought back to the Core Separation Crisis and felt a shudder about their future.

“With the current climate of political instability and escalation– I think it is inevitable that Agarthicite will be relied on more and abused as a vulnerability or a weapon.” She said.

To say such a thing was a heinous taboo– but the taboo was already broken.

She also knew that she was in the right company to make such a statement without scandal.

Euphrates smiled.

“No, Murati, it is not inevitable. Someone has to do something to stop it. So I want to create an organization that intercedes on issues of Agarthicite. I will create an organization that does independent research, and that advises on Agarthicite as an issue of public health and worker safety. I think this angle will work with the Union, don’t you?”

“With the Union?” Murati smiled a bit. “You’re finally throwing your lot in with us fully?”

“I have principles.” Euphrates said, grinning a bit back. “My principles tell me the Union will be far more amenable toward safer development of Agarthicite. With the Imbrian Empire and its warring states this is likely to be impossible, but the Union might just be a proper steward of Agarthicite. At the very least I think their rule of law compels them.”

As an environmental cause, it was unlikely for the Union as it was now to care about the concerns around Agarthicite– however, they were more likely to cooperate with an organization that conducted research and framed itself as supporting workers and public health. The Union was a proletarian state, and much like its workers were meant to support their own interests, the Union as a whole was organized around the interests of workers. If Euphrates founded a proletarian organization, she could potentially sway them.

However– this vision presupposed–

“–do you think the Union will be powerful enough to be a worthwhile ally for you?”

Murati asked this and Euphrates responded first with a wry smile.

“Do you not? Isn’t it your goal to spread the Union across the Imbrium?” She said.

“Is it yours?”

Euphrates looked her in the eyes with determination.

“It is now. Perhaps– it has been since the two of us met.” She said. “Everyone else has taken a side– so I am taking your side, Murati.” She raised a hand to her chest as if swearing an oath. “Murati, Daksha Kansal intervened in your life, in the life of the people of the Union, and she has abandoned you– I feel responsible for that. I am not so arrogant as to claim that I made Daksha Kansal what she is now. She is a genius, and without me, she would still have been a generational talent and a firebrand. But– the example I tried to set embittered her. If it were not for her frustrations with me she might still be leading the Union. Setting aside whether that would be better or worse for your people– now she is pitting herself against your people. Someone like her needs to take your side. I am your genius now.”

She tried to smile and to speak with more levity,

as she jokingly called herself

Murati’s genius–

That bit of humor could not hide the pain in her gaze and smile as she spoke to Murati. The edges of her mechanical eyes glimmered with tears she held back. Her fists closed on her lap. Her entire posture, her body language– she looked like someone holding back a storm by herself. Euphrates was openly in pain in front of her even as she spoke optimistically.

Murati set down her cup of tea and met that gaze and the pain hiding behind–

And she reached across the table, embracing Euphrates, suddenly taking her in close.

“Murati–!” Euphrates whimpered, surprised.

“Thank you, Euphrates. Thank you for everything.”

Murati stroked her hair and held her smaller frame, almost ephemeral in comparison.

In a strange way, in an inexplicable way, this woman had become special to her.

Though they had only known each other for weeks, months–

In her mind, in her emotional imaginary, Murati felt like she had known her for years.

Like she experienced a depth of pain and triumph with her she felt with very few people.

Not as a lover, not as a friend, not any of the relationships she ever had to another woman.

It was not something that she could explain that easily.

“You don’t have to hold anything back with me.” Murati said.

Then Euphrates returned the embrace, even more tightly than Murati had held her.

She finally allowed herself to weep. Almost silent sobs, almost austere catharsis.

Murati demanded nothing from her. She only offered herself to receive the tears.

To this woman, so powerful, so unfathomable– and so overwhelmingly burdened.

For exactly five minutes, Euphrates cried into Murati’s chest as quietly as she could.

Trying to make herself small and out of the way even as she cried.

Murati could feel when she was ready and let her go. Euphrates wiped her tears.

“Thank you, Murati. I am really sorry about that. I’ve regained my composure.”

“You don’t need to maintain composure with me. You can just be yourself.”

“That is very kind– but for myself at least, I value avoiding such outbursts.”

“Alright. For what it’s worth this does not change how I see you at all.”

Euphrates smiled.

Murati would not demand reasons or explanations from her.

“What do you think of the name ‘Dawn’?” Euphrates asked suddenly, lifting a few locks of her blue hair that had become displaced and tucking them behind her ear. She looked up at the ceiling as if there was something to see beyond it. “Back on the surface, when my body was being used for medical research– I heard of a rogue scientific collective called the Shooting Stars. They were called terrorists, villains, and were declared inhuman– because they challenged the Agarthicite conglomerates and tried to prevent calamity. Inspired by that vague memory, I came up with the name of the Sunlight Foundation to represent our goal of basking under the sun again. Our goal that tried to subvert everything to achieve. Now, I want to bring the sun down here, for the humans who are alive. I will call it the Dawn Association. Tigris and I will found it, and it will be equitable, and it will cooperate with others rather than hide away. We’ll work openly to raise a new generation of thinkers who believe in this world– rather than any more atavists dreaming of reviving the past.”

Murati smiled back. “I think it’s lovely. I’ll help however I can– in appropriate ways.”

Through and through Murati was a soldier and a communist, not a pseudophysicist.

Or even a humanitarian– all of this felt far too removed from her competencies.

Despite this she would do what she could to help Euphrates.

“Thank you. For now, it is enough that you give us a place to stay. Hopefully the Captain might be amenable to inviting a few more eccentric scientists aboard– I would like to look for some estranged old colleagues to assist me with this endeavor.” Euphrates said. “And perhaps sway any of the old guard that I can to try something new– though at least Daksha Kansal will not accept such a thing. I may have lost her– it hurts, but I must move on.”

“What will you do about Solarflare?” Murati asked.

“Cecilia is the pillar keeping Solarflare afloat. Tigris and I have always been either fixers or a source of selfish disruptions that she has put up with. We have caused her more trouble than we are worth. Ultimately, Solarflare will transition in some way, depending on what happens with Rhinea. For now Cecilia can count on Amelia Winn’s assistance. Alcor and Solarflare will be an interesting partnership. Amelia is a selfish and immature person, but she has a flexible management style to balance Cecilia’s rigidity, and most importantly, Amelia has legitimacy and resources within the establishment of Kreuzung. They will butt heads, but I think they will be fine; I am just not corporate CEO material in the way that they both are.”

“I see.” Murati would not comment on what she thought about Amelia Winn.

Euphrates took another sip of her tea, now beginning to turn room temperature.

She took a deep breath. She sounded contented when she spoke.

“That is my third little request. Thank you dearly, Murati. What did you want to ask me?”

Murati averted her gaze. All of her prior embarrassment returned for a moment.

Her ability to speak coherently did not depart from her again– thankfully.

But her request had not become any less selfish and she felt quite silly.

“I wanted to ask you for money.” Murati mumbled, staring at the table.

The Brigand’s stock of Reichsmarks was nearly depleted. While Premier Kairos would likely secure more funds from Gloria Innocence Luxembourg, it was unlikely that those funds would be available when Murati needed them, and available for her selfish purpose. It would have been even more mortifying to beg the Captain or Premier for money for personal entertainment. So for now, Murati needed money and had no way to acquire it.

“Oh! Of course, of course! Murati I would never judge you for something like that!”

Euphrates looked delighted with Murati, who still could not make eye contact.

“How much do you need?” Euphrates reached into her coat and withdrew a few credichips. Small rectangular devices that contained encrypted accounting of funds available for transactions. Less than a centimeter thick, with their cases decorated in various colors and brands and characters. She had so many– how much money could she have?

“You know, I was thinking about extending you an allowance, but I feared offending you.”

“I just need enough to take Karuniya to a nice restaurant.” Murati admitted, frowning.

“I am so happy for her. Have fun!” Euphrates handed Murati a purple and gold credichip.

Murati reluctantly took the credichip, offered her thanks,

and silently cursed capitalism.

“Oh ho! My little proteins are bouncing back! Grow little guys! Grow!”

A piercing sound of laughter rattled the instruments in the laboratory.

Karuniya Maharapratham held on to the sides of the electron microscope box, fingers clutching corners of the large chassis, while her face was nearly pressed on the LCD display to which it transmitted its magnified images. On the screen, a biostitched organoid subjected to harsh chemicals and conditions had begun to repair itself– after the application of a strange foreign substance. It should have died, as many other test cultures before it had died in the same experimental conditions. Instead it was managing to survive.

“Am I a genius? I need so much more data– but maybe this is it–

Even this modest result had been won after hours and hours of work–

And trillions of processing cycles from the main computer.

“Could this be related to the Omenseer’s durability?”

She had managed to isolate and employ an Omenseer-related substance.

Judging by its effect on an organoid that replicated human tissues–

“Can’t jump to conclusions though. For weird stuff like this– it’s got to be ironclad.”

Everything was recorded automatically, but Karuniya still took her own notes.

While she would have to trial it much more extensively and on more complex organoids, there was a sudden hope brimming in her heart as she watched the monitor. She would call the substance Compound A for now– she had isolated the enzymes from Arabella’s materials. If this was part of the Omenseer’s healing factor, she might have found a base for new medigels and antidotes– and ones guaranteed to be compatible with Omenseer biology. She would have to run a lot of tests and gather a lot of data to convince the Captain and Commissar to let her try the substance on anyone in the crew– herself included, more than likely. But she had something now. It was a start she did not have before.

Her eyes wandered over to a small rack on her desk, containing several different fluids.

These were Murati’s materials– she idly thought of testing Compound A on them–

Karuniya made a dirty grin at the tubes. “I wonder what it would do with Murati’s–”

Her intrusive thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a physical intruder–

“Mushroom lady! Mushroom lady! Good morning!”

“Don’t call me mushroom lady!”

Arabella herself had appeared to pay a visit, all smiles and with a proud grin.

“Why are you so cheerful today?” Karuniya asked.

“Braya said that I was being more annoying than ever and sent me to bother you for a bit!”

Arabella stuck out her hand with a thumbs-up. Karuniya stared at her for a moment.

“Well, if you’ve got some blood to spare, I could definitely use it.” Karuniya smiled.

In response Arabella made a deflating noise.

“Always after my blood.” She mumbled.

Zachikova must have been busy with something important to have actually sent Arabella away– probably adding new requested features to ZaChat. That made her more irritable than usual because she found her power users (Murati and Erika) annoying also. Karuniya did not mind having Arabella around, depending on the circumstances. She was always excitable or at least she put up a front that she was– how excitable was what varied day to day.

Physically, Arabella appeared well.

Her light brown skin and long, dark purple-blue hair were a contrast to how she first presented itself and made her look rather handsome, especially with her shoulders bared. Karuniya wondered if the list of princes might be amended to include her. The sailors must have seen her around without her jacket now. Her figure was sleek, her limbs slim and long, and she presented a bit taller than she used to as well, though not as tall as Murati.

Karuniya had not seen her injuries, but she had read the account of her circumstances in Kreuzung from Zachikova’s report. If a human even survived such a mauling it would take them months of care and attention. Arabella was up and about as if nothing happened– there were not even scars on her shoulders. If Compound A was part of the biological system responsible for these miracle recoveries– well, studying the Omenseers in general might save a lot of future lives or even improve the resilience of ordinary humans.

For the moment however those were pipe dreams.

“Speaking of blood, actually– there is something you can do for me.”

She beckoned Arabella closer to one of the tables, where a small refrigerator for samples had been filled with something else entirely. Karuniya opened the door and produced a small bundle of separately shrink-wrapped packages. Because the shrink-wrap was opaque the contents could not be seen until Karuniya peeled off the plastic. She demonstrated that each package contained a dark brown, nearly black snack bar with a rough surface and a crumbly texture. Karuniya tore a piece and showed Arabella the texture of it.

“This is a bar made of human blood mixed with coconut flour to keep it together.”

One thing Karuniya could test in the moment was the first part of her nascent logistical system for their Omenseer compatriots– a way to feed them human tissue in a humane fashion. This would be necessary to support them in the long term. Without a way to feed their Omenseers, they had to remain in the constant company of their partners.

Arabella averted her gaze briefly, but Karuniya shook her hand in the air.

“The blood was collected humanely! With medical consent and everything!” She clarified.

“Whose blood was it?” Arabella asked. Eyes still averted– wearing a bashful expression.

“Why do you care?” Karuniya sighed. “This batch came from myself and Dr. Kappel.”

“I care because–” Arabella started rubbing her index fingers together, “I– I like biting Braya.”

Karuniya nearly burst out laughing.

“Oh come on! You can keep biting her recreationally! I’m not here to police your bedroom activities! I just want to be able to stockpile nutrients for you and Olga! That is all!”

Arabella made eye contact again. Relief slowly dawned on her face, and she smiled.

She took the blood bar Karuniya offered her. Turning it around on her fingers.

Sniffing it.

Finally she brought it up to her mouth and put the whole thing in.

Puffing up her cheeks to the size of two fists–

“It’s not that much! Don’t act like I’m trying to choke you!” Karuniya said.

Arabella’s cheeks immediately shrank back to normal after. She continued to chew.

“It’s gross. It’s not like Braya’s blood at all. I want to spit it out.” She mumbled.

“Don’t spit it out! Do you feel a certain way when you eat human tissue?”

“Yes, there’s a certain feeling.” Arabella swallowed the bar with a glum expression.

“Do you feel that way while eating this?” Karuniya asked.

“Yes, I feel like I am eating humans. But I did not like it. Can I never eat this again?”

“You will be eating it again. We need to gather more data for my research.”

Arabella looked down at the ground with her arms hanging at her sides.

“It’s for your own good.” Karuniya said. “We can try to make the flavor better.”

She reached out and patted Arabella’s head briefly, careful to avoid her horns.

“We should use Braya’s blood. It tastes better than yours.” Arabella said.

“How the hell– I’m so much healthier; I eat a balanced diet; I actually exercise even–”

Initially offended– Karuniya realized quickly how ridiculous it was to feel that way.

“Nevermind. I promise we’ll improve the flavor. It’s a process of development!” Karuniya said. “For now, just hang around for an hour or two and tell me if you feel sated. You can help me with the mushrooms while you’re here too.” She pointed at a few racks of fresh growing media in need of installation, and then pointed at the mushroom tanks.

“It’s always about mushrooms or my blood.” Arabella said. “Can’t we just play a bit?”

“You can play with the mushrooms. By installing them on the tank.” Karuniya said.

She tried not to sound too stern, but she was an adult with a job to do.

And Arabella did enough playing with Zachikova. Both on and off the bridge.

Regardless of her grumbling, Arabella promptly went to the mushrooms like a good girl.

Karuniya smiled. She was a handful, but she was well intentioned.

“Think of it this way, Arabella– my nasty bars will help humans and omenseers get along.”

Arabella looked over her shoulder, carrying the grow media. She smiled back.

“What kind of gift would a princess like, anyway?”

Mentally, she could already hear Elena’s voice going ‘I’m not a princess!’

Marina McKennedy smiled to herself.

There were so many stores around her that it was hard to get a sense of where to go.

Especially when she was still debating with herself.

“Makeup maybe? Or maybe a new dress? I know her measurements after all.”

Unsure of how she would spend her free time by herself, she decided to get Elena a gift and bring it back to the Brigand– and maybe spend some time with her for the day afterward. The people on the John Brown were alright, and she felt more at home with them than the commies, but she was still navigating the awkward adjustment period. She had just transferred over and did not really know anyone other than Burke– even after a few games of poker she did not really feel like she had any new friends. Burke was fine, but he was also a very business-like type of guy. Captain Eithnen meanwhile was a bit too casual and could be easily provoked to drink too much or to get mad at cards for too long.

Marina missed the friendly and colorful people she had continuously betrayed.

They were strange but they were typically conscientious and easy to get along with.

It was all her fault that she missed them– and that only made it sting a bit harder.

But all Marina had ever known in life– was the sting, wasn’t it? Relief was alien to her.

“Forget it, Marina.” She muttered under her own breath. “Just try to make the best of it.”

At least she was alive– and she was a woman now too.

Some things had improved.

At any rate– what mattered was Elena, and a gift to make up for all the trouble.

And for all the failure–

Marina’s biggest obstacle on her shopping expedition was that, and she had to admit this to herself quite sternly, she really did not know Elena as well as she wanted to. Or maybe even much at all. Leda loved music and art and sweet desserts; she was a polymath and a casual artist; she liked high end beauty products and stylish clothing. She liked to tie Marina up and fuck her– if all else Marina could always gift her that. She had been a sophisticated socialite, and well-bred, with a hidden edge, all of these things were easy to understand.

Elena was not her mother. She was quieter, less sociable, even a little less feminine.

Even before her proletarian streak, by all accounts Elena was nothing like her title would suggest. When she was a girl she played video games, played pranks on her maids, and rode horses. She liked to play in the dirt and woods in her gilded cage in Vogelheim. She was not particularly accomplished in any of her schooling nor proficient in the arts– not interested in playing music, not interested in painting. She was somewhat clumsy and anxious. Leda had been a born and bred aristocrat of a premiere Elven lineage– Elena was sparsely tutored until she was unceremoniously sent to Luxembourg School for Girls where her biggest interest was courting trouble alongside her bizarre gaggle of friends. Konstantin von Fueller had not invested much in her development, unlike that of her brother.

All of this made Elena a cipher to the G.I.A. agent so reliant on stereotypes of others.

Marina walked within a maelstrom of advertising in the first tier commercial area. There were storefronts with promotional images of young girls enjoying desserts and frosty drinks, picking out fancy dresses, enjoying the latest and slimmest slate portables, trying on beautiful makeup. Floating billboards overhead promising high adventure at Epoch Clothiers or a complete transformation at a Raylight Beauty outlet. Perfumes so chic the men in the ads were completely hypnotized by the leading lady. Hip girls tasting the latest bioengineered flavors at Volwitz Foods. Marina tried to place Elena in those scenes as best as she could, but something was not clicking. She did not want to bring Elena something impermanent like a dessert, but she feared that if she bought her clothes it would be filtered entirely through her own taste– and perhaps even worse, subject to her own confused libido toward the girl. Digital gadgets were out of the question because the commies would be concerned about any potential tracking. Anything too cheap or shitty would just embarrass her. Elena would probably appreciate any gesture, but Marina wanted more.

Standing in the middle of four different LED panel ads for the same beverage, Marina put her hands in her suit pockets and sighed. What kind of gift would show her sincerity that this time, she wasn’t lying or trying to manipulate her– what would it take to show Elena that she really meant it when she said she wanted to make up for all the lies and false promises? Something that was sincere and heartfelt and could open the conversation about how fucking terrible she felt? Something to show she still cared about Elena?

Any of the commies would have said something ridiculous about her feelings–

But Marina was through and through a very material person.

More promises without any collateral– would be the same as her many empty words.

This time had to be different.

“Nothing feels right. Am I really this much of an asshole that I can’t think of anything?”

Walking through the thoroughfares, her mind filled with troubles–

She hardly saw the boisterous girl who was heading her way as if she owned the street–

When the two collided, both nearly fell.

“What the fuck is your problem–?”

“Watch where you’re going you piece of shit–!”

Marina came face to face with a girl about Elena’s age perhaps– one also boasting purple hair but wearing her flamboyant hair color openly. She was not an elf, but she was pretty, had quite a body, and she clearly flaunted it, her shoulders exposed by her wide-neck sweater, her skirt cut to where it met her thigh-high stockings. A pair of strange antennae stuck out of her head, each shimmering with a rainbow of colors but largely translucent as if made of plastic. Marina was initially captivated by the girl’s appearance–

Then her scowl brought the G.I.A. agent down to Aer.

Meanwhile, the girl simply tried to push past Marina again, making aggravated noises.

Entering and exiting her life as any other of the billions of persons on Aer–

“Hey! Wait a second! I’m sorry!” Marina called out. She had turned and called out.

Her heart nearly seized when the girl continued to walk away–

Only for a second. Because the girl stopped, and half-turned, a tentative pouting face.

Partway fixed, partway moving– partway in Marina’s life for a moment more–

“Huh? And why the fuck would I care if you’re sorry, lady?”

Why did Marina care about this girl? Why did she call out to her again?

Did she feel familiar?

“You look like a trendy girl– can you show me any decent shopping around here?”

No– Right– maybe she could help her pick a gift for Elena–?

Marina spoke almost before she even recognized that she had spoken.

“Hmph. Hmph! Well. You have some nerve, you know?”

The trendy girl tossed her hair, crossed her arms, and grinned, locking eyes with Marina.

“Trendy huh? At least you can recognize it when you inconvenience someone important. Maybe I’ll shower you with my wisdom. But you will have to make it worth my while.”

“Sure. I’ll buy you a treat. How’s that sound?”

Again the girl scowled. “I’m not a kid you know– ah– whatever.”

She put her hands in the pockets of her skirt and walked toward Marina, pausing near her.

Indicating perhaps for Marina to follow– she did, and the two of them walked together.

“My name’s Marina. I’m looking for a gift– for a girl your age.”

“Selene.” Said the girl and snickered at Marina without meeting her eyes, staring forward at the thoroughfare as she spoke. “How perverted– you must be like ten years older than me.”

“More like thirty.” Marina said, cracking a grin. “But it’s not like that. She’s– a friend.”

“You know when you say that you just sound suspicious? And now you’re after me?”

“You’re still here, so you must enjoy the thrill, you damn brat.”

“I got nothin’ better to do, you fucking hag.”

Selene– neither a common nor an uncommon name.

She really did seem way too familiar– Marina was far too amused with her.

It felt silly and impulsive of her–

And– maybe she really did think of Selene that way

However, she would make damn sure her interest remained harmless, for everyone’s sake.

Maybe she would come back with a better gift for Elena because of this.

“Well, I’m always happy to pal around with a cute girl for a bit.”

“Eww. You suck.”

Selene glared at Marina and stuck her tongue out at her. Marina laughed.

As they walked Marina ran through her mental ledger and she just couldn’t put the girl’s face to anything– nor those silly rabbit ears she wore. Marina could have sworn they were attached to her head, perhaps cybernetic implants of some kind. She feared asking about it would drive Selene away. Selene was colorful enough that Marina would have recognized her easily– but she was getting old after all. It made sense she was not as sharp as she was some twenty-five odd years ago in what she considered the prime of her life and career.

Still, the sense of familiarity bothered her. It was right on the edge of her memory–

Thinking she might be letting something slip bothered her even more–

However, even if this girl was someone she should know, there was nothing she could do about this feeling in that moment and on that day. She was a civilian out in public not a G.I.A. agent capable of anything serious. If this girl was actually some Volkisch super-spy Marina could not just blow her brains out in the middle of the shopping district. If she was a VIP Marina was not prepared to kidnap her off the street. So she resolved to put her hands in her pockets and go along with it. Certainly having someone else pick a gift could only be more productive than for Marina herself to wrack her brain in a loop about it.

“Hey, you’re so goddam tense. You’re like radiating tension. Just chill out already.”

Selene glanced aside at her. She looked and sounded more annoyed than anything.

“What do you mean I’m radiating tension? I’m fine. Everything is already ‘chill’.”

Marina tried to play it off. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Anyone ever told you that you’re actually extremely fucking easy to read?”

Too many people for me to be comfortable with. Marina simply grunted in response.

Selene stopped in front of a shop, turned to face Marina and gestured with both hands.

Voila! You ask what’s the trendy gift among girls my age? Look no further.”

Marina looked up at the sign.

It was a toy shop called Buddies Wonderworld, where they would craft custom dolls or sell specific branded ones. Right now, they were promoting, front and center, on both sides of their front panel glass and seemingly all over the store, a toy known as Funni Shark. Selene appeared to gesture silently toward Funni Shark. Marina was mesmerized by the toy– it was orange, with a dark ridged body, googley eyes and two large frontal appendages–

“Funni Shark?” Marina asked.

“Funni Shark.” Selene nodded sagely, with a little grin. Proud of herself?

“I’m not shopping for a twelve year old, you know.”

“You’re just too old to get it, but Funni Shark is all the rage among young girls.”

In no way was that toy a fucking shark! That was the extinct, ancient anomalocaris!

“I don’t believe you. You are just buying into some stupid hype marketing scam.”

“Look at me, Ms. Marina– that is Funni Shark, and he is fucking trending.

This was ridiculous but Marina could feel herself getting drawn in hopelessly–

“No, Selene, you look at me– it’s not a shark. That is not a toy shark.”

Selene crossed her arms and looked smug. “Of course you don’t understand it.”

Marina looked at the toy and then back at Selene and felt like she was going insane.

“It’s just not! I’m not missing anything that is just visibly not a toy shark!”

“That’s what’s Funni about it. That’s why it’s the Funni Shark.”

Marina wanted to buy one just to throw it at Selene’s smug face.

“You can pass it up at your own peril.” Selene said. She shrugged, lifting her palms. “But you won’t find many gifts more universally beloved than Funni Shark. It’s been in magazine ads you know– even Mia Weingarten has been seen with a Funni Shark. It would fly off the shelves and be gone forever if they couldn’t just synthestitch more of them.”

Almost certainly Selene was just fucking with her and wanted her to look stupid.

It definitely seemed to fit with her rotten personality.

Nevertheless, Marina walked past the self-satisfied Selene and picked up a Funni Shark.

Brought it to the front, got it scanned, paid for it and took it away.

Stuffing it in a bag and out of sight.

When she walked back out, Selene was still there waiting.

Marina grunted. “You’ll get your treat, but I want to buy a backup gift.”

“Fine~! I can do this all day~!”

Selene seemed far too amused at Marina’s irritation.

Through the lines of shops, the pair set off again.

Selene led Marina up to the highest platform of the lower shopping district, with the roof above them being part of the floor of the second tier. They were so high up that they were slightly above the attractions suspended in the glass sealing off the central atrium and could see the breadth of the shopping district beneath them. From above, Marina felt there were less people here than in similar locations in Kreuzung. Within the crowd she had felt that there were a lot of shoppers, but with the benefit of different perspective the place felt slightly undercrowded for what it was. There were so many shops too.

“I’m curious– what brings you to Aachen? It doesn’t strike me as a trendy place overall.”

For trend Marina thought of Stralsund, the “island of pleasures” in eastern Eisental.

Or even Kreuzung itself, the nerve center of the Eisental region.

“None of your business.” Selene replied. “I’ve got a job here, just like you do, probably.”

“Would it impress you if I said I was actually a merc?” Marina said, grinning.

She likely sounded weirder for having thought it was edgy than for admitting it at all.

“Nope! Mercs are a dime a dozen in this war-torn hellhole we call the Imbrium.”

Selene also grinned, looking far too happy with how easily she dismissed Marina.

She wasn’t wrong, however– for as much as the ordinary person might never really run into one or think about them, the Imbrium had long been the home of ideological forces thanks to the tug-of-war between various factions. The gradual weakening of the nobility and gradual rise of the innoble rich left enormous gaps between for new actors and for deniable irregular forces. So even aside from the Katarran mercenaries, militias and agitators were not uncommon sights. In contrast, Marina’s homeland was far less dynamic than the chaos that beset the Imbrium. Alayze promoted itself as the sole legitimate democracy on Aer, and this legacy was so widely internalized that even if there was an open political tussle, the winner would always align with the corporations and with democratic governance. They would ultimately uphold the Alayzean way of life– it was in their best personal interest because it was just such a convenient continuity to form a part of.

There wasn’t the kind of horrific runaway broiler of ideologies the Imbrium possessed.

Or so Marina thought– she had not been in Alayze for twenty years.

And even as a G.I.A. agent there had always been things she wasn’t privy to–

How was the Republic of Alayze carrying on now anyway? How as the Mare Cogitum?

Thinking about what passed for normal in the Imbrium brought her painful memories.

It was a dehumanizing evil country– but she had spent so much of her life for its sake.

She couldn’t help but think about it every so often.

If they kept sending failed expeditions into the Imbrium throughout her absence, while never working on the standard of living, and also giving the corporations too many advantages to exploit and too many incentives to manipulate the government for ever increasing war profit– perhaps by now the Republic could be facing its own internal crisis that might actually change the makeup of power there. But she doubted it– Alayze was far too entrenched in the end of its own history, in Marina’s eyes, for anything to ever change.

In her mind, the Imbrium was a maelstrom that would rampage without end, but Alayze was a stoic monument. It had been etched into the stone of its constitution and it could never be changed, because nobody would ever allow it to change significantly.

The Republic of Alayze was a petrified country; stone upon which nothing could grow.

And Imbria was dead; but its corpse was filled with lively maggots ready to sprout wings.

“You went silent on me. Are you that pouty that I am not opening up to you?”

“No, I frankly couldn’t care less– I just enjoy looking at you. You can be quiet if you want.”

Marina responded quickly, an instinctual playbook– Selene immediately set to fuming.

Regardless, she never left Marina’s side. Was she fascinated, perhaps?

Or did she recognize her from somewhere– as Marina had tried but failed to do?

Or– perhaps she was just as bored and aimless as she claimed to be.

Maybe it’s not all conspiracies, Marina McKennedy.

However– in the back of her mind she knew she was missing something–

After all– that shade of purple reminded her so strongly of–


No– it couldn’t be.

And she was not in a position to beg any answers.

Definitely not for such a dear and desperate subject.

“We are here.” Selene said.

Tucked in a corner of the highest level of the first tier shopping district–

“–It’s just a Raylight Beauty outlet. It’s so shameless of them to have two here.”

“It’s a Raylight Bath & Body, dumbass. Totally different product lines.”

Selene looked at Marina like she was the stupidest individual in the world.

Marina did not appreciate being patronized so much by a brat– but she put up with it.

If this girl was related in any way to Asan, she has none of that woman’s cool demeanor.

She reminded Marina of her own difficult self than anything–

“Come on, quit standing there, I have just the thing, your girlie will love it.”

The interior of the Raylight Beauty outlet was massive, overwhelming and mesmeric. In the center of the space there were several slowly rotating pillars made up of cube-shaped product display units that were made of touch-panel steel and glass. They beckoned young women to try a sample, at which point the pillar would stop moving and dispense a bit of whatever was requested, be it a bit of soap to be touched and smelled, or a dab of moisturizer to apply, or a bit of towel fabric to touch and feel. Every wall except for the glass façade bore rows of product shelves that were themselves sealed off in reflective glass that showed the product inside, but each cell could also turn the wall into an enormous screen periodically displaying brand content. Supporting screens affixed to the ceiling also played pop music videos and Raylight commercials, some of which even featured Gloria.

Watching Gloria Innocence Luxembourg wink at her from a dozen monitors was bizarre.

Considering that same pink fairy of a woman was plotting with the commies as they spoke.

“Hmm? Do they not have it anymore? Oh, no, here it is!”

Marina followed Selene around the store as she flitted from shelf to shelf.

Finally stopped in front of a display with a purple and gold bottle of a fancy moisturizer.

“Any girl, no matter who she is, can never have enough moisturizer.” Selene said. “But this is not just any moisturizer. It has natural biotin sourced from nuts, and is made without harsh chemicals so it can be applied to any type of skin no matter how sensitive! This one also has Raylight’s patented scentillation technology– see, the aroma here is ‘jubilant afternoon tea’ and it literally smells like that. It’s the best moisturizer ever made. She’ll love it.”

Selene had said more about this moisturizer than about any other topic they had broached.

Marina squinted at the label to make sure she was not just reading off it.

“Well– I can’t disagree with any of that.” She said. She took a bottle from the shelf.

A stuffed animal, a bottle of moisturizer– Marina wondered if Elena would feel patronized.

She had run around with Selene for that long for such simple items.

Nevertheless– she did not feel particularly put off by the journey she had taken.

It had been fun.

Marina paid for the bottle and as before, Selene stuck around until they left the store.

Looking at Marina expectantly with a smug little smile.

“Alright, you’ve earned it. Whatever you want to eat, and it’s my treat.” Marina said.

“I was curious whether you would uphold your end.” Selene said, punctuated with a giggle.

Skipping along cheerfully, Selene led Marina back down to the middle platform.

They stopped in front of a venue with a large plastic sign above the door, red and green, shaped like a dozen tomatoes all attached to the same bright green vine. In white letters, it read La Bella Pomodora. It was a kitschy Elven pizza shop, its false wood interior decorated with fake reeds and vines as if to suggest the space was overrun with crawling foliage. All of the employees were dressed in white blouses with green bodices and red skirts, and dyed their hairs bright colors, green and blue and even a familiar shade of indigo. Some of the girls wore decorative ear clips as if to make themselves appear more Elven. Like Elves in general, Marina got the impression pizza was an exotic curiosity in the Imbrium.

A hostess seated the pair in a small sealed booth table with a touch interface for ordering.

Moments later she returned with a bread basket, olive oil and water for them.

When the door shut on their booth, traditional Elven strings began to play from overhead.

On the walls, a fake scrolling countryside played, all rolling hills and olive trees.

“I’ll leave it up to you.” Marina said, pointing at the digital menus displayed on the table.

Across the table, Selene’s eyes were practically popping out of her face as she surveyed the offerings. She scrolled rapidly through the menu, taking in every single pie, every single topping. Of course, there was the traditional Marzana pie, rustic, with cheese, tomato and basil. But for the Imbrian palette, there was a constellation of non-traditional offerings.

“Currywurst pizza? This looks disgusting.” Marina said.

“What, are you an Elven Heritage Association certifier now?” Selene said.

“Better. I had an Elven ex.” Marina said. “She would be livid.”

Probably not, actually– but it was funnier to pretend Leda cared about such things.

“Well she’s not ordering and I am. I don’t like currywurst anyway.”

Eventually, despite rifling through all of the condiments, combo meals, special offers and exclusive limited time dishes only available while supplies last– Selene finally decided to have a very classic and traditional Marzana pie. Marina ordered the same. Two small roughly thirty centimeter pizzas arrived at their table soon after. Fresh red sauce, melted mozzarella, big lively leaves of basil and slightly charred edges on the crust. It was tantalizingly fragrant and still radiated warmth. They were given a cutter to slice the pie to their liking, and Selene quickly cut herself a big slice, took a big bite, and shut her eyes with a sudden pleasure.

Beaming with cheeks full of pizza, a string of cheese pulled on her lips.

Her antennae twisted into little knots– Marina couldn’t help but find it cute.

She took a bite of her own pie. It was delicious– just the right balance of sweet and tangy with a deep umami, a crispy crust, perfectly melted cheese and bright herbal flavor from the basil. There was a complex, nutty earthiness to the bread, and the sauce still had a bit of texture from the fresh tomato. Marina wished the elves were as widespread around the Imbrium as the Shimii and their cuisine– she could eat this stuff every day.

It reminded her of the fast food back in the Cogitum, but of far higher quality.

“Are you having fun?” Marina asked.

Selene seemed shaken out of her reverie by the reintroduction of Marina’s presence.

She sighed openly.

“I’m glad I ran into you. I was bored. Are you happy now?”

Marina smiled.

Selene averted her gaze and continued to enjoy her pizza.

“You know– I don’t think it’s appropriate for a girl like you to be a mercenary.”

“And what’ll you do about it? Try to save me? I don’t need anyone’s rescuing.”

“Fair enough. I can’t even save myself. But you should settle down while you can.”

Selene put down her pizza for a moment and looked at Marina with a serious face.

“Hey, thanks for letting me play girlie with you for an afternoon– but you don’t know me.”

“I don’t. I’m sorry. I just– I see a bit of myself in you for some reason.” Marina said.

Maybe she was wrong– but she thought she understood what Selene truly got out of this.

Behind all of that attitude and prickliness was a girl who wished this was her actual life.

Running around shopping and carousing and being a normal girl, being a dumb kid.

Marina thought that she had helped provide her a little bit of fantasy that day.

If Selene was a mercenary, and with that strange gear on her head, she might well be–

Then today was a fantasy for a girl who normally lived in a ship that rarely ceased moving.

Maybe battlefield to battlefield; maybe murder to murder; intrigue to intrigue.

Wishing this every-day fantasy could replace her duty, what she had made for herself.

Just like when Marina wore sexy bras in her room and smoked a bunch of cigarettes and wished she was anything but an agent of the Alayzean G.I.A. Entrapping people, surveilling them, fabricating evidence, and of course, brutalizing and killing those who got caught in her webs. On some of those days she had wished she was just a girl going shopping without a care in the world, trying on pretty clothes and going on restaurant dates. Maybe even being some rich guy’s kept girl and being taken care of and bought jewelry and furs.

Having the room to live the life that the world had denied her.

Or– maybe it was all just presumptions from someone with too many regrets.

“Eat up. I’m sorry to be a bummer.” Marina said.

“It’s ok.” Selene said. She resumed eating her pizza, perking up a little bit along the way.

Marina picked up the tab, and when they left the restaurant, they faced each other.

Both of them smiled; the dark clouds left behind along with their completed oaths.

“You don’t have to worry about me, lady. I’m tougher than I look.” Selene said.

“I know. A girl who swears as much as you do does it with confidence.” Marina said.

“Fuckin’ right. Well– good luck with your own shit, you hag.” Selene grinned.

“Good luck. I hope we never see each other out in the Ocean, you damn brat.”

“Mm-hmm. Thanks for the free pizza.”

Selene turned and departed on her own way, waving her hand and laughing a bit to herself.

Marina watched her disappear into the distance, before turning and leaving herself.

Just another moment with a stranger on God’s blue Aer.

Nothing more– of course.

Once Marina returned to Stockheim, she approached Elena with her gifts and a smile.

“Oh! Marina! You didn’t need to–! But I really appreciate it– Funni Shark?” Elena said.

She pulled out the anomalocaris and squished it, giggling at its silly name and appearance.

“It’s really popular among young girls these days.” Marina said, prompting another laugh.

Elena’s gentle giggling– Marina silently thanked Selene that she got to see this again.

Marina reached out and ruffled Elena’s hair, feeling just a bit more at peace.

“Murati– when I asked if we could go out for a bit– I didn’t mean–”

“Hmm? Is something wrong? I’m sorry. I tried to pick a restaurant everyone would like.”

“Murati– it’s not that– ugh– why are you always so–”

“Why are you mumbling over there? You can speak up, Shali-Shali~–”

“Maharapratham– please stop calling me–”

“Sonya is a little bit shy! But don’t worry, she’ll bounce right back around!”

Shalikova sank against the table in complete defeat.

Maryam reached across and squeezed her hand gently in support.

At her side, Murati Nakara– across the restaurant table from her, that demon Karuniya Maharapratham, and her own purple, marshmallowy angel, Maryam Karahailos.

How had it all come to this? How had this horrific situation been inflicted on her? She traced her mistake back to her naïve idea of asking Murati out for a drink or even just a walk around– to talk to her and try to bury her one-sided hatchet. It was ridiculous, she thought, to disdain Murati and to be annoyed and even anxious to talk to her.

Just because Murati could be a little too nice, a bit smothering.

Nevertheless, she had been quite anxious going up and asking her– and then–

“Oh! Shalikova– I was going to a restaurant tonight with my wife.” Murati replied.

Salvation. Shalikova smiled. “Oh, sure, then we don’t need to do anything–”

“Actually– I can definitely pay for you too– and you could bring a friend!”

Murati smiled and became suddenly excited.

Shalikova choked on her words immediately.

“Karu would be really excited about a double date– what do you say?”

“Um.” Shalikova froze up, started to look around, and ultimately–

She agreed?!

Now they were seated at a restaurant together, on the first tier commercial district of Aachen’s core station. How Murati had gotten the money for this reservation when their budgets had been restricted was anybody’s guess– she seemed buddy-buddy with the Premier so maybe she had access to more funds? It was not a particularly ritzy place, but it was not some random currywurst joint either. It was a hip foodie spot called Green is the Garden that had won awards. Murati must have picked it for the bigger vegetarian selection. Every enclosed dining unit had a freestanding table and chairs inside, rather than just being a booth with sliding doors. On the walls, there were projections of bright blue water and flowing green meadows and schools of fish. Colorful vibes, almost garishly so.

Shalikova regretted it immediately– but Maryam had been so excited to go.

And Murati looked pretty happy too. She was usually so stoic and impassive.

So perhaps she would put up with it–

“Shalikova, I have to say, I never took you as someone to dress so boldly.” Karuniya said.

Grinning like a fox– an extroverted vixen from the fires of hell itself!

“This was a gift.” Shalikova said, as if that explained everything.

Once again she was dressed in her red and gold “ACE” tracksuit with her gaudy sunglasses.

Maryam wore her nice blue dress with the ruffled skirt and the matching floppy beret. Her attire became all the lovelier by the fact that unlike in Kreuzung, she could be her true purple self in Aachen. Beside her, Karuniya dressed casually– she had on a long floral skirt and a tight, halterneck green top, bearing her shoulders and with a triangle cutout showing off some cleavage. Probably the outfit she finagled out of the Captain when they were planning disguises for the officers. Murati, meanwhile, had on a long-sleeved button-down white shirt partially unbuttoned, with black slacks. Shalikova was most taken aback by that because she always imagined Murati being too stuck up even to show off a bit of collarbone.

She had never struck Shalikova as the type to deliberately unbutton her shirt.

And she wore a black bra with all of that? Did her evil wife put her up to that?

“Maryam, you look gorgeous!” Karuniya said, still doling out the compliments. “We’ve rarely had occasion to talk– I’m so happy we got to set this up! Shali-Shali, you are so lucky to have such a cute girlfriend, you know? You better shower her in affections day and night!”

