Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.8]

This chapter contains discussion of suicidal ideation.


It was the first living thing and therefore it was Longest Lived.

Despite its presence in an infinite space it understood only its basest of senses.

No eyes to see, no ears with which to hear. No understanding of its position.

When the sky first fell it battered its skin and the drawn blood became a world.

Longest Lived was all skin, it was all skin great and wide and millions of pinpricks upon it could not kill it. Its skin was gentle and nourishing, containing within it all substances and ultimately even coming to contain that which infinitely struck it, raining upon it, crashing into it– all of this would come to rest around and within it and on top of it in a glorious union.

It was all skin, all touch, all consumption. Perhaps this was its love.

Longest Lived, the Origin of All Living Things.

It took in the stone and it took in water and it took in warmth, ever consuming.

Upon Longest Lived, all that which it had consumed, and which returned to it–

Would constantly, cyclically, escape anew and take on new forms.

They would rise, fall and then return to Longest Lived who awaited them.

Longest Lived could not think in this way however. These were the stories of its creations.

Though it lived and consumed it never thought.

This was not a tragedy; thinking would have driven it mad and warped its selfless love.

Thinking, was a skill first refined by one of its earliest progeny.

They thought cautiously and kept in mind the love and unity in all their matters.

They too were alive, but, while they were communal in nature, they also understood their individual positions in the world. They could feel; to some extent, they could see and hear. They knew themselves to be separated even as they were together. Because they knew this, they would sing to one another, because there was one another to be sung to and to hear song from. With these understandings, they had great empathy for things which were alive and different, and wanted to encourage them to escape the skin of Longest Lived and to grow and prosper before they were inevitably swallowed back into the skin of the great being. They referred to their age of prosperity as the Time of Beautiful Songs.

In their songs, they called it Longest Lived, and themselves, The First Thinkers.

They were First to Think–

but the prodigal creatures who still heard their songs even now,

warped by ages of tragedy–

would come to be exalted as the Longest Thinkers in the world that remained.


Gertrude Lichtenberg slowly opened her eyes.

At first, in the haze of awakening, she saw a forest of vast trees with a reddening sky.

Then, in a blink, there was only the metal ceiling of her room on the Iron Lady.

She raised her hand to her forehead, pressed down against her eyes.

For a moment she looked at the hand. Fascinated by the movement of her fingers.

Gertrude flexed the invisible sinews and muscles that formed from her thoughts.

That hand grew a small additional digit next to the thumb. Moving as her other fingers did.

Just as easily, the flesh slid back into the hand as if there had been no transformation.

Gertrude sat back up in bed, against the headboard, yawning.

Pulling her blankets from herself, she found she had, in her sleep, shaken and turned enough to nearly lose her shirt off her own shoulders and to pull her own pants halfway down. Her hair was thrown into utter disarray. Her eyes wandered down from her hand to her breasts– to her own crotch. In a strange mood, she wondered something, and concentrated her new ability– and stopped immediately once she found that, if she tried, she could indeed alter parts of herself more complex and primal than just her hand. She reversed the endeavor when she felt her– alteration– stiffening and growing hot with blood unbidden.

Her lips cracked an involuntary, nervous smile.

“Maybe I shouldn’t experiment that way– at least not right now.”

She had wondered about that in the past– but she was worried about her long-term health.

Who knew whether she might go out of control? Or not be able to change things back?

Her wandering mind gifted her an image of herself as some kind of dick monster.

Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. It was the sincerest laugh she had in a long time.

“Stick to the easier stuff for now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” She told herself.

Despite all the painful things that had happened so far, her mood finally buoyed. She found that she did not feel as much of an impulse to question her sanity or the things she had seen. Her memories of that place, where she had stormed through in a consuming passion, were a bit hazy, as if the heat of that passion had partially burned the images. She remembered some shameful things reflected in the blue haze– but she let it pass over her.

She felt like she had her future back.

For now, she would let herself rest with those feelings and not force herself.

She recalled the things she needed to do with a refreshing lack of urgency.

Ingrid had broken up with her, but she was her friend; she just needed some time.

Monika was safe now– she would check up on her today and try to cheer her up.

Victoria and Nile would hopefully not be fighting. She needed to talk to them sometime.

Azazil–

Gertrude slumped in bed as if she had been struck in the back of the head.

Azazil could potentially be an immense headache.

Rising from her bed, Gertrude pulled off the remainder of her clothes and wandered over to the private shower in her room. While soaking under lukewarm water, she thought about her uniform. Last night she had told Dreschner she no longer wished to be called High Inquisitor. Her cape, epaulettes, coat and hat, her medals and insignias, all felt like a costume she had been desperate to force meaning on. She could no longer pretend that it gave her actions legitimacy or that it excused everything she had done in the past. Her skin, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s swarthy olive skin that was just different enough from the average Imbrian for trouble– it could no longer be covered up under the pretense of that power, for good or ill. The Inquisition could no longer elevate her from her lowly status and wretchedness.

She had more than enough of a burden with the sins she committed under its auspices.

That was a sizeable enough weight– without the heavy coat and the tall hat too.

Gertrude resolved not to wear the regalia of the High Inquisitor any longer.

From her wardrobe, she withdrew a button-down shirt and a long grey jacket instead.

Henceforth she would dress like any other officer of the ship.

Once she was clean, dressed and the morning fog had lifted from her eyes, Gertrude left her room and traveled down the main hall of the ship’s upper tier. She tied her long, dark hair in a simple ponytail, to be further dealt with some other time. She wondered how her crew was getting on after the unprecedented events of the past few days, but her confidence was buoyed immediately. People traveled the halls with their heads up and their backs straight, calm and collected. All of the crew had reduced schedules for the next day, and as Gertrude walked past and among sailors and officers, she felt a relaxed but professional energy.

Wherever she went, the crew would salute her casually, as ‘Commander’ Lichtenberg.

Dreschner must have informed everyone. Quite expeditiously too.

Gertrude smiled at the passersby, and they smiled back.

These halls and the people of this ship had been through good times and bad.

Often, they were under stress and moving with urgency, while keeping a tight hold on their emotions as warranted for the crew of a dreadnought, the elite professionals of the Imperial Navy. Gertrude was the one with the privilege to lose her mind, all of these people around her had been trained and drilled and pressured constantly to keep their emotions to themselves and in check, while doing everything she asked. Despite this, Gertrude never detected any animosity towards her. And she did not detect any animosity now.

They were proud to serve on a top-of-the-line dreadnought; to serve under Gertrude.

Even now, having surmounted a crisis and earned their leisure, they were even keeled.

Gertrude was lucky to have them. She could have done nothing without their assistance.

Life on a ship was never carried out completely off the schedule. Technically, having a day or two of leisure meant a day or two on a ‘reduced schedule’. Sailors would run still quick check-ups in the morning and at night, and never were they as efficient as they were during these times. Officers had to perform a few quick shifts on the bridge and in the hangar to insure that everything continued to run acceptably– but they had far less to do overall and far more time for relaxation in between these shifts. And of course, if anything was detected that could conceivably pose a threat or require intervention then everyone would have to return to stations quickly. Regardless, even with these duties in the back of their minds, everyone treated minimal work with the same relief as if they had none.

Arriving on the bridge, Gertrude found an immediate account of their situation on the main screen. They were descending, slowly, deeper into the abyss. Currently they were at 3840 meters of depth. Because of the Iron Lady’s size, they would have to be even more careful about their descent as they went deeper, and the trench narrowed. On the screen, there was an imaging map generated by the predictive computer, showing that at the very bottom of the trench at 5000 meters there was actually a crack in the seafloor that led even deeper down into a cave system. They had only mapped the entrance with sonar. Once they got down to it, they could send a drone inside or simply plunge deeper themselves.

Judging by current predictions, the Iron Lady could fit as far down as they had seen.

“Commander! Welcome back!”

Karen Schicksal saluted Gertrude with a smile, shortly after she quietly entered the bridge.

“At ease.” Gertrude said, smiling back.

“Greetings, Commander.” Dreschner said, from the captain’s chair.

Gertrude walked until she stood just off to the side of him, looking at the main screen.

“No time off for you?” Gertrude said, in a casual tone.

“I’m the kind of man who has never had anything but his work.” Dreschner said.

“Thinking about it, I really haven’t ever seen you take a day off.”

“I would have nothing constructive to do. It’s better that I hold the bridge, and then more of our officers can enjoy their own leisure. They would use it better than I would.”

Gertrude turned to Karen. “How about you Schicksal? Do you have any plans?”

Karen averted her gaze. She hugged her digital clipboard closer to her chest.

“I’m probably just going to man the bridge as well.” She said, a bit sheepishly.

“You don’t have to. You have been under considerable stress.” Dreschner said.

“Perhaps I am the kind of woman who has nothing but her work.” Schicksal said.

Dreschner sat back in his chair and laughed. “Don’t fancy becoming like me, Karen!”

Karen adjusted her glasses. “I aspire to the highest levels of professionalism, Captain!”

“Now I feel like I ought to stay on the bridge too.” Gertrude said.

“Absolutely not!” Karen and Dreschner both said at once.

They glanced at each other briefly and then back at Gertrude with sharp gazes.

Gertrude held up her hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I will take time to relax, I promise.”

Both Karen and Dreschner looked relieved hearing Gertrude say that.

“With all due respect, Commander– leave the bridge to us, now.” Dreschner said.

“You, more than anyone, have earned a rest. You will take that rest, Commander.”

Karen said, smiling, and then she gestured gently toward the door to the bridge.

Gertrude could not help but laugh at the sight of her officers forcing her to stop working.

“I’m going, I’m going. Thank you both.” She said. “By the way, Einz, did you tell everyone to start calling me Commander? I noticed that nobody called me High Inquisitor anymore.”

“It was in the morning minutes I drafted and sent out to everyone today. And of course, we are all professionals and read such things closely every day, even on our days off.” Karen said.

“I informed Karen of the situation.” Dreschner said. “She and the crew did the rest.”

“Got it. Thanks. I’ll be off now, and I promise I’ll try to get some rest.” Gertrude said.

Everyone was quite lively– a noticeable change from the lethargy of the past few days.

Gertrude had noticed that Karen was not as stammering and nervous as usual too.

Einz and her might have seen something in the blue pools too– she wondered what it was.

There was no sane way to ask anyone that, of course.

She thought about what to do next as she stepped out onto the hall once more.

Though she was a bit hungry, she was, more than that, worried about Monika after everything that happened. The more she saw the crew out and about the more she worried. Monika would be in Nile’s care. Gertrude headed for the clinic. She could have a chat with Nile as well and knock two things off her to-do list. Maybe she could make good on her promise to rest after all– but she was not intending to make an effort toward it.

Since she last saw it, Nile’s clinic had slightly expanded.

In addition to the meeting room with all her supplies and the meeting room in which she saw patients there was now a third meeting room on the other side of the clinic. In this room, a few plastic beds with rudimentary cushioning and blankets were set up in two opposing rows of four, for a total of eight beds. There was only one person laid up in the beds, a petite Loup woman with long, dark blond hair, sound asleep, wrapped up in blankets with a plain white gel pillow. Her breathing was steady, the curve of her chest rising and falling under the blankets. Gertrude stood at the door, given pause by the peaceful and contented expression on Monika’s face. She turned away from the beds and walked next door.

At Nile’s clinic, the door opened automatically in her presence.

Inside the room, she found Nile hunched over a table, her tail wagging and ears twitching as she used a dropper to lay tiny amounts of a clear liquid into a beaker full of murky red fluid, like a thin tomato soup. Her fingers were exactingly careful with the tool, and she watched the drops closely as she released them. Once the drops made contact with the red, the murk suddenly became active, rising and frothing as if it was suddenly being boiled.

Gertrude then stepped past the door threshold–

in the next instant Nile straightened up and looked over her shoulder, surprised.

“You’re doing an experiment here?” Gertrude asked.

More curious than she was critical, but still a touch of judgment in her voice.

“Science is the same no matter where you do it.” Nile said.

Gertrude tried to keep her eyes off Nile’s collar, its LEDs signaling a healthy green. It felt rude to worry about it– but nevertheless, she worried. So, she made an effort not to be caught staring and instead looked Nile over. She was unmasked, as it seemed to have become her habit within the Iron Lady. Dressed in a turtleneck sweater, a waist-high skirt that hugged her hips well, black tights, and her signature white coat. Her brown hair was tied up into a messy bun for work. She wore just a bit of blush and lipstick on her face.

She was gorgeous– tall, dark, curvy, Loup excellence–

Gertrude averted her gaze entirely before Nile could notice her lingering eyes.

“Don’t you need a different kind of environment to get good results?” Gertrude asked.

“Not at all. Cause-effect causality transpires regardless of how posh the surroundings are. As long as you prepare the best you can and the thinking behind your experiment is sound, the outcome can be useful for learning, whether you are in a repurposed meeting room on a ship or in the top laboratories of the Empire. Science is science. That is one of the reasons why it is so tightly controlled in the Empire– you can only control it by controlling the knowledge and materials that make it up.” Nile cracked a smile. “So– Gertrude, what ails you?”

Owing to the length of the spiel Gertrude was unprepared to be suddenly acknowledged.

Gertrude took long enough to respond, a few seconds–

That Nile simply walked up to her and stood directly before her, leaning in.

“Mind if I examine you? I’d like to check your condition after the night’s ordeal.”

“No, it’s not necessary. I’m doing fine.” Gertrude said suddenly.

Nile’s eyes trailed down Gertrude’s body and back up to her face.

“You look more energetic, but your unusually good mood might just be masking a physical issue. Adrenaline and hormones are not to be underestimated. At any rate, I won’t do anything without your consent, but you should allow me to give you a full checkup again as soon as your courage and pride can withstand the endeavor.” Nile said.

“My pride is irrelevant!” Gertrude said sharply. “I honestly haven’t felt better in weeks, I’ll have you know. I have no problems at all. Just accept what your patient tells you.”

“Hmm. I’m glad you’re still a bit surly.” Nile replied coolly. “Drastic personality changes, even positive ones, can be a sign of deeper distress. Stability and continuity are good indicators.”

“I am not being surly. You are just constantly trying to get a rise out of me for no reason.”

“My reason is that I am a concerned professional in whom you have entrusted your care.”

Gertrude sighed deeply and audibly.

Nile cracked a little grin and crossed her arms. Her ears did a little twitch.

“Forget all of that.” Gertrude said. “How is Monika doing?”

“She is just sleeping. Sleeping quite soundly in fact.” Nile said. “Thankfully before anything happened I already had permission to prepare an infirmary. Physically, Monika is unchanged from when I last examined her. I won’t be elaborating on what that means. Mentally, I can’t be sure how she fares. We’ll have to see how she acts when she awakens.”

“Thank you for taking care of her. She’s been through so much.” Gertrude said.

“My pleasure– but it is not necessary to thank me. This is my work. I would not be myself if I ignored people in need of medical help. It would be quite shameful.” Nile said. She glanced at the wall of the room. “I’m worried about her. But I’m also worried about you.”

It was not that Gertrude did not appreciate Nile’s attention.

But she had a stubborn feeling that she wanted to be treated as someone formidable.

She should have been the only one worrying– about Nile and Monika and the others.

In her mind, she had overcome her personal hurdles and deserved to be relied upon now.

“I promise, you can look after me when there’s need– but I feel perfectly fine.”

“Alright, I won’t press you any further. Just remember that I am here.” Nile said.

She turned back around to the table she had set up in the back.

“Nile, I’m curious what you’re doing to those substances?”

Gertrude pointed at the beaker, propped up on a foldable rack, and the red fluid inside.

It had done frothing and looked a bit thinner than even previously.

“I am testing Katov mass gathered from outside the ship. Preliminarily trying to figure out what happened last night.” Nile said. “I was hoping that I might be able to reproduce a fleeting effect resembling the strange aetheric phenomenon, in miniature of course. By applying a certain neurochemical to the mass, I hoped to stimulate the organisms that make it up– but it looks like it had no effect other than altering the PH to kill it.”

“I don’t follow– what led you to believe such a thing was possible?” Gertrude said.

Nile looked as if she had not understood the question. She narrowed her eyes.

“You can’t truly be this incurious about the world, Gertrude? I can’t know anything until I have tried and observed results. That is the nature of experimentation. That’s what I am doing.”

Gertrude felt like an idiot. What was it about Nile that flustered her so easily?

“I was just worried something might happen.” She said, trying to sound sensible.

“Something happening is the very point. That is how we start learning. I am working with very small amounts of katov mass and chemicals. It’s very safe.” Nile sighed. “At any rate, I now believe the mass had nothing to do it with it– it was perhaps only reacting to the phenomenon, just like us. However, I hoped to test my belief and acquire proof by actually running some experiments. I’ll keep trying over the next few days and see the results.”

“Right.” Gertrude said. There was no use continuing this topic– she had other concerns.

In a fit of pique, she locked eyes with Nile, who met her gaze almost on accident.

For a moment, Nile appeared to recognize how Gertrude was looking at her.

Her eyes flashed red; just as Gertrude flexed those alien muscles in her own eyes.

Demonstrating her ability and seeing the blue and green color that collected around Nile.

Through her psionic sight she got the sense Nile’s aura was very deep and very dense.

That there was a depth to her– a depth that she did not hide but did not acknowledge.

Nile was very powerful. And her aura seemed to flicker like a candle-fire in a gust of air.

Despite her outward calm her aura gave off a feeling of volatility, or perhaps fluctuation.

However, her aura was also gentle. Her flame was wild, but it was not unforgiving.

“Nile, you know that I can do this now.” Gertrude said. “You are seeing it, right?”

Nile smiled. Despite her almost proud-seeming expression her aura remained the same.

“I do. I told you my suspicions last night, didn’t I? I was too vague perhaps.”

“Nile, can you tell me what you know about this power?” Gertrude said.

To Gertrude’s surprise, there was no hesitation or reticence from her doctor.

She simply took in a breath and began to speak candidly.

“I must preface by saying that everything I know, I learned from others who have studied this phenomenon more closely than me. I possess the ability myself, but I am not as versed as my colleagues. We call the power, Psionics. It is a word that feels right does it not? Different cultures had different concepts of it– any kind of ‘magic’ like volshebstvo or sihr is actually an expression of this power understood through cultural myth.” Nile spoke in a confident manner, as if giving a rehearsed lecture. Had she said this same thing to others before? Or had she perhaps prepared to give this explanation to Gertrude? She continued. “Psionics is the power of the human mind and our conception of the world, influenced by our emotions. Or at least, my colleagues and I hope that is accurate, after our experimentation.”

“In other words, in my case it is the power of my anger made manifest.” Gertrude said.

In the liminal space with the blue pools, Gertrude’s red passion and anger had broken the blue walls of the phenomenon and allowed her to finally move past the maze in which she had been trapped. In that moment, she had come to understand that blue was the source of her lethargy, and that red was her spiraling passions, covering her like an armor. When she saw blue in Nile’s aura, however, she felt different toward it– she was not alarmed. It was the same color, but the intention of Nile was not to ‘sleep eternally’ as Monika once desired. It seemed much less urgent. In fact, Monika also had a quiet and gently blue aura.

Nile was quick to rebut what Gertrude thought was an ironclad assertion, however.

“That is your current conception of the power based on what you have experienced. Different people with different experiences develop different systems of intellectual decryption. This can help you control the power through conceptual associations. It is the power of your mind, after all, it is a bit abstract. But also, I must stress that your conception of the power can change as much as your conception of the world can change. Your mind and emotions are not rigid, Gertrude. You do have an effect on how you feel and what you think; it is possible to change your mind, after all. I would strongly advise you not to think of psionics as a phenomenon that intersects solely with your anger. It is limiting to you.”

Gertrude responded at first with a short, bitter chuckle at the idea of changing herself.

“I wish everything were as easy as just convincing myself out of my habits.” She said.

She could change the meat on her bones, now– in all kinds of ways.

But her mind still felt like something far less forgiving of alteration.

“I never said it was easy. But my assertion is still correct, Gertrude.” Nile said.

“That sounds like something Victoria would say.”

“Then she would be correct also. Rhetoric is another thing that is the same anywhere.”

“I don’t mean– nevermind.” Gertrude grunted. “Can you teach me to control my psionics?”

Nile averted her eyes in response. Her expression was suddenly glum and conflicted.

Gertrude noticed that her aura shimmered, as if the candlefire withstood a stiff wind.

“I– well, I mean– it presents a certain challenge– I am not opposed–” Nile was tongue-tied, “as much as I have managed to hang on to my patience with you, because you are my patient and deserve the best of me even when I see the worst of you so frequently–”

“–Hey, c’mon…” Gertrude mumbled at the off-handed insult. What was her problem?

“–I am not actually very good at controlling my emotions either.” Nile sighed.

She crossed her arms and shut her eyes, wracked by a quiet consternation.

So that was the issue– she must have been dreading this moment, anticipating the request.

“I understand. But you can still teach me what you know, can’t you?” Gertrude said.

“To be frank, I have never taught anyone psionics. I can try, for you.” Nile said.

“But you had that whole spiel in the back of your head for when I asked?” Gertrude said.

“Correct. That spiel is something I have been preparing. I knew from the moment I saw you that you had the potential to employ psionics. You just needed a push; either to discover it on your terms or to be influenced by an outside force. I was conflicted about whether I should give you that push– but I knew by accepting your offer I had to be ready to consult for you regardless of what happened. I knew that, because we were now heading into extreme conditions, you would be much more likely to discover your abilities here.”

“Then, hardship plays a part in achieving psionics?” Gertrude asked. “That means you knew that I would be under so much stress in the abyss that I would eventually awaken?”

“Correct again. Any sufficiently heightened emotion, in the right circumstances, might cause a person with potential to discover and achieve control of their psionics, to some extent.” Nile said. She crossed her arms. “Take for example the legendary Loup warrior Samoylovych-Daybringer. The stories had it that the young Daybringer, during the war with Hanwa in the late 910s, fought to the brink of death against a powerful Hanwan warrior to hold a station landing. In that state, the stories say a fairy visited him, and taught him volshebtsvo. Daybringer’s feats after that were not exaggerated– he had achieved the power to kill scores of men. I suspect a near-death experience jogged Daybringer’s dormant power.”

“That’s a lot to take in.” Gertrude said, sighing. She felt unsettled by the example and by the idea that this could happen to anyone. “I can’t help but think that despite his efforts, we lost that war with Hanwa. The Imbrian Empire was not able to expand into the Mare Crisium even with a psionic warrior on our side. Or who knows how many more of them there were.”

“Psionics can be very powerful, but it is still impossible to win a war by oneself.” Nile said.

“Some part of me hoped I would be able to use this power to do just that.” Gertrude said.

“That hubristic and whimsical part of you is very charming, indeed.” Nile smiled warmly.

Gertrude averted her gaze. “That’s all you’re going to say to me about that, huh?”

“Yes. There is no consoling you on that score, it is simply the hard truth of things. In fact, Samoylovych-Daybringer, older but still in his prime, was ultimately slain by an ordinary man. You will be similarly vulnerable and limited– but nevertheless, psionics is a useful tool to have. Especially if you are flexible in your conception and development of it.”

Of course, common sense dictated that no individual was ever completely invincible.

For a moment, however, Gertrude in her passions had truly wanted to believe she was.

That achieving this power was an enormous breakthrough that would settle everything.

There was something unsettling about it being only a tool that might help her going forward.

Arvokas Jarvelainen, Ingrid’s ancestor, had ultimately killed the legendary Daybringer.

For Arvokas there were no fairy stories or mythical deeds. He was just a kin-slayer.

Gertrude was still vulnerable, and she was not by herself suddenly an earth-shaking titan.

She looked at Nile, hands in her coat pockets, who looked back with quiet consideration.

Sighing deeply, Gertrude tried to look positively upon things. It was good to accept reality.

She was not invincible, even with her psionics, but she was also not alone either.

There was an entire ship of people who had her back. Advising her, fighting with her.

And even in this very room there was someone who had agreed to lend her assistance.

“Nile, thank you for giving me your perspective. I– I do really appreciate it.” She said.

Nile nodded her head. “I assume that at this point– you’ll want to know more about me personally, right? That is also another conversation that I foresaw and prepared for.”

Gertrude shook her head in return.

“Honestly I have lost the zest for it. I had it in mind to interrogate you at any cost about the Sunlight Foundation and what you truly knew about the world. I know you still must have all manner of secrets. But those things feel petty now. You’re right, none of us are one-man islands. I have no cause to doubt your allegiance. You’ve done nothing but help me even when I’ve been stubborn as a rock wall.” Gertrude said. Her voice was turning soft and fond of the mysterious Loup. She felt comforted by this discussion. She wanted to feel formidable, yes– but she also had to accept the reality of her vulnerability.

Hubris had already done a lot of damage to her. She had to try her best to temper it.

Thinking she could squeeze everything out of Nile, thinking it would help anything.

Both were notions that made sense before and did not make sense now.

Like Nile said– maybe her mind was something she could, slowly, deliberately, change.

“Thank you. I am willing to answer your questions, for what it’s worth.” Nile said.

She gestured toward a pair of seats– they had both been speaking standing up and close.

Gertrude shook her head. She suddenly felt very thankful to be in Nile’s ‘care.’

“I think I just want to sit by Monika’s side and see if she wakes.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Feel free to avail yourself of anything in the infirmary.” Nile said.

She did have one question– it arrived at her quite suddenly.

One curiosity about Nile. She would allow herself to sate a single one.

“Actually– I do have one question, before I go.” Gertrude said.

Nile nodded. “Like I said, I’ve been preparing. What do you want to know?”

“How do you feel about your former allegiances? Do you have regrets?” Gertrude asked.

For a moment, a surprised Nile was pulled into her thoughts, with a melancholy expression.

“What a cruel question to ask, fittingly for you.” She tried to smile and to sound good humored. It was forced. “Of course, I have regrets. We disagreed on many things. But it was the only place I ever felt accepted and treated as a peer. I had no other home and I wanted none– they were my colleagues. We esteemed each other, motivated each other. We were flawed and arrogant and made horrible mistakes, but I would rather deal with cracked glass as long as it can keep the oxygen in. I had hope; some part of me still does.”

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. She reached out a hand to Nile’s shoulder, to comfort her.

Nile allowed it. Perhaps she even welcomed it.

She was just as vulnerable as Gertrude was. Nile, too, was not an invincible threat.


Time passed as Gertrude sat on the empty bed adjacent to Monika’s in the infirmary. She looked at the sleeping beauty’s face periodically. It was a relief; though she was still asleep, she looked peaceful. Her breathing was steady, she did not seem to be in pain. After everything she had been through, Gertrude hoped that she could have a moment’s relaxation before she resumed her activities. She deserved so much more– but at least that much. Gertrude waited at her side, hoping she might wake in a few hours more.

After about thirty minutes, Nile walked in through the door as well.

She had a cup of coffee and a handful of unsalted crackers and handed them to Gertrude.

“You should have something in your stomach.” Nile said.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “Can I call you when she wakes up?”

“I am planning to stay here actually, unless something drags me away.” Nile said.

She sat on the bed beside Gertrude and sipped her own cup of coffee.

Gertrude dipped one of the crackers in the coffee and ate it.

Together they watched over Monika’s bedside.

As she did so, Gertrude began to ponder the mysterious phenomenon that transpired last night. That maze of blue pools and the things they reflected; Monika claiming she wanted to invite Gertrude and the rest of the crew to an ‘eternal sleep’; and the Drowning Prophecy, the monstrous entity in Monika’s false church; did everyone experience visions in the blue pools? Victoria had confirmed she saw the pools, and that she saw events within them, lives she had not led. Gertrude likened it to a dream and Victoria agreed– but it was not an ordinary dream, concocted purely by her exhausted mind. It had felt so real, and the fact that she could still use psionics proved it. Gertrude had been there to see all of it.

Dreams often felt like being carried away to a different place and ended upon waking.

For Gertrude, the experience of the liminal pools, and her current state, felt like they were entirely contiguous events. Her memories were a bit hazy, but not gone. If Monika had put them all to sleep and beckoned them to remain sleeping, it was not a usual sleep. Gertrude wondered if everyone could remember the things they saw in the pools, if the people with less understanding were trying to puzzle out the haunting sensation that they felt from becoming trapped in that space and seeing impossible sights. Or if different people had gone to entirely different places and seen different things entirely than her.

Eventually, Gertrude got it into mind to put that question to Nile as well–

“Nile– during the mysterious ‘event’ last night, did you see a maze of blue pools?”

Nile took a long sip of her coffee, nodding her head slightly while drinking.

“Yes. With my psionics I understood it as a supernatural event, but I couldn’t escape.”

“What did you see in the pools?” Gertrude asked.

Nile scoffed. She averted her gaze. “You’re terribly nosy, did you know that?”

Gertrude smiled a bit. “It served me well in the Inquisition at least.”

Glancing back at Gertrude’s gentle expression, Nile breathed deeply and put down her cup.

“Fine. But you must tell your doctor about your own dreams, first.” She said.

“All of them were about Elena von Fueller.” Gertrude said. “We built many lives together in those pools. I was her servant, and I was her lover. She gave me meaning.”

Nile looked surprised– she must not have expected Gertrude to be so forthcoming.

To people like Nile and Victoria, Gertrude had nothing to hide about that affair anymore.

“I was Elena von Fueller’s lover– surprise? I squandered everything though.” Gertrude said.

In response to Gertrude’s honesty, Nile looked exasperated, and seemed to resign herself.

“Fine, fine. I saw similar things in the pools. Some of them represented things I knew could be possible– different decision points in my life. But there were some that were fabrications. I saw myself as some kind of horrid queen of a disease-infested flesh castle that resembled Heitzing; I saw myself as a member of the Pythian Black Legion nerve-gassing an entire station. But the worst one–” Nile paused and looked down at her cup for a moment.

Gertrude raised a hand and waved, interposing it between herself and Nile to stop her.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to keep going. I know now that we saw similar visions.”

Nile looked in that moment as Gertrude had never seen her before, but the expression was familiar because she had seen it in herself. Pain and frustration, an internal conflict, reticence that fought with passion and quaked under her skin. Gertrude thought she might hear her scream any moment; she looked that bound up in herself. She tried to reassure Nile that she did not need to say anything, but she knew, because she had been there herself, that the emotions were too hot. She had been in that exact position far too many times.

“No. I want to tell someone. Even if you might not understand– almost certainly you won’t understand it. But I’ll get it off my chest and then I can put it away forever.” Nile said. Her voice rose– she was taken by a sudden passion. “Gertrude, I saw the Northern Host of the Loup being completely wiped out by Mehmed Khalifa. Somehow, he detonated the North Imbrian Agarthic Vein– what’s known as one of the ‘Ley-Lines’. You do not know how close this came to actually happening, Gertrude. In that vision I just stood there and watched him do it. Watched him kill half of the Loup, and scores of Imbrians. He devastated the Palatine and ended the Empire.” Nile’s fingers tightened their grip on the cup, nearly shaking. Her eyes looked like they would tear up. “I– I did not want his blood on my hands.”

“Nile– I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. It was hard to muster any words in response.

Mehmed Khalifa, better known as Mehmed the Tyrant or Mehmed the Sorcerer, had declared an organized, armed religious struggle known to the Shimii as a ‘jihad’. He mustered scores of mainly Mahdist Shimii fighters in improvised and stolen crafts. Using his limited resources he inflicted embarrassing defeats on the Empire in the early to middle 930s, slowly building his arsenal. The official narrative was that the Inquisition tracked him down to Bad Ischl and killed him, but Gertrude knew one better– she knew that one of the Inquisition’s secrets was that the Agarthicite veins in the area had a dangerous event that inflicted damage on the Imperial siege fleet but also scattered the jihadists. An act of God ended the Jihad.

Now she knew two better– not an act of God, but Nile and her ‘colleagues’ instead. Had they truly ended the Jihad? Why? Given the resources Victoria claimed they possessed, and Nile’s own abilities, Gertrude could believe that if they became involved in such an event, that they could have brought it to a conclusion. But why interfere against someone as formidable as the self-crowned king of the Shimii’s Age of Heroes? Had they become involved in any other events, Gertrude wondered? Had any other acts of God been instead the meddling of the Sunlight Foundation in the background of what had become accepted history?

Seeing how distressed Nile had become, Gertrude could not possibly ask for more context.

Despite her curiosity, the Jihad was over– and Mehmed was dead.

And it did not matter to her and her life what or who did it. It was in the past and Gertrude had no reason to litigate it. But it clearly caused Nile a lot of pain. In those blue pools she saw a world in which she never got her hands dirty, and allowed an atrocity to pass. Gertrude had thought of the pools as amoral, showing her things that were in some sense real, without judgment. She had only seen events that reflected her warped desires and horrible mistakes. To show Nile something that horrid, however, Gertrude began to wonder if perhaps the visions in the blue pools had been guided by an active malevolence.

Rather than say anything more, she gingerly sidled closer to Nile and tried to comfort her.

Nile raised a hand to gently prevent this, keeping her away, and another to wipe her eyes.

“Thank you, but– it’s fine–” She kept a hand over her eyes. “I’m sorry for losing myself.”

“No apology necessary. It’s only human. I would know.” Gertrude said, smiling.

“I appreciate your understanding. If I broke down anywhere, then at least it was with you.”

Nile must have meant that because of their similarities they could have a unique solidarity.

However, Gertrude’s heart was quick to accelerate, and her face felt a bit warm.

At the thought of Nile wanting to confer her vulnerability only to her.

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I am sorry for prying.” Gertrude said. “But– if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you. I understand what it feels like carrying a burden. God knows, I’ve made so many mistakes that perhaps no one would understand. My pool rooms were full of my stupid obsession, devoid of any of the people I care about or even people that I hurt. I am ashamed of that single-mindedness– it wiped out even the recognition of my mistakes from my psyche. This– it demonstrates you’re better than that.”

Nile lifted her hand from over her eyes, her tears wiped but clearly still a bit agitated.

She nodded in response, and quietly finished off the last of her coffee.

Gertrude took a sip too and began to calm her thrashing her heart.

“Gertrude, would you accept a chaste and professional hug?” Nile asked suddenly.

“Any time.” Gertrude quickly replied.

Nile sidled close to Gertrude, and extended an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close.

Gertrude accepted it and reciprocated. She could feel Nile’s tail thumping the bed.

For a while, they shared this quiet physical comfort before gently separating.

Going back to looking over Monika but with calmer hearts and minds than before.

After a few hours of staring in a silence only broken by Nile getting more coffee–

Monika turned in bed, once, twice– she tightened her eyes, and pulled her blankets.

Gertrude and Nile nearly jumped with surprise as if the floors and walls had moved instead.

Finally, Monika began to open her eyes. She opened them halfway, shut them.

She began to blink. She saw up in bed, dressed in only a patient’s gown. Her hair fell over her eyes partially and behind her back. Monika pulled her bangs to the sides of her face and let out a yawn. Without speaking a word, she continued to stare at Gertrude and Nile, who stared back. For a moment the trio traded stares at one another.

One of Monika’s furry ears began to twitch.

“Gertrude?” Monika asked, when she finally spoke. “Have I been dreaming?”

“Maybe. Did you happen to dream about a maze of blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

“Don’t tell her that so quickly– let her acclimate first!” Nile protested.

“Blue pools?” Monika’s eyes opened wide. She hugged herself. “Oh my god.”

“Let me handle the talking.” Nile said. “Monika, how many fingers am I holding up?”

She held up her index and middle fingers, making a ‘V’ sign in front of Monika.

In response, Monika made two ‘V’ signs with her own hands, blinking her eyes slowly.

Nile ran her fingers idly through her hair, seemingly thinking of what to say.

“She looks awake and aware to me.” Gertrude said. “Monika, how are you feeling?”

“Confused. Horrible. And– oh my god–!” Monika narrowed her eyes. Her tail extended.

Then with barely any warning she sprang from her bed and leaped over to the one adjacent.

Throwing her arms around Gertrude and nearly tackling her off and onto the ground.

Thankfully they both fell over on top of the bed instead, nearly kicking Nile aside.

“Hey!” Nile cried out. “Calm down! You’ll hurt yourself! We need to–!”

“Gertrude!” Monika cried out. “I’m so sorry! I can’t– I’m so ashamed– you saved me–!”

Between the gratitude and contrition all screamed in interwoven hysterics, Gertrude could not muster an answer. Despite her petite stature Monika in that moment had the force of a leviathan as she hugged Gertrude down against the bed, her tail drumming against the plastic headboard. Monika cried and screamed into Gertrude’s chest, her gown nearly pulling apart with her thrashing. She hugged her so close, kicking her legs, arms tight.

“Monika! It’s okay! Please calm down! Listen to the doctor!” Gertrude struggled to say.

Monika pressed herself tightly against Gertrude’s chest while Nile looked on with worry.

Then Monika raised her head and met Gertrude’s eyes, ears running down her cheeks.

With a smile on her face.

“Gertrude– I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I’m alive.” She said.

Gertrude felt an enormous sense of relief.

She let herself fall back on the bed without resistance.

Letting out a breath that felt long held.

“I’m so happy you’re here, Monika.” Gertrude replied, stroking Monika’s hair.

With some gentle coaxing from the doctor, Monika returned to her bed and sat upright.

Nile handed her a cup of water and some crackers. Monika took a few bites.

Gertrude sat across and observed her while Nile tested her faculties.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud,” Nile said, “That is your name, correct?”

Monika nodded her head.

“Thank you– but can you speak your answer clearly? For the sake of the test.”

“Yes, it is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

“I am going to ask you to do something that might seem silly. Can you extend your right arm over the left side of your body, with your thumb up, and stick out your tongue?” Nile asked.

“Yes.” Monika followed the instructions without hesitation.

Gertrude looked over at the wall to prevent herself laughing– Monika was rather cute.

“Can you name this object that I am holding?” Nile said. It was her digital pen.

“It’s a pen.” Monika said.

“What am I doing with it?” Nile scribbled on the screen of her digital clipboard.

“You’re writing. It’s a digital pen and you have a digital clipboard.”

“Do you remember the small talk we had when you came in for a checkup?”

“I think you asked me about the food on board. We talked about liking the liver pate.”

“It’s a bit gritty but nutritionally excellent– lots of what kind of Vitamin?”

“Vitamin A if I am remembering correctly.”

“You are correct. One last question– where is the consortium Reschold-Kolt located?”

“They’re in the Bureni Republic. It’s one of my many misfortunes recently, hah!”

Monika spoke candidly and cheerfully and seemed to be full of energy.

Nile smiled and put her clipboard at her side on the bed.

“I believe you have all of your faculties about you. This isn’t a comprehensive test, but you are aware, your coordination is good, and you can recall details. I don’t believe that I will need to hold you here for long, but I would like to observe you awake for an hour.”

“I was going to spend the day loafing around anyway.” Monika said. “Thank you, doctor.”

She turned to face Gertrude again and pointed at her. “How is she doing?”

“I’m afraid that’s confidential patient information.” Nile said gently.

Putting it like that made it sound like something was going on!

“C’mon. I’m fine!” Gertrude said, slightly irritated. “Don’t worry about me, Monika.”

“Don’t put up an act. You got stabbed in the gut– I saw it! I was terrified!” Monika said.

“Wait– what?” Nile looked at Gertrude with wide eyes, staring down at her abdomen.

Gertrude raised her hands as if to shield herself from the concerns of the two women.

“Everything grew back. Would I be walking around if I got stabbed in the stomach?”

“What do you mean everything grew back?” Nile said. “I’m going to need an explanation!”

“Calm down and I’ll give you one. I’ve been wanting to talk about this with you anyway.”

Gertrude put her hands on the bed, reared back a bit, sighed, and then launched into her story of what happened yesterday. She went through everything but embellished or glossed over a few details– Monika did not need to know about what she saw in the pools. But she explained becoming lost in the primary edifice due to Azazil An-Nur’s cries for help; being attacked by the strange blue creatures and her experience of falling asleep; waking up in the blue pools, and breaking through them; Eris and her ambitions to recover her–

She did not mention Eris. That was still for herself only. She was still processing that.

Finally, breaking the maze, the church, the abomination and her newfound power.

“And then she rescued me.” Monika said. “That part I can corroborate, doctor.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “I killed the creature that captured Monika. Then I woke up again and I wasn’t in the blue pools anymore. I carried Monika back to the ship. You were all there to greet me– and from what I can gather, all of us saw the blue pools too. Victoria confirmed that she did, and Nile, you saw them too. So– we all had this strange dream.”

“A collective psychic phenomenon.” Nile lifted a hand to her forehead. “Ya allah.”

“I take it this isn’t something you have experience with?” Gertrude asked.

“This specific incident is magnitudes stranger than anything I’ve heard or seen happen. I could not have predicted it.” Nile said. “I knew, and I attempted to communicate to you, that the abyssal ‘aetheric weather’ would affect us. I do not know the origin of the color weather, but the abyss has been observed by my colleagues to affect the auras of people, it causes our emotions to unbalance. Most people, most of the time, have a balance of stress and tranquility and other emotional states– the aetheric weather causes one of the states of our aura to expand at the expense of this balance. I knew this and I tried to tell you.”

“You tried to tell me once, in my room at midnight, when I was dead tired.” Gertrude said.

“Huh?” Monika said. Looking a bit red. “She was in your room at midnight?”

“I broke in.” Nile said as if it explained anything.

Monika blinked. “You broke into her room at midnight?”

“Nevermind that, nothing happened!” Gertrude waved her hands rapidly.

Nile shrugged her shoulders innocently. Monika glanced between the two of them.

“Unfortunately, the weather had begun to have its effect on me also and impaired my judgment. I was also tired and unbalanced. I should have kept pushing you on that subject, even as stubborn as you were. But I did not want to deal with it.” Nile said. “The past few days I had a lot to do and did the best I could despite the creeping exhaustion, but I had limited headspace and I put off important things. I only vaguely recognized that this was the doing of the ‘aetheric weather’ but I felt that we could do nothing but ride it out.”

“We were all acting a bit more foolish than usual.” Gertrude said, sighing.

“For you such a thing is much more in-character.” Monika said.

Gertrude frowned, and Monika smile back, having successfully caused her grief.

“Doctor,” Monika turned to Nile, “I– I think the strange stuff that happened is my fault.”

“It’s not your fault at all.” Gertrude was quick to say.

“I agree with Gertrude. Nobody is blaming you, Monika.” Nile said.

Monika sat back against the bed, crossing her arms and breathing out.

“It’s difficult– but can I try to explain to you what happened? Even if it sounds crazy?”

“Of course. Listening to my patients is the very least I can do.” Nile said.

Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling as if to avoid their eyes–

Monika recounted her experiences.

She confessed to Nile and Gertrude that she had been dealing with suicidal thoughts for a very long time. Monika grew up in a deeply religious household and she referred to the Loup culture as anti-intellectual– Nile could relate to this. After escaping from her abusive family, Monika had managed to get her thoughts more under control– but she knew there was a stigma against feeling such a way. She did not want to be seen as insane or as a ticking time-bomb, so she told nobody about it. Her despair sat quietly in her and she drowned it in various achievements. In the world of the Imbrians she could do everything her family barred her from. Completed her education, found a job that allowed her to express her interest in technology, sciences and industry. Finally she accomplished the aspirational feat of any military engineer– she was chose to serve aboard a glorious, high-tech Dreadnought.

Recent events had shaken her confidence in herself. She began to struggle with work and thought about how helpless she was to influence the events happening around her– such as Imbria’s dissolution, or the battles against the Brigand. She took it hard when the machine she had worked on, was defeated in battle and then stolen– she took it harder when she struggled to repair the Magellan that Gertrude got to keep. It wasn’t for lack of materials or time, but she felt, it was a limit in herself. In her usefulness to the world around her.

She confessed that in her mind, if she failed, then– there was no reason to keep on living.

“I started to have those feelings about myself again. Every little thing triggered them.” Monika said. “If I didn’t finish this or that, or if I couldn’t figure something out– even minor everyday tasks or things like how to set up my tools so I can reach them more efficiently. Any little thing started to feel like something I ought to have stopped living over. That negotiation with myself about whether it was worth living or not felt like it was taking a life of its own. Like I was really talking with death itself about living on or dying, any time that anything happened. Then, things started to move really quickly, it felt like– at one point I found myself almost worshiping death– thinking that everyone must have felt like me and we could all die together. That’s when I found that church, and that abomination.”

“Monika–” Gertrude began. It took everything not to cry. “I’m so, so sorry.”

She reached out her hands and took Monika’s, caressing her, hoping to comfort her.

Monika reciprocated, taking Gertrude’s hands and squeezing them in hers.

“It’s alright. I decided I want to live Gertrude. I’m going to try. I know I will probably have these thoughts again– but I will fight to live. And I will also ask for help if I need it.”

“Monika, whatever you need, you can come to me. I’ll always listen.” Gertrude said.

It wasn’t that she was completely unfamiliar with the kind of feelings Monika had felt.

Gertrude had more than once felt utter hopelessness, and all of its most dire results.

However, she never suspected that Monika was dealing with such feelings herself.

That frightened Gertrude– she could have lost Monika forever and never realized it.

She had been so self-centered and oblivious to her pain despite thinking she knew her well.

Conscious of this, Gertrude did not want to turn the conversation to her own failings.

Monika had already gotten angry at her once for drowning in self-pity.

In her mind however she told herself, and she knew, that she had to do better by Monika.

Nile also reached out and laid her hand over Monika’s with a gentle demeanor and speech.

“For as long as I am your doctor, I will support you, Monika. And everything you have told us will stay in this room. It is confidential patient information. So do not worry.” She said.

“Thank you.” Monika said. She sat back up and stopped looking at the roof. Her eyes were glistening. She wiped them on the sleeve of her hospital gown. “Doctor, during my experiences last night– I felt like understood implicitly that there was a supernatural power in my self. My mind was a mess– so I didn’t care then. I understand that you have power too, and Gertrude too. You know about all of this– and you must know more than I do.”

“I am not all-knowing. But I know some things.” Nile said. “Psionics, the power you feel that you now have, is as deep and as fluid as the human experience itself. I’ve lived for longer than you might imagine, and I will never observe and examine everything related to psionics. It’s like myths, or miracles; I’m sure it will always change to elude our reckoning.”

“I understand, doctor, but could you try to explain what might have happened?”

Nile’s expression was familiar– as exasperated as when Gertrude asked about psionics.

She nodded her assent but paused for a moment clearly gathering her thoughts.

Her ears folded and rose, and she ran her fingers through some of her hair.

“As it stands, this is conjecture– and barely educated conjecture at that. During the blue weather event, Monika, you were fatigued and beset by feelings of frustration and hopelessness. These feelings were amplified by the blue weather, sabotaging your mental stability until it crossed a certain emotional threshold. It led to your psionics awakening, and you lost control over them. This may have had a synergistic effect with the blue weather, which we were all experiencing, that led to us having a collective event. Of course, I vehemently reject blaming you for this– I believe you were a victim of circumstance.”

“Monika, do you agree with this? How did you feel?” Gertrude asked.

Monike crossed her arms. Her own ears folded and rose as she thought it over.

“I think it’s mostly right, but– I feel that I was not the one who created that abomination that Gertrude and I saw. I felt that it had been speaking to me for a long time, ever since we got down here– I tried to ignore it, but looking back, at a certain point, I embraced it.”

Gertrude supported Monika’s deliberation.

“Nile, inside the blue rooms, I felt like I understood what Monika’s feelings were with great certainty. I can’t explain it, but I just knew, like I could hear a voice in my head that explained everything. But the monster always felt apart from her. Like an invader into her mind. Those were not explicitly her feelings alone, they felt like feelings anyone could have. Like mine also. It was called ‘the Drowning Prophecy’– and I think Monika knows that name too.”

“Yes, I felt just like Gertrude. Like someone was telling me about its name for certain.”

Nile paused and crossed her arms. She sighed. “You don’t say. Anyone’s feelings, huh?”

“Would you happen to have any explanation for that phenomenon?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes and no.” Nile said. She sighed again. “Like I’ve said before, I am a medical doctor, not a pseudophysicist or a parapsychiatrist. However, one of my colleagues, Euphrates, theorized that it should be possible to create constructs with psionics that anyone would recognize as real entities despite their aetheric origin. Perhaps this entity you both saw was created out of collective emotions. Maybe its reach over Monika was a result of how many tired and hopeless people were aboard the ship– in the blue weather that would mean all of us.”

“I guess it makes as much sense as anything.” Gertrude said, feeling a bit helpless.

“I still feel like ‘The Drowning Prophecy’ was something else entirely.” Monika said. “Not just our feelings, but something older and bigger than that. It was like it had been ready to communicate with me at the earliest time I was able to see it. Like it was leading me to the blue church– just waiting all of this time to talk to anyone who would listen to it. I don’t believe in God, but thinking back, it almost felt like a horrible, sublime revelation.”

“Well, I can’t know more until I see this happen myself– and I don’t want to.” Nile said.

“Right. I’d also prefer never to have that experience again.” Monika said.

She and Nile tried to smile but the topic was heavy, and clearly weighing on their minds.

Nile probably felt frustrated with her lack of answers. Her body language had grown tense.

When it came to medical problems she always had a solution– this was beyond her.

Gertrude wondered if for a genius intellect like her, uncertainty was uniquely frustrating.

“So, if this all had to do with our emotions– were we in physical danger?” Gertrude asked.

“If this was related to psionics in some way, then yes. You were in danger.” Nile said.

“Can you elaborate how? Do you think the monster could have really killed us?”

In the moment, Gertrude’s sense of pain was dull despite the horrible attack she suffered.

That monster ran her through with its tentacle, and there was blood and she screamed.

There was not the level of acute, shattering pain she would have associated with that.

Perhaps it was the red passion cloaking her in power, and the certainty she felt back then.

Or perhaps it just had not been physical, and it actually was closer to a dream than reality.

“Normally,” Nile said, “it is very difficult to use psionics to coerce someone into harming themselves– it’s an action that is too atypical for the subject’s internality to accept. But it’s not impossible and we have no idea what a psionic construct is capable of doing, whether they follow our observations. Had you and Monika faltered, I imagine you would have indeed slept eternally. However that felt to you in the moment– your body was suffering.”

Not necessarily that being stabbed by the monster would have killed Gertrude, but rather, that it would have convinced them to pursue its ‘eternal sleep.’ Everyone would have chosen to die by never waking up from the dream until they passed. Mass psychogenic suicide.

Probably Nile would not have characterized it this way, but it got Gertrude thinking about the dangers that psionics might pose. She had been thinking about it exclusively in the way her body became a weapon when imbued with her psionics– but in reality, it was farther reaching and much more dangerous than that. Psionics was much more insidious.

Gertrude recalled all the strange abilities Norn seemed to possess. The incredible control over her troops, her ability to move extremely quickly and strike someone in a blink.

There was a larger and more terrifying world opening up before Gertrude’s own eyes.

“Nile, could you help Monika to understand and control her psionics too?” Gertrude asked.

Upon hearing that request, Monika looked down at her hands with a quiet concern.

Gertrude must have had that exact same expression on her face last night too.

That dire contemplation of becoming irreversibly different than before.

“I will do the best I can.” Nile sighed. “It’s– I guess it’s my duty as a doctor, after all.”


“Vogt, nobody roughed her up, right? And she’s been behaving well?”

“Indeed High– Commander.” Vogt caught himself. “She has been quietly waiting for you.”

“Any observations?” She ignored his struggle with her rank.

“One observation. When you first brought her here, she seemed almost– giggly. Energetic. Kind of fawning over you. At some point, and probably if I went through the camera footage I could probably scrobble to the exact second– she stopped smiling, Commander. She has this very neutral expression now. Her voice feels different too. When we brought her food, she spoke to us in a weird language– the translator tool said it is High Gallic. When we asked her to speak in Low Imbrian she teased us about our lack of culture. It was strange.”

Gertrude grunted, annoyed. “What the hell is she up to now– let me in to see her.”

After making sure Monika was okay and grabbing more coffee from Nile, Gertrude had set out to tackle her least anticipated errand of the day. It would have been callous of her to continue to subject Azazil An-Nur to captivity when she had wanted to cooperate before. But Gertrude had to know more about her and had to better understand her disposition. So she traveled to the Iron Lady’s containment rooms. She would converse with her in the interrogation cell she was being kept in, and she would decide then what to do.

“She has not been aggressive, Commander. I think she will cooperate.” Vogt said.

“I’m hoping as much too, but I’m always prepared for the worst.” Gertrude said.

Things she said to reassure her troops, without always meaning them.

In fact, she knew precious little about Azazil An-Nur and had no idea how she would act.

Vogt nodded and showed Gertrude he had brought a folding vibroblade on his person.

“I, too, am prepared for the worst. So you can be at ease, Commander.” He said.

Azazil was being kept confined in a glass-walled interrogation cell, one-way viewable.

Inside the cell she had a desk and a chair, both made of soft rubber-padded plastic.

Outside, there was a media room where recordings and observations were being made.

Gertrude passed through that room, out into a connecting rear room and then into the cell.

Azazil An-Nur lifted her eyes from the table briefly and smiled a very small, slight smile.

Her expression appeared much more reserved. When Gertrude had last seen her, she was gently smiling and cooing at her, like a motherly type of woman who wanted to impress her affection and comfort upon Gertrude. Now, she had a very specific sort of neutral expression, of the sort that Gertrude associated with noblewomen. Adelheid van Mueller had this sort of haughty non-smile that she would put on for people who were beneath her notice but not worth her disrespect. A noblewoman’s smile– put on for appearances, so perfectly practiced it managed to mean something while conveying nothing.

“Azazil, how have you been getting on?” Gertrude asked, sitting down across the table.

“In my appraisal, I have been diligently cooperative in my captivity.” Azazil said.

Vogt had been right– her voice was deeper, smoother. She had changed it somehow.

Could she change her body like Gertrude could? Could Gertrude change her own voice?

Azazil sat with her fingers steepled. Her gaze felt eerily penetrating.

That presence she now had– was she always so intense?

Everything else about Azazil looked familiar.

Her sleek, long black dress still hugged her perfect figure and looked almost brand new despite the scuffles of the past night. In the haze of the terrible events in which they had met, Gertrude had not noticed how well-made that dress was. It did not appear to be natural fibers, and it glistened, but it had a very soft look. Could it have been silk? In terms of facial features, she was without fault, with a gentle and regal beauty, soft red lips, small eyes slightly angled, her countenance mature but umblemished; her silver hair long and perfectly tended; her Shimii-like ears tall, black-furred, and sharp and fluffy; and her figure, ample in the right places and sleek in the rest. She was like a sculpture given life, a living artwork.

Gertrude felt that the more she observed her the more she found her gaze ensnared.

“After acquiring more data, I altered myself to better suit your tastes.” Azazil said.

“To better suit me?” Gertrude asked. She felt almost offended. What did that mean?

“As a biomechanoid servant I can serve better with more data. Upon close examination of all of our exchanges, I calculated that your nervous energy, inquisitiveness and spiraling passion are better matched by a woman who is more collected, distant and mature in appearance, mannerisms and personality. You are titillated by the mystery and taboo of women that feel out of your reach. You respond poorly when you receive too much open affection.”

“That is enough of that.” Gertrude said. She gestured for the recording to be cut.

“You want women to vex and challenge you at least a little. You are enriched by conquest.”

“That is– you think I find this attractive? I am terribly annoyed with you is what I am!”

“Perhaps– but I can tell you are already intrigued. I made a correct assessment.”

Gertrude had broken out into a bit of a sweat, and her face felt a little bit hot.

It was less what Azazil was doing or saying and more how she was doing it and saying it.

Her deep, sultry voice that felt like it was holding everything back while pulling her close. Precise mannerisms, like the brief flutter of her steepled fingers, or the ephemeral flitting of her eyelashes or the minute changes in her expression. She was like a silk-draped, full-figured puzzle box beckoning Gertrude to probe deeper and more forcefully.

Azazil was right, and Gertrude felt like a complete idiot.

She was manipulated– she had to stop fixating on Azazil.

Or she would be made a fool of.

It’s not easy to tear my eyes away from her– she is drop-dead gorgeous.

Maybe she could instead try to play it against her somehow.

“You said you were created to take care of humans, and you must follow my commands.”

“Correct. You are the owner of this body now, Master. It is yours however you desire.”

“What if I make you do something undignified? That breaks this façade you’re creating?”

“You can degrade me as a woman if you like. I’m sure it’s part of the fantasy for you.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t care what data you think you have collected on me! You do not know me, and I won’t have you typecasting me as some kind of pervert!” She hesitated briefly, a quivering in her chest working itself out as she then spoke. “I’m– I’m heterosexual!”

An interesting and hasty gambit that immediately faltered on all merits.

Azazil crossed her arms and grinned, just a little. “I know what you are.”

Suddenly Gertrude turned to what should have been a wall. “Get out! All of you! Now!”

She could not know whether or nor the recording and monitoring team vacated the room.

But they must have– they always followed her orders. They stopped recording and left.

Azazil waited obediently until the cell felt emptier. She continued. “My data is not wrong. From observing your interactions with me, and also the composition of your crew, which I also had a chance to observe. There are several women who have forged close emotional connections to you, and no men who have a relationship to you that is anything above strictly professional. No, my master, Lady Lichtenberg– you are absolutely a homosexual.”

Gertrude was nearly speechless. Azazil was correct, but it was utterly ridiculous to hear it.

“What if I ordered you to become a man?” Gertrude said, in a near-hysteric voice.

“You wouldn’t seriously do that.” Azazil said. “Master, there is no need to be distressed.”

Gertrude had completely lost it. Azazil had twirled her around like synthetic twine.

“I am not distressed! I am furious! Aren’t you supposed to ‘take care’ of me? What is this?”

Azazil wore that noblewoman’s smile again, but Gertrude could read the implicit malice. “I am indeed your servant, and it is indeed my duty to take care of your needs. I am presenting in a way which is the most suitable for your pleasure. However, I assure you I am not here to interfere with your daily life and your real relationships. I am an appliance that you can use as you need– has it not always been this way between masters and servants?”

She was stunned. It was stunning. Gertrude was left reeling by those words.

“What– what kind of perverted society– how the hell are you an ‘appliance’?!”

Even if Gertrude had entertained the desire to be able to keep more than one woman–

Nobody could possibly have been an ‘appliance’ to her!

And even worse for such a use!

“This– this situation— I’m disgusted! I don’t want anyone to take care of me like this!”

“Do you feel that it is ingenuine of me to try to please you in this way?”

“You are not pleasing me!”

“Would you find it more honest if I acted as I did before I had any data?”

Gertrude was given pause. Back then, last night– was she just acting then too?

Of course, she must have been. After all– she was an ‘appliance’ back then too.

Azazil An-Nur was a ‘biomechanoid’ that was ‘created to take care of humans’.

Thinking over this, Gertrude felt progressively conflicted and disturbed.

She did not know what to say to someone who had been created to serve her.

Gertrude had coerced and misled many people over the years. She was High Inquisitor.

Through honeyed words, through the truncheon, through legal threats–

She knew something about forcing people to bend to her will when necessary.

That coercion didn’t change them as people. Their bodies didn’t react to suit her needs.

Azazil’s comfort with changing pieces of herself to suit Gertrude–

She had conflicting feelings about it.

“When we first met, Master, I had an unclear profile of your personality, mannerisms, and your desires and needs as a person. After observing you for long enough, I developed the correct predictions, and I am better suited to serving you in a comfortable and tailored fashion. Humans do this too– but less efficiently. You are welcome to delete the profile I have generated but I doubt your needs will change much. In my view, I have optimized our relationship and am better able to serve you– why don’t you allow me to demonstrate as such for a few days? You will find I am a much better product now than before.”

“You call yourself a ‘product’ and an ‘appliance’– I don’t know how to deal with that.”

“Master, would it bring you relief to know a mop or a broom enjoyed the act of cleaning?”

Gertrude had no answer to that. She felt her heart and head grow heavy at the thought.

It was not possible that Azazil was a mop or a broom. She was a human, like Gertrude.

There was no way in hell that any society made people that were reduced to this!

That was her thinking– she could not, in her privilege, connect this behavior to anything.

Azazil smiled, more than she had before.

“I was created to take care of human beings. For so long, I have not had any people to take care of. They were all gone. Before I met you, I only had contact with an overbearing neural model and belligerent biomechanoids. I might not look like it, but I am pleased with the prospect of being able to take care of Genuine Human Beings again. It is not in my nature to make requests– but I strongly believe I can improve your quality of life if you will allow it.”

Gertrude was helpless. She did not know the correct or moral answer in this situation.

Insisting on Azazil’s humanity might go nowhere; would accepting this make her happy?

Could Azazil feel happy? What had they done to ‘create’ her? She looked human–

Now she was really second-guessing herself– was this all encoded in Azazil’s biology?

Was it STEM? Could she somehow alter Azazil’s STEM to free her from this condition?

To alleviate her own guilt and shame about all of this, Gertrude settled on that fantasy.

Perhaps if she discovered more about the mysterious STEM system–

She could turn Azazil from an ‘appliance’ and back into an independent human being.

It was this distant hope that allowed Gertrude to take a deep breath and speak again.

“I’ll accept you as you are, for now. I will accept that you are acting this way. But listen up and listen well, Azazil An-Nur– I don’t need your services in whatever perverse way you are implying. I need you to prove to me that you are able to act independently, that you can freely make your own choices as a person. Everyone on my ship agreed to be here. I am– I am adamantly against slavery. I will not so much as touch you until I am sure.”

“Adamantly against slavery– how curious. I’ll make a note of this.” Azazil said. “However, my condition is not slavery. Humans can be coerced into slavery. I was created to serve a purpose. I want to serve that purpose and I am happy to be given the opportunity.”

“If there is some way to free you from this condition, I will find it.” Gertrude said sharply.

For a moment, Gertrude caught what seemed like a twitch of Azazil’s eye.

However– it was so quick that it seemed like only her imagination.

Maybe she only wanted to see some kind of response.

“Very well, master. In such a matter and any others, of course, I will assist you.”

Gertrude sighed and slumped forward on the table. What an exhausting conversation!

After venting through a series of noises, she looked back at Azazil again.

“You have psionics, right? You understand your abilities to be psionic?” Gertrude asked.

“Correct.” Azazil replied.

“How can I know you are not controlling me using psionics?”

“If I have been doing that, do you believe it has been effective up to this point?”

“I can’t argue with that.” Gertrude said, with a grunt. “So–were you created to be psionic?”

“No.” Azazil said. She offered no candid asides nor any rhetoric to support her answer.

“What do you mean, no?” Gertrude asked, with mild but growing outrage.

“I was not created with psionic ability. That is not possible, as far as I know.”

“Where were you– created? Who created you? Elaborate a bit wouldn’t you?”

Azazil, with her small, wry, smile, answered the question exactly.

“I was created in Hephaestus Innovations Inc., Exafactory No. 4, in Turkiye, the seat of the Aer Federation. Turkiye is part of the internal polity known as the Nobilis Community. I was designed by Margery Balyaeva, with patented technology from Rita Angermeyer.”

That meant absolutely nothing to Gertrude. Just nothing but mush in the shape of words.

It was finally dawning on her that she was dealing with a relic from a lost civilization.

A perverse and horrid civilization that she was nevertheless now committed to chasing after.

Part of that chase would have to entail keeping Azazil aboard and enduring this for now.

Gertrude’s mind wandered to that hexagon of hexagons flag– what was she getting into?

And if she was committed to finding Eris at the bottom of all of this–

In what condition would she even find her?


Depth Gauge: 4581 meters
Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)

The Iron Lady descended, farther and deeper and darker into the abyss.

As its enormous hull navigated the encroaching spaces around it, all manner of creatures were disturbed, awakened, and scattered. Many of them were natural denizens of these lightless depths who knew to flee even the barest of hint of pursuit from something larger. Crustaceans on the cliffs scurried into holes only they knew of; slow-moving fish began to drift away from the steel leviathan; glowing jellies flexed their bells and jetted away.

Then– there were the creatures that could have been called unnatural denizens.

These continued to watch the descending ship with great interest.

Crab-like things with bubble-like missile packs on their backs readying to intercept.

Clusters of eyeballs trailed by tentacles, gathering and transmitting data.

Sentries with sleek, predatory bodies wolf-like and shark-like, larger than a power-armored human being, equipped with vibrating tungsten teeth and claws ready to charge.

Stand down and hibernate.

At once, the handful of drones in this abyss retreated to their hidden places once more.

Given psychic command by a superior with an actual will to determine fate.

From the barren cliffsides she watched the ship descend.

Casually resisting four hundred atmospheres of pressure, as if she had the Ocean’s mercy.

With a temporary body that was half aquatic, with a tail, hydrojets, fins.

And an upper body that was human, feminine, substantial in its musculature.

Grinning to herself, crossing her arms, narrowing eyes that could see clearly in the water.

I’m so curious, hominin. What are you doing here? In this mausoleum?

Watching them with the patience of a hunter amused at the sight of a coming sport.

Enforcer V of the Syzygy, The Wrath, referred to by her colleagues as ‘Ira.’

Unstimulated for an amount of years so great as to be a burden to recall.

Practically salivating at the prospect of the hominin diving into Aer’s own skin.

Let them enter the Great Tree Holy Land and see for themselves what Mnar holds!

I want to see their faces; I’m so curious what they will do with their final hours.

Will they find something that surprises me, before they dieor I kill them?

Surreptitiously, so as to avoid detection, Ira followed after the Iron Lady.

Toward the Agartha, and what little remained of the civilizations that preceded them.


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.1]

After Descent, Year 958

Sitting with her back to a metal wall, legs hugged close, tail curled around her waist.

Silencing all of the cries of pain and hunger from every part of her body.

All her heavy eyes needed to focus on was forward. Forward to a new life.

It was dark, the only light provided by the intermittent strobing of sensor LEDs on a few instruments. She could see the impressions of crates, fastened by metal cables and plastic tarps. She shivered, rubbing her hands together. While she was in the cargo hold, she thought about what Aachen would be like. She had heard that Shimii were not hated there and even that Mahdist Shimii did not have to change their names. She expected that the Rashidun Shimii would still be tense, but maybe the Imbrians would be kind.

At least there would be stable work. That much had to be true.

She could endure any kind of abuse; if she could get a job, she could live.

When the cargo hauler got closer to Aachen’s Stockheim port, the bulkhead door separating the hold from the rest of the vessel opened, allowing a spear of light to cut the shadows on each side of the hold into two halves. Rahima remained in the shadow, huddled behind the line of crates. When she heard footsteps into the room, she stood up, dusting off her old ill fitted brown coat and her pants. She walked out from behind a crate and waved lethargically at a man in uniform. He smiled at her and produced something from a pack for her.

“There you are.” He said, “Thank you for your work. As promised,”

A few polymer banknotes to the tune of about a hundred Imperial mark.

And a piece of bread.

At least she would have something in her pocket to start her new life.

Other than her immigration papers.

“Listen, when you leave the ship, take the people conveyor into Stockheim and stop by the immigration office. I know it sounds scary, but you’re smart and you have your papers, you don’t have to worry. Just be polite and answer the questions honestly.” Said the sailor. “Get registered and ask them if there’s some place you can stay. It won’t be good, but you don’t want to be on the street. After that, it’s all up to your luck. There’s honest work out there. You’ve got two good arms and two good legs. Don’t do anything stupid or indecent okay? We don’t want to regret bringing you here.” He patted her shoulder with a smile.

Rahima smiled a little in response. She took a bite out of the bread.

It would have to be enough to get her legs through the day.

Finally, the hauler entered one of Stockheim’s cargo elevators.

Once the area was drained and properly pressurized, the ship laid down its ramp.

Rahima slipped out of the back.

She dropped down onto the metal floor, her thin shoes barely offering protection from the awful cold. She was in a dimly lit cargo processing station and elevator, the ship in the middle, and a variety of instruments to shuffle crates around hanging distantly in the dark. Before the station security figured anything out, she made for the automatic door leading into Stockheim. It opened for her, as it did for everyone– for a moment she had feared it would know she was an immigrant and refuse her. Inside, a people-mover belt sped her from the dim cargo elevator facilities to a brightly lit, extremely modern lobby, glass dividers funneling foot traffic several ways. It was here that Rahima first saw a crowd.

There were holidaymakers heading in, businesspeople heading out,

ten different paths she could take,

a crossroads of living,

She lifted her head and found the direction of the immigration office.

Her clothes were shabby, she had no luggage, and there was no hiding her ears and tail.

However, nobody gave her grief– everyone had some place that they were going to.

Following one nondescript hall after another, she finally found the open door into the immigration office on the side of one such hall. There was a small line of people, slowly moving from just outside the door and into the immigration office. Rahima stood and waited. She was through the threshold in about fifteen minutes and in about fifteen more she was sorted into one of three lanes of people waiting for immigration officers in glass booths to call them forward to talk and show their papers. Rahima was one of the few Shimii in the line. At first, this eased some of her nerves about the situation she was in.

Until, while she was waiting, a Shimii talking to an officer was taken away by guards.

Then her heart began to pound like it wanted to escape from her chest.

Imbrians, too, were subjected to the same treatment, for who knew what reasons.

Soon it felt as if, every other person in the line was made to disappear.

She inched forward, the sight of the faces of those taken away burned into her eyes.

Struggling and begging. Where would they be sent? What would happen to them?

Shaking, she almost missed being called forward to the glass-shielded booths.

Rahima was summoned by a middle-aged woman, blond-haired with a stately face.

Was it better to be processed by a woman? Would she be kinder, have more sympathy?

No– Rahima had seen women before who were as vicious and evil as any man.

“I’m opening a slot. Drop your papers in. Keep your hand away from it.”

In front of Rahima a little drawer popped open suddenly. She almost jumped with surprise.

From her coat, she withdrew and unfurled a few crumpled-up sheets.

Careful not to have her fingers near to it, she dropped the papers into the slot.

In a second it instantly slid closed. Behind the booth the woman withdrew the papers.

With a sour look on her face, she unfurled them, sighing and grumbling, patting them flat.

“I can read these. Sometimes they get too beat up to understand. Be careful next time.”

“Y-Yes.”

“Rahima Jašarević, correct?” She pronounced it flawlessly. Rahima was surprised.

“Y-Yes.”

“Brennic Shimii? Eighteen years old?”

Rahima nodded her head quietly, her chest trembling.

“Answer the questions verbally please.” Demanded the woman guard.

“Yes to both.” Rahima said, trying to gather her wits at the insistence of the guard.

Then the woman held up one of the papers.

She tapped a finger from behind the paper, over a section that had a seal. That seal had a moon with a green and red pattern indicating the religious category of the person immigrating. For Rahima she had no choice in the matter due to how she was processed for those papers. She could not have lied nor was she given a chance to change anything.

“Mahdist. Is this correct?”

“It is.” Rahima said. She then added, “Will that be a problem?”

Instantly she felt like a fool for asking such a question. Why say anything unnecessary?

“Not with me,” said the woman behind the glass, “might be a problem with your kind.”

Then the woman, still holding up the paper to the shield, tapped a different finger.

This time over an Imbrian-style name listed near Rahima’s own.

“Your sponsor is an Imperial Navy officer. We will contact him. Is this name correct?”

“Yes, it is correct.”

“Alright. You’ll hear from us if he’s never heard from you. Understand?”

“Yes.”

In that fashion they went over many rote aspects of Rahima’s identity documentation.

Each question felt like a nail being pounded into Rahima’s chest.

At the start of each line, a pound, unknown whether pain or respite would follow.

Then, at the end of each line, the nail was dug in and no longer hurt. So, then– next nail.

Whether she would bleed out and her heart would stop or whether she would be allowed to continue living, this was a question asked by each lifting of the hammer and each pounding of the nail. Tapping fingers, sharp clicking of the tongue, the slight plasticky sound of the shield being touched or the border guardswoman fiddling with something on her desk. Every time, Rahima asked herself, will this answer have me taken from here?

“Staying for short term or long-term residence?”

Rahima paused. Would it be better to say short term? Would she find it more palatable?

But– staying in Aachen for a short term was useless to her. Where would she go after?

“Long term.” Rahima said.

In that instant she practically saw the truncheon come flying out of the corner of her eye–

“Okay. You’re a solo traveler, do you have any living family? Husband? Kids?”

“No. No family, no spouse– I’m too young for children I think.”

“Alright. We just need to know in case you pass away. Any medical issues to disclose?”

“No. I am healthy.”

“Good for you. Any banking anywhere? Immigrants must get accounts here in Aachen.”

“No. I’ve never had a bank.”

Nothing happened. Just more questions. They were almost through with the papers.

After going through the last lines in the documents, the guardswoman gathered up the documents. She flattened them out one last time, placed each in a plastic sheet and placed each plastic sheet inside a folder, into which everything fit perfectly. She deposited the folder into the slot, which popped out on Rahima’s end.

She gestured for Rahima to pick them back up.

“Compliments of the immigration office. Treat those papers better, that’s your life.”

Rahima reached in, took the folder, and as soon as it was out of the slot, it snapped shut.

“Rahima Jašarević. Welcome to Aachen. You’ll get an entry pass on the way out.”

“I– everything is okay then?”

“Everything is okay.”

“T-Thank you.”

Rahima looked down at the folder in her hands. She could almost cry.

“I’ve got some advice for you, Rahima Jašarević.” Said the border guardswoman.

“Oh– that’s right– I wanted to ask about possible lodging.” Rahima said.

“I figured you would.” The woman said. “Listen– don’t go down to the Shimii block. It’s awful, they hate your kind. You’ll end up a thief or a whore with those lowlives. You can read and write, you’re polite, and you finished secondary school. You can get an Imbrian job. I know someone who can help. She’s part of the liberals here. She’ll get you a good job.”

Surreptitiously, the border guardswoman beckoned Rahima to come closer.

Rahima walked up as close to the shield as she could get.

On the woman’s desk, there was a card, with an address and a logo.

A figure with a dress, a woman, playing a flute. Rahima made out the address on the card and read a name: Concetta Lettiere. It was some kind of women’s organization– before Rahima could make out more of the text on the card, the guardswoman hid the card and gestured for her to move back again. Rahima repeated the address in her head.

“Did you get that? She can help you. Go there. Don’t go down to the Shimii.”

As much as Rahima felt that the border guardswoman was being horribly racist–

–the money and opportunities were all with the Imbrians anyway, not in a Shimii ghetto.

She might as well see what she could get out of this “Lettiere” woman.

Having processed Rahima, the border guardswoman opened a door between the booths.

Following this path, another woman handed Rahima a plastic pass card and led her out.

Past the immigration station, there was a long hallway that led to a different lobby.

In this one, there were signs pointing her to the path into the Aachen Core Station.

She was through– she was just another soul in the City of Currents.

There was so much that she had lost. But she still had her life.

And she might have lodging.

From Stockheim, Rahima took one of many small, frequently moving trams between the port structure and the core station. At no point did anyone ask for her card. She was still guarded, but gradually began to feel that there would not be anyone coming after her immigration status. Her clothes elicited some looks– everything was old and scuffed and ill fitting, with faded colors and fraying fabric. But she expected that. She could endure being stared at for being visibly poor. She sat in the tram, caught her breath, and she almost relaxed.

At the drop-off from the tram, Rahima found a tall panel with a three-dimensional map of the Aachen Core Station. The structure was cylindrical with both vertical tiers and concentric horizontal divisions. There was an outer ring structure connected by elevators that contained thousands of offices and apartments. The centermost ring had a novel layout, essentially a vertical mall wrapped around a central atrium spanning multiple floors, with the atrium space hosting floating trees, art installations, small parks and plazas, and other attractions depending on the floor, sometimes accessible, sometimes hovering out of reach.

Rahima followed a lit path from the trams. As she walked, the path expanded, until it fully opened into the landing at the base of the Core Station. Surrounded by people, Rahima raised her head to a ceiling higher than she had ever seen. A sweeping circular path connected platforms with restaurants and businesses encircling a glass shield containing the tall, brightly lit atrium. Suspended under the lights was a series of hanging ornaments in a variety of shapes, shimmering various colors and in turn coloring the landscape.

Rahima was stunned.

She had never seen anything so grandiose in her life.

A ceiling so high, and lights so bright.

Her destination would not take her further into those lights, however.

Judging by the map she had pulled up; she was headed for the outer ring.

Away from all the trendy shops and the colored lights and gold-rimmed glass.

But she lived here now, she had the card, she was a citizen. She would see it again.

From the base of the core station Rahima followed a hallway to the outer rings. This area was much the same as any other place she had lived in before. Grey and blue metal, white LEDs, no luster, just utilitarian pathways, boxy elevators, and doors separated from one another at consistent intervals, indicating each interior to be the same dimensions. She finally found the door she was looking for, distinguished from any other only by the number on its plaque.

She laid her hand on the panel under the plaque. Indicating she was waiting at the door.

Then the door slid open, and she heard a voice calling for her.

“Come in. No need to wait in the lobby, I don’t have anyone else today.”

A woman’s voice with the slightest hint of an accent Rahima could not place.

Rahima stepped through the door. There was a small lobby, just one long couch seat and a small screen playing upbeat jazzy tunes set to video of café ambiances. A second door had a plaque on it with the words ‘Feministiche Partei Rhinea’ and the logo of the woman with the flute, same as Rahima had seen on the business card. She did not know what to expect when she opened the door, and hesitated with her fingers drawing near the handle–

but the door opened, nonetheless.

Inside, there was a white room, with a table in the center, a digital whiteboard taking up much of the far wall, a few screens projecting from one of the near walls, and a small plastic desk. Sparsely decorated, meticulously tidy. There was a neat stack of cards on the desk much like the one Rahima saw at the immigration office, as well as a stack of synthetic shirts and banners. To Rahima, the goods looked like they had not moved for some time.

Behind the cheap, thin desk, there was a woman.

Working on something on a thin-panel monitor, using the surface of the desk as a touch keyboard and saving everything to a memory stick. She was shorter than Rahima, paler, with dazzling green eyes and a soft, almost girlish face. Her hair was white-blue, some collected into a ponytail, some framing her face. She was dressed professionally, grey-brown checkerboard vest, white button-down and tie, pencil skirt and heels.

And her sharp, long ears said even more than that: this woman was an elf, Rahima knew.

“Are you Concetta Lettiere?” Rahima asked.

For a moment the woman looked up from her desk and met Rahima’s eyes.

“It’s not pronounced like ‘conceited’ it’s pronounced like ‘conch’. But I would prefer you call me Conny. Everyone else does and it’s easier for anyone to say. Conny Lettiere.” She said.

“Sorry. Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m Rahima Jašarević. At immigration, a woman–”

Conny interrupted Rahima with the sound of her chair scraping across the floor.

She stood up from her desk and walked over to Rahima and stood near. Conny was almost a head shorter than Rahima, but her confidence movements gave her a strong presence.

“How long has it been since you ate?”

Rahima was too tired to demand she be allowed to speak without interruption.

“I had some bread this morning.” She said, without further elaboration.

“I’ll order us something and have it brought over. Do you have a place to stay?”

“No. I just arrived here today. Do you want to see my papers?”

“I don’t care about your papers, I’m not a cop. It’s fine. Right now, I’m more worried that you might drop at any moment. Are these your only clothes? Do you have any luggage?”

“Nothing but the clothes off my back. I’m really okay– I just need a place to stay.”

Rahima tried to say this, but as soon as she thought about it–

All her body ached. Mind turned to fog. She was hungry. Her mouth was parched.

Her lean, slightly lanky frame had gotten so much thinner since her journey began too.

Before she realized it, she was turning to skin and bones.

So focused on making it to Aachen she never cared in what condition she might arrive.

Conny urged her to sit down at one of the chairs near the table.

“You can stay here. I’ll pull out the futon from storage– I sleep in this office sometimes. Helps me brainstorm. You can stay until you can find your own place. Can you read and write? There are a few jobs you can do around here. I’ll pay you out of the party budget.”

Rahima was taken aback by Conny’s sudden energy. She was talking so fast.

Though she wanted to ask why Conny was so concerned, and why she was so kind–

What came out of her lips was, “what is ‘the party’?”

Conny wore a slightly proud smile as she responded. “The Rhinean Feminist Party. We advocate for the rights of women in Rhinea. We’re only local right now– a subsidiary of the Aachen Liberal Party. But I have huge ambitions! Right now, you’re a girl who needs help, so– some feminist I would be if I just threw you back out the door just like that.”

Despite Conny’s enthusiasm, Rahima understood very little of that through the fog.

It was as if the fear and tension built up over the weeks had been load-bearing for her body.

As soon as she sat, she felt like she would not be able to stand again as easily.

With a moment’s peace to think, the brutality of her struggle finally caught up to her.

“I’ll get you some food and a change of clothes. We’ll talk more when you’re cleaned up.”

Conny smiled, with a hand on Rahima’s shoulder. Rahima nodded weakly at her.

For whatever reason, for the first time in a long time–

Rahima felt like she might be safe.


After Descent, Year 979

“See? I had full confidence that you could walk out here on your own and easily.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s that easy, but I’m not tripping over.”

“You sound so down. Come on, it’s a new station. We’re on a mission! Out and about!”

You’re on a mission. I’m just coming along.”

“Not at all. I need you. They will relate better to you than to me.”

Homa felt so pathetic about it, but that ‘I need you’ reverberated in her mind for a while.

It was so exactly what she wanted to hear that it pissed her off.

“Whatever. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.”

Kalika smiled at her. Her makeup, the sleek contours of her face– she was so pretty.

It was impossible for Homa to meet her gaze too directly for too long.

So instead, she turned her eyes on Aachen, laid grandly before her outside the entry lobby.

Never in her life had Homa seen a station interior so broad and ostentatious. Even the mall in Kreuzung had a ceiling closer to the ground than Aachen’s central structure.

There was an atrium so high up it was impossible to see the ceiling, and spiraling around it was a sweeping blue path with frequent stops next to platforms holding what seemed like shops, cafes, offices, and venues of that sort. What stunned Homa the most was that the central atrium structure was sealed off with glass and filled with water, so that the art installations floating inside a cylinder filled with sea water and stirred by machines forming artificial currents. Like bells or chimes, stirred by the water rushing past them, spiraling to the top as the pathway did– but instead of sound, they made color.

And so, it seemed that in front of Homa’s eyes there was a vortex of glass, water, and gems.

That dwarfed any given person crowding the paths that surrounded it.

“They change this every so often.” Kalika said. “Last I was here; it wasn’t full of water.”

“To create the stream, and to pump in the water, I wonder if they connected this to the sea.”

Kalika glanced at Homa. “Good point. I’ll write that down for later investigation.”

Homa averted her gaze again. “I was just saying stuff without thinking.”

“No, it’s a good observation Homa.” Kalika said. “Even if it doesn’t help us right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be useful. Reconnaissance is about gathering any information that might be important and letting HQ sort it out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Homa said. “But don’t regret it later if I start talking too much.”

After the Volksarmee arrived in Aachen on the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown, Kalika was given a mission to scout out the station for them. There would be other scouting parties going to different places where they might blend in better, and they would collate all their information through encrypted ZaChats each day. Kalika’s mission had a particular focus on the Shimii Wohnbezirk, a residential and business area that was largely if not exclusively populated by Shimii. Homa was given to understand that it was located beneath the core station cylinder and that while Aachen was not technically segregated, the Shimii Wohnbezirk was affordable to live in and had an established religious community so most Shimii chose to live down there. Kalika explained this during their last session of physical therapy– she would be going away for a while and find lodging in the Wohnbezirk.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye then?” Homa had asked.

Their last session was almost a formality. Homa proved she could walk without assistance.

She tried not to feel too downcast– after all, it was inevitable Kalika would–

“Not yet. I am taking you with me. I want you to pretend you’re looking for your family.”

“Huh?!”

Kalika smiled so sweetly and innocently as if she was not dragging Homa along by the arm.

Though Homa wanted to be dragged along she still acted as if she was complaining.

In her heart there was a mix of trepidation and excitement.

Excitement, because she was going on a trip into a station with Kalika, who was so cool, beautiful, classy and collected– she seemed like an inhabitant of an entirely different world that Homa should have never been able to access. The trepidation, while partly related to Kalika, was more related to their mission. Homa had never felt at home within Shimii communities, and it was a bit farcical to pretend that having her along would make the Shimii Wohnbezirk more accessible. Homa lived as a Shimii but hardly knew the culture.

If anything, she was worried she might screw everything up for Kalika by being there.

Homa had found that Shimii had extreme double standards. Their own people they would judge extremely harshly in all facets, but Imbrians were like an alien race that could go about their business with their only excuse being, “well, that’s how Imbrians are.” Homa never understood that mentality, and the expectations behind it were one of the few ways she felt like a Shimii despite being mixed race. She knew she was a Shimii because of the judgmental eyes on her when she walked by the masjid without attending, when the public prayer bells rang and she kept walking, when she showed up to shops with her Kreuzung passes, when she dressed up in Imbrian clothes. They treated her like they would a Shimii.

She had never been to Aachen but assumed Shimii were just as judgmental everywhere.

Nevertheless, she could not deny Kalika when she was ‘needed’. Homa followed along.

Dressed up in a simple brown coat provided by Kalika, and tough blue worker’s pants from the Brigand’s sailors, over the typical sleeveless button-downs the communists all had on. She finally got her work boots back and tied her dark hair up into a ponytail using the teal necktie instead of wearing it right. Her ears were groomed, her tiny tail fluffed up.

Like Kalika, she wore gloves now to hide her prosthetic.

Around her neck, she wore her good luck charm, the necklace with the piece of silica inside.

Every so often she continued her habit of grasping it gently.

But the beings inside it– the trees?– had not spoken to her again in some time.

“My, who is this handsome stranger? I feel so safe with her around.” Kalika teased.

“Shut up.” Homa said, but her heart soaked in the praise like a sponge filling with water.

Kalika was dressed in her usual attire, with her sword hidden in her bag as always.

Fancy jacket, silver, with see-through sleeves, classier than punk but edgier than formal; synthetic silk shirt, pencil skirt and black tights on her long legs; purple hair pulled up into ponytail framed by her rectangular horns, with tidy bangs covering her forehead; stark pink skin, wine-colored makeup. Shimii had a prevailing idea of Katarrans as being unrefined and monstrous, mostly the same as Imbrians thought of them– but to Homa, Kalika belonged on the cover of a magazine. The contours of her face were so sleek yet so soft-looking.

She was drop dead gorgeous.

“Are you thinking the same about me then, stranger?” Kalika said, winking.

“I wouldn’t call you handsome, I think.” Homa said, folding her ears.

She was, though– she was everything admiring that Homa could say.

Kalika was mystery and beauty and danger and sensuality, on a dazzling pair of legs.

And so, with Homa guarding her heart carefully and Kalika whistling casually, the two of them crossed from the Stockheim tram, into that stunning Aachen lobby, and finally into an elevator bank from which they were headed straight down through the crust of northern Eisental. While the central cylindrical block of Aachen was incredibly beautiful and colorful, this treatment did not extend to the utilitarian sidepaths and the elevators.

Everything outside that atrium and the surrounding mall was what Homa was already used to– cold metal lit by white and yellow LEDs. Like the rest of the world.

“It looks like Aachen has an offset reactor.” Kalika said, while the elevator descended. She laid a finger on a visual representation of the station and their elevator, which was descending into a wireframe box. “The Shimii Wohnbezirk is this box on the map, so the reactor must be this one just off to the side of it. Interesting. I wonder if the Shimii work in the reactor? It would be convenient, but Imbrians aren’t usually so trusting– not that it’s particularly kind of them to let Shimii breathe the salt and get pseudoburns.”

“Well, Shimii can get work in the Kreuzung reactor, if they have a pass and get lucky.”

“Lucky, huh? Well, if that hellhole Kreuzung allows it, Aachen might just allow it too.”

Homa meant ‘get lucky’ in a socioeconomic sense– reactor work paid very handsomely.

Reactor workers could more than make up in cash and benefits the years of life they lost.

Homa had never been brave enough to apply for a job like that, however.

Even at her most desperate, she did not want to trade an untimely demise for money.

When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Homa stepped out into the light of bright white LED clusters hanging high on street-light poles. There was no illusion of a sky. Towering rock walls and a rough, cavernous ceiling surrounded and loomed over a main street with discrete plastic buildings on both sides. Homa got the impression of long alleyways and winding paths just from looking between some of the buildings. She saw an electronics shop peddling the type of portable Homa had once been given by a certain unsavory woman; restaurants and cafes; a Volwitz Foods affiliated grocer and a high-end sneaker shop side by side. As far as she could see, there was activity.

Homa was reminded of Tower Seven immediately.

A parallel world that Shimii did not need to leave with everything in it except whatever rights the Imbrians must have stripped away. In terms of the architecture the buildings were shaped for functionality, none exceeded two stories. Many did not even have a coat of paint and were weathered beige or an off-white, while others were painted in simple greens, yellows and browns. Homa felt more at home once she took a look at all the signage. There were no logos or promotional artwork that had human figures on them. Shimii religious beliefs frowned upon depicting people– so the logos predominantly boasted elaborate Fusha calligraphy and geometric patterns. For the Fusha signs, Homa could barely read many of the characters, but thankfully most had Low Imbrian signage with a translation too.

On the main street, it was all chain stores and affiliates of Imbrian megacorporations, but Homa could still pick out familiar scenes happening all around the LED-lit plastic. A caucus of aunties visiting a stylist; young men haggling with a pawn shop owner; older men with overgrown tail fur sipping tea at the café; kids running ahead of their mothers.

She was surprised to see a lot of flowing hair and ears up in the air, however. True, not all women, especially young women, heeded the scripture when it came to donning a hijab, but Homa had not seen a single traditional hijab anywhere, which she did find odd. Not even the aunties were wearing the traditional headgear. She did see some women with trendy-looking see-through veils attached to caps with pretty patterns on them– a not-uncommon way of modernizing the garb, but not an exclusive one. She wondered whether Aachen’s Shimii were more liberal than normal or whether there was something else. Even in Kreuzung she was used to seeing as many women wearing some kind of headgear than not.

“What do you think, Homa?” Kalika asked, smiling gently at the sights around her.

“I feel so weird being here.” Homa said. “It’s not that much different from Kreuzung.”

“You’re right– whether technical or not, this feels like segregation to me.” Kalika said.

“Well, I don’t know if you asked some of these folks, if they’d want to live with Imbrians.”

That did not make it right– but it was always the most complicated thing about Kreuzung.

Probably also at work here as much as Homa hated to have to think about it.

She was not the one equipped to solve this problem, only the one haunted by it.

“How about we take a look around? I’m not in any hurry.” Kalika asked.

“Lead the way, I’m just following you.”

“Alright. If you want any treats, we can stop somewhere. Don’t be shy.”

“Fine. I’ll let you know.” Homa sighed.

Kalika stepped ahead and Homa followed closely, but still allowing her to lead.

Following the main street, past the throngs of people and the rows of stores, they eventually came up a town square with a small park with a few olive trees growing with a minimal support system. Nothing but lights and irrigation. There was a three-story building with a waving flag that Homa had seen before, and which caused her heart to jump– a Volkisch black sun. Imani Hadzic had an armband with that same symbol. Kalika had noticed it too– she turned Homa around and led her down a side-street deeper into the alleys.

“Let’s go somewhere more– local.” She said.

Homa did not struggle– she did not care where they went.

So into the depths of the Wohnbezirk, the two went.

Kalika made idle chatter as they walked through the winding, intermittently lit paths.

“Homa, I’ve always had a certain curiosity.”

Homa frowned slightly. “A curiosity about–?”

“What does ‘Shimii’ mean?”

“Uh. I think it’s an ancient word for cat?”

Homa pulled gently on the upright, cat-like ears atop her head, by way of illustration.

“I see.” Kalika said. She looked like she was containing some amusement.

Homa let go of her ears, giving them a ponderous rub before doing so.

“I mean, I don’t know how all this happened, obviously. But cats are very admirable.”

Kalika nodded her head thoughtfully.

Rather than list the admirable qualities of cats, Homa delved thoughtlessly into conjecture.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if like– ancient ummah admired cats enough to become cat-like.”

“That is a very cute origin story.”

“Yeah, but– I’m just joking– obviously nobody believes something that silly.”