“Hey–!” Shalikova tried to interject–

Turning over her mental ledger of who knew about them–

“Sonya is absolutely wonderful to me! She is so lovey dovey!” Maryam said. Her guileless smile had hardly ever been brighter, she was positively glowing from all the attention. Shalikova immediately gave up on trying to stop this meeting of the minds. “You look so nice yourself, Ms. Maharapratham! I always thought you seemed really fashionable! And everyone always talks about how delicious and plump your mushrooms are!”

Karuniya narrowed her eyes and mumbled for a moment. “Again with the mushrooms–!”

“What was that, Ms. Maharapratham? I didn’t quite hear–!” Maryam said.

“Never mind!” Karuniya said. “Don’t call me Ms. Maharapratham! I’m Karuniya!”

She wrapped an arm around Maryam’s shoulder and pulled her in to pat her head.

Maryam laughed racuously and played along, slapping Karuniya’s back with her tentacles.

Making lots of cuttle noises and little wah cries. At least she was happy.

Shalikova glanced at her side, feeling completely out of her depth.

All throughout her wife’s rampages, Murati had been diligently reading the menu.

“Does everyone know what they want to order?” She asked, not even looking up from it.

“Murati,” Karuniya said, grinning, “C’mon! Loosen up a little! We’re with friends!”

“I’m pretty loose?” Murati said. She was wearing her glasses and idly adjusted them.

Shalikova stared at her, wondering how she could be so simultaneously a scatterbrain, and look kind of cool when she was on mission– and look kinda attractive too? It felt like she couldn’t be the same person for all three. Or even the person Shalikova thought she knew to begin with. If that assumption was wrong, what else was Shalikova just not seeing?

What had she unfairly assumed?

Suddenly she felt rather foolish and averted her gaze from everyone.

She looked down at the menu.


Murati spoke her name. Shalikova raised her head suddenly.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had it, but Saag is a North Bosporan spinach dish. It’s delicious.”

Shalikova stared at her for a moment and tried to smile.

“Thanks for the recommendation.” She said, trying to be nice.

Murati smiled and returned to perusing the menu.

There was a lot of stuff on the menu, but it seemed to focus on the more “exotic” cuisines of the Empire– there was a lot of Shimii, Bosporan and Campos foods with some Eloim and Juzni dishes here and there. Certainly it was not a place where one could get a currywurst or black bread like the typical Imbrian eatery. Though they sold it as a “green” menu full of “healthy” food and did not try to exoticise it, the influences were very clear. Shalikova took Murati’s suggestion and ordered the spinach and cheese concoction with flatbread. Maryam ordered rice and beef stuffed cabbage rolls in spicy sauce, seemingly without much deliberation. Karuniya ordered an extragavant layered dish of eggplant, mushroom and potato, topped with both a tomato sauce and a bechamel along with herbs and a sprinkling of cheese, called a Musaka. Murati ordered a dish of vegetable koftas topped with a lentil-thickened tomato and saffron sauce. Everything arrived promptly, hot, and well-plated.

Possibly the fanciest plate of food Shalikova ever had in her life, and it was just a bowl of spinach and cheese with a slices of bread alongside. An herbal foam topping, an oil drizzle on the plate– it was well composed. When she dipped her bread in the creamy green elixir and brought it to her lips she could instantly taste the quality. Earthy, vegetal, deeply savory, with pops of spice adding complexity– it was not Minardo’s cooking, but it was close.

“Wow Karu, that looks a little intense.” Murati said, looking across the table at the Musaka.

Karuniya, meanwhile, rubbed her hands together with a childish grin on her face.

“Everything is courtesy of Murati tonight, so everyone should indulge, right?” She said.

“Well– it’s actually courtesy of Euphemia, but this credichip has a good bit of money.”

“Then I toast to Euphemia!” Karuniya said, raising a large forkfull of saucy eggplant.

Maryam grabbed a forkful of cabbage, rice and meat and raised it as well, laughing.

At least she looked like she was having a good time. That made worth the trouble.

Both of them ate. Shalikova could have almost sworn Maryam was mimicking Karuniya.

“Shalikova,” a little sing-song voice, her name rolling off a tongue–

Oh no– Karuniya was talking to her again

“Hmm?” Shalikova raised a spoonful of saag to her mouth.

“What do you think about Murati? Is she your beloved senior?” Karuniya said.

Murati initially looked at Karuniya sternly but then seemed to become interested.

Shalikova shrank a bit in her seat. “Uh, yeah. I think Murati is like– nice.”

“Oh, Sonya, are you happy with Ms. Nakara now? That’s so great!” Maryam said.


“She used to be scared of Ms. Nakara! But I knew she would turn around!”

Maryam clapped her hands together cheerfully.

Shalikova was reduced to whispering. “Maryam…”

Mortified, she glanced at her side to see what kind of expression Murati made–

And saw the same mildly impassive face Murati seemed to make at everything.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to scare you.” Murati said.

“I’m not scared of you! Maryam just misunderstood.” Shalikova grumbled.

“Oh! I’m sorry Sonya!” Maryam said.

“It’s not your fault– I’m sorry, this is too awkward.” Shalikova sighed.

Karuniya took a bite of her dish and put on a face like she was innocent of everything.

Maryam quickly made a similar face and bit into her cabbage rolls.

“It’s okay to be honest with me and it’s also okay to have criticisms of me.” Murati said. “I’m still new to leadership– I’m not the best with people, and I know that. I’ve focused on transmitting orders and getting everyone back home safely– but I still have a lot to learn about managing people outside of a crisis situation. I will try to do better.”

As much as she did not like how the situation was set up– it was now or never–

If it was okay to be honest then–

“Murati, the thing is– what bothers me is not anything like that– it is how smothering you can be when you try to be nice.” Shalikova said. Once she finally got those words out the rest seemed to come much more quickly and much more naturally. “I’m not a little kid, I don’t need looking after, I don’t need coddling– I don’t want any of those things. I feel like– you don’t actually trust that I’ve had the same training as you and that I can handle myself. You have too much sympathy. So I don’t want to go to you to be patronized!”

“Oh dear.” Karuniya whispered.

“Sonya.” Maryam whispered with her, eyes full of soft sympathies.

“I’ll take that feedback into consideration. Thank you for being honest.” Murati said.

Shalikova looked across the table at Maryam and Karuniya–

And looked at Murati, perplexed, as if to say, that’s it?

“Um. Yeah.” Shalikova said awkwardly. Of course this was the response!

Murati seemed unbothered by everything.

“You’re right, I did tread a bit softly around you. My surrogate father was a Navy admiral who was always a bit of a yeller– I didn’t want to become like that. I wanted to be a leader who is kind and understanding, like the captain is. But you’re right, the captain is much more mature. I think I got a bit desperate for you to like me. I’m truly sorry.”

She lowered her voice, so that no one might hear the more sensitive part.

Turning partially while seated and looking at Shalikova in the eyes.

Laying a hand on her shoulder and patting it softly. With a confident smile on her face.

“Shalikova, I know you are an absolute genius in the water. Your piloting is generational.”

Such a genuine compliment out of nowhere– and she really meant it!

She meant every word! That little smile on her face– God damn it!

It was so frustrating! Shalikova averted her gaze, her face turning a bit hot.

“Thanks, Murati.” She said. She made herself say it. It took a little effort.

Damn it– she could not help herself but to smile a bit. Murati was such an idiot.

“Aww, that’s so sweet. See, Shalikova? Murati can be a good senior when she wants to.”

Karuniya made a little gesture with her hands that Shalikova barely registered.

Was she doing one of Murati’s cryptic little gesticulations?

“It’s so blue­tiful– the reeflationship between two cuttlemrades–”

“Maryam you’re not even trying.” Shalikova sighed. Maryam giggled.

Karuniya looked at the two of them with far too much joy.

“Maryam, you’re also lucky to have landed such a handsome and dynamic young lady!”

“Oh I know, Karuniya! I’m over the moon with her! Sonya is my whole world!”

Maryam beamed her most marshmallowy beam. Karuniya was immediately taken by her.

“That’s so cute! Ah, young love!” Karuniya suddenly grabbed Maryam again, hugging her.

“We’re not that much older than them.” Murati mumbled to herself, looking a bit sullen.

“Don’t even bother.” Shalikova said in solidarity. “Just let them have their fun.”

Both Murati and Shalikova smiled a bit to themselves then– just a bit more comfortable.

Adelheid had done her best to disguise her troubles.

She went about her business efficiently and she traveled down the halls and sat on the bridge of the Antenora with Norn without saying a word of what was bothering her, nor letting up on her daily routine of barbs and demands. However as the days passed she could not help but become depressed with the cruel vagaries of fate.

She began wearing her thoughts on her face without knowing.

Even on the bridge, where she should have been the most careful with herself.

“You look contemplative– which is rare. What’s on your mind?” Norn asked.

Even her condescension did not taste as sweet. Adelheid put her head down.

“Norn–” Adelheid hesitated. Thinking of what to say. “I’m– If you had a friend that–”

“I take it this is about Mia Weingarten’s engagement?”


Adelheid could never hide anything from her. Not even in her most disguised moods.

She had hoped Norn would give her that reckless grin she put on prior to a transgression.

Instead, her expression was chillingly neutral.

“I’ve been thinking about that too. I thought that it might end up troubling you.”

“I’ve been trying to keep it out of my mind. I’m sorry.”

Norn nodded. Her expression softened a bit– as uncharacteristic as Adelheid’s own mood.

“Unfortunately, Mia’s case is nothing like your own. You can’t just make a decision for her. As much as we enjoy the narrative that I took you without consent and ruined you for marriage, both of us know that I did not just abscond with you on a whim. You approached me; you made the choice. You turned your back on your family and you and I maneuvered to escape from their grasp. I am no longer so blessed with resources as I was before, Adelheid. Herta Kleyn might look like a pushover because of her politics and attitude, but where it concerns her family matters she will be much more self-interested. She is covertly collecting power and influence wherever she can get it now, and Mia Weingarten now represents her links to the communications conglomerates and their money. And judging by presence of Mycenae at her court– she’s fishing for some security connections too.”

Everything Norn said made complete sense. Adelheid still felt awful about it.

She had not even known Mia that deeply or kept in touch that intimately–

However, she knew what it was like to be in her position. Helpless to be used by others.

She wished dearly that her friend could escape that defiling situation– but Norn was right.

It was impossible to help her until she herself accepted the consequences.

Until she herself chose to make enemies of everyone around her.

“I don’t know Mia’s circumstances like you do, but I take it if you could do something, you would have done it. So you yourself must know the obstacles barring her way.” Norn said. “For now, I think she, and your conscience, would appreciate it if you continued to be there for her. Attend her tea parties, show up to that wedding and pledge your friendship without trying to change her perceptions. Maybe when she wants to escape, she will think to count on you as an ally. And maybe you will be in a better position when that happens.”

Adelheid nodded her head.

In a way, she felt particularly troubled because Mia’s weakness reminded her of herself.

She relied on Norn and was helpless without her.

Dependent even–

Before her thoughts could spiral too far, she felt a hand grip her shoulder just a bit too hard.

Looking up from her feet she saw Norn’s grinning face.

“One more thing. As much as we both like to pretend you’re an idiot bimbo– I know you’re actually quite sharp and the best second-in-command I could have. We don’t have the luxury of worrying overmuch about the affairs of others. Come back to me, Adelheid.”

Adelheid raised her own soft hand over Norn’s coarse grip, caressing it.

“Yes, milord.” She said, smiling.


She raised her hand from Adelheid’s shoulder and slapped her cheek softly three times.

Adelheid grimaced for Norn, but internally, she was smiling.

Just a bit.

After the pair had a moment of silence to reassess the day, they relocated to a meeting room where Yuri Anneccy Samoylovych-Darkestdays awaited them. She was dressed in a pilot’s bodysuit. All of the furniture in the meeting room had been slotted into the walls and into the floor. Yuri occupied the only remaining chair. Adelheid shut the door behind them and locked it. Norn approached Yuri and stood before her, while Yuri remained seated.

“Remember, I am not a fairy– you might have a ‘bumpy ride’ so to speak.” Norn said.

Yuri exposed her usual confidence in her smile. She was clearly ready.

“Do you have any advice for what I might experience?” She asked.

Norn raised a hand to her forehead, brushing up Yuri’s bangs. Yuri’s ears folded a bit.

“If you see my memories, forget everything you saw, for your own good. If you see your own memories, don’t try to interfere with them. Either way, just let your emotions go where they will go. Don’t try to fight it. You won’t be able to resist for long and will only hurt yourself. Open yourself, and let your self express what it will. I’ll be here to watch over you.”

“Of course. I have nothing but trust and respect for you, milord.”

It was not flattery– she really meant it. For Norn only, she meant every word.

Norn nodded. “Close your eyes. It makes it easier. You’ll feel a jolt and a sensation like you are falling. Remember, whatever happens– don’t fight your emotions. You will want to resist in some way, you will want to exert control, but your mind will drift in certain directions. Find opportunities to take control, to change the direction, but don’t fight it at every turn.”

“Yes.” Yuri said simply. A consummate soldier.

In her own mind, Adelheid lit her candle, and her psionics unveiled the colors in the room.

From Norn’s hand, her own color entered Yuri’s aura, and turned it suddenly bright white. Yuri kept her eyes shut, and her body shuddered. Her eyes moved rapidly behind the lids. Keeping her hand on Yuri’s forehead, Norn used her other hand to affix a blindfold over her face. She then stepped back. Adelheid saw her own eyes flash red briefly.

Examining her psionic handiwork just as Adelheid had been.

“Do you remember when you were baptized?” Norn asked.

“A bit.” Adelheid said.

What she remembered most vividly was her first sight of the maelstrom of colors that she now knew to be auras and aether– when she first laid eyes on it, she felt like a million gazes were judging and oppressing her. She heard their whispers and recoiled from them. She wanted them to shut up, and to be gone, so they disappeared. In their place, there was a vast concrete field, and everything was dyed red. Sparse red trees straddling a road; dim red skies like a dismal but bloody night; and the moon was an enormous red eye that watched her hungrily. However, it was a dream that was over before she could see any more.

Her psionics were awakened– but compared to Norn she was quite weak.

She assumed that Yuri would have far more talent than she did as well.

“Now you are in a position to help me.” Norn smiled. “With your assistance I can make damn certain nothing happens to Yuri. It was a little touch and go with you, I recall.”

“I’m here to serve as usual.” Adelheid said. “But I have no idea how I can assist you.”

“With you there, no matter what, I will come back from whatever I’ve unleashed here.”

Adelheid clutched her portable clipboard to her chest. She was touched.

Norn did not even look at her while saying such things– she did not need to.

However, the pair had nothing to worry about with Yuri. Nothing surprising transpired.

After about an hour, Yuri came to again without interference.

“What did you see?” Norn asked, grinning, as she removed the blindfold.

“Hmm. There was an annoying eye staring down from a red sky. I killed it.” Yuri said.

Another turning of the cycles brought Aachen from a calm night to a pivotal day.

Once more the first tier filled with retail workers, the shoppers they served, and the people grabbing a crepe or a pretzel on their way to the offices in the second tier. In the second tier, people made note of the uniformed guards filing in from throughout the station– the Uhlan had been called to their HQ for a comprehensive audit, but assured the public that automated systems, including surveillance and deterrence, were actively guarding the commercial areas and any crimes would be followed up on even in the absence of a guard. Despite this ominous portent, nobody rushed to loot the stores that morning except in the imaginary of the public frequenting the higher-end third tier of the core station. Their trepidation did not deter them from leaving their luxury apartments for another day of pampering and pleasure in the ritziest location Aachen had to offer.

And higher up, in the fourth tier, the engine of the government–

Well– that was not the concern just yet.

At Stockheim, an innocuous cargo ship arrived, ferrying sand from the Ayre Reach that was used for glass-making– the particular sand was part of the brand product. Little did the ship know that it had brought with it a passenger. From a blind spot on the underside, a small vessel detached, large enough for only a specific occupant and their life support, an agarthic-sodium-ion battery, and propulsion. This long teardrop of metal and air made its own way into Stockheim under its own power and made its way to a specific berth.

Slotting under the Cruiser Antenora, and promptly collected by the crew.

Inside the hangar, the vessel opened to reveal a waifish woman in a dandy purple sportcoat, ruffled shirt and a pair of tight shorts that met her stockings just so. Perfectly preserved within the vessel without a scratch. She had wavy blue hair that framed her face, and a kepi hat– she opened one eye then winked at Norn von Fueller in the hangar. Blinking the long strip of LEDs on the neon-blue, semi-circular antennae that stood in for her ears.

“Amur. You made good time.” Norn said.

“Absolutely! This is the kind of service you can expect from the goddess of cyberspace!”

Amur stepped out from the drone and extended her hand.

Norn shook it without hesitation.

“There is something I wanted to discuss, milord. I’ve been working on my way here.”

“Is it urgent? I’m seeing Adelheid off. She has another tea party to attend.”

“If you won’t be long, we can talk after. It concerns the Uhlan supply ship that was attacked near Aachen– I am not sure I believe the communist groups were behind the sinking anymore. I have concerns about a fourth party– though nothing substantial.”

“Interesting. Yes, we’ll talk. Prepare a meeting room. You’re third in command now.”

Amur’s eyes spread wide, and her pale cheeks turned a bit red.

Seemingly touched by the degree of trust imparted on her.

Lifting her kepi hat, she dipped into a stage bow, and then went on her way.

Amur was perhaps the only person, at that time, whose imagination conceived of what might come to pass in the following hours. Not in the fullness of its details, but in the general texture of the moment. By the time Adelheid arrived at her tea party, and Norn had a conversation with Amur, it was already too late and the events too many for any one person, however talented, to steer the chaos any one way before its formal commencement.

Not even a certain gathering of very talented individuals–

As they had the past six days the United Front reconvened in secret in the third tier.

This time they had an extra guests along.

Daksha Kansal and her attendant Kremina Qote had decided to grace the meeting room with their presence. They sat at the head of the table, just off to the side of Moravskyi and Erika Kairos and their opposed chairs. Both of them had dressed formally, in blazers and pencil skirts, their hair up in buns, all business. It had been the first time the room had seen them.

“Look who finally turned up!” Moravskyi called out, laughing, a big smile on his face.

“Taras. It’s certainly interesting to meet after all these years.” Daksha said, smiling back.

“Interesting, huh? Well, I thought I’d be madder– but I’m not upset you’re here.”

“I’m glad some of us veterans are still around to straighten out our respective young folk.”

Moravskyi burst out laughing. Kremina averted her gaze from the people around.

Particularly from Ulyana, who was staring at her with an unfriendly energy.

“You’ve all done great work. I wanted to at least acknowledge that.” Daksha said, addressing the table as a whole in a little speech. “After what I had been through, I had very humble expectations of what was possible– but you have all come together and coordinated a far stronger threat to the Volkisch than I imagined. From what I have been privy to, you have the tools and resources you need– now you just need the coordination. That will bear out in battle. I don’t doubt there will be growing pains, but you can surpass them.”

She was speaking so dryly about the situation that it was almost strange to hear it.

However, she would not get to finish those remarks.

Whatever she had prepared– someone else had prepared even more.

“Excuse me, dear mentor.” Gloria interrupted. She looked at the smartwatch she wore and smiled, before addressing the table in her typically forced saccharine tone. “We will see the coordination begin to bear out momentarily. I want to address the table! As of now– I am undertaking an operation to take over this station! All of you are invited to join me in our first battle against the Volkisch, to establish our base area and begin our rebellion!”

For a moment everyone on the table was left completely speechless.

Everyone, save for Tamar Livnat, and the disinterested Zozia Chelik, and Ksenia Apfel–

And save Daksha Kansal, who had perhaps been expecting such a move–

Everyone turned at once to face Gloria with immediate panic in their faces.

They saw on Gloria’s face, that she was pallid, nearly in tears, and her hands were shaking.

Even before she set foot in the venue, she had already crossed her rubicon.

“Ah, sorry miss, my bad–”

A grinning old man bumped into a young woman in front of the elevator banks–

However, she reached out instantly and grabbed his wrist.

Shooting him a glare– scrutinizing him in an instant–

Only to let him go a moment later.

He hadn’t taken anything. She had been worried for nothing.

“I said I’m sorry!”

Ignoring him, she stepped quietly into the elevator, grumbling, staring at the ground.

Shutting the elevator door, striking a button on the panel and sliding in a card. On the panel, the elevator warned of additional regulations when visiting the government sector. It displayed a model of the Aachen core station and the destination at the very peak and kept the occupant up to date on the progress of the ride. However, the occupant was no longer staring at the panel’s LCD. She knew her own destination quite well already.

From a pocket of her hoodie, she withdrew a cigarette and a plasma-arc lighter.

Bringing up the light blue arc to the cigarette and setting it afire.

Taking in a long drag. Cigarettes were expensive, but they weren’t fake–

Unlike her–

“Is it unbecoming for a chick to smoke? Whatever.”

However– these were all appearances and pretensions, frustrating in their complexity.

As much as he liked the disguise both for its comfort and utility, Orlan Aries conceptualized of himself as “just a guy,” in the end. Less pressure on himself that way. It’s just that women were underestimated and overlooked by Imbrian society, so it was a good way for someone, especially a troublemaker like himself, to make themselves just a bit more scarce than before. That was how he rationalized it. For the mission that he had assigned himself, and which his current employer knew nothing about, he dressed in a long hoodie and black tights of a thick, covering fabric. He wore a padded bra, and a styled wig with blue and yellow hair, cut in a shoulder-length bob. He wore lipstick, blush and eyeshadow to look less “plain.” Anyone who saw would have thought “she” was some edgy punk girl acting out.

“From what gutter did you crawl out of?” He asked his reflection in the elevator walls.

Cracking a little grin with his dark metallic blue lipstick.

Orlan knew, better than most people, what an invisible person looked like.

What people were seen by the world, who fit the picture; and who slid off the gaze entirely.

It behooved him to know, and to not have illusions about it; but he also knew it personally.

That girl looking back at him could’ve been any dumb kid he had grown up with.

Until his very own debasing star shone on him– so bright that it burned–

Now he got to lick the boots of people like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

And to lie to them.

Not even for money– he wished anyone would pay him to betray Gloria.

Sadly any of those bridges burnt up with the Empire and the Inquisition.

No– today was actually personal and he was already kicking himself for that reason.

Thinking about it, the expression of the girl in his reflection looked quite fed up.

“Isaiah, you’re not gonna be grateful, but damn it, you should be.”

What a stupid reason to do anything–

“No use turning back– I already did all this makeup.”

When the doors opened, there was an enormous arched hall ahead of Orlan that led to the local legislative assembly and the grand courthouse. Everything was bright and white like it was made of marble but none of it was– it was wearing marble like Orlan wore a padded bra. Such was his self deprecating conception of himself and his cynical conception of his surroundings. But he was not here to get yelled at by the welfare office or to get an ID– he hung a left from the elevators and followed a much smaller and more discrete hallway toward the governor’s estate. He turned over the destination in his mind.

There was an elevator that led directly to the estate– and Orlan had a special key.

However, he preferred to take an alternative route.

To avoid having to “sign the guestbook”.

One notable fact about the architecture of the rich and famous in the After Descent era was that the fancy open air modules with freestanding structures all needed more vents and pipes to keep all that open space comfortable, climate controlled, and smelling fresh and aptly supplied with water, oxygen, and whatever else. Orlan stopped partway through the hallway that would have led him to the estate. There was nobody around– very few people had any business going to the estate, but nevertheless there was a path to it, just like there was an elevator to it. Orlan had studied the route and knew that there were cameras at the far end of the path but not in the middle. So he stopped there, put his back to the wall and pretended to be a bit bushed for a moment, back to the wall, eyes down.

Hands behind his back.

Beneath his feet the floor panels were still shiny enough to see himself.

The girl in the reflection smiled back at him, just as he usually smiled at others.

Then her eyes glinted red.


Behind his back, his fingers lengthened, and thinned, sliding between seams in the panels.

Feeling for every vulnerability, every exposed screw, every weak glue join–

Flesh spreading beneath the panel like crawling vines.

Beneath a concrete path, a root system could take hold from which a flower could bloom.

Orlan had seen old pavement like that in the grand plazas in Konstantinople.

It gave him the idea, and he became practiced in slipping into places this way.

Unworthy of notice, a weed, a crawling vine– fierce and tenacious as a pavement flower.

Once his flesh had infested the underside of the plate, he could easily dislodge it.

And quickly slip under it, into the ventilation duct beneath, lying on his back.

Replacing the panel above him as if nothing had happened.

Now he laid in the dark, beneath the steel, where nothing ought to be. Everything left as if untouched and undisturbed. Taking a drag of his cigarette, the tiniest glimmer of light. Cramped as it was, he had no fear of it and no discomfort. Generally, discomfort was something he feigned for others or for a mission– when it came to himself, he didn’t really care about almost anything enough to be too uncomfortable about it. So he could lay with little room for his arms, in a vent he could only shimy through, smoking quietly.

After all, his life was forfeit– whether now or in the future he would certainly die violently.

He thought that the reflection of the girl in this darkness wouldn’t have had any expression.

“Ugh, damn it, I’m gonna have to put it out. I shouldn’t have lit one up.”

Unfortunately one of the few things he truly hated was the taste of re-lit cigarettes.

Orlan sighed and put out his cigarette with unfeeling fingers.

Dropping the remains into the pocket of the hoodie and producing his plasma-arc lighter.

Flicking it on to serve as a source of equally dim illumination.

Moving primarily with his shoulders and feet, supported by his hips and calves, he pushed himself through the tight shaft, counting the plate joins that he could see with the with his plasma lighter. He began to count from one, starting at the plate he took off and slid down from. Without breaking concentration, he crossed ninety-two plate joins and felt on his side. He moved his plasma lighter closer to the wall. There was a grating there.

He could feel a bit of breeze.

There was a brief flash of red, lightless, but Orlan could see it in his mind.

Because it had come from him–

He put down his lighter between his breasts and felt with his hand on the wall.

Fingertips became the precise correct screwdriver head needed to remove the grating.

Tedious work, but he turned each screw in turn. They stuck to his fingers once removed.

He collected them and forced the grating off. He slid it over his head and out of the way.

Carefully, he squeezed through the new vent. Based on his calculations, he just made it.

Nobody had noticed it, but Orlan had lost weight– or more accurately, he had shed weight.

Nobody noticed it– because it had happened basically overnight, much like this plan.

Disguising himself as a girl was not only practical, but the smaller frame came in handy.

Inside the new and slightly smaller vent shaft, Orlan once again counted the plate joins.

“Now– my lucky number is sixty-four.” He mumbled to himself as he slid along.

Having time to think, he hoped that he was not too late.

Even as he slid through that tunnel– there was a hurtling train that he had to outrun.


He ripped the plate directly above himself and dust fell into the shaft.

When Orlan peeked his head out, he was in the garden of the governor’s estate.

There were fences around the property. None of the Katarran mercs were looking his way.

Climbing out of the ventilation shaft, Orlan approached the house and took off his shoes.

Lifting one of his feet to the wall. His flesh affixed to the surface.

This helped him leap up and grab hold of the wall, his hand flattening against it.

Orlan easily climbed to a window, where his crawler vines forced it open.

Inside, he found himself in an empty bedroom.

Just as the door began to open–

Orlan moved quickly and quietly to position himself behind the door as it opened.

Allowing the new occupants to walk in–

And shutting the door behind them, blocking the way himself.

Two– a young woman, gasping with fright– and a serious-looking young man.

He said nothing, and simply met the eyes of the strange barefoot girl blocking the way.

“Isaiah, it’s Orlan. Liebknecht School For Boys.” Orlan said. He modified his voice.

Both of them immediately recognized that voice.

“Orlan?” Mia said. “You look so different– um– congratulations on the change–”

“I didn’t transition! It’s complicated.” Orlan said.

Isaiah continued to scrutinize Orlan and never once smiled or made much expression.

“Orlan, let Mia go, she has a tea party to host.” Isaiah said.

“I never intended to keep her here!” Orlan said.

“Isaiah, if Orlan has something to say– I want to hear it– if he’s in trouble–”

Mia had begun speaking but Isaiah dismissed her quickly. “I’ll worry about that, go away.”

He made a gesture as if to shoo her away like a small animal.

Casting eyes down at the floor, visibly troubled, Mia approached the door.

“Orlan, please be careful.” She said.

“I will.” Orlan said.

He let her past him through the door and then shut it behind himself again.

“You do not have to treat her like that.” Orlan said.

“Worrying about things will just ruin her pretty face.” Isaiah said.

Orlan grit his teeth.

Isaiah had not changed at all. Tall, handsome, clean-faced, stoic. His brown hair, his pale face and high cheekbones. He was not so lanky as before– he had grown out a bit more. Orlan could hardly believe he was going through so much trouble for this unfriendly face, but it was nevertheless a face that, even now, made his heart race just a bit. It was so pathetic. He was right. Isaiah was not about to be grateful for anything they ever did or had.

He was through and through, still that guy.

“You’re in incredible danger. You don’t even know.” Orlan said.

“I’ve got an inkling.” Isaiah said.

“It’s not just the Volkisch Movement. I mean something right now. Today.” Orlan said.

Isaiah looked ever so slightly more interested in Orlan– but not worried.

Why? Did he have a plan? Did he really know what was going to go down?

“You’ve got a target on your head!” Orlan said. “Let me get you and Mia out of here.”

As if in response, Isaiah turned his back on Orlan and made a dismissive gesture.

In the next moment, something rushed from the wall, throwing down a camouflage shield.

Something dressed in a pure white uniform with a blue star– fast, fit, well-trained–

–put a 10 mm pistol to Orlan’s temple. A woman with an armband he had never seen before.

Isaiah cracked a little smile. “I’ve got a target on my head, but you have a gun to yours.”

Orlan grunted. He lifted his hands. He could almost cry. “You have no fucking idea, man.”

Every time, every time– this bastard just ended up disappointing him.

“Mysia? I don’t understand. Why?”

“Valya, this is what it takes to make my dream come true. It’s just that simple.”

One of the unused warehouse quarters in Stockheim.

Empty containers spilled haphazardly throughout. The lights were dim, and there was a thick glass and steel berth on the right flank that dominated the space and felt like an almost flimsy barrier between the black sea and the pressurized hull. Here the two of them stood, framed in the few working LED cluster lights, alone, the only two– people, present. Valya had met Mysia and followed them here so they could talk in private.

Their heart beating wildly the entire time.

After considering everything, Valya at least wanted to say a definitive goodbye to Mysia.

Recalling their kiss– Valya’s most passionate kiss with anybody.

They had wanted to trust in that.


Flanking Mysia, two Kolibri class drones suddenly appeared to threaten Valya.

Each sporting a compact submachine gun borne on the underside of the chassis.

Buzzing quadrorotors moving the machines indepedently of Mysia’s control.

They stood between the machines with a small smile on their face.

“Mysia, who is in control of those drones?” Valya said.

“Someone powerful enough to pay any price I ask for my information.” Mysia said.

Valya’s heart sank; but Mysia only shrugged.

“You should be flattered! You became part of my payment. I have been working so hard for so many people, you know.” Mysia said. “When I saw you again, I did start thinking about you quite a bit. I’ve hardly found any of the people around me attractive since I left the Union– you always really appealed to me. I promised myself, when I left the Nectaris, that I wouldn’t deny myself anything anymore. I would live like a legendary Katarran mercenary– taking what I want. I would die without any regrets. Don’t worry; I’ll treat you right. We’ll be away from this mess, and you will not even miss it. I’ll keep you entertained.”

Mysia winked at them, and Valya could hardly communicate their disgust in return.

Their hand clutched helplessly at their side in a fist. Almost in tears with anger.

To think they had been so naïve as to trust this person– who already abandoned them once.

Abandoned them and everything they had been taught in the country that raised them.

“Mysia, I am not going with you. You’ll have to rip me from where I stand.” Valya said.

“Trust me, Valya, you won’t want to stay here much longer.” Mysia said, beckoning them.

In the middle of the morning, a ship approached the second tier of Aachen’s core station.

Larger than a shuttle but smaller than a Cutter, the unpainted metal ship had a forward cabin leading a rectangular hold divided into cargo pods pushed by two large hydrojet banks. Rather than dock at Stockheim, the ship bypassed the docks, maneuvering quickly but carefully around the side of the station and closing in to where the steel met the natural stone of the Aachen Massif. The ship maneuvered on its side and found an emergency access shaft to maintenance hull on the second tier. Slowing considerably, the ship wedged itself gently against the stone, clung on with its jet anchors and extended its boarding chute.

Not a typical entry point for a cargo vessel–

Except the ship’s cargo consisted not of sand for local glass blowing shops–

but a battalion of troops with armored vests and helmets, portable missiles, suicide drones, ballistic shields and heavy machine guns, all on a certain rich woman’s pfennigs.

The plan was simple, and they were well-equipped for it– on Herta Kleyn’s orders, the Uhlans were undergoing a complete audit before their contract renewal with Aachen. To satisfy the audit the entire Uhlan force would gather at their HQ on the second tier and turn in all of their weapons for inspection in the early to mid morning. The entry team would approach the Uhlan HQ through the maintenance sector, and take them by surprise. With the Uhlans suppressed or eliminated, the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot would establish military control of the station interior. Naval reinforcements would then follow, taking over Stockheim. All the while Herta Kleyn and Gloria Innocence Luxembourg would take full political control from both the Volkisch Movement and the liberal legislative assembly in Aachen.

Everything hinged on taking out the unaware Uhlans during the inspection.

Everything hinged– on boarding the station through the maintenance hull at this point.

With the ship in position, undetected, and the boarding chute affixed, the teams got ready.

Eight hundred troops, crammed into the cargo hold of a ship, armed to the teeth.

Mercenaries, social-democrat die-hards, desperate contractors, a motley crew but with the gear to match their ambitions. Awaiting the glow of the boarding chute’s warning lights to go from red to green, signaling a connection to the station and stabilized pressure within the chute. The boarding chute door opened, a space ten meters between their ship and the maintenance shaft door. The men and women stood shoulder to shoulder and began to slowly filter out toward the station with their weapons and gear in hand and back.

Upon reaching the door on the other end, they prepared to force the door with their tools.

As soon as their breaching tools made contact with the door–

In an instant, an explosive blew the door open and separated the chute from the station, and the ensuing pressure differential ripped through the entire boarding chute and into the entire ship. Before they even knew it, the entry team was completely butchered, the ship jerked toward the mountain and blew completely apart, killing everyone–

and triggering flood mitigation inside the station’s maintenance shaft.

That explosion and the partial flooding set off a sensor, and sealed off the area completely.

Ending in an instant any thought of ambushing the Uhlans through that path.

However, the action would not go unnoticed–

Sensor data was picked up by a certain Braya Zachikova, monitoring the network.

“Acting Captain, I found something quite strange.” She said, looking over her shoulder.

Behind her, Murati Nakara acknowledged, unaware of what was about to transpire.

Commencing her own participation in Aachen’s longest day.

Animated by vengeance, they finally rose from the darkest corners of the station.

Donning their pure white uniforms, and the blazing blue star alight in their arms.

In the abandoned mines of the Aachen Massif, rows of half-failing LED clusters partially illuminated their caps, masks, nanomail armored uniforms, camouflage shields, drones, assault rifles and heavy pistols. Faces half in shadow and light, just as their souls were bifurcated by the past they mourned and the future that they now hungered to realize. In part they had been in the Eisern Front, and they had been in the Uhlans, and the Imperial Navy, and among the social democrats, and even just civilians from Aachen, from Stralsund, from Kreuzung; and even farther afield in Antioch and Nichori in Bosporus.

Many followed Tamar Livnat here; many arrived after; some joined her in the past days.

They had been everywhere. No matter how hard they tried, nobody could erase them.

As much as they were hated, they survived it all, and they would turn that hatred back.

Below their clothes and above their skins, they had always worn that white uniform.

Animated, possessed even, by that distant, ennobling ideal– their own Nation.

A nation to return to them the status of a people with dignity and power.

All that they ever needed was for an architect to illuminate the true way.

To whisper in their ears that this ghost had always been inside them, yearning.

And that it was the reason why nothing made sense, and nothing felt right.

Even before Tamar Livnat, they had always been Dibuqim. It was their Destiny.

“Today is but the first step! They took everything from us! Show no mercy!”

At the head of the prosession, Menahem Halevi with her bloodthirsty grin spread her arms as if to gesture at the breadth and enormity of the troops that had gathered. So many people that had sacrificed everything and from whom everything was taken, and nothing left– her voice rang out through the mine shafts as the heavy bulkheads behind her began to rise. Their return to Aachen lay beyond those shadowy doors slowly lifting before them.

Their mighty sweeping-up and burning-down of everything–

“Our kingdom awaits us! From the Imbrians, from the Shimii– we shall take it back!”

From the fascists, from the communists, from the sectarians and the liberals–

Everything would be taken, to be given to the worthy, the solely worthy– to the Eloim.

God’s true chosen people– whom their human peers had denied everything.

Stoic ranks filed past Menahem with their faces shadowed and their hearts hardened.

Weapons in hand, gear at their backs and over their chests. Ready to fight.

“Remember the plan! All sections have their assignments! Crush the enemy!”

Menahem grinned, unable to contain her laughter and the swelling of her spirit.

Her cape fluttered as the ranks advanced around her, partially unveiling the cables wrapped around her body, terminating behind her back and into her forearms, as well as tanks and funnels strapped to her back. She squeezed her fist, and there was a brief whirring of a micromotor. Satisfied, she turned from the departing troops and toward the mine shaft.

“Ready, David? Today is the day we have spoken about.” Menahem said in that direction.

There, an enormous figure stood as if activating by her gaze, and took one thunderous step.

Dim lights flicked on one after another on a tall, sleek, humanoid figure.

Two and change meters tall, with a beak-like, visored helmet and a triangular torso.

A colossus of armor ambling toward Menahem and the bulkhead of that fated day.

From an audio system installed on the armor, a small and high-pitched voice answered.

“I will kill anyone you ask me to, Menahem.” David said.

As if to demonstrate her readiness, David briefly bandished a blade sliding out of her arm.

Limbs crackling with a faint indigo glow, tiny indigo sparks flying off her thrusters–

“Beautiful! That is what I like to hear. Follow me, my doll.” Menahem said.

Everything was already inexorably in motion– it already had been since the start.

Ever since the United Front was first scheduled to gather, creating the opportunity.

The communists, the social democrats, the fascists, even the civilians, played their part.

As they spoke, plainsclothes anarchist puppets had begun the task.

And the pretenders and little tyrants would soon find themselves encircled.

On that day a chaotic performance of destruction would unravel Aachen’s fate.

Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.9]

A splash of water arced gracefully in the air and struck the earth at Sareh’s feet.

Children with ladles and small cans of water laughed riotously.

Cognizant of the power they had been given that day.

“Ugh, you kids always lose your minds with that!” Sareh complained.

“We were like them too once, hayati.” Baran said, softly and with a smile on her face.

Hearing such a strong term of endearment, even Sareh could not be gloomy anymore.

So empowered, the children ran throughout the festival grounds, scooping water from their cans using the ladles they had been given, and sending splashes of water hurtling at any adult in the vicinity. Casting these bolts like the arrows loosed by the Mahdi himself in the stories; but also paying respect to the lifegiving water and reminding the festivalgoers of the long lost rain of the surface. For the children this was just a fun game that they played, but it was one of the cornerstones of Tishtar, a festival of water, of survival, of heroes. The great heroes of the Shimii, the companions that bore the Shimii to the sea with the surface in its death throes. They were the reason that Mehmed, Nasser the Elder, and Radu the Marzban and others bore the title of “hero” to their respective followers.

The Rashidun Kingdom, the “rightly guided” era, was ancient history.

The Time of Ignorance, when humanity brushed with extinction, faded entirely.

The fire of the Age of Heroes, when Shimii warred for clashing ideals, had sputtered out.

Now was the time without name when the next era would be forged by their decisions.

It was perhaps the darkest era in history to be a Shimii–

But on Tishtar, the children splashing the water still smiled for the future.

That dire texture of the great weight of their history that could not be said to them, was communicated in the nature of their play. On Tishtar they splashed water, they listened to songs, they ate and played and were led in prayer by the adults around them. Baran and Sareh were once those children running around, carrying on the history of their people. Now it was their turn to watch, to be splashed by water, and to mourn with the adults.

“It’s a bit different looking at it now that I have to supervise.” Sareh said, sighing.

“We don’t have to be so strict today.” Baran said. “Let them have fun. Within reason.”

She reached out and took Sareh’s hands. “In fact, they should not be the only ones.”

“You want to splash water too?” Sareh asked, laughing.

Wearing a conspiratorial smile, Baran whispered.

“Sareh, will you swear a nikah mut’ah with me for today?” She said.

Sareh’s face turned a bit redder, she smiled, and held Baran’s hands tightly.

Tishtar swept through the Mahdist village like wave of light and energy.

Homa stood in the middle of the transformation almost in awe of the changes.

Colored streamers had been stretched on wires across the main thoroughfare of the village, from the old shops to the stage and to the stray light posts, criss-crossing colors hanging overhead. They were wrapped around the water barrels from which children refilled their green and blue pots to let loose projectiles from their little ladles. Amid the streamers and their wires the village no longer looked brown and dull in color but like a whirlwind of brightness that lifted the mood. Wider banners with moons and geometrical patterns accompanied the streamers, denoting the different areas of the village.