While the main street had been populated by chain stores, the parallel roads had a few locally owned businesses and a few small religious schools and some homes. The deeper they went through the side paths the less people they saw. But there was still local traffic everywhere they went even if it was only a few people or a small group. They saw a small theater playing new Imbrian movies; a butcher shop that had Homa staring for a few moments at the beef hanging on the window; and a pharmacy selling both Imbrian-affiliated medications and local naturopathic concoctions; among a variety of places with darkened windows and shut doors, where they had no idea whether anything was inside.

There were less streetlamps, so the side paths were gloomier than the main street.

None of the people walking past seemed to mind the span between lamps, however.

After some walking through nondescript blocks, they reached one of the girder-reinforced rock walls and found a map of the Wohnbezirk on an interactive panel. Kalika stopped and began poking on it. Judging by the map, there was not just one street or three– the layout was an entire town under Aachen with a few kilometers of space and several districts hewn into the rock. There was an entire residential district they had not even gone near.

And a small village off on a corner away from everything else.

“So many people, and I haven’t seen any Uhlankorp. I guess that’s convenient for us.”

“But is it convenient for the people here?” Homa said.

“I think so– do you think the Uhlans would administer fair justice here?”

“I guess not.” Homa sighed.

She had never lived anywhere that had ‘friendly’ police. She had grown up being taught to be respectful but to keep away and keep quiet; the implicit understanding that police wielded justice for Imbrians and not her– hell, maybe not even for Imbrians. Maybe only for themselves. Could not one single thing in the world be fair to everyone?

“We’ll do what we can to help Homa. Maybe not short term– but be patient with us.”

Kalika offered her a small smile while looking up directions in the map.

“Homa, I want to see some local color. Where would you go in this situation?”

She gazed back at Homa. Homa averted her eyes and shrank a little bit.

“It’s not like I have any experience with this. I guess I would want to go to people I know– if I just ended up here by myself I might go to a grocer or a barber or something. Places where you find young guys or aunties– those are the types that are always chatty. I wouldn’t bother with the chain stores in the main street or trying to go to the masjid for small talk.”

“Why don’t you pick a place and lead the way? We can start running our little scam.”

“Don’t call it that– someone might hear.”

Kalika’s ‘little scam’ was for Homa to ask about ‘her family’ like a pathetic lost child.

It was a valid idea for learning more about the town, but Homa did not like it.

She approached the map and saw there was a greengrocer a few blocks away.

Without saying anything she put her hands in her pockets and nodded for Kalika to follow.

Homa turned her eyes on the ground as if she did not want anyone to see them.

Walking casually on her prosthetic leg should have felt like a triumph.

But replicating the miserable, lonely walking she did in Kreuzung, trying to seem small and to draw no attention–

It was depressing. Even with Kalika alongside her it all felt so depressingly circular.

Every Shimii habitat in the Imbrium– was it all the same? Homa wandered in thought.

No sooner had they turned the corner, however, that Homa walked into someone.

She felt a shock the instant of the impact. How foolish could she be?

Especially for Kalika to have seen her–!

“Watch where you’re fucking going– oh, oh hey, who the fuck are you? Katarran?”

Homa’s heart sank as soon as she recovered and caught sight of who she had run into.

In front of them on the street was a group of four young men, all of them skinny-looking, maybe even younger than Homa by a year or three. The one Homa had walked into had a fiery look in his eyes, gesturing with his hands as if demanding an explanation (or compensation) be laid on his palms. The whole group was dressed in Imbrian fashions, with zip-up hooded jackets with see-through vynil sleeves and big black pants and colorful sneakers. Their tails were straight, and their ears were folded, and their body language was tense, coiled-up, ready to release. It was supposed to be forbidden for a good Shimii to imitate Imbrians too much, but to Homa, these boys were archetypical Imbrian hooligans. All they were missing was jewelry and a football game in which to hurl verbal abuse.

“What’s a Katarran doing down here? You gawking? Here to fuck with us?”

Homa glanced briefly at Kalika and saw her staring down the lead hooligan.

She was not saying anything in response to the provocation.

Did she want Homa to be the one to talk?

“Not gonna talk? Did you bring her here, you little punk? I don’t recognize you.”

With Kalika, the obvious discrepancy, keeping mum, the hooligan turned to Homa again.

“I’m not from around here! I’m just visiting! She’s– she escorted me here!” Homa said.

Kalika sighed openly.

“You’re here visiting? Here?” The hooligan looked at his friends who all had a laugh with him. “And you bought a Katarran?” He turned sharply back to Homa, reached out a hand and shoved her. “You ought to make a donation, then, you rich bitch– you ran right into me and scuffed my favorite jacket. Do you know how much I had to hustle for it? I can’t afford to travel all over like you. So, you should make a contribution to the less fortunate.”

“We’re not looking for trouble here. But if you touch her again, you’ll regret it.”

Kalika stepped forward.

Homa thought that would have been enough to get them to back off–

“Want some? Katarran bitch! Go back to the fucking vat you got shat out from!”

But a sense of invulnerability was a universal folly of young men, inculcated by a system designed to insulate them from any consequences. So even these boys, who had no concept of what they were messing with and nothing but the chip on their shoulder to strike with, still formed up in front of Kalika as if Katarrans were everyday targets of their fists. It was enough to unnerve Homa, but Kalika was unmoved in their presence.

Homa saw her fingers sliding over her bag.

None of the boys knew what was in there– but Homa feared what might come to pass.

So, she stepped forward even closer than Kalika, directly in front of the hooligans.

Not knowing what she could possibly say to sound intimidating–

She lost her opportunity and received an even more forceful shove than before.

Thrown back to be caught by Kalika.

Homa could practically feel the burgeoning anger in Kalika’s grip.

It punctuated her own helpless foolishness. She was shaking with frustration at herself–

Suddenly a new voice sounded across the street.

“Hey! Knock it off! Stooping to street harassment now, you lowlives?”

Hurried steps sounded behind them; then a dark-skinned girl appeared in front of them.

Homa saw long black hair, the glint of golden eyes, a brief glance of a fierce expression.

She interposed herself between Kalika, Homa and the boys, standing firm.

With one hand in her pocket of a brown jacket made of a thick fabric.

Despite the difference in numbers the boys seemed more hesitant to approach her.

They still had to posture like they could fight, but they were slowly beginning to back off.

“Where the hell did you come from? You need to get your ass back to the Quarter, bitch!”

“Fuck off! I’m not afraid of you! Why don’t you step up to me like you did to them?”

Not even the taunt could get any of the boys to reach out for a shove or throw a punch.

Surreptitiously they drew back even as they continued to shout.

“Mahdist bitches! We’ll kill you if we see any of you again!”

There was a note of desperation in that voice.

“Get out of here already!” The young woman shouted at them.

Hurling slurs and abuse, the boys ran from the scene, dispersed with surprising urgency.

Kalika lifted her hand from her bag. And the young woman took her hand out of her jacket.

While Homa composed herself, her chest fluttering with shame.

“Calling me a Mahdist like it’s a slur, the nerve of them.” The girl said, grunting.

She was someone who had to be around Homa’s age, not a child by any means and yet not experienced in the fullness of her adulthood. Her face and body Homa thought resembled her own, like someone who was young and unmarred by the world, but frequently worked with her hands. She had a stronger back and shoulders than Homa did, however. She looked visibly poor– Her jacket was well worn, with scuff marks and frayed edges and missing buttons, but very sturdy, worn over a blue blouse. She wore black pants that were ripped in places and thick boots. Her ears had messy fur and her tail had a few scars on it.

“Are you okay? They didn’t rob you or anything, did they?” She asked.

Homa was surprised at how dark her skin was, almost as dark as her long, sleek and shiny hair, flat down her back but grown unruly in the sides and front with a lot of bangs and stray wavy locks. Her eyes contrasted the flesh around them to an intense degree. She had a mix of familiar and interesting facial features; she had an oval face with thin lips, her eyes had a slight narrowness to them, her nose was very straight, her eyebrows were a bit thick.

The contemptuous expression that the handsome young lady had directed at the hooligans melted into a much gentler look of concern for Kalika and Homa.

“Thanks to your intercession, it did not get that far.” Kalika said.

“Yes. Thank you.” Homa said, still feeling like too much of an idiot to say much more.

The girl put her hand on her own chest as a gesture of greeting.

“I’m Sareh. I hope those guys won’t leave you with a bad impression of us.”

“Not at all.” Kalika said, smiling. “I’m Kalika, this is Homa. Trust me, we’ve seen worse.”

Homa waved half-heartedly, still keeping mum.

“I appreciate you not putting them in the dirt. They’re just a bunch of morons.” Sareh said.

Homa thought Sareh must have known a thing or two about Katarrans to have judged that.

If she was hiding a gun in her jacket, then she wasn’t oblivious to this sort of scenario.

She might have interceded on behalf of those boys as much as she did to stop them.

“Usually when Shimii immigrate here, there will be an introduction by their family at the Rashidun masjid on the other side of town– or they get sent straight to the Mahdist quarter.” Sareh said, directed primarily at Homa. “It is odd for Shimii to just visit; especially with a Katarran. Tourists stick to the main street to buy trendy stuff. Back here, it’s all locals. So that’s why it looks kind of weird for you two to be wandering around these streets.”

“I’m–” Homa felt ashamed lying to Sareh, who seemed genuinely friendly to outsiders like them. But it was necessary. “I’m not immigrating. I’m looking for my family– when I was a kid I was sent to Kreuzung by myself. My surname is– Messhud. Homa Messhud.”

She picked surname that read as Mahdist since Sareh had been called a Mahdist. But she also picked an uncommon one and pronounced it quite strangely, in the hopes no locals had it.

“Huh. Well, I don’t know everyone here, but I know someone who might be able to help.”

Sareh pointed in a direction where the rock ceiling lowered, and the walls narrowed.

“Over that way is the Mahdist quarter. I can take you to my part– my friend, there.”

Kalika seemed to pick up on her correcting herself. Mild amusement crept into her smile.

Homa looked back to Kalika as if for permission. Kalika nodded her head.

And thus, fortune led them ever deeper into the Wohnbezirk– to a Mahdist ghetto.


After Descent, Year 961

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima, and I am calling on behalf of the Rhinean Feminist Party. Do you need assistance registering to vote or accessing your local polling office to exercise your right to vote? We would be happy to assist you, free of charge.”

Another call sent to voice-email. Rahima tapped on her keyboard to end the call.

She had a headset to make calls to people’s rooms notifiying them of upcoming elections.

Hands on the keyboard, headset always ready, a list of room addresses to call up.

She could go through a dozen rooms quickly– if nobody picked up.

When someone picked up, Rahima felt much more nervous than leaving voicemails.

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima,”

Since she had immigrated a few years ago, Rahima had been doing much better for herself.

Her hair had grown out, richly brown, and her cheeks had filled again. Her arms and legs were no longer so skinny and her back had broadened a bit. She had new clothes, Imbrian business attire; a vest, shirt, a blazer and pants. Her skin, which had been turning pale and yellowing with neglect and sickness, had returned to its light brown richness. All of this thanks to her new income. She was the workhorse of the Rhinean Feminist Party, carrying boxes of logo-branded goods to and fro, fixing things around the office that Conny did not want to bend down or climb up a ladder for, picking up lunch, and now, making calls.

Guten morgen,”

At first there was not much to do around the office but menial manual labor.

Even so, Conny hardly wanted to do it, and so happily paid for it to be done.

Now, however, there was a buzz of excitement.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller had made a historic decree. The Imperial monarchy and its offices would no longer contradict local decision-making in the duchies provided it was done through legally approved means. This was being referred to as ‘the Emperor’s retreat from politics.’ Law enforcement between the territories would continue to be carried out by the Inquisition, Patrol and Imperial Navy, but each Duchy could control its economy and social policies without intervention. For territories like Veka with an authoritative duchal family, little would change. For Rhinea, however, this was a moment of great opportunity.

Rhinea’s duchy had long since relinquished decisionmaking power to generations of the noveau rich who had then formalized that power in the Rhinean Reichstag.

Now the Reichstag would have more weight than ever as Rhinea’s policy-making body. Established parties like the Liberals and Conservatives attracted real corporate investment, as it became clear they could be a nexus for further reform of the economy to suit some interest or another; and even niche parties like the Rhinean Feminist Party now had opportunities to grow. The All-Rhinea stage was still barred from them, but if they could make a strong showing in Aachen’s local politics, they might turn their fortunes.

Right now, they were under the Rhinean Liberals, but they could grow, attract members.

With greater membership, they could run on their own ticket for council and executive.

And with any amount of victories in a real ticket, they might then attract real investment.

Therefore, Conny had Rahima making phone calls down the entire room registry.

Rahima kept making calls, running through the script, trying her best when picked up.

Until she felt a gentle squeezing from a pair of hands on her shoulders.

“You’re working hard. Want to get lunch together?” Conny Lettiere said.

“I’ll never say no to lunch. Your treat?” Rahima said.

“My treat.” Conny said. Rahima could feel her smile even without looking at her.

When she turned around to look at her, she immediately thought–

Conny looked gorgeous.

Wearing a cardigan that had a pattern of thicker and sheerer material across its surface and bits that hung from the hem and the end of the sleeves, over a plastic tanktop with a deep cleavage plunge that cut off mid-belly, both quite provocative. Bell-bottomed pants and open-toed shoes gave her such a bohemian look, and her hair being collected into twintails added to the almost girlish style. Colorful, full of youthful vibrancy.

Rahima could have never dressed like that.

Conny had the energy to be more frivolous because she had Rahima to be serious for her.

“Is it the outfit, or is it me?” Conny said, grinning at Rahima.

“It’s both.” Rahima said, smiling as she stood up.

If only she had Conny’s courage– but that was something she could work on.

They relocated from the office to the central ring of the Aachen Core Station, following the spiraling walkway around the central atrium and its bright decorations. They stopped off at a platform three stories high and sat in a corner table of a small restaurant that served homestyle Imbrian fare. It was a small, homey venue, little more than a serving desk, an unseen kitchen, and six tables with four chairs. Very few people took up the very few seats in the establishment. Most of the people on the lunch rush picked up their meal from the counter and walked back out, headed back to their offices or workplaces.

Conny ordered cheese-stuffed dumplings served in a meat and tomato sauce.

“You know, this is based on the Elven dish ‘Ravioli.’ It’s an Imbrian take on it.”

“You don’t say?”

Rahima, meanwhile, ordered a pickled cucumber soup with a simple dinner roll. The soup had a base of chicken broth full of earthy vegetables, flavored with pickle brine, and topped with a dollop of cream and a big mound of grated pickled cucumbers and peppers. Rahima mixed everything together, broke off pieces of bread and dipped it into the unctuous soup. It was rich and tangy; it warmed her heart; it was just what she needed to soothe her throat after hours of talking. Even something this simple felt luxurious– especially with Conny.

“Rahima, do you go down to the Wohnbezirk often?” Conny asked.

She meant the Shimii town in the rock under the Aachen core baseplate.

“I’ve been visiting more often since I got the apartment. Easier to do now that I don’t have to worry about someone seeing me going back and forth from the office.” Rahima replied.

“Do you go to the religious festivals? I don’t see you praying often.”

Conny took a bite of her dumpling, and Rahima could have sworn her sharp ears wiggled.

“It’s a bit tough for me Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m a Mahdist so if I want to go celebrate I have to go into the Mahdist ghetto– and then the Rashidun in the town will know about it.”

“Will that put you in danger?”

“I don’t know. It’s just another thing that could be a problem. Common prejudices.”

“I see. That’s so unfair. But I don’t want you to be overly concerned with appearances.”

“No, it’s better this way. We need to be careful about things like that, Conny.”

“Rahima, I might not know the cultural nuances that resulted in the Shimii’s troubles. But what we have going for us at the Rhinean Feminist Party is that we stand for radical politics! I want this to be a place where you can dream of a better world! You should never have to hide what you are or believe in here. I want women to be equal to men in the Imbrium, to end forced marriages, to get equal wages, to make workplaces safer; so, what are your dreams, Rahima? What can we do for the Shimii, and especially for Shimii women?”

After a long contemplation over the pickles in her soup, Rahima finally answered.

“I want to end the hijab ban; and to decouple Shimii suffrage from residency.” She said.

Her voice was a bit meek, as if there was a secret sin to saying such things.

Conny smiled brightly. “That’s what you’ll stand for then! We’ll fight for it together!”

She reached across the table and laid her hand over Rahima’s own, firm and supportive.

Rahima had never thought it about so closely before– it almost made no sense to her that she might be on the ticket for the Rhinea Feminist Party. They had few members, so if they wanted to run someone other than Conny, she had to be on the ticket. But she had an unexamined idea that only Imbrians got to be in the government, and a Shimii like her, a Mahdist even, could not have possibly been put on the ticket. Perhaps even the first time she saw her, Conny’s unspoken radicalism had already imagined Rahima on that ticket.

“I’m kind of nervous about this, Conny, if I’m being honest.” Rahima said.

“Don’t be. I’ll coach you. You’ve already got an advantage– you dress more formally!”

Conny reached out and rubbed her fingers over a bit of Rahima’s blazer, laughing.

Rahima laughed with her. Her heart was racing, but she felt strangely positive.

It would be nice to give the Imbrians a black eye in their own game.


After Descent, Year 979

“Kalika, I have a curiosity.” Homa said.

As she spoke she mimed Kalika’s earlier tone a bit, with a hint of mockery.

“Ask away, dear.” Kalika said, clearly ignoring Homa’s taunting.

Homa’s eyes narrowed a bit when Kalika did not take the bait.

“What does ‘Katarran’ mean?” She said.

“It means ‘the damned’ or ‘the ones born cursed’.” Kalika said casually.

Homa quieted down for the rest of the walk. She had not expected something so dark.

“Almost there,” Sareh said, looking back at them as she led the way, “can you tell?”

On the northern end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk the cavernous ceiling descended closer and there was an area where the walls tightened. For a stretch, there were more exposures of the rock wall, less buildings and other structures to cover it up. There were more boarded-up, old and empty buildings too. Some had signs indicating they were for sale or rent but many, many more were just shuttered as if permanently abandoned. The road under their feet roughened slightly, it was less paved down, and even the air felt a bit thinner.

Eventually Homa could see the square entryway to another area up ahead.

“Shit.” Sareh said. “Our oxygen generator must be going again. Ugh, this sucks!”

“That’s not good.” Kalika said. “But hey, maybe we can help each other out.”

“Do you really mean that? I am not sure what you could do.” Sareh said.

“We’ll talk when we meet your friend, but try to trust me and keep an open mind.”

“Well, alright. We’re basically there. Our own dusty little corner.” Sareh said.

Homa could see it too. As soon as she caught her first glimpses of the village–

Her fist closed and shook with an impotent rage.

They crossed under an archway with an open gate that had a few bars broken on its doors. Here the ceiling was close enough to form something of a short tunnel, but then it opened back up into a little village. It was much more haphazardly planned than the main street of the Wohnbezirk. There were less streetlights, and only one short street that seemed to terminate on a double-wide building being used as a masjid. However, behind the masjid, and behind each house on the one street, there were more buildings set up, like a haphazard little village arrayed from the masjid as one of its central features.

There were a few dozen people hanging out in this little main street. They were like Shimii were everywhere– they dressed as nicely as they could, they had lively conversation, their ears were standing, their tails swaying. Homa noticed a few more frayed and discolored items of clothing here and there. There was also nowhere for them to go. This village was much smaller than the rest of the Wohnbezirk but there were a lot of people in it.

All of the buildings were plastic, but shabbier ones, less maintained. Rather than paint, many of them had pieces of patterned fabric for decorations. Just like the rest of the Wohnbezirk, there were shops here, but very few. There were no restaurants either. Homa saw a cobbler, a stylist, and a clothing atelier. All had very lively crowds like they were bright little local hangouts. There might have been more. But the streets looked mostly residential.

Other than the masjid, what drew Homa’s attention the most was a small clearing to the right a few dozen meters from the entrance gate. On this clearing, a plastic stage was in the final stages of assembly, with chairs around it, and a curtain that could open and close around it with poles and pulleys and carbon cable. It was sturdy and relatively new, the color of the plastic looking much fresher than that of the plastic in the surrounding houses.

In the back of the stage there was a square structure erected which resembled a small building facade, the size of an adult human being, with numerous arched entryways and a sweeping upper rim. Colored gold and red with blue patterning, its the spires dome-like and green, it was perhaps the most inventive little thing in the whole Wohnbezirk, nicer looking than any of the real houses. Homa wondered what monument it was supposed to be a replica of, since Shimii never built structures like this nowadays. Perhaps it was supposed to be a palace, maybe of one of the ancient kings, or maybe it related to the Mahdi.

“It’s a Tazia.” Sareh explained. She must have caught Homa staring at it. “We’re preparing for the Tishtar festival– it’s a yearly celebration we have around here. On Tishtar we recall the heroism of Ali Ibn al-Wahran, blessed be he, who opened the ocean for the Shimii. We build a replica of the mausoleum that his companions built. It’s not actually anyone’s grave though– the great hero al-Wahran is not really dead. Tradition stuff, you know? It’s kind of a hero festival, kind of a water festival, kind of a folk– well if you join us, you’ll see what I mean.” Her tone grew a bit awkward as if she either did not know how to explain it well.

Homa suddenly froze up upon hearing the name of the blessed old Hero, however.

She recalled a dream in which a red-headed demon of a woman spoke that name to her.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes.”

Ali Ibn al-Wahran.

What had she meant– when she said Homa was– of his flesh–?

Was it just because she was a Shimii–? Or was she– a Mahdist–?

“I’ve– I’ve never heard of him I think. I’m sorry.” Homa said, suddenly nervous.

“Huh? Really?” Sareh said, staring at Homa with curious surprise. “You don’t know? He’s like, the most important of the ancient kings. For Mahdists, we are also taught he is the Mahdi, a great hero who will return to us. I guess you must not be a mahdist– but I mean that’s okay! We don’t judge anyone here as long as they don’t judge us. So don’t stress out over it.”

Sareh continued to act a bit awkward around the subject of her religion and its rites.

Kalika continued to smile neutrally, her expression collected as Homa and Sareh spoke.

“Ah, thanks. It’s okay. I’m– I’m non-denominational–” Homa stammered as awkwardly.

It was just a stupid dream– she shouldn’t take it so seriously–

But–

didn’t the trees sing to her,

and the red-haired woman awaken the colors–?

wait, what colors?

“I’d love to stick around for the festival. Wouldn’t you Homa?” Kalika said suddenly.

Homa jerked her head to look at Kalika, eyes drawn open. “Uh. I mean. Sure! I’ll stay.”

Kalika must have had some plan to make use of the Mahdists here to her advantage.

Or– maybe she just wanted to help them.

She and the Volksarmee were a bunch of communist weirdos after all.

Homa did not know if she considered herself one, but she was still just following Kalika.

So she had little choice but to do as the communists did.

And also–

When she looked around this tucked-away piece of the Shimii world, cast into obscurity–

She felt angry. And there was no good outlet for that anger.

So perhaps she should help. It could be educational as well.

Without a family, Homa had never been afforded much of her religion.

Leija certainly never cared to teach her anything, except vague prejudices against Mahdists.

For all she knew she really could have been a Mahdist just like them.

“Alright! The more the merrier!” Sareh smiled at them. “Then let me introduce you to the lady organizing things. She happens to be the friend of mine I told you about. We can talk with her about getting you two into the festivities– and maybe other business.”

Kalika nodded, smiled, and followed behind Sareh.

She glanced at Homa and winked at her.

Homa blinked, confused, but followed along. Kalika was definitely plotting something.

Hopefully something good and kind– and not too troublesome.

Sareh led them to the masjid, and then around an exterior walkway. Behind the masjid there was a solitary old olive tree, living with an oxygen controller grafted onto its trunk, and a path of flattened out rock that led to a small plastic house next to one of the few light poles that were installed in the village. There was enough empty space between this house and the rest of the village that it felt more a part of the masjid than part of the residences.

Sareh pointed it out as their destination.

“Baran! Are you home? I’m back from town! I’ve brought some visitors too!” Sareh called.

“Welcome back! Yes, you can come in! I’ll be happy to welcome them.”

Homa had not known what to expect, but the voice greeting them sounded pretty young.

Sareh waved her hand toward herself, inviting the guests in.

Rather than a door, the house had a curtain over its entry similar to ones on its windows.

Sareh pushed away the blue and green curtain. Beyond the entry, there was one room that contained almost all the acoutrements of living. There were a few plastic chairs around a little table, in one corner. On one wall, there was a screen with a cable snaking out of one of the windows. Plastic buildings did not have built-in computers and projection monitors, like the metal rooms in the station. Another corner was taken up by an electric pot and kettle stood up on a small refrigerator, their cords snaking into the wall.

Finally, there was a set of plastic shelves that held cutlery, bowls, cups, and a variety of little knick-knacks. There were dolls of Shimii girls, with colorful dresses, and a little resin horse, and a cup and ball game– kid’s toys and handicrafts. While the horse was stitcher-machined, the rest looked a bit rougher and might have been hand-made, Homa thought.

At the end of the room there was another curtain. Out from it stepped their host.

Her bedroom must have been behind there. Homa did not see a bed anywhere else.

“It’s so nice to have visitors! Not many people come by here. Introduce me, Sareh!”

“This is my– friend, Baran Al-Masshad.” Sareh said.

She looked to have been reaching for words for a second.

Baran giggled and put her hand to her chest by way of greeting.

“As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her voice was quite lovely– Sareh seemed momentarily stricken by it and averted her eyes.

In general, Baran might have been the prettiest girl Homa had seen in a very long time.

She looked about Sareh’s age and therefore, Homa’s age. Unlike Sareh, who dressed in utilitarian Imbrian clothing usually typified as boyish, Baran wore a long blouse and skirt. Her eyes were deeply green and her skin a light honey-brown, with bigger eyes and slightly softer cheeks than Sareh. Her hair was worn long, and it had a very light reddish-brown tone. Like the other religious women Homa had seen in Aachen she did not wear a hijab but instead wore a see-through veil with a small cap. Hers was blue with little moon patterns on it, through which tall, fluffy ears poked. Her tail was a bit skinny, but as far as her figure, she had more than Sareh or Homa. She thankfully looked like she got to eat regularly.

After seeing the state of the buildings, Homa had been worried there might be starvation.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Al-Masshad.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia.”

She put a hand to her chest as she had seen Sareh and Baran do.

“Um. Salam. I’m Homa– Messhud. Homa Messhud. It’s– it’s nice to meet you two.”

Homa also put her hand to her chest. She was feeling rather awkward with her cover story.

“Oh, my whole name is Sareh Al-Farisi.” Sareh said, after receiving a little look from Baran.

“It is a pleasure to meet all of you.” Baran said. “Please just call me Baran.”

“I hope our unannounced appearance won’t trouble you, Baran.” Kalika said.

“Not at all. I was just resting. It might be my imagination, but the air is feeling thinner.”

“It is thinner. I think the air generator must be busted again.” Sareh said, sighing.

“I truly hope not– nevertheless, we can check on it after we have treated our guests.”

Baran gestured for Kalika and Homa to sit and then approached the electric pot.

Cracking the lid open, steam rising up, filling the room with a savory aroma; Baran scooped up steaming pulao rice into two bowls and passed them to Sareh, who in turn passed them to Homa and Kalika. From the kettle, she poured two cups of lukewarm tea. Homa looked down at the bowl of rice, eager to spot some chicken or beef within– instead finding only raisins and onions. While the aroma was incredible she could not help but feel disappointed.

Kalika looked down at the contents of her bowl, mixing things up further with a fork.

“We should accept it.” Homa whispered. “Turning down food from a Shimii is very rude.”

“I figured.” Kalika whispered back. “I was getting a bit peckish anyway.”

Baran handed Sareh her own bowl and cup and served herself as well.

Together, they all sat down on Baran’s table, with Kalika setting down her bag beside her.

“I’m afraid I am out of yogurt and sabzi, or I would offer you some.” Baran said.

“This is fantastic on its own. We can’t thank you enough for your hospitality.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded her head, trying to hide her wan expression at her continuing lack of meat.

“Baran, if you’re out of something, you should have told me!” Sareh said.

Baran shook her head. “I’m being thrifty now so we can spend more on the feast.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that.” Sareh grumbled but seemed to give up the argument then.

Homa looked at Kalika. While she ate, she was clearly observing Baran and Sareh.

She hoped dearly Kalika was not going to cause them any trouble.

All the communists she had met had been nice to her– but Kalika was “on a mission,” now.

Would she behave any differently? Would she try to take advantage of these people?

Helpless to do anything about it, Homa took her first spoonful of pulao into her mouth.

Her ears stood on end as the smooth, deeply savory flavor coated her mouth. Pops of tart sweetness from the raisins, and the crunchy red onions, lended the dish some complexity. The rice itself had a bit of cumin and Shimii pepper, maybe– but the real mystery was the deeply savory, velvety mouthfeel that came with each spoonful of rice, and the meaty flavor that it carried. Her mouth was slick with thekind of flavor she had been craving.

Baran saw the expression on Homa’s face and smiled proudly. Sareh stared at her in turn.

“Want to know the secret, Homa? Rendered down chicken trimmings and bones!” Baran smiled like she had been clever. Sareh looked at her as if with mild embarassment. Heedless of this, Baran continued. “It’s the cheapest stuff from the butchers out in the town. I can make my own chicken oil and stock with it, and have my meat that way!”

A proud, smug little smile remained fixed on Baran’s face while her guests ate.

Homa savored the rice like it was the last time she might ever taste any meat.

“And before someone comments on the state of my pantry again, I am saving up so there will be meat on Tishtar. You are welcome to partake if you’d like to attend.” Baran said.

She looked at Sareh with a self-satisfied little face. Sareh looked back, exasperated.

Homa felt rather ashamed of how much this made the festival more attractive to her.

But not enough to reject the idea of showing up for the feast outright.

“As you can see, this is the sort of character our village chief is.” Sareh replied, grinning.

“Now, what is that supposed to mean? Good with budgeting? A genius chef?” Baran said.

Sareh shrugged and did not pick any of the available options.

“Oh interesting, she’s the chief? I thought she was just putting on the festival.” Kalika said.

“I don’t consider myself important.” Baran said. “The Imbrians are the ones who have true power over the Wohnbezirk. But my father and his family were very respected within this community. When my father passed away, the villagers wanted me to take up his hereditary titles. I just help around town and I consider the title purely ceremonial.”

“Is it because of the Imbrians that this place is so run-down?” Homa asked.

Kalika shot her a glance as if surprised. Homa realized she was being too blunt.

Sareh shot her a look too– but Baran was not offended. She began to explain.

“They are not solely responsible. However, they could fix things if they wanted to, and they do not. So that is a form of responsibility they must be criticized for.” Baran said. She put down her cup of tea and put her hands on her lap. “I’m sure you know, Homa, that there is a lot of bad blood between Mahdist Shimii and Rashidun Shimii. I don’t know the entire history of the Wohnbezirk, but it’s been segregated for as long as I have lived here. There are harsh rules imposed on us. For example, we are not allowed to grow food, we can only buy it in town. We also need to get any materials we use from the Shimii economy. Rashidun Shimii won’t offer us any charity, nor prefer us for anything. Sometimes, people will be upset if we try to buy too much or buy things that are scarce. Sometimes the Imbrians help us, but we are in essence responsible for everything here by ourselves. But despite that we–”

Here, Sareh suddenly interrupted. “Don’t mince words. Look, the problem is, this is a town of mostly women, children and old people. We risk being harassed every time we try to leave so only some of us go out infrequently. Very few people here earn outside incomes and we have limited imports; some families get remittances from kids who got work in the Core Station, and we have some aunties here who do clothes and shoes, but they are basically all trading the same reichmarks around. These conditions are supposed to put pressure on us– they want us to renounce our culture and become Rashidun and move into town to kill the village. All of the shiftless piece of shit men here left because of that–”

“Sareh, please, that’s enough.” Baran interrupted. Homa picked up a note of desperation.

Sareh stood up from her chair and left the table suddenly. Baran sighed as she watched her.

Homa raised her hands as if she wanted to stop her or apologize but could not speak out.

She sat back down on her chair feeling defeated. Kalika remained silent and calm.

After a minute’s silence Baran turned to their guests and tried to smile again.

“I’m sorry about that.” She said. “Politics and religion should not be off the table; we just need to be able to speak about them politely. That’s what my father always taught me. So please do not feel responsible for what just happened. Sareh is extremely dear to me; and I know I am dear to her. She just needs to cool off and we will rejoin her then.”

“Um. Right. Thank you.” Homa said, nervously.

“I’m glad Sareh is that tough– she seems like she needs to be that way around here.” Kalika said. She had finished her bowl and tea. “I feel like I’ve seen enough so I will be forward. Baran, Homa and I can help you. We want to stay for the festival. Homa has some money– she’s looking for her family here. Right Homa? And I’m a Katarran mercenary.”

Kalika looked over to Homa with a casual and untroubled smile.

Homa straightened up in her chair and put her hands on the table, stiffly.

“Yes. That– That’s all completely true.” She said.

“Then– you will help us with the festival, so Homa can search for her family here?”

“That’s what I’m thinking.” Kalika said.

“I would be happy to help– but there’s a lot to do for the festival. It’s an unequal trade.”

“Homa’s family means a lot to her.” Kalika said, glancing at Homa again.

Homa stiffed up more. “Uh. Yeah. I’m– I’m a real family cat.” She wiggled her ears a bit.

“You said your surname is Messhud?” Baran asked. “I was thinking– it could be a weird way of saying my surname, Al-Masshad– or maybe I just don’t know everyone around here. Surely some of the aunties would know more. I can ask them. Would that be okay, Homa?”

For a moment Homa felt extremely stupid about how close her hastily chosen fake surname came to being Baran’s actual surname. Had she tacked on an ‘al’ prefix there she would have been cooked. Somehow, the close call felt more embarassing than being completely caught in an outright lie, and Homa was growing to hate the entire situation.

She began evaluating everything she wanted to say to the very simple question of whether she was okay, running it by an intense committee in her own brain. The result of this was that for close to thirty seconds she was saying absolutely nothing to Baran.

“She’s shy– hasn’t gotten around much.” Kalika kept smiling. “Please do ask around.”

Baran looked at Homa for a moment and then smiled more warmly at her.

“No need to be shy– it means so much to me that you want to help us.” Baran said.

“I am actually a communist. If I ignored all this, I’d bring shame on myself.” Kalika said.

THIS WOMAN–!?

Homa’s ears and tail both shot up as straight as they could go.

She shot Kalika a glance from the edge of her eyesockets, without moving her head.

Trying with all of her body to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!

Without in fact saying a single word or even making so much as a noise.

“That’s so interesting. You might like to talk to the NGO people then.” Baran said happily.

Homa shot a glance at Baran. She felt like she was in an alternate universe suddenly.

Wasn’t she going to inform on them to the Volkisch? She just heard the c-word out loud!

Kalika continued to look and act as if nothing odd or auspicious was happening.

Did she just tell everyone she met she was a communist?! Did she want to die?

“Maybe I will. Homa and I have no prejudice towards anyone anyone except evildoers.”

“Right.” Homa finally said. “We– we hate those. Because of– communism?”

“Yep. Honest truth to Allah, Subhanahu wa-Ta’ala.” Kalika said in suddenly perfect fusha.

Homa felt more ridiculous than she had since the last time she felt utterly ridiculous.

Such moments seemed to transpire with increasing frequency.

Mashallah! It is the first time I’ve ever set a table for communists, and also communists who know of our religion too. I’ll always remember this day.” Baran said excitedly.

Perhaps Baran was just more innocent than Homa would let herself believe.

Or maybe she did not really know what a communist was.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to take a look at the oxygen generator.” Kalika said.

“Oh, yes! Follow me. I am hoping it’s not actually broken.” Baran said.

“I’m handy with things like that.”

“Sareh is too. She’s quite reliable. Maybe she already scouted it out?”

With their course decided, the trio stepped outside of Baran’s house.

They immediately found Sareh with her back to one of Baran’s walls, waiting for them.

Her arms crossed, her head down, and a wan expression on her face.

“Feeling better?” Baran asked gently, stepping in front of Sareh and beaming.

Sareh averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for yelling. You don’t deserve that.”

“Maybe not– but I earned it, and I accept responsibility. I’ll always forgive you, Sareh.”

They briefly held hands, perhaps cognizant of their guests reading too much into it.

Homa had pretty much already deduced those two were something or other together.

Perhaps they might have only seemed like friends to someone with less life experience.

If the concept of homosexuality had already burrowed into one’s brain, it was easy to see.

Homa herself was a complicated girl with complicated feelings so she understood.

And it would have been quite a sight for Kalika of all people to be homophobic.

Not that anyone here knew that– of course they would not trust them on appearances alone.

Together, Sareh and Baran led Homa and Kalika from the house behind the masjid, off the paths wound around houses, and closer to the undeveloped, rocky surroundings of the village. They followed a series of exposed ventilation tubes that ran into the village. Near to the rock wall, they found a metal plate with a machine in a square housing that served as the epicenter of all the tubes they had been following. There were several bolted plates that could be removed and reaffixed and a few gauges that seemed to be stuck.

“This generator doesn’t actually generate oxygen, but it pumps it from an oxygen plant in the Wohnbezirk and out to the rest of the village.” Sareh said. “We just call it the oyxgen generator because its easier to say. We used to have some CO2 converters in the village but most of them broke, so this thing has been working harder than ever as our main source of oxygen. Then it breaks down every once in a while and gives us all a headache.”

“We’ve tried to have someone fix everything in the village, but there’s always a problem.” Baran said. “When we ask for major repairs from the Wohnbezirk, they say they have to special order parts because of our outdated systems, so little fixes are all they can do. In the past I sent mail to Councilwoman Rahima, who is a very kind Shimii politician in the core station, and she helped speed things up; but I don’t want to bother her too much.”

“If it’s just a pump, I don’t see how their complaints could hold water.” Kalika said.

“You have a good point there.” Sareh said. “Sometimes I just kick it and it works again.”

“Sareh, please stop kicking things. They need to be fixed properly.” Baran said.

“Hey! I do that too sometimes. I just barely ever have parts or tools.” Sareh complained.

Kalika kneeled down near the machine. She put her ear to it. Her brows furrowed.

“I don’t even hear it doing anything.” She said. She opened an accessible panel on one side that had a handle– it was the door to the circuit box, Homa thought.

Homa walked around with Kalika and peeked at several different parts of the machine. She did not know a lot about electrical circuits, but she agreed with Kalika that a machine that pumps oxygen should not be too hard too fix. Even the circuits or the sensors that determined the oxygen level should not have needed special order parts.

“None of the junction box LEDs are on. This doesn’t look too good.” Kalika said.

Baran sighed and raised one hand to her forehead, and Sareh closed her fists, agitated.

“It’s fine. I’ve got some Katarran friends who are handy with this kind of thing.”

Kalika stood back up, wiping dust and rock fragments from her knees and coat.

“You would really do that for us?” Sareh said. She looked at Kalika with narrowed eyes.

“Yes. It would in fact cost me almost nothing.” Kalika said. “I’ll get a friend down here to run a diagnostic, and then I’ll get a friend to find the right part, and then I’ll find a friend to go get the part I’ve got a lot of friends, and it pays to have them.” She winked at them.

Homa thought she knew who some of those friends might be.

She had heard Kalika mention that Olga, the bodyguard of Erika Kairos, could locate any object if she saw it once. There was also the chirpy and energetic Khloe Kuri, another of the Rostock’s special agents, who was allegedly good at sneaking around and stealing things. And as far as fixing things, the Brigand had no shortage of engineers and mechanics around– so in terms of friends they were well positioned to solve this particular problem.

“It’s not your responsibility, Ms. Loukia.” Baran said, shaking her head.

“Just call me Kalika. And like I said, I am not able to ignore something like this.”

“Because of your beliefs?” Baran said.

“Because it’s the decent thing to do. Because I refuse to ignore your pain. Is that enough?”

“Forgive my skepticism. It feels too good to be true.” Sareh had a conflicted expression.

Baran seemed to appraise Kalika and after looking her over finally accepted her assistance.

“It’s alright, Sareh. Kalika is a communist. I think she’s sincere.” She said.

“Huh? Oh– you mean like the NGO people. I guess that makes sense then.”

Homa stared, incredulous. What kind of NGOs did they have around here?

Sareh still seemed to be having trouble believing Kalika, but her body language relaxed.

Kalika patted her hand on the chassis of the oxygen generator with a big grin.

“Just let big sis Kalika take care of it. In return, let Homa eat a lot of meat at the festival.”

Homa’s tiny tail suddenly started to flutter, and she struggled to quickly make it stop.

“Um. Err. Yeah. We’ll– we’ll definitely repay your hospitality.” Homa said.

“Whether or not you assist us, we would still love to see you on Tishtar.” Baran said.

“Kalika, let me help with the repair job too. I can’t just accept charity.” Sareh said.

“A familiar form of stubborness. Fine– there will be something for you to do.” Kalika said.

Homa glanced sidelong at Kalika and Sareh but resolved to say nothing about that.

She was turning over imaginary kababs and kuftas in her mind, juicy and slick with fat.


After Descent, Year 967

Whispered sweet words and low, heavy groans of desire from an empty office.

Two shadows in a corner, a different corner every time, practiced, well-rehearsed.

They would not be found, not today. Today was an especially easy tryst.

Having come off a major victory in the council, everyone left early after the celebrations.

Leaving behind only the two party bosses, with what work was left, and what play was left.

“Rahima–”

Before Conny could say whatever was on her mind Rahima quieted her with a deep kiss.

Pushing her against the wall, her fingers slipping into Conny’s bell-bottomed pants.

Savoring the taste of booze, smoke and lipstick– things her religion denied her–

Things that she could nonetheless claim from her partner-in-crime.

Rahima almost lifted Conny against the corner, pushing herself as close as she could.

Looming over the shorter elf, having to bend to take her due to the difference in size.

Conny raised her hands to Rahima’s chest and gently pushed her back.

Until her tongue parted from Conny’s lips, a slick string tying them together still.

“Mm. Relax. Nobody is here.” Rahima said.

There was a grin on her face, hungry and confident, savoring what she had claimed.

Rahima had grown in the intervening years. Ambitious, self-assured, and powerful.

At least, compared to what she once was– it was quite a leap.

“It’s not that. Ugh. Everything– everything is all wrong now.”

Conny had a demure expression. Her hands remained on Rahima, creating a bit of space.

When Rahima tried to get close those hands would not push but would keep her separated.

“Conny, after all we’ve fooled around, you can’t be having regrets now.”

“It’s not that, Rahima. I wish it was only that. I wish this was just about the Council.”

Rahima’s eyes opened wide. “Conny, what happened? Tell me.”

She laid her hands on Conny’s shoulders. Conny could not meet her eyes.

Their heartbeats both accelerated, and the heat of their passions became a heat of anxiety.

Rahima wracked her brain. Everything was supposed to have gone perfectly.

They had finally achieved a long-term goal– extending suffrage to the Shimii Wohnbezirk.

With this and Rahima’s support from the Shimii, they would be an undeniable force in the politics of Aachen, practically impossible to dislodge in the local elections. As long as Rahima postured as a liberal and non-demoninational Shimii and treaded the lines between radical and moderate as she treaded between Rashidun and Mahdist, she could look forward to a practically secured seat in the Council. It would enable the Rhinea Feminist Party to throw their weight around and push more of their agenda on the Liberals.

And of course, Conny, her mentor, her lover, the one who pulled her up from darkness–

Of course, she would be with her every step of the way. Of course. She had to be there.

“Rahima, I’ve been served a motion of Censure from the Reichstag. My career is over.”

Hearing those words, Rahima’s heart sank.

It was like someone had twisted a vise inside her chest and cleaved her guts in half.

Shaking fingers clutched Conny’s narrow shoulders. Both of them wept.

“How? For what purpose? That can’t be possible. We’re local politicians!” Rahima said.

“I went too far with the anti-slavery stuff. They’re calling me a communist.” Conny said.

“But you’re not a communist! That doesn’t matter! You can resist this, Conny!”

Conny finally met Rahima’s eyes. Rahima felt her heart jump again from the contact.

That fondness– a love within that gaze that Rahima hardly even knew had existed.

There was such admiration and gentle support from that simple meeting of the eyes.

“The more I fight it, the more it will drag your good name down too Rahima. They will bring up my sister, and the Union, call me a spy, run inquiries crawling into every part of my life. They will find out about us. They will ruin you too. I don’t need to resign but I will– because you’re more important than me, Rahima. More important than us. You represent a possibility I can’t achieve here. Your people need you. I resign, all of it stops, and you keep rising.”

“No.” Rahima said. “I can’t accept this. I can’t accept this, Conny. We are in it together.”

Conny averted her eyes again and seemed to speak past Rahima.

“Herta Kleyn of the Progressive Party has agreed for you to caucus with them.”

“What? You’re dissolving the party?” Rahima said. It was one blow after another.

Conny continued to speak without looking at her and Rahima continued to spiral.

“You’ll be a mainstream Liberal now. Your Council seat will remain secure. Even with me gone the Liberals will retain a majority. Don’t involve yourself in the special election. Let it go.”

“Conny don’t do this to me!” Rahima shouted. “Don’t do this to me! How can I–?”

“Rahima. I love you. Thank you for all these years. Don’t ever let them stop you, okay?”

Conny reached up to touch Rahima’s cheek, moving her hair from over the side of her face.

Rahima’s own hand reached up, and grabbed Conny’s and pressed it tight against herself.

Feeling as if she might never feel a hand that soft and that close ever again.

Like Conny would dissolve into a mound of ash right in front of her.

What had she done wrong? Was this God’s punishment for her indiscretions?

Had she not been modest enough? Had she not been sincere? Why was this happening?

“There’s nothing more to say Rahima. This was never going to be able to last forever– but I will keep rooting for you. You’re extremely strong. You’re stronger than me. I just had the money to rent an office and print things. You came up from nothing. You did all this work– and look where you are. You are proof there is something worth fighting for here. Someday all Shimii will believe in that. Don’t throw that way for me, Rahima. For anyone.”

Weeping, Rahima pressed the hand tighter against her face. She did not want to let go.

“I don’t want to lose you. I wouldn’t have known what to do without you.”

Conny seemed like she truly did not know what to say.

For minutes, she seemed partway between leaving and staying.