Most of the festivities orbited the front of the town. The Tazia monument on the stage had been put back together so well it almost constituted a miracle. Paint and putty had covered up the damage and made the plastic pieces looked as if they were always meant to be that way. In turn the new Tazia was much more colorful than the initial one by necessity. Like a green and blue and purple house set up on the stage for an equally colorful person to step into or out. It almost perfectly matched the colored partial veils the aunties wore.

It was easy to forget it was meant to bring to mind the grave of a beloved religious figure.

Tables had been set up along the thoroughfare with a variety of snacks and drinks as well as the means to prepare more. Each station had been equipped with an auntie whose powerful stare cowed the children from splashing water on the food and drink made ready for the festival. Homa made an immediate beeline for a station from which smoke, aroma and licks of flame arose. One of the aunties prepared long metal sticks covered in meat which glazed in its own fat as it cooked. Homa watched with such a longing stare that a smiling auntie immediately gave her the first morsel of the day without asking her.

“Here you go! First of many, I hope!” the auntie said.

Homa nodded her head quietly and bit into the kebab.

Her ears flapped, her tiny tail fluttered, and she shut her eyes with pleasure.

Delicately spiced and incredibly savory flavor made her cheeks contract.

A splash of water fell just short of her feet– followed by two more, none striking her.

Homa looked up at the children laughing and running away.

They must have been instructed not to strike her directly.

While every child had a pot and ladle for splashing water, there were other peaceful pursuits for those that got tired out or were uninterested in running around. There were children blowing up balloons, and the smaller children hung around the aunties and listened to stories. A few were given small wind instruments which they tried to play– it was annoying but rather cute. Homa certainly preferred it to being splashed with water. She spotted a few other children engaging in handicrafts. They were given disposable sheets of corn plastic or stone paper, which they cut up into stars and moons and other shapes. Some of the more ambitious kids tried to make the Tazia in miniature using cut pieces and glue and coloring it with paints. They compared each other and loudly debated the merits of certain colors– almost all agreeing the Tazia should be more purple than it was now.

Homa wondered whether she had been so boisterous and silly as a little kid.

Her memories of her childhood were incredibly fragmentary.

Perhaps if something so beautiful had actually happened to her– she would remember it.

Most of the adults not directly participating in the festival watched the children play while eating and chatting, exchanging small gifts, and reciting copious dua’s for friends and neighbors. While there were a few activities planned — including at some point whatever event would coincide with Kalika’s big dance — much of the festival was just unstructured time for the villagers to relax, eat good food and meet with their neighbors. As such there was not so much spectacle and whimsy as there was warmth and companionship.

As Homa explored she felt a bit strange about the festival– though not in a bad way.

Homa did not have high expectations for what kind of festival the poor villagers could put on. Even with the intercession of Kamma supplying them with food, that only meant there would be a feast at the end or snacks throughout. In Homa’s imaginary, festivals had games and musical events and toys and they were grand sprawling affairs. However, walking the main thoroughfare of the Mahdist village, she felt that what they lacked in spectacle they made up for with friendliness. Seeing so many close-knit people out on the street sharing the moment, faces that would have been invisible to her in any other place but that she was just barely starting to recognize during her stay in the village– it had a certain magic all its own. She almost felt like she was a part of everything– almost, but not entirely so.

In the back of her mind, she still felt like a stranger observing something from afar.

However, seeing the kids running around splashing people and houses, the older folk sitting down having kebabs and glazed figs, the auntie with the long flute leading a few kids with smaller flutes in an ensemble that almost sounded harmonious, hearing recitation of long song-like prayers and the aroma of flowers and sweets and sizzling meat– Homa felt like she was, if not a part of something, at least in the middle of something. Not entirely apart from it, not an invisible body in a crowd, not a lonely figure amid the living of lives. Yes, she did not let herself believe she was one of the villagers, but she was present.

They could see her; she saw them too. She was not lost in a crowd.

And it brought a smile to her face. She let herself be swept up into the fun.

Back in Kreuzung, Homa would have fled from something like this, from the gazes. She would have felt judged by the people around her, like she had something to live up to that she had failed to achieve. She would have welcomed disappearing in a crowd. But it was different in the Mahdist village. Nobody who looked at her seemed to demand anything from her. Nobody whose gaze she crossed had anything other than a smile for her even if they said nothing at all. They were approachable even when they were not approaching. In that way, she felt included by virtue of a lack of exclusion. Maybe it was all just in her head–

But if it was a change in her, then she was glad for the transformation.

“Homa! Over here! How are you liking the festival so far?”

When Homa wandered closer to the stage, she met with Baran and Sareh.

“I had a really good kebab.” Homa said. “And my feet are getting soaked.”

She tried to smile.

Baran and Sareh had a laugh and patted her on the shoulders.

Both of them were dressed up for the festival. Sareh had worn a coat and pants that looked almost brand new, dark blue and brown, working well with the rich dark shade of her own skin. Her dark, long hair was tied up into a ponytail with slightly messy bangs that made her look rather dashing but still wild and a bit unruly. Baran meanwhile looked radiant, wearing a long, bright blue dress with a dark blue part-veil decorated with gold stars, accentuating the otherwise subdued redness of her hair. She looked like a pleasantly, formally girlish beauty, a lovely counterpart to Sareh’s somewhat casual tomboy handsomeness.

Though she was starting to heal up, Baran retained her cane for the day.

“You know– I thought you two would be really busy today.” Homa said, smiling.

“We’ve already prepared everything we had to and planned all of the rest.” Baran said.

“We worked hard these past few days so we could enjoy the moment now.” Sareh said.

Homa looked fondly at them, and her tail fluttered a bit with embarrassment–

“Well– I’m happy to have some company. I am sad to admit I only really know you two.”

She did not even know the name of the auntie making the kebabs she had eaten.

“It’s okay, Homa. We’re your friends and hosts. We’ll help you have fun!” Baran said.

“I already figured if we left you alone, you would end up moping somewhere.” Sareh said.

“You have that little confidence in me?!” Homa replied, only somewhat offended.

She was mainly playing along and all three of them shared a bit of a chuckle.

“Speaking of what people you know and don’t–” Sareh began, glancing at Baran.

“You are forbidden from seeing Kalika until her big moment.” Baran said mischievously.

“So is she going to miss out on the festival?” Homa asked.

“She’s coming out in a few hours, it’s fine. She’ll get to have plenty of fun.” Sareh said.

“Until we can hand you off to her, we’ll be borrowing you.” Baran said.

“I’m not some toy for you.” Homa said with mock consternation.

Baran and Sareh laughed again and led Homa away by the shoulder.

They walked back the way Homa had come, retracing her steps through the thoroughfare. Taking their time so Baran could keep up with her cane. When she was with Baran and Sareh her festival took on a new character altogether, as everyone loved the two of them and would invite them to try a snack, or hold hands with them, or pray for their health and safety. Children would spray water at their feet and avoid splashing anyone with them perhaps for fear of collateral splashing on the two. They were quite special to the villagers and given how much they worried and worked on the village, Homa thought they deserved it.

Particularly, as Homa walked with them, it became clearer to her that there was nobody in the village that was Baran and Sareh’s age. There were young teenage girls, small girls and boys, and there were the older aunties and elderly folk– but no younger adults other than the two of them. That made them a unique sight among all of the village folk.

“We told them not to splash you. We didn’t know if you’d be bothered by it.” Baran said.

“It would annoy me, to be honest– but I am glad they are having fun.” Homa said.

“As adults, we should let the kids have a little bit of leeway, like how we got.” Sareh said.

“Don’t pretend like you aren’t annoyed with them also.” Baran said, grinning at Sareh.

“I’m trying to set a good example for Homa.” Sareh said, averting her gaze slightly.

“I’m exactly your age, I don’t need your example.” Homa grumbled. Baran laughed.

“I know, I know!” Sareh said, laughing too. “I’m just too used to taking care of kids.”

“You’ve gotten much better at it. You’d make a good parent now Sareh.” Baran said.

Homa looked at the two of them and felt even more of their lovey-dovey energy than usual.

She said nothing about it– despite appearances they probably weren’t out to the village.

Even for Mahdists she had to assume their relationship was something private for them.

While they were walking, Homa recalled the short explanation Sareh had given her for Tishtar. She grew more curious as they went about, seeing the villagers enjoying the day.

“Can you tell me more about the story of Tishtar?” Homa asked.

Her tone of voice lowered to a bashful whisper.

“I know you mentioned that it has to do with Ali Ibn Al-Wahran. I– I grew up in a kinda secular household, so I was never told a lot about the old stories. I picked up some thing from people here and there– random visits to the masjid when my uh– guardian felt like it.” Even calling Leija her mother in passing felt somewhat wrong, so she avoided using the word.

“We understand, you don’t have to be ashamed, Homa.” Baran said.

“Yeah, we’re not about to start judging you now for something like that.” Sareh said. She looked at Baran. “Which of us should speak? And how far back do we go?”

“I can start and we can trade off every so often.” Baran said. “Homa, we Shimii, like everyone else, came from the surface world. On the surface, the stories tell that our people went through horrible times. Our culture was dying, our religion was twisted, our people leaderless. Many of our kin were killed in wars, against others and among ourselves, and the other peoples of the surface finally left us for dead when the calamity started ravaging the land. But then the Mahdi revealed himself, and gathered his companions and united the remaining Shimii. The heroes brought our kin to the sea to survive the catastrophe.”

Baran looked to Sareh expectantly. Sareh’s ears stood on end, as did her tail.

“You really think I would forget? Homa, their names were Ali Ibn Al-Wahran, Shirin Dilaram, Faiyad Ayari, Banu Emiroğlu, and Mu’awiya Ibn al-Assad.” Sareh said, rattling off the names quickly– she did know them by memory. “Out of all of them, of course, Ali is now known as the legendary Mahdi, kind-hearted and strong, and Shirin was his closest companion, who helped sway the people with her words; but all of them together pooled their strengths and journeyed underwater. They led people to a mountain– a lot of people think that Khaybar in the modern day is where that mountain was. In the stories it was a mountain that formed in the ocean when a destructive serpent sunk a chunk of the surface world.”

That was a wild detail– Homa had never heard about the mountain or the serpent.

“Blessed Ali and Shirin were very important, yes– but each companion played a part.” Baran said. She seemed both amused by the way Sareh told the story but also spoke in a tone as if correcting her embellishment. “Ali split the ocean, and Shirin returned the faith to the people so that they believed in him as the Mahdi and followed him, despite their concerns. Mu’awiya carved out a city in the mountain, and Banu separated the salt from the water so the people could drink and use it to grow food. Faiyad gave them air to breathe, and he and Ali together spread warmth through the mountain kingdom that was naturally cold.”

“The Ummah were saved, hooray!” Sareh said, with a bit of a mocking tone to it that Baran did not seem to appreciate but let go with just a sigh. “However, Tishtar is not just the story of the journey into the ocean. Part of is it also mourning what we lost. We put up streamers and colored stuff overhead to remind us of the light and sky of the surface that we lost. We splash water to remember the ancient rain. But also– we build the Tazia to remember and mourn the death of Ali. We place much more importance on the Mahdi than others do.”

“Here is where old stories will differ the most, Homa.” Baran said. “Rashidun believe that all of the companions were divinely inspired and infallible people. They believe the second king of the Shimii, Mua’wiya, had an obvious, legitimate claim over the Shimii kingdom in antiquity. They emphasize the continuing legacy of the companions rather than any particular moment of miracle-making. They don’t celebrate Tishtar or any festival of mourning like we do. They have nothing to mourn. However, Mahdists tell the story of the Shimii founding quite differently– our ancestors did not simply accept the passing of the Mahdi, nor that his successors are Mua’wiya and Faiyad. The Mahdi is uniquely special to us– we celebrate his incredible miracle as the defining moment of our history. Because of that, we believe the Mahdi, Ali, was paramount– and thus we believe that the Rashidun took illegitimate control over the ummah. The story of the betrayal varies with the telling– in our village it is said that Ali, blessed be he, sailed from the mountain to protect the kingdom and was betrayed by Mu’awiya and Faiyad, coveting power over the early ummah.”

Sareh seemed to become more stern and serious as they reached the darker stories.

“Mu’awiya was accepted by the Shimii that became the Rashidun, who valued stability and continuity and got to write the canon. While Mahdists valued the miracle of Ali the Mahdi and thus insisted on his centrality in our faith. Mu’awiya brought the Shimii some stability, but he laid the foundations of the Time of Ignorance where our people killed each other in power struggles again and the Imbrians took over everything.” Sareh said. “Regardless of the details all Mahdists object to the death of Ali, Homa– Mahdists are the descendants of the historical mourners of Ali the Mahdi, who sought answers and retribution for his death. We survived persecution– Banu, the last companion, who represented the waters, spirited us away to save us. So– that is why Tishtar, the festival of water, is important.”

Homa looked at Baran and Sareh, as they walked and talked, with a heavy heart.

She tried to hide how upset hearing that story had made her.

She had wanted to know, and she asked, and she listened– and it was upsetting. Upset– because all of this violence, the blood feuds, all of this hate, was fomented by some ancient stories she did not even know she could believe. For all she knew, none of these characters might have even existed. But their names and stories were now an indelible part of the reason why her people were torn asunder. She did not want to accept that. It was even more painful to her than when the reason for the Mahdist and Rashidun sectarianism was in her mind just a vague difference of “religion.” Knowing the details only made it worse. Ali and Mu’awiya– why fight over this? All of the Rashidun even agreed that Ali was the great Mahdi and respected him– so then, why–? Why did they persecute his staunchest followers?

“Rashidun interpret the companions differently than us. We each have our own accounts and the Rashidun focus away from the descent story and from the miracles. Our folklore is why the Rashidun call us illusionists and idolaters.” Sareh said. “When I came of age, I began to think the Rashidun might actually be afraid of those stories because if the mountain kingdom is actually Khaybar, then the Mahdist Khaybari clan took that land in their blood feud against Nasser the Elder and could lay claim to a Mahdist Caliphate someday.”

Within that dizzying mixture of modern geopolitics and ancient myth, a word stood out–


She suppressed the anger that had immediately begun to stir in her heart.

Even more prudent– that mention of Khaybar piqued her interest.

“I thought Khaybar was just– full of pirates or something.” Homa asked.

She learned that particular detail from Kalika. The Volksarmee had intelligence on this.

However, they did not place the same importance that Sareh did.

“They are only pirates because they have no other means, Homa.” Baran said.

Her tone of voice sounded stern. Homa raised her hands defensively, heart pounding.

“I’m sorry, I completely understand, believe me– I wasn’t judging them.” She said.

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Sareh said, patting Baran’s shoulder. “Sorry all of this got so heavy.”

“I know you’re a good person Homa. I’m– I’m just being oversensitive.” Baran said.

She smiled, but her gaze still looked heavy, as if it had seen years more worth of pain.

There was probably no way to talk about Shimii history that wasn’t sensitive and heavy.

Hated on the surface and left to die; fighting among themselves; under the yoke of the Imbrians; thinking about it all Homa had an intrusive and cruel thought appear in her mind. It was unbidden and she pushed it aside and tried not to acknowledge it. But for an instant, she thought that the Shimii were a hopeless people whom all hated, and none would save.

Not even themselves.

Her heart was already doing some of the mourning associated with Tishtar.

“The real miracle of Tishtar is that the little kids can smile through all this.” Sareh said.

Trying still to pick up Baran’s mood– this comment did finally make her smile more.

She also shed a tear as she did so– and wiped it off.

Around them, the children continued to be rambunctious and throw water on folks.

Everyone stricken by such a bolt, however, simply smiled and laughed about it.

It was as if the children and their running about became part of the lifeblood of the festival.

Homa felt like she wanted to outrun the choking past, like a frolicking child.

However– it was sadly just not her place to do so.

“So– what do we do for fun? Until Kalika’s big moment?” Homa asked, a bit awkwardly.

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other, back at Homa, and smiled.

“We have a few ideas. First– we think you should look special for the occasion.”

Sareh gestured toward Baran’s house, which they had been moving toward.

Homa narrowed her eyes at them.

She was wearing her brown coat and button-down shirt and blue worker’s pants still. She had not been able to change, but she had washed up every day, and she had been careful not to get them too dirty. They represented a weird bit of stability that she still had in her times in the village– so she was a bit hesitant to take them off for no apparent reason.

When they arrived at Baran’s house, she was given a reason not to want them off.

“No way.” Homa said. “You shouldn’t have– because I’m not–”

Smiling, Baran picked up what looked like stray cloth on her living room table.

It was not stray cloth, however. It was a beautiful hand-sewn dress, long and colorful.

“On Tishtar everyone wears their best clothes. We wanted you to have nice clothes too.”

Baran seemingly ignored Homa’s stammering and hesitant attempts to form words.

She waved the dress in front of Homa as if she was urging a child, mischief on her lips.

“C’mon, Homa, no reason to be embarrassed. I am sure you will look fantastic in that.” Sareh said. “You are in a remote village where no one knows you! Nobody can judge you! It’s a chance to try something new! We both saw how you reacted when we talked about Kalika’s dress and all that. Will you really give up a chance to be prettied up for Tishtar?”

“Why don’t you also wear a dress?” Homa said, in a more accusing tone than intended.

Sareh crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “It’s not my style.”

“Homa, I worked really hard on it– but it’s okay. I can make Sareh wear it.” Baran said.

“Hmm?” Sareh glanced at Baran, who stared at her with continued, unbroken mischief.

Grumbling, Homa looked at the dress in Baran’s hands more closely.

Baran was definitely skilled– it was a long-sleeved dress blue up top with a brown center that bore a geometric yellow pattern over it and an intermittently blue and green skirt all the way to the ankles. It might have looked gaudy, but the colors of the fabric were somewhat muted, such that everything worked together in a strangely earthy way. All of the seams and stitches were made with precision and the garment flowed well as one piece with a flattering cut. Homa narrowed her eyes and felt both her resistance begin to fade but her consternation continue to increase. She did not want to appear ungrateful to her hosts, especially not on the big festival day– but she was deeply embarrassed.

It was a beautiful dress– and Homa deeply wanted to be viewed as a girl too–

Recalling how she felt about the prospect of wearing one of Leija’s costumes–

It was embarrassing, it was so embarrassing to even think about–

Despite herself it was indeed an opportunity that she could not pass!

And besides, Sareh was right, nobody in the village knew her enough to laugh at it.

Folding her ears and fluttering her tail Homa sighed deeply and deflated in front of Baran.

“Fine.” She said, her shoulders slouching. “Fine. I’ll wear it. Please get out while I change.”

Nodding rapidly, Baran took Sareh’s hand and with a gleeful skip, pulled her outside.

Homa looked down at the dress she had been left, sighed, and began to undress herself.

A few minutes later, she peeked outside of Baran’s door curtain, her face feeling hot.

Just outside the door, Baran had her hands together and a euphoric look on her face.

Sareh stood beside her with a little grin and her arms crossed.

For a moment, Homa felt that those two were far too gleeful about all of this.

When she stepped out, the two of them cheered and held each other’s hands and laughed.

Their tails entwined, so delighted were they at the predicament they led Homa into.

“Mashallah! You look stunning Homa!” Baran said. “You are a true mother’s daughter!”

What was that supposed to mean?! Was it some Mahdist saying that didn’t parse?!

“You look so good you might miraculously walk out of here with a husband!” Sareh said.

And what was that supposed to mean?! Especially coming from Sareh of all people?!

Both of them stepped forward and patted Homa on the head and shoulders.

Homa, in her long-sleeved, long-skirted, blue and green and brown dress– felt exposed.

Not only did the fabric of the dress feel a bit thin, but it also felt a bit tight in the chest.

Had her breasts grown since she last took notice? Could people see them under the top?

“It works well with the ponytail too.” Baran said. “Or would you like me to do your hair?”

“No, this is quite enough.” Homa said, looking down at the ground. “Thank you.”

“Aww, don’t hide your face!” Sareh said. “We’re not bullying you, you’re really pretty!”

“I can furnish you with a matching partial hijab if you would like.” Baran said cheerfully.

“No, no,” Homa said, sighing and lifting her eyes from the ground. “It’s– it’s fine.”

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other again and smiled together at their handiwork.

“Now you are truly experiencing Tishtar!” Baran said, clapping her hands.

Each of them took one of Homa’s hands and led her back toward the village fore.

Sure enough, nobody said a thing– but the aunties were looking.

While they had been away, on the stage, a small ensemble had formed that was putting on a show for the rest of their neighbors. There was a quite older gentleman with a string instrument, and a middle aged woman who was singing. They were singing in Low Imbrian rather than Fusha, so it was actually possible for Homa to understand it– the song they had walked into when they reached stage was about a woman who while struggling to feed her children in a time of famine, was provided with everything needed by God, and day by day she held onto hope and gave thanks until the tribulations were behind her.

Homa almost wanted to ask if they could play something a bit cheerier.

But when she looked around nobody seemed to be treating it like a sad song.

Baran was even singing a long a bit– and tapping her foot, tenderly, minding her injury.

The woman’s voice was so sweet and the man’s strings so skilled that all the aunties seemed to be clapping and singing along and in good spirits, almost drowning out the stage. It must have been a classic. The next song was about a warrior fighting a hundred men to a standstill and being martyred and the mood did not once dampen. Homa began to get used to letting the content of the lyrics slide off her brain and just tried to enjoy the mood.

“Everyone’s gathering in front of the village, so it’s my time to shine. Come on, Homa!”

Sareh led Homa over to a little table that had set up next to the stage.

Baran followed the two of them with a small smile, occasionally looking back at the stage.

Perhaps wistful about not being able to perform as she originally desired due to her injury.

She seemed to not be letting it get to her– she sat down across from Sareh.

There was an area off to the side of the stage that had been prepared for the festivities.

Aside from their table, there was space for the eventual feast too.

However, Sareh had set up this table with a very specific purpose in mind.

“Are you going to give me one too?” Baran asked.

“Of course, of course.” Sareh said.

She pulled out something from under the table– a series of small sealed basins and containers, and some strange little picks. When Sareh popped the lid off one of the containers, there was a reddish-brown substance. To demonstrate, she drew Homa’s attention to it, dipped the pick in it, and gently took Baran’s outstretched arm with her other hand. She laid a small flower-like pattern starting from Baran’s fingertip to her knuckle– it was a mehndi, a temporary tattoo. Homa had seen newlywed girls wearing it on their hands before. She followed Sareh’s fingertips as she very carefully painted on Baran’s hand.

“See? I run a mehndi table every time we can have a Tishtar.” Sareh said.

“She’s very good at it. And these days the dyes are safe.” Baran said, showing off the mehndi.

Starting from her index finger, Sareh had drawn an intricate web of flowers that fit Baran’s hand like a thin, sheer glove. Spreading down the rest of her fingers, over the knuckle, to the wrist. It took her just a few minutes to get it done. Homa was quite surprised. She had always thought of Sareh as a blunt sort of person and did not conceive of her having the patience for handicrafts. Of course, she would not say such a thing to her.

Instead she smiled with wonderment at the body art.

“I already knew what kind of pattern Baran likes– but what would you like, Homa?”

Sareh held up her pick and seemed to gesture as if over Homa’s arm.

Homa almost brought up her gloved, mechanical hand– which would have been useless.

She had gotten so used to it by now that she forgot sometimes about its deficiencies.

Sareh would not have been able to paint over such a thing– probably.

“Um.” Homa looked down at the table. “One of my arms– it’s– it’s actually a prosthetic.”

Even as she spoke– she felt her voice strain to form the shameful words.

“Is the metal just plain colored? Or is it black or something? I should be able to paint on it– I got a bunch of differently colored engineered dyes we can use for it. If not I can just paint on your other arm, it’s fine. It’s not weird to get only one arm done.” Sareh said reassuringly.

Homa thought she was dropping a grenade– but neither she nor Baran seemed to care.

They did not judge her for having lost an arm or had any sort of reaction to it.

“Let her try, Homa. Trust me, she’s quite crafty when it comes to mehndi.” Baran said.

“You’ll have to take your gloves off obviously.” Sareh said, jabbing the pick in the air.

Homa looked down at her hands.

Using her biological hand she pulled the glove off of her prosthetic hand. She showed Sareh what it was like– its black metal sheen, the visible articulation of the mechanical digits. Her eyes averted from it and from Sareh’s face. She felt a certain shame to be exposing it to others, she felt that it was unsightly and that it might shock people to see it–

Such a thing could not possibly be beautiful– nor be made beautiful–

“Oh, that’s not a problem! I can use a green dye or a redder dye– it’ll be visible.”

Because Homa could not feel with her prosthetic, it took her a moment to see that Sareh had taken hold of her hand. She spread the digits and dipped her pick in a second basin which had green dye– and drew upon one of Homa’s metal digits a green flower pattern that was a little thicker than that which she drew on Baran’s hand and had a tighter weave.

With her pick she gestured for Homa to look at her work.

The green die contrasted the black metal well and was indeed quite visible.

“What do you think? Should I keep going?” Sareh asked, smiling gently.

Looking at the sight of her metallic arm being decorated so kindly made Homa tear up.

“Oh no, I’m sorry.” Sareh said. “I shouldn’t have insisted–”

“No, no,” Homa said, wiping her tears with her free hand, “it’s okay. I’m happy.”

Sareh looked at her for a moment and sighed with relief. “Should I keep going then?”

“Please do.” Homa said.

Baren smiled at the two of them, watching Sareh’s pattern spread across Homa’s prosthetic.

Her pick glided as easily over the metal as it did on Homa’s flesh, weaving beauty.

Soon Homa had matching mehndi on both of her hands, vividly green floral patterns.

Looking at them together– it was the first time she had thought of them as her hands.

Not as a remnant of her body and a mismatched intrusion– just her two hands.

Capable of comfort and beauty and love and warmth– her natural hands.

“It’s really pretty Sareh. I really like this. Thank you so much.” Homa said.

Sareh smiled and nodded, clearly proud of her handiwork.

“Great!” She said. “Homa, just remember you’re part of the festival today. All of you is.”

Baran nodded in acknowledgment. She reached out to touch Homa’s shoulder for comfort.

Homa wanted to cry again from all the unearned kindness she had received–

Instead, however, she smiled a vibrant smile– with a joy a long, long time coming.

After receiving her mehndi and once her emotions cooled, Homa left Sareh and Baran’s side momentarily. She wanted to see more of the snacks that had been arrayed in the kiosks and tables around the front of the village. When the children saw Homa’s mehndi, all of them hurried to Sareh’s table near the stage. They wanted to have one done just like Homa, and ceased to splash water, creating a small island of peace in the middle of Tishtar.

Smiling, Homa brought up her prosthetic hand to her face, to look at it as she walked.

She flexed the metallic skeletal digits adorned with bright green color.

This was the first time since the prosthetic was installed that it was not covered up.

That hand, those digits, held another kebab, and a glass of watery pomegranate juice, and a spoonful of sweet rice pudding, and the aunties serving the food saw it, and they commented on how pretty the mehndi was and knew immediately that Sareh had set up her table. They made no comment about it being a prosthetic. They wanted to get mehndi as well, but they were busy tending to all the snacks. Homa reassured them that surely they would be able to get some done later, the day was young. It was stress-free chit-chat.

At no point did anyone say anything about Homa that was anything less than flattering.

Her dress got more compliments than her prosthetic hand even got any attention.

“A dress from Baran and a mehndi from Sareh! How special indeed!” One auntie said.

“Those two are so talented. They esteem you a lot.” An old woman said, sitting on a porch.

“Homa, did you know?” Another auntie said. “Sareh learned the skill from her older sister– Allah praise her, she smiles down on us. But even as a small child Sareh was fantastic with the dye. If you want to make Sareh smile, Homa, be sure to praise her mehndi skills.”

“And tell Baran you love that dress! She will be so delighted!” A third auntie said.

“I already offered many compliments, don’t you worry! I was very impressed!” Homa said.

It was just a bit overwhelming when there was more than one auntie around.

“Very good. You are such a polite girl. I’m sure you will find your family someday.”

Homa smiled, a bit awkwardly, not wanting to say any more about that particular lie.

“By the way, not to be nosy or anything–”

Both ears folded, one of the aunties put on a strangely conspiratorial expression.

Homa braced for whatever comment might follow–

“–but I’ve seen you eating quite a few snacks. Save room for the feast later!”

“Ah, let her eat! She is so skinny! Homa you can have as many snacks as you want.”

“It is good for our village that a city girl like Homa loves our snacks. Eat more, Homa!”

For a moment the aunties had a spirited chat about the culture of eating at the festival.

Of course nobody mentioned any of the things Homa immediately stressed about.

Despite the warnings, the aunties did give Homa candied figs and sesame crackers.

In the middle of her snack journey, however–

There was a bit of friendly mortification now heading Homa’s way.

Word quickly traveled across the village that a small group of visitors had come for Tishtar.

At first Homa thought it was Rahima and she braced herself to put up with the fascist leader– but the reaction was a bit different. Because it was rare for people from outside the village to come to the festival, everyone got excited about the strangers visiting. Baran left Sareh’s mehndi table in order to welcome the new guests, and a Homa even more high-strung than usual left with her. Knowing who was likely waiting at the village gates, Homa felt her entire body brimming under the skin with tension and future embarrassment.

Sure enough, the small group that collected at the gates was mainly composed of–

“Homa! Look at you! You’re like a cute little doll! How wonderful!”

Khadija al-Shajara– with the tall, gloomy blond Sieglinde Castille at her side–

“Hey! Homa! Looking cute! I’m glad you’re loosening up a bit!”

Sameera al-Shahouh– accompanied by the shorter, gloomier Dominika Rybolovskaya–

“Ah– I’m not anyone you know– I just heard there was a festival. Call me Outis.”

And one stranger, Outis, a tall woman in a coat and pants with long, pale hair and shades.

Judging by the blue scales near her neck and her gray skin, she must have been a Katarran.

Homa stood with her gaze averted, feeling pointedly the presence of the dress once again.

She introduced the people she knew to Baran, with their names and a quick excuse–

“– these folks work on the ship that I rode in on. They’re good people.” Homa said.

Outis stood off to the side smiling. There was no one to vouch for her there.

However, Baran and the villagers seemed delighted to have even more company.

“Marhaba!” Baran said, meeting the group at the gates. “My name is Baran, I represent the villagers. We are holding Tishtar, an important festival. Homa’s friends are always welcome here– and we welcome any strangers who want to celebrate with us too! We made so much food just in case, so don’t be shy. Enjoy the music and hospitality! Just try to be sensitive about the kids running about– they will probably splash you with water.”

Everyone from the Brigand group had dressed up casually.

Due to the infiltration mission into Aachen the Brigand had invested in some common casual outfits to avoid their operatives wearing their uniforms everywhere. Khadija, blond-haired and sandy-skinned, wore a long light blue synthetic dress, while Sieglinde Castille, tall and blond and well-built, wore a long shirt and pants. Sameera had an outfit that was probably too casual for the village, with a tanktop and pants and her shoulders and arms bared, not exactly modest– but Baran seemed not to mind. Dominika, with her reedy red hair adorned with a few ribbons, had on black tights and a knee-length pink dress with a jacket over it. Again, not typically modest enough for a God-loving Shimii woman.

Homa had only briefly spoken to Sameera; and only knew Khadija as one of the terrors of the cafeteria, along with the cook Minardo, who loved to sit up at the front serving counter and endlessly tease and harangue whoever showed up that she deemed cute enough to bother. Despite this they all looked upon her in the dress with such bright wonderment, that she was curious what they thought they even knew about her to begin with.

Nevertheless, she treated them as more familiar friends than they actually were.

It would have been silly to equivocate such things in their situation.

“Please excuse any staring from my kin– they’re not used to city folk!” Baran said, while beckoning the party to cross the gate. “I assure you we welcome all guests.”

Homa felt initially responsible in some way for the visitors from the Pandora’s Box

She thought that she might have to make herself something of a host to them–

Maybe keep them out of trouble–

However as soon as they went through the gate, Khadija and Sieglinde, and Sameera and Dominika, quickly fanned out away from herself and Baran and rushed to follow their own curiosities. Baran gently signaled to Homa to leave them be– and Homa thus found herself left with madame Outis, who looked upon everything with a distant curiosity.

“Madame, if I might ask, where did you hear about our festival?” Baran asked.

Outis smiled, adjusting her shaded sunglasses. “I had a rare day off and wanted to be far from my employer for a time. Some of the people out in the town implied that as an unsavory-looking character I should make my way to the bacchanalia transpiring here.”

Baran blanched slightly in the face–

“Oh dear, I’m sorry they gave you trouble.” Baran said. “But– also, we’re not–”

“Yes, I figured there was something more to it than that.” Outis winked. “It’s fine. I am easily amused, and I must admit, a bit sheltered also– I simply want to soak up the festive spirit.”

“Homa, perhaps you can show madame Outis around a bit?” Baran said.

“Ah– sure.” Homa hesitated at first before giving in to Baran’s pleading look.

“I have something I need to take care of.” Baran said. She turned to Outis. “There will be a stage act put on in the afternoon, with a folk dance. Then after that there will be a feast, and poetry and prayer. In the meantime, my friend Homa will be as gracious a host as I would be.”

Waving her hands, Baran sped off as quickly as she could while walking with a cane.

Homa wondered whether she was embarrassed by what Outis said, or actually busy.

Regardless, Homa was stuck with hosting duty– which was as fine as anything.

She was starting to run out of novel things to do around the village.

Guiding someone around the same places she had already seen would kill some time.


“You can just call me Outis.”

The woman smiled, and Homa nodded her head. She gestured toward the village.

“Have you eaten anything recently? Honestly the snacks are the best part of the festival.”

Outis put a finger to her lips. “I had a bar ration a few hours ago– I wouldn’t mind food.”

“A bar ration? You’re living too small madame. Come with me!”

Homa smiled and tried to be affable as she led Outis toward the kiosks.

While Outis marveled at everything around them as if she had never seen so much color.

A pair of children with their ladles and pans full of water ran up to a couple of strangers. On top of the world as ever– Laughing, visibly proud to give new folks the traditional Tishtar welcome, the children dipped their ladles in their pans and prepared to splash– only to meet the eyes of the woman in the blue dress, her ears tall as possible, her tail straight up.

A gaze with such intensity and sternness, perhaps unlike any they had seen.

It paralyzed them, their little mouths agape at the sight.

This was not just any woman; they might have reasoned– this was a mighty auntie.

In the next instant, the children turned and ran pell-mell away from the pair.

Khadija al-Shajara looked almost proud; Sieglinde Castille beheld the children with pity.

“You’re supposed to let them splash you– that lady said it was part of it.” Sieglinde said.

“Absolutely not.” Khadija said. “After all the effort I spent on my hair and makeup? No!”

After word had gotten out of Homa’s little festival adventure, it was reasoned that some of the Shimii crew who had no other pressing business should be allowed to attend as well. This led Khadija al-Shajara to don her wine-colored eyeshadow and lipstick, dolling herself up in her best palettes, and to put on the flattering, long-sleeved, low hemmed, high-waisted dress that she had been given as a civilian “disguise.” Her golden hair and tail fur worked well with the gentle blue, and her long legs were covered with black tights.

She thought she looked ten years younger.

Khadija had a duty to surveil Sieglinde Castille, so she dragged her along, dressed in brown dress pants and a long-sleeved button-down. The tall and broad-shouldered woman got a taste of Khadija’s skills in makeup and hair dressing, though she resisted anything but the lightest dab of concealer and requested her hair be kept in a simple ponytail. Khadija of course gave her an earful for being so boring, but there was nothing to be done.

At least she looked handsome and made a good counterpart to Khadija– if she wasn’t going to stand out, she should at least be a good accessory and she accomplished this.

Arm in arm, the pair of them walked through the village, taking in the ambiance.

To everyone there, they must have looked almost like a touristy husband and wife pair.

One made up of two women, however.

“It looks like there’s nothing for you to drink here.” Sieglinde said, with a bit of a tone.

“Are you trying to be funny with me? Do you want me to kick your shin?” Khadija said.

“I’ve just never seen you enjoy yourself without involving alcohol.” Sieglinde said.

Her voice carried a note of annoyance or perhaps bitterness Khadija did not appreciate.

“You’re still sore about that? I can’t believe you. You had plenty of fun with it.”

Sieglinde sighed. “We should buy some kind of souvenir. We shouldn’t be cheap.”

Changing subject? Khadija would graciously allow it– to move off discussion of alcohol.

“What do you mean not being cheap?” Khadija asked, crossing her arms.

“Well– at the festivals I’ve been to, there’s always local handicrafts and such things.”

“You’re concerned with supporting the local economy?”

“I’m concerned with how we look. It looks bad to show up at a festival to buy nothing.”

Khadija wanted to say her brain was poisoned by capitalism–

But there was a kernel of what she said that rung true.

Not necessarily about buying things but about making use of the local hospitality.

Shimii did not throw festivals for things to go to waste and for people to ignore them.

What was ungracious for a guest was to ignore or reject the goods on offer by the host.

Money was not necessarily a part of it– nothing around them appeared to be for sale.

Khadija agreed silently that in all things, she should look as good as possible.

Not just physically, which was already granted– but also as a personable, a fine lady.

“Then let us be good guests and partake. I’ll show you I can have some dry, chaste fun.”

As much as she preferred wetter fun, Khadija felt nostalgic among the village Shimii.

They had set up different little tables and kiosks with food and handcrafts and little games.

There was a woman giving out bracelets, a young lady drawing mehndi–

“Oh! Could it be? Sieglinde, come here, this way!”

Her voice raised with delight, and she was awash in a wave of nostalgia.

Next to the mehndi lady sat the young woman who had met them at the gates. Smiling, she had tablet in front of her that was instantly recognizable to any Shimii– al-Kitab, the book, the collection of religious knowledge around which a Shimii structured their spiritual and aerthly life. On the other side of the table from the book there was a beautiful green and blue clay basin with water. There were people reading prayers elsewhere in the village, and the most religious people were visible at the masjid in prayer–

but that was clearly not the intention of that girl, Baran.


Sieglinde looked surprised with her sudden enthusiasm.

For Khadija, this took her back to her own girlhood among her people.

Back before the Imbrians forced them to change their names– and then enslaved them.

“Young miss, are you perhaps offering counsel here?” Khadija asked.

“Offering counsel” was the most polite way to say what she meant in Low Imbrian. Rather, what Khadija intended to say by this was the act of Istikhaara. To the Rashidun, Istikhaara was specifically a prayer beseeching God for guidance in their aerthly affairs and it was as simple as that– to the Mahdists, Istikhaara could be used to derive a binary answer called a kheera drawn from the pages of the book of wisdom. Kheera could be either auspicious or terrible and were used to ease one’s doubts about a decision they wanted to make.

Like everything with Shimii, this was a contentious practice.

However, Khadija had always grown up around people who believed that it was not only possible to seek counsel from God in this way but that it was fine to do so for important matters and perhaps even for some trivial issues. God was infinite in his mercy and wisdom, after all. Therefore she was used to people indulging their curiosity in this ritual.

Seeing the young girl behind the table truly brought back memories.

Baran immediately smiled at Khadija. “I always do this on special occassions.”

“Um.” Sieglinde looked between Khadija and Baran helplessly. “What is it that you do?”

“It is a way to ease doubts about the future by seeking God’s counsel.” Khadija said.

“Like fortune telling? I thought Shimii forbade such things.” Sieglinde said.

“There’s some nuance you are missing.” Baran said, more sheepishly than before.

“You’ve probably only ever met Rashidun.” Khadija said. “We Mahdists are different.”

“I apologize for my ignorance.” Sieglinde said. “I would love to have my fortune told.”

Baran winced a bit, still smiling. “Please do not call it fortune telling.” She whispered.

Khadija realized she was using a different, more subservient tone of voice for Sieglinde.

She sighed a bit. Sieglinde was a tall, imperious blond woman, so it made sense.

Around here they had probably grown up feeling they had to show respect to Imbrians.

Even if only pragmatically-

“There’s an important specificity you don’t understand. Shut your ignorant mouth.”

Khadija responded harshly; Baran was a little surprised. She hoped it was demonstrative.

Sieglinde frowned and averted her gaze a bit but still remained by Khadija’s side.

Normally, the person who made a prognostication had to be someone of exceptional piety and respect, religiously pure, or at least viewed as such by others– because it was not worth it to seek a kheera from any random person, only from the most pious and clean. In this village, Baran seemed to be the person closest to that status, so it made sense why she was the one offering. Khadija watched, a deepening sense of nostalgia as Baran offered prayers, first a prayer for counsel, then a blessing on the companions, and finally prayers for ritual cleansing. While reciting this last prayer, she washed her hands in the basin, and then washed some of her face, careful not to smudge the bit of makeup she had worn.

Then, it was time for the kheera to be given.

Baran’s tablet was a small, cheap computer programmed only to render the texts of al-Kitab, more affordable than having a stone paper version of such an enormous book. It was grayscale and thin and flimsy-looking, just larger than someone’s pocket. However, hers had an additional function. Turning it over, she pressed a little button on the side, and the screen scrambled for a moment before displaying a randomly selected page from the book. Baran held her hand over the tablet to prevent anyone seeing the page before her.

She smiled at Khadija and held out her other hand.

“What are you seeking counsel in, madame? Is there something you are contemplating?”

Khadija put on a grin. “Should I pursue a romance?” She asked. Sieglinde averted her gaze.

Baran’s ears wiggled slightly with excitement. She must have liked to give such advice.

She removed her hand from the tablet to view the page that had come up.

“An auspicious result!” Baran said. “It will certainly take work, but you should pursue the relationship you seek. Try to accept the challenges that will follow, for Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will reward you greatly for your faith if you become a devoted partner.”