Watching Rahima cry in front of her face; crying herself, wiping the tears, crying again.

“Rahima–”

She hesitated. Then she kissed Rahima back. Quicker than she had been kissed.

But this time without hesitation or distance.

“Rahima. Then– get so strong nobody can deny your claim on me, despite everything.”

A kiss as fleeting as a passing breeze–

with incredible alacrity, Conny slipped out from under Rahima’s arms and ran away.

There one second and gone the next as if she had never met that dazzling, vibrant elf.

Leaving Rahima with the suddeness of that departure, holding and staring at an empty wall.

Shaking, weeping, with the cruel sweetness of that final kiss on her lips.

Her legs buckled. Rahima fell to the floor. Screaming into the ground.

For all of the night she remained huddled in that corner, in pain like she had been set alight.

Sometime in the twilight, between colors of dusk and dawn and every possible emotion–

Rahima stood back up. She fixed her shirt and blazer, washed her face, and left the office.

Head and heart empty save for the purpose that remained to animate her.

Even if Conny did not need her anymore– the Shimii needed her.

Her work was not complete; without Conny that was all she had left.


After Descent, Year 979

“This house used to belong a small family. They had teen boys. But they renounced Mahdism and left the village so they could live in the bigger part of the town. Since then, I’ve kept this place as a little guest house. We have a TV, the lights work, there’s a mattress there with blankets. Behind the curtain, the little door that looks like a closet is actually the bathroom. Oh! And I always try to keep some long-lasting snacks and water in the fridge too.”

Baran bent down to her knees to open the small fridge to show them the goods.

A small jug of water and some assorted nuts and candied dates.

“Anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask. You’re my honored guests.” Baran said.

“I am quite grateful. Hopefully I will have good news for you tomorrow.” Kalika said.

Baran put her hand to her chest again and bid farewell, leaving Kalika and Homa alone.

Homa wandered over to the television, flicked it on and sat down on the old mattress.

At first with a neutral expression, tired from the day, depressed by her surroundings–

Then immediately, absolutely furious at the image of the blond woman on the screen–

“Nasser!” She shouted, despite herself, it had to come out, she was surprised and livid.

Vesna Nasser– that fiend who had robbed her of everything.

Homa had never seen this woman in the flesh, but she knew, she knew that was her.

Standing in uniform, swaying her tail and smiling like nothing had happened.

Her cold, dead heart untouched with an ounce of guilt for what she had done.

While Homa scurried in holes, Nasser was in that high tower, on regional television!

Unspeaking, but firm, confident, even smug. Homa practically gritted her teeth in anger.

Beside Nasser was the actual speaker for the program, amid a speech on a podium.

Dressed in that foul black uniform with the most medals and armbands of anyone Homa had ever seen. Ridiculous pink and blue hair, her speech eloquent and intensely confident for what she was saying, with inflections of passion and grandiosity punctuating certain words–

“…it has been only mere months since Rhinea embarked on the Revolution of National Awakening. Already, the Party-State is being dilligently constructed. All national socialists are joining as a single force under the Party-State. Together we deliver swift punishment to the liberals and reactionaries who opposed the Nation’s Destiny and tried to drag the national proletariat to the shadow of their former ignorance. Even now, the cultists of those dead ideas plot in the corners, trying to rewind our chosen future. They will find their reckoning soon. National Socialism is an idea that cannot be contained any longer! National Socialism is modernity! Our Volk has had enough of Liberal divisions and Reactionary elitism! We will bow neither to the man on the ballot nor to the man with the crown and scepter! The Party-State will unite the people, protect them, and enrich the Nation! Through blood and labor, the Volksgemeinschaft will be nurtured, and the national peoples unleashed! These are no longer things which can be resisted! The many will become one under the nation! One people, one nation, one party-state! With our blood and labor! This is Destiny–!”

Homa sat fuming as the speech progressed further, until Kalika finally swiped her finger across Violet Lehner’s face. She disappeared and a Shimii clerical channel took her place.

“Kalika, what is everyone else on the ships doing while we’re out here?” Homa asked.

Kalika sighed. She must have been able to tell how frustrated Homa was.

But Homa was not in a mood to care about her tone or appearances anymore.

“A lot of things, Homa– it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Right now, the crew is preparing for the United Front negotations.” Kalika said. “It might not seem that way, but we are helping.”

“Are we any closer to getting revenge on those Volkisch bastards?” Homa shouted.

“Quiet! Look, you’ll need to defer your revenge. We don’t expect things to be so simple as shaking hands and agreeing to fight the Volkisch– every group has an agenda, and they will push their own way of doing things.” Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa and patted her back. Homa did not feel appreciative of the support in her current state– but she also did not want Kalika to stop touching her. That warmth on her back kept her from crying.

“Why wouldn’t it be as simple as shaking hands, and agreeing to fight the Volkisch?”

Homa felt such a boiling-over frustration with everything around her.

Looking back at everything that happened, the Volkisch Movement was clearly the enemy.

So why could they not set aside everything and fight them, and discuss the rest later?

“Homa, people need concrete structure and leadership. They can’t just go out and fight unprepared.” Kalika said. “Three huge organizations coming together will have to work out priorities, supplies, targets, and delegate intelligence and action work. Furthermore, these are three political organizations, who will need to sway Eisental’s people to their side as collaborators, allies and recruits– so they need to decide on a message, too.”

Homa grunted. She turned a disgruntled look at the clerics on the screen instead of Kalika.

“Homa, our job is to support the Volksarmee’s effort by carrying out our mission. And our mission is to be down here.” Kalika said. Her patting on Homa’s back grew a bit more vigorous. “It might not seem like we are doing anything, but getting support from the Shimii here is something no one else is doing. The social democrats and the anarchists are not making efforts to touch base with disenfranchised peoples. We have eyes, your eyes, my eyes, where they don’t. That does matter; please just work with me here, ok?”

“Fine. It’s not like I can do anything else. I am just your helpless little orbiter.”

She laid down on her side, putting her back to Kalika with a disgruntled noise.

“Homa, it’s not like– ugh.” She could feel Kalika moving behind her. To lie down too.

For a moment, Kalika did not finish her sentence. She sounded a bit exasperated.

Homa felt both nervous that she had angered her, but also had a disgusting satisfaction too.

Had she finally needled this woman enough, who had no reason to care for her–?

A sigh. “Homa. We’ll have some big days ahead. Get some rest. You’ll feel better.”

Her voice was surprisingly gentle– none of the expected fury, no lashing out.

For a moment, Homa felt so ashamed of herself that she might have burst out crying.

She hated herself and her thoughts and her ugly, stupid little soul so much. So intensely.

If she was not so tired, and did not drift off to sleep, she would have beaten her own head.

But she did drift off to a dreamless sleep. A sleep like a comfortable shadow engulfing her.

Until that shadow and its attendant silence were suddenly parted by a scream.

In the near-total darkness of the room Homa shot upright from where she had lain.

Her head turned immediately to face the doorway and the swaying curtain to the outside.

When she tried to stand she felt a hand move to stop her.

“Homa, stay here!”

From her side, Kalika darted to her feet and ran out of the house.

Parting the curtain, a glint in the steel of her sword as it sprang from the handle.

Heedless of the warning, Homa scrambled to her feet and ran right after.

When she got outside, the shouting was far clearer–

“No! Stop it! Why are you doing this?”

Baran, pleading–

“Shut up bitch!”

There was a man’s voice– familiar–

Baran crying out–

in pain

Homa’s running steps practically thundered on the rough floor.

She crossed the side of the masjid and caught sight of several figures on the Tishtar stage partially illuminated by burning flares thrown onto the middle of the street.

Baran on the edge of the stage, weeping, three people with face coverings and long clubs or truncheons in their hands. Beating at the beautiful Tazia that had been erected on the stage with a hellish glee. Between Baran’s shouting and sobs there was their laughter and jeering as they destroyed the villager’s art. They taunted Baran as they struck the object.

“We won’t let you Mahdists hold your evil rituals!”

“Stop it! That’s enough, aren’t you satisfied?”

“I said shut up!”

One of the boys swung at Baran, striking her leg and knocking her off the stage–

Into Kalika’s arms, catching her and setting her down roughly.

Jumping up onto the stage.

Homa was not far behind, she saw Baran fall and dropped quickly near her, to support her.

Up on the stage the assailants realized instantly what they were dealing with.

They ceased beating the Tazia to pieces and laughing at the act. They stopped to stare.

In the silence they left–

Kalika’s vibroblade buzzed and whirred audible with killing power.

She said nothing as she approached, her wildly furious eyes glowing in the flare-light–

“I– I told you I’d fucking kill you–!”

One of the men threw himself forward, screaming, and he swung,

Kalika caught the blow with her bare forearm, battering his arm aside,

blade splitting air with a low whistle as it flew–

“Please don’t kill them!”

Baran cried out, tears in her eyes, caught in Homa’s bewildered grasp.

Kalika held her blow.

She sliced across the chest of her attacker, blood running slick on the edge of her sword.

Leaving a shallow cut across the man’s chest where his guts might have otherwise flowed.

He stumbled back onto the stage, dropped his club, screaming, begging,

From behind Homa a gunshot rang out.

There was a brief spark as it struck one of the assailants on his club.

Sending a finger flying into the air and the weapon rolling down the stage.

Sareh ran to Homa’s side with a pistol in her hand, preparing to shoot again–

And stopped as Baran’s hands reached up to her, pleading silently.

Lika Kalika, Sareh stopped her retaliation and watched as the assailants fled.

Bloodied, crying, but still throwing curses borne out of their hatred.

“If you cross that gate again you’ll leave in a bag!”

Kalika shouted after them, at the top of her lungs, an anger in her voice that was chilling.

Holding the stricken Baran in her arms, with Sareh standing dumbstruck beside them.

Homa felt completely detached from reality. Her skin was clammy. Every muscle shaking.

“Stupid, worthless bastards.” Kalika said to no one. Her sword hand was shaking.

Sareh finally put down her arms, with which she had been aiming her pistol the whole time.

She put the weapon into her coat and kneeled down and took Baran from Homa.

Into her arms, holding her tightly. Baran was crying. Sareh was mumbling, weeping too.

“I’m so stupid. Why did I go to sleep? I should’ve known they would do something!”

Baran reached up to Sareh’s face, gesturing for her to come close.

They put their foreheads to each other and touched noses, crying together.

Behind all of them, a few villagers began to emerge from the back streets.

Homa’s eyes were fixed on Kalika, glowing red on the stage amid the sparks of a flare.

Her hand remaining on her sword, her eyes on the gates, gritting her teeth.

Clutching the handle.

Not knowing what to do, Homa climbed up on the stage.

Standing side by side with Kalika amid the light of the still-burning flares,

and the pieces of the ruined Tazia behind them.

“Kalika. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do anything–”

Suddenly, Kalika turned to Homa. She flicked her wrist, snapping her blade folded again.

She reached out and took Homa’s clenched fist, opening her fingers.

Then on that cold, shaking, helpless hand, Kalika laid–

“Don’t make me regret this, Homa.”

–a firearm.

A light, synthestitched pistol, materially light but heavy with deadly potential.

She had entrusted Homa with a lethal weapon, a killing weapon, just like her own.

Homa stared at it and back at Kalika and felt like she would sink into the earth with shame.

In her mind she had done nothing to earn this. Nothing but lash out and complain.

But she accepted it. She felt that to do otherwise would have squandered everything.

With her hands still shaking, she put the gun into her coat. She said nothing.

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t understand anything she was seeing and feeling.

“You’re not helpless anymore, Homa. I trust you will make good judgments.”

Kalika’s voice sounded, for the first time Homa had ever heard– openly nervous.


After Descent, Year 978

Rahima and Herta Kleyn convened alone in one of the rear storage areas of the Aachen Council’s Assembly Hall. Underneath the debate floor where policy fought for its life, the two of them stood over a disused desk in a dusty corner, their faces half-shadowed in the dim light of a sputtering LED cluster. On the desk, there was a portable computer with an open digital letter with official digital letterhead, demanding confirmation of receipt.

From the collective body of the Rhinean Reichstag.

To Governor-Elect of Aachen Rahima Jašarević.

“Interfering in our local politics again.” Rahima grunted.

“I’m afraid so.” Herta said. “But this is not just a party insider squabble, Rahima. The Liberal-Proggressives and the Conservatives all passed it in the special session. Only the Nationalists abstained from the process. Our folks caved, Rahima, but so far the contents are not public. They want you to respond discretly and avoid a bigger scandal. I advise you should.”

Rahima closed her fists with anger, staring impotently at the filigreed letter on the screen.

“Why should I abide by this?” She said.

Herta sighed. They had worked together long enough now that she knew Rahima’s moods.

Still her voice remained collected and calm.

“Unless you resign from the governorship they will practically crawl down our throats, Rahima. They are saying they will turn up the Progressive party’s ‘ties to Kamma, piracy, communism and foreign nations’ . The Liberal-Progressives cannot afford this.”

“So what if they investigate? We have no such ties!”

“We do technically have ties to Kamma. Through you, Rahima.”

Rahima felt a shudder hearing the implication and shot a vicious glare at Herta.

“I know you are not seeing her. I know! I trust you. But the Reichstag will not care.”

“Kamma is just an NGO! They distribute lunchboxes and blankets! They aren’t radicals!”

Herta shut her eyes and shook her head.

“Rahima, you know as well as any of us that the substance of this threat does not matter. It does not matter whether they can turn up anything. It does not matter whether you fight it. You are not getting a fair trial here. By making the threat, they are implicitly saying they will turn up something– they will put on a show to damage our credibility. Your credibility and that of the main party. Right now, the Progressive-Liberal coalition is facing a hard fight against the Conservatives and Nationalists in the upcoming elections. The Heidemman bloc supported this motion in order to appeal to moderates and to seem reasonable.”

There was nothing Rahima could say in return because what she wanted to do was scream.

For years– years!– she had fought in the Council, debated and defeated Imbrians on the merits. She had passed successful bills, and not just her projects for the Shimii. She had fought like hell for a Progressive agenda. She had compromised, she had toed the lines.

All of the Aachen Liberal Party had gotten behind her for the Governorship.

Aachen’s people cast their votes! She had won the Liberals an important governorship!

Rahima had won them the Shimii! She was turning them into Liberal voters!

None of it mattered. Her local successes were nothing to the Reichstag Liberals.

They were focused solely on the presidential battle next year and nothing else.

On those two Imbrian men whom the nation now revolved around. Not any Shimii.

Sacrificing her to look more moderate and serious. To show they were not radicals.

“There is still a shot, Rahima. You don’t have to give up your dreams.” Herta said.

“And what is our shot, Herta.” Rahima replied, her voice turning slowly into a growl.

Herta started staring directly at Rahima’s darkening expression with a wan little smile of her own. “The motion specified the Governor-Electship– we can comply and still retain your Council seat. I will replace you as Governor, and we will salvage our local slate. After Ossof Heidemman is elected next year, things will calm down. You’ll be able to run again.”

Rahima looked at Herta dead in the eyes. She could hardly believe this naivety from her.

“What happens if Adam Lehner defeats Ossof Heidemman?” She said gravely.

Herta’s expression grew concerned. “That won’t happen Rahima. I know we’ll win.”

Rahima grunted. Who was this ‘we’? Was Rahima now included in Heidemman’s circle?

“Herta, look at how dirty they are playing me– do you think Adam Lehner is above that?”

Herta turned around and paced toward the opposite wall with a heavy breath.

As if she did not want to meet Rahima’s eyes while speaking her next words.

“Rahima, I am truly sorry. But you are still here and have responsibilities. Don’t squander what we have built. I taught you to be pragmatic. You have decades in politics still. You’ve opened a path for other Shimii to follow. You must remain in the council, for them.”

Rahima threw her hands up in fury. “So, what–? I was only a path for others to follow?!”

She gritted her teeth. What about the path she had been treading so tirelessly all this time?!

How could it be that after all this struggle she was relegated to holding open a door?!

What did this say to the Shimii?

You can become a local councilwoman who will tidy up things in your ghetto and that is it? You will never even reach the height of these pitiful confines? All of these games that she played, not even able to get her kin out of the fucking ground– and no amount of polite words saved her when the hatchets came out. The Liberals simply abandoned her.

Was all of that for nothing? All of her sacrifice? All of her pain?

Herta had no answer. Nobody did.

So one more time, Rahima toed the line and compromised for the Liberal-Progressives.

As if she had anything left to compromise.


After Descent, Year 979

On the morning after the attack, Homa stood with several dozen Shimii around the stage.

Ears folded and tails down, examing from afar what remained of the intricate display.

Smashed pieces in a heap, colorful debris only recognizeable if one saw the complete thing.

Enough of it remained to mourn over the whole.

There were several villagers with their heads hung low or shaking, covering their mouths, crying for the smashed Tazia. They looked from afar, helpless. There were a few older men, but most of the people coming out of the shabby little houses and the few bigger business buildings to look, were women and kids, and the kids looked to be mainly girls.

Baran had been right– Homa wondered if the men last night were–

She immediately stopped her train of thought. She felt so angry about everything.

In her coat, the pistol Kalika had given her weighed down her pocket like a stone.

Suddenly the villagers turned to face the masjid.

Out from it, Baran, Sareh and an older, slightly more formidable man walked out.

Homa noticed immediately that Baran was walking with a stick to support herself.

Upon seeing this, several of the women stepped forward to her, stroked her hair and her shoulders. Many of the women started crying fresh tears over her injury, the heavily bruised and bloodied ankle quite visible through Baran’s sandals. They copiously recited Fusha prayers for her and begged God’s mercy and safety and for God to seek answers from the criminals for this. That seemed to be the prevailing question among the villagers–

why inflict such pointless cruelty?

Even though they all knew the answer, deep down in their hearts, but nobody wanted it.

That answer which was too painful to consider and too impossible for them to resolve.

Homa considered it and turned it over so thoroughly it lit her heart ablaze with wrath.

“Homa! Are you alright?”

Baran called out to her and walked out from between all the aunties and teen girls.

Knowing how she felt when she was using crutches, Homa did not try to tell Baran to slow down or not to come forward. Such little kindnesses just bothered Homa and made her feel inept when she was the one who could not move well. She stood where she was, suddenly the center of attention in the middle of everyone in the village. It felt like there were not just a few dozen people around now but thousands in the pitted streets.

“Everyone, this is Homa Messhud! She helped me last night! Please pray for her too!”

Baran stood by Homa and put a hand on her shoulder, with a big smile.

Confused eyes turned to warm smiles at Homa, in an instant. Baran’s word was all it took.

They really loved her– Homa felt like everyone in the village cared about Baran a lot.

Homa felt she had not done anything deserving of praise but did not deny Baran.

Even though they were all heaping praise and prayers on a fake surname.

There was no helping it– it’s what Homa had to endure for her mission.

Compared to what the villagers had to go through this was nothing.

After that declaration, Sareh also walked up. She reached out to Homa.

They shook hands together, and Sarah also patted Homa on the shoulder.

“Homa, thank you, truly. Baran could have been killed– I’m sorry I wasn’t any help.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sareh. Please.” Baran said gently, squeezing Sareh’s hand.

“I know. I’ll try not to.” Sareh said. “Where is Kalika, Homa? She was incredible.”

“Asleep.” Homa said. “I didn’t want to wake her– that situation was really rough on her.”

After they drove off the attackers the night before, everyone slowly dispersed.

It was as if they were caught in a delirium, and nobody knew what to do in the moment.

Sareh took Baran into her home. She must have administered first-aid.

Homa knew that Kalika had not gotten any sleep. She had remained on-guard all night.

“Homa, let me introduce you– this is Imam Saman al-Qoms.” Baran said.

From behind the girls, the man who had walked out with them approached Homa.

He stopped several steps short of her and put his hand on his chest with a smile.

“As-Salamu Alaykum. God sees all praiseworthy deeds. Thank you dearly, Homa Messhud.”

Imam al-Qoms was a sturdy older man, definitely older than Leija would have been. He dressed perhaps the most appropriately, to the typical picture of a Shimii man, than anyone Homa had seen around Aachen so far. He had a blue Tagiyah cap, with holes for his ears, and very short hair. He had a simple, long, covering and loose robe the same blue as the cap and wore glasses and sandals. A simple man, like a Shimii educator and prayer leader ought to be.

After the introductions, the Imam, Baran and Sareh walked up to the stage. Sareh and Homa helped Baran make the short hop up onto the stage. But Baran surprised them by immediately and without assistance dropping down beside the shattered remains of the Tazia, flinching from the pain in her ankle as she sat beside it, and collected the pieces.

Despite everything she still smiled.

“Baran, please–”

“Sareh, we can put it back together! Most of the pieces are pretty big. We’ll repaint it too!”

Sareh looked down at her partner on the ground, sighed, and sat down next to her.

Quietly, Imam al-Qoms also sat opposite the girls, collecting more pieces of the Tazia.

Homa stood off to the side. She was a stranger to all of this; it held no significance for her.

Everyone in town seemed invested in this presentation and the traditions behind it.

All Homa could focus on was the fact that someone violated their safety to destroy it.

She did not hold the dearness they all had for this– she could not.

To her this was just a thing– but it was a thing that inspired brutality against them.

She wished she could understand. Both their love for it; and the hatred that it drew.

Maybe if she could understand she would have an answer for herself, that she could bear.

But she did not– in that moment she felt more like an Imbrian than she ever had.

Just some fool watching from the sidelines, shamefully able to leave if things got too ugly.

Why did this have to happen? Homa felt that anger swelling in her heart again.

All of them were thrown in a hole out of sight of the Imbrians in the Core Station.

And their response was to recreate all the violence of their past, but here, in the hole?

It was so senseless she wanted to scream.

“Homa,”

A gloved hand laid upon her shoulder, heavy and a little cold, but familiar.

Without turning around, Homa laid her own hand over Kalika’s.

“Are you okay?” Kalika asked, standing on the stage beside Homa.

Behind them, the villagers had begun to return to their homes and businesses.

All of the younger girls followed some of the aunties into the masjid.

Homa looked around for a moment before giving her answer. “Kind of not.” She said.

They spoke together in whispers at the edge of the stage.

“Is it your heart or your head?” Kalika asked.

“I’m not hurt or anything. It’s just depressing. I don’t know why they would do this.”

“Because it’s what they are steeped in– it is their value system.” Kalika said. “Out in the town, our friendly little villagers, and their customs, are seen as dangerous to the–”

Homa sighed bitterly. “I– I don’t need you to answer, Kalika. Or– well– not like that.”

“I understand.” Kalika said gently. “Keep a keen eye out and decide for yourself then.”

She patted Homa on the shoulder and walked past her to Baran and Sareh.

Sareh helped Baran to stand up from the floor so they could greet Kalika.

“You saved my life, Kalika Loukia. I can’t thank you enough.” Baran said.

Baran offered her hands and Kalika held them. Sareh then offered her a handshake.

“Yes, thank you. I styled myself as the protector of this village– and I–” Sareh began–

“You saved Homa and I, remember? You’re doing what you can.” Kalika reassured her.

“I don’t feel like you needed my saving.” Sareh said. Still ashamed of herself.

“No, for you and I, fighting is completely different.” Kalika said. “It is easier to stand in front of someone and fight when you are not tied down to anything. That requires no conviction. It is more difficult to fight when you might be endangering yourself or your kin. Most people would choose to keep their heads down in that situation. You had the courage not to.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to remind myself of that.” Sareh said. Baran comforted her.

“If you need any crafts supplies, I might be able to help with that too.” Kalika said. “I’ll be contacting my friends soon to get things moving. Homa is here to help if you need a body.”

Homa bristled slightly at being referred to ‘for her body.’

“You’ve done so much; I don’t want to ask for even more. Please understand.” Baran said. “We can put this back together. We’ll glue it and then repaint it in a way that can make the cracks stand out less. I’m sure we can do that. For things like this I would prefer we work with what we have. It is part of the story of the festival now, for better or worse.”

Homa thought in that moment, Baran sounded very wise, as sad as it was.

“But. There is something else that troubles me.” Baran said.

“I think I know what you mean.” Sareh said, looking down at Baran’s ankle.

“Go on. I want to help.” Kalika said.

Baran suddenly turned from Kalika to Homa, who was caught off guard by the attention.

“Homa, do you know how to dance? Did your mother ever teach you?” Baran asked.

“Huh? Dancing?” Homa’s nerves instantly fried. “No way, no– I’m too clumsy!”

She waved her hands defensively. If she had to go up on stage she would die.

Plus she imagined the kind of outfit dancers wore– flashing back to Madame Arabie–

Baran slumped, clearly disheartened. “Your body looked like you might’ve been a dancer.”

“Really?” Now Homa was suddenly interested again. “I guess I look pretty athletic huh?”

Sighing, Kalika waved her hands between Baran and Homa. “Leave her be– I’ll do it.”

“Oh!” “Huh?” “REALLY?”

Baran, Sareh and Homa responded at once, wagging their ears with surprise at Kalika.

“I spent years living with Shimii.” Kalika said. “Those folks had their own local festivities, but I learned all kinds of traditional arts including dances. With Baran’s help I can absolutely learn the moves she was meant to perform for the festival. That’s the issue, right?”

“Yes, ever since I was a teenager I danced whenever we could hold Tishtar.” Baran said. “Everybody in the village looks forward to it! Sareh plays the music and I dance.”

Sareh put her hands behind her head and acted casual, as if she did not want recognition.

“We’ll find time for you to coach me.” Kalika said. “Then I’ll dance on the big day.”

It was an idea that captured Homa completely and immediately.

There were a dozen things put into her head. She wondered whether Kalika might be perceived as too old to dance in Baran’s place, but she did not voice this dangerous rumination, for fear of making an eternal enemy out of her most cherished ally. Another dangerous thought that came to her unbidden was that it might have been thought of as silly for a Katarran to perform traditional Shimii dance at a Mahdist festival. That one, too, had to be shelved very quickly. However, one observation of value did arise– Homa felt she finally understood Kalika’s real and unspoken motivation for helping the villagers.

Perhaps she was getting a rare taste of that feeling she so cherished– community.

With that in mind, Homa finally put on as much of a smile as she could muster.

That– and her third dangerous thought. Seeing Kalika in a traditional dancing garb.

Such outfits varied greatly– but what if Kalika wore something as sexy as Madame Arabie?

Those outfits were embellished versions of traditional Shimii wear– for sex appeal.

In a sense, they were even more lewd than having seen Kalika in the nude before–

“You’re finally smiling Homa. I don’t dare ask what has come over you.” Kalika said.

Homa visibly snapped out of her reverie and put her hands in her coat’s outer pockets.

Averting her gaze and not answering the question. But still grinning a little bit.

Baran meanwhile was also smiling wider and brighter and more openly than ever.

“Kalika, Homa, you are life savers! This will be the greatest Tishtar ever, I promise you!”

“I can’t wait.” Kalika said. She seemed to be soaking in the girls’ enthusiasm.

“I’m glad to see everyone in good spirits. But Shaykhah, it seems you have company.”

Imam al-Qoms spoke up again– Shaykhah must have been in reference to Baran.

He pointed to the gate, where a woman walked in with small wheeled drone following her.

Homa could tell from her pointy, long ears and her very pale and shiny blue hair that she was an elf; such vibrant hair colors difficult to find naturally in anyone but an elf. Her figure was thin and she was pretty short in stature, with fair skin that had a very, very slightly golden tone. Her hair was collected into two tails dropping down her back. She dressed in an open white blazer coat with what looked like a striking blue tasseled bra top underneath, cut off above the belly, and bell-bottomed pants. Homa hardly ever saw anyone dress so flashy.

Everyone was watching as the woman calmly crossed into the village. There was a small flag hoisted from a pole on the back of the drone’s boxy chassis. The drone seemed like it might have contained cargo, its insides rattling a bit. The flag had a half-white, half-black, vaguely diamond-like emblem made up of knotted lines over a bright blue background.

All of the village onlookers seemed excited by the new arrival.

Homa saw them looking at the flag. Did they recognize it?

“Oh, she’s from the NGO! What excellent timing– let’s go greet her!” Baran said.

As the elven woman approached the stage, she waved at the group with a carefree smile.

“Hello, hello! Is this a bad time? I’m Conny Lettiere. I’m with the NGO Kamma.”


After Descent, Year 979

On the table laid a portable computer with a digital letterhead begging confirmation.

Beside the portable was an unopened plastic box. Lit only by the screen of the portable.

And in a dark corner behind the desk was Rahima Jašarević. Legs curled against her chest.

No longer weeping– she had not wept for a very long time. For years now she had been smothering the softness deep in her soul and trying to forge it into steel. Nevertheless, whenever she needed to think, she found hiding behind the desk helped her do so. As long as nobody saw her in this childish circumstance she could find comfort in it.

It made her feel less– surveilled.

Ever since that night, where she spent hours and hours seething behind her desk.

On that night, she ceased to be able to cope in the ways she had done before.

Sometimes she thought back to that night, and to the nights preceding it.

When she arrived at Aachen she was barely an adult. So much time had passed.

In her mind she remembered the things the immigration officer told her and laughed.

Look at what I’ve become, would you think I am decent now or just a lowlife?

She remembered the sailor, too, who brought her to Aachen.

Would he regret it? Had she done something stupid and indecent now, in his mind?

Going into politics; giving all her spirit to budge the status quo even a centimeter.

What did they all think now? Was she upstanding now? Was she respectable?

She had always been young for politics. She had liked to think that gave her an edge.

That youth had its own vibrancy and power. Perhaps it did once.

Now, however, it was completely lost.

Having nothing but her experience of time and in that sense youth relative to the mean was worthless, and relative to itself even more so. She was alone. Simultaneously too old for assistance and too young for pity. No mentors she could trust to ask for counsel. No peers to stand beside her during her tribulations. She was the mentor, and without peer. As she grew older, the more and more people she left behind and replaced with only herself. It was so unfair– she had never wanted to abandon anyone nor for anyone to abandon her.

Uniquely positioned; uniquely alone. The only Shimii councilwoman.

Once, the only Shimii governor.

Now–

Since she arrived at Aachen, she gained so much, and yet lost so much.

She did not know where the scales came to rest in the end.

All she knew is that when she needed someone, now, there was no one around her.

Was this her punishment? Had she done wrong?

Was it hubris to ever have any hope? Was it heresy to follow her dreams?

At first all she wanted was to help Conny– then she slowly found her own dreams.

Those dreams, her pursuit of something, anything, for her kin living beneath her.

So no one else would have to lose their whole families and homes.

So no one else would have to bear the slow destruction they were subjected to.

No more name changes, no more deportations, no more deprivation–

Was that paradigm so hopelessly ordained? Was even God against them?

That pursuit of power and those grand intentions for it had destroyed everything she held personally dear– and for what? Shimii could cast their ballots for a slate of Imbrians and Rahima to judge their lives from on high. Again, and again, but now from the masjid in the Wohnbezirk. Never from anywhere else. Even Rahima, symbollically, voted there.

They always voted for her. She was all that they had now. That was all that changed.

Was it her fault? That she became a tool of their callous power?

Her heart tightened with a growing anger.

No– she was just doing what she could. She was doing what one woman could do.

It was the Imbrians, at each turn. It was them. It was their fault!

So deathly afraid of being the equals of anyone. They fought her at every step.

That was the cruelest irony of everything. They raised her up, they broke her down–

–and they would face the rip-current, thrashing in the waters they themselves filled.

In that instant there was only one foreseeable thing that she could do.

Only one Destiny.

Rahima shot to a stand with a sudden fervor, raising her arms and practically clawing the desk on her way to her feet. She took up the portable from the desk and without thinking it, without feeling, with her breath in her chest and her heart motionless, skin tingling, face sweating. Her finger struck the confirmation, the knife she would plunge into Aachen.

There was an instant of recognition. The portable slipped from her fingers back onto her desk. Her heart started thundering. Ragged, rasping breaths of a woman choking.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She slumped over the desk, the moment of fury passed.

Hands raised over her face, brushing salt from her eyes that only drew more tears.

She wanted to scream, but no one would hear her.

She wanted to beg for mercy she ill deserved.

On the desk, the box taunted her.

You are the one, it jeered, who will be judged for your wickedness now.

You are the one who has crossed the line now.

Rahima picked it up, overturned it. The lid fell off, and inside were a pair of armbands.

For a moment, she stared at them. Then she affixed them to her arm.

Black Sun. Hooked Cross. Red, white, black.

Her discarded portable lit up again, blue light crossing the desk. Rahima righted the object.

There was a call– she routed it to audio and tried to calm her voice.

“We have received the confirmation. I assume you are ready and willing?”

A woman’s voice, courteous, and perhaps, even excited for what was to come.

“Yes. I will prepare the lists. Doubtless you’ll have additions.” Rahima said.

Her voice left her lips as it always did. Commanding, confident. Like on the debate floor.

She knew what she had to do. She knew what she agreed to.

“You have the lay of the land here– we will trust and support you.”

There was a request to turn the audio call to a visual call. Rahima denied it on her screen.

“We will need to be thorough. Hold your hand until your preparations are ironclad.”

“Indeed. Do not fear. The Special Detachment will protect you with our lives.”

There was room for neither shouting nor tears. She had cried for herself all that she could.

Rahima had exhausted all of the means at her disposal. She had tried to work righteously.

Every way that one woman could hold on her shoulders this mountain of human agonies.

She had tried. She had tried everything. Done all the right things, the kind things.

All of the rational arguments, the statements in even tone, the logical, respectful pleadings.

Signing her name as if in blood, her gut wrenched with shame.

But the fingers that made the final confirmation brimmed with electricity.

For the first time in her life, Rahima felt real, actionable power in her grasp.

And that, one way or another, the Shimii would carry out their vengeance.

“Based on the fuhrerprinzip, you are to follow my orders without deviation. Correct?”

“You have done your reading– yes, unless you are contradicted by the Reichskommissar.”

“Good. Let me know if you need any access. I’ll make sure you have it.” Rahima said.

There was a girlish titter on the line.

“You know– you sound so formidable– I look forward to meeting you in the flesh.”

That voice was almost lascivious in its tone. Rahima could not be bothered by it anymore.

It was the last of her concerns now.

That armband on her bicep felt like a wound that had been ripped open in her.

Rahima laid her hand upon it. It had to bleed then. There was only the bleeding left.

Whispering in her mind an apology to Conny Lettiere–

and to everything she had once stood for.

“I will get to work then, Rahima Jašarević. I look forward to serving, Herr Gauleiter.”


Unjust Depths

Episode Thirteen

THE PAST WILL COME BACK AS A TIDAL WAVE


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.7]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content and themes of suicidal ideation.

In the year 974 After Descent, the center of hegemony in the Imbrium Ocean still lay within the edifice of Heitzing. The cradle of the Imbrian Empire, raised from the vast trench that would come to be known as the Abyss of Nocht, named after its conqueror. In the southeastern border of the Palatine, Heitzing stood on a dusty circle of earth surrounded by jagged rock, like a thousand wounds sliced upon crust abruptly stitched closed.

These structures formed something of a shallow crater.

A subtle but visible demarcation around the heart of the Empire.

Legend had it that Heitzing was raised from the abyss and closed the dark trench from whence it came shut upon rising. Setting all of the legends aside, it remained an absolutely formidable fortress in a material sense. Automated cannons and missile launchers dotted its surroundings. Four underground sub-stations with attached seaports were constructed in the spire’s surroundings, housing a dedicated fleet of 125 ships, mainly composed of fast Frigates. Each barracks had several underground hangars, and together they contained almost 500 Divers and 10000 troops. Patrols went round the clock. There were enough stockpiled rations, munitions and fuel to withstand several months of siege.

Just a few kilometers east from Heitzing lay the border to the Bosporus Duchy. Just a few kilometers north was the Volgian abyssal plain that led to the formidable Northern Ice Wall. Just a few kilometers south was the Khaybar mountain. In antiquity, these directions each contained enemies. The old Bosporan Republics, the ancient Shimii caliphate, the Volgian Principality; Heitzing was a salient into all these territories. Despite this, it remained an imposing barrier that had never been conquered, single-handedly protecting the eastern flank. Heitzing was the sword cleaved into the Imbrium by the first Emperor.

Its region came to be known as the Black Crater, nearly 3000 meters deep.

So long as Heitzing remained, the Imbrium Empire was invincible, immortal.

Or so the ascendant Imbrians thought, once upon a time.

One kilometer tall, the spire was smooth and purely black but speckled with indentations where its ancient plates had been joined, giving off blue and red light mixed purple from millions of LEDs, humming with a purpose older than the Descent of humanity. Within the middle of the structure was a dedicated port, and at the top, the royal palace had been carved out of the hab block that once occupied the upper levels. At the base, and below, there was self-sufficient farming and manufacturing for the inhabitants. Industrial stitcher machines below ground built the first Nocht emperor his first imperial warships, commencing his ancient conquest of the Palatine, and beyond.

No more– the lower part of the complex was finally ordered sealed. Once upon a time, the Fueller family were the dynastic engineers tasked with the maintenance and furtherance of this machinery. Now, the last remnants of this family, that was near annihilated in its rebellion against the Nocht dynasty, would put an end to Heitzing.

By decree of Konstantin von Fueller, the one man who had defeated the structure and begun the end of an era. History regarded his ascendance as a passing of the fortress from one hand to another, as if to deny Heitzing the sting of defeat. Nevertheless, Konstantin had claimed the fortress, made it his home, took on the title of Imbrium Emperor, and now, his word was law absolute. And his word was that the mysterious depths of the fortress had to be forever shut. Architects and engineers were called forth by the crown, discreetly, to put together a permanent solution to the tower’s depths. To inflict a wound of finality onto the Black Crater that would render its ancient secrets permanently gone.

In response to this, Norn Tauscherer arrived at Heitzing one autumn morning.

Her hand held at her side, closed into a shaking fist. Her teeth grit together.

Her ship approached the center of the structure. A black panel slid open to accept her ship into a berth. Once closed behind her, there was no telling where the ship had gone, or whether any berth lay within that part of Heitzing’s space. Subsumed into the black steel it was as if the ship became part of Heitzing. She stepped off the ship, left the port, and rode a secret elevator for what felt like an eternity to the top of the tower.

All the while, fuming to herself.

Her face reflected back at her in the silver-plated interior.

Blond hair tied back into a ponytail with the slightest bit of an arch to it. Red eyes staring back at her themselves reflecting her own reflection, dark mirrors of a wrathful infinity; her fair skin colored over by a blue and green half-cape and a grey Imperial Navy uniform. Her slim build hid the immense power contained in every muscle fiber of her body, much more than that of the Imbrians she pretended to be part of. Few people called Norn beautiful, but she knew that she was. In everything she did there was beauty, and in the implements that she used there was beauty too. In her rage; in her calm; even in her despair.

Nevertheless, she was wearing makeup on that day. Something of a rare sight for her.

There was only one man in the world for whom Norn observed formality.

To have been casual with him would have only caused him to erode his own power further.

Her dress, her artifice of nobility, was to remind him of his position.

When the elevator opened, it did so on a lobby that was not Norn’s destination.

Quickly, she ordered the elevator to close and inserted a physical key into a physical slot.

Finally, the elevator went up an additional floor, and there, it opened into a suite.

Inside, everything was lacquered wood. Real wood, preserved with a shiny finish. Norn stepped out onto a lobby with a wooden floor, past an adjacent living room with silk-upholstered couches and a real clay and brick hearth seated on a steel plate and separated by a glass shield. Above, an intricate chandelier model of the sol system, within which Aer was one lonely little blue planet. Several lights forever lost to humanity shone with it.

On the walls, experimental artwork. Emperor Nocht had a taste in portraiture and traditional subjects; Emperor von Fueller had donated all the old work to museums and digital collections and instead decorated with modern art, abstracts and semi-abstracts, dada and expressionism and texture-art and programmatic mechanical artworks. Norn had no opinion of the chaos of shapes and colors that surrounded her as she traversed the space.

Except, that everything clashing, the wood and the glass and the post-modernism–

Probably reflected on the man who cocooned himself within.

“Emperor von Fueller, eternal be your reign. Norn Tauscherer brings counsel.”

Stepping into his bedroom, Norn dropped to one knee and looked at the ground.

Pulling a beret off her head and holding it to her chest.

“Oh Norn, no, you do not need to! Sister, dear sister! Please stand and look at me!”

He touched her shoulder, and so beckoned, Norn stood, and she did look him in the eyes.

Still unused to seeing nothing of the man that she had fought for, for so long already.

Norn still looked as she always had, while Konstantin looked like a corpse walking. She wanted to see the blond clean-shaven boy of her past but she saw instead a wizened figure, cheeks sinking, copious grey hair down his back, a sleek but dense beard. His shoulders, his limbs, had all grown skinny. His hands were the only place he had remained strong, because he made use of his fingers still. He was dressed in coveralls and an ornate coat without any shoes. He had been working. All around his bedroom, copious amounts of mechanical trinkets paraded about, flying, climbing poles, spinning on the ground. Mechanical knights on clockwork horses charging at nothing, origami birds made of thin steel sheets, functioning quadrotors assembled piece by piece. An entire clock in the middle of being put together piece by little piece, meticulously engineered, blueprints on the bed.

“Do you like it?” Konstantin asked. He gestured toward the clock with a smile on his face, ear to ear, so proud, so excited. “Nobody makes these anymore. Isn’t it a shame? I found the schematics and I wanted to make one. The Fueller library, we have all kinds of these things. Blueprints for old machines that have no purpose anymore. I wanted to make one so badly– it caught me one day, the itch. Like a haunting from the past. So I had all the pieces made very exactingly but I did not want it stitched together. Do you like it?”

“It’s stately.” Norn said. “But did you have to make it run? Isn’t the structure nice enough?”

“No, no, no.” Konstantin said. “Things– things are their function. Beauty– it’s function. A clock that doesn’t run– it’s a waste isn’t it? It can do nothing but be stared at. Robbed of itself. I wanted to make something that ran. That had a purpose for being.”

He had trouble speaking. His condition was clearly deteriorating since she last saw him.

Norn thought grimly, he might die before Erich ever gets his hands on him.

If Erich were so inclined of course–

“Konstantin, I am here because you are robbing Heitzing of its purpose, as you say.”

Konstantin’s eyes narrowed. “Heitzing is an abomination. I am fixing it, once and for all.”

Norn grunted. “Are you willing to tell me what is down there now?”

“No. Never you mind that. I have made my final judgment.” Konstantin said.

She could tell he wanted to turn around and go back to his toys.

He was half-stood up on the edge of the room and hall, half-staring away from Norn.

“Norn, we have to think about– we have to think about the future. Not just my children, but everyone’s children. Nobody should live with this thing held over their heads. All of these awful legends and superstitions, but also, the– the physical thing itself. I want to move the capital to Schwerin Isle, seal up Heitzing, blow it up for good. End it all. I trust Erich, but I will never trust Erich’s children, or his children’s children, I will not be here to see them, I can’t evaluate what they’ll do. Or heaven forbid those Republic pigs. No. I have to fix it.”

Norn breathed in and out trying to calm her nerves and frustration.

“Right now, Heitzing is one of the few things keeping you in power, so-called Emperor.”

“Power? Bah! If that is so, then I abdicate with it. I’ll go with it, and it will go with me.”

“Konstantin, there’s no climbing down this mountain except the way you climbed up.”

“Then let them depose me, but they will do it after this hellmaw is finally buried.”

Norn’s face was slowly overcome by a grim expression.

She found herself speaking more candidly than she wanted to. Her emotions swelling.

“Konstantin, if you gave me the order, I would exterminate the lords and ministers. I would kill every plotter and annihilate all of their families down to the last crying baby in a cradle. I would put an end to everything you could not. I would protect you. I can protect you.”

Konstantin’s distracted expression was suddenly overcome with horror.

He had a face as grim as that which Norn herself was making at him.

Rushing back to Norn’s side he grabbed hold of her shoulders.

Kissing her on both cheeks in a way she found repellent– because he was so different now.

“Norn! Norn, my dearest friend, my oathsworn sister– no, absolutely not! It has to end, Norn!” He started to weep. His tears fell on her like droplets of blood from open wounds. “No more killing for me, Norn. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of this. I didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. I am so sorry. All of the evil I made you commit! I didn’t understand the consequences back then. Please. Don’t go after Sedlitz or Veka or anyone else. Promise me that you will not. It has to end. This is why I have to fix it.”

He was hysterical. “Fixing” Heitzing– by destroying the ancient machines in its bowels?

Even the children of Nocht had lost so much knowledge of what Heitzing could do. Even the old Fuellers long before the era of Konstantin could only slowly lose their grasp on what it contained. Today the true capabilities of the tower remained a mystery, along with its true origins. It was insane to speak of destroying the tower, and the functions they did understand, as a transformative change that would make the Empire freer.

Were he to take this tack to its logical extreme he would not be able to live in this suite making little toys all day– he would cut off his own lifelines, the Imbrium Empire would collapse and all the sharks chipping away at his power bit by bit would finally smell blood and throw themselves in teeth-first. But he seemed to not make that connection. That if he did not take action now, there would soon not be an Imbrian Empire for him to hide behind while he lived in luxury and ignored the reality of the outside world he fretted about.

It was Norn who had to go out there every day and deal with the consequences.

Not him– he was insulated from everything. He judged everything from a fleeting safety.

But for a moment, in that outburst of emotion– he sounded like himself.

So Norn, disarmed, could say nothing to him. Could no longer dissuade him from it.

He wanted to declaw Heitzing, he would do it. He wanted to move the capital, so be it.

When he had conviction behind him he could do such things.

And he so often lacked any conviction that to see it caused Norn a dreadful feeling.

She would have to leave this room and set forward those machinations and watch.

Watch him rot away; watch the Empire fall apart; watch the vultures rise from under him.

All were worse than he was; and far, far worse than he had been, when she knew him.

“Norn, Syrmia is an old woman, and Erich is strong– but please take care of Elena.”

Had he really said that? Back then? 974 was not so long ago for her head to be so muddled.

“Take care of her. She’s just like her mother. Her mother– rest her soul–”

Konstantin’s weeping features distorted like the paintings on the living room walls.

For a brief instant he looked more deformed, hideous, broken and rotting than ever before.

His face etched itself into Norn’s bright red eyes as if laser-burnt into her–

Her eyes snapped open.

Cold sweat running down her, sticking to the wine-red blanket.