“Fantastic.” Khadija said, clapping her hands together, her tail swaying gently.

Sieglinde glanced at the two of them with a bit of a pout. “Can I–?”

“Of course, madame!” Baran said. “God’s knowledge and mercy are infinite.”

Politely, this meant that even for a nonbelieving Imbrian she was willing to read a kheera.

Khadija stepped aside and gestured for Sieglinde to stand in front of Baran.

Sieglinde took her place and put on a bit more cheer than she had previously shown.

Baran pressed the button on the book, covered the tablet with her hand–

“What kind of counsel do you seek madame? Perhaps a financial decision?” Baran asked.

“I am also interested in romance.” Sieglinde said. Khadija narrowed her eyes at her.

Baran looked down at the book with her usual excitement, reading the page–

For a brief moment her eyes drew wide, and her smile became a bit crooked–

She rapidly put the book back down and–

Quite clearly put on an act for Sieglinde! Khadija could tell right away what this was!

“What do you know? It is an auspicious result! Um– your pursuit of courtship will be quite successful. You should make every effort! But um– be sure to live free of sin!”

Baran had an innocent expression, and Sieglinde smiled and seemed to accept the kheera.

However, Khadija was immediately aware that this must have been an awful result.

It was only because she was dealing with an Imbrian that Baran likely lied about the kheera.

She had probably dealt with ignorant Imbrians before who argued with any bad results.

Her reading of Sieglinde was wrong– Sieglinde was taciturn-looking, but a complete wimp.

Khadija was not about to defend or enlighten the woman stuck at her side.

“Hear that? You should confess to whoever it is already, you lunk!” Khadija said, patting Sieglinde’s shoulder with a big grin and trying to distract her from Baran.

Sieglinde laughed and averted her gaze with mild embarrassment.

Baran subtly reset the book a few times while continuing to smile nervously.

“You know, as much as you complain about my company, you look happy.”

Sameera smiled smugly with a glance at her partner.

“Hmph. Other people are just much more annoying. Don’t flatter yourself too much.”

Dominika launched her riposte with minimal grumbling.

When she heard about the festival from Khadija, Sameera also asked for permission to go– and Dominika easily accepted the invitation. Neither of them had been too actively engaged of late and both welcomed something to do. Sameera was more excited to see the Mahdist village than she allowed herself to express in her face and in her mannerisms. She was guarded– she felt a bit silly about her excitement, and conflicted about whether the villagers could tell that she was mixed race, perhaps not a real Shimii. Nevertheless, she trekked down to the Shimii Wohnbezirk alongside Dominika, and entered the Mahdist village.

They looked around, taking in the ambiance and the sounds of the village.

Sounds of gentle drums and strings, and singing from the stage; the chattering of the villagers, particularly all of the aunties and the laughing children; the percussion of the steps people took on the hard ground; the sizzle of cooked snacks and the cracks of gas fires lighting in the old stoves. The spicy, savory aroma of the snacks mixed with the earthy and sweet scent of burning bakhoor incense– particularly around the masjid and the stage.

“Feeling peckish at all?” Sameera asked.

“Hmm.” Dominika met her eyes but seemed reticent to say anything.

“Say no more.” Sameera joked and left her side momentarily.

Approaching one of the kiosks where an older woman was serving food.

She thought that she recognized the snack being made and thought she would get some.

“Two kebabs, please.” Sameera said. “How much will that be?”

The auntie behind the grill smiled, raised her tail and made a dismissive hand gesture.

“I don’t want money, I want you to eat, look at you, you’re too thin.”

Sameera did not quite agree, but she knew there was no arguing with the aunties.

Behind the auntie’s plastic stand, she had a grill with meat already cooking.

With a smile, she handed Sameera two particularly plump snacks.

These were close to the type of kebabs Sameera was used to from the Union’s Shimii– ground meat mixed with spices, that was formed around a stick into a uniform and vaguely cylindrical shape before cooking. In the Union, the “meat” was vegetable or pea proteins glazed with oil, but the texture of the shaped patties of ground-up protein was very similar to the kebab snacks in this village. In the Imbrium, the popularized version of the kebab consisted of discrete bits of meat that were individually skewered on the stick and then cooked. Sameera had not tried them those– because they looked too different.

These, though they were meat, reminded her of home.

She would just have to try them.

Returning to Dominika, she handed her one of the kebabs.

Dominika took it in hand and turned over the stick in her fingers, examining the snack.

“Don’t look it over too much, it’s rude.” Sameera whispered.

“It’s actual meat, isn’t it?” Dominika said.

“When in Roma, do as the Elves do.” Sameera said gently.

She lifted her snack as if a glass to cheer with and took a bite of her kebab.

Unsurprisingly it was quite delicious, with a tender texture and a slightly firm exterior, and incredibly savory. All of the spices lent the simple snack a complex, earthy taste with a mild piquancy that was stronger in flavor than that of the meat itself. Nice and juicy from glazing in its own fluids. She was surprised that the taste was not that far off the ground proteins they served in the Union, perhaps because of the strong flavor of the spice blend.

She smiled at Dominika as if prompting her to eat, and Dominika took a tentative bite.

After that first taste, she clearly paced herself so as not to be seen devouring the snack.

“It’s good.” Dominika said, and no more than that.

“I’m glad.” Sameera said, politely leaving what was unsaid, unacknowledged.

Dominika was looking gorgeous as always on that day.

Her style of dress always surprised Sameera because Dominika was usually so withdrawn and taciturn, but her casual looks were always a bit bolder than she imagined. Everyone had chosen an outfit to requisition when they arrived in Aachen. To avoid drawing too much attention to the Treasure Box uniform while scouting the core station. Dominika had chosen and received a little pink dress with thin straps, knee-length, hugging her thin and largely angular body. She accesorized with a pair of tights and a jacket that was starting to fall off her shoulders. If she cared about its precarity she did not show it.

Her ruddy-colored hair she always wore long and loose, playing host to little reed-like black and red bioluminscent strands interspersed within.

The dim light in the village prompted her photophores to glow just a bit.

Her eyes, too, with their pink irises and blue limbal rings– they glowed gently.

Beautiful– Sameera had to try not to keep staring at her too obviously.

Meanwhile, Sameera felt her own mode of dress was quite casual.

She preferred to wear tanktops and pants as much as Dominika seemed to prefer tiny little dresses rendered modest only with jackets. She particularly liked her shoulders and arms and thought the world deserved to see them. In her own way, she was probably being immodest– but she nevertheless went through the world wearing a handsome, conceited little grin and nobody had yet to wipe it off her face (save Dominika.)

If anyone had an issue with their appearance, nobody made it known.

Everyone seemed equally pleased to have any visitors from outside the village.

Perhaps this was also because they felt kindly disposed toward “Homa’s friends.”

Sameera would have to tease that kitten sometime about how popular she was here.

“Pfennig for your thoughts, Dominika?” Sameera asked.

She had seen Dominika looking off to the side at the small, dispersed throngs of villagers.

Dominika glanced at Sameera briefly and then lowered her gaze.

“Walking around this village reminds me of living in the ice frontier.” She said.

“Cold?” Sameera asked, searching for her gaze.

“Scarce.” Dominika replied, still unable to meet her eyes.

In her own terse way, she expressed everything she felt clearly.

The Union’s southeast abutted the planet’s vast southern ice region. To expand their living space, a dedicated fleet that combined military, engineering and mining ships and gear wound their way through the ice and made way for new stations and uncovered untapped resources. It might have seemed like an insane project compared to building stations in the other territories of the Union, but the ice redoubt was also insurance against the worst case scenario. In case Ferris, Lyser and Solstice fell to the Empire in battle– then just as the Kingdom of Volgia fought the Empire to a standstill at the Northern Ice Wall, Solstice hoped to do the same in the Southern one, preserving communism for the future.

Those who picked through the ice, who lived in the slowly built-up stations and in the glacier mining works and in the subsistence tunnels– people like Dominika lived rough out there. Sameera could imagine that Dominika might have lived in a place just like this for some time. A hole in the rock in which there was oxygen and plastic shelters and dim LED clusters overhead. Where there was soup and hard work and bitter cold and always more ice sheets to cut through. Supplies were tight, local production limited, and rationing harsh.

“But–” Dominika had more to say, after a moment of silence.

She spoke in a low voice, a bit conspiratorial, between themselves and away from the villagers. “In the ice frontier, the years I spent there, I could see things getting a little better, year by year. I saw more stations go up section by section, I saw tunnel redoubts spread out and get better and more machines. Mining works became safer, warmer. There was more food stockpiled and more food served. We got better weapons and tools. More and more people came in seeking the frontier life, coming out of their own accord.”

“It was similar in Lyser.” Sameera said, matching her tone. “People didn’t want to work in the agrispheres at first, it was tough and unsafe and there was a sense that people did it just because it had to get done. But Jayasankar went through huge efforts to make agrisphere life appealing, and now it has the reputation that it has. People love to go to work in the farm communities now– they are aspirational. The government put in the effort.”

“Do you understand what I mean, Sameera?” Dominika asked, meeting her eyes again.

“Yeah– how long has it been since these folks saw their livelihoods improve?”

“Right.” Dominika said. “And– are they here of their own accord?”

Both their troubled gazes met briefly and just as quickly seemed to break apart.

In light of the hardships here, Sameera’s concerns about her mixed race felt petty.

As happy as the people looked to be holding their festival in their little village–

This was a place where they had been cast out to and trapped by others.

And worse– they had no control over it and could do very little to make it better.

Thinking about that, she felt that Homa had been the best of them–

Helping out here while the two of them sat around on the ship wasting time.

Something caught Sameera’s eye, at the edge of her vision– Dominika shook her head.

“Don’t fall into that self-sacrificing streak of yours again.” She said.

“I’ll try not to.” She said. “Do you think these folks see me as a Shimii or a Loup?”

“Ask them.” Dominika said. “But don’t judge yourself or them before you do.”

Sameera grunted a bit. It was not so easy as this hard-headed Katarran thought!

However, she also couldn’t help but laugh a bit at how blunt Dominika was.

Dominika watched her break out into unveiled laughter and grinned a little herself.

They wandered back over to the stage, besides which most of the village and the festival events seemed to be arranged. There was an enormous table being prepared that Sameera presumed was for the feast, and beside it there were tables occupied by seemingly popular figures in the village. There was the girl who met them at the gates, who seemed to be getting the most attention by far, including from Khadija and Sieglinde; and there was another girl on the table beside her who was responsible for the mehndi on the arms of seemingly everyone around them. All of the kids running around had mehndi now.

Sameera had a brief of fancy of getting one, but she hesitated for a moment.

Dominika however had no hesitation and marched up to the table, pulling her jacket off one arm. As the one Katarran in the vicinity she really stuck out among the villagers.

But she clearly acted without any such reservations.

“Can I get some green flowers?” She asked, stretching out her arm to the lady at the table.

Sameera winced a bit, expecting the mehndi girl to be offended– but she laughed instead.

“Hah, I like the enthusiasm! Comin’ right up!”

And set to work immediately, taking out a fresh container of dye with which to work.

“My name is Sareh.” Said the mehndi artist. “What do you do for a living?”

She made some small talk while preparing the dye and throughout her careful work.

“I’m Dominika. I work as a deckhand on a ship.” Dominika said.

“Ah, I see, I see. Rough work but you get to see a lot of places– right?”

“Exactly. I live for the adventure.” Her voice was so painfully emotionless saying this.

“What kind of ship do you work on, if you can say?”

“Transport ship. Moving people and things on the cheap.”

“Do deckhands have to lift heavy stuff? Can you pick up a huge crate with one hand?”

“I might be able to do it because I’m a Katarran– but deckhands just clean and fix stuff.”

“You know Homa, right? I remember Baran saying she was there to introduce you.”

Sameera briefly worried Dominika would not have the cover story straight–

“She is one of our cherished clients. We have a professional relationship.”

–she should not have been worried; Dominika was a no-nonsense kind of gal after all.

It did surprise her how politely the surly Katarran kept up the chat with Sareh.

“There, let me know what you think! You can be as critical as you want!”

Sareh looked delighted with her handiwork, the flowers and vines across Dominika’s arm.

Dominika smiled, a rare, small smile. “It’s pretty. No criticism here.”

After a moment, Sameera approached, and Sareh seemed to immediately take notice.

“You’re with her right? You’ve got a warrior’s look to you! How about I put something cool and tough on your arm huh? I’ve been wanting to try out some new designs!”

Sareh’s ears wiggled a bit, and Sameera’s raised up, briefly stunned at the proposal.

“She’s–” Dominika hesitated for a moment. “Yes, we’re together.”

Sameera was even more surprised by that than by Sareh calling to her.

Given that acknowledgment, she could not afford to be shy now– she gave Sareh her arm.

“I’m with her, yeah. My name is Sameera. Feel free to give me anything.” She said.

Sareh grinned. “You won’t be disappointed.”

For Sameera’s earthy skin, Sareh turned to her lighter dye and began the design. Around the fingers, the design was thick with lines, but became more precise behind the knuckles. Sameera watched, quiet at first. In her heart she felt a bit disquieted, because at first Sareh was not making conversation like she did with Dominika. She focused on her art instead.

Sameera wondered if this reflected on herself at all–

that maybe Sareh did not want to talk to her–

because– she was–

“–sorry I’m so quiet, the start is important. Do you also work on a ship?” Sareh asked.

–what she was, apparently, was still too foolish.

“Yes, I’m a deckhand just like my companion here.” Sameera said, a bit relieved.

“Ah– then I take it you’re also working on ships in pursuit of adventure?”

“Adventure and the paycheck.” Sameera said, trying to sound confident again.

“Tell me something interesting about you! I love keeping little stories from travelers.”

Sameera smiled outwardly but hesitated as to what she would say.

Some petty and bitter part of her spoke first, and spoke her pervasive insecurities–

“I’m actually a Loup–” She fumbled her words and restated, “Half-Loup. Half-Shimii.”

She tried to keep her tail from moving while she spoke– what if it moved like a Loup tail?

Sareh did not even look up from the strokes of her pick. “That’s interesting!” She said.

For a moment, Sameera was a bit disarmed. She had not expected such a response.

“It can be a bit tough. I don’t know anyone else like me.” Sameera said.

“Yeah– I get it.” Sareh said. “Our cultures have all these reasons to separate people out, Mahdist and Rashidun, Shimii or not. But you know, Homa is part Imbrian, but to us, she’s our kin too. I’ve never had any reason to exclude her from anything. She’s one of us too. If you want to be our kin as well, we will never demand your parentage. And I’m sure there are Loup who will feel that way too. It’s just about finding people who aren’t up their own–”

“–language.” Baran interrupted and glanced at Sareh from the next table over.

“–if you’ve been listening, you should give some encouragement.” Sareh grumbled.

“Madame Sameera, there is no Shimii who is too little Shimii to be welcome here.”

Baran and Sareh both gave Sameera the same little smile before continuing their labors.

Sameera, meanwhile, struggled to hold her composure because she wanted to weep a bit.

Her tail did begin to wag just a bit.

“Have you ever used a Diver for anything, madame Sameera?” Sareh asked. “I know on some ships the sailors are certified. It’s a really silly fantasy, but I’ve always wanted to learn to pilot one even for grunt work. They look so cool in the videos and the posters.”

So casually shifting the conversation away– Sameera felt such a strange mix of emotions.

She felt more at home here than she had for a long time in many other places.

Sameera had been running away too much– but here, home somehow caught up to her.

“Ah, no, no Divers. Our company doesn’t own anything fancy.” She said.

“Maybe someday. Anyway–” Sareh said. She lifted her pick and gestured to the arm.

On the edges of her fingers and hand, intricate swirls like flames surrounded a design shaped like an intricate curved sword in a very intricate scabbeard on the back of her hand, extending into her arm. Mehndi usually had either very feminine or very whimsical designs, since they were initially meant to be worn by brides and by girls debuting or coming of age. Sareh’s predilections came through in the design, it was a bit gaudy and a bit silly.

Sameera loved it, however. She showed it off to Dominika, who smiled at her.

“You look undoubtedly like a real Shimii warrior now.” Dominika teased.

“Give me a break.” Sameera said.

But she was smiling so widely that she nearly wept.

“Incredible! It tastes so good! This is almost hedonistic!”

Homa stared at Outis, who was enjoying a kebab so very much.

Chewing loudly, making all manner of moaning sounds, it was almost indecent to behold. She was probably not putting on an act, but the sheer joy she seemed to derive from simply eating a kebab– it made Homa want to ruin her fun by saying it was just beef and spices. There was something a bit irritating about her reaction. However, Homa was entrusted to show her around the village and had to be careful what she said. She had to suppress her own petty and cynical responses lest she misrepresent the villagers.

“Homa, is it permissible to have another? May I indulge?” She clapped her hands together.

“I mean– I don’t see why not–?” Homa was quite confused at the sudden begging.

Outis grabbed two more kebabs from the amused auntie behind the kiosk.

She handed one to Homa and watched expectanctly for a moment as Homa took a bite.

As delicious as when she ate one in the morning–

However, what she was really looking forward to now was the feast being prepared.

And the dance that seemed soon at hand judging from the preparations on the stage.

Rose petals scattered across the wood, and colored banners and streamers went up.

Baran and Sareh had left the tables with their unique diversions– maybe to fetch Kalika.

“Will there be a different type of performance soon? I see they are decorating everything more ornately and I saw people carrying more instruments to the backstage. But I like the minimalist show they have right now. The woman on the stage singing with the musicians just sitting there behind her– it reminds me of the plays that Katarrans put on.”

Outis looked at the stage with a certain fondness in her eyes.

Homa was unsure of how to read her. Her clothes were not shabby, she had a good jacket that was clearly fitted for her, and decent pants, and her shades were a simple style, and did not look expensive, but they were not trash either. Everything about her seemed to slip through the cracks of Homa’s ability to read class. She claimed to have been subsisting on rations, but she was well-dressed, and comely. Her skin was fair, and she had lipstick and perhaps concealer on, maybe even eyeshadow under those shades– her features were sleek, attractive, she was well kept and physically fit, with good shoulders.

Like most Katarrans Homa had ever met, she was probably good for a fight.

But she also just looked like any tourist and sounded like a bit of a weirdo besides.

What she said interested Homa– she felt compelled to make conversation.

“You know– I was unaware Katarrans had such traditions.” Homa said.

Outis looked at her with a sudden amusement.

“Of course we do! How do you think that we entertain each other on long voyages with nothing afforded to us? Minimalist theater. Nothing but an object to stand on, and the power of the voice and imagination. Kōmōidía! Tragōidía! The legends of warlord and mercenary alike, transmitted from crew to crew– one aspires to be spoken of in such a way!”

Flamboyant gestures and flourishes accompanied her speech. She winked at Homa.

Homa wondered whether if Outis had been the teller of any such tales herself.

She had the energy for it, certainly.

However, it made sense– and it also helped Homa to relate to her more easily.

Even with all of the Katarrans she knew, she was still fighting the stereotypes she learned.

Outis wasn’t just “some Katarran”– she was Outis, a woman who seemed to love theater.

She could imagine her huddled up in an awful Katarran ship telling stories to pass the time.

Not too dissimilar to what many villagers likely got out of holding this Tishtar.

No matter where they were or who they were, human beings needed some diversions.

This was one of many things that tied all of them together.

“Maybe someday, I’ll have a chance to see someone tell a story like that.” Homa said.

“If you ever go astray and end up with some Katarrans, certainly!” Outis laughed.

Soon enough, as Outis had realized, the festivities reached their highest stage.

First, the Tazia was lifted off the stage using a kind of palanquin– Sareh returned for the purpose of helping to haul it, and Imam Al-Qoms also assisted, along with some of the bigger aunties. Homa realized then why there were worries about its structural integrity, but it held up to being lifted, and seemed to hold up to being hauled off the stage.

From the stage, the Tazia was to be carried to the masjid.

Along the way, everyone in the village got to touch it, to pray near it, to watch it go.

It moved through the center of a growing throng. Making its way down the street.

Many of the older women were deeply affected by its passing, openly weeping.

There were loud cries in Fusha, perhaps bits of prayer Homa did not understand.

Swept up by the emotions of the adults even the children stilled and cried at its passing.

Homa understood it to be a mausoleum in effigy– so they wept for their beloved hero, Ali.

Such was the outpouring of emotions that even Homa felt like weeping suddenly.

All of the crying rippled in her guts, and the world was suddenly flooded with color. Around everyone, the color was so intense, and they imparted the color upon the Tazia, their green and yellow and red and black cries collecting in the monument– and becoming a soft, gentle white as if cleansed within the structure, which glowed– Homa saw it glow right in front of her eyes– and that maelstrom of all of their emotions was like a song of its own–

But she blinked– and these images seemed to disappear suddenly–

And she found herself holding her necklace as she had become habituated to doing.

Once the Tazia was set down in front of the masjid, Homa heard a sudden glee–

Moving like a wave from the people closest to the stage to the ones farthest.

They gestured with delight in what they saw– they prompted Homa to turn too–

Up on stage, the singer and the musicians had vanished, and there were two figures.

One was Baran, holding a harp, smiling, and gently beseeching the audience to quiet.

Doing everything that she could to stand with grace on her bad leg without flinching.

At her side– was the graceful figure of a woman, taller, leaner, gentle black on yellow eyes brushed with a touch of wine-colored pigment, inviting red lips curled into a proud little grin. Her hair was partially covered by a long, dark blue veil, but much was still visible, a purple ponytail framed by a pair of horns. Wearing blue clothes that matched her veil; long sleeves, a high neck, simple yellow embroidery forming geometric patterns across her chest and flanks. Gaps in the fabric exposed some of the upper back and belly in angled cutouts revealing starkly pink skin; a long and covering skirt from the waist down completely hid her long, graceful legs. All of the patterns and decorations brought emphasis to her limbs.

She wore a single black glove that seemed out of place with the rest.

And for her first act, she removed the glove, to reveal a mechanical prosthetic.

More intricate in its design than Homa’s, less skeletal, delicately buttressed carbon-fiber.

Nevertheless, its articulated digits, decorated with mehndi, seemed to beckon the crowd.

Beckoning Homa, who started to move closer to the stage, paying little heed to Outis as she walked in her trance. She moved through the crowd, and everyone parted to allow the awe-struck girl to move closest to the stage, some encouraging her and others smiling. Through the throng of once-mourners who now looked upon her so warmly, Homa arrived at the foot of the stage, and looked up at the woman in blue who was to begin her dance–

–of course, it was Kalika.

Kalika Loukia up on the stage–

And she was the most beautiful, captivating sight Homa felt she had ever seen.

In the center of that stage on the dim little village, a spotlight seemed to shine suddenly.

Baran retreated further into the shadows while her fingers plucked the strings of the harp.

From behind even her, came a drumming sound, a drumming on goatskin, and metal clicks.

As if carried by the melody, as if the drums were the beating of her heart–

Kalika came to life on the stage, seamlessly breaking into dance.

Building in intensity, her bare feet rose and fell on the stage in soundless piroutte, so precise and practiced her footfalls, while her arms seemed to weave the air in front of her. Her dance proceeded from full-body movements to hypnotic lifting and dropping of the hips and chest, to precise motions made with only her arms, with only her hands and fingers. It was as if the progression of the chords and the beat washed over Kalika from each step, up her torso, to her arms and seemingly carried to each digit in her gestures, off each fingertip.

Her movements captivated Homa completely–

She would spin once with her arms wide and then pull them close, to cover the face, while gracefully separating them, with a confident gaze slowly unveiled. She would cross her wrists, flutter her hands like a bird’s wings while slowly taking a shallow bow, before rising suddenly, spreading them out as if casting something into the air. In her every move, there was that flowing of states, precision and release, tension and freedom, slow deliberation and wild passion. Her body became its own instrument, joining the sound–

Homa had seen this before– she had seen this before in her dreams–

In the middle of that spotlight Kalika danced as if alone but–

Always, Homa had been watching her from right below, her heart soaring.

To her surprise–

Kalika suddenly dipped close to the edge of the stage–

And brushed the cool fingers of her prosthetic across Homa’s cheek.

With the briefest flash of a smile, she seamlessly transitioned to her next dance move.

As if it had always been intended– as if there had been no artifice–

Natural as the string-sound of the harp, natural as the beat-strikes on the drum–

Homa stood speechless and could not help but to smile.

Not just at Kalika and the beauty and skill of her dance, and at the music–

There was also a great and undeniable beauty in the fact that Kalika, a Katarran, was up on that stage perfectly performing a Shimii dance in a Mahdist festival. For the mixed race Homa there was a certain miracle in that. For a moment, so many people were captivated by that woman whom in their own arrangements they would not have had likely cause to ever see, that woman with her odd-color skin and eyes and her horns. Her beauty would have been lost on all of them and would have been lost on Homa also, but in that moment–

They were defying the prejudices that ruled the world around them.

Watching that dance, Homa felt strangely free– free of worry, free of burden–

And free to be herself, Homa Baumann, mixed race with limbs half amputated.

It was different than her dream– it was better than any of her dreams–

Up on that stage was the dream that she would have never let herself dream before.

She was the person who changed Homa’s life.

No accusing light would shine upon her yearning and no blood would spill from her hands.

Amid the spellbinding movements of Kalika’s body up on that humble festival stage–

Homa was no longer someone who viewed herself as defiled by her circumstances.

After the dance, the feast table was unveiled in all of its glories.

“Have as much as you like! There’s enough for everyone!”

A flamboyantly dressed Conny beckoned villagers and visitors alike to feast their eyes and fill their stomachs. She talked up each item on the table. It was a spread like they had never seen, and even Homa hardly ever saw so much food in one place, even in Madame Arabie’s properties. There were plates of hummus speckled with garlic and pickles; piled high with flatbread that still smelled of the oven; slices of grilled meat encrusted with a zesty paste of nuts and oil and vinegar; pots of stewed meat in a bright red tomato gravy with leek and prunes; bright green soup with spinach and leek and barley; and most captivating of all were the desserts. Plates of bright yellow halwa in the shapes of moons, stars, and a centerpiece in the shape of the tazia itself, flavored and decorated and even colored with rehydrated and dried fruits and nuts, with rose water and sugar syrups and chocolate.

Homa stood captivated by the food but only briefly.

While everyone else began to make up plates and to move aside for others–

She sidestepped the table entirely, squeezing through to the back of the stage.

There was someone she now hoped to see more than a plate of meat.

Behind the curtains in the back of the stage there was a platform where the instruments and various other acoutrements were laid out for the folks who would be performing, whether in view of the stage or hidden behind. Sitting on the edge of this platform, hidden from the sight of the villagers, her long legs and bare feet hanging off the raised structure– was Kalika, still in her dancer’s garb, save for the veil which she had taken off.

Homa found her laughing and smiling as she sat, catching her breath still.

“Kalika!” Homa called out, unable to contain her own smiling face.

Kalika glanced over to her, and her lips spread into a bright and joyous beam.

“Homa! You look so pretty! I was so surprised to see you dressed like that.”

“I was just getting into the spirit. You– you were amazing Kalika!”

Homa approached the platform. Kalika extended a hand and helped her climb up.

Then, she hooked her arm around Homa’s shoulder and pulled her cheek to cheek.

Sitting side by side behind the curtain, staring at the distant rock wall, laughing.

“It felt amazing.” Kalika said. “I had not done something like that in such a long time. I was surprising myself with some of those moves!” She made some of the motions with her hand that she did on stage, carefully lifting her hand in time with music that was no longer playing and gesturing over her own face. Carefully demonstrating the technique. “Moving so rapidly and deliberately, in such a rehearsed way– I can still feel it like there is an energy brimming under my skin that wants to get out. It was fun! I hope everyone enjoyed the show.”

“They better have enjoyed it!” Homa said. “It was incredible, Kalika. I was speechless.”

Kalika shut her eyes and smiled at Homa. Was her face perhaps blushing just a bit?

“Have you been having fun today?” Kalika asked.

Homa smiled again, perhaps more easily and casually than ever.

In that moment, she was all smiles.

“I’ve had a great time. I’ve had so many kebabs, and Sareh gave me a mehndi.”

She showed Kalika her arm, and Kalika in turn showed Homa her own in detail.

“Who knew that girl was so artistic?” Kalika asked.

“Right? Shes a bit blunt but she’s actually really creative.” Homa said.

“Everyone here is rather amazing.” Kalika said. “I almost wish I could stay.”

Homa felt like her heart caught in her chest for just a second.

Could she ever stand to lose Kalika–?

“Me too.” She said– not entirely honestly–

“But–” Kalika took Homa’s prosthetic hand with her own, entwining their fingers.

“We’re both going to the same place, aren’t we Homa?”

Implicitly, all of this time– Homa had been acting– she had already decided–

She was a communist now– along with all of the people of the Brigand.

“Yeah. We’re going to the same place.” Homa said, eyes tearing up.

Though she did not entirely understand what that meant, she knew that she had already decided to entwine her fate with that of that mysterious ship and all the strange, kind people that worked aboard it. She knew that had been the case ever since she accepted the doctor’s kindness, and the Captain’s sincerity, and most of all, Kalika’s endless, inexplicable and sometimes vexing support. As much as she pouted and rebelled– as much as she feared for her life– she felt that she both owed them, and had nowhere to go– but also–

–she felt that she wanted to be at their side because they were capable of change.

Homa, herself– she had already changed because of the opportunity they gave her–

Perhaps only a little– perhaps only the tiniest microgram of change.

She had changed enough, however, that leaving that ship was out of the question.

And leaving Kalika behind was an even more frightening prospect.

For a moment the two of them locked eyes. Tenderly– their gazes also changed–

“Homa– on the day that I met you in Kreuzung– this will sound so silly, but–”

Kalika had begun talking, but Homa moved first on her own accord, pressing on her.

Nearing her face, brushing her cheek, and taking her lips into a kiss quickly reciprocated.

In that moment their hearts entwined as tightly as their steel fingers.

Outis stood in front of the feast table, picking out small amounts of food with a smile.

She thought she had what was a normal and reasonable plate of food on her hands.

Along the way, however, another woman in line looked at her plate and got her attention.

“Madame– it’s truly okay to eat your fill here. Please don’t hold back.” She said.

When Outis looked down at the small scoop of veggies, the one piece of meat–

“Ah, thank you. I am just– used to being frugal.”

Unused to having such unrestricted access to food without the Warlord’s say-so, she had unwittingly fallen back into old habits. So with the blessing of the people in the line, she went back through the feast table until her plate was actually full. Once it was, she walked away, picking at it. Everything was delicious, but her mind became just a bit preoccupied.

These people don’t have so much that they can afford to give away.

It was a bit puzzling– when she grew up, it was not uncommon to conspire to kill another numeroi just to have at their rations for a bit. Here, these Shimii who lived in the roughly hewn rock in the outskirts of an actual town, visibly deprived of space and opportunity by the Shimii outside those gates– they still gave everything they had not just to each other but total strangers. This was a far sight from how the Imbrians had always behaved.

Nowadays it was not all bad in Mycenae– the Warlord had cleaned up a lot.

After purging the corrupt Synkletos, and killing all of their families and households–

Those were years when Odyssia– Outis– was able to eat better.

Enough to be able to make friends for less selfish reasons than cheating them out of food.

Perhaps that was why she had opted to be partisan toward Astra Palaiologos.

Where she went, plenty seemed to follow her– her people were treated well.

Would Astra ever be so charitable, however, if she were in these people’s position?

And– would any of them? If another tragedy took everything from them one more time?

If they were rendered powerless?

She grabbed a skewer and tore off a bit of meat from it with her teeth.

It was so savory that it nearly brought tears to her eyes.

Well– the Warlord is the best hope we have ever had of creating a future for Katarre.

Perhaps Katarre would never look like this– perhaps they would never smile like these Shimii could even amid their wretchedness. In the wake of a thousand year history of tragedies so cyclical that they felt inescapable, they sang, they danced– and so did the Katarrans– and maybe they got ready for the next worst thing that would transpire. One could suppose that time moved on regardless, so one might as well enjoy today while it lasted–

Outis dipped the meat in sauce for the next bite.

When she stood in place, she still tapped her feet as if impatiently.

“Ah– have I become too familiar with moving on regardless?” Outis mused to herself.

Hers was a path prophecized never to end– she had to keep moving, no matter what.

Or she would become powerless herself, without question.

“It was a truly magnificent Tishtar, wasn’t it?”

“Possibly the best one this village has ever seen. We’ll need to thank everyone properly.”

Stripped bare of both their clothes and their pretensions, in the glow that followed physical affection, Sareh and Baran laid on a futon together, holding hands still slick with their pleasure and staring at the ceiling. A mechanical fan spun its endless circle, gently turning away the sweat on their faces. They shared one thin blanket decorated with the shapes of masjids and moons. It was a bit chilly but their shared warmth kept them comfortable.

“How is your leg doing? Are you in any pain?”

“You asked before we–”

“I know– but we were a bit vigorous–”

“It’s fine, Sareh. You were quite tender with me. And it’s healing up quite well.”

Sareh felt she had gotten a bit carried away– it wasn’t their first time–

–that had been clumsier and faster, directly following the change in their relationship.

Regardless, neither of them were exactly experienced, so she had been a little worried.

For Sareh, it was still difficult to think that she let Baran be injured.

Worse to imagine that she might hurt her with her greedy little lusts.

They two of them and their dalliance represented part of the future of this futureless place.

Both feared they might see its engineered dead-end. Their courtship was always framed in the triumphs and tragedies of the little village in which they had grown up, discovered their true feelings for each other, and tried to live with vast, twisted contradictions behind everything. Both the feast and famine of their material lives and the whispers and shouts of their own affections. It was difficult not to think of the village when they thought of themselves and not to think of each other when they thought about the village. Both its needs and the dangers that threatened to unravel it completely.

Like the village, their courtship might be lost forever if handled carelessly.

Their biggest fears were unsubstantiated but possible– just like with the village.

For the moment, however, they had peace.

“Someday, I’ll treat you right, Baran, like how you should be.”

“At the moment, I am your wife, and I would say you are treating me splendidly.”

“I know– but you know what I mean. I care about you more than anything.”

“I know what you mean. But– don’t put so much stock in tradition, alright?”

As if to show there was no ill feeling, Baran turned and cuddled up closer to Sareh.

Laying in the bed like the husband and wife that they, technically, were for the day.

“We have to hold another Tishtar next year. I want to see you dance.” Sareh said.

“Kalika did fantastic, didn’t she?” Baran replied, her head laid on Sareh’s chest.

“She did– but I want it to be you! Up on the stage. A bigger stage! Brighter!”

Sareh lifted the hand at her side. Her other hand stroked Baran’s hair.

“That would be quite a sight. We will do it– I’ll dance like you’ve never seen.”

“Yeah! I can’t wait. We’ll absolutely top ourselves next time.”

They became quiet, the energy of their optimism always struggling against reality.

This year they had been able to hold Tishtar– a lot of good turns transpired to enable it. Despite some trials, the village, through God’s grace, made some new friends and welcomed a few returning ones, like Conny. Despite her stated intentions, Rahima had been absent from the festivities, but the supplies she had promised them did turn up without her.

They held an incredible feast and there was more than enough for all of their friends and neighbors to fill their bellies twice over. In the evening service at the masjid everyone told of the miracles of God on the surface, and the stories of the companions, and the gardens that awaited the faithful, which were full of the purest waters and most beautiful trees.

Everything had been beautiful, and the village had been injected with life again.

Was it possible to live every day in this fashion? Could this light and life simply remain?

“Sareh, what worries you in this moment? I feel your breathing quickening.”

Baran pulled even closer and laid her head in the center of Sareh’s chest for a moment.

Sareh smiled at the cheekiness of her wife.

“I’m just thinking about how many things happened the past few days.”

“It’s been lively, hasn’t it? I believe it can be that lively again in the future too.”

“You always read me so easily. Baran– I– I’m afraid I just don’t know how to make it happen.”

“It’s not up to us alone.” Baran said, lifting her head and laying closer to Sareh’s face again.

“You’re right.” Sareh said. “I just wish I could save you and everyone, by myself.”

“That’s foolish. You must at least rely on your wife.” Baran said.

Sareh turned in bed as well– the two of them locked eyes together and held hands.

They pulled in closer for a kiss, their tails entwined, chest to chest.

“Whatever happens, the villagers will remember and cherish this Tishtar and that is good enough for me right now.” Baran said. “Sareh– I will also remember and cherish it– as I cherish every moment I spend with you. Whether as villagers, as Mahdists, as lovers– we’ll be together Sareh. I promise you. I will never leave you. That future is certain.”

Though Sareh did not mention it in that moment– she understood Baran made her choice.

And she, too, would follow Baran no matter what happened.

Night arrived over the little village, understood only as time and the dimming of lights.

For many hours still there was the feast, and the evening service, and the kids ran around until their energy was spent. The aunties ate and told stories well into the night and attended prayers that lasted for as long as there were people with piety to spend. There was so much food that everyone in the village had their fill and more and the table only emptied when it was decided to retire plates going hours-cold as leftovers for different families.

Homa and Kalika, hand in hand, joined in the feast, and everyone congratulated Kalika for her dance. She was asked to reprise a few of her moves and gladly put on little impromptu performances for anyone who asked. Homa received heaps of praise and many thanks for her assistance, which she uncharacteristically accepted without equivocating in any way. Some people went as far as to say her appearance was a God-sent omen for the Tishtar.

She was asked to come back next year, and she said that she would try.

Khadija and Sieglinde remained fixed to the feast table and to a gaggle of aunties who vaguely recognized her surname, which she had not disguised. She made conversation among women only slightly older than herself, and faced the strange situation of being treated like a girl when she was used to being the older woman in the room. Sieglinde smiled and nodded along, unable to say anything much but seemingly enjoying the company.

It was easy to catch her fixating on Khadija all throughout the party.

Sameera and Dominika kept to themselves for a while, until Sareh and Baran joined them and made some small talk. When Sareh and Baran retired to their own quarters, they welcomed Homa’s friends to stay the night if they did not feel like traveling back to their ship. All of them took her up on it, briefly calling back to their ship to report.

Tishtar thus concluded. Before retiring, everyone left at the feast table led a cheer.

Tomorrow, they would put away all of the festival items.

But they would always remember their village as it was on Tishtar, full of color.

Color that glinted off of the necklace that Homa wore, unbeknownst to her.

When she retired for the night, she and Kalika held hands and slept close together.

They knew they had become more than friends or comrades, but had not had the chance to talk over what had transpired and what their feelings and desires truly were. Regardless, Homa held Kalika’s prosthetic hand in her own and fell asleep, and as she did so, her other hand lifted to hold her necklace. That dormant sliver of a once-venerated elder–

Color drifted into it and its ancient voice, unheard, whispered affectionaly–

We are so happy for you. We are glad you are well. Homa– we love you, Homa–

In her sleep, Homa smiled and dreamed so sweetly.

In the middle of the living room in a luxury apartment, a small object flew over a couch.

Shaped like a vertical hanging cylinder on four small rotors, with visible camera lenses marked by a slight glare dotting its body. There was a demarcation at the bottom end of the cylinder as if the lower third was a separate rounded-off square module. Sleek, unpainted metal coated in a dulling glaze so as to reduce its reflectivity; the quadrotor made very little sound as it moved. It was quick, and precise, and sturdy enough for its movement.

As a demonstration of its abilities, its lower half detached and hung by a cable.

Once it touched the floor, a pair of wheels emerged from the chassis and rolled the canister around the carpet, stretching the cable. It made a few quick laps between all of the couches, and the onlookers assessed the speed with which it could reach its target, and the length of the cable. It was also demonstrated that the drone could switch to a horizontal mode to fit in smaller spaces, and tuck in the rotors closer or farther from the chassis to maneuver.

Its payload, however, could not be discharged, even for a test– it had to be taken as it is.

“Inside the canister is enough G8 to cover a room. Isn’t it a lovely little gadget?”

Rubbing her hands together and practically salivating, with a tablet in her hands controlling this specific drone. A tall, skinny woman with long, golden-brown hair that fell over her shoulders, separated over her forehead, and soft and round cheeks twisted in a wicked sneer, round glasses perched on her nose. She wore an entirely black uniform, adorned with an armband, red with a white circle containing a black sun-disc, and her lapel had a metal pin resembling a braided square net, turned to resemble a diamond shape, with hooked crosses on its ends. This symbol denoted an engineering officer for the national socialist armed forces, and Henrietta Hermann was one such officer, and quite an example.

Atop her head was a peaked cap adorned with a totenkopf— Volkisch special forces.

“G8 viciously targets the nerves, inducing a complete neurological shut-down in seconds, with little hope of an antidote being administered. Once this transpires, multiple organ failure will be absolutely certain. It is technically possible to save a G8 victim by hooking them up to complete life support– but none of our targets will have this chance.”

“How long will the gas linger around? Is there a possibility for collateral?”

A strong but confident voice, unshaken by the grim subject matter.

“Absolutely not, mein gauleiter! The wonderful thing about G8– it lingers for only a few minutes before decaying into harmless compounds that wither away in the ventilation with no one the wiser. Our target profile will be quite contained, I assure you.”

Henrietta insisted; and Rahima Jašarević smiled approvingly.

“How many drones are ready to go?” Rahima asked.

“Enough to secure your rule, Gauleiter,” answered the blond woman ever at Rahima’s side, Bernadette Sattler, “Enough to carry out the operation even in the unlikely event that we meet any resistance. I explicitly ordered Henrietta to prepare for the worst.”

“Yes, indeed! Furthermore, it is possible to deploy the G8 tactically in combat.”

“I would strongly prefer not to be discovered, or to employ chemical weapons in battle.”

Rahima reached into her coat and produced a small tablet which she handed to Henrietta.

Henrietta picked it up, switched it on, and immediately grasped the contents.

“Quite thorough! Impressive work, milord! It more than suffices!” Henrietta said.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time, Hauptscharführer Hermann.”

A perhaps casual thought that many people had, once or twice in their lives, was whether and how and whom they would kill to get whatever they desired. How many people they hated and how much. In children it was viewed as an antisocial and threatening action to generate a list of enemies, an omen of a darker intellect than prior perceived; as an adult, it might even be used as evidence of a future action if such a list was revealed and if the hand that produced it was viewed as having the means to carry out reprisals. Nevertheless, it was not so uncommon to make enemies, and therefore, to keep their foul tally.

Ever since that fateful day when her governorship was stolen from her–

Ever since her colleagues and the system she upheld betrayed her in every possible way–

Ever since the destruction of all her dreams and beliefs in one overwhelming instant–

Rahima carefully populated her list. Names, addresses, and crimes. Hundreds of them.

There was no need to single out the manner of judgment– only death would expiate.

And now the Kolibri drones represented the sheathes containing her Long Knives.

Rahima watched the drone sway in front of her, its form quietly filled with killing might.

Her head briefly flashed with images that felt as if from a different person entirely–

Arriving at Aachen– all the political work– the hope for a future ever-brightening–

Conny, smiling at her, proud and supportive of what she accomplished–

Those two kids in their little village, holding their festival amid the hatred of everyone–

“You have twelve hours to prepare. We will begin the operation on my command.”

On not one single word did she hesitate and there was no pain in her heart or head.

A smiling Henrietta saluted with glee; and the stoic-faced Bernadette saluted with her.

Both quickly left Rahima to complete their assigned tasks.

There was nothing more that needed to be considered or to be thought or said.

Everything Rahima had ever been and ever seen would be destroyed and then remade.

“It will be ours– It will be us taking it in our hands once and for all.” She told herself.

Rahima knew– ever since she donned the black, there was no escaping from Destiny.

However– she would turn the black on all of those who debased and abused the Shimii.

Who had debased and abused– her self–

“They will suffer disgrace in this world.” Rahima murmured to herself, the beginnings of recitation. “And on the Day of Judgment, we will subject them to the torment of burning.”

And the Shimii would walk into a bloodstained future as they had many times before.

Flickering intermittent lamplight, dim, most of the diodes stricken black with age.

Casting a curtain of half-light between two support girders.

Partially illuminating the slight smile on Tamar Livnat’s face. Arms crossed in front of her, coat over her shoulders and fixed at the waist for warmth. In the deepest, oldest parts of Aachen were so many men had toiled for ores and died here forgotten. There was not even the dust of them left and so nothing to force recognition of this site as a grave. The site was chosen purely because of its advantages, but the irony was not lost on Tamar, how much this abandoned mine and its long gone corpses resembled her conception of Eloim history– the world a mass grave without evidence of what was taken from them.

Save that which she, and perhaps she alone, collected for them.

Tamar Livnat, the gravetender of the glory of Judea– until now.

“Is everything prepared? I would like the ugliness to be over before the day.”

Across the girders, in third-light if Tamar’s was only a half–

There was a jovial, euphoric grin that met Tamar’s query with an unrelenting glee.

At first appearing as if detached from a face, until the owner took a step closer.

“The goyim stand no chance, Manhig. We shall give them quite a show before their defeat.”

From the darkness approached a woman in a white military uniform, pristine despite the surroundings, decorated with a blue armband upon which there was a white star. Such stars, blue and white, adorned her uniform as well in many places, and she had two which served as earrings. Her tidy, black hair fell over her shoulders and down her back, and she had tidy bangs which framed a pretty and fair face– one that was distorted by the sheer vehemence of her sneer, which seemed to seize every facial muscle as she cackled to herself.

Tamar’s lips did not rise nor fall a bit in response.

“You are a good child; you are all good children. I believe in all of you.”

“Your praise elevates me,” replied Menahem Halevi, eyes twinkling with their own stars.

Tamar would not fool herself as to the magnitude of the task ahead.

The Eloim were a dead people who had lost even their true name–

All of them had lost the true comprehension of what their rituals and teachings even meant–

A decaying body with an empty brain.

However– this body was about to receive an injection of life, and a calling, a rallying cry.

“Next year, in Yerushalem— my dear Aluf Menahem.” Tamar said.

Tamar buried the weak part of herself when her sister was mutilated by the fascists.

Now it was time for every Eloim to bury their weakness and unearth their lost nation.

Death begot life– and the deaths of all of those that they hated would revive the Eloim.

It was only a matter of seeing it through to the end, without mercy, without hesitation–

“It will be so– the Dibuqim will finally emerge.” said Menahem, rubbing her fingers.

Only a matter– of hating everything as they themselves had been hated.

Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.8]

In a small shack in the Mahdist village, a soft-faced, indigo-haired elf turned in bed.

A voice, distant at first but growing in fidelity as she awakened.

Nipote. Nipote. I see turning you there. Wakey-wakey.”

She groggily opened an eye to find a blue-haired elf poking and shaking her gently.

A young-looking lady in a fancy tasseled bra top with an open midriff, twin-tailed hair–

Nipote, welcome back. Are you ready to talk now?”

Elena sat up, looked at Conny in the eyes, and then darted back in bed, startled.

“Stop it!” Conny said, lifting her arms in front of her in defense. “No more rocks!”

Seeing Conny pathetically waving her arms as if it would stop any summoned rocks from striking her, Elena calmed herself down. She sat back and slid down against the wall, ending up on the mattress like a discarded doll. Her sleep, this time around, had been dreamless.

No more hallways or entities pretending to be her dead loved ones.

However she was still reeling from what she had experienced. It was not just a dream world. She had some inkling that psionic powers were dangerous. She knew that it was possible to lose her mind, however briefly, into a dream or vision that felt entirely real to her.

She knew also that real pain could result from such excursions of the mind.

Norn’s echo in her memories had done as much to her.

Elena was not prepared for the sheer scope of it. Those endless, surreal green hallways and the monster that stalked her within them. Did anyone know that such a thing could happen? How many people had fallen prey to it? She couldn’t make heads nor tails of it all.


There were real problems to deal with– she had to put it out of her mind for now.

“Elena, I really want to make peace! I’m truly sorry that everything was so abrupt, but once I discovered your psionics and that Norn the Praetorian had tampered with them, I felt that I had to do something! What if you were being coerced in some way?” Conny said.

“You almost damaged my mind! I was so distressed!” Elena replied.

Conny averted her gaze as if she was beginning to feel shame.

“Losing some figment of Norn the Praetorian could have only been good for you!”

“And you get to decide that for me?”

“Yes! I know better than you! And I felt responsible for a family member’s well-being!”

“I’m an adult! I don’t need you acting like you’re my guardian! You don’t know me at all!”

Conny sighed and raised a hand to her face.

For a moment she stopped talking and looked from between her fingers into the distance.

It took almost a minute for her to turn back to Elena with her shoulders heavy.

“You’re right. I was impulsive. But I was trying to protect you.” Conny said.

“Hmph. I won’t suddenly believe and trust you for the barest amount of contrition.”

Conny crossed her arms in front of herself. “Time out!”

“Time out?!” Elena shouted.

“It’s– it’s been a long time since I had to deal with family affairs. I’m really sorry. I am afraid that I messed things up. Can we just slow down– I don’t want to make another mistake.”

Now it was Elena’s turn to sigh.

She was suddenly reminded of stupid teenaged arguments with Gertrude and Sawyer.

Two block-headed people shouting past each other. One unable or unwilling to apologize and the other unable or unwilling to accept it if it happened. Neither knowing how to resolve the issue or what to do to make it up, or too stubborn to accept it. Until one or the other or both calmed down finally, and took stock, and decided to reach out and return to the status quo. Those were always the most painful nights of her teenaged years.

Elena was often the most diplomatic one.

No matter how mad she was, she hated being on bad terms with anybody.

She had never wanted to fight anyone or to hurt anyone, but things just turned out wrong.

Her current situation with Gertrude was remarkably bad on this front.

And she felt that she would rather not also have Conny hanging over her head as well.

Especially given the potential of learning about her family– of having a family at all.

“Aunt Conny–” Elena began, with a serious tone–

Conny’s face lit up with a childish smile and she interrupted. “You called me aunt?”

She did not acknowledge the interruption.

In her mind, there was a speech taking form that she wanted to deliver as best she could.

“Aunt Conny. I am Elena Lettiere. I am the daughter of Leda Lettiere and Konstantin von Fueller. Just as you suspected. That must then make us family.” Elena said. “I admit that part of myself– but I am trying to leave behind the idea that I am a princess with power over other people. I am trying to just be a person like anyone, among my peers.” She kept from her aunt the idea that she was proletarianizing, not knowing how it might go over. She explained the essence of things regardless. “I don’t want anyone to protect me. I don’t want anyone to decide things for me. I want to be my own person and make my own decisions.”

For the first time, Conny finally appeared genuinely contrite.

The angle of her sharp ears lowered significantly, and she had a downturned expression.

“Elena. I am so sorry. I made such a grave mistake with your mother. I’m truly sorry.”

Seeing the face of her niece– did it remind her of that mistake?

Had it been recalling her painful past since the moment she first saw Elena in the village?

“I don’t think you made a mistake.” Elena said.

She fixed Conny with a gaze that made Conny blink with confusion.

Her heart filled with compassion.

“When you– connected with me.” Elena said, referring to her baptism because she was not entirely certain about the terminology. “I saw memories of you and mom. I have some of my own memories of my mom– and I know what you have told me of her too. I think– if I had been in my mother’s place– I might have made her choice too. I feel that it is a choice that she made. She was not afraid to die. So I think– she must have wanted to be close to power.”

“You’re trying to say that it was not wrong for me to have let her carry on.” Conny said.

“Yes. I’m sorry if its presumptuous of me to talk about those events. I was very young for all of that and I have poor recollections of my mother, but to everyone who knew her, she was a titanic figure.” Elena said. “I can’t imagine that what she wanted from you was someone to coddle her and hide her away from danger. She seemed too independent for that.”

And it mirrored Elena’s own experiences with overprotective figures.

“I think what she wanted was a confidant, a supporter– a sister.” Elena said, smiling a bit.

“It is quite presumptuous of you.” Conny said, her face still a touch melancholy. Her ears slowly began to raise again, however. “But I appreciate that you’re trying to comfort me.”

She reached out a hand to Elena. Inviting her– to show affection as family.

Elena reached her own in response and held the tips of Conny’s fingers.

“I’m still upset with you. But– being my mother’s daughter means being your niece.”

“You’re more mature than I gave you credit for. I wish I’d been there to see you grow.”

The two of them looked each other in the eyes. Their ears wiggled slightly.

She felt safe with Conny, despite what had happened.

“I haven’t felt what it’s like to have family for a long time myself.” Elena said.

“It’s complicated, and we make mistakes. Especially us elves– o dio.” Conny said.

For a moment the two of them shared a small laugh. Conny sat beside Elena on the bed.

“Conny, I want to learn more about my family. But I also have– my own affairs that I need to look after. I have made commitments I won’t abandon.” Elena said, careful of her words.

“I understand. Will you let me meet your crew? I promise to be discrete.” Conny said.

She put on a mischievous smile that made her look so girlish and young.

Elena wondered if she herself looked that girlish when she smiled.

“I’ll talk to the captain.” Elena said. “Maybe you can escort me back to Stockheim.”

“Absolutely! And I’ll thank this captain with all of my heart for protecting my niece.”

So unused to being referred to in such a coddling fashion, Elena could not help but laugh.

“…Elves sure can be boisterous.” Ulyana sighed,

walking through the Brigand’s deployment chute out to Stockheim’s landing, running a hand over her shoulder and squeezing. She winced– her back and her shoulders were hurting from all the sitting down she had done throughout the day and then all the sitting down she did at night. She was tense and tight all over. Her knees were starting to throb. Hunching over her notes at the United Front, standing up and sitting down, yelling her lungs out. There had been too much tension and stress and not enough keeping limber in her life lately.

“At least Aaliyah will keep that Conny entertained while I do this.” She said.

Elena had somehow met her long-lost maternal aunt while on a trek to the Wohnbezirk that Ulyana had not authorized but, once it happened, she felt should have been harmless. She would have to talk to Chloe Kuri about her little “side hustles” someday– but what was done was done. Now the loudest elf Ulyana had ever met in her life thanked them profusely for saving her niece. She offered to buy them pizza, to give them money, and to hook them up with connections from her NGO work. She seemed to have heard a quite massaged version of their story and Ulyana did not want to contradict it in front of Elena.

Especially since the girl looked like she wanted to be buried throughout the conversation.

Ulyana could tell that Aaliyah was initially furious– but she seemed to soften up eventually.

Particularly when Conny promised to sign an NDA and heaped them with promises of aid.

Ulyana was glad to be out of the Brigand for now.

But she was taking a jaunt through Stockheim for business, not pleasure.

Since arriving at Aachen, the Volksarmee had contact with sympathetic dockworkers in Stockheim who helped them out from time to time. The dockworkers had factions among themselves just as the station itself did– Gloria Innocence Luxembourg had discrete connections with the labor union brass in Stockheim, but among the rank and file, the Volksarmee had met smaller cliques of more radical dockworkers who argued for worker self-management rather than just wage negotiations and health plans.

These people helped the Volksarmee more personally.

One such group who worked out of the maintenance areas allowed them access after hours.

There were no recording devices in these locations, and they were out of the way.

This made them perfect for clandestine exchanges.

Using an unmarked pass that had been programmed to work that night, Ulyana got through a security door into a quite small, uninhabited office from which dockworkers could access the maintenance interstice between tiers of the berth structures. She dropped down a ladder into a dark, damp and cold space, the walls covered with thick bundles of wires, square glass gauges, LED indicators, and junction boxes. She had to crouch a bit to fit inside, dimly lit in green, blue and red by all of the lights dotting the walls.

There, she waited, hands on her knees.

Straining her eyes to see in the dimness the figure that she had agreed to meet with.

Checking a pocket-watch that she had borrowed from the Commissar.

Such things being more common to Nagavanshi’s favored who received niche gifts.

Ulyana waited, her ears catching every drop of condensation, every shift of her own feet.

Until she thought she finally heard a counterpart deeper in the tunnel.

Advancing through the dim distance until her figure could be distinctly read as a person.

“Allow me to assist you.”

From out of the shadows a soft, small hand reached out, the skin on the palm splitting.

Yellow bio-luminescence lit up Ulyana and the visitor’s faces.

Shed by a tumorous growth she had suddenly grown, disfiguring the palm of her hand.

An action shockingly casual and seemingly painless for this creature.

It was Enforcer III: The Gluttony, or “Gula,” which seemed to be her personal name.

In her dealings with the creatures the two names were used interchangeably.

The shorter one seemed to be preferred between her and her ‘prince’.

“I thought Avaritia would come to meet me herself.” Ulyana said.

Across stood a girl short enough she did not need to crouch in the tunnels. Her bare feet were damp and dirty from walking in the tunnels, but it did not seem to bother her. She was dressed in a lacy, fancy little dress that nevertheless showed some skin in the sides, in the shoulders, a hint of her identity as a sexual being peering out from the embellishments. Her hair fell so long behind her back it almost touched the floor. When Ulyana had first met the creature her eyes were uncovered, but she was since wearing a kind of faux-feathered white winged mask over her eyes and temples. The majority of her face remained uncovered.

Ulyana could not understand the whims of her visitor.

So well-dressed, so beautifully made up, when she could change her body at any time.

What did beautiful clothes and makeup represent to this creature?

“I can understand why anyone would relish a meeting with my fair prince, but at the same time, am I not a being whose majesty is worth admiring?” Gula put on a wild and wide smile, showing off rows of vibrating saw-teeth inside of her mouth. These were located behind the facade of human-like incisors that would show if she smiled less dramatically.

“You are indeed a looker, but Avaritia needs to keep her promises more strictly. Neither side trusts each other that much at the moment. We should be more exacting.” Ulyana said.

“Oh, we trust you plenty, hominin. You aren’t a threat to us after all.” Gula said.

Maybe not now, but sometime in the future– if it came down to it, she would become one.

Especially since this creature could not read her mind or control her.

“Have you discovered anything about the anarchists?” Ulyana asked.

“Straight to the point? How boring.” Gula’s lips closed, hiding her teeth and returning the illusion of a pretty, delicate and demure ‘princess’. “Indeed, we have met with and stood among the anarchists quite recently. Their main forces are actually located within the Aachen Massif. Numbering several hundreds. They have mastered the tunnel network and have a few means of entry and egress from the Core Station. They even restored a single ship berth in one of the extraction points in the abandoned mine, and have a vessel there, but in poor condition. It seems they had some sort of incident on the way to Aachen.”

“That’s far more sophisticated than I imagined.” Ulyana said.

“They have an impressive operation, but there are flaws. Their operational security is poor, particularly that of the Volgian man’s group. Nobody suspected us even when we refused to bring our entire forces to join the rest of them. All of them wore their intentions on their sleeves– but the group led by the Eloim woman, all of their minds are much more guarded.” Gula said. “They are all hiding something. I believe that their contingent of forces must be larger than we are led to believe. I also sensed great desperation within them.”

Ulyana had thought the anarchists used commercial transportation and fake identities and that they were simply mingling about the station with the civilians, to appear in small groups when needed. She was not well informed on the history of the Aachen Massif and did not realize what a boon it could have been to their forces. This explained why Tamar Livnat was so keen to acquire another ship from them. She must have worked hard to bring all of her forces to Aachen, maybe even devised the scheme in the tunnels ahead of time.

And now she did not have a ship with which to support all her combined forces.

“Are your senses keener than Avaritia’s?” Ulyana asked.

“I am more skilled with auras.” Gula said. “But my darling is more powerful than me in all respects. I make up for what she lacks in subtle technique, and she makes up for what I lack in force. However, I have my own ways of defending myself if necessary of course.”

She opened her mouth and shut it as if miming a bite.

“You like to talk.” Ulyana said.

“I like having a hominin audience. My kin don’t appreciate my eloquence.” Gula said.

“Well, I do appreciate it. You may regale me with anything more that you desire.”

Gula smiled widely again. “You are a very cheeky hominin. I like you.”

“Speaking of your group, how are your forces holding up? Do you need any aid?”

“I’m afraid you might not understand, but many of our forces are occupied on our ship.”

Ulyana bristled a little bit. She was a ship’s captain, they knew at least that!

“Why wouldn’t I understand? I have a crew also. I completely understand.”

“No, you see, we can’t pull anyone from their duties on our ship– because they are the ship.” Gula smiled ever wider. “We had to use significant amounts of biomass to create our ship, and it has to be ready to extract us at a moment’s notice. Separating them from the ship would be a waste of the energy it took to join them. We have only a small five-body team with us. How shall I say this– we are saving them for a rainy day? Is that still an idiom?”

Once more, Gula casually said something that made Ulyana’s guts wrench.

However, she did her best to hide her displeasure and discomfort at this disclosure.

Human crew always expressed a joy at being part of a ship– but probably not like that.

With their biological powers, a living ship only made sense.

Wandering about how its constituent persons must feel in it caused her to shudder.

“Yes, it’s still an idiom. A lot of surface-based language survived to this day.”

“I’m glad. Culture should never be lost. At worst, only recontextualized.”

“So when you take us over, will our culture be preserved?” Ulyana asked suddenly.

“Of course.” Gula said, without skipping a beat. She had thought of this– and something about that disturbed Ulyana even more than if she had kept quiet. “Once you hominin are put in your proper place, you will thrive. Free of oppressing each other for goods and services, you will be able to pursue culture in its purest forms and pleasures. Your bodies will be your art, and you will make art with your bodies. You will be like beautiful dolls who find boundless joy in your flawless performances for us Omenseers. Using our biokinesis we can sculpt you into any shape you find pleasing, and allow you to do anything that you desire, and we can even make it so you feel nothing but bliss forever. Once you become unable to practice further, rather than suffer the pain of senescence, we can turn you to biomass.”

“I– I see. Well– I’m at least glad you’ve put some thought into it.”

She was not glad at all– she was being diplomatic.

Part of her mind wondered if allying with this thing was any better than with the Volkisch.

And what had led them to host such a boundless disregard for humanity.

Or even worse– a disregard in the guise of paternalism.

“We have been engineering our ideal world for a very long time. You’ll see it someday.”

Gula bared her teeth again. Smiling so easily and without worry.

“But for now, that is all that we have to report. We will keep our eyes peeled.”

Ulyana sighed. “Let us know if you need anything.” She said.

“Nothing we feel comfortable asking hominins to do, at the present.”

Gula continued to smile as she spoke.

It was as if her voice was coming from somewhere else.

Ulyana got that feeling again– that she was in a room with something larger than this girl.

“Did you have trouble making it here?” Ulyana asked. “Do you need help getting back?”

Better to be as courteous as possible at this stage of the alliance.

“Oh no, it was incredibly easy. Ah, I know– watch this closely, hominin.”

Gula closed her lips and seemed to let her jaw settle.

She then opened her mouth, snapped it shut, and suddenly vanished.

Ulyana felt something, a force, as if she was gently shoved by something invisible.

The light that disappeared from in front of her Gula then shone from behind her.

When she turned, the found the light figure of the girl standing nonchalantly at her back.

“I am able to eat anything if I understand it well enough.” Gula said, standing behind her as if she had always been standing there. “Including, say, the concept of the distance between one part of the station and another part of the station. Of course, you can’t digest a concept, it reasserts itself quickly, but the ensuing snap does place me at my destination.”

Ulyana was speechless. Gula was far, far, more powerful than she envisioned.

“With that said– ta-ta, hominin.” Gula added. With a snap of her jaws– she was gone.

Left standing alone in the dim LED lights once more, Ulyana thought–

It was not just Gula who was powerful, but psionics was capable of far more than just throwing objects or reading people’s minds. It was capable of far more even than mind control. She wondered just how much they really knew about this power. It seemed almost like psionic powers could do nearly anything at all at the hands of these bizarre creatures. Ulyana felt like her already slim chances of defeating them had begun to slip further.

Then she caught her breath and tried to steady her spiraling emotions.

She was immune to psionics. She had come to understand from Arabella and Euphrates.

That meant no matter what they could do– the Omenseers were not omnipotent.

Because at least this “hominin” could oppose them.

And with the assistance of her own psionic allies, anything could be possible.

Ulyana climbed back out of the maintenance tunnel and left the office.

One final swipe would render her card useless and lock the office.

Mentally, she thanked the dockworkers for their continuing aid as she climbed aboard the Brigand once more. Inside the familiar, comforting steel walls, her heart eased a bit. Just as she was walking back into the hangar, she then found Aaliyah and Conny making their way to the deployment chutes. They met in the middle. Conny looked in good spirits while Aaliyah had one ear folded, the one nearest Conny, and looked a little bit bedraggled.

“Captain! I was hoping I’d see you again before the night is up!” Conny cheered.

“I’m back from a bit of business. I’m glad I got to see you on the way out.” Ulyana said.

“Isn’t all this so fun? I’m glad my niece has such reliable allies.” Conny said, gesturing to the hangar. “You will have my full confidentiality captain, I promise you, but I truly want to do something for all of you, to thank you– I want my niece to be able to be independent, and this seems like the best environment for her to get her legs under her and see the world. Let me buy you all elvish pizza– real elvish pizza and not the Imbrian junk.”

“I won’t say no to pizza.” Aaliyah said. Her voice reduced to an emotionless droning.

“We can’t have it delivered.” Ulyana said softly.

“I’ll bring it here myself.” Conny said. “That ties into my other request.”

Aaliyah folded her other ear as if in preparation. Ulyana narrowed her eyes a bit.

“Captain, let me join you all aboard. I want to observe my niece’s journey.” Conny said.

Ulyana wished she could fold her ears like Aaliyah could and ignore this.

“We’ll have to talk about it.” Ulyana said, her voice too now an emotionless droning.

Conny smiled and winked and leaned forward a little with her chest out.

“Captain, I can be soooo useful! NGO Kamma will be at your service as well!”

Despite everything, it seemed there would be another night over a desk in store for Ulyana.

Sometimes having allies could be a bit burdensome as well.

Upon Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara’s return from the United Front, Murati was relieved of her temporary command, to be restored again the next day.

She left the bridge to the late-shifters Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa and Alexandra Geninov and departed with Aatto into the halls of the Brigand. While the days were very busy for everyone, the sailors had temporarily been relieved of night shift, as it was reasoned that if they needed them they could sound an alarm. Therefore when Murati stepped out onto the halls, though it was the early evening, there were few people around.

“Master, how did I do? Was I the image of Union gallantry?” Aatto said.

Murati thought that it was a miracle that the Commissar had not thrown her overboard.

“You’re learning fast.” Murati said, diplomatically.

She was warming up to Aatto– though hardly anyone else was, a fact that troubled her.

(Except Karuniya, whom Murati did not want to count.)

“Do you have any evening plans?” Aatto asked. Her tail wagged behind her.

Aatto was asking because she wanted to be included in them–

But it did remind Murati that she missed her wife dearly.

Both she and Karuniya had been busy since they departed Kreuzung.

They shared a room, so they always saw something of each other every day.

When they were dating in Solstice and Thassal they saw each other much less than they did now. They made a promise back then to go on a date once a week, come hell or high water, and it was an indication of how little time they had for each other that this promise mattered as much as it did to them. That was also when, though they did not necessarily call each other partners yet, they stopped seeing other people and became sexually exclusive. And yet, despite objectively being closer than ever nowadays, Murati still feared that she was, as Karu sometimes joked, a frigid and neglectful “husband” to her poor wife.

She thought they ought to at least stay up a bit late in their room and chat today.

“Private time.” Murati said simply, with a small smile borne of thinking about her wife.

“Ah! Enjoy it, master, you’ve earned your relaxation.” Aatto said, smiling pleasantly.

“Thanks, Aatto.”

“Should you require me, I will be in my quarters. Feel free to contact me at any time–”

“Thanks, Aatto. Good night.”

Murati said the second one a bit more firmly.

Aatto smiled, waved, wiggled her ears a bit, turned and left down the hall first.

Fatima and Semyonova had been roomed together to give Aatto her own place, with the Captain and Commissar reasoning she may be a troublesome roommate. Though with Marina having boarded the John Brown, there was also talk of having her move in with Elena to free up another room in case of additional guests, and to have them learn theory together.

That particular point was a headache for another day’s Murati to deal with, however.

At first Murati headed in the opposite direction from Aatto.

She walked toward the cafeteria. She had in mind to bring her wife a coffee.

Then they could stay up a bit with a warm drink and chat.

In her mind this was all perfectly romantic. Of course, no plan survived contact with–

–well, not “the enemy” this time.

The conditions of the operation, Murati corrected herself.

Walking into the cafeteria, past the chairs and the long row tables.

“Murati! Good evening! Feeling peckish? I’ve got a couple fixin’s leftover!”

Behind the counter sat Logia Minardo in her apron, leaning forward and waving with her fingers. She had a tray with a few leftovers from the dinner service. Though she was normally very meticulous about the amount of food prepared each day, the Brigand had been testing her with the amount of guests that would come and go. Sometimes a person was sick and changed their mind about dinner at the last second too– all these things meant there was sometimes food left over. It would not go to waste, however. Either Minardo would find someone to eat it or she would eat it herself– or find a way to reuse it later.

“I’ve already sent Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa some stuff. Want to help me out?”

Murati normally did not stick around for such things much.

She was always a pretty goal-oriented person who did not meander the ship.

But– as the Captain, she should strive to become accessible to her subordinates.

Hiding away in her room ill suited a communist, a people’s Captain!

“I have a few minutes, but no more than that.” Murati replied.

Minardo’s face lit up with a smile. “I’d love even a few minutes of your company!”

Murati first got the automatic coffee machine going. It would keep her drinks warm.

After, she joined Minardo at the counter.

On the big tray there were three discrete smaller trays with leftover meals. Each of the trays had a dish of corn chips that had been fried in a pan along with a red sauce, making them a bit soggier and yet still crisped up, and topped with cheese and beans. Minardo made the chips herself using corn flour, of which they still had plenty of from the Union– a taste of home. Murati picked up a spork and dig into a corner of chips from the tray, one with beans and cheese, a bit of everything. She lifted the morsel to her mouth and tasted.

Though the outcome had never been in doubt– it was delicious.

Savory-sweet corn chips with a slightly piquant and fruity sauce, with a distinctive hint of red sweet pepper. Creamy beans, with fatty cheese that added richness. The reheated leftovers lost only a bit of the aroma that the sauce and spices would have had when fresh out of the saucepan, and there was a pleasant variety of textures with the chips still having some body to them. Murati could not help but to be impressed by this simple yet fulfilling dish.

She also could not help but make an expression of girlish joy while eating.

Minardo looked at her fondly in return.

“I feel like you enjoy the corn dishes a lot. What do you think?” She said.

“Hmm? I do. It’s an immensely important crop. Its economic value is truly second to none.”

Minardo’s smile seemed to widen upon hearing that. Murati did not understand why.

Corn was one of the things the Union produced an incredible amount of, and it was an invaluable partner in the miracle that was the Union as a functioning state. Corn was processed into grains, sugars, alcohol, oils, and starches. Grains could be further refined– ground into corn flour, or boiled and canned for whole corn, or dried into corn snacks, that sort of thing. The true miracle was in the rest of the items. Corn starches could be used in food but had a variety of industrial purposes. Corn oil could be used for cooking or processed further into resins. “Synthetic” was a common word for clothing and other items manufactured in the A.D. era, but the Union made many daily things out of corn plastics too, preserving petroleum for its more valuable, specialized chemical purposes. Corn was used in chemical productions too, it had novel enzymatic reactions– it was so multifaceted.

Murati continued to tuck into the corn chip dish, thinking about the miracle that was corn.

She then realized the cook had been watching her space out the whole time.

“It’s fantastic, Minardo. Thank you for sharing it with me.” Murati said.

“Of course! Kitchens are for feeding people.” Minardo said. Murati continued to eat, and she noticed Minardo looking at her while she did so, but she did not say anything. Once Murati was about halfway through the dish, eating silently and unreservedly enjoying every bite, Minardo finally spoke up again. “You know, it is true what they say about you, Murati.”

“Hmm? What are they saying? And who is saying it?”

“You have a certain intensity about you. You don’t even seem to realize it. You might even fade into the background without that spark of yours. But even when you’re just standing in front of me eating chilaquiles after saying one sentence to me about their economic value– I can’t help but be charmed, girl. You capture the eye without even meaning to.”

Murati frowned a bit. “I feel like people are just making fun of me when they say that.”

“They’re really not! It’s just different, but it attracts people to you. You have gravity.”

“It attracts sailor girls to gossip about me.”

“That too. But that’s because your intensity makes you so electric!”

That was a lot of adjectives being slung around that made Murati feel embarrassed.

“Thanks, Minardo.” Murati said, hoping to change the subject, her eyes wandering.

She took a peek at the third tray, which neither she nor Minardo had touched.

“You want to take it?” Minardo said. “Go right ahead. You don’t eat enough anyway.”

“I eat as much as I need.” Murati said in protest. “But yes, I’d like to take the third one.”

Minardo beamed at Murati as she wrapped the third tray in a bit of plastic wrap.

“She’s such a lucky gal. You’re both really cute together. Hurry up; don’t make her wait.”

Were her intentions that easy to read? Or was Minardo just that experienced?

Murati thanked her again, sheepishly took her tray and her small coffees, and left the scene.

She felt self-conscious about being told about her “intensity”– she wondered if maybe other people were as odd about their feelings toward her as Aatto was. Once framed in that particular way, the thought of a whole ship full of Aatto and Aatto-adjacent gazes made her quiver with terror, but she also laughed a bit to herself at the absurdity of it all. Eventually it was completely out of her mind. Regardless of what anyone saw in her, she was only going to be herself and she wouldn’t even know how to change if she wanted to do so.

She tried to imagine this gravity of hers in terms of her goals. Murati supposed being found attractive was a useful asset to a ship’s captain. After all, she found Ulyana Korabiskaya very attractive. It inspired her to follow in her footsteps. To sit more upright, to speak more precisely, to memorize everyone’s names on the bridge. To wear her own uniform more sharply, comb her hair more often. She hoped to inspire the same in the future.

In the present– she had an appointment with a certain ‘lucky gal’.

Without stopping at the door or saying anything, Murati walked into her own room.

At the pull-out desk on the wall, she found her wife, swiping at a little portable computer.

When the door opened, she looked over her shoulder.

“Welcome home!” Karuniya exclaimed with a smile.

Indeed– Murati was home– Karuniya was her home.

Murati smiled quietly and presented Karuniya with the coffee and the food.

“Oh! What’s this? Such a thoughtful hubby– perhaps trying to bribe me?”

She put on a mock skeptical face and stared at Murati for a moment, rubbing her chin.

“Maybe.” Murati replied.

Karuniya laughed. “Come on.” She made space on the table for the dish and the sporks.

Every time she saw her, Karuniya was the most beautiful woman on the planet. However, there was something extra charming about her that night. She looked like she had come in from the shower. Her hair had dried a bit, but still fell messily down her back and had a moist sheen. Dressed in only the plastic robes they were issued for bathing use, whenever she turned around she flashed a bit of her gorgeous skin and the contours of her belly, her hips, her breasts. However she was not self conscious at all, and never guarded herself.

For a moment, Murati forgot about the food and the coffees and stood behind Karuniya.

At first she just laid her hands on Karuniya’s shoulders.

Then her fingers worked their way between the halves of the robe, pulling it farther apart. Bare skin on bare skin; Murati rubbed her wife’s shoulders, and gently worked them between her fingers. Karuniya realized what she was doing. Murati could feel her relaxing in her grip. There was nothing like the immediate response of a body to touch– it was so satisfying.

“How was your day?” Murati asked, whispering near her face.

“I grew mushrooms~” Karuniya replied.

She waved her hand. Her voice had a strangely dismissive affectation to it.

Murati circled with her thumbs, enjoying the pliability of her wife’s soft, round shoulders.

“Are you still sore about the mushroom lady stuff?” Murati said.

“Yes~ I will resent it~ until the end of the time~” Karuniya said in a song-like voice.

Despite her spoken complaints, Karuniya looked rather delighted. She even made a short murring noise when Murati applied a bit more pressure in the middle of her shoulders and settled back into her chair when she eased on her. Sensing an opportunity, Murati leaned forward. She tipped her head and kissed Karuniya in the neck, close to her jaw, nuzzling her. She could feel Karu start to melt into her, heartbeat beginning to quicken.

“You’re so clumsy about everything else, but you’re fantastic at reading me.” Karuniya said.

“I’ve had been blessed with many opportunities to practice.” Murati replied.

Karu leaned back in her chair and stared up. Murati leaned forward to enter her sight.

For a moment it felt like, to a third party, this must have looked quite intense.

But to the two of them–

“Craning my neck this far is not comfortable.” Karuniya said.

“It’s a little awkward, yes.”

Both of them laughed.

Murati let go of Karuniya, eliciting a little ‘aww’ from her wife.

She reached for and raised one of the pull-up seats from the floor and sat beside Karuniya.

“Try it, it’s really good.” Murati said, pointing with one spork at the chilaquiles.

Karuniya took her own spork, pulled away the plastic wrap from the tray, and took a bite.

Her eyes shut and the corners of her mouth rose steadily as she tasted the dish.

“Minardo’s devilry at work again! How can I ever settle for another cook?!” Karuniya said.

Murati laughed. Together, they prodded the dish, catching glances of each other’s eyes, between bites, and talked around the table. Karuniya gradually talked more about her own day. She had been processing biological samples from the Omenseers and collecting data all day, and she would have to comb over everything and create plans for each sample tomorrow. She had ideas for what kind of tests she wanted to run on the samples, but she had to make sure everything she was trying to do was safe and viable.

“I’m not a little kid mixing colored oils and different fluids just to see the different colors stacking in a beaker. Though– I kinda feel like that little kid experimenting here.”

A water density experiment– every Union kid did science-y stuff like that in school.

Though, Murati had never really associated Karuniya with test tubes and centrifuges.

She had a limited knowledge of what the practice of oceanography entailed.

For a moment she felt self conscious about not knowing her wife’s work very well–

But Karuniya seemed to realize her head was being occupied and reached her arm out.

Taking Murati’s shoulder and pulling her in close, laughing gently.

An effective way to dispel Murati’s little doubts about their relationship.

“Are you excited?” Murati asked.

“This could be ground-breaking stuff, or it could be nothing.” Karuniya said. “There’s always the chance I won’t be adequate to the task. I even talked to Euphrates, and she never experimented with Omenseer tissue. Or maybe she just said that to avoid getting involved.”

“Both are equally possible. But don’t hold it against her.” Murati said.

“Oh, I won’t. I’m excited to be a pioneer in Omenseer-‘Hominin’ relations.”

“I think you’re incredibly qualified Karu. I don’t know anyone else our age working on multiple degrees. Even if you don’t know something now, you will make the effort to learn, and you’ll develop a process. You’re amazingly driven when something catches your eye.”

“Yeah– like when I was amazingly driven to jump on your dick, and I went and did it.”

Murati cracked up at the sudden bawdy joke. “Karu– I’m being serious–”

Karuniya giggled in response. “I know. Thank you, Murati. It means a lot to me.”

“You’ll always have one stalwart supporter.” Murati said.

“Can I ask my most die-hard fan to hold me more? It was nice.”

“Any time.”

After finishing their meal and coffees, they relocated together to one of the beds.

Murati tossed away her half-jacket and tie, pulled off her pants. Wearing nothing but an unbuttoned shirt, a sports bra and undershorts, she sat with her back to the wall and Karuniya sat in front of her. She pulled down her robe to bare more of her back for Murati to admire and feel. Down the spine to the small of the back, almost to her bare rear.

Murati promptly and dutifully pressed her hands over her.

One on the shoulder, one closer to the hip.

“Not your usual massage form.” Karuniya said with a cheeky tone.

“I just want you to feel your skin for a bit. Is that okay?” Murati said.

“It’s always okay. I’m yours, completely and forever, Murati Nakara.”

Karuniya backed into her.

Murati pulled with her, bringing her closer, tighter.

Her hands just wanted to feel contours of her wife more, the pronounced curve of her hip, the soft, pliable flesh of her back, the tiny, near imperceptible bumps of her spine. The elevation caused by the shoulder blade and the gentle bend of her back. She wanted to lay her chin on Karuniya’s shoulder and feel the smoothness of her skin against her lips, to smell the scents left over on her from her time in the lab, sometimes strangely sweet, sometimes a bit plastic, but always her. She wanted to feel the quake of her heart under her flesh.

“From how you’re holding me– it feels like you had a tough day.” Karuniya said.

“I wouldn’t say it was hard.” Murati replied. “It was long. I had no time to myself.”

Karuniya reached up and stroked Murati’s hair, while Murati kissed her shoulders.

“You know what else is getting a bit long?” She said, fingers twining through strands.

Murati had not really noticed until Karuniya pointed it out.

Her hair was starting to grow past her shoulder. Normally she had it trimmed at this point.

She was not in a position to take time off just for that though.

“It’ll be fine.” She said. Maybe she would look good with long hair.

Karuniya laughed. She tipped her head to nuzzle up to Murati’s cheek.

“We should go somewhere. And not dressed up as fascists. You need proper relaxation.”

“Who would I leave the bridge to?” Murati asked, nuzzling Karuniya’s neck again.

Karuniya giggled, wriggling in Murati’s hands. “Aatto would absolutely not mind.”

“Solceanos defend.”

“Oh, I got a Solceanos oath out of you. That bad huh?”

It had happened almost automatically at the thought of Aatto commanding the bridge.

“I’ve been talking with her a bit. She really admires you. What did you do to her?”

“I held her hostage. I truly have no idea how any of this turned out this way.”

“She’s a good girl. You ought to trust her a bit. She really wants your approval.”

“I do trust her, but I don’t want to overwhelm her. Maybe I’ll ask Daphne to cover for me.”

“Whatever helps– I just think we should have some time for ourselves. Like before.”

Murati was quiet for a few minutes. Trying to shut out everything else.

Losing herself in the sense of Karuniya’s skin. As close as they could be without sex.

“Am I being neglectful?” Murati asked.

She felt Karuniya briefly tense up a bit in her grasp. Surprised, perhaps.

“Oh, Murati, absolutely not. You’re fantastic. I hope my jokes didn’t get to you.”

“No. I just recognize we’re both so busy. So I felt a bit self conscious.”

“Murati, I think when you have a better head on, you know this is a weird situation for both of us to have a relationship in. We are messing around in a possibly suicidal combat mission that Nagavanshi went out of her way to force us to go on– promptly being really nice about all our relationship papers when we agreed.” Karuniya said, nuzzling up to Murati again. “We have to tend to our duties first. But we’ve always been able to live our lives as best we can in addition to that. That’s all I ever ask from you. I cherish the good nights and the good mornings. I’m really happy. Despite everything that’s going on, I’m so happy.”

“Thank you, Karu. You’ve made me the happiest woman on Aer.” Murati said.

She could have cried from how happy she felt holding Karuniya.

It felt like everything terrible in the ocean was briefly dispelled when she held her.

There had been so much that had happened so far. So much still to do.