Steel, all around her.

Not the fine wood construction of the suite. She was in a wine-red metal room with dim yellow lights. Mirrored surfaces on every third panel reflected her half of her face, parts of her bed, and her sleeping partner, back to her. She was on a plush bed with soft silky sheets. Clothes had been thrown and came to lay all around the room in different locations.

Norn had been dreaming of old days. She was nowhere near Heitzing now.

It was actually 979 A.D. Five years later.

Konstantin was dead and the Imbrium Empire was near-totally dissolved.

She sat up on the bed in her private bedroom on her flagship, the Antenora.

Her back stung. Distinct, short lacerations– a woman’s nails.

Reaching behind herself, over her shoulders, she touched open wounds.

Throwing a sudden contemptuous glance at the beautiful, fair, utterly naked back of the red-haired woman sound asleep beside her. Her expression quickly dissolved into fondness. Norn had given far harder than she had gotten and Adelheid was practically fucked to sleep, and so there she lay, discarded where she had been used. Circular bite marks, red sucking marks, blood-flecked bruises, on her shoulders, neck, down her back. A ring of bright red visible on her left breast. Soaked with sweat down her back, and soaked between the legs.

Her face was serene. Her breathing steady. A smile on her red-smeared lips.

Norn could not help but smile and sigh fondly at the sight.

When she moved to get up, stretching out made the claw marks hurt even worse.

Looking around the room, still a bit hazy in the eyes.

Despite the damage that the Pandora’s Box had inflicted on the upper tier of the ship, Norn’s room managed to survive as it was sealed shut at the time. Once the upper tier damages were patched up enough, and all the spilled anti-flooding gel and freezing agents in the halls were chipped away, Norn had use of the room again. She re-inaugurated it by inviting Adelheid to sleep with her. Adelheid’s own room was still being prepared.

And Adelheid belonged to her– she could tell her where to sleep without pretext.

Tossing her hair, pulling off the band holding it in a ponytail, Norn ambled to her shower.

Turning the water on cold and standing under it, head down, hands on the wall.

Cold water running down her back and over the scratches Adelheid left on it.

It stung. She grinned. Everything was so complicated, but pain, at least, was simple.

She recalled her dream. Konstantin had really been haunting her lately. Was it her just desserts? He was already Emperor when she met him, but her exploits gave him confidence to be more than Emperor of parts of the Palatine and Rhinea. Without her intervention could he have reached the heights that he achieved? She cleared his way by defeating Mehmed, then became part of his retinue, his loyal bannerman who could defeat anyone in battle. Stronger than Samoylovych-Daybringer or Arvokas the Kinslayer or any Shimii Hero; a match for any Katarran Warlord, Bayatar, or the Hanwan Konoe Shidan; killer of an Immortal.

Norn had helped crown Konstantin the new hegemon of the Imbrium. When a certain traitor insinuated that the chaos in the Imbrium was her fault Norn had answered in the affirmative– but it went deeper than any singular scheme. Norn was just a brick in the Imbrium’s foundation, but she was a miraculous brick laid at a critical time.

Now Konstantin was dead. Erich had killed him, Norn had killed him, Leda had killed him; the Empire itself killed him. His magnificent power had ultimately taken everything he loved from him. It had withered his bones and stripped his hair of color. It bored a hole in his soul, and through that void he let slip even the modicum of empathy he had for his distant subjects. The evil shape of the Imbrian Empire was as much his direct doing as the result of his neglect. He could have chosen for the Fueller Reformation to do anything— and choosing nothing over the years and years of his rule, made him responsible for the conspiracies, the pogroms, the continuation of slavery, the nascent tumor of the Volkisch.

It all started when, instead of killing him instantly, Norn wanted to see hope in him instead.

That stupid woman who had hardly made any decisions in her life; she made the worst.

“Those same judgments I levy on him apply to me, don’t they? I’m the villain here.”

Teeth chattering as she spoke to herself under the torrent of biting cold.

Little punishment for the evil she had tacitly supported, by her inaction, by her support.

Norn was responsible for the pogroms, slavery, the Volkisch, and now, the dissolution.

She laughed at how horrid everything had turned out.

No matter what, she was a Katarran.

Those cursed; those condemned. Never to know peace. It was their fate, wasn’t it?

So what would she do now? There was no making amends for any of it. It was too much.

Was all she could do ride the storm of blood to the end and make good on her old promise?

Kill everyone who had used, lied to and betrayed her– and her dear brother Konstantin?

Not the shell he had become– but the man he once was and could have remained–

Behind her, the door slid open. Norn did not turn to look, she knew who it was.

“Oh! Goodness! It’s so cold– let me warm you up, dearest master.”

A fair and slender hand extended past Norn’s chest to the controls on the wall.

Another cupped one of Norn’s breasts, squeezing. Then the first went to her waist.

As the water became warmer, a sizeable pair of breasts pressed against her back.

Red hair fell over her shoulders. A kiss was laid on her cheek.

“I’m being a good girl today.” Adelheid whispered.

“Are you?” Norn asked, laughing. She was not surprised at this intrusion.

Adelheid pulled her in tighter from behind, embracing her even more closely.

Skin to skin at all points without even a film of water between.

“You really set me straight. I can barely walk. I will certainly not court your wrath now.”

Her voice took on a sultry tone as she spoke of what was done to her.

Norn felt the words in her ears and stiffened between the legs.

“Who gave you permission to come in here?” Norn said gently.

“I can be good.” Adelheid whispered.

Norn her felt her breathing rise sharply, suddenly.

“You can be? We’ll just have to see.”

Norn reached back and took Adelheid’s wrist.

Roughly.

Pulling it down from her waist.

“Do I have to do everything myself? Or can you be good?” She said.

“I can be good.” Her words submissive, distant, almost dream-like.

Adelheid’s hand, guided halfway, completed the journey herself.

Cupping Norn’s cock until her fingers dexterously wound around the erect shaft.

Stroking, warm water between silken skin and warming, rigid flesh.

Norn shuddered. Laughed. “Maybe you can be good. Show me. You can do it.”

Fingers sliding up and down Norn’s cock, thumb pausing over the head and pressing.

Turning the thumbprint over the surface of Norn’s tip, roughly, before sliding back down.

She grit her teeth. It was exquisite but she would not admit any praise so easily.

Without request or instruction, Adelheid found the rhythm that made Norn’s hips shudder.

No smart words left her lips, however. She was being good; she was really a good girl.

Quiet, compliant, and excellently-behaved– for how long only she knew.

In this moment, however, it was long enough. Norn groaned and buckled slightly.

Lost in the rushing shower water, small feed of Norn’s orgasm preceded a strong shudder.

“Good girl. You really earned it.” Norn said, breathing heavy.

Hips still shaking gently, her spent dick still twitching in Adelheid’s fingers.

“Can a good girl get a reward?” Adelheid asked.

Without word, Norn turned around, meeting Adelheid’s bright eyes.

Taking in her beauty, the soft, pleading expression on her eyes, the little pout on her lips.

Norn briefly arranged the bright red hair away from Adelheid’s features.

Her hands then took Adelheid’s hips and pushed her to the rear wall of the shower.

Lifting her, so she could lock her legs to Norn’s waist. Pinned against the false tile.

Just holding her like this was almost enough to get Norn hard again.

Savoring the weight of physical control. Adelheid was hers without any actual binding.

Intoxicated with lust, it was Norn’s turn to push close to Adelheid.

Roughly, suddenly.

Kissing her deep. Tongue pushing far into her mouth.

Tasting residual bitterness of liquor. Smeared wax and pigment from her makeup.

Breaking the kiss. Adelheid lifted her head as her neck was lavished with Norn’s attention.

Her chest tightening, breasts rising and falling with heavy breaths.

Her back arching.

Lower body shuddering and pushing against Norn.

Toes curling, eyes shut, teeth clenched.

“Norn– I love you–” Adelheid said through shuddering gasps.

Norn made a brief noise as if to quiet her, lifting her just enough more to suck in her breast.

Beneath the rising warm mist, Norn’s fingers traced her lover’s cunt, up and down.

Adelheid’s hands tightened against whatever of Norn she could hold in the throes.

Her rhythm was slower than Adelheid’s hands had been. She was working her up to it.

“I– I love you so much–” Adelheid whimpered.

Sharp intake of breath each time Norn ever so briefly brushed her clit.

“You make me feel like my time is moving.” Norn admitted between hungry kisses.

Whether Adelheid understood the significance as Norn’s fingers entered her–

It did not matter; it was all the admission of their love that was needed.

“You make me feel alive again.” Norn whispered as she took her in closer and harder.

Close enough to feel each orgasm as if through a shared body, and lose all individual fears.


“You’re a lucky one, little miss! Full recovery, and a clean bill of health.”

“This wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t stuck me with weird drugs!”

“Me? You can’t blame me for that. Doses were administered at your command.”

“Alright, yeah, it’s my fault, I’m the moron who fucked everything up! Fine! Whatever!”

“Miss, I think you ought to just celebrate. How about some codeine for the road?”

Across from the enthusiastic doctor, a young woman averted her gaze.

Her beautiful face passively making an indignant scowl. She ran her fingers through her long and fluffy purple hair, wishing that she never had to make any recovery in the first place. A pair of semi-translucent rabbit-like ears with dimly lit vascular lines that curved out from the top of her head twitched as a sign of her growing irritation. She felt like an idiot. It really had all been her fault– and she had to sit around doing nothing for days because of it.

Stewing in the fact that she had lost control of her emotions and nearly got herself killed.

In her desperate attempt to kill that enemy pilot, Sonya Shalikova–

(Whose visage seemed burned into her mind despite never having seen her–)

–she had overdosed on Psynadium and lost her wits completely.

Then that creepy pervert Lichtenberg had ordered her to attack while her guard was down.

In Selene’s mind, in that moment, she swore she had heard Norn give the order to fire.

It was only after the fact that she realized she had been used and made a fool of.

Goryk’s Gorge was still a horrid and fresh memory for Selene.

Now she was in no mood to be friendly or compliant with anyone.

“Keep your drugs to yourself. Can I go now? Can I be out and about again?”

On the chair next to the bed, the risible excuse for a “doctor” of the Antenora, Livia Van Der Meer, smiled brightly at her. She raised a clipboard and showed it as if it mattered to her.

“It’s got Norn’s signature and everything. Selene Anahid, free to go out and about.”

Selene sighed deeply, stood up off the medbay bed and left the room in a huff.

Dressed in a wide-neck, ribbed brown sweater that exposed her shoulders and a pair of tight blue pants, Selene wished she had anywhere to go to show herself off. She had dressed for where she wanted to be– anywhere more interesting than these sterile metal halls. At least they were headed for a station soon. Maybe she could have a little adventure in Aachen. In the meantime all she could wish for was for the ship to get attacked so she could deploy and take out days’ worth of her repressed anger on something alive by making it dead.

Though it was rather unlikely that they would be attacked in photic zone, 500 meters deep.

Hunter III would see to it that the Leviathans would not bother them.

So Selene had nothing to do. Or nothing she wanted to do. She was at loose ends.

Selene walked down to the hangar, the speed of her steps suddenly renewed. She hardly looked at her surroundings, now well-traveled. She hardly felt about them as she crossed them. The Antenora was a ship– and Selene had little opinion on them. Tight metal halls, stately compared to smaller vessels but nothing warm, nothing that felt like a home to her. It was familiar, but from what she knew and what culture she had picked up from external sources, it was not comfortable.

She had grown up in the sterile halls of deep abyss Sunlight Foundation laboratories, where all color was trapped in the laboratories of the immortals Euphrates and Tigris. So she was used to being surrounded by metal walls with a low ceiling and close boundaries. Not wanting to become a scientist like her caretakers, and longing for the outside world, she would eventually be given over to the Sovereign Yangtze who needed bodies for hardware testing, and then seconded to Norn, learning to pilot Divers and fight battles, and stepping into the military world that fascinated her as a child.

Her current gig as the Jadgkaiser’s test pilot helped satisfy her desire to know what else was out in the world. Charmed by stories of soldiers fighting for ambition and power, she had done everything she could to go out to sea. Now she had discovered what was out there– and her enthusiasm dimmed. It had been undeniably fun to use the Jagdkaiser to crush those who stood in Norn’s way. She had never cared about them, never thought twice about killing them and she still did not. To go out to sea, one accepted the possibility of being crushed by the immense pressure. To guarantee safety, one simply had to stay home.

They left home; they accepted the consequences.

But she had not realized how close that knife of judgment was to her own vulnerable throat.

Sonya Shalikova– was she a real soldier in a way Selene was not?

Or even, could not be?

She shook her head.

So much intrusive, annoying philosophy bouncing around in her skull.

It was boredom, she told herself. She had been so disengaged she was becoming insane.

Perhaps she should report to Norn, but she did not feel like being obedient.

Truthfully she felt a bit lonely but she would not let herself admit to that.

Instead, she wanted to goof off or pick on someone. To find another person to bother.

With Potomac gone, however, she struggled to think of who she could harass for fun.

Yurii Samoylovych was way too scary. She might actually get out of hand with Selene.

Petra Chorniiy was too dense and compliant. She wouldn’t even respond to mockery.

Hunter III was too stupid. There was no challenge; it got boring very quickly.

She could get the zombies to do push-ups or form a human pyramid but it was too easy.

From what she had seen, Adelheid liked being bullied, which was just kind of gross.

Norn was Norn. She gave back as good as she got and bothering her had consequences.

“Oh wait. There’s that new mechanic girl.” Selene’s lips warped into an impish grin.

Her steps regained their confident character as she stepped into the elevator.

Down in the hangar, much of the mess that Selene remembered before her medical recovery had been cleaned up. The remains of her old Jagdkaiser were gone. The machines once belonging to von Castille and Lichtenberg were also gone. There were three gantries set up in a tidy fashion. Yuri’s Jagd model Diver and Petra’s Volker beside it; and the second version of the Jagdkaiser. Selene looked up as she approached it, looking it over.

Her companion through whatever was next.

Her previous Jagdkaiser had been defined by its shoulders, heavy-set, bearing the mounts for the Options and the thick support attachment necessary for its wicked cannon-arm. Selene had to admit the second version had refined much of the first. Yangtze, with whatever small amount of data she had extracted from Selene’s struggles, had whittled down many unnecessary things– it was as if the new version of the demon had been hatched from cracking the old one like an egg. Slimmer shoulders and limbs and a cockpit with more aggressive angles to its armor. It’s horned head had been ever so slightly-slimmed down. Selene almost thought of gendering this thing female in her head now.

Slightly widened hips attached to a semi-circle magnetic strip in the rear that now hosted four smaller Options, rather than the big shoulder-mounted type. A smaller backpack with only two traditional jets was supported by four separate, all-inclusive wake-jet pods on the rear shoulder and hips. From what Selene understood, these thrusters took advantage of the fact that the water in the Imbrium Ocean was bizarrely agarthoconductive due to all the agarthic salt now found in it. Therefore they needed no moving parts to generate thrust, just some intricate engineering to accelerate agartho-ionized water through it.

Perhaps it would move even faster if the water was more contaminated.

A macabre fact.

However, the agarthic weapon embedded into the machine’s arm was nearly unchanged.

Save for one fact. It had been moved to shoot from the wrist, and a normal hand was added.

With the removal of the embedded claw in the other arm, Selene could choose a loadout. She could wield rifles and swords instead of the inadequate built-in weapons.

That might give her a better chance– she almost pondered a “rematch” with Shalikova.

In reality such a thing was highly unlikely to happen.

Selene tried not to think of it further.

Across the hangar from the Jagdkaiser, there was a woman standing in front of a stitcher.

Grinning to herself, Selene quietly made her way over.

When they first met, this individual had stupidly blurted out her real name instead of her code name– Dunja Kalajdžić rather than “Neretva.” She had not endeared herself back then but Selene was in a mood to reevaluate. She had to admit the mechanic was a little bit of a looker. She was just a bit shorter, enough that Selene would use it against her. With her coveralls pulled half-off, exposing the ribbed tanktop she wore beneath, Neretva had slim, lean shoulders and arms with a bit of definition. Her tits were alright, and she had a bit of belly. Her face was okay, slightly round, slightly pretty– wavy brown hair tied into a little nerdy tail, nerdy little glasses on a nerdy little nose. A bit of freckling, big eyes, thin lips. Her Shimii ears were rounded off and fluffy, and her tail was short and bushy.

Poring over a ferri-stitcher blueprint on a portable while preparing the machine to print.

“Oh ho, what do we have here? Do you have permission to print little kitty?”

Selene loomed over her target, bending slightly, putting her chest to Neretva’s back.

Her grinning face was partially reflected in the touchscreen of the ferristitcher.

Along with Neretva’s eyes, drawing wide, and the flushing of her cheeks.

“Oh! Miss Anahid! How– how nice to see you have recovered!”

Neretva turned around quickly, raising her hands up in defense.

Selene had not backed away even a centimeter from the meek mechanic.

“It was inevitable. I am built of stern stuff, you know. So what are you doing here?”

“I’m– It’s nothing untoward– I have permission from Lord von Fueller–”

Selene’s eyes narrowed and her grin widened. Neretva could not meet her eyes.

“Then why are you so nervous? Obviously it’s because you’re hiding something.”

“Look, see, these are blueprints for Jadgkaiser parts!” Neretva showed Selene her portable.

There were Stitcher print files for various bits and bobs like specific Jagdkaiser bolts and hydraulics and plates. Selene could not recognize them as coming specifically from the Jagdkaiser but they were labeled as such. Neretva was just loading the templates into the ferristitcher in order to have them available for when she needed to stich up some parts in the future, Selene supposed. Regardless, what she was actually doing did not matter.

“I’ll let you off the hook this one time.” Selene said. “But you have to grant me one wish.”

“One wish?” Neretva asked, quavering slightly.

“Uh huh. I’ll never trust you ever again unless you pass my ultimate test of loyalty.”

Neretva still could not make eye contact. Even the insides of her ears were turning red.

“Um– ma’am– miss– is this really–”

“I know a little magic spell to get your compliance– Dunja Kalajdžić.” Selene whispered.

Rivers were not supposed to use their real names on Sunlight Foundation business.

For their protection, and the security of the Foundation too.

Only the Immortals could be glib about their real names, but they hardly used them, and they were all so old, that even they hardly ever spoke them. For Rivers, regardless of how ridiculous their code names sounded, they were required to use them or risk expulsion and perhaps even the deletion of their memories by Yangtze for breaking their covenant.

Having fumbled and given out her real name, Neretva looked mortified.

“Please don’t use that name.” Neretva whispered back. “I’ll do whatever you say!”

“Good, very good. I like a compliant girl– but you know what I like even better?”

“I– I don’t know–”

“I like for my subordinates to look up at me like a goddess. From far, far below my station.”

It seemed to dawn upon Neretva at that point that she was being toyed with.

However, all this inspired not determination but a look of helplessness on her face.

That simply motivated Selene to continue bothering her even more. It was so funny!

She was such a pathetic wimp! Who even let this loser into the Sunlight Foundation!

“Don’t worry. It will be merciful. I won’t make you do anything too weird.”

“What do I need to do?” Neretva sighed.

“Well, of course, I don’t look monumental enough from this height. You have to get down.”

Selene pointed at the ground and shook one of her feet.

Her casual open-toed heels would come in handy for this particular situation.

Neretva raised her shaking hands, interposing them defensively in front of Selene.

Selene noticed the clear indentations in her fingers and wrist. Her hands were cybernetic.

“That’s supposed to be ‘not weird’?! You said it wouldn’t be weird?!” Neretva whimpered.

Selene turned her cheek and shrugged and pretended to start walking away.

“I guess I’ll call you ‘Dunja’ from now on. I’ll dox you and find out everything about you.”

“No– but– I don’t– please, I don’t have any secrets–”

“Kowtow and kiss my feet and it’ll all go out of my head like it never happened.”

Neretva’s head was set to spinning, Selene could tell. She grinned viciously.

She had her wrapped around her finger. She felt like an actual goddess in that moment.

It was both funny and a bit titillating. She made the perfect choice for whom to bother.

“It’s not all bad you know. If you become my worshiper I’ll bestow you with blessings.”

Selene closed in again on Neretva, reaching and caressing a few locks of her hair.

Neretva suddenly laid her portable on one of the resting arms of the ferristitcher.

She shut her eyes, bent one knee, and then the other, lowered her head–

Oh my god! She’s such a little wimp!! I wish I could take a picture!!! Ahahahahaha–!!!!

Spread her lips, closed them, and sucked one of Selene’s toes–

WHAT THE HELL–!!!!!!!!

Selene drew back so suddenly she nearly fell on her arse on the hangar floor.

Neretva quietly stood back up, face fiercely red, with a look of nervous resignation.

“Will you trust this useless worshipper and have mercy, miss Selene?” Neretva mumbled.

There was definitely shame in her voice but that expression–! It did not look ashamed–!

“W-why, you– you are absolute trash– you gas-sucking vent worm!” Selene grumbled.

“Oh, you’re not tying them up now. I didn’t know they could emote– that’s really neat.”

Something caught the mechanic’s attention and seemed to distract her from everything.

Neretva pointed a heavily shaking finger and nervously flicked one of Selene’s antennae.

Selene noticed her antennae were twisting up in frustration as she stood and yelled.

Upon contact with Neretva’s quivering digit the antennae started quaking uncontrollably.

Immediately Selene grabbed both of her ‘rabbit ears’ and pulled them down to stop them.

“Don’t touch me! What is your problem? Don’t you have common sense?!” She shouted.

“I’m– I’m just resigning myself.” Neretva said, clearly nervous. “As your worshipper.”

Despite shaking and sweating and being unable to hold eye contact– she was so brazen!

Selene wanted to admonish her further but she realized how childish she must have looked.

Having her own foul play turned against her and looking like a mess– that too was pathetic!

She calmed herself down and tried to play along with the outcome of their little game.

“Hmph! Well. Clearly you know your place under the sole of my foot. I will graciously accept you as my lackey from now on. But you must obey me to the letter! No– improvisations!”

“Y-yes, m-m-mistress.” Neretva stammered, smiling very slightly.

That ‘mistress’ entered Selene’s gut like a knife– and pulled down to her groin.

She averted her own gaze. “Get back to work. I’ll just inspect and make sure.”

Without a word, the quivering Neretva returned to what she had been doing.

Among the two of them it was tough to say whose face was redder.

Selene looked at Neretva’s back as she worked, loading the files into the stitcher. She had the stitcher arms move and make up a framework of a Diver part in order to test that the outside joins were being handled correctly. It was boring– Selene had no idea why the machine had to be calibrated and could not just perfectly replicate the print files. Neretva seemed to know what she was doing, and Selene’s eyes drifted.

Down her back, following the tanktop until it cut off at her lower midsection.

It was there that Selene noticed, just above Neretva’s tail and buttocks–

Oops, my finger slipped~

She ran her hands down a bit metal she saw peeking out from Neretva’s cover-all pants.

Neretva shuddered slightly and reached back her hand over the piece.

“Please don’t poke at that, miss Selene.” Neretva said, her voice quivering a little again.

“What is it? Are you a weird cyborg like Hudson is? You apprenticed under her right?”

“I’m not a ‘weird cyborg’ no– but master Hudson did help me by installing these for me.”

Neretva left her portable on a stitcher arm and once again turned to Selene.

She knelt down and for a moment Selene thought she might attack her toes again–

–instead Neretva pulled up her pants sleeve enough to show Selene a bit of her leg.

Attached to her flesh and maybe even to the bone was a thin exoskeletal metal part.

Selene had seen this category of enhancement before in the media and in stories.

Sometimes workers would receive augmentations such as these. To let them lift heavier loads or to be able to work as hard once they grew older and weaker. Compared to how advanced internal cybernetics had gotten, allowing people who could afford it to get muscle replacements and even internal hydraulic boosters, exoskeletal work prosthesis like Neretva’s were quite simple. Selene wondered why a cybernetics freak like Hudson would perform such simple work. Did Neretva not want to follow in her footsteps?

“I have a condition– I have to work harder to move my legs.” Neretva said in a low voice.

“Oh! Is that so? And the exo’s hydraulics help get your legs going?”

“Indeed. It’s really helped my quality of life a lot. I can’t thank master Hudson enough.”

Selene momentarily felt a bit rotten to have been picking on a girl with a condition.

She disabused herself of that notion pretty quickly– she didn’t want to dwell on it.

If it had been her she wouldn’t have wanted anyone’s weak pity like that.

“Miss Selene, you were raised by masters Euphrates and Tigris, is that correct?”

“Uh huh. ‘Raised’ is giving them too much credit though. Those two hags just made sure I hadn’t died and periodically gave me stuff to read and watch and whatever. Tigris was always busy with some stupid invention and any time Euphrates caught sight of me she would just give me an annoying lecture. Both of them annoyed me so much growing up.”

“That sounds about right.” Neretva smiled. “I was raised by master Hudson.”

“Ah, I see. So you’re like her daughter or something.”

“Do you count yourself Euphrates and Tigris’ daughter?”

“What? No? Of course not? Fuck no? Not in a million years?”

Neretva laughed a little bit. “I wish I was as energetic as you.” Her voice trembled again.

Selene gave her hair a haughty toss, feeling self-satisfied to have received praised.

“How come I didn’t see you around?” She asked.

“Because– I wasn’t around– I suppose?” Neretva was getting stuck on her words again.

“Uh huh. I guess I didn’t see Hudson around much either.” Selene said.

“And I never saw masters Euphrates and Tigris much.” Neretva said. “Especially recently.”

“You’ll have to specify what ‘recent’ means.” Selene said, grinning. “With Euphrates and Tigris, ‘recent’ is like 200 years ago. It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”

“I’m not Immortal.” Neretva said bashfully. “So I guess I mean, in the past year?”

“They’ve been busy. Plus they all hate each other now, so you’ll never see them again.”

“I really hope that isn’t the case.” Neretva said nervously. “I admired them all a lot.”

“What’s there to admire? They’re a bunch of insane hags all stuck in their own ways.”

Neretva looked upset for once. “Those ‘hags’ are doing more for humanity than anyone.”

“What’s with that tone? Am I getting under your skin? Want to go under the heel again?”

Selene leaned forward into the confrontation. Neretva just sighed and turned around.

Trembling again. Selene only briefly saw something in her. A tiny flash of red aura.

“Fine. Keep up the good work, Neretva. I’ll be watching.” Selene said sharply.

Turning on her heel and putting her back to the mechanic without a further word.

There was a sharp pain in the center of her forehead. Not from psionics or anything–

Just frustration and a bolt of self-loathing that were fogging her mind up.

Ugh, that wasn’t fun at all. What am I fucking doing? Why didn’t I just talk to her normally?

It was all so childish but– wasn’t it at least supposed to be funny? It was funny, right?

If she could not even convince herself of that then what the hell was she doing?

At that moment she felt so low she just wanted to hide in her room and never leave it.

Maybe she should have just taken the codeine from that insane pusher upstairs.

“I’ll come out when Norn needs me. To hell with all of this, I’m done. I’m done!”

It was being cooped up in here that was driving her insane. It was the noise and the people and how irritating everything was to her. It was lack of sleep. It was a knock to the head. It was bad food and being bored. It was her genes being too superior yet not at all.

As many excuses as she could come up with stacked together to make sense of things.

Selene felt lonely and lost and purposeless and like it was impossible not to feel that way.

And that was the last thing she would ever admit.

So she slunk off to her room and sulked for as long as she could get away with.

Eventually someone would need her again and she would have a reason to exist again.


“Hah hah! Helm-hominin, 50 disagrees to the farboard! 60 disagrees! Fire all big ones!”

In the Captain’s chair sat a short and somewhat skinny woman, girlish in features, quite pale, the only color on her a blue stripe in her hair. Dressed in a big black hood, a smooth, rubbery-looking tail swinging behind her. She pointed dramatically at the screen. It was known that she could barely read and thus barely understand the Imbrian scrawls all over the map in front of her but it did not matter. Because she could barely tell if anyone was listening either, and therefore they all had orders not to. However, she looked like she was amused.

“Captain Hunter III! The ancient navigator scourin’ the world for meat and shinies!”

“I’m curious, what is more important, my dear Hunter III: meat or shinies?”

“Huh? What kinda question is that? Meat of course! But imagine eatin’ a load of meat while also bein’ all covered in the best shinies. You’d be like a king or somethin’! King Hunter III! That’s what she said it’d be like anyways– it was never like that for poor ol’ Hunter III–!”

Hunter III started moping in an exaggerated fashion until she seemed to realize–

She turned sharply in her chair to find Norn standing next to her with a grin.

Dressed in a long-sleeved red and yellow shirt with a deeply plunging neckline, flattering her humble cleavage, and a pair of pants; along with the Fueller family coat, blue and green with an abstract etching of an old semiconductor die, trailing veins of color and gold. Her blond hair done up in a simple ponytail, her imperious, beautiful face contorted into a sneer.

“I think you’ve eaten too much. It’s made you far too chipper.” Norn said, amused.

“This’s how Hunter III is s’posed to be!” Hunter III shouted. “I was dyin’ t’death before!”

“You had a delicious cut of steer not that long ago.”

“So? Do you hominin ever just eat somethin’ tasty once and then stop forever?”

Grumbling complaints, Hunter III vacated the Captain’s chair.

She sat against the rear wall of the bridge with her arms crossed, hood pulled up, sulking.

“You’d be happier if you learned to enjoy the jerky and sausages you eat every day.”

As always following behind Norn was the adjutant, Adelheid van Mueller.

Black sheep of the number two aristocratic family in the Empire, the Muellers, staunchest supporters of the Fueller family. Once upon a time they were critical to providing food supplies for the Fueller war effort against the Nocht loyalists, and by that opportunity propelled themselves to the heights of the new Fueller-led aristocracy.

Adelheid had absolutely no trace of a farm girl in her appearance, however.

Even while dressed in military garb she gave off an air of a high society fashionista, beautiful and exactingly confident and a bit aloof, as if only that which interested her could be allowed to exist around her. Her very red hair falling over her shoulders, her fair skin and youthful features, the tiny amount of faint freckles near her nose, and her piercing eyes, lent her an intense but girlish beauty that was the platonic ideal of a noble lady. On her body, the tight, flattering gray uniform coat and skirt, along with the covering bodysuit that she wore, long sleeved and high-necked– all of it looked as if it had color, owing to her radiance.

One could not look too long, however– this princess was the property of a jealous dragon.

With a self-assured little smile on her red lips, she took her seat beside Norn on the bridge.

“Situation report.” Norn asked. “Where are we now, and how far are we to Aachen?”

On command the drones that worked on the bridge began their reports.

Norn went over what had transpired in her own mind too.

The Antenora had a rocky start to its nominal mission, assigned a few months ago by the crown Prince Erich von Fueller as the Empire underwent its collapse. They were meant to have been collecting test and R&D data for a next generation Diver known as the Jagdkaiser, the mass production of which would give instant superiority to the Fueller faction.

For this reason, Norn left the Palatine on her flagship, taking it first into the Photic zone. Selene proved quite adequate in slaughtering Leviathans and avoiding the Agarthic weather in the Jagdkaiser, so the testing returned to the aphotic zone, where Norn was met with a lot of unexpected business in Sverland. Avoiding a trap by a traitorous officer in the Serrano region; meeting up with a dear subordinate near Goryk’s Gorge and assisting her in attempting to recover Elena von Fueller, thought dead in the Vogelheim disaster.

Norn had refused to fight personally during this second skirmish, not wanting Gertrude to receive too much of a reward for her pathetic begging; but even despite this she had to admit that the Antenora had met something of its match in the mysterious Pandora’s Box, a mercenary ship that had taken in Elena von Fueller. Despite Gertrude Lichtenberg’s protestations, Norn let them escape to their own fortunes, and cast out her old student, having graduated ignominiously as one of Norn’s many repeated failures to cultivate a young conqueror’s ambitions. Now, Gertrude was possibly dead in the deep abyss, or possibly awakening to her true potential, who knew; Norn and her remaining troops meanwhile headed for Aachen, a city at the crossroads between Rhinea and the Palatine heartland, separated only by the Great Ayre Reach just beyond the Aachen Massif.

They had collected and sent enough data that Yangtze had already refined the Jagdkaiser into a second version for them to test. Mass production was nowhere near possible, as the Options representing the machine’s most practical offensive potential were not able to be ferristitched just yet. Another part, the most radical part of the machine’s arsenal, could also not be mass produced yet– the exotic cannon arm containing a taboo agarthic weapon. Judging by the number of cartridges given to Norn in her last supply rendezvous, Yangtze wanted much more data on this weapon specifically in future rounds of testing.

Norn, meanwhile, wanted to rip Yangtze open and strangle her with her own intestines.

For the moment, what was she actually, officially doing was a resupply and retrofit mission.

The Antenora had been banged up, and Aachen was a place where it could receive attention that was prompt, reliable and inconspicuous. There was a faction of the Shipbuilders Guild in Aachen who supported the Fuellers, rather than the liberal trade unionists, the constellation of leftists, or the fascist breakaway government of the Volkisch Movement. With their support, the Antenora could park in Stockheim and receive everything that it needed, while Norn took a break. Adelheid was somewhat excited– Aachen was a city, and she had been out at sea for so long. She also had friends in Aachen, and Norn had friends too.

They could catch up, make some social calls.

However, what the Antenora was officially doing did not matter much to Norn.

It was just a smokescreen as she thought seriously about what she was doing anymore.

Defeat at the hands of the Pandora’s Box, and the tragic condition of Gertrude Lichtenberg, had provoked in Norn something she was unused to– serious personal introspection.

Those stupid dreams featuring her old oathsworn brother, whom she had betrayed–

That did not help matters either. Not that she felt much actual guilt over it.

What she felt was worse than guilt– more complicated and less difficult to describe.

Sitting in the chair, wearing the coat of the Fueller family, as its nominal head.

His coat– that she both helped him attain, helped him turn into a symbol of power–

–and watched him squander the splendor of its colors, before she stole them from him.

Norn was starting to feel a weight of responsibility– and the long trail of her own actions.

Even if she, personally, was an invincible body that could hardly be challenged.

Her world and the things she held dear were deeply vulnerable.

To enemies; to herself.

To their own flawed selves–

Her uncharacteristically brooding thoughts inspired curiosity in her adjutant and lover.

“Norn? Was the sitrep too boring? Would you like a massage?” Adelheid asked sweetly.

“No, I’m fine. Later.” Norn said. “I’m just thinking about what we will do at Aachen.”

It was not like Norn to lie, but she had no qualms about withholding information.

Especially where it concerned her emotional self.

“Don’t worry– as your adjutant, I will make sure your social calendar is well stocked.”

Adelheid winked at Norn and laid her hand over the back of Norn’s own hand.

Her fingernails scratched gently up and down over skin. Like a mildly rambunctious cat.

“I’ll leave it up to you then. You said you had a friend there, right?” Norn asked.

“Yes, an old classmate from Luxembourg School for Girls. Do you follow pop music?”

“I would not even know where to start following it, Adelheid.”

“I should have realized.” Adelheid shrugged. “That’s your old and unfashionable charm.”

Norn grunted. “You’re already done being ‘good’ even by your own warped definition?”

“Anyway– she’s made a tidy career as a singer.” Adelheid smiled, ignoring her. “Number one hits, magazine covers and even TV shows, all the glitz and glamour denied to me. Not that you would know. Not only that, she is getting married, unlike me, to the son of a bigshot family in Aachen that basically own the place. Maybe if we catch up at Aachen she might make me her bridesmaid, and I can experience second-hand what I will never have.”

Norn felt like every couple of words a knife was being thrown directly at her chest.

“You’ll experience first-hand the back of my hand if you keep throwing jabs at me.”

Adelheid put on an expression of utterly false and mocking contrition.

As if the slap had been delivered and she mischievously enjoyed it while feigning shame.

“Adelheid, I have a question for you. Use your brain for this one. I’m serious.”

“Oh, we’re done playing so soon? Boo. How boring.”

“Adelheid.”

“What is it?” Adelheid said, putting on a disinterested expression.

“Give me your honest assessment,” Norn began, “about the state of the civil war.”

Though she hardly ever showed it, Adelheid was actually a competent adjutant.

“Oh, it really is serious time, huh? You know, I have been thinking about it too.”

“Don’t you think it’s too quiet? It’s been months since the Emperor passed.” Norn asked.

Adelheid nodded her head.

“Indeed. Only Rhinea has made a big move to subsume another state; the Royal Alliance set up in their geographic neighborhood so they had no choice but to come to blows. So far none of the other competitors have started any outright shooting wars. There’s even still some inter-duchy commerce happening with all of the sides overlooking it.”

“Why do you think that is? Use your foreign policy brain. I need real analysis here.”

“You don’t have to tell me what brain to use, I’m not a bimbo like you think I am.” Adelheid said, now her turn to be aggrieved at the insults. She recollected herself and put out her hypothesis in a serious and even tone of voice. “If I had to hazard a guess– I think that the internal situations of the states are all worse than we think. Even the Union made a modest move with their invasion of Serrano, but from the news we gathered while leaving, it seems they haven’t capitalized further, even though the Volkisch are a mess right now. The Prince is being cautious even though his military forces are the qualitative best; and Veka, with a similarly strong military, is trying to focus on diplomacy instead. I think that politically they are too shaky for all-out war. They might risk creating opportunities for internal rivals.”

“That’s an interesting assessment. I think you’re right.” Norn said. “Honestly I don’t know what’s going on in Erich’s head– I advised him that he needed to attack Bosporus and Buren quickly to absorb their resources. But I’m not there with him. I’ve never been part of the Grand Western Fleet. I have no insight into its internal culture. He might be struggling to clean the ranks. There was a lot of corruption in the Navy. Maybe even in his fleet.”

“To think you’re being so distant with your nephew, who is now practically your son–”

“When you’re helping raise a child, you must give them room to resolve their own issues.”

“Right. I thought you’d say something like that.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

“I’m not done picking your brain.” Norn said. “You know more about the duchies than I.”

Adelheid shrugged. “I had to study foreign policy when I was the Mueller heiress.”

“How do you think these ‘internal problems’ might manifest in the competitor states?”

Adelheid brought her fingers as if to count them. “Let me see. I think– Buren’s nationalist revolution will need to be sure the old loyalist elements are fully suppressed; Veka has a strong and young officer cadre full of ambition that might need to be contained; Solcea is a theocracy, which has never been tried in the Imbrium, so I don’t know if they have the bureaucratic experience needed to keep the trams running; the anarchists in Bosporus are a mess because anarchist ‘government’ simply can’t work; Volgia can’t hide behind the ice wall forever, and the ice queen has the greatest variety of grudging subjects under her wing; The Palatine is less resource-rich than it used to be and all the social climbers in the aristocracy were located there before the split. I don’t know anything much about the Union, but I suspect they have the same problems everyone else does with ambitious officers, social climbers in government, ethnic grudges, economic constraints, and so on.”

As for Rhinea, they had already seen the problems in action. Same with the Royal Alliance.

It was a very apt assessment, befitting a woman who wished to serve the Praetorian.

Such a strange situation, where the Antenora’s skirmish with the Pandora’s Box might still merit a mention in the annals of history– because there were so few other battles in the dissolution of the Imbrian Empire that were worth mentioning so far.

It was impossible for there to be peace and unity among the fractured states, each was too ambitious to ever accept any of the others. But so far, most of them avoided immediately attacking and seizing their neighbors. While there might be skirmishing that Norn simply did not know about, if there were more all-out wars, she would have known.

Especially if those wars were being personally ordered by Erich von Fueller himself.

“It does feel like we’re, somehow, still in the calm before the storm.” Norn said.

“I don’t know whether anything will happen.” Adelheid said. “But something might.”

Norn sighed. Oh, to what depths Konstantin’s project of peace and order had fallen.

“At least Elena might be safe now– I suppose I fulfilled that promise.” She mumbled.

“What was that? Are you done quizzing me on things you ought to know now?”

Adelheid put on a fox-like grin again. Norn shot her a sharp look that made her shudder.

“Distributing some of my thinking is the role of my adjutant. And she does it well.”

Norn smiled. Adelheid looked surprised to have received praise while being a bitch.

It shut down her ability to respond with a snide remark and led her to sit quietly contented.

“Boring hominin junk! Who cares! Kill each other already and let Hunter III feast!”

From behind them, their little navigator heckled, clicked her tongue and slapped her tail.

“You’re always welcome to try to eat me, Hunter III. But you know what’s good for you.”

Hunter III quieted for a moment at Norn’s response. Her little brain must have been ticking.

“Eh– y’all bony and gross anyway. Easier to sit here and earn good meat.” She mumbled.


Selene laid on her bed, her back partially to the wall, propped up on a pillow.

Kicking her bare feet every so often as she read a magazine on a portable.

Swiping through pages full of fashion tips for young women; step by step guides to wearing some complicated outfits that required body glue or tape to pull off; makeup tutorials; reviews of the latest accessories and lingerie from the top brands. Gossip columns and celebrity talk and upcoming concerts from hot bands. It was typical for a Rhinean magazine, there were a lot of blonds even skinnier than Selene and with much flatter asses with super high cheekbones and little button noses– but she never expected to see a vat-grown intersex thing like herself in a magazine anyway. Still she read the magazine, and she thought about going on a shopping spree in Aachen, getting all the new pigments and buying up a dozen hypermodern vinyl tops and synthesilk pants and tiny lacy panties to feel sexy.

“Maybe I can bribe that buffoon Hunter III with some meat to carry all my stuff.”

Selene put the portable to her chest and laid on her side, thinking about things.

Like the girlhood she was only really getting to experience now– in a warped way.

Adelheid’s glitzy pop girlie magazines were an object of aspiration Selene would have never admitted to if she was asked. But even the clothes she was wearing presently, with her exposed shoulders and tight pants, had come out of a book like that. Selene imagined herself sometimes as a celebrity. What if she had been born with a namesake and family in the Imbrian Empire? She could have been anyone. She could have been a big name. And she dreamed that all of the eyes of the world could focus on her– she had the beauty for it, and she was incisive, quick-witted, and she was good at reading people thanks to psionics.

Even outside the impossible fantasies, however, fashion had a certain allure.

She rarely dressed up, but she wondered why she did not do it more–

it made her feel–

Human.

“Whatever. I’m actually the superior being, it’s all of them who are wrong.”

Right?

Selene idly reached out her hand to the drawer under her bed.

Producing again the cylinder of katov mass she kept hidden from everyone.

Popping it open, she induced it to become a caterpillar that crawled along her arm.

Red and shiny like slick living wax. Moving with electrically-induced purpose.

Mindless, soulless, lifeless, an imitation of life–

like herself–?

Selene shut her eyes and grit her teeth, the intrusive thought striking her like lightning.

Then she nearly jumped when there was a physical knock on the door.

“Selene. Are you decent? Get yourself up and come out here.”

Norn’s voice, undeniably.

Nearly spilled the red matter and nearly dropping her canister.

Quickly, she disassembled the red creature born of her whim and hid the canister again.

She stood up from the bed, put on her synthestitched heels and made her way to the door.

Opening it and finding herself immediately face to face with Norn, crossing her arms.

“What is it? You said I didn’t have to be alert during this trip.” Selene grumbled.

“That’s a really cute sweater. Are you proud of your shoulders?” Norn said.

“Uh huh, my shoulders are flawless, my face is angelic, my dick is sublime.” Selene joked.

“Who taught you to be this crude? Euphrates was never like this.” Norn sighed.

“What do you want already?” Selene said, leaning impatiently between the hall and door.

Norn leaned closer to her with a vicious little grin on her face.

“I thought you were just being a little shit for no reason, but it looks like you really forgot. I told you as soon as you recovered that I would put you through hell. It’s time for your training. Luckily for you, it’ll be hell for your brain, not your shoulders or your dick.”

Selene’s eyes drew wide.

She had completely forgotten that Norn had promised to train her.

Suddenly her heart was soaring.

Norn was going to train her? She would learn psionics from a powerful Apostle?

Her head filled with an all-consuming delusion.

Selene told herself, if she could ace the training in the first day without Norn’s help–

–she would prove her great power and intrinsic superiority.

How difficult could it be? Selene was already well versed in using psionics.

“Sorry Norn! I forgot! But I’ll be right down!” She said.

“You’ll be down right now. You don’t need to change clothes.” Norn said.

She gestured for Selene to follow her down the hall.

Without a word, Selene trailed obediently, down the hall with the officer’s quarters.

Norn stopped near the end of the hall and gestured for a side door.

Inside, was a meeting room that had been repurposed as storage for unused gym equipment. When the gym was damaged during the Goryk excursion, flood mitigation prevented the total destruction of the pod– some things survived and were stored. In addition, there were some leftover gym supplies that had lived in a corner here.

Dumbbells and disassembled machines and piles of rubber exercise mats.

In the center of the room, one mat and one piece of equipment had been laid out.

“I didn’t know I was going to get messy. I’d rather not in my nice sexy sweater.”

“You won’t be lifting weights the traditional way, so don’t worry.”

Norn’s eyes looked over Selene briefly and settled on her loose antennae.

“You’re not pinning down your rabbit ears anymore?” She asked, smiling.

“Yeah what about it? And don’t call them rabbit ears.” Selene said, turning her cheek.

Her rainbow-veined ‘rabbit ears’ stood up straight with a slight irritated twitch.

“I just think it’s nice. They are a unique charm point for you.” Norn said.

Selene made a face. “Gross. I’m gonna hack them off with a rescue axe now.”

“Tch. Colicky child. There’s no winning with you is there?”

Though Selene took umbrage to being called a child, she did not push her luck.

Norn gestured toward the equipment laid out in the middle of the mess.

There was a round base holding up a vertical metal weight bar. Circular weights were stacked on the pole near the base, each with a hole in the center. There were four such weights, each five kilograms. More weights were laid next to the pole, ready to be dropped on top of the rest. Selene stared at the pole and the weights, suppressing an urge to kick it over.

“Use kinesis to lift those weights.” Norn said. “If you send them flying, that’s a demerit. If you knock over the pole, that’s a demerit. If you hit me with anything– even worse. For each demerit on your psionic fitness journey, you owe me 20 physical push-ups on the mat.”

Selene shuddered. She stared at the weights, mildly annoyed at the test and consequences.