All the crashing of ordnance in her ears, the smell of ozone and plastic, the feeling of her breaking ribs inside her chest as she crashed into the side of her diver, the sight of agarthic orbs after the deaths of ships, the exploding red mist when a diver burst under the pressure. All of the terrors imparted onto her mind, into her hearing, carved in her eyes, the invisible weights on her shoulders– Karuniya could dispel them all with a word and with a touch.

“Besides, Murati, it’s not like it’s been that long since we did something special.”

Karuniya reached behind herself, her fingers probing across Murati’s belly–

and gripping for Murati’s bulge between her legs, and seizing on it firmly.

Murati stiffed up a bit. Not quite enough to get hard. But she felt the thrill.

Holding her hubby’s weakly stiffening shaft through the fabric, Karuniya grinned cheekily.

“I recall it’s only been like a week and a bit since you gave me the second-best dicking of my life back in Kreuzung. If we can just fuck like that every so often I’ll be singing.” She said.

“Hang on. Second-best?” Murati said, picking up and playing into her wife’s mischief.

“Oh ho, curious? My best lay was this hot upperclassman at the Academy– Murati Nakara.”

For a moment she really had her in suspense. “I must have done better since then.”

“You were absolutely feral when we started messing around, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Karuniya continued to stroke her while grinning in such an insolent fashion.

It really made Murati want to teach her a lesson. Her appetite was reaching a peak.

“You have one coming, Karuniya Maharapratham.” She said sternly.

“Oh? Coming when? Ten days from now? Mu~ra~ti~? ” Karuniya said teasingly.

Murati reached out a hand to the wall and expertly summoned some loud DJ Hard Roe.

“M-M-Murati–?” Karuniya whimpered as Murati took her down on the bed.

As always, the synths would protect her modesty.

“Here you go miss! One big beautiful rainbow swirl coffee for a beautiful girl!”

A hand reached out gingerly from inside the little coffee shop’s window.

Upon that hand was a plastic, see-through coffee cup.

A rainbow-colored swirl, creamer and sweetener all at once, spiraled through the black coffee, a neat effect soon to be disturbed by the mixing of the drink. It was a limited-time specialty advertised by the little store on a corner of Aachen’s second tier. Quite a few people were waiting in line for their own “taste of the rainbow.”

Opposite the hand holding the coffee–

stood an embarrassed-looking, salmon-pink haired person in a hooded jacket, hood down.

“Ah, thank you.” Valya said, smiling sheepishly.

They did not want to draw any attention or argue, not under these circumstances.

So they put up with it– as they had become something of a champion in doing so.

They took the coffee into their hands, parted with some polymer reichsmark notes, and left.

Torn on whether to be flattered that they made a ‘beautiful girl.’

Aer had seen the turning of another cycle in its day and night, perceptible to humans mainly via timekeeping that aligned with their ancient biological rites. Another day in the 300-day Imbrian year decreed by Emperor Nocht so long ago. Valya had woken up in the morning ready to get back to work. The Captain and Commissar had departed for the third day of the United Front deliberations. As they stopped at the cafeteria, Galina pulled them aside, handed them reichsmarks, and decreed that today, they would have to go outside.

“Everyone has had at least a little goofing off time. You’ve earned some too.”

“I’m fine– I’m okay just working–”

“I will remind Semyonova that officers cannot accumulate too much unused leisure time.”

Scolded by Galina and threatened with a future scolding by Semyonova–

Valya could only agree. They donned a hoodie over their uniform and left the ship.

They made their way through the commercial district on the first tier. Crossing the lanes of storefronts and the platforms suspending them to the walls of the enclosure, with the massive atrium and its installations flanking them at all times. They were uninterested in shopping, however and even off-peak, the crowds unnerved them. They saw a black uniform in one of the crowds and began to walk more quickly to one of the elevator banks. From the briefing, they knew the second tier had a park with real trees.

They felt warmer toward spending the day at the park instead.

So they went up to a little café in a corner of the park.

Enjoying a coffee under the trees– if they had to relax, that would do just fine.

However, as they sipped their coffee, they couldn’t help but think about what was said.

How did they feel about being a “beautiful girl?” It was a pivotal question in their life.

It was the first time in a long time they realized that they had left the Union.

One of the reasons they preferred the ship and the company of machines.

Valya was in a strange place with regards to their presentation and identity. They felt that they were neither a “man” or a “woman”, social constructions that hardly mattered in the Union by law but were still carried on casually by individuals. While Valya did not want to legislate how anyone else saw or referred to themselves, the prevailing culture was a bit annoying for them specifically– to achieve their desired presentation they used feminizing hormones and had been for years now. This led uninformed people to read them as a woman; and they feared it might lead lovers to read them as a man in bed, and not as what they wanted to be read, as neither one nor the other but just themself.

One of the things that influenced them was the traditionalist attitude of their parents and some of their close family. All of them believed strictly that the family should continue as pairs of uncomplicated men and women having as many children as possible. Such people were not extinct overnight just because the Union extended the rights of bodily autonomy to everyone under its jurisdiction. When Valya came out, the ensuing argument with their parents was so virulent that on a high of emotions they ran to a local branch of the internal security forces to inform on their parents as right-wing elements to the Ashura.

Sitting in a chair in the middle of that office, barely out of their teens, they asked–

“Say that I put down a statement– theoretically, what would happen?”

Across from them, a stoic Ashura officer in their black uniform and green armband.

She looked up from a portable she had taken out of a drawer.

Valya recalled it was a Commissar-Sergeant Yulia Sinilova, a short-haired young lady.

Handsome in uniform and with a polite demeanor behind the desk, she answered–

“We will investigate and if we agree there is a seditious element it will be eliminated.”

“Isn’t that– a bit harsh–?”

Yulia looked at Valya with a strange intensity.

“Misc Lebedova.” She began, using the approved gender-neutral honorific. “So-called traditionalism begins with denying their family members bodily autonomy. It begins there– but it won’t stay there. It will lead to strife along religious lines, racial and ethnic lines; it will become about whether the subject matter in educational courses is too novel, about the makeup of the Party being too foreign, about having strange neighbors and ethnic foods in the cafeteria. It will become about the political system, about the centralized production of goods. But it can all be stopped by a bullet. It is the duty of the Ashura, the mission of our service– to stop this chain of events even if it takes a bullet to do it.”

Receiving that response, Valya apologized profusely and left shortly thereafter.

Without their statement, Yulia did not even record their visit.

As severe as she was, she must have understood.

Though they were angry at their parents, they did not want them to be eliminated.

Thankfully in addition to the Ashura, the Union also had the neighborhood guards and their local shelters where someone with a bit more empathy nursed Valya’s broken heart throughout that night. That night, with the encouragement of the guards, they began the process to transfer out of their home and journeyed to the military academy at Solstice. Unlike the wider world, the secondary society of the military had a rigidly enforced egalitarianism, and Valya found comradeship to be better than citizenship in that regard. It even bore out to the Brigand, where most of the pilot squadron was transgender.

Their parents were proud of them for serving, despite everything that had happened.

And tried to be accommodating– by referring to them as a woman now.

Truly the world was such a mess everywhere.

Whether in the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice; or in the Reichskommissariat Eisental.

But– the hope of things getting better in the latter was infinitely dimmer.

At least, it was at that moment. They hoped to be able to change that.

Under the trees, they sipped their coffee, wandering how anyone found themselves.

Perhaps taking time for themselves was a start. Perhaps dealing with people.

Even if it hurt sometimes; even if they disappointed you; even if they abandoned you.

“Ugh, whenever I’m not working on something I get the stupidest thoughts.”

They had no one to talk to but themselves but still vocalized their frustrations.

When they were done with their coffee they took a stroll around the park.

Marveling at the engineering miracle that allowed all of these trees to thrive. It was a challenge to have a park such as this. Trees expected sunlight, and they expected powerful, permeating sunlight, and if any park of the tree was not receiving the right amount, it would look duller and deader, and the growth of the young tree might even be warped, as it would grow to maximize sunlight exposure– so not necessarily straight up as these trees were.

Not only that, but trees also expected soil, with a composition of nutrients, and they expected rainfall to sustain them. The composite soil in which it was planted was chemically engineered, the sunlamps were strategically placed, and rain-making devices had been installed, with digital calendars of rain days available around the park for all guests to see.

So much more care had been taken to engineer for these trees, than for any human beings.

In terms of engineering, Aachen, like Kreuzung, was hostile to people.

Were Valya to design a very typical station, their foremost concern would have been to maximize living space. To give everyone a place to stay, with enough space and privacy that they did not feel too caged but were not in conflict with others, but contained enough that within the allotted construction area they could make as many units as possible. While also allowing for cafeterias and for distribution centers for goods, and social spaces like the plazas and community centers, each with a calculated amount of occupancy. There should be transportation, childcare and maintenance capability, supported by some level of local industry. These were incredible challenges and there was no one solution that solved every problem. However, Aachen and Kreuzung had not been designed with people in mind– people were coincidental here. Instead, they were designed for commerce.

Imbrian stations seemed to require a plurality of grand, sweeping storefronts full of goods to buy, and all adorned with the slogans for the many businesses competing for the polymer banknotes in the hands of those coincidental people. Valya found the designs pretty and the engineering to be rather astonishing. It was beautiful and immersive, it arrested one’s breath– but it was also depressing. There were so many crowds of people in vast, open spaces that needed a separate station to live in, and among them, there were people who did not even have a room and only the cold, steel floors comforted them.

Something like that went against everything that Valya felt about engineering.

They made weapons because the Union needed them to protect communism.

That was what they staunchly believed– but engineering should, generally, help people.

Things should be constructed, foremost, because people needed them.

Kreuzung and Aachen did not need more shops– but more shops seemed to be the aim.

Thinking about their surroundings made Valya want to return to the ship and never leave.

Especially as their walk seemed to inexorably draw them closer to a building flying a flag with a black sun disc, encased in white, surrounded by red. It was impossible to miss it, seated as if on a hill in the distance, the concrete and glass monument to the rot festering within Aachen. Under its watchful eye all of this took place. Every pathway in the park seemed to funnel toward that building, and in any event, Valya’s own morbid curiosity led them to want to see it up close. They had been afraid and intimidated of the prospect of patrolling Volkisch officers– but surely they could at least metaphorically stare the Volkisch in the eye by approaching the Gau office. They could at least pass by the front of it.

It seemed then, that fate had other plans for Valya that day.

As they crossed the front of the Gau office they briefly stopped to stare at the facade.

Enough so that the door opened, causing their heart to leap.

Not because an evil Volkisch officer had walked out to arrest them promptly.

But because the person that nonchalantly walked out with their hands in their pockets–

Looked astonishingly familiar.

Familiar enough– to recall youthful memories long discarded.

Walking down the steps as Valya stopped before them; looking down as they looked up.

Slightly taller than Valya, but not by much, still lithe, guarded, unsmiling. Long, dark, blueish hair tied up into a braided ponytail, a soft, fair face with a small nose and eyes. Dressed in a brown jacket, black pants and a white plunging shirt that exposed a few bio-luminescent nodes on their flat, slightly narrow chest. Soft-shouldered with lean limbs and yet despite the years and despite them leaving home they hardly looked any more rugged than when they left, when they were both teenagers with foolish ideas.

Ideas about freedom that perhaps this person realized after Valya rejected them.

“Mysia?” Valya said, at the foot of the steps.

“Valya?” Mysia said, looking down from them.

Both of them were stunned for a moment at the presence of the other.

It should have been impossible for them to meet.

Each read the immediate response of the other and knew for certain whom they had met.

Valya was not prepared today to have such hope in something so impossible.

They felt that if they did not do something, the world might evaporate as if a dream.

Shutting their eyes, they ran up the steps and threw their arms around Mysia.

Throwing their head into the chest of their long-lost friend, holding them tight–

“V-Valya? We– We can’t stay here. We need to go, come on.”

Mysia did not embrace them back.

At their urging, they left the steps of the Gau office and walked.

Valya followed Mysia, barely knowing whether their feet were moving, whether they were tethered to the ground, or whether the environment scrolled automatically past them like they were hovering forward off the ground. Not knowing where they were going or what to do. Not able to speak; aborting every sentence that formed in their head out of astonishment, out of anxiety. Mysia might have been feeling the same. They stole glances at each other, awkwardly, and broke eye contact just as suddenly while walking.

“Mysia, are you in trouble?” Valya asked, finally allowing themself to speak.

“No. It was nothing. They– they tried to get me but had nothing to pin on me.”

Valya never conceived of the Volkisch as people who let anyone off with a warning.

Nevertheless, they were glad Mysia was not hurt.

After some wandering, the two left the trees and walked across grey concrete into one of the office complexes. They stood in an alley between two office buildings on the edge of the second tier’s facilities. At their backs, one of the station walls, and a capped duct giving off a small amount of visibly moving air. Mysia put their back to one of the buildings and Valya put their back to the other, standing with their eyes locked together but still silent.

Mysia reached out suddenly– taking Valya’s chin and lifting their face.

Grinning with a too-familiar mischief.

“It is you.” Mysia said. “It’s like I never left. You’re still the same softie.”

Valya pulled off Mysia’s hands from themself. “Hey! I can’t believe you, after all this time.”

“What else am I supposed to do or say? I wasn’t holding out hope of ever seeing you again.”

“Me neither!” Valya said. They smiled a bit. “But I’m– I’m really happy to see you!”

Mysia did not smile back. It was hard for Valya to read their expression.

“You look so– healthy. Grown up. You finally left the Union yourself.” Mysia said.

Looking Valya up and down in a way that embarrassed them to recognize.

“Yeah, I decided to leave. I am working as a mechanic in Stockheim now.” They said.

Of course, Valya could not admit to the truth of why they were able to meet like this.

“Stockheim’s good. Nice pay, and the people are friendly. I’m glad you’re alright.”

It was so awkward. Valya could hardly stand it. They should have been so happy.

Instead, they were standing in a tiny gap framed by concrete, staring at each other.

“Mysia– why did you leave the Union?”

And the fatal words simply left Valya’s lips though they barely realized it.

When they did– even they were surprised at themself.

Thankfully, Mysia took it in stride. Letting out a bit of a sigh, tossing their hair a bit.

“Chasing the myth of the Katarran mercenary. I told you as much when I left.”

That can’t have been the only reason. Valya always thought they had done something.

It was not beyond their will or capability to have done something.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Valya asked.

Mysia did not answer. Rather, they asked a question by way of response–

“Valya, do you still believe the stuff they taught us in the Union?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I see.” Mysia said. Valya thought they looked disappointed with that answer.

“How are you getting along these days? You’re really not in trouble, right?” Valya asked.

Both of them seemed to know that there was an impassable wall between them.

“I’m working for a rich woman now, Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.” Mysia said.

Valya froze for a moment. Surprised, perhaps elated– were they on the same side–?

Foolishly, they were almost ready to say anything– but– Mysia talked so fast–

Mysia spoke first and made a gesture as to bid Valya to be quiet for a moment.

“Valya, I am really sorry but we don’t have all the time we need to catch up now. I have something going on. But– we can still go on an adventure together, just like we wanted.” They said. “It’s really incredible that I found you. It’s– It’s something I’ve only ever dreamed of. I think it’s a sign that everything is going to go how I want. I’ve got plans, Valya. I’m going to get a ship, and a crew. You can come. We’ll go anywhere we want, and we can do anything. Nobody can boss us around anymore. I just need a few more days to get ready.”

At this, Valya’s heart sank– but a part of them, a foolish, stupid, childish part, wanted–

“You don’t have to answer.” Mysia said. “In two days, meet me in Stockheim at noon.”

“Mysia– I don’t know–” Valya felt like they were letting them slip away again–

That mane of blue hair swaying in the air as they turned their back like before–

“Even if you don’t want to leave, I’ll have time to catch up then. To really catch up. I want to know everything that happened to you. I promise I won’t leave you with regrets. I will tell you everything and then you can decide. But right now, I really have to leave. I especially don’t want to linger around this place too much.” Mysia gestured around themself. Perhaps meaning the second tier of Aachen. Perhaps meaning Aachen itself?

Then the most shameful and impossible words of them all spilled out of Valya’s lips.

“Mysia– do you still–?”

Care about me? Care about me like our doomed teenage love?

They would have said it–

But there was no opportunity.

As if in answer to the unspoken plea about to spill deadly into the air–

Mysia took a step forward into Valya’s personal space and

kissed them.

On the lips, with a bit of force, a bit of tongue. A hand on their hip, gripping the fabric.

Heat, touch, passion– a desire they hardly ever felt–

Obliterating Valya’s better judgment as easily as when they first saw them at the Gau.

As easily as when they first saw them at school in Sevastopol.

And as easily as when they almost, so close, stole them away from home.

Easy as a stolen kiss; easy as a quick turn of the feet to leave.

“Stockheim, at noon. Valya, I still want to make you mine. Please consider it.”

Rapid as the current that must have swept them away that day.

Mysia turned, showing Valya their back, and walked away with unconcerned alacrity.

With that confidence and power that imagined a world Valya could only dream of.

Their knees buckled in the alleyway; their breath stolen away with the kiss.

Tears in their eyes and not knowing what to do or what to think.

Had it all been a hallucination? But their lips were still warm with their touch.

All these years, and Valya was still so easily shaped by Mysia in mere instants.

Could they really do as Mysia asked? Did they– want to–?

UNX-001 “Brigand” Official Chronicle

Chronicle Date Code (FROM-1): 293906

Chronicler: Commissar Aaliyah Bashara


Aboard: Busy, but spirits are high.

Myself: Contemplative.

We set out on this journey long enough now that 980 is near. We left close to mid-year so it should not be surprising. But it feels like an entire year has passed. I am appreciative of my reliable counterpart. I would have broken down if I was shouldering this alone.


Breakfast: Blins with mushrooms, and a choice of sour cream, cottage cheese or both.

Lunch: Gloria had “Shimii-style” wraps delivered. Hummus, ta’miya, salad, tahini.

Dinner: “Serrano noodles” egg noodles with beans, salsa, hot pepper, avocado and cheese.


Today’s entry will be one of the lengthy ones.

Ulyana slept poorly. I heard her throughout the night, making nonspecific noises in her sleep. This also affected my sleep but to a lesser degree. She was obviously struggling to get out of bed. On my own initiative I brought her a coffee and tried to comfort her. I offered to take some work off of her hands and she claimed it would not be fair to me. There was no point in arguing against this. I instead offered to get her Corvalol for sleep from Doctor Kappel.

She confided in me that she felt everyone in the United Front was hiding something. I tried to both agree and mollify her while also pointing out we were also hiding things. To calm her nerves, I reassured her that I would be at her side to support her no matter what transpired.

We set out for the United Front venue at 11:00.

Before leaving, I gave Murati a goal to frequent the hangar and get acquainted with the sailors’ work more intimately by talking to Galina and the workgroup managers, instead of bothering the bridge crew all day. Murati apologized profusely and claimed that she was ashamed of her “lack of investigation” and that she would correct herself. She volunteered to write a self-critique and I told her not to and that I would be angry if she still decided to write one and that I would not read it if she did. She seemed to finally acquiesce then.

I also gave Aatto a reading and learning goal for the day, enough to keep her occupied between her activities with Murati. It would be remiss of me to turn down a desire to become a Union commissar, which is rare even among committed communists in the Union. Aatto is experienced and highly educated but ideologically suspect and sexually troubled. Setting aside my personal feelings, I am using this as an avenue to correct her. A commissar embodies high standards for conduct. I would be glad to see her achieve this.

Along the way to the venue, Ulyana’s spirits seemed to return enough to ask if we could stop for a spell somewhere along the way. I regretted having to keep her on task, because I enjoyed our brief noontime drink together the other day. I then had an epiphany and suggested we could stop somewhere for a quick drink after the delegations adjourned. Murati would only be happy to have the ship for an hour or two more.

This more than any of my other suggestions seemed to brighten Ulyana up.

Just as we were getting to the venue, we received a message from Eithnen Ní Faoláin that she would not be attending the day’s meeting and that she would defer any decisions that would be needed from her to Ulyana and Erika. She had to talk to Burke and Marina about what they had turned up about the Uhlans and the station’s security situation overall– she figured her time was better spent helping package their intelligence for us than listening to Tamar Livnat’s “grating voice” for another day. While I mildly disagreed, I understood Captain Ní Faoláin’s disdain for politicking and did not argue with her about it. I could take a more active role to support Ulyana and make up for the lack of personnel at the venue.

But the day’s topic would be a simple one.

As agreed the day before, on the third day of deliberations each side would disclose the status and distribution of their forces. It was a simple topic that left little room for the grandiose political disagreements that had been seen in the previous days. Ulyana and I both understood that on this day, it was likely that every side would lie one way or another. The anarchists had reasons to lowball their forces as they did not trust anyone; Gloria had reasons to self-aggrandize as she wanted to take control of the United Front’s agenda generally. We had certain assets that we would never disclose, such as our Omenseer friends and the existence of psionics, as well as the Brigand’s agarthic shielding lattice. However, in terms of our conventional firepower, we laid everything out on the table, and we were frank about our number of troops. We were up front that aside from our special forces contingents we lacked infantry potential. The Volksarmee was primarily naval.

I expected Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to engage in some amount of attention seeking behavior. I did not expect the degree to which she would do so. Gloria concocted an entire “presentation” about the Reichbanner Schwarzrot. It was clearly a propaganda film! She was using us as a test audience! I was too confused to object for most of it, with each passing minute believing that the film must soon end, and some actual information must appear.

Sweeping shots of the repurposed cruise ship she used as a personal flagship. Schwarzrot troops in red and black uniforms marching with the eponymous reichbanner flag in hand, clearly shot in the spacious hangar or cargo hold of that same cruise ship. There were myriad slogans on the screen, such as “Justice, liberty, social democracy” and “fair taxes where everyone pays their share.” For whatever reason there were examples of “socialist” policies that “were already in place” like emergency services. A song that she commissioned about herself, its lyrics finally awakening me from my intellectual stupor and prompting me to ask if she disclosed to an artist any sensitive information. She claimed the artist was a zealous member of the Schwarzrot. Finally there was a Diver, clearly a rebadged Rhineametalle Sturmvolker with a slightly rounder headpiece, that had a pinup of Gloria in what looked like a skimpy halterneck robe with a rose in her hair and a golden belt.

I pointed at the screen. In my mind I was screaming righteously. But I was utterly silent.

Ulyana rarely looked every one of her 36 years– but she was haggard at that moment.

Moravskyi began to complain at the twenty minute mark how much longer it would take, but thankfully the film was only twenty two minutes long, with the final few frames having some actual organizational charts with details about the Schwarzrot. These details were about as useless as the rest of the film was. I did not for a second believe that Gloria had a fleet of 100 ships unless she was counting every escape pod or shuttle as a ship.

And, furthermore, knowing she was going to do this, I had actually researched how many employees Raylight Beauty had, and the exact number of those employees were listed in her chart as “reserve manpower” for the Schwarzrot. It was a complete farce!

Tamar Livnat called it unserious which got Gloria flared up all over again.

Erika clapped and praised Gloria’s spirit but asked if she could pull the charts back up.

They had scrolled too fast– she had missed them.

She was either untroubled by the rest or did not want to make a fuss anymore.

I was glad Murati was not here to fight these people; but some of them needed it.

Moravskyi and Tamar disclosed small numbers of infantry but with highly specialized skills. They had saboteurs, hackers, bomb-makers; they had people who could knock off supplies at ports or processing facilities; they had solidarity with some commercial transit personnel who could smuggle them places. They disclosed that most of their manpower were discrete cells waiting for a chance to strike in many stations around the Imbrium. Ulyana had learned the night before that Tamar Livnat had a ship– she did not disclose this today.

She reiterated her need for ships.

The Omenseers Avaritia and Gula, posing as the anarchists Zozia Chelik and Ksenia Apfel, made up a cover story that their cell had been uprooted by the Volkisch and they only had about five additional personnel. Moravskyi was shocked to hear this as he believed them to have an operation with thousands of people. Tamar looked suspicious of them. Neither would comment further. It was unconvincing, and their act was wearing thin, but in this stage, where everyone had lied, the indiscretion was more easily accepted.

It was at this point that things did get confrontational again.

Tamar Livnat suggested that our problems with troops and recruiting would be over if we could open up the Khaybar Pass for Bosporus. She confirmed that the Khaybar Pass is being held by a group of Shimii “pirates” (her words) that Bosporus has failed to break through. In her mind, if the Pass is cleared, we would receive a veritable flood of reinforcements from Bosporus. She had contacts in Bosporus and could reach them to coordinate.

History might judge us for our decision, but we had good reason to be against this:

1. The Union as a state with a foreign policy, has one very important and pragmatic reason to reject the displacement of Shimii by the Juzni and Eloim actors of Bosporus, which is: the Union was founded by Volgians, Shimii and Bosporans. Milana Omarova, the “Vozhd” of the Shimii in the Union, is being groomed to become Premier Jayasankar’s likely successor. Any action against Shimii on an Imbria-wide scale is likely to have repercussions “at home.” It would be seen as a betrayal and shake the trust of the Shimii. As an agent of the Union, as a Commissar, and as a Shimii, I must reject any such actions in line with the national policy.

2. It has historically borne out that “pirates” are usually downtrodden people trying to secure a livelihood. This has always been the case in Imbria. Shimii, Katarrans, North Bosporans, Campos, and even Eloim, have had famous commerce raiders who ultimately “stole from the rich to give to the poor.” It would be odious to me on not just a personal but an ethical-ideological level to become the party stealing from these people instead of helping them and meeting their needs. For a self-described anarchist, Tamar can be rather cruel.

3. Should we succeed in the odious task of evicting the Shimii from whatever home they have in Khaybar, the “flood of troops” that would constitute anarchist forces from Bosporus. While I would very much regret to see violence between our groups, an anarchist Eisental would not be as friendly to the Union as the regime of Erika Kairos and her Volksarmee. I am a soldier and commissar of the Union before I am anything else. It would be against not only my duty but also my beliefs to put solidarity or convenience before the safety of the nation which I have sworn an oath to serve. I believe that only the Union, and only a militarily powerful Union, can safeguard communism. It is terrible to me to have to now weigh the idea of allowing the Reichskommissariat to entrench itself further when there is a possibility to challenge it sooner, with the future that an anarchist Eisental might bring.

Ultimately, none of this did I speak to Tamar Livnat. I simply and efficiently stood against the proposal on the grounds that it would be a waste of our forces and incur the (rightful) anger of some of the very people we are trying to organize against the Volkisch. At any rate, Moravskyi agreed with me on the grounds that if the Bosporus militia which had the backing of many stations failed to penetrate Khaybar, our armada would likely fail as well.

Tamar quietly and serenely dropped the subject as she had done with many other subjects. Her demeanor continued to unnerve me, but I had no cause to accuse her of anything except being personally odious to me. All of us were withholding information and all of us had bitter ideological disagreements. We would certainly continue to be cautious of her and her faction. But to do any more than be personally cautious was out of the question.

She would remain at this table for now.

We set the agenda for the next day that we would talk about funds, logistics, requisition and asset-sharing within the United Front. We would permanently address the question of our individual and shared resources, as some members of the Front had more, and some members had less, but we all had needs to meet. Gloria seemed excited at this prospect– of course, being the member with the most resources. Tamar being the member with the least resources, was also glad the topic would get more attention.

After we adjourned, we called Murati and told her our plans, which she supported.

Ulyana and I stopped at a small café that served pastries, simple fare, coffee and alcohol.

We ordered coffees and Ulyana insisted we get them with a shot of honey liqueur. There were complimentary sweet crisps at the table to snack on. We talked for about a half hour after receiving our drinks. Ulyana asked what I thought of Aachen. I had not had much time to think about Aachen as a place, as much as a container for various vexations. I told her that it reminded me too much of Kreuzung. That despite its official policies being more “liberal” on paper it was still an unwelcoming and highly stratified place.

I told her I saw people’s gazes on me at times.

Ulyana agreed and whispered that the café owner had been a bit taken aback by her accent.

For the Captain, it must have been difficult to hide her accent to try to blend in.

Quite a pity too because I found her voice, accent and all, to be very charming. I told her as much and got a laugh out of her. It was fun getting to chat. We couldn’t be very honest with each other in such a setting, for someone might hear. But nevertheless, I am growing accustomed to the presence of the captain and growing accostumed to being by her side. I assume that as I have been writing the past several months my assessments must have become more glowing. I will always criticize her when she deserves it.

But more and more, I do so out of a deep respect for her.

As I wrote before– I am feeling contemplative.

Chronicles are meant to be an honest recollection of the feelings of the chronicler.

They are meant to recount feelings which the chronicler would regret losing forever.

It is the final chance of the sailing dead to ever be properly understood by the still-living.

While it is important to recollect the day-to-day, the chronicler has the privilige of having her feelings the most apparent. She can only guess what others are feeling, and she must do so in order to paint a picture of the crew. I have done my best to describe personages like Murati Nakara and Sonya Shalikova, so that it is possible for posterity to recall not just their deeds but perhaps an inkling of who they were as persons. However, one person that can actually be described to her fullness in this chronicle, is Aaliyah Bashara, the writer.

With that said, it would be remiss of me to obscure my feelings too much.

I must admit that Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya has been on my mind more and more.

Perhaps because, more and more, we rely on each other, and have worked very long nights.

The United Front has led to us staying up late together and working closer than ever before.

More than when we set off, certainly; more than in Serrano or in Goryk’s Gorge.

So I have seen many more faces of her– she has been challenged in ways nobody has been.

Ulyana Korabiskaya is one of the few Captains I have served with. She is the only Captain I have ever accompanied into serious, life-threatening combat. She and I did not get on initially. I did not respect her. I was on the lookout for her to cause problems and perhaps even abuse her power over others. However, she has proven herself to me time and again, as not only a capable and professional officer, but one that is outstandingly conscientious. She tries not just to do what is efficient or pragmatic, but what is right, even at great cost. She regrets being forced to take any action which is punitive or brutal, but she wields her powers as she must, and does not shy away from those difficult decisions. My caution around her has gradually melted away. Now I strive to give her perspective, constructive criticism, a second half to herself to help her make decisions, and yes, at times, a bit of necessary scolding. We have a very amicable relationship. She has won my support. And much more–

I find myself trusting her above anyone that I have ever trusted.

I would kill for Ulyana Korabiskaya; of this I am certain. I would protect her to my last.

Being honest– I am not sure how I could end this mission and leave this woman behind.

It is a frightening thing to admit when one’s feelings seem to verge on the unprofessional.

After another turning of the day and night, the Mahdist village buzzed with activity.

On the stage, the Tazia monument was completed and covered with a tarp.

Around the village, banners were hung up with blue, green and gold patterns.

Children were taken aside and instructed on the etiquette of the occasion.

Behind closed doors, Sareh and Baran continued to teach Kalika her moves.

Homa, meanwhile, watched the village gradually come alive around her.

Helping where she could, putting decorations up, helping to fill and move water barrels.

Despite the events of the past few days, the villagers continued to prepare, undaunted.

Feeling their energy, Homa could not help but be swept up out of her gloominess.


on the fourth day of the United Front’s deliberations,

while great forces moved in the shadows, and

as Aachen drew nearer to Destiny,

the mahdist Shimii of the little village would forget their pains and celebrate Tishtar.

A festival of water, of the great heroes, of mourning, and of the Mahdist’s will.

Homa’s heart began to beat steadily faster as she looked forward to Kalika’s dance.

And hopefully to a hard-earned plate of cooked meat.

Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.7]

Atop a machine mostly covered by tarps, there was an exposed section of freshly installed hydraulics. A young engineer stood on a rolling work platform, covering the hydraulics with a piece of exactingly stitched armor plate. Their long, salmon-pink dyed hair partially tucked away into a bun within a fire-retardant synthetic wrap, and a protective mask covered their round, soft-featured face. A fire retardant jumpsuit and gloves protected their body, a bit short and a bit plush, not as toned as that of their more traditionally soldier-like companions but fit enough for duty. They had the strength and the stamina to pick up the heavy welding gun and the dexterity to precisely join the segments of plate. They bumped one of their breasts on the railings, and it smarted, but they were careful of the rest.

With an almost meditative focus, without shaking or flinching, they completed the weld.

They then removed their mask and hair cap to better appreciate the fruit of their labor.

Pink hair falling over their fair face, pushed aside by soft but skillful hands.

Valya Lebedova wiped the sweat off their brow and smiled at the freshly welded plate.

Running that gentle hand across the smooth join. This was some of their best work.

“It’s coming together. Soon we’ll test for seaworthiness.” They said to themself.

They had been keeping themselves quite busy since docking at Aachen.

While the officers and the security team were engaged with the United Front, the Brigand’s engineers were giving the ship and its weapons another tune-up, taking inventory, and running the stitchers day and night to resupply their stock of spare parts as well as replace worn parts. They were also continuing the work of building cooperation with the Rostock and its engineers– something made much easier by the invention of ZaChat.

All the while, Valya had been working in the hangar on the squadron’s Heavy Divers.

Working with machines suited them well. They considered themself an acceptable pilot, but not an exceptional one like Khadija, whom they could barely keep up with, or Shalikova, who piloted boldly and aggressively. Even Murati, who was also somewhat overshadowed by Khadija and Shalikova, was still stronger and more skilled in battle than Valya. In a mecha, Valya was a grunt, an additional gun. But with tools in their hand, and the time to spend, they could do work on the machines that was more unique than the efficient and routine maintenance taught by the academy and reproduced unerringly by the average engineer.

Valya had been out in there, in the sea, had been shot at, had shot back–

It was terrifying– but it imparted a personal knowledge of how the machine operated.

And what a pilot valued out of the machine, and how to optimize for those eccentricities.

An engineer working on dozens of Streloks had to be efficient, but Valya could be exacting.

Not only in tuning up and repairs– the Brigand across its battles had collected a stock of captured or surrendered enemy equipment, as well as broken-down hulls and other miscellany from their own damage and losses. There was a sizeable pile of metal to break down and reuse, as well as an entire hull that was surrendered by Sieglinde Castille. Valya wanted to do something with it– they had been working on assembling a brand new mecha working off these materials. To make use of the advanced hull Sieglinde brought in.

Whether or not it saw immediate use, they could always find a home for more machines.

Thankfully for Valya, Murati had been incredibly supportive of their ideas.

With assistance from the engineers, and Khadija’s support, they were given the time and space to work on engineering projects were it related to the Divers as a special member of the hangar crew. Khadija would have to have more standby time when out at sea because of this, as the first-line standby pilots were originally her and Valya– but she was nice enough to agree. Some of the burden was also taken up by Sameera, who volunteered to be on standby much more often. Valya was lucky to have such supportive comrades.

Everyone was careful not to talk about it as if Valya would be replaced and join the engineers. Valya knew Murati could not promise that, since the available candidates to replace anyone on the squadron were in a state of flux. Aiden had been demoted to a sailor, the Rostock could not spare more crew, and Homa Baumann was a big, ambiguous maybe. Valya had no illusions that they would be going out and fighting if needed, and they had no reservations against doing so. They were fighting a war and Valya was a soldier.

“Hey, are you going to marry that weld? You’ve been staring at it for long enough.”

Valya looked down at the base of the work platform, where a tall woman waved at them.

They smiled back at her. “Hey, let me have this moment!” They laughed.

Soon they joined their aunt Galina Lebedova on the hangar floor.

Galina was the Chief Technician overseeing all aspects of engineering and maintenance work on the ship. She looked the part– tall, muscular, broad-chested, wearing the standard work coveralls, but with her own flair too. She wore makeup, complimenting her round, friendly face, and when she was not engaged in work she wore the coveralls halfway down, off her shoulders. This exposed the bodysuit she wore beneath, and the impressive definition of her body. Her dark hair was dyed, much like Valya’s was, but with small streaks of blue.

Valya felt quite small near their aunt, but they were used to it.

The Lebedovich family was quite fecund, with Valya having many siblings and many cousins and many older folks and being among the smallest of their generation. They were spread out all over the Union. Valya was part of the generation that grew up with the Union’s ideal toward child rearing and was raised by the state more than by their parents.

Whenever the kids all got to visit their parents, and the parents’ own siblings and relatives joined in, the actual, massive scope of the family came into stark relief.

Nevertheless, Valya felt that they acquitted themselves well enough among their family.

After all, only two members of their family were on this suicidal black ops mission.

It would be an impressive bit of their resume if they came back, however!

“How is it coming along? Have you given it a name yet?” Galina asked.

“Not yet. I might entreat Murati or the other pilots to name it.” Valya said.

“Sounds like a fun idea. Maybe you could make it a ship-wide contest.”

“I’d rather not draw that much attention to the whole thing.” Valya said sheepishly.

Galina looked up at the tarp-covered mass, the machine Valya had been building.

“You’ve come a long way Valya. I remember when you were just a kid tinkering with a little quadrotor you won as a prize at school.” Lebedova said. She reached out and laid a hand on Valya’s head and messed up their hair. Valya protested only mildly. “Now you’re turning out to be a wizard with the spare parts here. Everyone is excited to see what you cooked up.”

Valya felt a bit nostalgic, recalling that little machine. They had largely forgotten it.

Life had been filled with projects for Valya, they had always been busy in school–

And once they were awed by the power of a Diver, there was no turning back from that.

Tinkering with rotor revolutions and weight-shifting on a drone was literally child’s play.

A Diver represented the power of the future. Murati could see that too.

Maybe– Murati could see it more than anyone.

After all, it was because of Murati protesting, that Valya had gotten practical pilot training.

Many, many years ago in the Academy– not that Murati knew that.

But it was this which led Valya to value Murati’s insights.

They turned to their aunt with a carefree smile.

“Well, they will see it soon! I honestly think I’ll have it ready in a day or two!” Valya said.

“Hmm. Has anyone pulled you aside and made you have any fun lately?” Galina said.

She leaned into Valya with a skeptical expression on her face.

Valya leaned back a bit. “I’m doing what I like, and I like what I do. So there’s no problem.”

Galina drew back with a sigh. “I just can’t help but notice it– with how busy you are–”

“Notice what?” Valya said.

“Well, at first I thought you might be getting on with Khadija, at least–”

Valya started waving their hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not– I haven’t ever–”

“I mean, I know that now obviously.” Galina said. She made an exaggerated sigh that clued Valya on to the fact that they were being teased. “In this ship where passions are always burning so bright– I bet your parents will be disappointed when you return home without bringing a nice girl to introduce to them. They are expecting some grandkids you know?”

“They can forget it! I don’t want one child let alone six!” Valya said, crossing their arms.

Chief Lebedova burst out laughing. Valya narrowed their eyes and stared critically.

Mighty thankful that the Union state and its laws could thwart their parent’s demands.

“Besides, I don’t see you settling down with a ‘nice sailor boy’ either.” Valya shot back.

“My time has passed.” Galina shrugged. “Now that I have fully disappointed all of my own close family with my sapphism and whimsy, I can live my life as I choose free of their dour expectations. I have left such things to the next generation. Please pick up the slack for me.”

“What are you even saying? I refuse!” Valya said, knowingly playing up their reticence.

Despite all the teasing, Valya got along well enough with Galina.

Though they would not admit it, Galina was someone they aspired to become.

Valya could empathize with Murati’s desire to someday command a ship.

Their ambitions, however, were fixed squarely on the shop floor and its machines.

Commanding respect and organizing all of the hangar tech as Chief Technician.

Everything tuned up to their specification; and an entire floor working on their designs!

Maybe the Union could promote Murati and take on Valya alongside someday.

And perhaps a refined version of the machine under the tarp could fill their hangar.

“Valya, I did want to talk to you about something serious.” Galina said. She looked around the hangar. Valya thought she knew what it was about– Gunther had taken the day and was out in the station. As soon as Galina got to speaking again, Valya had her suspicions confirmed. “Murati approached me about Gunther– I obviously don’t mind anyone lodging complaints for any reason. I just wanted you to know, he is ordinarily a very quiet and work-oriented guy. I know you have had to pick up the slack for him a bit, and it might feel unfair. But I think he just isn’t used to how spontaneous things have been on this ship. He is very– rules oriented. And a lot of disorder has been brought in. Can you give him a chance, for me?”

Valya shook their head. They didn’t mean to get directly involved in Gunther’s situation, but given how they worked closely with Murati, it was an easy assumption to make.

They would not pretend that they were unrelated.

“It’s not necessarily about it being unfair to me. I think it’s unfair to the pilots. Gunther is the frontline guy for the Divers, I know there must be a lot of pressure on him but if he makes a mistake or doesn’t get to something, it could be lethal for Murati and the others. It could be lethal for me. That’s why I am trying to take care of everything myself. If you, Murati and the Captain would formally make me an engineer, I would sort everything out.”

They stuck out their chest with a proud little smile. Almost sure that they were sparkling.

Galina sighed a bit, crossed her arms. After a moment, she replied. “I’ll talk to the captain. I’m sure someone from here or from the Rostock or hell, even the John Brown, could take your seat as a pilot. Aiden was not an especially useful addition to the sailing crew– I would have a lot less to worry about if I could fob off more work on you.” She winked.

Valya frowned in response.

Only at the last snide remark– they were excited at the prospect of joining the engineers.

“I won’t disappoint you– but I will complain to Semyonova if you are unfair to me!”

“I guess you’d still be in the officer’s union huh? What a pain.” Galina joked.

The two of them shared a bit of laugh to show the situation was not too serious.

“I can’t make any promises. But the hangar crew would love to have you.” Galina said.

Valya nodded their head. It felt like they were so close to their personal goals now.

They would do whatever was required of them for the mission to succeed. That much would never change. However, confidence did not come easily to little Valya– and with each passing day, they were becoming more confident in their mechanical skills.

Soon, they would prove that to everyone.

“Ah, master, you look so positively radiant in the captain’s seat.”

“Heh, I do, don’t I? I imagined this moment so many times. I bet I pull it off exactly.”

“Indeed, indeed. Have you thought about what you will say when you order a fusillade?”

“Absolutely. Of course I have thought about it. It’s integral to morale. Every word.”

“Then master, why not roleplay a full attack, so that you might perfect your technique?”

“You know, Aatto– you’re completely right. As I ask others to prepare, I too must do so.”

Murati was in such a vital mood she saw nothing silly about this proposition.

A Captain was a figure of strength, a symbol to the crew, just as much as their function as an element of battlefield control. Every aspect, every gesture, had to command respect and dignity. Such things as élan and esprit de corps might have sounded unscientific to some persons, but a soldier’s enthusiasm and sense of belonging to a professional unit had tangible effects on their performance in battle. Soldiers respected and motivated by their officers put on a greater effort to the bitter end than bored, abused grunts did.

So in the middle of the day at an unspecific hour of no other meaning–

Murati stood up from her chair, put on a deadly grin and pointed her index finger.

Her arm was perfectly straight, precisely parallel to the ceiling.

Just as her lips parted, with her bridge staring in confusion (rapt attention)–

The door opened, and a seemingly young woman in a suit and vest walked in nonchalantly–

“Murati–?” she said, but would not be heard until the weighty deed was finished–

“All guns, drown them out with thunder! Continuous barrage!” Murati shouted.

She then realized someone had entered, and her head suddenly snapped to the door.

Dropping her arm, staring. Feeling self-conscious and strangely surveilled.

At her right-hand, Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa stared as if seeking confirmation.

“Um, that was a simulation.” Murati said, waving her hands. “Forget it, carry on.”

Everyone on the bridge seemed to shrug off the moment pretty easily.

Murati, however, felt rather silly that she had been seen doing so by Euphrates.

Standing at the door, an impish grin on her face, with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Having a lot of fun with the big chair, Murati?” Euphrates said. “Let me join you!”

Without waiting for acknowledgment, she crossed in front of Murati and Aatto and sat down in the farthest seat at the top, where Erika Kairos sat if she was available. Somehow the blue-haired immortal Eloim did not feel too out of place in that position– Euphrates was a person who had earned Murati’s respect and affection as much as the Premier.

And this meant–

–it was rather mortifying whenever she saw Murati acting impulsively.

“Master, my entire body quaked with the power of your voice.” Aatto cheered.

“I– I don’t want to hear things like that.” Murati replied, averting her gaze.

Euphrates laughed a bit to herself and laid back on the chair.

She shut her eyes and looked rather placid for a moment.

Then– Murati heard her voice.

“Have you gotten better at speaking telepathically?” She asked wordlessly.

Her voice appeared soundlessly in Murati’s thoughts as if she herself had recalled it.

It was only because of her own psionic experiences she knew that it was telepathy.

Despite the method, the communications were surprisingly clear and easy to understand.

Even though the voice might have sounded a bit dim, the content was perfectly transmitted.

“I practiced with Aatto.” Murati said, launching the words right into Euphrates’ mind.

“Aatto is a good partner for you. Her abilities are limited but her resistance is strong.”

“I still don’t want to risk hurting her. We’ve only practiced telepathy, nothing else.”

“You’re such a considerate girl. Have you been able to practice vectoring at all?”

“Here and there. It’s difficult to control. I can’t seem to limit my strength at all.”

“You’re either uniquely gifted or uniquely cursed, Murati.” Euphrates smiled.

“Great. It’s an excellent title for my biography: Uniquely Gifted, Uniquely Cursed.”

Murati sank back into her chair with a gloomy expression.

Euphrates telepathically projected an image of herself patting Murati’s back.

Somehow, though the action had not been taken physically, Murati still felt a bit comforted.

“I did not just come here to bother you.” Euphrates communicated. “I wanted– to talk.”

Despite their soundless communication, Murati still felt the hesitation in her “tone.”

“I’m listening. You know if its for you, I can make the time.” Murati replied.

Euphrates put on a mischievous face. “Murati– putting it so straightforwardly–?”

“What? I don’t get it– why do you look so happy–?” Murati narrowed her eyes.

“Nevermind, nevermind. This is something serious.” Euphrates put a hand over her own chest and sighed a little bit. “I talked to Daksha Kansal. She and I have a long history– I have already told you some stories. But I don’t believe I ever communicated just how much I was once enamored with her. I admired her greatly. Unfortunately– we had a bit of a tiff and departed on bad terms. I don’t believe I can ever talk to her again in a private capacity. I thought you should know– she is someone involved with your past too, after all.”

More than that, Daksha Kansal was someone Murati distantly admired.

Every communist leader had something to teach– even Ahwalia unearthed certain lessons. Daksha Kansal led the Union through its tumultuous birth. She focused everything on reclaiming the prisons and slave work operations and turning them into homes and factories, and distributing the products to the exhausted, exploited masses for their survival.

Daksha Kansal said to the former slaves that it would take work and struggle still to live freely, rather than passively being free. Despite the pain and weariness, the people of the Union took up their tools again, for themselves, for their home, and worked again.

It would have been easy for the Union to collapse in those precarious days where so many people with nothing cobbled together everything they could for a fighting chance, and still found themselves lacking for so much after achieving the victory. Winning against the Empire did not bring plenty, it did not even bring enough, not right away– the hardship continued and there was always more work. Daksha Kansal knew how to keep the fire alive even after the the adrenaline died down and the people took stock of how difficult the future would be. They could not eat freedom; but they feasted on her hope.

Had the Murati of 979 A.D. been in that position she would not have known what to say.

Sometimes her mind reeled at the pain and immiseration around her in affluent Imbria.

She was a kid back then– her memory of how bad it was had been dulled by time.

Would she have fallen to her knees at the sight of the bleak prison the slaves inherited?

Daksha Kansal could have only been a colossus.

Even moreso to Murati, who received her emancipation and admission into the military, her childhood dream and desire, through the direct intervention of Daksha Kansal, Bhavani Jayasankar and Parvati Nagavanshi. These three figures flitted in and out of her life and worked in its background, and though she knew none of them personally, clearly she could only be biased about their importance to the world. Ideologically, she agreed strongly with them– and personally, she admired and sought their bravery and character.

But she also knew that they were human and fallible.

Daksha Kansal abdicated power and vanished from the Union, inexplicably.

Murati had not wanted to acknowledge that too much– but she could not ignore it.

As much as she wanted to believe in her as a simple hero, it was unscientific to do so.

She had to account for the fact that Daksha Kansal left them all in the middle of her work.

With that in mind, it was possible to want to disagree with her too.

Murati and Euphrates continued to speak telepathically.

“Are you afraid that I’ll take her side or something like that?” Murati asked.

“I am afraid of offending you. I am trying to be careful with my words.” Euphrates said.

“What happened is between you two. If you advocated for me or the Union broadly, I thank you for doing so. I don’t demand you disclose anything to me; and if you are afraid I would not be predisposed to believing you, well, you have nothing to fear. I’m not so ideologically rigid, you know? You are someone I esteem too– someone I swore to protect.”

Euphrates’ eyes drew wide again. She smiled. “Murati, thank you. I am touched.”

“It’s my honest feelings. I don’t agree with your positions all the time, but I admire the strength of your character. And I know you are someone who has suffered a lot, just like us. I’d be a pretty shameful communist if I turned my back on you out of blind idolatry. When you baptized me I felt your loneliness and pain– I want to do what I can for you, you know.”

Euphrates wiped her fingers gently over her eyes. She had shed a few tears. Seeing her like that almost made Murati weep too, but she held her own tears back. It would have seemed ridiculous for her to weep out of nowhere from the perspective of the crew.

So she held strong.

“Thank you, Murati. I am truly grateful. But– you should be careful how you speak.”

“Huh? What is this about? I told you these are my honest feelings.”

“If you tell a woman you’ve ‘sworn to protect her’– such a thing can be misunderstood.”

“What are you saying? There is no way to misinterpret that. It means what it means!”

“This is why everyone’s always gossiping about you…”

Euphrates sent her another mental image of herself patting Murati’s back.

Murati tele-projected back an image of herself with a serious expression.

“You know, I am thinking of starting a new project.” Euphrates said, this time out loud.

Out loud, physically, but their volume was still low enough to be semi-private.

“Sorry, I am not joining your new gang.” Murati said simply. “I have responsibilities here.”

“Of course, of course. I am not recruiting you. I just hope that I can continue to hitch a ride– and perhaps enlist your help in finding former colleagues of mine.” Euphrates said.

“You have to ask the Captain for a definitive answer– but I don’t think anyone wants you to leave.” Murati said. “I certainly do not. So I hope you can run your project here.”

“Don’t worry, it will be a while yet before we part ways.” Euphrates smiled.

She reached her out and physically patted Murati’s shoulder.

“I am not particularly proud of how my meeting with Daksha went. It– ended in a fight.”

She sent this message telepathically, resuming their mental correspondence.

“You fought?” Murati responded silently. “Like– physically?”

“We fought. It was a very emotionally charged argument. I lost myself. I truly regret it.”

Murati was briefly a bit speechless. This was the last thing she expected to hear.

Her own hand reached out, physically, and squeezed Euphrates’ shoulder in comfort.

“Did you win?” She asked telepathically. Trying to project a tone of levity to Euphrates.

For her part, Euphrates smiled serenely and said nothing more, leaning into Murati’s arm.

Though surprised by the display of affection, Murati allowed Euphrates to rest on her.

On the second day of the United Front deliberations, the delegates gathered to discuss the creation of an information exchange between the parties as proposed on the previous day. Familiar figures from the first meeting attended once again, although the mood was initially much more subdued than the brawling of the previous day. Taras Moravskyi and Tamar Livnat presided over the meeting, introducing topics and approving proposals, a formality; Zozia Chelik and Ksenia Apfel remained mostly quiet; Erika Kairos, Ulyana Korabiskaya, Eithnen Ní Faoláin and their adjutants stood in for the Volksarmee; while Gloria Luxembourg remained the only attending delegate of the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.

Gloria looked rather bored, rubbing a finger on the table while Erika made a proposition.

“In my time with my esteemed colleagues from the south,” Erika said, gesturing toward Ulyana and Aaliyah on the table, “I discovered that the Union has methods for sending encrypted information through the Imbrian relay network while making the source difficult to trace without time-consuming and very specific scrutiny. Rather than sharing these protocols in full, and each developing a system independently– I propose we all collaborate on a platform built by one of our officers, known as ZaChat. Using ZaChat as a base, we have a means of quickly getting in touch with each other. We can at the very least use it as initial point of communication before switching to a more secure means. Along with the adoption of a cipher dictionary, we’ll be able to coordinate from afar, while the fascists will remain none the wiser. What do my esteemed colleagues think of this idea?”

“We would have to trial the program.” Tamar Livnat replied. “But I agree on the basics. A simple way to send encrypted messages, and a cipher to make those messages appear innocuous are both necessary. If you already have some technology we might as well use it– I doubt my comrades will want to use any Imbrian-made software for this task.”

“You can’t trust none of these newfangled networks.” Moravskyi said. “All that stuff was laid down by the Rhinean and Palatine megacorps! None of these portables and private computers and this ‘internet’ business is safe, not one bit of it! They are watching it all the time for any sign of dissent! But I suppose we won’t be able to move fast if we have to wait for actual couriers back and forth, so it’ll have to do. But I don’t like it one bit.”

“Comrade Moravskyi, perhaps you know a means by which our information exchange can exchange information without the use of computers? We would give that proposal some thought. Otherwise we must press on.” Tamar said. She sounded like she making fun of Moravskyi, but it was not entirely obvious– she was very careful and measured with every sound from her lips and every movement of her face such that it caused the listener to doubt whether she was being snide. Moravskyi did not seem to realize he was being criticized and remained quiet as Tamar continued with a smile on her face. “If the comrades in the Volksarmee would be so kind as to provide us systems with ‘ZaChat’ installed so that we might quickly get up to speed with it– we will agree to Erika Kairos’ proposal.”

“Absolutely. We will turn over a few devices to the delegates tomorrow.” Erika said.

After Erika’s proposal, there was little additional debate.

Everyone agreed that it was both necessary and smart to have a means to quickly share intelligence with one another and that it would enable them to act in concert to target Volkisch assets, or to protect each other’s assets. It was a good way to muster their full resources without imposing on each other’s autonomy or creating a chain of command that would be odious to the parties. These deliberations were rather uncontroversial.

Conversation turned to the uses of the information exchange.

What was before implied was openly discussed– the three groups should share intelligence with the aim of assisting each other in missions to degrade and destroy Volkisch assets and loosen their control over Eisental. This too was an uncontroversial idea. If they were only going to agree to send ZaChat direct messages to each other with no intent to stage any direct actions with one another then the deliberations were entirely pointless.

However, a debate eventually arose on the asymmetry between the parties in action–

“Both the Schwarzrot and Volksarmee have military or near-military grade vessels. The Eisern Front moves in civilian vessels– some of which are not even owned but chartered. We have very little naval potential, and we risk everything when we take to the seas. It was a gamble for us to appear at these deliberations– we don’t even have the luxury of keeping our papers fully up to date as we smuggle people from station to station and maintenance costs can be burdensome to us for travel.” Tamar had once again taken an active role. When she brought up this topic, it seemed to take Moravskyi by surprise. He had been designated the principal speaker for the Eiserne, but Tamar would always talk first, with that unflappable smile on her gentle and pretty face. “I believe it would be a show of good will from our comrades if there could be a provision for the Eisern Front to receive at least a single armed vessel.”

“You are using a lot of passive tenses.” Erika said. “Tamar, do you want us to procure that vessel? Do you want us to gather funds? Do you want us to undertake a mission to steal a vessel? You can and should be direct with your proposals. And also how does Moravskyi feel about this proposal? To which arm of the Eiserne would this vessel be transferred?”

Erika turned to face Moravskyi, who looked a bit confused about the whole thing.

“We aren’t suddenly going to switch tactics to fighting naval engagements.” Moravskyi said. “Our strengths wouldn’t change from getting one ship– we are still going to operate from within stations. So I guess Tamar is asking for her comrades to receive a ship. That’s on her.”

Being called out did not seem to dull Tamar’s spirit any. She continued to speak calmly.

“I apologize for not being clear. You are correct that my forces are still focused on station combat. I would still like for the Volksarmee to transfer a vessel to the Aerean Preservation Militia. Our forces are not going to become a naval powerhouse overnight, but having an armed vessel would help us to resist dangers to our forces during transfers by sea.”

“We refuse to transfer away any of our naval power.” Erika said. “Our prerogative is to be able to target and destroy Volkisch naval assets. We believe this will be crucial going forward. We can assist your forces with our naval power, much as you will assist us with your land forces. But we will not turn over one of our vessels to an unproven crew.”

“My– a show of the ample generosity of our partners, I suppose.” Tamar said.

Erika bristled at Tamar’s gentle, casually delivered sarcasm and prepared to reply–

“Don’t start another pointless fight. I’ve had enough of you people arguing.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg finally spoke up, sounding childishly fed up.

“I will buy you a vessel and equip it with weapons. I have people for this.” Gloria said.

“I would have preferred the transfer of a Volksarmee vessel. They have captured Imperial military equipment that is tested and proven– which I am not sure you can guarantee. They also have equipment that blends in well with the enemy, which would greatly assist us in our sabotage and infiltration missions.” Tamar said. “For example, we could get a lot of use out of the ability of your miraculous little hauler to blend in plain sight.”

Ulyana fixed Tamar with a sharp gaze. “You must be out of your mind. It’s not happening.”

Tamar’s eyes briefly glanced over to Ulyana. Her lips still curled into the same little smile.

“Tamar, let’s not be unreasonable now.” Gloria said. “I will buy your group a vessel, any size, any equipment you need. You can even make the exterior hull ugly looking as you like.”

Her entry into the conversation as the unofficial arms dealer of the United Front settled the immediate tension, but Ulyana would not easily forget Tamar’s insinuations. Moravskyi did not interrupt the conversation, but when Tamar asked for the Brigand he did stare at her with shock. He must not have known the depths to which she might stoop– perhaps not even for what purpose. Regardless, it was agreed Gloria would supply a Cruiser to serve as an Eiserne Front flagship. It would be operated by the Aerean Preservation Militia.

Gloria agreed on a timetable for delivery.

With that messy episode settled, a conversation sprung about expanding the exchange.

“In a United Front strategy, it is assumed that we will not only work among ourselves.” Moravskyi said. “But we will join any workers who oppose the bourgeoisie– in this case, I assume we will try to assist any workers that are opposing the Volkisch Movement. I was thinking– will we extend our information exchange to fighters outside of the groups meeting here? Would we bring more people into the fold? Mother anarchy opens her arms to anyone willing to accept her, but I know the reds are more cautious than that.”

“I think you’ll find we are quite willing to work with anyone.” Erika said.

Tamar raised a hand to her lips and giggled just a bit.

“Yes, that much should be obvious, Comrade Moravskyi. They brought Republicans here.”

She pointed out Eithnen and Tahira with a mirthful expression on her face.

“You know what, lady? I’ve just about had it with your bitchy little attitude.” Eithnen said. “There’s no Republicans in this room. I hate the Republic of Alayze more than anyone. Sit your prissy ass down, shut your hole, and let the big guy finish a sentence for once!”

Eithnen correctly identified Tamar seemed to be needling Moravskyi as much as anyone.

Gloria stood up from her chair.

“Tamar, you chose Moravskyi as speaker for the Eiserne. Let him do the talking.” She said.

“Do not censure her!” Moravskyi said. “We anarchists are candid! We speak our minds. I appreciate that about comrade Livnat. I don’t want her to shut up, whether she insults me or engages in teasing. I’m a grown man, I don’t care. I want her able to speak however.”

Tamar merely shrugged in her seat but remained obediently quiet for the discussion.

Without Tamar’s interruptions, the rest of the United Front agreed on two points.

First, if it would be useful to a mission and the candidates were trusted, more people could be added to the information exchange, on either a temporary or extended basis. Zachikova would be asked to create provisional statuses with limited permissions and time-limited access that would self-terminate in certain conditions. Essentially, a status of informants who could send data without being able to see anything themselves, whose sessions were cleaned out on a regular basis, and who were kept at the periphery of the systems.

Erika Kairos agreed this would be implemented.

Second, the door was opened for more groups to completely join the United Front provided they shared enough of a semblance of worker-centered politics and had mission capabilities the Front could make use of against the Volkisch. Such solidarity would not be extended to groups without a rank and file and some level of organization. They decided a membership of at least fifty persons was needed to fully join. That would keep out small time ideological actors who were best retained as distant “informants”. Once a group joined the front they would added permanently to the information exchange, with their leadership having some access to add members of their organization as required for mission needs.

“Sounds good. Look at us, we’re like one big happy family.” Moravskyi laughed.

At this point, Tamar’s bodyguard, the tall, lithe, dark-haired woman in the dark coat, approached her and whispered something. Tamar smiled, listened, without turning her head, and waved her off. The bodyguard then left the venue. Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to want to ask what that was about– but she seemed to think better of it after some consultation with her Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. The two of them passed on the opportunity to speak, and Moravskyi declared the resolutions formally approved by the Front.

With a decent amount of official work behind them, the front members started to chat.

They set the next day’s topic, which would be going over tactics and strategy, and what should and should not be on the table, as well as exchanging information about capabilities between the forces to better understand how each would deploy. Erika promised a demonstration of ZaChat. Finally, Moravskyi adjourned the meeting, but nobody left right away. Particularly because Moravskyi turned to Gloria with a pointed question.

“Hey, Miss Luxembourg.” He said, a bit derisively. “When are we going to see your mentor at one of these meetings? It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to debate that hag Kansal!”

“Hag?” Gloria narrowed her eyes, annoyed. “She’ll show up when she shows up.”

“Is she not going to show her face then? What a waste.” Moravskyi said.

“We hardly need any more social climbers in our midst.” Tamar said, cracking a little grin.

“What is your problem lady? I’ve put up with enough of your idle chatter.” Gloria said. Her saccharine facade had been largely absent in this particular meeting, where she hardly spoke. But now she was being ‘candid’ herself. “Daksha Kansal is a hero to all communists! She has better things to do than argue with the likes of you people! That’s why I’m here. So stop clamoring for her to appear if all you want is a target dummy for your petty and ancient grievances. We’re here, in the present, and we agreed to cooperate, so cooperate!”

“Gloria, do you know the history of the revolution that produced the Union?” Tamar asked.

“I know enough.” Gloria said. “Are you going to quiz me on it, schoolteacher?”

Her barbs were not as fierce, but her heart was clearly into the conflict now.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched with mild annoyance as this all played out.

Erika Kairos sighed and crossed her arms and tried to stay out of it all.

“Do you believe the revolution was started by Daksha Kansal?” Tamar asked.

“Everyone knows that. Obviously. She was key to everything.” Gloria said.

“That’s what you all tell yourselves now.” Moravksyi said. “But it wasn’t the case.”

“How do you figure? Hmph. She was the organizer behind the General Strike!” Gloria said, passions enflamed. “That’s what she was imprisoned for! Everyone knows the history! She broke out and organized the slaves, leading to several bloody prison takeovers, plantation riots. The key moment was the uprising in the shipyards that are now Sevastopol and the uprisings in what is now Solstice, the control centers for the Imperial administration. The nascent Union took over much of the merchant marine that had been paralyzed in the Sevastopol and Solstice ports due to the panic in the Imbrian control centers. Kansal’s group also overran the magazines and distributed real armaments to the slaves. This is all history, and you can look it all up! So what do you all believe is the actual truth then?”

“Little lady, Kansal was not the first one to rise up.” Moravskyi said. “She was not even the second or the third. Solstice rose when the rest of the colonies were already fully rioting, and she took advantage of that. I know because I was there. I was there with her even.”

Gloria stared at Moravskyi but did not reply quickly anymore. She looked like it was dawning on her that she spoke with too much certitude and that perhaps there was more to the story than she imagined. She had the quiet and guarded expression of someone fearful to have appeared foolish. Now she must have been thinking how to spare herself.

Tamar took the opportunity to add on to what Moravskyi had declared.

“Not only that– but you should also examine how the oppressed slaves without means could have begun to revolt in the first place. Sure, they had the numbers, but how did the systems of the Imbrians fail to stop some starving prisoners? It was because the anarchists from Imbria, particularly Bosporus, had been working in solidarity with the slaves for years. They assisted the slaves by smuggling in tools and weapons and with technical assistance. They recruited collaborators from the Imbrians too. All of this before the so-called ‘revolution’ that Daksha Kansal would like you to believe that she fomented alone.” Tamar said.

Rhetorically flanked, Gloria stared at Tamar as if she had been trapped by her too.

“People flocked to her because of her role in the failed General Strike. Demagoguery was the only reason she took the revolution as her own in the histories. In reality there were more factors responsible than simply the titanic qualities of Daksha Kansal.”

Tamar looked once again rather sure of herself, and Gloria could not refute her.

Ulyana Korabiskaya did not hold her silence this time around.

“You anarchists are making a lot of insinuations– but you are explicitly unwilling to mention one important thing in all of your arguments.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms and staring down Tamar once more. “The actual, chronological, first slave revolt that exposed the vulnerability of the imperialists, overthrew station administrators and that secured arms, was not led by communists or anarchists. It was actually the Shimii Mahdist nationalists under Mogliv Omarov who rebelled first. They created the conditions in which further prison breaks happened. And Omarov organized his people himself by making use of the time and space allotted by the administrators to practice their religion. He was not assisted by either anarchists or communists– it was all Shimii on that first night.”

Tamar’s smile slowly melted away. Moravskyi suddenly looked every one of his years.

Ulyana continued. “I know because I was there too– as a matter of fact, I was the one who freed Daksha Kansal, Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia from their cells. I was sixteen years old and I had been organized and prepared by them. I lost all of my family and so many people I fought alongside. I fought for everyone’s freedom, just like you, Moravskyi– and you, Tamar Livnat, should think twice about your rhetoric. Out of anyone in the room it has been you who has sounded the most inclined toward ‘demagoguery’ today.”

Omarov had been first; but anarchists, communists, and simple folk, all threw open prisons.

Enough people did so to succeed in the end.

Ulyana opened those doors and knew better than anyone the order of those events.

She would not let anyone forget those nights.

That winter of their souls in 958 that was freezing cold not physically but psychologically.

“If Mogliv Omarov could work with the North Bosporan and Volgian communists, and even become a professed communist himself– what are we fighting among ourselves for?” Aaliyah said, suddenly backing up Ulyana. Ulyana looked surprised that she had spoken but on the verge of tears, seemed to appreciate the help. “None of us have any power over each other or over Eisental. We’re as much in cages as back then. We need to focus on breaking out of the cage first and cease all of this bickering and confrontation. Can we agree to that?”

Ulyana looked across the table at the anarchists. Tamar briefly averted her gaze.

Even Moravskyi looked a little cowed by the stories being told.

“I agree with them.” Zozia Chelik finally entered the conversation. At her side, Ksenia Apfel seemed to pay attention for the first time as well. “I did not come here to have school level ideology debates. There are twisted, brutal people in control of this nation who will stop at nothing to kill us all. That is the most urgent issue. I think we had some productive discussion today, but lets table the history lessons. We can all kill each other after we kill the Volkisch.”

Ulyana flinched a bit at her nonchalance, but the morbid joke got a laugh out of Moravskyi.

“Bah.” He said. “You’re not the only one with bad memories of 958 and 959 though, Ulyana Korabiskaya. But nevertheless– I respect that you were there and saw it all. I can’t and will never respect Daksha Kansal, but I will put it aside out of my respect for your deeds.”

Moravskyi reached out a hand across the table and Ulyana gave it a curt shake.

He then reached out to Gloria, though without the praise he had given Ulyana.

Nevertheless, he got a diplomatic little shake out of her as well.

There was no further discussion and seemingly little desire to hang around the venue.

Another day passed, and the United Front simply went their separate ways again.


Outside the venue, Erika Kairos sent her retinue ahead, stating she wanted to go for a walk.

By herself, she approached Taras Moravskyi as he was also about to leave.

“Comrade, how about a drink to put the bad blood behind us?” She offered.

Moravskyi grinned and clapped his hands together. “Hell, why not– if you’re paying!”

Erika smiled in return. They signaled their respective camps and left right away.

It was later said that of the two of them, nobody could tell which one was was the loudest one yelling and laughing, arguing and joking, singing and even crying, at a no-name bar in the neglected Katarran underground of the station. A big bearded man with a shout like an earthquake rumbling and a seemingly unformidable Katarran woman with a strangely deep gut and a roar like a beast. Surrounded by Katarran mercenaries who saw weird folk come and go every day. A place where nobody would look or listen, nobody would remember, as they cheered for every dead comrade whose name they could recall, sang revolutionary songs, and kept the cheap Katarran whiskey flowing. They argued the characters of historical figures Moravskyi knew, and that Erika had read about; they discussed the character of Katarran warlord states; they somehow agreed on who the bastards were that most deserved a bullet in the head; and laughed at the expense of foolish liberal ideologues.

Even later, the Katarrans there remembered– when they walked out they both looked like they were perfectly sober as if they had not spent the whole time drinking their heads off, and that perhaps their behavior had been solely the result of their passions. Erika picked up the entire tab and they would go their separate ways. This was the first time that members of the Eisern and Volksarmee so openly mingled together. While it remained to be seen whether anything more substantial would then come of it, both Erika and Moravskyi left feeling a bit more positive than they had been since the United Front had begun.

As they had stopped outside the United Front venue, they stopped outside the bar.

Shaking hands and smiling, having come to something of an understanding–

“I was foolish to shoot you down so quickly.” Erika said. “Can I request a truce?”

“Bah! What truce do we need– you reds are so formal– just leave it in the past, tovarisch.”

They shook hands vigorously and pledged not to fight again for now.

A hearty liquor tab was a small price to pay for the tiniest bit of solidarity.

Erika returned to the Brigand that night and told everyone the United Front might just work.

While the passions were flying at the United Front, elsewhere in Aachen–

A young woman in a fancy red track suit stood in the middle of the lobby at the base of the Aachen core station. She had just come in from Stockheim, her silvery-pale hair tied up into a ponytail, hands in her pockets, pilot’s sunglasses perched on her nose.

Beauty lay in the eye of the beholder, but there were certainly many who found her face quite attractive, soft and fair, with a sharp and distinctive indigo gaze. Her fashionable clothes fit her slender body quite well. She got some fleeting looks from other women, which she noticed, but Aachen’s crowds kept moving around the melancholy girl.

After a few minutes standing alone, she sat down on a bench near an advertising screen.

She craned her head as if it would allow her to see over the crowd. She found nothing.

Beside her, a vertical video played of an Imbrian woman, young, blond-haired, fair-faced, in an apron over a lovely dress. Ably cooking an entire meal in a single appliance, boiling, roasting, frying, braising– all from the comfort of her rather spacious room and all thanks to the OmniVittles Advent. A grandiose name for a new instant pot from Rhinea Home Innovations, a Rhineametalle subsidiary. Made from cast iron with a proprietary mesh of titanium and depleted agarthicite for unprecedented heat transfer.

Twenty-five different cooking functions; home software integrated.

Sonya Shalikova watched the entire advertisement playing out directly beside her.

Its booming soundtrack and the chirpy voice of the actress transferred directly into her guts.

Once it was over, the screen became static with a long list of legal disclaimers.

Shalikova then looked back at the crowd and shook her head with a sigh.

“These people are all insane.” She muttered to herself.

Looking into the crowd for any signs of her “date” for today.

Such a ridiculous notion– they had been trying to kill each other just a month ago. Now she had to take Selene out, and she did not even have money to do it. She would probably just accompany her on whatever she wanted to do. But what did Selene Anahid even like? What was she even like when she wasn’t trying to kill her? Shalikova had a glimpse into her behavior in their last outing. She was combative and pushy and weird— but– there had been a glimmer of something there too. When she thought about it again–

she recalled Selene smiling and laughing–

There was something there– it was an image that evoked certain feelings–

“What am I even thinking about her so much for?” Shalikova grumbled.

Maybe it would not be so bad. No reason to dwell on it, she told herself.

Regardless of what happened she was already here and already agreed to this date.

Maryam had been supportive of it too, maybe even excited about it. She was so silly.

Shalikova suspected that Maryam wanted to support her in making a friend.

And while she was not opposed to it she could not imagine a relationship with Selene.

“I guess Khadija and Sieglinde are getting along okay.” Shalikova said.

Fishing in her mind for whatever similar situations she could find.

Sieglinde had also been an enemy of the Brigand who caused significant damage. Murati, Shalikova herself, and Khadija had all been nearly killed by her, and her actions led Murati to be terribly injured. When they next met, her assistance to Norn the Praetorian nearly got them all killed by Selene. However, the Captain and Commissar agreed to her defection, and she seemed to show remorse. Now she was something of an errand runner for the sailors when she was not being bossed around by Khadija to eat with her or go out.

They were even rooming together.

“Wait, are they–?” Shalikova was suddenly struck by how close those two seemed.

Her usual sharp insights must have been distracted of late by a certain marshmallow.

Khadija flirted with everyone so it was not a stretch she might just be teasing Sieglinde.

But she never grabbed her other targets by the arm and dragged them out to a bar.

Her mind began to transpose the example back to the issue she had been hoping to solve–

Shalikova shook her head, feeling that her brain had run into a computing error.

Obviously she could never have such a relationship with Selene! Pointless to consider!

Sighing, she looked back up at the crowd hoping to spot anything–

And finally saw a slender arm reaching up above the crowd and waving as it neared.

“Hey! Sonya! It’s me! Remember, I’m not late, you were just early, ha ha!”

“Whatever! I’m over here, come around already. And don’t call me–”

When Selene finally cleared the crowds and Shalikova saw her in full, she went silent.

Glossy pink lips brightly smiling, her lustrous purple hair falling behind her, the “rabbit ears” tucked inside it like twin bands of rainbow color amid the purple. She dressed in a tight, off-shoulder brown top with a plunging middle. Emphasizing cleavage to the point Shalikova could see thin outlines of Selene’s lacy bra cups over the edge of the folded, creased fabric of the top, along with obvious thin black straps extending over the center of her exposed shoulders. Paired with a high-waisted black skirt with four flower-shaped buttons, and red tights and black heels, and a cute little beret on top of her head– Shalikova could not keep from staring. Was this the same girl as the day before? Had she been wearing her makeup so meticulously, had her skin been so softly flushed, her lips so– attractive–?

Had her collarbones been so pronounced? And was she that curvy or was it the clothes?!

Shalikova tried to play it off almost immediately, but she was caught staring.

And then Selene’s smug sneer resurfaced, confirming who this angelic nymph really was.

“Haha! Look at your dumb face! I stole your breath away didn’t I, Sonya?”

Shalikova bristled and averted her gaze in a huff. Selene crossed her arms, giggling.

“Stop calling me Sonya. You will call me Shalikova and only Shalikova–”

“Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya–”

How quickly she rattled them off! And without spitting or stumbling! Her lips–

“Ugh, fine. Fine! Stop being so childish. Let’s just get this over with.”

Selene blinked, Shalikova tried to look away, and then Selene imperiously pointed at



“Why are you wearing the same thing as yesterday?”

No– she was just pointing at Shalikova’s clothes nonspecifically–

of course–

“It’s my best set of clothes. I had it washed and pressed yesterday, it’s fine.”

“No, no, it won’t do. You can’t keep wearing the same thing over and over!”

“Why not? I like it and its not worn out or anything. Why do you care?”

To say she ‘liked it’ was a stretch but it was comfortable enough to keep wearing.

Shalikova was genuinely confused as to why Selene cared so much about her tracksuit.

Selene approached her, and grabbed her arm and pulled her up to a stand.

Wrapping her arm around Shalikova’s and tucking herself close to Shalikova’s shoulder.

Sending a jolt of electricity down Shalikova’s spine, and setting her skin to tingling–

With the warmth and softness of her body–

“Let’s go get you something else to wear and then we can run around!”

Selene started walking, and caught in her embrace, Shalikova was led along with her.

Outside the lobby, there was more room for the crowd to disperse, and there were far less people on any given floor and hallway of the commercial district. This meant the crowds thinned out and it made the walks along some of the storefronts feel more private. In the center of the grand atrium the walled-off display put on a light show that bathed Shalikova and Selene in gentle colors as they strode between planter pods with bushy plants, looking over the storefronts on their floor. Overhead, the near ceiling was made up of the next floor up, and Shalikova felt like she was caught in a twister of steel and color, with the sky made of more mall floors, staircases, and the eerie glow of the art installations floating in the water collected behind the center glass, always present at their flanks.

In the midst of the dizzying architecture, the closest thing was Selene, warm and chipper.

She looked on at the grandness of the place with girlish curiosity and awe.

Pointing out the lights and the storefronts and the shoppers and workers going to and fro with a cutesy smile on her face. Stopping to smell the grassy scent coming out of the planter pods dotting the halls. Retaking Shalikova’s arm whenever she wanted to get going again. Perhaps she had not been paying attention to the sights when she was crossing the mall herself the day before. Perhaps it was the lights that dazzled her since the art displays were not lighting up as much yesterday. Or maybe she was getting into character, trying to charm Shalikova by acting girly. Shalikova tried to remain a bit aloof to it all herself.

However, she was also a bit happy that Selene appeared to be in good spirits.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, in the cockpit of that evil machine, her psionic screams filled Shalikova’s mind, and her pitch-black aura demanded her death. Such was her violence that the ocean quaked. Anger, hatred, panic, these were the emotions that filled the water in Selene’s wake back then. It seemed almost impossible that this cute, trendy girl her age could have been the demon that nearly killed them all. At times, Shalikova felt close to wondering whether it was not another Selene, somehow, who had done so.

Then Selene smirked and said something snide, her voice too-perfectly recalling the past.

“You’re trying to play it cool? That’s so lame. You should act all touristy with me.”

“Huh? So you’re just pretending to care about all this stuff?”

“I’m not pretending, you simpleton, I’m getting into the mood of a big station date.”

“What if I told you I’m in my own mood as well?”

“Ugh, being the cool stoic type is so cringe. It’s all about being genuine now.”

“Being genuine is pretending to care about stuff?”

“Uh huh, it’s more genuine than pretending not to care!”

Shalikova sighed. She looked at the art installations floating in the middle of the atrium.

All of the pieces composing each installation had indecipherably abstract shapes, but the high-power colored LED clusters installed on them allowed them to scatter strange patterns of colors and shadows across their surfaces. It was this, their combined amorphousness and the colors they cast around the environment, that seemed to be the source of their novelty. Shalikova looked at them and tried with all her heart to be excited about it all.

“Wow. Colors.” She said. Her voice barely registered one scintillion of an emotion.

Selene stared at her. She sighed herself, and smacked Shalikova in the mid-back.

“Come on, let’s go clothes shopping, before I change my mind.”

Shalikova almost said that she wouldn’t mind it if Selene abandoned her for being boring.

However– she was unable to say this as much as she wanted to believe it.

Because enough of her conflicting inner self was ultimately drawn in by the whole thing.

Selene dragged her off to a clothing shop. Shalikova had never really shopped for clothes, so she had not known what to expect. In the Union, she spent most of her life wearing clothes that had been given to her. Kids in the kids hall had sets of dorm clothes and school clothes, while at the academy and in the military she wore uniforms. Clothes were purchasable with social credits if there was a surplus of materials, or acquired with vouchers given out as incentives– as far as Shalikova knew, this just involved selecting designs for a stitcher machine to put together. She had never bought, nor had she ever won any clothes. She knew vaguely that the Union had fashion designers who worked on new clothes, either blueprints or by making it themselves, and there was a process for getting those designs into public circulation, or they could trade them directly for other handicrafts with other citizens.

Shalikova had no inkling of walking into a special clothes shop and picking out clothes. Most Union fashion she was directly aware of just involved violating the uniform code and seeing if the commander cared enough to reprimand. That was how it was for the military.

Because she never participated in any of those things, she only really knew that the track suit she was wearing was not something just anyone could get, and Illya must have used her own connections and maybe waited on a list in order to get it. She suspected Illya received black cards because of her connection to Nagavanshi, allowing her priority to procure anything.

However, even her vaguest ideas failed to capture the place Selene took her.

It looked completely empty.

There was a desk, and orange floors, and a white ceiling with sunlight LEDs. Other than that it was a small square with a few benches and couple of portable computers stood on charging stands. Shalikova almost wanted to ask where the clothes were, but she felt like Selene would have made fun of her for it. She collected herself quickly and continued acting stoic. As soon as they crossed the door threshold, Selene rushed over to the front desk and put down some reichsmarks and talked to the employee.

Behind the desk, a young woman in a vest and pants smiled and pointed at the wall.

“Got it! Thank you!”

Selene turned back to Shalikova, smiled, and pointed at the same wall.

“Ours is that one, let’s go.”


Shalikova’s laconic reply drew out another impish grin from Selene.

“You have no idea what’s going on, do you?”

“Of course I do. We’re– shopping for clothes.”

Selene continued to look at Shalikova like she had the funniest face in the world.

She subsequently led her to the same wall, twice pointed-out by others.

At their approach, the wall opened up, revealing a small room. Shalikova and Selene entered. They were surrounded by touch-enabled, clear displays both on the walls and below their feet, as well as clusters of LEDs in every direction that looked a bit more complicated than simple light sources. Shalikova had never seen anything like it. The room had one bench on the back wall for them to sit. There was a slot on the door that opened and shut.

Behind them, the door closed.

Then a slot on the wall opened up, revealing two pairs of glasses, recently cleaned. Selene took one pair and handed the other to Shalikova, prompting her to take off her sunglasses and replace them with the glasses. “These will protect our eyes properly. Put them on.”

Shalikova quietly did as instructed. She put her sunglasses in the pocket of her tracksuit.

Selene perched the glasses on her nose.

“Alright, now we just have to strip.” Selene said, winking an eye. “Do you get it now?”

“Get what? Why are we stripping? Are you that obsessed with me?” Shalikova cried out.

“I’m not obsessed! You bumpkin! It’s a holographic room! It projects the clothes on us!”

“I– I did not agree to strip down in a tiny room with you. This is just strange!”

“It’s not strange! We’re both girls, and we’ll just strip down to our underwear!”

As if it would be a gesture of good will on her part, Selene started to strip first unprompted.

Undoing the buttons on the corset of her high-waisted skirt, pulling it down–

Shalikova looked away.

“Oh come on! You can’t be this much of a wimp!” Selene berated her.

Shalikoa looked back.

Selene pulled her top further down her shoulders, off from her arms and chest–

Her lingerie was really cute and lacy, the black contrasted her skin well–

She had the smallest bit of a bulge too–

“Damn it, alright, I’ll play along! I’ll play along!”

To distract herself from Selene’s stripping, Shalikova began to strip as well.

Her gaze averted; she couldn’t help but feel Selene’s leering just out of her sight.

“Wow, you really are a flattie– but the line of your shoulders and back is kinda nice.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you look good. Honestly, your body would make you a good model.”

“You just mean I’m really skinny. Ugh. Damn it. Quit looking.”

Their clothes ended up in two discrete bundles behind them.

Beneath the tracksuit Shalikova wore a pretty standard sports bra and some undershorts.

She tried not to linger too much on Selene’s body and her own choice of undergarments.