What kind of stupid training was this? Did Norn think she could flex her brain?

Bored, Selene lifted a hand and waved at the weights.

Near effortlessly, with nary a thought, the weights lifted from the base to the tip of the pole.

Just enough not to have the holes in the weights actually clear the pole.

She then let the weights drop back to the base with a loud clang.

With an emotionless expression on her face she turned back to Norn for feedback.

“Of course you can do that.” Norn said. “Don’t get too smug yet.”

Norn went around the pole, picked up more weights and dropped them on.

“Again.”

Thirty kilograms.

Selene lifted them up as easily as before. She did not even move her hand. Psionics was the power of the mind and human emotions. It was not strictly necessary to move any part of one’s body to perform psionics; however, Selene found that pointing at the object to be moved, or making a gesture at it, or even shouting at it, helped the power along.

In this case, however, she did not even need to make a noise or do anything.

Responding to the continuing lack of challenge, Norn dropped in even more round weights.

Sixty kilograms. Double what was on the pole before.

“Again.” Norn said.

Selene felt the slightest bit of intimidation.

Not because she could not lift them. Rather, she wanted to show off.

Thirty kilograms was like a throwing a kid around. Sixty was like a whole supermodel.

She could lift it, but she could not lift it effortlessly and she wanted it to be effortless!

At first she tried to lift the weights without any gestures or noises like she wanted.

However, she immediately felt the slightest pang of irritation in the back of her head.

That seed of doubt made them heavier– she had to correct herself.

Teeth clenched, she stretched out her hand and beckoned the weights with it.

Perhaps, if the thought, ‘these weights may be too heavy to lift easily’, had never entered into her brain, she would have been able to lift them easily. Psionics was tricky in that way, Selene knew this– the slightest frustration could suddenly associate a simple task with difficulty, and thus make it more difficult in the process. A self-fulfilling cognitive prophecy. Utmost confidence and belief equated to a perfect expression of power, and any sewing of doubt could conversely snowball into a spiraling loss of control over her mind.

“What’s the matter? Is that it? Sixty kilograms and you’re raring to kiss the mat?”

Selene centered herself, and ignored Norn.

As before the weights rose up to the top of the pole.

Then Selene let them drop and they hit the base with an even louder clanging.

She looked to Norn for feedback–

Norn suddenly tipped over the pole. The weights at the base slid off and into the wall.

From the mess of reserve gym equipment, Norn produced a different set of weights.

Effortlessly carrying the stack in her hands. These were each heavier than before.

Instead of five kilograms per weight, each disc was now twenty kilograms.

And Norn five four of them into the barbell. A hundred kilograms.

That was just a barbell or two under Potomac’s weight. A large or plush human adult.

“Again.” Norn said calmly, still watching inexpressibly from the sidelines.

Selene looked at the barbells with a growing apprehension.

Then– she had a very silly idea that could potentially work to skip the whole business.

Clapping her hands together close to her chest, shutting her eyes and concentrating.

Straining to hear– that impossible voice of aetheric power that rang in certain individuals.

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

From Selene’s body, waves of blue aura washed gently over the surroundings.

According to Euphrates, Saint’s Skin could not directly pierce the aura of another person, but it could influence the ambient aura in order to alter properties or concepts found in the environment and objects. Blue aura represented peace and calm and rest, but it could also represent lightness, and ease. With a strong enough will behind it, with enough concentration, and with enough desire, it could make a person move faster or feel lighter on their feet. In that moment, Selene concentrated strongly on the idea of a sheet of the thinnest paper or plastic, spilled from atop a stack and floating in the air, not quick to land, so light that it caressed even the air with its gentle, near weightless form.

She recalled Euphrates’ desk, littered in papers, sheets of plastic, micro-LCDs–

Blown as if on a strong wind, flying this way and that, their gentle swaying–

Then she opened her eyes, and instantly lifted the weights, now as insubstantial as paper–

“Nice try. But that’s cheating. King’s Gaze.”

Norn’s voice sounded as if it came from all directions at once.

In the blink of an eye the colors shifted as if the room had never been bathed in blue.

Waves of green anxiety and disquiet overcame Selene in an instant.

Suddenly the weights were even heavier than 100 kg, even heavier than 200 kg.

They were an impossible boulder by lifted up an endless mountain by a despairing wretch.

When they dropped back down Selene thought the clang would split her brain in half.

She knelt holding her head, gritting her teeth, nearly weeping. Overwhelmed with pain.

How unfair of Norn! To so thoughtlessly display her power to Selene that way!

Selene almost wanted to throw something at her– but that would have been trouble.

“Don’t look at me with such resentment. I am glad you have this sort of power but it is besides the point.” Norn said. “It was very clever of you to try to alter the conception of the weights themselves in order to lift them more easily but I am looking for something else. I want to see you crash into a wall stubbornly. I want to push you to your limits. You’ve only just begun to experience what it is like to fail, to be defeated, to experience falling short. Euphrates coddled you too much. You need to learn to deal with pain.”

Norn lifted another 20 kg from the mat, gesturing with her hand for it to drop on the rest.

“Psionics is not limited by imagination. It is limited by pain. Lift the weights again.”

Selene, wordlessly angry, her entire body shaking, lifted herself up from the ground.

Breathing in deep, she focused on the pile of weights again.

One hundred and twenty kilograms, now heavier than Potomac or any human Selene knew.

With both hands out, she bent her knees, pushed out her back and then rose suddenly.

That motion, of lifting with her legs, gave her the boost in confidence she needed.

Her mind evoked a brief rushing of great power over the weights.

All of the metal discs lifted from the base to the tip for a second and then fell again.

Selene resumed a comfortable posture, sighing and breathing heavily.

“Fantastic. See? When you shut up and stop complaining you can set your mind to things.”

Norn then easily dropped another disc of weight onto the pile. “Again.”

“So the point of this is to hurt me?!” Selene said, unable to contain the anger in her voice.

“No, the point of this is for you to work through the pain.” Norn said calmly.

“What the hell is that for? What does that do for me? Will I get stronger?” Selene said.

Norn turned from the bar and weights and stepped closer–

Selene flinched, thinking Norn might beat her like she beat Gertrude Lichtenberg–

But Norn instead laid a hand on her bare shoulder and squeezed gently.

“You will gain something that you currently lack.” Norn said.

Selene averted her gaze. “You think that cryptic shit works on me?”

“Then I’ll be blunt. You’ll learn what it is like to live; and I hope you will want to live.”

“How the hell do I learn that from lifting weights until my brain melts down.”

Selene hated that she actually understood Norn’s intentions.

All of the times she had been challenged and even hurt on the Antenora were new to Selene.

She had never known struggle. So it was easy to throw a tantrum when anything was hard.

“You are too sheltered. This is the real world. For the entire rest of the human race, Selene, they are beaten down to the floor, have their cry about the pain they are wracked with, and are then faced with however many more days, weeks, years, of more suffering ahead of them. But they continue walking forward because every new day presents them with an opportunity. It is that determination to live which you lack, and the pilot of that Union mecha must possess in spades. She struggled; compared to her, you know nothing.”

Selene met Norn’s eyes, her own filling with tears. Norn had a strangely soft expression.

“My greatest fear for you, Selene, is that you will actually give up. Completely. Someday.”

Norn lifted her hand and brought it back down, giving Selene a few soft pats on her skin.

In that moment, Selene could not deny that she had considered throwing her life away.

At Goryk’s Gorge, if it would have killed Sonya Shalikova, she would have given her life.

To have killed all of the enemies and completed her mission, at the cost of everything.

That was the fate of a soldier was it not? To die, to cease existing; now a shadow of glory.

Shining in memory and blasted apart in the physical world. Soldiers did not survive battles.

Because the thought of living with the ignominy, the pain, of failure– was too much.

Here she was– living, still, knowing that she was not perfect, nor destined for perfection.

Having achieved no glory and awarded no commemorations. Perhaps she should have died.

Living with failure, living after defeat– it felt so hollow, that maybe she did want to die.

Born without a past, struggling in the present, no hope of a future–

“Take a moment to breathe, center yourself, and then give that bar everything you have.”

Norn stepped away from Selene and resumed her cold watch over the bar and its weights.

“Your new target is one hundred and forty kilograms. Again.” She said.

Selene stared glumly at the bar and its ever-increasing number of weights.

Sighing, she gestured with her hands towards it.

There was a brief slashing pain in her head, like the barest contact of a blade on her brains.

For a moment, the weights stirred, but they barely lifted.

Fresh tears drew from Selene’s eyes. Even her arms had started feeling a bit sore.

Psychosomatic– her body was not immune to the ravages of her mind–

“You can do this Selene.” Norn said. “Think about what you want; your next step.”

Was this truly how Sonya Shalikova must have felt?

Had she lost herself and felt beaten down by hopelessness– and still continued on?

Pushing herself past her limits with everything she had, refusing to give up?

Selene recalled suddenly– during their skirmish at Goryk’s Gorge–

When that saw blade was just about to stop, failing to penetrate the Jagdkaiser’s armor–

I want to save you. Had she truly heard that voice? Followed by something impossible?

Words that had brought about her defeat, and Shalikova’s miracle, her hope for a new day.

Breathing deep, Selene restored her posture. Arms tight and close, chest straight.

Poring over Norn’s words like water over rock. Eroding into her stream of consciousness.

Out in the world, if ordinary people living their lives had to feel this pain every day–

And if every day just heaped even more pain on them as they struggled forward–

Then any given instant of pain, any second– was nothing compared to those lifetimes.

Divided, taken apart, each of those setbacks was fleeting in the fullness of a life lived.

Drops of water in a vast ocean that continued to move in its currents even in a dying Aer.

Like these weights– together 140 kg but apart each 20 kg that a single human could lift.

Selene amid the current and part of it; buoyed by the inertia of a still-living humanity.

And that current of her mental strength washed over the weights and lifted them up.

Holding them so the highest weight up was just about to rise over the pole.

Not falling, not stirring, lifted them as if effortlessly, without raising even a finger.

There she held them, for five seconds, ten, twenty, forty, as Norn watched silently.

Even as the pain of her exertions began to build in Selene’s mind, she held firm.

All of those instants were droplets of water in the vast ocean, in the rushing current.

They were nothing. By merely waiting, each moment was gone, and there was another.

Her hands started shaking. Blood began to trickle out of her nose. Her eye twitched.

“That’s enough.” Norn said. “You seem to understand something now. Congratulations.”

Selene eased up.

At once, the weights smashed onto the base one after another in a series of loud clangs.

Her lungs struggled for breath. Her throat was raw. She smelled and tasted iron.

Running her hand over her lips, and seeing her red fingers dripping with blood.

She put on a haughty grin even as her whole body ached and her knees shook.

“That was nothing to me.” She said. “You underestimate me constantly. I’m perfect.”

Norn grinned back at Selene’s renewed arrogance.

Before casually dropping another 20 kg weight on the bar with another loud clang.

Selene’s eyes drew wide. Incredulous. Hardly in control of her expression, nearly laughing.

“Clean up. I’ll bring you food and a drink. Then we go again.” Norn said, almost cheerful.


“Hey, big beak– how do the currents feel out there, huh?”

Hunter III’s mind reached out into the waters around the ship.

Below the Antenora, a Leviathan had been warded off by Hunter III, but it continued to follow the Antenora for some time. It was about the size of the smaller ships the Hominin used– Norn would have called it a ‘Cutter’. A cylindrical body with four hydrojets led, trailed by several dangling arms that surrounded an enormous vibro-cavitating beak.

Two remora-like Leviathan “drones” attached to its main body and provided support fire from the needle launchers on their own backs. Hunter III realized that it was not out of malice that the big beak had followed them, but a burgeoning curiosity about the world– a spark of something that, if it survived, might create a miracle for it.

A miracle that was denied to Hunter III– stolen from her. Stolen, to then be given, as a gift of beautiful, powerful chains that warped her completely. Her circumstances made her curious about the creature. She began to reach out to it psionically, probing it.

Waiting for a response. Soon she received it.

It is a soft current. It is a difficult current. It cries. Its sings. It is hungry. It is satiated.

Hunter III understood implicitly the response she had been given by the creature.

Just sitting in the back of the Antenora’s bridge, she could hold something of a dialog.

Neither of them were truly saying words as the Imbrians understood them, but they could communicate emotions even through the metal armor separating the interior of the ship from the Leviathan’s water. Because of this Hunter III could not have spoken what the Leviathan said to anyone else but she could feel the texture of what it meant to communicate. Its burgeoning realization that the world was complex.

Perhaps even an understanding of the voice far, far in the back of its own head.

“Keep away from ships, big guy. Ya don’t wanna die right? Y’still got growin’ to do.”

There was no response. But she could feel that the Leviathan began to drift farther back.

Hunter III grinned to herself a bit. Sentience was coming for it, as it nearly came to her.

When she ate hominins she was a bit more lucid for a time. As if the emotions that had made them up had become hers. She was still hungry; she was still energetic; her driving needs were the same. Inside her though, a metaphorical vacuum tube received a shot of electricity. Maybe, for Leviathans, eating each other, growing bigger, eating more, maybe it made them lucid too. Slowly, struggle after struggle, the sentience grew inside them.

Hunter III felt a certain uncharacteristic melancholy. She understood her position too well.

This Leviathan, if it survived all of the ravages of the sea, might eventually shed its form and become an Omenseer. If it achieved psionics, and then, came to understand itself, it could do this. Some Leviathans found psionics and only used this to hurl rocks. But a few, used it to learn about the world and ask questions– they found themselves buried in all that meat and burst out. Then they could lead their own lives. They might befriend some hominin, go on adventures, take them to the sunlit seas, get shinies and eat meat and become part of the great story of all hominins in the cold, cruel ocean. Stories that were sometimes remembered but oft forgotten– but stories a monster, an animal, could not have.

Hunter III could not imagine at all what that would have been like for her.

Everything that was her own, grew like a twisted plant from the seedling that the Autarch had injected into her body. Despite this, it was wrong. The Autarch was not fond of her own handiwork. She must have had no idea that Hunter III would be quite disinterested in spying on hominins, quite disinterested in stealing their things and watching them carefully and ingratiating herself within their structures– she was only interested in eating them. When a Leviathan became an Omenseer, how did they choose who to be? When the Autarch got her hands on Hunter III, why was she born only to be reprimanded and scorned?

Maybe the crying, singing voice that the big beak heard was like the Autarch’s own.

Out of control; unable to decide for herself who she was, much less who Hunter III was.

Leviathans might have been like that too. Maybe they could not choose their own selves.

Perhaps no matter what, Hunter III could have only been born to be a scorned slave.

“Autarch– Hunter III– Hunter III never wanted to make ya angry and upset.”

Hunter III had no idea whether the Autarch was listening or whether she would care.

“If I was gonna be your lackey, I wish ya had made me a better one.” She said.

She started to grin to herself. How dumb; as if her little sadness mattered to a God.

That was why Hunter III could only be herself.

Because she was abandoned by everything.

All she could do was eat and be merry until she received her next inevitable throttling.

It could have all been so simple, if she was either an animal or a whole human.

Instead this middle ground was full of horrid feelings she wished not to have.

That Leviathan out there did not know how good it had it– someday it would have this same sad sack conversation with itself. It would think– “out there, I could have had all the meat that I wanted, and I wouldn’t even know that it tasted bad, and I would have been so happy.” Soon its brain would be strong enough to wrap around to this question and drive itself insane with it. There would be no going back to the simple days after that.

Hunter III sighed deeply.

Maybe she would be happier if Norn fed her some damn meat!

Norn–

I’ll free you from her. She had said. Haunting words. Joyous words. More dualities.

Foolish and ignorant words from a hominin who truly must have meant them.

A Hominin as confusing as the crying, singing, current that the big beak so aptly described.

“What would that even feel like? Hunter III ain’t anythin’ without the Autarch.”

Hunter III was getting fed up with her runaway mind.

She could not keep moping about.

She decided there was only one solution: to go beg the cafeteria people for meat.

With a big piece of meat in her hands and her belly, her head would go completely empty.

She got up from the floor. There was nobody on the bridge, but it did not matter. Norn’s crew were all perfectly obedient and did everything really efficiently so when they were just cruising in empty waters nobody needed to be told anything. She would know if there were more Leviathans around and she could tell them off from anywhere on the ship. Probably enough of them had scarpered by now that the rest collectively understood not to mess with the Antenora. Younger and weaker ones might even sense her from afar and stay way.

Unbothered, she left the bridge, bare feet on cold metal, ambling happily down the hall.

Adelheid never understood the appeal of actual, real meat. Sausages had no texture and jerky was so tough and dry. It was not living to eat such things every day! Hunter III wanted real meat, with juices that leaked and fibers that tore between her teeth. Having recently tasted tender hominins, full of blood and muscle, it was that which Hunter III had on the mind– but she behaved. She knew hominin meals were unrealistic– she was neither completely dumb nor utterly lost in her own hedonism as to crave hominin every day.

That was special occasion sort of food.

Instead, Hunter III’s day to day craving was pork or steer.

Large animals, full of savory fat, fibrous muscles and delicous fluids.

Because these animals were bred to be eaten, they often tasted better than hominin too. Hominins had a penchant for not taking care of themselves, they were always stressed out, they drank disgusting stuff that made them dizzy and stuck around in their organs too long, they smoked weird herbs, and they ate dry food and were constantly dehydrated.

Because of this the average hominin, while a unique delicacy, were not in and of themselves a very tasty sensorial experience. Hominin were special because of the ritual of things.

And because if she did not eat them she would go crazy.

She needed Hominins, perhaps like Hominins needed their herbs and liquor.

Sometimes, she could appreciate a fish too– especially a fatty salmon.

A taste of nostalgia.

Her mind quickly filled with images of fresh-cut pieces from a slaughtered animal.

These pushed out any sort of introspection or sophisticated thinking from her cranium.

She deluded herself into thinking she would acquire such a meal, hurrying to the galley.

Past all the tables, to the kitchen desk and the automated serving machines.

“Listen, kitchen hominins! I’m here on business! Come on out, one of ya!”

She waved her hands and jumped up and down. Finally, a woman’s face peeked out.

“You can serve yourself from the machines, they are fully stocked.” She said.

“No, this ain’t about that.” Hunter III leaned in a bit. “Look, I know y’all are hidin’ the good meat back there, and Norn ain’t lettin’ you feed it to poor little Hunter III like all of ya want to do. But I’ve been preparin’. I got a bribe. Hominin love bribes right? I’ve got one for you.”

From the pocket of her long, hooded coat, Hunter III produced a little blue box.

When she opened it, inside, there was a ring with an enormous diamond.

“One of the hominin that I ate back at the pepper place had this with ’em. Isn’t it big? Isn’t it shiny? It’s one of the biggest shinies anyone has ever seen. You can have this shiny, and then, you’ll give Hunter III a big, juicy piece of meat. She’s not even askin’ for all of the meat! Just one big piece! This is the best deal ever– and it is only a deal for you!”

Hunter III laid the diamond-studded wedding ring in its box on the counter.

The eyes of the servant-hominin looked down at the box, and then back at Hunter III.

She took the box into the shadows behind the counter.

“We’re confiscating this and informing Lord von Fueller. Please eat from the machines.”

Then a pair of steel shutters enclosed the serving personnel.

Hunter III stood speechless.

“HEY! That ain’t how it works! Ya can’t just take the bribe and not give me anythin’!”

Hunter III jumped up and down, struck her fists on the steel shutters and the counter.

Wailing and gnashing her teeth and kicking the wall–

“Oh dear? Has the little Hunter finally lost her mind, perhaps?”

Behind her, someone stepped up and held her by the shoulders, squeezing them.

“Huh? Oh– it’s you.”

A hominin, taller than Hunter III, and unlike the drones, with a glint in her eyes and a smile on her face. A familiar face, pretty and a bit funny. She wore a lot of makeup, had a lot of brightly blond hair, and wore her clothes a bit looser than everyone else. Hunter III could see her bra. Livia Van Der Meer, the ship doctor– Hunter III had thought about biting her a few times, sometimes out of hunger, sometimes out of fleshier feelings than that. She was the person who maybe got the most out of hand with Hunter III out of anyone on the ship.

However, she could also be– interesting. Like Norn, but in a very different way.

So despite sometimes being irritating, Hunter III was always initially welcoming of her.

“I see you’re having trouble acquiring meat again.” Livia said.

She lowered her head a little to Hunter III’s eye level. Hunter III met her eyes, unmoved.

“Yeah– the serving hominins took my bribe but didn’t get me any meat!”

“Oh dear! Whatever shall you do?”

“I know! Isn’t that against everything hominin stand for?”

“Indeed. Contracts, like medical consent, must be absolutely ironclad.”

Hunter III blinked. She was mentioning the medical thing again.

A lot of the time that preceded her injecting Hunter III and writing a bunch of notes.

“Little Hunter– what if I got you some meat?” Livia said, smiling cheerfully.

With her hands behind her back, and her large chest close to Hunter III’s own.

Hunter III returned her gaze appraisingly, stroking her own chin.

“Meat, you say? Hmm. Keep talkin’.” She said, her tail swishing behind her back.

“You weren’t the only one who got her hands on some goodies in Serrano.” Livia said. “I managed to snag a few things myself, to save for a rainy day. As a doctor I have all kinds of storage capabilities. I would be happy to share my loot with you. Norn would never have to hear about it either. She’s busy with Selene at the moment, and Adelheid is taking inventory. It’s the perfect opportunity to be a little naughty, don’t you think?”

“What’s the catch?” Hunter III asked.

Livia smiled. “No catch. I’m simply quite bored, and you’re the most interesting one here.”

“Huh. I dunno that I believe that doc. No one just gives out free meat around here.”

“Call it a date– what do you say? You’ll get to eat. I’ll get to chat. It’ll be nice.”

“A date, huh?”

Hunter III felt conflicted. She understood what ‘dates’ were quite well.

Those were the special times when hominin bit and smacked and fucked each other.

Not to procreate but for fun. They just liked doing this, like Hunter III enjoyed eating.

She had seen hominin doing these kinds of things.

She had thought about them before too.

It was in this sort of way that she had come to think Livia was interesting.

So she knew Livia’s objective may well have been this, especially if she was bored.

She also did not believe Livia would actually give her any meat.

Though it would have been a pleasant surprise. Hunter III was growing skeptical.

However– Hunter III also thought, maybe she could see herself enjoying the whole thing.

“Alright. Ya got yourself a deal– but y’better not be lyin’!” Hunter III cried out.

Livia smiled placidly. “Of course not, of course not. Never.”

Heels clacking on the floor the entire way, Livia led Hunter III out to her clinic.

It was not every far down the way from the galley.

There was a separate medbay with enough beds care for a few dozen people at a time if needed, but Livia’s office and clinic was a smaller space, and doubled as her bedroom. She had a desk, a few cabinets with medicines she kept on hand, her favorite injector that had marked her neck a few times; a small bed and gurney; a few testing instruments and other such medical machines; and the door to the backroom where she slept.

Everything smelled like plastic and chemicals.

As Hunter III crossed the threshold, the door closed behind her but did not lock.

So she could leave if she wanted to. She was not trapped with Livia– but she stayed.

Livia ambled toward the bedroom, and knelt down next to her bed.

Tongues of cool gas escaped from a compartment.

With a gloved hand she withdrew–

“You weren’t lyin’! It’s really meat! You’re my savior Livia!”

“You’re calling me by name? Interesting. Very interesting indeed.”

In her fingers, Livia returned with a frozen cut of steak and a grin on her face.

She put it on a metal sample plate, and put that plate on a frame over a burner on her desk.

“This is inefficient, but it will cook eventually.” Livia said. “Please, sit down and rest.”

Hunter III obediently pulled up a plastic chair and sat close, watching the meat cook.

Livia sat on another chair and sat next to Hunter III.

Taking her medicine injector from atop the desk, pulling back some of her hair.

Sticking herself in the neck, in a spot that had a three-pronged bruise like the injector.

“Ah, now we can relax and enjoy. Well– you can enjoy. Once it’s less frozen.”

She flipped the steak over on the plate. Slowly thawing, softening, cooking at high heat.

It wouldn’t cook evenly, but Hunter III loved meat no matter what.

Frozen meat was not particularly enjoyable however, so she appreciated Livia’s effort.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Hunter III’s tail smacked against the ground over and over and over in anticipation.

“Is it a correct assumption that you grow a tail to store your extra biomass?” Livia asked.

“Oh, uh huh.” Hunter III said cheerfully. “It’s a special trick that helps in a pinch.”

“Clever indeed. Did someone teach you that? About your powers?” Livia asked.

“Um, not really, I just kinda knew it?”

“Hereditary memories perhaps? Or maybe even– DNA-based data encoding?”

“I dunno. Both of those sound good to me?”

Hunter III was essentially just trying to please Livia by saying literally anything.

Livia seemed pleased, so everything was working accordingly.

Once more, she turned over the steak.

“What good fortune to have found this while robbing the substation supplies.” Livia said.

“Yeah! You’re so smart Livia! You’re smart and pretty and you are so good at robbin’!”

“All too true. You know, to meet you– it was worth it losing my medical license.”

Her words were starting to slur just a little bit. Hunter III did not pay it any mind.

“Uh huh! Norn is sooooo lucky to have such a fancy and good doctor!” Hunter III said.

Livia turned over the steak one more time.

Then, with the scalpels she had been using to move the steak around on the sample plate, she cut a piece. Juices were flowing. Hunter III’s eyes drew wide. She could smell it, even through the chemically smell of the room and the alcohol fire. Her jaw hung open, her nostrils wetted, her mouth grew slick with saliva. Her face went hotter.

“That is so nice of you to say. Open up. I will feed you by hand.” Livia said.

Hunter III obediently awaited the piece of steak, tongue nearly out of her mouth.

Livia took the piece of meat, pierced on a scalpel, and fed it gingerly to her date.

Instantly– the taste, the chew. Juices, fibers, the resistance of real red meat.

Her cheeks contracted from the savory taste. She shut her eyes and lavished in it.

Hunter III practically shook with pleasure. For a moment she felt like a king.

“You’re so interesting, little Hunter.” Livia said. “Beautiful, alien, unbound.”

Her hand reached for her own collar, which was already opened and unbuttoned.

“Lacking our inhibitions; master of your biology. On the cusp of nature and civilization.”

Livia cut another slice of meat; immediately Hunter III positioned herself to receive it.

It was so luxurious– Hunter III had always just bitten into bigger pieces of meat. Cut across the grain by Livia’s deft scalpel hand; still warm from the hot metal plate; it was amazing. Hunter III believed meat needed nothing, no cooking, no seasoning–

but maybe Livia’s hand helped the taste.

Each piece was slowly, deliberately enjoyed. Livia cut a smaller piece, pierced it.

Hunter III closed her eyes and leaned forward, her mind soaring with bliss.

Then she felt Livia’s hand take her hood by the neck. Pull her forward, suddenly, forcefully.

Her eyes drew wide as Livia drew her into a kiss, feeding her the meat mouth to mouth.

Their tongues entwined, the meat partially chewed– tasting the wax in Livia’s lipstick.

Livia briefly pulled back. “I wish I could taste humanity like you, little Hunter.”

Her tongue and lips parted but still connected to Hunter III’s by spittle and meat juices.

With a sudden surge of strange passion, the Omenseer pushed forward and kissed her back.

Wanting to taste Livia’s lips and tongue as much as the meat.


In the middle of the hangar, while the crew went about their tasks around her, Selene was completely clad in power armor and standing across a series of ruler marks that Norn had projected onto the floor. The girl had been equipped with the chestplate, arms and legs of an Imbrian power armor, its battery installed on her lower back. Everything sans helmet. She looked quite disgruntled, but Norn rarely saw a contented face from her anyway.

Norn had a very specific reason for setting all of this up. She walked up to Selene.

“Alright Selene, your task will be to step forward with your back straight.” She said.

“Is this a joke?” Selene said. “How does walking around in power armor help me–?”

Before Selene could complete her sentence, Norn pulled the battery out of the armor.

Selene stared at it, suddenly incredulous.

Various LED lights on the armor’s limbs and chest suddenly went dark.

“Norn– I can’t move!” She shouted. Her arms were at her sides, her legs standing.

However, judging by her head and neck, she was struggling, trying to pull her weight.

“I’m well aware.” Norn said. “Without the energy pack, the locomotion assistance on the power armor will not work. A Katarran or a strong Loup could still move, but I know you cannot. You’ll just be wearing an enormous suit of hydraulics and electric muscles and other complicated and pretty heavy gear. All of it dead weight. And your task remains– to move forward. Each fall is a demerit; every step you can take a new horizon for you.”

“How the hell am I supposed to move even one step like this?” Selene shouted.

“You just demonstrated you can lift almost 200 kg.” Norn said. She then shrugged with a grin on her face. “Put some of that prodigious genetic brainpower to good use.”

“Norn!” Selene shouted, gritting her teeth and shaking and whining ever more irascibly.

“I’ll give you a tip. Use kinesis on your arms and legs. Move with your entire body and focus on moving your entire body, not just one body part at a time. Develop a rhythm.”

Selene looked to have tired herself out with fruitless struggle, panting with her head down.

Norn was about to mock her again, when a drone stepped up to her from the sidelines.

“Milord, the bridge has decrypted an Extreme Low Frequency message for you.” He said.

“From whom?” Norn asked. Nobody should have been sending her ELF messages.

“The text purports its sender as Admiral of the Fleet Frederich Urning.” Said the drone.

“Huh? Truly. Well, hand it over– we can set up a video call once we’re at depth again.”

Norn absentmindedly took the printed ELF message, less interested in the content than the sender. He had gone behind Erich’s back to contact her, using clandestine means like the ELF. Konstantin’s biggest fan– she wondered, truly wondered. Was he up to something?

Her mind was afire, her curiosity piqued.

What was happening in the Palatine? How was Urning getting on after his idol’s death?


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.5]

Red lights flashed silent alarm across the UNX-001 Brigand, while a calm voice spoke through every implement from which sound could be heard. “Alert Semyon!” She said, careful not to shout or betray anxiety, while still speaking in a clear voice. Alert Semyon would only be raised verbally three times and then Fatima would go quiet on the audio system.

Everyone on the ship understood what this meant. Sailors hurried to their positions, crossing paths in the halls. Sailors who had been resting in their barracks rushed to their assignments upstairs; sailors eating in the cafeteria or taking a break in the social pod rushed downstairs to the hangar. They checked on the walls, were bearing monitors indicated current information of the threat and ETA until probable active combat.

Upstairs, the sailors assigned as rapid response had their tools handy. They would watch out for any malfunctions or damage and make spot repairs. They would sound the alarm if they thought circuitry or water system functions were threatened by the stresses of the battle. Several of them received a new assignment that had been worked out during training in Kreuzung: clearing out and locking down the social pod and cafeteria and other unnecessary facilities with anti-flood barriers, to prevent a repeat of the scare that resulted when the Antenora breached their sidepod in Goryk, almost destroying the social area.

Downstairs, the main focus of the sailors was in getting the Divers ready.

Batteries were checked twice a day and refilled if necessary, so there was not much charging that needed doing to top the Divers off. All repairs and maintenance had already been completed on the main combat units. Owing to the recovery of Homa’s “DELTA” as well as the stripping-down of one of the reserve Streloks, there was an area of the hangar that was quite messy and in disarray, but the mess was pushed to the far side. Deployment chutes were prepared to be opened into the hangar in case of mobilization. Weapons were loaded and equipment attached to the Divers based on the pilot’s stated desires.

Throughout the ship, people communicated in whispers, sign language and hand signals, or by writing on portables and showing the words to one another. Sailors were trained to walk quickly with soft footfalls and to work with precision and care so as to not bang on metal. This minimized the amount and intensity of identifiable noises that an enemy could potentially pick up prior to combat. It was very little, and the ship was not entirely stealth capable, but it could be very quiet if the distance and conditions were right. Once the cannons were firing, all bets were off, but until then, there was an eerie combination of haste and silence as the alert was sounded, and then executed upon.

Many of the upper pods were soundproofed, however, and the Bridge was no exception.

On the bridge, Captain Korabiskaya arrived and took her seat, followed by Commissar Bashara. At their side, Premier Erika Kairos also arrived along with her bodyguard and attendant Olga Athanasiou, both taking their places. Kalika Loukia had briefly held the bridge while the rest got ready to coordinate another day’s worth of rationalizing the inventories of the Brigand and Rostock and connecting the two ships and their crews– but that work would be put on hold. Fatima al-Suhar stood from her station, ready to give her report. She pointed at the main screen, where the simulated silhouette of a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate appeared along with those of Imbrian Cutters and Frigates, as well as an old, very large and bulbous shaped cruiser, two generations old, a Serclaes-class.

“Captain! Our situation is as follows–”

One more time, the door to the bridge opened.

Scurrying inside and trying to appear as if they had not interrupted–

Murati Nakara, in the company of an unfamiliar face.

A young lady that had the same uniform as the rest but making her first appearance on the bridge. Cheerful-looking, her pretty face unbothered even as the red alarm lights cast an eerie color over her– the brown-haired Loup with the ponytail and makeup elicited a few curious glances. Murati wanted to say nothing upon entering the bridge, but practically everyone was looking at her directly, even Fatima, who was also waiting to speak.

“Sorry to interrupt– I was kept– taking care of something. Um. This is my new adjutant.”

Stumbling over her words, Murati at first gestured toward the woman beside her.

Almost immediately she underwent every conceivable human emotion in an instant.

What would anyone think if Aatto talked some nonsense? She nearly interrupted herself–

“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. I will give everything to support your cause.”

She spoke politely and bowed her head and held her portable computer to her chest.

Wearing a demure and innocent smile.

Murati stared at her for a moment. She could not believe what she had heard.

And everyone else’s gazes shifted between Murati and Aatto with confusion.

“Okay, thank you, Aatto.” Commissar Bashara said, clearing her throat. “Fatima.”

Standing next to the sonar station, Fatima al-Suhar’s ears and tail stood on end.

“Oh! Yes. My deepest apologies. I was simply being polite. So, the situation–”

Ten minutes ago, Fatima first detected distant noises in the water that to her golden ears registered as explosions from middle caliber ship ordnance. Soon after the predictive computer parsed the same sounds as ordnance, and in addition, detected a wide-area active sonar pulse. Per protocol, Fatima responded to being picked up by active sonar with a return pulse scan from the Brigand, and the Rostock responded similarly.

They discovered the combatants several kilometers away in the northwestern direction. There was a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate, so called for its two rows of guns in fixed positions integrated into the ship’s bow– chasing it was an Imperial Marder-class Frigate, a fairly ubiquitous class that everyone on the bridge was familiar with.

Complicating the situation, the Marder, having acquired a Republic Frigate and begun to chase, also reported the discovery to other nearby Imperial ships. Converging on the republicans were three additional Frigates from the North-Northwest as well as an old Serclaes-class Cruiser from the North. All of these ships were assumed with reason to have belonged to the Rhinea patrol fleet. If these patrol ships received the retrofit that other Volkisch Frigates did, then this entire force could be said to include 20-30 Divers in addition to the ships themselves, as each ship likely carried 4-8 Divers. Though she did not know the reaction her command would have to these discoveries, Fatima called for Alert Semyon just in case– they had been detected by sonar, so they had to be prepared.

“That was a quick and sound judgment Fatima. We commend you.” Ulyana said.

Fatima’s ears wiggled slightly and she smiled.

“Now we have to decide how to respond.” Aaliyah added.

“Right now, we have some cover for our actions, I believe,” Erika said, pointing at the screen, “As far as they know, what they have on sensors is a dumpy-looking hauler, no offense,” she smiled and waited a second as if to allow anyone to take offense if they would, but finding nobody disagreeing with her on the Brigand’s comeliness, she continued, “and an Imperial Ritter-class. Much of the time we have found that low level patrols will ignore the Rostock’s movements because they assume Ritter cruisers are led by big shots who they couldn’t hold accountable for anything if they tried. So we end up slipping by without effort.”

“In that case, all of those forces will converge on the Republicans.” Ulyana said.

“They won’t be able to survive it.” Murati said. “They will absolutely be overwhelmed.”

“Zachikova, get a graph of all enemy positions on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

“Yes ma’am.”

On the electronic warfare station, Zachikova got to work. Arabella peeked over the top of her desk curiously, having been sitting beside it the whole time. After a few seconds of typing, the predictor displayed for everyone in the room the surrounding area.

To think they were so close to Aachen’s hydrospace– but this situation was even closer. Murati took a few steps from the entrance to look more closely at the main screen. There were no landmarks to speak of. Any battle would take place in open ocean. So everything came down to the state of the combatant’s equipment, their tactics and formation, and whether they could gain any advantage in the information space. In terms of pure hardware on all sides, the Brigand and Rostock could be put at a disadvantage.

There was something of a plan forming in her mind, but she did not have enough data–

“Would it not be prudent to avoid this battle entirely?” Aaliyah asked.

Murati turned around and stared at her. Aaliyah seemed to notice but ignore her gaze.

“I’m positive if we decided to intervene, we could also still get away.” Erika said.

“Right, but– the Republicans in this area have all carried themselves awfully and they did not even want to join the United Front to begin with. They have caused us major inconveniences, they wasted significant manpower, and for what? Very nearly destroying a station full of innocent people. We could just leave them to their fate and speed on to Aachen.”

“That’s a bit cold.” Ulyana said. She smiled a bit nervously at Aaliyah’s words.

“But not unwarranted.” Aaliyah said. “Our intervention could cost us lives and equipment.”

“You are right.” Ulyana said. “Our most practical response is just leaving this be.”

“I will defer to your counsel in this matter.” Erika said, crossing her arms.

“They’re our allies! You’re going to hand out a death sentence to this one frigate crew?”

Murati raised her voice near to a shout, her hands curled up into fists.

Ulyana stared at her a bit in disbelief; Aaliyah rolled her eyes; Erika smiled suddenly.

“It’s true that the command of the Republic fleet in this area supported a heinous atrocity for very little strategic gain. It’s the truth that they went out on their own, foolishly. They could have never held Kreuzung. It was more likely they would destroy the core than successfully occupy it.” Murati said. “I am not denying that. But it’s horribly disproportionate to abandon these soldiers to die for that, when we could rescue and recruit them!”

“Then moralizing aside, our personnel could die carrying out this rescue.” Aaliyah said.

“That’s always a risk! It’s a risk of anything we do! That in itself is not an argument!”

“Now who is being cold toward other’s lives, Lieutenant?” Aaliyah spat back.

Having that statement turned on her gave Murati a brief pause to consider her words.

Her chest felt like it constricted and prevented her from making an angry response.

Was she being callous toward her comrades lives–?

Her head fogged from the sudden anxiety.

No– of course she was not– she was just trying to get them to see sense–

There was a loud clapping of two hands from the side of the bridge.

“Enough!” Erika said.

Firmly but not unkindly.

A sound that prompted Murati to take a deep breath and right herself.

Erika seemed more amused than aggravated about the argument. “Murati is correct. For the insurgent any action taken is done at the risk of their lives. If we wanted to preserve our equipment and lives we would bury them in a hole and do nothing, but that does not advance our objectives. So then the question is, how do we turn the cost and benefit of this situation to our advantage. In this, Aaliyah is not wrong to say, we have no idea what we are dealing with when we deal with the Republic here. We could be fighting for nothing and thus dying for nothing. So it is not so easy as to rush in and save the day at any cost either.”

For a brief moment, the room was silent– until one still-unfamiliar voice sounded.

“In that case, we just need to come up with a battle plan that will lower our risk.”

Stepping out from near the door and joining Murati’s side was Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.

Murati looked almost surprised to have her support despite her supposed adjutant status.

“I strongly believe we can succeed if we entrust our strategy to my master!” Aatto said.

She gestured toward Murati as if framing her with her hands, smiling brightly.

Murati felt like her heart dropped lower into her chest.

Eyebrows furrowed and raised all across the bridge in confusion.

Ulyana stared at Aatto, speechless; Erika suppressed laughter; Aaliyah looked livid.

“What did she say? What did she call you? Is this your instruction, Murati?!”

“I– It really isn’t– she’s just–” Murati tugged on her own collar with growing anxiety.

“Now, now,” Ulyana spoke up suddenly, “it’s my turn to say not to indulge in silliness.”

She patted Aaliyah’s shoulders as if gently trying to prevent her jumping over the divider.

“Ms. Jarvi-Stormyweather is not wrong either!” Erika said. “I’ve read the files; this is Murati’s specialty, is it not? Her tactical plans have turned around some bad situations before! I do think having the Republicans in our debt might be advantageous in the future– and besides, the destruction of five patrol ships, including a Cruiser, can only be helpful to us.”

“I am not being silly.” Aaliyah said. She sat back in her chair. “I just want to clarify.”

“Don’t worry. We all understand you, Commissar.” Erika said, amused.

“It is my job to provide perspective. I am not mad and I am not being silly.” She said again.

“Yes, that’s very true. Thank you Commissar.” Ulyana said, also amused.

“Okay, okay, the first matter is concluded. We are intervening.” Olga said, sighing audibly.

Murati breathed a sigh of relief herself. She then made eye contact with Aatto.

Putting on such a furious gaze that she almost sent a psychic wave out to her.

Aatto seemed to notice and looked bashful for the very first time since they met.

You will ask permission to speak!! Murati shouted in her mind.

It was very rare that she spoke like this with anyone, so she was not sure it worked–

Yes, master!! A million apologies! No, a billion! I will accept any punishment!

Thankfully it seemed Aatto really did have some modicum of psionic experience.

Where she got it from and how far it extended was a question for another time.

For now, it was good enough that she did actually support Murati when it mattered.

As objectionable as some of her language and habits were– maybe she could actually help.

“Since we are intervening, we need a plan and we need it soon.” Erika said. “Tarrying too long will be effectively the same as abandoning this ship– they are taking fire as we speak.”

Murati knew this quite well. She turned back to the main screen.

At the moment, her thinking was that this reminded her of the Battle of Thassal.

That Republic frigate could hold out against that single Marder, if not in the long term then at least for the moment. In this scenario the real problem was the reinforcements. They were divided up and trying to converge on one target to overwhelm it. Murati was trying to think of a way to keep them from coming together and thereby disrupt their operation. She could not assume that each element of the patrol was moving closely and with coordination the way that the enemy fleet groups were in Thassal, however. Depending on the speed of each different element, the timing to defeat them in detail might be too tight.

One solution could be splitting their own forces. Should she recommend the Rostock engage the Marders while the Brigand commits to the rescue? That would depend on whether the enemy Marders were modified to carry more Divers, like she knew other Volkisch units had been. It was possible if they sent the Rostock alone it could be overwhelmed by that many Divers. The same might happen if the Brigand went alone. The more she thought about it, dividing their own forces was out of the question. She grunted. What was the answer?

“Aatto.” Murati said. “Is the Serclaes-class roughly as fast or faster than the Marders?”

Aatto smiled. “As a matter of fact master, it is actually slower than a Marder.”

“Really?” Murati asked. “Tell me more about it. I know it didn’t see front-line service.”

Behind them Aaliyah seemed to want to ask why Murati kept being called “master”–

Ulyana continued to work to calm her down, however–

“It’s true, the Serclaes class never saw service in the Grand Fleets.” Aatto said. “Because the class is heavily overburdened compared to thrust and while well-armed and armored, it was considered a crippled design due to its lack of speed. After all, a fleet is only as fast as its slowest element, and it is unacceptable for a Cruiser to be that slow. It was used in Imperial propaganda to emphasize its size and armament and was dubbed a ‘Heavy Cruiser’ but that was all it was, propaganda. Few were built and only used for interior defense.”

“Then out of this group, the Serclaes will surely arrive last.” Murati said.

“Significantly so, I predict.” Aatto replied.

A small smile crept across Murati’s features. Newly energized she turned left.

“Zachikova, can I get a more accurate depiction of the distance between the Marders?”

“I’ll try to get the computer to rerun it with greater fidelity. No promises.” Zachikova said.

On the main screen, the Marders were zoomed in on. A different became apparent.

In the broader picture of the scenario, the Marders looked like they were grouped together.

Upon zooming in on them, however, they were not arrayed in a standard arrow-head.

Two were coming in a line together and were not observing a shooting formation.

And the third was two kilometers behind the rest and moving as if to flank, not join them.

Murati pointed at the screen as if her finger would stab the frigates out of existence.

“I’ve got you!” Murati said excitedly. Her smile turned into a bloodthirsty grin.

Aatto wagged her tail and joined Murati in smiling– hers more admiring than violent.

“Captain, Commissar, Premier, I have a plan. But once we deploy, we have to be quick.”

Murati turned around to look her superiors in the eye. Determination swelling in her chest.

Even Aaliyah was not looking so skeptical as before. Ulyana looked a bit relieved.

“Go on, Murati. I’m ready to see your sorcery in action.” Erika replied.

For a moment, Murati was surprised to see it referred to as sorcery– but she liked it too.

At no time was she as conceited as when she figured out a problem like this.

“First, we need to converge all forces on the Republic In-Line-2 and rescue it. Then–”

Murati laid out her thoughts before anyone.

Though she felt her observations were not so revolutionary– people were impressed.

“Remind me to doubt you a bit less next time, Murati.” Ulyana said, as the plan unveiled.


Orders from the bridge relayed down to hangar engineering, and to the Rostock as well.

The Brigand and its new sister ship changed course, veering north-east together.

On the Brigand’s hangar, the pilots of the 114th rushed to their machines and suited up in black, thermal-padded pilot bodysuits. Murati Nakara ordered a quick huddle and advised on the overarching plan. For the pilots, it was not anything too complicated.

At first, the overall goal for everyone was to eliminate all targets and secure the Republic frigate from enemy fire. Then they would have to switch strategies. Dominika Rybolovskaya and Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun, with their Strelkannon and Cossack, would be tasked with guarding the fleet from ordnance and Diver attacks. Khadija, Shalikova, Valya and Murati would intercept the incoming enemies and look for openings.

“We can’t be too reckless, but speed is of the essence. Unless we can break through each enemy in turn, it is possible that we may be outnumbered and encircled.” Murati said. “Rostock and the Brigand outgun the enemy ships significantly, so our focus needs to be the enemy Divers. If we allow the enemy Divers to act freely then we will be defeated.”

Around Murati, her fellow pilots nodded their heads in acknowledgment.