Standing side by side with her like that felt utterly ridiculous.

“You’re not that much bigger than me.” Shalikova said, still not looking.

“You’re crazy, it’s a world of difference. I’m so much curvier than you.” Selene replied.

“You’re still skinny.” Shalikova said.

“Thanks! My figure was genetically engineered for perfection!” Selene laughed.

“What does that even mean? Oh, nevermind. Can we just see some clothes?”

Selene grinned again and the lights around them flashed briefly all together.

Because of the glasses, Shalikova hardly noticed that initial flash.

Intersecting colored beams then swiped across their bodies with dizzying speed.

Like a laser predictor, the beams gathered data on their measurements, and represented it on the wall for them to make corrections. Selene was satisfied with her own and Shalikova’s were completely accurate. Once the measurements were taken, they were given access to the catalog. Across the walls, there were dozens of pictures of different outfits. Tops of all kinds and colors, a plethora of skirts, as many pants as there were humans on earth to wear them. Accessories flitted by along with the outfits they were suggested for.

Everything could be color coordinated with one command or deliberately clashing colors could be selected. There were preset outfits and colors for various trendy styles like “phantasmagothic,” “business academia” and “orientalist punk.”

And everything came with its price tag in reichmarks.

“So you paid to get in here to try on the clothes?” Shalikova said.

“Uh huh.” Selene replied. “You pay for the showroom, try on outfits until you find one you like, and you pay for it. They stitch it out for you basically as soon as you swipe a credichip, and you can even wear it out of the venue. Which is what I intend for you to do.”

“What if you can’t afford some of these prices?”

“Trying stuff on is cheap at least. You can come in here and dream a little!”

Shalikova imagined a working class girl coming up here to try on holographic outfits and felt rather miserable about the whole thing. Selene did not seem troubled by the prices and for a girl like Shalikova it was difficult to ascertain how much anything cost relative to anything else. Minardo had once remarked to her while on kitchen duty, that even a standard weight loaf of bread in the Imbrium could be five reichsmarks or it could be twenty reichsmarks depending on a variety of factors and especially what brand was on it, which made victualing much more annoying. Shalikova had used reichsmarks (or, in her case, they were old imperial marks) to buy snacks before, and some of these clothing items were arbitrarily worth ten snacks or a hundred snacks or a thousand snacks without explanation.

The snacks were themselves processed too. How much did a potato cost relative to chips?

She did not know, and so, she had no idea what a working class girl could afford.

However, she quickly learned what Selene could afford– seemingly anything at all.

“I knew this would happen– I’ll just pick for both of us! I want to get started already!”

Selene quickly scrolled to over a few garments with her fingers.

Though she was not touching the wall, where the pictures were located, they still moved.

Her finger was being tracked by the lasers.

Poking at the air, she made her selections, and the lasers began their work.

In a few moments, as if the lasers were stitching the air, the outfits slowly appeared over their own bodies first as threads of color and then forming seemingly solid garments. Selene had put on an incredibly sleek halterneck cocktail dress with a diamond-shaped back window and high cut sides revealing a lot of leg, and a see-through slice of sheer fabric diagonally across the belly and the side of one breast. To match, Shalikova had been given a black suit over a button-down shirt, but the suit sleeves were partially see-through up to the shoulder, along with black suit pants with a very slight bell bottom. She had a very bright pink tie. After the outfit was overlayed on them, the surfaces turned into mirrors.

Shalikova looked herself over and looked at Selene, who seemed quite satisfied.

“You look– great.” She was about to say ‘incredible’. “And you made me look boring.”

“It’s kinda boring, but only enough that it turns out kinda handsome you know?”

“No, I don’t know. I actually don’t get it at all.”

“Sonya, a super hot and super fashionable girl like me needs a kinda boring boyfriend, she can’t have one that’s too out there, because the kinda boring boyfriend helps her to stand out and shine more. She’s like a cool accessory for the super hot, super fashionable, super bright girl. She accepts the position because she scored such a hot fashionable girl.”

Shalikova turned the nouns and pronouns being used in her head for a moment in confusion.

But that was the least of all the offending points in that explanation!

“So who decided I’m your boyfriend now?”

“Ugh, you’re so stupid, it’s a mood, I already explained this to you! It’s for fun!”

Selene put her hands on her hips and leaned into Shalikova with a (cute?) little frown.

Shalikova was about to retort that, well, unlike Selene, she was not having fun.


That was not exactly true and so again, she could not air her protests.

As much as she thought she wanted to– she ended up in a conflict with herself.

Some part of her, when she looked at Selene’s face, simply decided to go along with things.

And perhaps that part constituted a plurality of her.

Like a little soviet voting bizarrely in her heart as much as the executive pleaded against it.

“Anyway, now we’re like, a handsome secret agent and a femme fatale!” Selene said. “See how much fun this stuff is? There’s so many different little details. We can even alter some of the scenery around us to show off the outfits in different lighting conditions before we make any decisions. That’s the kinda thing that makes this shop not have a refund policy. You get to be sooo thorough and the shopping is an experience in itself. Watch this, Sonya.”

Selene hovered her hand over the mirror and a part of it became an interactive menu.

Around them, the scene dimmed, and they soon found themselves on a balcony overlooking a sprawling city at night, full of distant lights. It was the kind of scenery Shalikova only really saw in comic books or movies. Light and shadow danced gently over them, lending a melancholy edge to their facial features. It was certainly a different perspective on their outfits, and the context did give her a new appreciation for the clothes and the space.

Shalikova turned around, and behind them there was a ballroom behind half-closed doors.

When Shalikova reached for the door, there was nothing but the flat surface of the wall.

“It’s not that detailed.” Selene said, before pretending to look out over the balcony.

Shalikova was pretty surprised that no matter how she moved, the clothes stuck to her.

Her body still felt like she was naked because she was, but she looked realistically clothed.

“Oh, Sonya! It’s really too bad!” Selene said, making such an affected voice that Shalikova knew she must have been playing pretend– until she kept going and the more she spoke the less Shalikova was sure of whether it was play. “To think you have resisted me to the bitter end! I gave you an out if you only became my permanent lifelong boytoy, but you refused! Now we are on opposite sides of the war, and I will give the state all of your details so they can do so much torture to you forever and ever! But at least we can spend this one final night together as if we were lovers! Come have a final drink with me Sonya!”

Shalikova blinked, stunned. “Selene, are you playing around, or are you really–”

“Obviously I’m playing around!” Selene shouted, instantly agitated.

She stared at Shalikova expectantly enough that the “secret agent” came up with a reply.

“As if I would give in to you so easily? A laugh riot! Dame Selene, do you truly think you have me cornered, when it is actually I who has taken your back?” Shalikova played up her response. Even Selene looked a little taken aback. She tried to channel a bit of Murati into her followup. “The difference between us, you vile woman, is that while you work alone, I always have my reliable comrades supporting my efforts! They will spring me from whatever trap you devise, and through our collective efforts, it is you who will fall to me in the end! Enjoy your final moments leading this dance of death– while you still can!”

With a flourish, Shalikova pointed her fingers like a gun and winked at Selene.

Selene’s eyes drew wide for a brief moment. She really did look like she had been cornered.

“You– you get some marks for effort.” She hurriedly turned back to the wall.

Scrolling through the items to pick a new set of clothes for them and new ambiance.

Shalikova grinned, feeling a bit triumphant. She had flustered Selene, gotten her back.

Now it was her turn to be smug! She was getting her bearings– time to counterattack!

Around them the night balcony melted away, as did the cocktail dress and suit.

In their place appeared a cozy little venue, false stone and fake wood tables.

There were steaming cups of coffee on the table with milk froth and streaks of syrup. Everyone around them looked like couples, two to a table, and the venue was completely packed with these phantom lovers. Shalikova was now dressed in a long brown coat over a red checkerboard shirt with loose-fitting black sweatpants and plastic clogs. Selene’s outfit was a turtleneck sweater under an overlong orange cardigan decorated with adorable cartoon dogs and cats playing, along with an ankle-length pleated white skirt.

Everything was so bright, peaceful and colorful, it suited their simple day-wear.

Hands behind her back, Selene leaned forward and smiled serenely,

and for a moment Shalikova was defeated again.

“Heh, look at you. Do you like this sort of thing better than how I like to dress?”

Shalikova did not want to answer that, one way or the other.

“So what’s the scenario here? Let me think.” Selene leaned back and forth on her feet and began to whistle while looking around the fake coffee shop. “Oh I know!” She looked at Shalikova and put on an overly cheerful little smile, different from her overly cheerful sneer. “I know I said we would be studying for the class today, but I just can’t keep my eyes off you! Ever since your first lecture I have been entranced! I didn’t just call you here to study– more than scoring in class, I need to score high marks with you, Professor!”

“Absolutely not!” Shalikova said. Squirming as she stood from how near Selene leaned in.

“You’re such a bore! Play along already!” Selene demanded.

“Student Selene, I’m writing you up for harassment!” Shalikova replied.

“Professor, if you try to get rid of me I’ll show up at your room with knives.”

“With knives?!”

Selene made a snipping scissors motion with her fingers, wearing a wild look in her eyes.

“I’ll cut right it off and you’ll be mine forever in death.” She said, stroking her own face.

It was such a sudden turn that Shalikova couldn’t take it seriously.

“Now it’s scissors instead?! I can’t keep up with the plot anymore!”

She almost surprised herself with how easily she came up with a line to say.

Both of them broke out into laughter together.

“So, are we buying these?” Shalikova said.

“No way, this kind of thing doesn’t suit me. And you need to suit me too.”

With the scenario played out, once again Selene arranged for a change of scenery.

When the lights shifted again, the two of them stood on opposite edges of a small hot tub.

Now Shalikova’s slim body was loosely wrapped in a wet t-shirt over a one-piece swimsuit.

Selene had a one-shoulder purple bikini top with a high-leg bottom and a loose, sheer skirt.

“Fancy meeting such a handsome stranger! It looks like we were both assigned the same hot bath huh? Why don’t we make the most of the booking mistake? It will become your lucky day instead, handsome stranger. I’ll even let you rub my shoulders and feet.”

This one was far too dangerous. It was impossible to play along with it.

“Selene– I– how do you find the time to come up with these.”

“What the hell do you do on a ship when there’s no fighting going on, huh?”

Shalikova did not have a lot of hobbies. But she would not say that.

“I just– I hang out–”

Selene sighed. “I get what you’re insinuating. Well– thanks for playing along.”

Why did she sound so disappointed? What was she even expecting?

Shalikova almost felt bad for cutting the scenario short.

“Here, you’ll wear this out. You owe me one, by the way, these are nice.”

When it came time to leave Selene selected an outfit quite quickly. She picked out the garments, paid for the outfit, and then dressed herself again while they waited. Less than a minute after Selene was done paying for it, a slot opened on the door and the freshly stitched items slid into the room in vacuum-sealed pouches, along with a bag for her old clothes. Shalikova found herself with a red hooded jacket, a black tanktop, and a pair of tough blue polyester work pants with distressed knees. Everything felt high quality to the touch and felt comfortable to wear, but the garments were surprisingly simple. It was only when Selene approached Shalikova and undid her ponytail that she realized it was intentional and this was the outfit Selene always had in mind.

“Here, wear your hair long. It looks better with this fit.” Selene said.

Shalikova looked at herself in the mirror. And the girl in the mirror looked taken aback.

With Selene standing by her side– she liked how she looked maybe a little too much.

“You look handsome. Let’s go, I’m getting hungry.” Selene said.

Once more, she wrapped her hand around Shalikova’s arm and quickly led her out.

Carried once more in the middle of the storm that was Selene– but enjoying herself.

Shalikova found herself without the trepidation with which she started.

“Now I’m not embarrassed to show my face with you!”

“Excuse me? You were embarrassed before? The girl who is always shouting nonsense?”

Selene dragged Shalikova over to a brightly lit little eatery in a corner of the commercial area’s second floor. She must have found the place when she was roaming around before because Shalikova would have never thought to look for it, it was quite tucked away. The shop specialized in schnitzel, which was a pounded, breaded and fried chicken cutlet, though they also had pork. There were few people around, and food seemed to come out quick.

“I– don’t eat meat.” Shalikova said.

“You don’t eat meat, or you haven’t eaten meat?” Selene asked.

“We don’t have that stuff– where I’m from.” Shalikova cautiously said.

“It’ll be fine you bumpkin. I’ll pay for everything, remember?”

“Then I’ll just have what you’re having.” Shalikova sighed.

Hopefully it wouldn’t end up upsetting her stomach too much.

They sat on stools next to a countertop that ran the length of the shop. Once their plates were ready, they slid along the counter over to them. It did not take very long for the food to arrive. Two plates of golden-fried chicken schnitzel with a mustard-flecked cream sauce and a side of a perfectly fried egg, some potato wedges dusted with garlic, and stubby cucumber pickles. A spork and a knife sat off to the side of the plate along with disposable plastic cups of sugary soda pop. Selene picked up her spork, immediately jabbed her two cucumbers, and using her knife, peeled them off the prongs and onto Shalikova’s plate.

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate them more than I would.” She said.

“You don’t like pickles?” Shalikova asked. She grinned, feeling cheeky.

“Is something wrong with that? I’m an adult, I can eat however I want.”

“Yeah, you can eat like a little kid, just like you behave like one.”

“Shut it or I won’t pay for yours.”

Selene suddenly jabbed one of the cucumbers back onto her plate.

She cut a round piece, dropped it onto the mustard cream, and cut some chicken with it.

Taking the whole bite into her mouth, as if to demonstrate to Shalikova she could do it.

Shalikova laughed and cut into her own chicken.

Taking a bite, she was surprised by the slightly fibrous texture, which she was unused to in food. Her first ever bite of meat was quite savory. She first tasted the fried breading, heavily seasoned, followed by the slightest hint of vegetal notes from the oil, as well as a slightly eggy taste to the cutlet overall. When she took a bite with the cream sauce, the sour and zesty notes complemented the meat quite well. It was pretty good– she enjoyed it but was not blown away. It definitely beat most cafeteria food not prepared by Logia Minardo.

Selene, meanwhile, made some ungodly noises as she devoured her cutlet.

One would have thought she hardly ever saw food with how much she relished it.

“I see you staring! You don’t get it! This stuff is crazy! They flatten, bread it and fry it!”

“I’m just happy you’re enjoying yourself.” Shalikova said.

“Hmph!” Selene turned her attention back to her plate, but now clearly self-conscious.

Wary about its effect on her digestion, Shalikova carefully tucked away her own schnitzel.

When she finished, she picked up her plastic cup and presented it to Selene.


Selene stared at her for a few seconds, but complied, lifting her own cup of soda.


She tapped Shalikova’s cup gently.

After eating, Selene and Shalikova walked together through a few other shops.

Once she found herself in the middle of a long row of stores, Selene activated.

There was an electronics shop where she bought a digital picture frame that had a built-in camera. She beckoned Shalikova to pose together for a picture in the middle of the shop. Shalikova smiled for it. Once the picture was taken, she handed Shalikova the bag.

Immediately on-target without a second lost, Selene then flounced over to a toy store. They had a stitcher capable of printing small, custom plastic figurines based on the purchasers, through the use of a camera and laser predictor. Selene got two little figures made, one of Shalikova and one of herself, both of which were miniaturized, cutesy representations with oversize heads, but strangely faithful abstractions of their clothing. She handed Shalikova the Selene figure and kept the Shalikova figure for herself. Shalikova hardly knew what to make of this but accepted the gift. They were boxed, bagged, and Selene handed them to Shalikova to carry while she skipped and jumped over to a music store.

Barely keeping up, Shalikova found Selene inside the venue, filled with shelves occupied with listening stations. Every listening station was a newly featured album that could be purchased in either a digital license, or a data stick format, or as a physical grammapress disk. Because the latter was the most expensive, Selene chose to get a grammapress of Mia Weingarten’s “In Forgotten Depths, I Found Your Heart.” A stitcher machine on the site set up specifically for making grammapress discs printed one out for her after a few minutes. Grammapress disks were rather large, and after being boxed and bagged, and handed to Shalikova, the haul was becoming a bit unwieldy. Selene did not care at all.

“What kind of music do you like? This lady sings pretty good.” Selene said.

“Um. There’s this DJ who makes synth tracks about fish having sex.” Shalikova said.


“I hear one of my colleagues playing it all the time and its kind of catchy.”

“You’re crazy.”

Selene passed through a boutique tea shop, where she picked up a box of chamomile; a shop purporting to sell magic crystals, where she purchased one that increased “vital energy”; a bag shop where she purchased a designer satchel; a perfume shop where she asked outright for their most elegant and mature scents, all of which had names like A Night With Him and Moonlight Rendezvous. All of it turned into boxes and bags for Shalikova to carry.

At a hat shop, she tried on a synthetic “straw” hat with a red ribbon around its band.

“What do you think? Kind of a vibe isn’t it?” Selene asked.

“It’s lovely. Are you going to buy any more? Or help carry any of it?”

Selene cracked a little grin as Shalikova shifted around boxes and bags she was carrying.

“Now you’re getting in the mood.” Selene said.

Shalikova was once again too baffled to mount an effective response.

Selene eventually took mercy on her. They found a service for pack mule drones that would stash everything a shopper purchased on their backs and plod their way back to an address with the cargo, delivering it to a designated room or even to a ship. Selene told Shalikova the location of her berth in Stockheim and left her to sort it all out. Shalikova left all of Selene’s things with a pack mule drone except for the Selene miniature, her gift to take home. She carried its box in her hands, while holding the bag with her tracksuit on her wrist.

Leaving one hand free in case–

“Ahh! Sonya, look over there! A cute coffee shop!”

Selene had found a little cafe venue northwest from where they had started. They had already nearly completed one circle around the commercial district and only on the first two floors of it. Despite this Shalikova had already nearly fallen over with goods once already, and they had spent what must have been hours wandering around together.

But Shalikova continued to follow Selene– because she did not want it to end just yet.

Hearing Selene’s cheerful voice melted some of the ice around her heart.

“I’ll be there soon, I was just seeing the mule off.”

Selene took Shalikova’s free hand and pulled her into the shop together.

The venue had a cute facade with fake wooden letters signing its name, Cafe Anemoia, within a pink frame. It was difficult to tell whether it was a franchise or a single location. Big beautiful pictures of its drinks being served in a variety of cozy settings adorned the tinted LED windows. Inside, the cafe was a completely different experience to the one projected by the holograms in the clothing shop. Through the use of LED walls, environment control cooling, scent projectors and ambient noise, it created the impression of a cozy little cafe with seats full of customers, a wooden counter, and steaming hot coffee photogenically topped with cream on every table. However, the illusion was quickly broken when they stepped up to the “counter” and a predictor computer-generated human who moved uncannily gestured at them while they made their selections from a computer menu.

“This is really weird.” Shalikova said.

Selene shrugged it off.

“Well, the drinks would be more expensive if they had a venue full of real wood stuff.”

“And real staff, I guess.”

Around them, slow and romantic strings with a gentle, clapping beat began to play.

“Anyway, order whatever you want, on me!” Selene declared.

Shalikova tried to ignore the eerie stare of the illusory employees and scrolled with her finger through the menu. She felt that her taste in coffee was entirely ordinary. She liked coffee with a bit of creamer and a bit of sugar. So the constellation of different toppings, syrups, stir-ins, add-ons and the dizzying array of brand logos associated with them set her head to spinning. Would she have Poppler™ (A Volwitz Brand) soda slush with her taro creme ice coffee? Would she add a drizzle of “Shimii spice syrup” to her 90% frothed creme-cafe?

In the end she ordered a “milk coffee” which seemed like the most ordinary one.

“That’s so you— but its kinda charming.” Selene said, giggling at the selection.

She ordered a “purple taro swirled latte” with beet sugar and a sprinkle of cured lemon zest.

In the process, she hit the beet sugar button several times, ending up with five instances.

“That much sugar? I can barely keep up with you as it is.”

“You will simply have to go faster.”

While the holographic staff pretended to make the drinks, there was no pretense to realism. Behind the scenes a coffee machine that was just barely audible brewed the coffee and a stitcher machine put everything together. Their drinks came out of a physical slot that opened in the middle of the LED projection, completely ruining the scene.

“That is kinda weird, you’re not wrong.” Selene said, sighing at the sight.

Regardless of the verisimilitude of the romantic atmosphere, the two of them sat in an actual, physical booth seat and sipped their drinks together. There was some care to make the projection on the wall of the booths a bit higher fidelity to create a false distance to the next “table” of fake customers but Shalikova was not very impressed by the whole thing. It felt like a waste of LED panels that some poor ship could have used better.

“I thought this kind of thing wasn’t your style.” Shalikova said.

“You misunderstood me. Cutesy nerdy girl clothes and shy professor type love interests are not my style. I like romantic little coffee shops quite fine with the right company.”

Selene sipped from her coffee and shut her eyes tight.

It must have been sweeter than she bargained for.

Shalikova sipped her own and liked it just fine. Better than Union instant coffee.

Still not worth all this grandiose artifice, however.

“I never realized you would have such a big imagination.” Shalikova said.

“I read a lot! I love magazines and stories! I have tons of ideas!” Selene said.

She sounded proud of herself for it.

Perhaps– she had not been able to experience many of her moods.

Shalikova could almost relate. Except that, she had so fewer fantasies to realize.

For so long, she had been bound by guilt and by duty, not knowing how to live.

It was only recently that she had really begun to care for herself.

This day was a new adventure for her too.

“That is really nice. I think I am not a very creative person I guess.” Shalikova said.

“Everyone who says that definitely has something they are creative about.”

“I guess– I did sew a plushie bear one time.”

Selene’s face lit up. “Sonya you have to sew me a plushie too!”

“Um, I can try? Should I have it mailed to the Antenora?”

“Oh– shut up.” Selene looked suddenly in a sour mood. “Nevermind that. You are so dense. I was just– I was just saying that to be in the mood. To get the like, boyfriend experience.”

Shalikova hardly knew how to answer, but her clueless face must have cheered Selene up.

From across the table, after a bit of fuming, she held her face in her hands

and looked at Shalikova.

“You know, I have never been to a coffee shop with anyone. This is my– first time.”

Shalikova figured as much, but–

Was this part of the mood or was this actually her feelings?

“I am happy I got to be your first. Maybe I can be your second or third too.”

Was that a boyfriend would say? Shalikova thought so. It sounded like it to her.

Selene looked briefly shocked and took another big sip of her drink.

“I do not have many hobbies or anything that special about me. I am just some girl who is out of her depth with things.” Shalikova said. “I think I am actually having fun though.”

Was this part of the mood or was this actually her own feelings?

Shalikova reached out her hand and laid it on Selene’s hand on the table and smiled.

Wrapping her fingers around Selene’s own, long and supple and so soft.

She applied a bit of pressure to them, held them–

In response, Selene picked up her drink. “The holoprojections are ruining the mood here.”

She started walking out of the venue.

Shalikova followed her, wondering if she had done wrong.

Leaving her own half-drunk coffee on the table in her haste.

Some part of her feared Selene might just walk away completely, disappear suddenly–

She had not known where that fear came from– but it was fleeting.

Selene was simply standing outside waiting for her.

“Ugh, this is too sweet, I do not know if I can another sip.” Selene complained.

Outside, Shalikova reconvened with her in front of the venue.

She reached out and took the disposable cup from Selene, touching her hand in the process.

For a moment, Selene looked flustered again.

“I will get rid of it for you.” Shalikova said, smiling a bit. Selene nodded her head.

Shalikova turned and found a nearby rubbish bin, threw away the drinks–

She walked back to Selene from the rubbish bin– and found her leaning on the railing over the center of the atrium, looking at the art installation. Smiling with gentle eyes.

Her face was bathed in the colors.

Shalikova looked at her for a while. Basking; the melancholy beauty in the gentle, warm light.

Was this the mood that Selene hoped to inspire?

Was this how she saw it in her stories?

How it should have gone if either of them had the experience for it?

Shalikova looked at her until Selene seemed to notice the gaze.

“Thanks for everything today. You actually got into the mood.” Selene said.

There was no more lying to herself. All of Shalikova now aligned on what she felt.

“No, more than that, I actually cared.” Shalikova replied. “Thank you for taking me out.”

She had a lot of fun with Selene. Her rambunctiousness was endearing as it was annoying.

It was different– Selene was different than anyone Shalikova had ever known.

It was different than anything she had ever felt.

Hearing Shalikova’s thanks, Selene’s eyes narrowed a bit. Her smile dimmed just as much.

“Sometimes I’m not the super hot, fashionable, smart, bright, super fun girl, you know. Sometimes– I’m a vicious ace pilot who kills her enemies. I won’t say we’ll never meet again, but I also won’t say that we will. But if we do– know which Selene you’re getting. After all, it will depend on your own choices. You’re the one who picks which of them you get.”

Shalikova closed her fist, wracked by an unknown fear and frustration.

“Selene, I’m really not in control here. I have to follow orders too sometimes.”

Selene smiled at her. Not a sneer, not an impish grin. But not a gentle smile.

It was a smile that seemed filled with melancholy and determination both.

“I know. It really sucks. Well, guess it wasn’t meant to be huh? Anyway, c’ya, or not.”

Promptly and without warning, Selene left the railing and walked away, waving her hand.

Like a storm breaking; she swept Shalikova up, dropped her down, and disappeared.

Disappearing not like a faery flitting out of existence, but simply turning her back.

Shalikova took a step forward– wondering if she should say something or reach out.

Again, she was silent. The things she could say– felt too foolish and inappropriate.

Instead, she triggered her psionics and tried to parse Selene’s aura.

There was a bit of every color, mixing and roiling and turning in a terrifying maelstrom.

Shalikova almost wondered if her own aura was visible, would it look like that too?

Was that the reflection of their broken, conflicted hearts?

Holding the gift box in her hand, Shalikova cursed how easy it was to feel affection.

And how cruel the world could be to that love.

On the edge of the old, sparsely populated northern district of the Wohnbezirk, closest to the Mahdist village, there was a boxy white monument with a blue star. It was hewn out of rock and so became a permanent feature of the landscape, too difficult to destroy utterly for how removed it was. Few people knew that it was cenotaph from a time before the Shimii’s current troubles. There was nothing written on it, but there were etchings that had been carved quite precisely. Its white and blue paints were relatively fresh despite its age.

It was this way, because a pair of Shimii girls had taken it upon themselves to maintain it.

On that day, after a bit of a commotion in their home, they arrived at the site.

They were not alone, but they did not disturb anyone who came to visit.

They knew the monument was not theirs, and that people who understood it would come to visit and see for themselves a truth that perhaps they as Shimii would never be able to intuit. Nevertheless, when they found the monument dirtied with the scribblings of local children, they got to work cleaning up and even brought a bit of paint to touch it up again so it would look decent. They were gentle with the carvings and precise with their paint.

“You’re from the Mahdist village? Why bother with this old thing?” A woman asked them.

“Ah, you’re miss Sattler, right? Well– we’ve always felt a bit sad about it is all.”

Standing off to the side of the monument and staring was Bernadette Sattler.

It was getting late– she must have dropped off her charge, and then returned in the casual clothes she was now wearing. Without her uniform, she still carried something of a sinister air. Her messy bangs did not shade her eyes as much as her hat did, but still had some of the effect. Her darkened gaze had not become any friendlier. She dressed in a strangely dowdy fashion, with a long sweater worn over a button-down shirt, the collar of the shirt coming out of the neck hole of the sweater, along with a long, warm skirt. With her long, wavy blond hair falling down her back, she looked like a librarian, child care worker or a clerk, someone cute and harmless, more than the totenkopf-wearing killer that she really was.

“By any chance are you an Eloim miss Sattler? We think this is an Eloim monument.”


Bernadette would not answer them.

And Baran and Sareh would not press her for an answer either.

One of the few things they knew about the monument was that it had something to do with Eloim. Imam al-Qoms recognized the symbol, he called it the ‘Judah Star’. They were always curious about the people who visited the monument, like Bernadette, that might perhaps know what its true purpose was, with its blue star and the etchings upon it. Baran and Sareh had their guesses. Baran believed it was a cenotaph and identified it as such– a grave for many Eloim who would not otherwise be remembered by anyone. Sareh believed that it was a sign that Eloim had once lived in the Wohnbezirk, though neither of them knew how long ago that had been. The Wohnbezirk had been standing for longer than it was ‘the Wohnbezirk’– it must have been constructed before the Core Station even. Back then it was probably lodgings and storage for laborers, and perhaps some of them were Eloim.

But Baran could not confirm such ancient events.

Even for the people of the After Descent era, a few hundred years erased a lot of memories.

“Because it’s odd and it sticks out, kids around here are always defacing it. They probably use the vandalism as a stupid challenge.” Sareh said. “Baran and I always hated that kind of thing. We don’t blame the kids, they’re just dumb– we just wish the reaction people had to foreign things was not to destroy them. Or that those old bastard Rashidun in the village would at least teach their little brats some respect.” Baran at this point saw Sareh becoming heated and shook her head gently to ward it off. Sareh sighed. “So, anyway, we come here every so often to try to make it look how we first saw it. We can’t guarantee it’s always been white and blue. And we don’t know how it’s supposed to be restored. But we still do it.”

“We restore the colors we found on it when we were little.” Baran continued. “We don’t know exactly what it is, nor is it ours to claim in any way, but I just think it’s sad for it to go neglected. It deserves looking after. See– all the notches on it are exactly the same, and they’re all lined up so perfectly. It’s so meticulous. Someone put a lot of work into it, a lot of care into making this monument. We want to uphold their wishes. Even if we don’t understand its exact purpose, we understand that it mattered to the people here.”

Bernadette did not look moved by that speech. She stared at the monument quietly.

However, a man who had arrived in the middle of the speech smiled at the girls.

He was a young, blond-haired man dressed in a teal jacket, white shirt and black pants.

“I think it’s really kind of you two to do that.” He said. “I’m kind of touched, honestly.”

“Welcome, mister!” Baran said, smiling back. “I hope I don’t sound rude– but would you happen to know what it means? Whenever we see a new face we can’t help but ask.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know.” He said. “I’m not much of an Eloim. Never practiced.”

He reached out a hand to shake. “I’m Gunther Cohen– an engineer.”

Baran shook her head gently, but Sareh reached out and returned the shake.

“It’s inappropriate for a man to shake a woman’s hand here– and I am a woman, but someone has to man up around here sometimes.” Sareh said, grinning a bit. Baran turned on her a disapproving gaze, but it did not dampen her good humor. “I am Sareh and this is Baran, my– best friend. We come from the Shimii village a little ways from here.”

“How did you hear about the existence of this monument, Mr. Cohen?” Baran asked.

“An informant told me. A katarran, this big– you might have seen her running around.”

Judging by how he moved his hand his informant was fairly short.

“We’ve seen a few katarrans running around, but I know who you mean.” Sareh said.

Gunther turned to Bernadette with a smile also.

“Are you an Eloim too? I’m sorry to bother you, I just haven’t met many of us.” He said. Bernadette fixed him with her glare but said nothing at first. Gunther continued. “I really don’t mean to cause any trouble, sorry. When the– informant, told me about this place, I thought it would be interesting to see it. Where I come from, my family– our heritage is a bit disconnected. I knew that Rhinea and Bosporus were supposed to have a lot of Eloim, so I’ve been curious. I thought I might go out and learn a bit about my ancestors.”

“For what purpose?” Bernadette asked. “Are you going to take up the prayers now?”

Gunther looked perplexed to be asked that question.

“I don’t think I will– I just wanted to know how they lived here. I’m an engineer, I’m just curious about how things work. I know a lot of them have been deported and oppressed, forced to escape to various places. And that part of me, my ethnicity, it has always been vague. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about my own identity recently. I am just a guy who likes to put things into orderly buckets. Anyway, sorry to bother you with all this.”

He sounded excited, but the blond woman turned her cheek with burgeoning anger.

“Hmph.” Bernadette grunted again. “I’m not an Eloim. I have nothing in common with that permanently victimized race. This place is just another symbol of their weakness. You two can keep polishing it up if you want but know this– it’s all an illusion for fools to chase.”

Sareh and Baran were taken aback, and Bernadette stormed off suddenly after.

“There’s nothing here or anywhere for the people called ‘Eloim’.” She said as she left.

“What’s her problem?” Sareh said. “Ugh, I mean– I know what it is.”

She seemed to recognize the folly of her own rhetorical question immediately.

“I didn’t meant to offend her.” Gunther said. “I’m always putting my foot in my mouth.”

Baran approached Gunther with a gentle expression.

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Cohen. Please don’t listen to her. A lot of people come down here to try to find their roots– this one of the oldest places in Eisental. Because it’s hewn out of rock, there are things here that are old and hard to destroy. It’s understandable that you are here, and you are welcome to be here and to look here. You might even find more if you look around– this is just a place we feel safe going to, for various reasons, but you might find other things in the Wohnbezirk if you search the caves or the older tunnels.”

“Thank you.” Gunther said. “I really appreciate your kind-heartedness, miss Baran.”

“Mister Cohen,” Sareh said, “That lady was a Volkisch officer. That was– the reason.”

Baren looked at her for a moment but said nothing. She just looked downcast.

Gunther turned pale for a moment, his eyes wide. “I– I see. Thank you for telling me.”

“There’s more of them down here. Please be careful what you say.” Sareh said.

“I will.” He said. But judging by his tone, and the way he looked around– he was scared.

“She is not exactly wrong, you know. But it is a condition that can change.”

Sareh, Baran and Gunther looked behind themselves at the alleys of the Wohnbezirk.

From around the corner formed by the walls of nearby buildings, a woman strode casually into view and approached them and the monument. None of them had seen her before– truly it was a day for new visitors at this sad, ancient place. She had red hair with black roots, and a long skirt and a blouse beneath a covering jacket. She smiled at them, a polite and gentle smile on those red lips that never seemed to alter even when she spoke.

Her arms were hidden in her coat.

It was this last fact, and her sudden approach, that made Sareh quite wary.

“You’ve been watching?” Sareh asked. “Don’t you think that’s kind of weird?”

“Yes I’ve been watching, and no– I didn’t approach because I didn’t want to interrupt.”

She removed one hand from her coat and Sareh flinched– but she just pointed at the rock.

“I know what that monument is. Do you want me to tell you?” She said.

Baran stepped forward, in front of Sareh. She looked at the woman in the eyes and smiled.

“My name is Baran al-Masshad. This is my companion Sareh Al-Farisi, and this here is Mr. Gunther Cohen, who is also a visitor. I would like to request a proper introduction, madame.”

“Tamar Livnat. I’m an Eloim historian.” Said the woman. Her smile unchanging.

“Thank you very much.” Baran said. “I’d love to hear what you know about this place.”

Baran stepped aside. Tamar walked closer to the structure and ran her hand over it.

She looked at it for a moment, with that frozen, inscrutable expression of hers.

“It’s a cenotaph. You might have surmised as much already. It’s not an uncommon type of structure. There are cenotaphs all over the Imbrium, for one particular reason– all of us who are alive today are descended from many, many more people who died on the surface. Cenotaphs for our ancestors who perished and could not escape to the Ocean are common among all races and in all parts of the Imbrium.” Tamar said. She turned around to look at Baran and Sareh again. “But these Eloim cenotaphs are different. Blue and white, and the ‘Star of Judah’–” Tamar ran her hand over the symbols and colors. “You did an excellent job restoring it. It’s ironic. You see, these specific colors and symbols memorialize the defeat and death of the Eloim at the hands of the Shimii. It memorializes those whom your race killed and displaced from our rightful ancestral lands. Isn’t it bleakly humorous?”

Baran and Sareh stared at the monument with blank eyes, their ears suddenly folding.

Both had mute horror in their faces and looked completely lost on how to respond.

Still smiling, Tamar continued to speak, circling slowly around the cenotaph.

As if it was such a curious and interesting little object despite all the death inscribed in it.

“Eloim, itself, that word– is a misnomer borne of how utterly destroyed our culture was. This also is not uncommon– words describing peoples shift over time, and with the destruction of the surface, so many of our words for things have been scrambled in the resulting cultural shifts. None of us can know the truth, or can we? Well– I know. I know my part of the truth at least. We were once called the Judeans. And our home, Judah, was taken from us, by you– now you understand? Thank you for your efforts nevertheless, little Shimii girls.”

Tamar completed her circle and stood in front of the cenotaph again with her smile.

Baran and Sareh continued to stand side by side silently, unnerved by what they heard.

At their side, however, someone spoke up.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Gunther said. “You have no reason to mock them like this!”

He stepped up to Tamar and pointed his index finger firmly at her.

Seeming to realize as he was doing so that he had approached her in anger.

But Tamar Livnat had no reaction to it but to smile, above everything.

She reached her hand from her coat and laid her fingers on Gunther’s cheek.

Surprising even him with her brazeness. He was utterly paralyzed in her grasp.

“You will understand someday. Even a neutered and weak man like you who has had the lion taken out of him will understand when Destiny calls to you. That is what Ms. Sattler fails to account for in her furies. At any rate– my kin are always welcome to come talk to me. You can leave a message at the Aachen Historical Society and it will make its way to me.”

She let him go, and walked past him, leaving him stunned at the foot of the monument.

Baran and Sareh watched, seemingly helpless. She stopped near them.

Smiling. Always smiling.

“I hope you understand that I have nothing against you personally. You seem like good kids. Now that I have educated you, keep maintaining the cenotaph if it eases your guilt.” She said.

Sareh looked like she would snap back– but Baran stopped her, shaking her head.

Tamar fixed her gaze on the two of them for a moment before continuing to walk away.

Disappearing into the dim shadows of the underground Wohnbezirk as if she never existed.

Sareh continued to watch as if she expected her to reappear suddenly like a ghost.

While Baran approached the monument, produced a cloth and ran it over the face again.

Over the places where Tamar had run her hands.

“Whatever the cenotaph means, it’s not any better to allow it to be defaced.” Baran said.

Sareh quietly looked back at her and nodded her head in agreement.

Gunther, meanwhile, stared at the monument and at Baran, dejected and speechless.

He had left the ship to clear his head, and now he was fixed into place and helpless.

Crushed by the heavy weight of the past hanging over Aachen, heavier than all of the stone.

A weight soon to drop that would hurl waves like none of them had ever seen.

Previous ~ Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately Homa had a series of conflicting thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was tasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena nodded. She looked at Homa and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena looked embarrassed but smiled and nodded her deference.

Kalika looked more amused than bothered by the whole scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conny looked at Elena for a moment while Baran spoke.

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

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

Elena quietly returned the handshake, visibly going cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her career as a busybody continued unabated, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking one of the chairs, Homa watched her cook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leija had made it once for Homa.

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

She remembered–

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

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

changing everything,

Leija hiding Homa in the treasure chest–

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

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

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

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


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

That blond woman– and boss Ekmečić dying one day–

Vesna Nasser–?

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


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

Conny and Elena looked at Homa with surprise also.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conny sat back in her chair with a little sigh.

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

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

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

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

Conny completed her sentence with her own presumption–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taken a deep breath lately?” Kalika asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she wished she could argue against it.

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I’m sorry.” Kalika said.

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

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

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

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

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

Reminding herself she wanted to become more accepting of kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good night, Homa. I– I really– you–”

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

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

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

Soon, she was sound asleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least not right now.

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

Maybe she wasn’t completely useless after all.

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

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

Her tasks were now finally behind her.

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

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

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

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

It did feel like the perfect day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently it was also an exceedingly popular eyesore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryam proceeded to quickly lose the game after that.

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

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

“So when do you win?”

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

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

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

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

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

Their romance had been an unconventional one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova supposed this was the best outcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the count of zero–

Maryam blasted out of the starting line and–

brutally rammed into the side of Shalikova’s boat

and sent her sailing away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah.”

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

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

Even if her pride did sting a little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova could not help but smile and laugh alongside her.

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

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

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

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

“Oh! Thank you, Sonya!”

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

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

“Got it Sonya! I’ll protect you!”

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

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

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

With some surprising twists–

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smiling, Maryam skipped away momentarily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

perhaps near to her exact age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would happen?

What could Shalikova possibly tell her to defuse this situation?

Her head felt so heavy.

She did not want to come into conflict with Selene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–maybe one in Shalikova’s hand all along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–until the illusion shattered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that a smile on her face?

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

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

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

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

“Shut it and play, pentomino.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, they had experienced this style of game before.

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

She grinned with anticipation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selene got herself ready in a defensive stance.

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

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

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

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

Selene responded quickly, striking the puck back.

The game was on–

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

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

And how her opponent moved.

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

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

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

Shalikova scored her first point.

“Dumb luck.”

“If it helps you cope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could only laugh at her own clumsiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the tie, giving Selene the victory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryam cheerfully patted Shalikova in the back.

Did she actually understand anything?!

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

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

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

Selene’s eyes wandered slowly back toward Shalikova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe they could bury the hatchet.

Selene turned around and walked peacefully away.

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

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

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

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

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

Out of our way– meant her crew too.

Alongside that psychopath Norn the Praetorian and her crew.

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

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

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

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

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

Unsure at first whether she had succeeded, until–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sonya, are you okay?”

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

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

She tipped her head forward and kissed Maryam suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryam smiled.

That confidence she had in Shalikova made everything sound possible.

Even if Shalikova herself worried about the worst possible outcomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attracting unwanted attention, bringing untrustworthy outsiders into orbit–

it was unacceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

–and infinitely tall trees making up the sky,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and sat beside her a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her body tensed.

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

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

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

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

Previous ~ Next