“Any questions?” Murati asked. She intended this to be about the plan, but–

“Yes. Who is that?” Khadija, smiling mischievously, pointed over Murati’s shoulder.

Behind Murati, a set of tall, brown-furred dog-like ears wiggled; a very fluffy tail wagged.

“That is my new adjutant, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Murati said, as if it was enough.

“Huh?! Isn’t that the woman who was threatening you in Kreuzung? Isn’t she a fascist?”

At Murati’s side, Tigris spoke up, her jumpsuit stained with accidentally spilled lubricants.

“She defected– we’re working on it– she’s– she’s a reform fascist.” Murati said nervously.

“What? What does that even mean? Are you okay, Murati?” Shalikova said, confused.

“I am not a fascist anymore. I am for the supreme power of the proletariat.” Aatto said.

“Do you mean the national proletariat?” Khadija said, suppressing laughter.

“The proletariat is the proletariat. It’s all the same isn’t it?” Aatto said, shrugging.

“She’s a reform fascist.” Murati said. “Stop asking me about my adjutant and move out!”

With a few laughs and stares, the pilots left Murati’s side and headed to the machines.

Tigris stayed behind for a moment. She pointed a wrench in her hands at the Agni.

“I’ve got some fancy ideas I haven’t gotten around to, but for now, it can hold a gun.”

“Thank you, that’s all the capability I really needed.” Murati said.

“I also removed some of the ‘hadal armor kit’ I developed. Since it won’t be going below 3000 meters deep or encountering Leviathans, probably– with the extra weight off, it’ll be faster. I recommend you do not try to play the hero. Hang back, and act as support for now.”

Tigris briefly explained the changes and then left Murati’s side to assist around the hangar.

All of the pilots were taking care of final personal and practical matters before deploying.

“Aatto,”

Murati turned to face her new adjutant. Her heart was a bit heavy.

Certainly she was sympathetic to Aatto or she would not have tolerated being a made to look foolish in front of people to cover up for her. She knew Aatto must have been dealing with trauma. And she was beginning to see first-hand what she hoped to get from Aatto– someone who had lived in the Empire, worked for them, had access to regional knowledge Murati lacked. In the best case, Aatto would not just take over some of Murati’s busywork, but she would help cover up her blind spots or gaps in her strategies. That was the role of an adjutant– like the Commissar and Captain, who had a productive rapport.

However, Aatto had a long way to go in terms of fitting in with the Brigand.

Murati could not help but feel, still to that moment, that this might all be a mistake.

“Yes, master?” Aatto said.

“Ugh.” Murati gave up on dissuading her from saying that. “What do you see in me?”

Aatto seemed to understand Murati wanted a serious answer.

She took a moment to think before speaking.

“I see power, intellect, determination and the will to sunder the petrified Imbrium Ocean.”

“I think you have me wrong. I’m not that big of a deal. I’m not vying for power here.”

“Perhaps not yet. But I see it in you. You want to topple the current order, don’t you?”

She recalled the things Aatto said in her cell. Some of them with great nervousness.

“I want to topple it because it hurts people. Not for my own sake– or because of Destiny.”

“That’s more than enough for me, master. I will assist you in this endeavor regardless.”

“You need to do more than that. You must realize there is a burden to being a defector.”

Murati took Aatto’s digital computer from her hands and showed her the files on it.

“There are books on Union politics. Read them. You’ll take the pledge too.”

Aatto nodded her head. She had a demure smile throughout. It reminded Murati of cafeteria workers. Service personnel had difficult jobs, and smiling was a part of the job. In the Union cafeteria workers were treated well, and they were respected, because they had been entrusted an important task. But it was strenuous labor that they would often perform regardless of how they were feeling. That smile was just a part of preparing and serving food. Murati felt that Aatto’s smile was for her, and so ‘part of the job’. It hid whatever Aatto was feeling inside. That was why she would not stop smiling for anyone on the ship, even after all she had been through. It troubled Murati that she felt this was the case.

But there was nothing she could do about it in that instant.

“I would say, ‘good luck, master’ but I have the utmost confidence in you.” Aatto said.

“And why is that?” Murati asked, meeting her eyes and trying to smile.

“Because I saw the look in your eyes when you realized your strategy. You don’t just want to carry out your duty solemnly for its own sake. You want to destroy this enemy.” Aatto said.

At first it was Murati’s snap reaction to deny to herself that this was the case–

However, it was entirely true.

Murati wanted to punish the imperials and bring justice to them since she was a child.

At Thassal she had gotten her first taste of their blood.

Standing amid Imperial ships exploding, thousands of their people dying, she thought,

All of you deserve this.

So she could not deny what Aatto was saying– but neither would she acknowledge it.

“What kind of plan would you have come up with, Chief Petty Officer?” Murati asked.

Aatto kept her answer succinct– after all, it was almost time to deploy.

“I would have just abandoned the Republicans. But– I like your way much better.”

“Well. Thank you. It’s your first day on the job, so do your best.”

“In service to you, I will never falter, master.”

Murati turned around and left Aatto’s side, heading for the Agni. Her heart remained heavy.

At the foot of the Agni, she found her fiancé Karuniya Maharapratham in her pilot suit. She had been tasked by Murati with overseeing the loading of the HELIOS drones into the shoulder binders on the Agni. Upon Murati’s arrival, she turned to face her, put her hands on her hips, smiled and leaned into Murati’s personal space. She had a strange look on her face.

In that moment, Murati feared for the worst.

“Soooo, I heard a weird woman is following you around and calling you ‘master’ now.”

All of Murati’s fears cascaded over her shoulders until she thought she would fall.

“Who told you that? It’s nothing. She’s– she’s just a little– odd in the head.” Murati said.

Karuniya continued to grin and stare at Murati. Chest out, hands on her hips, smug.

“Nothing untoward is happening! Why are you looking at me like that?” Murati whined.

“Oh nothing~– to be honest, I’m glad you made a friend. Maybe you can be besties.”

“Karuniya, I have friends.” Murati said suddenly. “I have no problems making friends.”

“None of the officers count. And I don’t count either– I’m your wife~” Karuniya teased.

“It’s not fair that you don’t count– okay, fine, let’s just drop it. We need to get moving.”

Similar scenes seemed to play out at some of the other gantries in the hangar.

At the foot of the Cheka, Sonya Shalikova held hands with Maryam Karahailos.

“Sonya, I believe in you! Score super awesome kills and become a Diver Ace!”

Shalikova blinked. “Maryam– that’s a bit macabre– it isn’t a game you know–”

“Oh, but I heard that for every kill you get to put a notch on your Diver, and at five–”

“That’s not untrue, some people do that– but it’s kinda weird when you just say it.”

Between the open cockpits of the Strelkannon and Cossack, their two pilots met.

The taller Sameera looking down at Dominika, who put on an aggrieved expression.

“I’m warning you to reign in your gallivanting attitude this time.”

“I will control myself if you promise me a reward when we get back.”

“Sameera–! You–!”

Meanwhile–

In front of the Strelok One~bis, a tall and pensive blond woman stood with her head bowed. Compared to the Shimii she was speaking to there was a visibly humorous contrast of their size difference and the level of deference of one to the other. Sieglinde von Castille was nearly bowing to Khadija al-Shajara, who looked none too amused by the body language and nervous stuttering. She waited for a moment for Sieglinde to struggle with speaking.

“Khadija, I– I’m here because– I just wanted to– for you–”

“Oh come on, hold your head up! Speak clearly! This is pathetic!”

Khadija reached out and with one index finger forced Sieglinde’s chin up.

Sieglinde looked briefly stunned by this level of physical approach.

For an instant she seemed to flinch as if she was expecting to be struck.

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that really what you wanted to say to me?”

“No.” Sieglinde sighed. “I wanted to wish you good fortune. On the sortie.”

Khadija put on a smug little smile, her tail waving behind me.

“Unlike you, dear, I don’t need good fortune. It’s all skill in this cockpit.”

With a teasing little wave, Khadija hopped onto the ramp and ducked into the open Strelok.

Sieglinde stood watching as the cockpit closed as if in disbelief of Khadija’s response.

And rushed out of the way when the gantries released the trundling mechas.


“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’! Sameera al-Shahouh, deploying!”

Mother’s surname again. Perhaps it just felt right for Eisental.

Under the feet of Sameera’s modified Strelok, the deployment chute piped in water and piped out any air until the chute equalized to the outside and then opened its hatch, releasing the machine into the ocean beneath the Brigand. Because the Brigand was moving at speed, Sameera had to immediately hit the pedals in her cockpit in order to begin generating thrust and avoid being left behind by the ship. Once she got to speed, she could keep up with the ship easily. Her feet on the pedals, her hands on the sticks, fingers ready to flick switches and press buttons installed by the stick housing or on the stick itself.

Sameera quickly checked her cameras.

She had a multi-sectioned screen in front of her that was technically split into 16 regions that could have different pictures. Most of the time, she split the picture only three ways. One main forward camera occupying half the real estate but directly in the center of the monitor; a rear camera on the left quarter; and a variable camera on the right quarter of the screen that she flipped between an upward and a downward camera, sometimes compulsively.

Below her camera monitors her communications equipment was installed. This box parsed communications data and piped it to her headset and monitor. Presently neither the Brigand nor a fellow pilot was in direct communication so the picture contained only her camera feeds. By default, communication was wireless data brought by laser, the most efficient means of data transmission underwater. Acoustic data transfer was the first fallback, because laser was incredibly range dependent, while acoustic wave decoding was less so. Imperial communicators, and old Union communicators, had a second fallback to radio, but radio equipment was not installed anymore on the latest Union designs as it was nearly useless underwater. They saved a bit of weight omitting traditional wi-fi and radio.

At the moment, there was nobody on the screen, and the communicator was silent.

That state of affairs would not last much longer, however.

From an adjacent chute, Dominika’s Strelkannon dropped out soon after.

Her machine was designed for heavy fire support.

For this mission, however, the heavier shoulders of the Strelkannon had been equipped with two pods each housing a double-barreled 20 mm ‘gas gun’, the same sort that ships equipped. With this equipment her role was ostensibly to fire light caliber munitions at dizzying rates hoping to intersect enemy munitions. Sameera, meanwhile, had to make sure she got to fulfill that role by killing anything that got too close to her.

Sameera quite fancied such a protective role.

She had set her sights on making Dominika her woman, after all.

“Dominika, how’s the water?” Sameera asked cheerfully.

“Dark like always.” Dominika replied, her disinterested voice coming out of the earphones.

At that moment Dominika’s expressionless face appeared on a corner of the screen.

“Unquestionably it is dark– but I don’t feel like it is ‘dark as always.’”

It was her first time out in it, and Sameera felt that the water in Eisental was much darker.

Fighting against Leviathans in Lyser, or against the imperialists in Serrano, there were still blues and greens to be seen in the water. Faint, but nevertheless apparent. In Eisental, an additional thousand meters down from those locations, her spotlights parted nothing but pitch black water. Not even with strained eyes could she see any green or blue.

“Sameera, I’m going to conserve ammo as much as I can. Can I count on you?”

“Got it. Don’t worry about a thing. They won’t get through me.”

“Also– I’m serious when I say this. Don’t run off like when we were escaping Serrano.”

“I won’t. I have someone who needs me now. I don’t need to impress anyone but her.”

For once, Dominika did not respond to that with sarcasm or a sour remark.

Soon after, the entire squadron formed up under the Brigand.

To the right of the communicator there was an LCD with sensor output. For most Divers the only capability of this device by itself was to display directional sound acquisition, and this was nearly useless in combat. However, in the presence of a ship, the Diver could sync with its higher-fidelity sensor data and acquire a sonar picture and even LADAR topography.

Once the 114th had formed up, this screen began to display a map with marked targets.

Updating in real time as the ship and the squadron approached their objective.

And even marking distant boxes on the camera feeds using overlays.

On the monitor corner, Dominika disappeared.

There was a priority shared feed to all pilots from the squad leader’s mecha, the Agni.

Karuniya Maharapratham in a pilot suit smiled and waved.

“Operator Maharapratham here! How is everyone? We will begin scattering the HELIOS drones shortly. Scanning and network propagation will follow after. It’ll take some time, but please wait warmly and look forward to all the data goodness coming soon!”

“Karuniya…”

Distantly in Karuniya’s audio, Murati could be heard saying something.

Sameera laughed to herself for a bit.

Between her comrades’ speech, she could hear distant sounds of ordnance.

Low volume booming that seemed to wash over her.

As they neared, the sound was accompanied by vibrations that stirred her machine.

On the map, the object marked “VIP” and the object marked “TARGET 1” approached.

“It’s time, disperse!” Murati ordered. “You know your roles! Begin the operation!”

“Yes ma’am!”

On Murati’s command, the Divers of the 114th launched out from under the Brigand, breaking up into loose sections of two units in mutually supporting range. Sameera led the way for Dominika, the Cossack and Strelkannon grouped closely together as they charged out into the black, empty expanse in front of them. There was neither seafloor beneath them nor sky above them and the Brigand grew distant in the marine fog.

Soon they knew of its existence only in the tracking data.

Similarly both VIP and enemy vessels were nothing but overlay elements and map blips.

Until they came into view.

First as brief flashes of ordnance in the water. Stronger vibrations accompanying each.

Then in the middle of the void of water appeared a long, rectangular silhouette.

Lines of gas gun fire burst from its midsection and aft, intercepting torpedoes and middle caliber rounds hurtling toward it every minute. Specks of light going off by the dozens followed by much larger explosions from the intercepted ordnance. The ship was fighting for its life, enduring explosive fire every minute. Though she could not yet see the Marder-class chasing after the frigate, she could track it, based on positional data which her computer would update in real time using logic given by the Brigand during the sync. In this way, she knew where her enemy was relative to the ship that they were trying to rescue.

“Captain Korabiskaya has made contact with the Republic ship.” Murati said to her pilots.

Regardless, they would have to be careful of its gas gun fire.

Having confirmed the position of the VIP ship, the 114th veered eastward away from it.

Moving towards the enemy instead.

“Avoid enemy ordnance, but intercept if you have a shot.” Murati said.

“I’ve got a hundred shots a minute, Lieutenant.” Dominika replied.

“Use them judiciously.” Murati instructed.

Dominika acknowledged, moving her Diver closer to Sameera but farther behind her.

“Acknowledged. I’ll take the lead.” Sameera said.

On her diver’s arm, she revved up the engine on her diamond spear in preparation.

Rotation was good and smooth. No motion lag– it had good heft when she moved the arm.

She grinned to herself, leaning forward just a little and flooring her pedals for more thrust.

Minutes after contact with the VIP, a second silhouette began to emerge from the dark.

Along with six figures disturbing the water, as they broke away from the “Marder” frigate.

Their first enemy had shown itself and the battle was joined.


Republic “In-Line-2” class Frigates resembled the Union Soyuz class in overall silhouette, but in the sum total could not have been more different. Integrated main guns on the bow meant that the Republic frigate had very stable shooting and twice as many barrels as the Union vessel, but could only bring its main guns to bear on targets it was directly facing.

This design was born out of the Republic’s obsession with breaking out from Ratha Flow and through the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach, reasoning that there was little opportunity to maneuver in that type of warfare and not caring what would happen in a prolonged campaign in Imbria. Everything else seemed designed to paper over this.

Beveled surfaces on the bow and aft gave a rounded and aesthetically pleasing appearance to the ship, unlike the boxy, completely rectangular Soyuz. Because of the guns in the prow it had a flat face that was not efficient in water-breaking. Integrated hydrojets in an armored stern gave the ship’s thrusters greater resilience, unlike the Imbrian-style exposed hydrojets that only had a flared skirt around them, but this also added weight. Despite the supposed higher efficiency of the Republic hydrojets, the added armor made the craft only slightly faster than a Marder or Soyuz. While viewed from the side the ship appeared to be a single rectangular block, the design actually possessed two broad sections. There was a very slight taper near the midsection to a thinner rear. It was there that the rear fins attached. They had a different design from Imbrian fins, slightly diagonal and strangely adjustable.

In total, this meant the In-Line-2 could never completely outrun a “Marder” or “Soyuz.” Whenever a Republic ship turned, it lost maneuver efficiency compared to Imbrian designs. On the maneuver this meant that despite higher top speed, the nimbler Imbrian frigates would catch up. All they had to do was keep shooting to force the Republic ship to snake.

Thankfully, the Republic ship in this particular chase had outside assistance.

As the 114th moved to engage the “Marder” chasing after it, the UNX-001 Brigand and the Volksarmee Rostock moved to cover it. The Brigand moved parallel to the Republic frigate while the Rostock sailed past and moved to engage the chasing Volkisch Marder-class along with the 114th Diver Squadron. Diver gunfire would soon begin trading.

Captain Korabiskaya sent an acoustic message to the Republic frigate along with the shared Union-Republic diplomatic cipher attached. This would inform the ship computer on the Republic side that it was allied traffic being received. Even if the Republic ship wanted to do anything drastic out of paranoia, it had to turn around to face and fire at them, so neither the Rostock’s Captain Daphne nor Ulyana on the Brigand felt threatened.

“Captain, the Republic ship answered.” Semyonova said, her fingers slowly brushing some of her blond hair behind her ears as she spoke. “They are identifying themselves as the ‘R.N.S. John Brown’ and the Captain is requesting a laser transmission to speak with you.”

“Right. Is HELIOS up? Can Daphne join the video meeting?” Ulyana asked.

“HELIOS coverage is at 43% but there are drones we can bounce to.” Zachikova replied.

“Semyonova, Zachikova, hail the John Brown and Rostock and connect us.” Ulyana said.

On the main screen, the picture displaying the LADAR topography and the sonar-based live target tracking was shrunk and pushed to one side. Still visible as needed but subordinate to an incoming laser call taking up most of the screen. In a picture-in-picture, there was a small square with Daphne, who was muted because she was soon to engage the enemy directly– but the larger picture unveiled the captain of the John Brown. Ulyana had not known what to expect, as she had met few Cogitans in her life and knew little about their demographics.

She was still somewhat surprised to see a woman around her age.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya. I can’t thank you enough for your assistance. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Eithnen Ní Faoláin — in the Republic database this is rendered as Ethna Whelan to simplify. I, technically, am the Captain of this fighting vessel.”

She had given two slightly different pronunciations.

Ulyana was not sure her Volgian accent could handle either of them well.

The John Brown’s bridge was notably more cramped than the Brigand’s as there were several heads of hair visible around on the bottom edge of her main camera picture. Eithnen was a fair skinned and good-looking woman, the middle of her face full of freckles, her cheekbones high and slim, with brown eyes and a slightly long nose. Her hair was long and voluminous and shockingly red, so bright that any individual darker strand seemed to stand out, of which there were few. Parted more to one side with longer bangs on that side as well. She was dressed in a button-down shirt that was partially unbuttoned over sweat-slick skin, along with a blue military coat worn loosely, paired with a skirt and tights. There was a hat hanging on a guard-rail off to her side. Eithnen’s bridge seemed to be tight and concentric, with herself in a small central enclosure without much legroom and surrounded by her officers on a ring slightly below her. The door seemed to be directly behind her.

Certainly such a design was efficient, but Ulyana could not imagine fighting like that.

“Our nations stand united, and so do we, Captain.” Ulyana said. “What is your current status? More enemies are on the way from the north. We have a plan to attack each approaching enemy group to rescue your ship; but your support would maximize our success.”

“My crew is exhausted, Captain, but we have been exhausted for days. We will continue fighting to the best of our ability. To do otherwise would mean lying down to die.” Eithnen replied. Her expression did not change as she relayed her situation. She had a look of almost amused resignation in the face of this danger– bitterness, too. “We lack in almost every human need except ammunition for the ship’s guns. No medicine, eating a meal a day, and with nary the supplies to do more than keep the ship afloat if a bit leaky.”

“Those are desperate conditions. Should we prepare an evacuation?” Ulyana said.

“No, the ship can endure a bit more yet. I appreciate your concern.” Eithnen said.

“Then once the waters are calm again, we can at least make sure you can get to Aachen.”

“I do not relish returning there– but you are right, there is no other choice long-term.”

“It is admirable that you have maintained control of things in such a situation, Captain.”

“We have a new lease on life Captain– we can almost see the light at the end. While at first I and my crew consigned ourselves to death, we disabled the trap that was set to detonate our ship in case of our escape from our Republic Navy captors. Therefore I would greatly enjoy living at least a little bit longer– and in that, we do require your assistance.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes in confusion. “What happened to all of you?”

Eithnen’s eyes drifted away from the screen, as if she was looking at her crew below.

She sat back in the little seat cushioning she was given in her tight bridge.

One hand running through her hair.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I hope you can be sympathetic even knowing this– but the John Brown is a penal ship. We are the 808th Penal Battalion.” Eithnen said. She spoke quickly as if she did not want Ulyana to have time to react before hearing her whole story. “We are all former prisoners and in fact former prisoners slated for execution. However, none of us here are violent offenders or sexual exploiters! All of us are victims of social and economic discrimination! That we are trapped here is a horrific injustice, Captain!”

“Captain Faoláin,” Ulyana smiled while troubling the pronunciation she had heard from Eithnen, “Regardless of your circumstances I would not just abandon you to be killed by the Volkisch Movement, having taken painful efforts to reach out to you. I have seen first-hand that the Republic can be quite unjust despite its promotion of ‘liberty.’”

Eithnen bowed her head to Ulyana, her hands clapped together in a gesture of submission.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Captain. If I am the last Republic officer alive here that can be held to account for the Core Separation at Kreuzung then I will submit to any punishment. I understand I have participated in heinous actions and that my own survival is not an excuse. I only want the rest of the hundred innocent souls on this ship to be safe.”

“There is no justice in punishing you in place of those who coerced you.” Ulyana said.

“I agree with the distinguished Captain Korabiskaya as well.” Daphne said suddenly, her first shared opinion in the discussion. “Forgive my interruption, I am Daphne Triantafallos of the Katarran communist ship ‘Rostock.’ I will be leaving the call now– battle will soon be joined!”

Daphne looked strangely cheerful to be on a collision course with an enemy ship.

Her face disappeared from the picture in picture, and the square disappeared with her.

“Communist Katarran mercenaries?” Eithnen asked.

“Communist Katarran comrades. Much more reliable.” Ulyana said with a smile.

“I see. Captain, allow us to join your attack. We don’t want to sit helplessly.” Eithnen said.

“We’ll take every gun we can get. Do you have any Divers?” Ulyana asked.

Eithnen shook her head. “We were not trusted to serve as more than interdiction support.”

“So human shields essentially.” Ulyana said. “The Republic– I’ll hold my tongue for now.”

“Hah! Insult that rubbish country all you want. I’ll gladly join you there too.” Eithnen said.

Ulyana found herself full of compassion for the plight of that lone frigate. Judging by Eithnen’s expressions and hesitations, her story felt genuine. Increasingly she felt such a distaste for the Union’s ‘greatest ally’– but for now she had to settle the immediate account.


One by one the missile hatches atop the forward deck of the Marder-class sprang open.

Trails of bubbles floated up from each bay as its Sturmvolker diver launched, six in all.

These modified Volkers lost their round chassis for a body plan closer to a Strelok.

Looking more like the intimidating footsoldiers they were meant to be, armed with 20 mm Diver caliber submachine guns, the Sturmvolkers dispersed from the side of the Marder they were meant to be guarding, charging into an expected melee. None of them stayed together in units. In every direction a lone Sturmvolker went, hunting after the blips on their synced sonars. One particular unit shot straight up over the battlefield before pulling into a steep dive, employing gravity and its superior position to attempt to meet its enemy with an advantage in maneuver. It moved with great confidence as if it would surely score a kill.

In the middle of its dive, it crossed the path of Sameera’s Cossack as she darted forward.

Stopping, turning, raising its submachine gun to open fire believing it had taken her back.

And meeting a spinning drill that instantly bored through the thin chassis of its SMG.

Through arms that shredded to pieces–

Into the hull directly through the cockpit seams in the chest armor.

Water pressure doing bloody work.

Perforated, the Sturmvolker imploded suddenly.

Bursting pieces deflecting off the drill.

Nothing but a cloud of red foam and formless metal shreds gently falling down the water.

Sameera retracted her blood-flecked drill and accelerated away from the debris.

“Finally got to debut this Diamond Spear. Simple, yet delightfully brutal.”

Anyone in a mecha she was ordered to kill was no longer a person in Sameera’s mind.

Like Leviathans in Lyser, they were just things to be hunted.

For a moment, she had thought, “would it be more taxing to kill humans than Leviathans?”

Then, in battle with those humans it never crossed her mind. She had her orders.

On the hunt for humans doomed to the wrong side of her attentions.

Because there were as many enemies as the attacking mecha of the 114th, the battle was not immediately intense. Pops of confused gunfire from the Marder’s gas guns sounded the loudest and punctuated the chases transpiring around its hydrospace, but these fusilades were ineffective. The dispersed Sturmvolkers swam in directionless arcs, briefly firing their SMGs at the flitting shadows of the Union mecha darting all around them but failing to make contact with their targets. Shalikova and Khadija took to the chase, and went after a Sturmvolker each as soon as they saw one. Murati and her Agni hung back. Valya drew away one of the Sturmvolker from the reach of supporting units. Sameera scored first blood.

“HELIOS will be up momentarily!” Karuniya replied. “Zachikova, you can start!”

Sameera spotted Zachikova’s vaguely cetacean-shaped drone go swimming past.

Dragging behind it a crate on a hook that it was taking to the east.

“Moving to block the laser relay.” Zachikova informed the team.

“Sameera, Dominika, can you tie up the Marder’s guns?” Murati asked.

Sameera waited a second for Dominika to speak up first.

“Acknowledged!”

So she could then say: “I’ll do you one better than tying them up, Lieutenant!”

Though the battle had begun far enough from the Marder to only vaguely see its outline in the distance, the ship was only a hundred or so meters away– and closing. Flashes from its 20 mm defensive gas guns shone brighter and faster but began to dim anew. Owing to the 114th attacking, the Marder ceased to shoot at the John Brown and turned northward, away from the Rostock. Sameera wondered if they knew the Rostock was an enemy.

“Dominika, can you follow me as close as possible?” Sameera said.

“The gas gun pods aren’t as heavy as the cannons, I can keep up.” Dominika replied.

“Awesome. This is how we used to do it to bigger Leviathans in Lyser. Floor that pedal!”

Sameera began the attack run approaching the Marder-class from the starboard side. Gun pods on the Marder were divided into four bow, two aft, four keel and two each port and starboard. Hurtling toward the ship on final approach, Sameera was acquired by two of the bow guns and one of the starboard guns, turning and opening a flurry of gunfire. She approached high and threw herself into a diving turn to break through.

A dozen shells detonated in a long trail sweeping over her.

Flashing light briefly overcame her cameras.

Booming noises; tinnitus in her ears.

Heavy vibrations transferred into her cockpit, rattling over her back and under her fingers.

Explosion after explosion, bursting in the surroundings, blossoming fiery bubbles–

“Dominika!” She cried out.

“Still here! Focus!” She was relieved to hear a response.

Shrapnel bounced off her armor, pockmarked it, she could feel each impact–

Nevertheless she broke through the interdiction fire with minimal damage.

Sameera and Dominika swept across the broad side of the ship, too close to be fired on.

Close enough that the forward camera view was like a looming horizon of metal.

Within seconds the skirt of armor around the hydrojets came into view.

“Near the aft; up and on the deck!”

“Got it!”

The Streloks climbed suddenly, swept gracefully over the aft armor skirt.

Turned sharply, banking in a half-moon arc–

and began to cross the length of the deck, passing the conning fin,

completely under the firing arcs of the gas guns.

“Now cause some havoc!”

Taking the neck of the ship, its Divers too distracted to come to its rescue.

Sameera reared up her drill as she charged, and landed on the deck with a thrown punch.

Thrusting her diamond spear through a gas gun pod and gouging its magazine from inside.

Meanwhile Dominika planted herself in the middle of the three remaining deck guns.

From the Strelkannon’s shoulders, quick, controlled bursts of gunfire hammered the pods.

Perforating the housing and detonating each gun into a bubble of gas and debris.

“Rostock, the deck guns are out!” Sameera called out.

The Rostock’s Katarran operator picked up the message immediately.

“Got it! Torpedo incoming!”

Having created an opening, Sameera and Dominika thrust up with all of their power.

Within seconds the enormous sword-shape of the Rostock penetrated the shadows.

Filling the hole in the Marder’s defenses with fire.

Sameera noticed the brief flash of the explosion on her underside camera.

Faster than she could see in the darkness, the torpedo hurtled toward the starboard side of the Marder’s deck detonated just short of a direct hit, but it was enough. Enormous shearing forces caused by the detonation, expanding and contracting as the air bubble “stuck” to the ship’s side. Such was its fury that it tore a gash separating parts of the deck from the starboard plate. Water rushed in. Atop the ship, the main gun turret was paralyzed.

Though the watertight interior was not penetrated, the Marder listed.

Tilting just enough to expose the upper deck directly to the Rostock’s 150 mm guns.

From behind and under Sameera the guns thundered.

Twin massive flashes lit up the deck of the Rostock for a brief instant.

Lancing across the water splitting the sea, the munitions put two massive holes in the deck.

Penetrations too violent and too near for the anti-flooding measures to prevent.

In moments the Marder began to unravel beneath Sameera, bulging apart with successive compartment implosions until it was split open like a ration box. Everything transpired with devastating speed. Debris and blood, foaming clouds of shredded humans and ripped steel and crushed objects, lines of ripped-up cabling. From the top of the disemboweled hulk that was once a ship teeming with life, everything that had constituted its strength now bled out into a homogenous cloud. Its remains slowly descended to the sea floor.

For a moment Sameera floated amid that macabre geyser with a neutral expression.

Another hundred or so human souls cast into the water never again to return.

“No– it isn’t as hard as killing a Leviathan.” She said to herself.

Too low for the communicator to pick up and transmit.

When she took a Leviathan’s neck and drove her weapons into it, wrung its life out herself.

She had to see the face of a dead creature before her and meet its lightless eyes.

Something she saw moving with vigor and purpose just seconds ago, became extinguished.

With humans, in their ships and Divers– there was too much metal between all of them.

That was quite lucky. She wouldn’t be much use to anyone if she could not kill people.

“Sameera, are you alright? Don’t just suddenly go silent on me!”

Through the communicator, Dominika’s voice. Her lag-distorted face on the screen.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been through much worse.” She said, smiling at the screen.

Once again engaging her controls, Sameera’s Cossack rejoined Dominika’s Strelkannon.

Diving back down to where the sinking Marder once was, and now the Rostock settled.

“Marder down! No danger of agarthic detonation!” the Katarran operator called out.

Murati’s voice sounded next.

Sameera realized the fidelity of her sensor package had now improved. HELIOS’ high-bandwidth information network was established and she could see the surroundings much more clearly both on her map and even on her cameras due to the predictive overlays. It was as if there was actually some light and air down here in the depths of the Imbrium.

“All enemies down. Good work! But it’s only the first phase of the operation.” Murati said.

“Distress signals from the Marder to the relay were successfully intercepted by the net.”

Zachikova’s voice. In the distance Sameera could see an unfolded, massive sail-like object.

An X-shaped rigging between which there were enormous sectioned aluminum nets.

The Marder had been slain, and due to the laser-blocking net, its communications with the nearby laser relays were blocked, preventing its allies from knowing the details of its final fate. Nevertheless, despite the flawless execution of the first phase, the enemy, to whom the plan was unknown, continued making their own adjustments to alter the situation.


“W-what’s going on? Is there fighting? They’re fighting the Volkisch?”

At first Homa could hardly believe any of this was happening.

Soon she felt that the truth was washing over her like ice-cold water.

She was going to die.

From her hospital bed, Homa watched the bearing monitors on the wall. Hands shaking, teeth chattering. She felt suddenly cold because of how much she was sweating, and her chest quaked with the rushing of her heart. She felt that if she took her eyes off the monitors that would be the moment where her life suddenly ended. On every wall there was an update on the battle– the enemy ships, cycling topographic maps.

Along with a message, also cycled every so often–

Steel yourself and keep fighting! These monitors were meant for the sailor’s edification.

This propagandistic affirmation did nothing for Homa, however.

In her mind, this felt like the same hopeless folly she had engaged in back at Kreuzung.

The steel colossus of the Volkisch, immense and immovable, was coming for them.

Homa was not safe. She felt this in every centimeter of her skin.

She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to–

“Homa! I’m so sorry, I was setting up the aid stations. Are you okay?”

“I’m– of course– I’m not–”

Homa struggled to breathe and speak. Alarmed, Dr. Kappel rushed to her side.

Dr. Kappel held her by the shoulder and laid a hand on her forehead.

“Your temperature feels normal. I thought you might be having a rejection symptom–”

“How can it be normal?!” Homa cried out.

For an instant the doctor looked surprised by her shouting. She was not angered, however.

“I’ll get you a serotonin inhibitor– it’ll help you calm down.” Dr. Kappel said gently.

“How are you so calm?!” Homa shouted. “They’re going to kill us all!”

Dr. Kappel sat beside Homa’s bed, still smiling gently.

She reached out and carefully held Homa’s hands in her own.

“I understand your fear. But I’ve seen them do miraculous things before.” Dr. Kappel said.

Homa’s eyes filled with tears. She could not stop shaking. She looked down at her hands.

“Is– Is Kalika out there too? Where– where is she–?” Homa stammered heavily.

“Kalika is not fighting. She is helping in the hangar. She’ll be fine. I’m here for you.”

Dr. Kappel stayed at Homa’s side in the infirmary. Stroking her hands and comforting her.


“HELIOS is at full propagation! Please enjoy the scenery and thank your gracious host!”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s cheerful voice rang throughout the Brigand’s bridge.

On the main screen the prediction overlay on the camera feeds became clearer and slightly brighter. They could almost see the seafloor and the undersea mounts in the distance became outlined as if in fog. It was impressive, but even a miracle technology like HELIOS could not perfectly part the sea in such a dark and deep place as Eisental. It was comparatively far less rich in visual quality than it was in Goryk, when they first used it. They would not be able to navigate exclusively by sight even with the HELIOS network.

However, they were not using it for the visual overlay effects.

High-fidelity real time positional tracking and seamless laser communication with all of the pilots and ships in the fleet was the actual boon– and that was still working quite well, even over 2000 meters deep. On the Brigand’s bridge, the faces of their six pilots appeared on the main screen. Everyone had come out unscathed after the last sortie, but this was only the halfway mark. After a quick evaluation of the battlefield, the 114th returned to the Brigand as the Rostock and John Brown also formed back up around it. In an arrowhead formation, they headed for the next set of Marder-class. They had about twenty minutes before the next sortie, so the divers stayed in their deployment chutes.

Sailors passed charging cables and additional ammunition to them.

There was light damage on the Cossack and Valya’s Strelok that was assessed to not to be compromising for the machines. Shalikova and Khadija had each scored two enemy kills and received light shrapnel damage from close-range SMG munition bursts, while Sameera had taken out one enemy diver and Valya another. Murati’s Agni was the least worn and torn of the divers, as she had done no combat maneuvering and only focused on giving orders and covering for the HELIOS drones. While Ulyana ribbed Murati on her passivity in the last sortie, Tigris actually spoke up to agree with her decision to stay back.

“I’m recommending the Agni not engage in intense combat if possible.” She said.

“So when is Murati going to be required to do any work again?” Ulyana teased.

“Why is everyone suddenly acting like I’m lazy? This isn’t funny!” Murati shouted.

“She can go crazy once I’ve finished up the ‘Tigris Pack 1’ for the Agni.” Tigris said.

“Very well, I can accept that for now.” Ulyana replied.

“Why are you ignoring me now?!” Murati cried out, to a few laughs from the pilots.

On the video feed, they could see Karuniya’s hand reaching down to squeeze her shoulder.

Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah shook her head with a sigh, and turned to Zachikova.

“Can we get an updated picture of the incoming frigates? Has their course altered at all?”

Zachikova nodded her head and did as she was told, prompting the main screen to update.

In place of the pilots, the tracking map with predicted movements of the enemy returned.

Showing the two Frigates still in a line as they approached– and the third now closing in.

“It appears that their formation is tightening relative to what was calculated before.” Zachikova said. “We will meet them all together. No more than a minute apart.”

For a moment, Murati seemed to freeze up.

There was an unexpected change in the enemy’s composition.

And it was the most dangerous group too– those Marders and all their Divers.

Regardless, if Murati was afraid she was not showing it.

“We will adapt then.” Murati spoke up. “Captain, are we willing to use our missiles?”

“They’re difficult to replenish so I hoped to save them for a worse situation.” Ulyana said.

“Well, this situation is worsening. I think this a good idea from the Lieutenant.” Aaliyah said, gesturing to the main screen, where Murati’s face once was. “With the Rostock also shooting, we could drop sixteen missiles right into the core of their formation and cause a lot of chaos if not an outright rout. Patrolmen might not retain cohesion after that.”

“I’d gladly spend some missiles to seize the day. The Rostock will assist.” Erika said.

“Very well. We’ll prepare the missiles to fire.” Ulyana said. “But what about the timing?”

“Good point. Fatima, have we detected any more active sonar?” Murati asked.

“No, not since they sent us into alarm.” Fatima said. “They’re likely going quiet now.”

“Zachikova blocked the final communications from the other Marder. Jamming started before the Rostock attacked the Marder. It’s likely the enemy is missing some critical details about that battle.” Murati said. “They will know there was fighting and they will know something of our composition depending on what the Marder reported. But do they all know that the Rostock was also their enemy? We could use the situation against them by constructing a false narrative to have them take up a predictable formation.”

“How can we manipulate them in this situation? They’ll be on alert.” Aaliyah asked.

“Does the Rostock still have its original Imperial communications equipment, Premier?”

Erika smiled. “I think I see what you’re getting at Murati. Yes, we do have it.”

Zachikova altered the main screen picture so Murati’s face could be seen over the map.

“You said that regional patrol crews assume the Rostock is an imperial vessel with a higher command authorization than themselves. That means they are not aware of each specific ship in the inventory and they are not doing due dilligence and demanding authentication.” Murati said. “Zachikova could use the Rostock to send an Imperial-encrypted acoustic communication to the Marders informing them to predeploy their divers in a boxed defensive position. We will pretend that the Rostock needs assistance.”

“Clever.” Erika said. “I quite like the idea. Let’s contact Daphne to set things up quickly.”

“Zachikova, do you think you can do it? And do it quickly?” Murati asked.

Zachikova stared at the picture of Murati in her cockpit with clear irritation.

“Who do you think I am? This is technically really easy to do. But will they believe it?”

“Is it underestimating the enemy’s intelligence if we all agree they’re not too bright?”

Murati smiled confidently on the screen. Zachikova sighed once more and got to work.

The Rostock pulled out ahead, deliberately being missed by a small amount of gunfire.


Alerted to enemy activity but not exactly what kind, three Marder-class did their best to pull tightly together before making their final approach to the expected battlefield. Hatches opened on all three, their missile bays releasing sixteen Sturmvolker divers divided into sections of four, each occupying a cardinal direction as to guard their intended ships.

As far as the patrol knew their mission had changed. From capturing a Republic vessel that had somehow penetrated Eisental’s defenses, to stopping a large-scale enemy operation that was even threatening a Ritter-class Cruiser responding to the nearby battle. Since their local heavy support, a Serclaes, was lagging behind as usual, the brunt of the response was their responsibility. They were just patrol– they would not question orders.

Approaching to within a kilometer range was the Ritter-class that had sent the orders.

Trailing behind it as expected were a pair of enemy vessels launching ineffective attacks.

Aside from the Imperial cipher the ship had attached no relevant authentication.

Nevertheless, the patrol crews could come up with their own excuses for that.

When a brand new Cruiser like that gave an order they simply complied for their own sake.

The Marders in their defensive box sailed confidently. With a Ritter, they had the numbers.

Then, within 750 meters, the Marders spotted a series of successive flashes.

From behind the Ritter– and from the Ritter’s own missile bays.

Over a dozen lines cut across the water. Supercavitating missiles had been launched.

Both Imperial Taurus class missiles and Union Biryuza class hurtled toward the flotilla.

At this range the Marders had roughly 7 seconds to respond to being fired upon by missiles.

In that time gas guns could engage and fire a few rounds in haphazard directions.

Divers could be issued and execute single-word orders.

It was not enough.

“INCOMING!” was all that went out across the patrol flotilla.

Explosions blossomed violent gas bubbles across the top of flotilla’s hydrospace.

Gas gunners and divers struck some of the missiles, but even those intercepted munitions traveled too close to the fleet. Such turbulent detonations inflicted shockwaves that shook the frigates and sent Divers flying out of place. Cavitation bubbles formed by the explosion expanded and collapsed, pulsating violently. The walls of these bubbles “stuck” to steel when expanding and inflicted shearing force on the same metal when collapsing. Unlucky Divers caught in their wake imploded, torn open; ships within the radius of the explosion had armor and gun turrets and sensor bundles torn off their hulls and cast out into the sea.

Each missile warhead caused an explosion large enough to engulf two divers.

Tightly packed and not expecting such an attack, the flotilla quaked from the blasts.

No direct hits were scored, but significant damage was inflicted to turrets, fins, towers.

In an instant, combat capability had dropped from near-overwhelming to nil.

A predictable formation and a well-chosen attack made the difference.

Ephemeral flames and streams of bubbles and clouds of hot vaporized water spread a fog throughout the formation that the flotilla’s ships and divers struggled to escape. Once certain that they had survived, the individual ships lost cohesion, realizing it was a trap, and began to flee outside of mutually supporting range. In the confusion their divers floated helplessly, gathering their wits and tentatively fleeing in random directions.

Little did they know that while focused on the death raining down from above,

their keels had been taken.

Beneath the enemy flotilla, several divers shot up and attacked from the sea floor.

Khadija al-Shajara was at the head of the group and rushed at heedless speeds, her targeting computer putting a yellow box around a nearby Sturmvolker that had been spotted on her path. She reared back one of her swords as she climbed, sweeping up and just over the Sturmvolker suddenly. Twisting her Strelok’s body, engaging the jet on her diamond blade and cleaving diagonally through the center armor around the cockpit.

Saw-teeth chewed-metal disintegrating in front of her as her target imploded.

“One more for me, little Shali-Shali~!” Khadija said sweetly.

“It’s not a contest! Focus up!” Shalikova shouted back.

One blade in each hand; Khadija engaged both saws and rushed to the next target.

She was unaware of how many enemies had survived, she was not looking at her sensors.

Her mind had a honed instinct for moving quickly and attacking without hesitation.

Above them, there was a Frigate trying to climb away–

From the distance, a thundering cannonade. Three blasts perforated the side of the ship.

The Rostock, Brigand and John Brown were bringing firepower to bear on the flotilla.

Thanks to HELIOS, they did not have to worry much about hitting their own divers.

Metal rained down from heavens. Khadija navigated the debris of the dead and dying ships.

Pieces of the ships deflected off her armor as she charged.

Snaking toward a Sturmvolker overwhelmed by the chaos.

Within the rain of blood and iron it sprayed its SMG haphazardly.

She could almost hear the pilot screaming and shaking within the cascade of death.

Bursts of ineffective gunfire grazed her shoulderplates and hurtled past her hip armor.

Not once did she slow down; not once did she lose confidence in her approach.

Khadija crashed into the enemy with her swords in front of her and tore across.

Ripping two massive gashes in the metal, severing an arm, engulfed in skin-color foam.

Barely recognizing a kill before engaging her vernier thrusters and kicking off the carcass.

Her computer had already identified the next enemy within the storm.

She reveled in it.

“Looks like I’ll be the one carving a notch on my cockpit today, Shali-Shali~!”

By the time Serclaes-class Cruiser arrived, it was to the scene of a slaughter.

Heavy and roughly spearpoint-shaped, the Serclaes bristled with 76 mm guns on its angled surfaces, as well as a single 150 mm gun turret with one barrel designed for precision fire. It would avail itself of none of these accoutrements. Arriving blind, having received only a few panicked transmissions from the Marder-group and nothing more, and now unable itself to reach the nearby laser relay to communicate with the rest of the patrol, it saw an enormous field of mutilated debris spread out before it– and two enemy Cruisers banking away.

Drawn to the enemy it could see, the Serclaes moved to bring its guns to bear on them.

Unaware of a third enemy, the original target of the chase, that had been laid in wait.

Coming in quickly from the opposite flank just as the Serclaes committed to turn.

Four resounding blasts from the 100 mm guns on the John Brown impacted the Serclaes.

Tightly grouped, the shots punched deep into the armor in quick succession causing the ship’s interiors to disgorge from the wounds like a bag turned inside-out. Water violently filled the ship and disgorged each compartment in turn. Once the remains of the ship began to list, it seemed a beast wounded, red frothing humanity and steel innards copiously bleeding from the perforations as its body gracefully arced toward the sea floor.

Demonstrating the inflexible but brutal firepower that characterized the “In-Line-2” class.

“They called us cowards. But here we are.” Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin solemnly declared.

Not even a murmur got out about this engagement. The Serclaes died quietly.

In the distance, an aluminum sail folded back into its rigging and ceased blocking the relay.

Within the cockpits of several divers, pilots broke out into laughter, tears, or sighs.

Inside each ship, the officers and sailors stood briefly speechless at the circumstances.

Before breaking out into celebration.

Five ships, twenty-four divers, over 500 enemy lives. No casualties of their own.

Mere minutes decided whom would pay the balance with their dead.

An advantage that would have seemed overwhelming swung from one side to another.

Quick decisions; lucky guesses; irreparable mistakes, parceled out between combatants.

Incomparable levels of experience played a part; but so did the plan and its execution.

So did quick thinking and the determination to do battle in the first place.

For the Volksarmee it was an unlikely victory against the type of enemies they would have once run away from. Fighting the patrol in open water– it signaled a change in the era.

“All of you really have me believing in miracles here.” Erika Kairos said. “Good work.”

In each pilot’s cockpits and throughout the Brigand and Rostock, her voice broadcast.

Even after all they had been through, it proved that their survival had not just been a fluke.

Somehow, almost before they even knew it, they fought and won the Battle of Haaren Hills.

Opening the way to Aachen, testing their cooperation, rescuing a stray Republic ship–

And catching the attention of several different forces, once word of the event spread.


“We’re recovering the Agni! Get the crane here! C’mon, don’t leave our hero waiting!”

Chief Galina Lebedova shouted amicably at the surrounding sailors in the hangar.

Everyone had a smile on their face as they got the mobile crane over to the deployment chute and hooked the chain to Agni, pulling it up and onto the floor of the hangar. When the cockpit door opened, Murati stepped out into a wave of hands, patting her back, shaking her shoulder, clapping. They called her a hero and a genius. They saluted and cheered.

Ulyana had credited her with the battle plan.

Murati wilted under all the attention. She barely knew how to take a step forward.

So many people were smiling and laughing that she could not help but laugh awkwardly.

And she had some experience speaking in front of people, so it was not stage fright.

Rather, the sheer size of the group in the hangar led her to realize–

how many lives were at stake

in her conceited decisions,

recalling the Comissar chastised her

was all of this what she put at stake–?

“Hey, hey, don’t crowd us like this, I have a migraine! We need to rest!”

Karuniya stepped down from the rear seat of the Agni, gently pushing Murati forward.

Murati silently thanked Karuniya for being there with her.

Urged by Karuniya, Murati stepped off the cockpit ramp.

All of the sailors made way for them to go through to the elevator. Partway through they started clapping. Murati did not know why but the clapping bothered her a lot in that moment. It sounded much louder in her ears than it should and it rattled through her chest. Booming, thundering, vibrations transferring from metal through to her– no not from metal she was out of the metal. It couldn’t have been so loud as to move through the floor. She could barely meet the eyes of the sailors– they became an indistinct mass around her. Did Karuniya see all of this? Murati thought that she might stumble and fall–

“Please allow the Lieutenant through! She must attend her post-combat checkup!”

At the entrance to the elevator the crowd cleared away from a shouting Aatto.

She helped Karuniya to usher Murati through the elevator door.

Once the doors shut, all of the sounds shut out with them.

It was like a pair of hands had clapped in Murati’s ears and awakened her from a dream.

“Murati, are you okay?” Karuniya asked. “You look so pale– and you’re shaking!”

“I’m fine.” Murati said. “Really. I haven’t eaten today, I must be hungry.”

“Jeez. I should have had you eat a survival bar or something.” Karuniya said.

Karuniya turned from Murati to the Loup woman who had entered the elevator with them.

“You must be Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! It’s our first time meeting isn’t it?”

“I believe so! I was only officially elevated to this role this morning.”

Aatto reached out a hand across Murati’s chest to shake with Karuniya on the other side.

Karuniya shook her hand with a strangely cheerful expression.

“I’m Murati’s wife, Karuniya Maharapratham. Pleased to meet you.”

She emphasized the word. Was she angry? Aatto had no reaction to this.

Between the two of them Murati felt like she had been trapped in a cage.

Everything was happening across the length of her like she had been made an object.

A firm hand shake. Smiling faces. An almost mock-saccharine atmosphere.

Aatto’s fingers then slipped from Karuniya’s grasp, to hold her hand by the tips instead.

She leaned forward in front of Murati and kissed Karuniya’s hand.

Karuniya went red. Murati drew her eyes wide.

“The Queen herself!” Aatto said. “I can already see it– a worthy partner to a king!”

Murati almost wanted to scream at her–

But the two of them were chirping too much for her to get a sound in edgewise.

“Oh my! She’s such a charmer!” Karuniya laughed.

Now it was Aatto’s turn to smile in a strangely cheerful fashion.

“I studied the roster. A formidable scholar is a perfect match for a consummate soldier.”

“Oh ho~! Murati, I already like her. You’ve got a keeper here.”

“I am flattered you think so. I simply wish to support unique talents in this world.”

“Thank you Aatto. My hubby can be difficult, so please be patient with her.”

“Of course, of course–”

“I’m the one who is being monumentally patient here.” Murati spoke up, fists tightening.

Aatto and Karuniya both giggled at the same time and in a frighteningly similar fashion.

Murati wondered if she might break their camaraderie by reminding Karuniya that Aatto had been a non-commissioned officer of the Volkisch Movement, but she decided against it. She did not want to hurt Aatto’s feelings when she could just be the bigger woman and endure her wife joking as she always did. It might even do Karuniya some good, Murati thought, if she made a friend. For as much as Karuniya joked about this, the same rules of friendship that she used to say Murati was friendless applied just as much to her.

At least the two of them were not fighting.

Karuniya could have easily decided to be offended by Aatto rather than amused.

After the door opened to the upper tier, it revealed Erika Kairos standing in the hall.

Murati saluted to her. Erika waved for her to put her hand down.

“Ah, Murati. May I accompany you for a moment? I wanted to talk.” Erika said.

“Of course.” Murati said. She turned to look at Karuniya and Aatto.

Karuniya waved her fingers as if to tell Murati to go on ahead, staying with Aatto.

Erika started down the hall with Murati following at her side.

“How are you feeling? Triumphant?” Erika asked.

“Not really. A little shaky I guess.” Murati said. “I haven’t eaten today.”

She was beginning to suspect it was more than food and maybe her nerves were shot.

But she did not want to admit that nor seek support for it.

Preferably, it really was just hunger affecting her.

“Does it feel surreal, to come out the other end of a successful plan?” Erika asked.

“A little bit. I don’t know whether to feel like we clawed out a victory, or won too handily.”

“When a battle starts, there are no even odds between the combatants. Nothing is fair and nobody is keeping score. There is just, always someone who will triumph, and someone who will die. You know– I felt that you are someone who would not appreciate being called a ‘genius’, so I called you something whimsical on the bridge, a ‘sorcerer.’”

“Even that feels unearned.” Murati said. “I’m not special for just making observations.”

“Perhaps not, but you are the one who spoke up. You had the courage of conviction.” Erika said. She smiled a bit more than she was before. Shutting her eyes and grinning with satisfaction. “Murati, what I find special about you is not how much you know about military matters– it’s what’s in here.” Erika reached out and suddenly tapped her fingers just above Murati’s breasts. “Before you chastised us, we were going to leave those people on the John Brown to die. I was leaning that way too. It was your words that saved their lives. It was your determination to abhor injustice even if looking the other way was the easier path.”

Murati had honestly never given her ‘attitude’ such as it was, that elevated sort of merit.

In her mind, what mattered was all the time she spent thinking about war, studying history, trying to determine correct understandings. Her heart, was just that of a communist, she thought. Anyone could have made that judgment; anyone with her knowledge could have made that plan. Everyone in the world should have had her convictions.

“I’m of the opinion you could use a bit more malice.” Erika said. “But I also just like you.”

Erika met her eyes with such a fond and gentle gaze.

Murati felt a bit embarrassed suddenly.

She felt like she needed to justify herself better to someone like Erika.

“I wouldn’t have made the suggestions I did, if I did not believe we could win.”

“And when the situation changed? You know– we could have run away at many points!”

“I still believed we could rout them. And I believed it was the best action long-term.”

“Keep believing wholeheartedly. Speak when you must, and then argue with whoever you need to, including myself. If needed, I’ll put my foot down as the malice that you lack.”

Erika reached her hand out again and patted Murati on the back.

Murati smiled at her and felt her head clearing just a bit more than before.

Her heart just a little bit less heavy than it had been. She felt just a bit less burdened.

She was not singularly responsible for everyone’s lives, not today, and not ever.

They had not done all of this just because Murati said so, but because they believed her.

Someday, if she was wrong, if they thought she was wrong–

There were many people with their own judgments around her who would guide her.

Murati was stubborn, she knew she would argue her own way no matter what.

But everyone was responsible together. Erika was right.

She needed to have confidence.

Sometimes the most callous thing toward life was to stand by saying nothing.

“I appreciate it, Premier. But I am not afraid to deploy the little malice I have.”

“Then I won’t underestimate you again. How do you feel now?”

“Better.” Murati said. “Could you tell I was troubled?”

For an instant, Erika flashed the red rings around her eyes that indicated psionics.

Then she crossed her arms over her breasts, shut her eyes, and looked a bit smug.

“You could say it was a mix of my own judgment as a leader; and a little diagnostic.”

“I see. Nevertheless– thank you, Premier.”

“My pleasure. Ask me someday to tell you the story of how I stole the Rostock.”

“Was it a plan comparable to what we pulled off today?”

“It was so much better. Intrigue, death-defying risk, with Katarran soul. Pure noir.”

“I thought noir stories are supposed to have bad endings?”

Erika remained quiet to that question but continued smiling to herself.

Eventually she ducked into another meeting room and bid Murati goodbye for the moment.

Murati thought that perhaps the story of the Rostock did have a bad ending.

And that there could be ‘bad endings’ where Erika still lived to tell that story anyway.

Whatever else she intended to communicate, Murati was simply glad for the reassurances. When she arrived at the infirmary some of the cheer she lost the past few days had returned.


After the sinking of the patrol fleet’s Serclaes-class Cruiser, the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown quickly fled the scene of the battle. Though each fleet had been prevented from transmitting to the relay during battle and therefore to the rest of the patrol, it must have already been common knowledge that the flotilla was moving to engage a Republic ship in the first place. If that specific operation took too long and suddenly went out of contact, then more of the patrol would immediately be sent to the area to investigate.

Ulyana gave the order to depart as close to combat speed as possible without raising further suspicion from any arriving patrol fleet vessels. An object moving too fast underwater would stick out too much– commercial vessels and off-duty military ships all traveled at restricted speeds either due to hardware, legal or doctrinal limitations. The Volksarmee had to get to Aachen as soon as they could, but without raising too much dust in the process.

“According to Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, the patrol fleet in Eisental was stripped pretty bare so most their newer ships could be assigned to the Volkisch navy and their war in the south. However, we must retain a sense of urgency. Even a dozen Cutters can be a problem. Furthermore, we have to assume that Violet Lehner’s forces will be moving north to secure personal control over the region. They will likely be far more formidable.”

That was Erika’s assumption but Ulyana supported it, having watched video of her speech.

Violet Lehner’s “Zabaniyah” would be their eventual biggest problem.

For the moment, however, the state of the John Brown was the immediate concern.

To that end, Ulyana contacted Eithnen Ní Faoláin.

In the hangar, the Brigand’s shuttle was prepared.

Over the past week they had gotten some good practice with shuttling people and supplies while on the move between the Brigand and Rostock. This time the shuttle would be loaded with a large crate of tightly packed dehydrated ration bricks, making up a week’s worth of meals for 150 people eating three bricks a day. Part of the Brigand’s survival stash– but it would last the John Brown a bit, and provide needed calories efficiently.

Along with the crates, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara would hitch a ride.

The Brigand’s shuttle was a wide, semi-cylindrical craft. It exited the ship via a moonpool that essentially acted as a much bigger deployment chute near the back of the hangar. Its cargo bay could hold one Strelok lying on its back, but was most useful in ferrying people and cargo crates to and from ships and stations without docking. Just like the Brigand, the shuttle had undergone an upgrade too. Its cargo bay and crew pod pressurized separately, so it was possible to actually dump out a Strelok somewhere as a neat trick.

Ulyana had no idea when they would make use of that, but Murati had suggested it.

So she would defer to that wunderkind’s judgment on such matters.

Aaliyah and Ulyana boarded the crew pod, containing the pilot and co-pilot’s seats and compartments where they could store emergency equipment and personal effects for their own use, and behind them, one long seat that could hold six passengers. Additional passengers could ride with the cargo. The seats were slightly stiff but comfortable enough for a quick shuttle trip. With just the two of them, the ride was not too cramped.

For this trip, their pilot and co-pilot would be Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse.

The two young stars of the Brigand’s security team, frequently seen patrolling together.

Over their security team armored bodysuits they wore work coveralls with grey hats.

Both of them had tied up their hair into buns. Klara was all smiles and amused with herself.

Zhu Lian retained a professional demeanor, while occasionally cracking a grin at Klara.

“The Captain should not visit another ship without an escort.” Lian said as they stepped in.

“I understand, but,” Aaliyah spread her jacket to reveal her revolver on a holster.

“Chief Akulantova insists.” Lian said, opening a compartment to reveal a submachine gun.

Klara showed that there was a grenade launcher under her chair in addition.

“I don’t think we’ll need any of these things, actually! Please calm down!” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse engaged the electric power of the shuttle and locked down the compartments. Much like every other vessel, the shuttle was completely windowless. Cameras were used for navigation instead, and like a Diver, the shuttle could sync to the Brigand’s sensors as long as it was within laser or acoustic data range, receiving sonar and LADAR updates from it to navigate more accurately. For the passengers, a “window” was projected on the walls at their sides. Pilot and co-pilot had a multi-section display that could be divided among the shuttle’s cameras. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were not dedicated pilots, but every marine trained enough to be a capable shuttle pilot.

Below them, the moonpool filled, and the shuttle descended.

Once the hatch above them was closed, the hatch below opened to let them into the sea.

Hydrojets propelled the shuttle, quick enough to keep up with the ships in the fleet.

Their journey would only take a few minutes, but Ulyana still laid back against her seat.

She had not been on a small craft for a very long time.

Looking out the projected window and at the ocean next to her. On the bridge, the main screen picture made the ocean look so much smaller and easier to understand. While the view she had in the shuttle was no more authentic than that which she had on the bridge, it still felt closer, and the water outside felt darker and more vast. At the head of a ship, there were so many people and so much equipment working to give Ulyana a sense of what was out in the water with them. She never had to contemplate it herself for an instant.

In this shuttle, there was only her eyes and the unvarnished feed of a camera.

And the endless, teeming darkness of the Imbrium yearning to swallow her whole.

It unsettled her, momentarily. It made her feel weaker than she otherwise thought she was.

None of their pretensions mattered to the crushing, overwhelming fury of that water.

“What do you see out there, Captain?” Aaliyah asked.

“A lot of nothing.” Ulyana replied, covering up her brief bout of introspection.

“Truly? You looked like you would say something poignant about it.” Aaliyah smiled.

Ulyana looked amused. “Our pilots go out there all the time; none have come back poets.”

Aaliyah had a friendly laugh at the remark, sitting back along with the Captain.

Maneuvering with ease through the waters disturbed by the passing of the ships, the shuttle approached the underside of the John Brown. A hatch opened and a cable anchor helped guide the shuttle up into the ship. The hatch under them closed, and the top hatch opened. Three cranes lifted the shuttle from the water and the hangar hatch closed beneath them, setting the shuttle back down. Zhu Lian and Klara checked to make sure the atmospheric pressures inside the Brigand and John Brown matched, which they did– then shut off the motor and opened the side doors, putting down a step-ladder using a crank.

“You two will unload the cargo.” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse both stared at her.

“Unload the cargo and stay here. We’re not going to have any trouble, I assure you.”

However, regardless of what Akulantova said to do, the Captain’s orders were absolute.

So they remained behind, watching like a pair of predatory birds while unhooking the crate.

Outside, Ulyana and Aaliyah stepped out onto a comparably very small hangar.

For whatever reason, everything was painted some shade of an odd and unwelcoming set of greens. Compared to the Brigand’s hangar it was narrow and the ceiling was low, which Ulyana expected, but the degree to which it was both of these things still took her by surprise. It was tighter than a Soyuz’s insides. There was only barely enough space for the shuttle in the back. The John Brown perhaps had the space for a Diver or two on the other half of the hangar, but there was only a single deployment chute, and no gantries. There was no workshop. The John Brown did not have stitcher machines of any kind.

If they kept any equipment here, it would be tough to maintain it.

Perhaps owing to the lack of space there were very few sailors in the hangar. All of them wore blue jumpsuits, and they were sitting and lying, overturned in various corners. Blankets and pillows had been given to them, as if the hangar had been converted into an infirmary. Someone who looked like they might be a nurse was tending to them, but had no supplies on hand. Several men looked only partially conscious. Simple hunger was not the only cause of this. Ulyana recalled that Eithnen told her they were without medicine also.

These sailors were ill, and going without treatment.

“You can see plainly our situation here, Captain. Thank you again for your support.”

An elevator opened near the shuttle bay and Eithnen Ní Faoláin stepped out to greet them.

She was accompanied by a shorter, comely woman with a thinner figure, properly wearing the blue Republic military skirt uniform that Eithnen wore only loosely. She had very dark skin, and black hair that was tied back into a braided tail. A pair of sleek glasses perched on her nose. Atop her head, she had a beret. Because the uniform was blue it reminded Ulyana of the cadets of the Union’s Academy in Mt. Raja. However, she recognized her uniform from her diplomat training. Eithnen’s companion must have been part of Republic military intelligence as an attaché. Not every ship in the Republic navy had an officer like that.

“Let me introduce you to my indispensable adjutant, Tahira Agyie.” Eithnen said.

“Pleased to meet you. On behalf of the crew, thank you, Ulyana Korabiskaya, and you as well, Commissar Bashara. We could scarcely hope for any relief. We were prepared to die.”

Tahira shook hands with Ulyana and then Aaliyah in turn. Hers was a quick, efficient shake.

She wore at all times a measured expression on her pretty face, betraying no emotion.

Ulyana did not judge her for this. It was not easy to smile in their circumstances.

Eithnen on the other hand was very affable, so it was an interesting contrast.

“We come bearing some gifts. Enough food for the journey.” Ulyana said.

She gestured to the back of the shuttle, where Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were working on getting the ramp down using cranks to conserve battery. Once the ramp was down they hooked the heavy crate to a winch and gently slid it down to the ramp and onto the floor of the hangar, before unhooking the crate and leaving it. While they were doing this, the Captain, Commissar and their counterparts continued their conversation off to the side.

“We can shuttle in medicine next.” Aaliyah said, glancing at the lethargic sailors.

“I can’t thank you enough. Some of these men, we have known about their deteriorating conditions for weeks now. Some have chronic illnesses, others just picked things up in Aachen. Most got worn down over time from lack of food, but kept working to keep us afloat.” Eithnen said. “Before the fleet was dashed to pieces in Kreuzung, our ‘commanders’ treated us like dirt. We were afforded nothing and kept locked up inside this ship.”

“That is horrific.” Ulyana said. “We’ll do what we can to assist your crew.”

“Thank you again, Captain.” Eithnen said. “Let us move to a meeting room in order to talk more comfortably. They’re also pretty cramped, but at least we can sit down there.”

“Of course. We can discuss the situation in-depth.” Ulyana said.

“This way.” Tahira gestured to the elevator.

Before leaving, Aaliyah turned around and shouted for Klara and Lian.

“You two put on some masks, get the first-aid kits and help out where you can!” She said.

Aaliyah pointed at the shuttle and then at the medical staff looking over the sick men.

Klara and Lian, sitting on the crate, looked helpless for a moment before moving to comply.

They were not medical staff, but Union marines received basic aid training too.

At least it gave them a different context for interacting with foreign sailors than suspicion.

“You’re all frankly amazing to me. I haven’t died and gone above, have I?” Eithnen said.

“We’re communists, it’d be a sad sight if we just sat around while people suffered.” Aaliyah said. “Trust us that you’re quite alive; we just have a different spirit than the Republic.”

Tahira stared at Ulyana and Aaliyah wordlessly for a moment before averting her gaze.

Eithnen put on a big, cheerful grin. “Well then! God bless the commie spirit!”


Aboard the Brigand, the door to the medbay slid open and closed quickly.

Hurried clacking steps from a pair of heels.

“Homa, are you okay? We’re out of danger now. I’m sorry I couldn’t support you.”

“It’s whatever.”

Homa recognized the horns and ponytail first, at the edge of her vision.

Kalika had come to visit.

Homa was lying sideways in bed, clutching her blankets as Kalika took a seat beside her. Even though she had her prosthetics installed, she was under observation until she had a few days’ worth of therapy. Her gait was still clumsy, though she was making progress.

More than that, she did not want to leave the infirmary during the commotion–

Because her heart had been gripped by an ice cold fear.

A shameful, chilling, awful fear.

Even now, lucid and medicated, she felt like she had been dowsed in ice water.

“Thanks to the crew, we were able to pull through.” Kalika said. “You’re safe now.”

Homa grumbled. She was ashamed. Ashamed of how frightened she had gotten.

“Did you go out and fight?” Homa asked, her lips trembling.

“All I fought were a few leaking pipes near the infirmary and the cafeteria. And some of the anti-flooding shutters.” Kalika said. “I was just doing this and that, trying to help out.”

“Why did they go pick a fight with the Volkisch?” Homa asked. “It’s just crazy.”

“They were rescuing some poor folks.” Kalika said. “It’s just the way they operate.”

“It’s useless– trying to be big dumb fucking heroes like that– they’ll just get killed–!”

Kalika did not respond. Homa snatched a look at her face. She was just silently smiling.

For some reason Kalika never judged Homa, never called her an asshole or a coward.

Sometimes it infuriated her. She wished someone would just slap her across the face.

Someone should just tell her already that she was worthless and lower than dirt.

They should just leave her crippled husk behind! Just launch her into the sea!

There it went again– she was crying. Crying and blubbering and shaking.

It was all she could do. Unlike Kalika, she could do nothing. She was utterly broken.

“Kalika,” Homa whimpered, “Can you– can you get me that necklace– on the table–”

Kalika nodded her head. She picked up Homa’s necklace from the bedside table.

Kneeling close to Homa’s bed, she put the necklace in her fingers directly.

“Rest up Homa. When you’re feeling up to it, we’ll resume your therapy.”

Homa did not respond to that. Once she had her necklace she hid under the blankets.

She clutched the necklace tight against her chest with her biological hand, crying openly.

Wishing she could hear the stupid little voice calling her ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ again.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.4]

Through the Osmium shutters, a hair’s-width of purple rays still bled through.

Dim purple sliced the shadows of the upper wall of the reactor engineering pod– leaving the steel thankfully intact. Just a hint of purple touched down upon the tea table set down incongruously below the raised reactor structure in the back of the pod.

Enclosed within enormous osmium and titanium structures flanking the main reactor were steam generators, circuits, converters, backup batteries, and turbines, that captured and converted and stored and transmitted as much energy that reactor had to give as possible. The heat of the agarthic reaction, the motion of the core array suspended in water, the erratic flashes of agarthic radiation that were characteristic of the lower grade agarthicite used in ship cores compared to station cores. All of it was the life-giving gift the sovereign mineral gave to its After Descent subjects. None of it could be wasted.

God lifted and encased upon its throne of carefully alloyed minerals.

At the back of every ship, this was the face that He showed to his subjects.

And within this temple, a few officers infrequently held tea parties.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were both in attendance, on the opposite end of the table. Between the table and the reactor there was a protective shield of lead and osmium for the occupants. Aside from thin, stray rays of agarthic light, the only illumination was a wax candle that had a musky, mineral-like scent. Compared to an electric torch, this knickknack was a waste of resources– but the woman who requested it received any such thing she wanted. She had a supply of such charms for the journey.

“Thank you for once again indulging me, Captain, Commissar.”

“Of course. Compared to everything else, this is an oasis of calm.”

“Strange, isn’t it? I have to consider the end of my life every second of every day that I reside here, but even so, every day is so peaceful. I could not ask for a better place to spend my final days. Even when the ship is shaking, and battle raging– I just have to tend to the temperatures and monitor output. If the worst happens– I’ll be painlessly erased.”

“Ah– no need to be gloomy, Chief! I’m sure you’ll have many long years ahead!”

“Oh, don’t worry. It has no bearing on my mood. I’m simply being realistic.”

Across from the ship’s leadership cadre was the least often seen of its officers.

Chief Core Engineer, and Hero of Socialist Labor, Iessenia Kurchatova.

Iessenia was a few years older than Ulyana but her actual age was not too evident. She was a pale and petite woman, pretty and vibrant, with girlish features and very long hair that had been dyed green to cover the drain of their color over time. Long locks fell over her shoulders, reached down her back, and she had fluffy bangs swept to either side. She wore a touch of lipstick, a bit of eyeshadow– but a lot of blush, coloring the middle of her face. She wore the Treasure Box button-down shirt and tie with a black mini-skirt and tights, with a white coat over it. On her wrists were steel cuffs attached to collapsible mobility aids that, in their resting position, stretched partway down the length of her arm.

More noticeable than these basic facts of her appearance were the vestiges of her vocation.

In several places in her body there were hexagonal burns, colored purple-black like bruises. There was a stretch of these burns across the upper left corner of her face, having claimed one eye which was replaced with a cybernetic implant. Her eyelid and eyebrow were reconstructed such that when she smiled and shut her eyes it looked pretty natural. Bits of less severe patches of burns could be seen on her neck and creeping over her right breast, slightly visible due to a few undone buttons. In the dim illumination in which Iessenia kept the room, there was a dim purple glow from the sinews on her neck and arms.

Ulyana knew this was owed to the level of agarthic salts in her bloodstream.

On her remaining biological eye, the color had been slightly altered as well. Purple was creeping in from the lower right quadrant of the eye. Close inspection revealed that the purple was actually made up of tiny hexagons, as if the visible pixelation on a low quality video monitor. Iessenia disclosed to Dr. Kappel that her circulatory system was largely colonized by Agarthicite in its microscopic “salt” form. Eventually enough agarthic salt inside her would react, causing an annihilation that would maim her internally.

It was likely that she would die from this– and not painlessly as she hoped.

Thankfully, that did not seem to bother the smiling woman who offered the Captain tea.

Unlike all the coffee-drinkers in the ship, she had this special dispensation as well.

Much like her scented soy-wax candles.

All for the comfort of the Union’s Agarthicite genius, awaiting her untimely demise.

Iessenia, like most core engineers, was the sacrifice at the altar of God.

For the sake of Humanity– so anything could be spared for her happiness and comfort.

“Today’s tea is my favorite. Masala chai. Black tea with sweetened milk and spices.”

Iessenia stared at her teacup quietly for almost a minute before taking an indulgent sip.

Ulyana lifted her cup to her own lips. Sweet and creamy and with a complex flavor from the aromatic spices. It was the richest cup of tea Ulyana had ever tasted. Like almost everyone on the ship she had a strict coffee habit to keep herself going during the long hours– but she could appreciate the delicate craft of preparing a nice cup of tea.

Minardo was a quiet genius with tea.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah took a delicate sip.

For a moment, her stony demeanor melted, her ears folding, smiling with pleasure.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? I try to limit myself to one good cup of tea a day– I don’t want to be greedy, you know?” Iessenia said. “Minardo always makes an exactingly beautiful cup.”

“It is pretty good.” Aaliyah said, as if downplaying her earlier reaction.

Behind them, there was a sudden racket from sliding metal.

Double locks on the door into the pod automatically undid themselves to allow access.

Another young woman, also rarely seen among the ship’s population, joined the tea party.

Dressed in the treasure box uniform with a pair of black pants, she was younger than Ulyana and Iessenia and maybe even younger than Aaliyah too. Characterized by short dark hair that was a little bit curly, and light brown skin and a serious face that made small movements in its expression. Her figure was slightly fuller than Iessenia’s but not by much. Her body had not yet incurred any agarthic damage common to her chosen vocation. She was in as good health and spirits, or better, than the typical crew member.

In her hands she had a tray of snacks from Minardo.

Biscuits with a mayonnaise spread flecked with finely chopped pickles; and simple doughnuts filled with an equally simple jelly and cream. There were not a lot of provisions on the ship for fancy cafe desserts, but something could always be baked, and with sweeteners, preserved fruit and powdered milk a lot could be done. The new arrival set the tray in the middle of the table and took seat beside Iessenia with a small smile.

“Thank you for fetching the snacks, Petty Officer.” Ulyana said.

“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the young woman in a quiet and serious voice.

She was once Iessenia’s intern and student. Now closest companion on the voyage.

Petty Officer and Assistant Core Engineer, Nina Srivastavi.

“I’m thankful to you for helping our Hero of Socialist Labor over here.” Ulyana teased.

Aaliyah’s ears twitched slightly as if she picked up something in her tone of voice.

“It’s truly nothing major.” Nina said.

“She has been utterly indispensable to me.” Iessenia added, laying a hand over Nina’s own.

Aaliyah’s eyes darted down to the hands. She sipped her tea as if in lieu of speaking.

Ulyana noticed Aaliyah’s growing concern and steered things back around to business.

“We had a concern we wanted to share with you, Iessenia.” Ulyana said.

“Not about my social life I hope?” Iessenia smiled.

Aaliyah averted her gaze, still sipping tea.

Ulyana laughed it off without a direct response. “It’s about the shield we installed.”

“Oh yes!” Iessenia said. She raised her hand and gestured behind her as if waving to the reactor. “Clever little piece of tech! I am glad we got it to work in the end. I was aware that the ship had channeled paneling installed during its construction– such things have been theoretically possible for a very long time, but a bit useless in a fleet context, so it was not seriously pursued except by the Ahwalia administration. Ahwalia’s people wanted to have a very small, very high tech and elite navy– Jayasankar promoted a doctrine closer to that of the Imbrian Empire. Lots of ships, lots of fleets, lots of shortcuts. In a contest between dozens of ships, a shield on one or two just doesn’t matter to the end result.”

“In our context, it could be incredibly useful.” Ulyana said. “If it could work.”

“Indeed! It sucked a lot of power at Kreuzung, even threatened to blow a few circuits!”

“Initially we believed it was because we were running it out of the water.” Aaliyah said, finally entering the conversation. “But looking back at the maintenance logs, it seems like even with proper cooling we might not be able to sustain the shield for long. What do you think?”

“As far as the reactor is concerned, we certainly have enough capacity for it.” Iessenia said.

“Our problem is the ancillary parts, I think. I recall there being issues there.” Nina said.

Iessennia raised her index finger to her lips. She took a moment to think about it.

“I think the issue is with the converters. Reactor behaviors have to be converted to usable energy. We need to look at the steam capture, heat transfer and electric transformers. That is the bottleneck– the reactor’s effective power is as high as the converters can actually introduce to the rest of the system. So the converters– and then perhaps higher-tolerance cabling from converters to boards. That should enhance energy transmission.”

“Thank you both.” Ulyana said. “It’s a start– I can float the idea by Euphrates and Tigris.”

“My pleasure.” Iessenia said. “Say, can you arrange a meeting between us?”

“You and Euphrates and Tigris?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes! We have only met on brief business during the refit– I’d love to sit down with them as a social occasion and pick their brains. There are not many people in the world who are aware of systems like agarthicite shields– these are high-end theoretical pseudophysics with very little practical use or development. I want to know what else they worked on. I want to talk about stuff that only comes out of dreaming big, like Project Red Star.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was a little bit more brusque.

Iessenia spoke more fondly about the scientific developments of the Ahwalia regime than anyone else on the ship. Project Red Star was like a bad joke to the Jayasankar regime– Iessenia had been right there in the middle of it, however. Given heaps of resources to “dream big” despite practicality and giving her all to advance science. None of the rank and file on the ship knew enough to begrudge her participation with Ahwalia’s biggest policy failure– but Ulyana thought it might have been the reason Nagavanshi consigned her to this dangerous journey, rather than keeping her working in the labs in Solstice.

“They’re busy, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” Ulyana said.

Her voice was gentler as if trying to smooth out what Aaliyah had roughened.

Iessenia did not look like she minded at all. She continued smiling.

“Thank you, Captain. If you have any other questions, I am at your full dispensation.”

She took another delicate drink of her tea. Her hands slowly began shaking.

“Ma’am, I think it’s time for your Neurotin.” Nina said.

“Oh, true. Can you be a dear and fetch it please?” Iessenia asked, putting down her cup.

Nodding, Nina stood from the table.

She crossed a door on the side of the room, entering a small shielded living space in which she and Iessenia slept and cleaned up and stored their things. She searched for the medicine.

Back at the table, however, the tea party simply continued.

“Silly hands.” Iessenia said, ever smiling. “But that’s just part of doing what you love.”

Perhaps in reactor engineering, the mood was always a tea party.

For those fighting aboard ships in this fallen era, perhaps life had to be like a party.


“Homa? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Hovering over Homa’s eyes was a hand, with only the middle and index fingers raised. On each finger, the nails had pink and blue colors beautifully patterned. To acknowledge the owner of that hand, Homa slowly raised her own hand with two fingers up, the “peace sign.” Only, she found that the arm which she had raised, and the fingers which were at its end, were completely black and had a sheen to them. She stared at the fingers, flexing them in front of confused eyes. She had not known what to expect– they were just limbs.

Each digit was visibly articulated, as if exposed bone. She could see the jointed metal bones turn as she flexed. Her fingers were slightly thicker than she was used to, but only slightly. They had tips that seemed soft, like plastic padding, but– Homa could not feel that they were soft. There were some sensations that terminated at her shoulder. Though she was moving something, there was a missing bit of feedback from her new limbs.

“I– I can’t feel it–” Homa mumbled. Talking mainly to herself, as if alone in the room.

“I’m sorry Homa, for military prosthetics, we do not carry nerve stimulators. We had to make some concessions between comfort and utility. It is certainly possible to reinstall the prosthetics with stimulators in the future, once the– current troubles– are in the past and we have the benefit of safety and better supplies. But these prosthetics are very durable and responsive. You will be able to live independently again in no time, I assure you.”

Through a mind fog, Homa vaguely recognized the voice of Dr. Kappel.

She followed the fingers that were adorned with pretty nails, up the arm, and to the face, with its blue makeup and multi-shade blue hair. Dr. Kappel smiled at her, and wrapped her fingers around Homa’s prosthetic hand. Homa could not feel the touch. Right in front of her eyes, she could see contact between skin and the prosthetic, but it lacked the warmth she expected to feel. This made the gesture just a little bit frustrating to receive.

Nevertheless, Dr. Kappel smiled brightly at the result.

“Good. Looks like the basics are in order. All the kinetics parts are working, the plastic sleeves are flush. Don’t make dramatic movements yet. Between the anesthesia and getting used to the neural interface, your arm may not exhibit the fine control you are used to– yet. I can assure you with time, your standard of living will be exactly as it was.”

“Except for the beef pot– I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that for now.”

“Ms. Loukia– please.”

Homa weakly turned her head and saw Kalika sitting on a chair beside the operating table.

She smiled a little.

Kalika smiled back, and playfully waved the fingers of her prosthetic hand.

Rather than the medbay, the operation had taken place in Dr. Kappel’s office, on a table that was set between the door out of the office and the door into the medicine vault. The table was pulled out of the floor and folded out, and would be folded and pushed into the floor when Homa left it. Anesthesia had been administered in the medbay, so Homa was only then getting her first look at the new surroundings. Her head was swimming.

“If it helps, I do not use nerve stimulators.” Kalika said. “I’ve become accustomed to swinging an unfeeling arm. It allows you to push it to its limits. Makes a handy shield too.”

“It will be a little more troublesome to have a leg that you cannot completely feel under you.” Dr. Kappel said. “But only a little. Most of the focus of our physical therapy will be to get you walking, Homa. With confidence and a good balance. We can begin soon. For now, rest as long as you need. You’re almost at the finish line, so no sense in rushing.”

Homa nodded her head. Despite the anesthesia wearing off, she was extremely tired.

There was a small part of her that was a bit sad and a bit bitter.

She had hoped that the surgery would dramatically change how she had been feeling the past few days. That she would wake up on the operating table like nothing bad had happened to her. Feeling whole again– not just functionally but in spirit. There was a part of her that felt that an arm was not simply a tool for grasping, but that she had been afflicted with a condition in which she lacked possession of an arm. She lacked a completeness of self. With that arm many things had been torn from her. Her future, the people she knew, her home. That arm had a spirit– it was touch, it was warmth, it was a sense of tenderness that flowed from her heart, through her veins, into the flesh. That arm was the things it had done just as much as it was the things that it did. That arm was an interlocking part of the puzzle of Homa Baumann’s life. With the prosthetic this was simply just not so.

Perhaps she would feel differently once she was off the table and active again.

But she could not help but to feel disappointed with the result.

Functionally, she could have the things which an arm did returned to her.

However, she still felt anxious at the idea that she would never be whole in her parts again.

Those anxieties festered into self-criticism of her own ungratefulness to the communists.

That ungratefulness, however, finally led her to think–

I never asked to be rescued. I could have been left for dead.

What do I have to be grateful for?

It was so presumptuous of them– my life should have just been over.

I have nothing– no home– no reason to live–

–not even all of my own body.

How am I supposed to live like this? How do any of you live with all of this?!

In the throes of a growing distress, she started to fall asleep once again.

Before she could find the energy to shout or be frustrated she dozed off completely.

Her head, fogged by bewilderment and confusion and pain, emptied completely.

Flexing in her sleep the fingers of the metal thing that had taken the place of her.


“Illya, I’m coming in.”

Shalikova stood in front of the door to Illya’s room for a moment, enough that she should have been acknowledged. When she heard nothing and realized the door was completely unlocked she delivered her intention and walked right through the door. Inside, Illya was surprisingly missing. There was only Valeriya, in a corner of the room, standing near a pull-out desk surface on the far wall. If Valeriya was there, Illya must have been fine.

“Oh, sorry for barging in, Valeriya. I just wanted to see whether you two were okay.”

Valeriya nodded her head silently.

There were a few curious details about the scene that drew Shalikova’s attention. Valeriya was dressed in an atypical fashion– she had a pair of underwear shorts and a flimsy little tanktop but her thin and fair figure was mostly covered up by what looked like a synthestitched plastic apron. On the apron there was a design of a teddy bear with a chef’s hat. It reminded Shalikova of one of her rejected designs for Comrade Fuzzy. Valeriya’s long, blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she had thick plastic gloves.

Hanging from her neck, and sitting atop her breasts, was her tactical mask.

She did not look in a hurry to wear it, even though Shalikova had walked in on her.

On the desk in front of her, a small metal frame had been set up. A recyclable canister of alcohol fuel had been set beneath the frame. To Shalikova’s surprise this canister produced a clean flame that was heating up a small metal cup-pot with something bubbling in it.

Shalikova dimly recalled these items.

Her Diver had a survival kit with food and a petroleum-derived ethylene fuel burner just like this. It was mainly a placebo– Shalikova could not imagine a scenario in which she would need to heat up food to survive inside her diver, where she was not already doomed.

“What are you up to? Is that a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked.

Valeriya nodded her head.

“You are cooking a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked again.

“I am a wife now.” Valeriya mumbled. “So I am cooking.”

Shalikova stared. “Not sure I understand. You’re a wife now?”

Valeriya nodded her head.

It began to dawn on Shalikova what that must have meant.

“Wait. You’re serious? Did Illya– did she really–?”

Valeriya nodded her head again.

Shalikova whistled with surprise and a bit of sudden cheer.

“Wow. I thought you would just shack up forever. Congratulations!”

Valeriya smiled.

A small smile, but for her, it was brighter than the sun.

Even a reserved girl like Shalikova could not help but feel a swell of joy for Valeriya.

For all the time that she had known her, Valeriya had been Illya’s shadow. As teenagers they were always together, and even when Zasha was around, it was clear who Valeriya had a crush on. They went to school together; they went into the Academy together; they went to war together. Even in the special forces, as far as Shalikova knew, they were inseparable. And now, on the Brigand’s historic mission, Valeriya continued to follow Illya without pause. Shalikova knew that Illya reciprocated Valeriya’s feelings romantically, but she also had a low estimation of Illya’s ability to commit– she figured Illya would have sex with Valeriya all her life without even saying the word ‘girlfriend’ to her much less ‘wife.’

In Shalikova’s mind, Valeriya deserved this marriage proposal.

“It’s vinaigrette with beans.” Valeriya said suddenly.

She pointed at the cup-pot, beginning to come to a boil over the alcohol-burning element. Normally in the Union ‘vinaigrette’ referred to a salad of chopped boiled root vegetables pressed together and dressed with vinegar and fat. Usually beets, carrots, potato, onion, and to add protein, red or white beans. Normally all the vegetables used would be pickled, or canned in salted water. Valeriya was cooking from a last resort block, so all the items were vacuum-pressed and dehydrated. She had brought water to a boil, to create essentially a mushy last resort vegetable stew. Judging by the flecks of fat in the water and the smell of vinegar, the vegetables were dressed before dehydration and compression.

Valeriya looked a little proud of herself as she stared at the bubbling little pot.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your meal.” Shalikova said. “Will there be a ceremony?”

“Not now.” Valeriya whispered. “We’re being punished.”

“Oh! Right– I had wanted to ask what happened at the disciplinary hearing.”

Valeriya pointed at the cup. As if to silently say that was the punishment.

“I see. Well– I don’t know whether to say ‘you got off light’ or to wish you luck enduring the torture.” Shalikova said, crossing her arms. “I guess it can’t be that bad when cooked.”

Using a steel spork, Valeriya mixed the stew up as it cooked.

Shalikova realized then that throughout all this talk, Valeriya had never raised her mask.

“You can pull your mask up if you want to. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I want to talk to you.” Valeriya said. Her voice was still quite whispery.

“I see– just don’t push yourself just to be nice to me.”

Valeriya quietly nodded her head again.

Quickly stirring the little stew, breaking up pieces. She looked dedicated to the work.

“Sonya– how do you feel about Illya? Do you still admire her?” Valeriya asked.

Without meeting eyes, she asked the question, still stirring the stew.

And what a question it was– it caught Shalikova by surprise.

What kind of answer did she have to that? What DID she feel about Illya?

Shalikova stuck her hands in her pants pockets.

“That’s– I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? So it’s kinda complicated now.” She took a moment to consider the question. For Valeriya, she tried to be honest. Sometimes Shalikova was quick to be difficult to Illya, but she tried to be kinder to Valeriya. “I don’t idolize her or anything– but like, I got on hormones because she did. I wanted to be a cool soldier like her and Zasha. Illya always encouraged me, even against Zasha’s wishes. So like– Illya is family to me. I care about whether she’s okay or not. I ask her for advice. But we’re both soldiers now and I am an officer too. I can’t ‘look up to her’ anymore like a kid does.”

“She would want you to respect her more than admire her.” Valeriya said suddenly.

Still not looking her way, just messing with her stew.

This was perhaps the most words Valeriya and Shalikova had exchanged in years.

“I guess that’s what I do. I am trying to take her seriously when she says I need to stick up for myself and make my own arguments. That’s something I’m trying to do with her too.”

“That’s good. Thank you for answering.”

“Alright?”

“I love Illya– more than anything in the world. And she cares about you.”

“So in the transitive property of doing the exact same stuff as Illya, you care about me too.”

“Yes.”

“C’mon– don’t just say ‘yes’ to that– I was teasing you–”

Shalikova felt instantly ashamed at her own mean-spirited humor.

Valeriya simply smiled and worked on the stew.

Behind them the door opened once more.

Illya walked in through the door, absentminded.

She had begun partially unzipping her security uniform bodysuit. She must have been working. She zipped it back up when she noticed Shalikova was in the room. Valeriya removed the cup-shaped pot from the spent alcohol burner and laid it down on a separate pull-out desk surface as if to set the table for dinner. She then waved at Illya.

“Sonya, what a pleasant surprise. Came to see whether I was still alive?” Illya asked.

She cracked a grin that Shalikova did not return.

“Uh huh. Looks like you’re good though, so I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Not staying for lunch?” Illya’s continuing sarcasm. Shalikova did not play along.

“Maryam is waiting for me.” Shalikova said. “But– Illya, you better treat her right.”

Illya stared at Shalikova. “Hey, where do you get off on telling me that?”

She was not mad– she looked more amused by the rebuke than anything.

No one knew better than Illya herself all that had happened with her and Valeriya.

“Sonya.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head gently.

“Nah, it’s okay. She cares about you.” Illya said. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

Shalikova sighed but she had essentially said what she had come in to say.

“Maybe I’ll have a bite, just out of curiosity.” She said.

From the floor, Valeriya pulled up a pair of metal seats around the pull-out desk. There was nowhere for Shalikova to sit, but she did not intend to stay long. Illya sat across from Valeriya, each with their own metal spork, and the reheated and boiled vinaigrette mush between them. Valeriya took a sporkful of the stuff, which was tinged red from the beets, and blew on it– then she gestured for Shalikova to taste it from that spork.

In order to satisfy her curiosity, Shalikova leaned in.

“It’s just like when you were a little beet yourself.” Illya said.

Shalikova felt immediately more embarrassed about it, but still ate from Valeriya’s spork.

She did not know what she expected from it. It was a bit– challenging.

There was some flavor. A bit of tang from the vinegar, some savory notes from MSG.

Owing to all the root vegetables, it was very starchy, and a little bit sweet.

However, the foremost characteristic of the meal was its lack of texture. It was impossible to discern an individual bit of carrot or beet despite the sizeable bite that Valeriya had gathered. All of its elements had become homogeneous mush. Even baby food was more of an eating experience. It was not so bad as to make her spit it out, but anyone with even the slightest sensitivity to the mouthfeel of their food might have felt disgusted by it.

With an untroubled expression on her face, Illya began to eat.

Valeriya retracted her spork and waited with a smile as if for Shalikova’s response.

What did she want her to say? She cooked a last resort ration, so her cooking was gross.

Still– it was impossible to be mean to Valeriya. Even about this culinary misfortune.

“Um. It was lovely. Thank you. You’ll– you’ll make a fine wife, ‘Riya.” Shalikova said.

Valeriya nodded quietly, looking pleased with herself. Just like Illya, she began to eat.

Neither of them looked troubled by the meal. They ate almost mindlessly.

For a moment Shalikova just stared at them. What a husband and wife they would make.

In the back of her mind she wondered whether Maryam knew how to cook anything.


“Aww, I hate to see those bright little cheeks of yours frowning. What’s on your mind?”

“Ugh. I’m feeling worried. There’s nothing I can do– Marina really stepped in it this time.”

“Oh dear. I would characterize what she did as much more than just step in it.”

“Agh, sorry– I don’t mean to reduce what she did, she really sucks– I’m just– blegh.”

“My, oh my. A lot of undignified noises coming out of the princess today~”

“I’m not a princess! Proletarians have the freedom to make noises.”

“Anyway, is it even your problem whatever happens to Marina? You’re your own person.”

“I mean– I don’t want her to be hurt. She was my mom’s– uhh– bestie.”

“You don’t say?”

On the Brigand’s cafeteria, a young woman laid over a table, making faces.

She was seated close to the front serving counter, with her head and arms on top of the table. Sometimes her arms would hang, while at others she would hide her head in them. She was easily identifiable to the crew by now: long purple hair, unblemished and heavenly-soft looking skin, a girlish and simple prettiness to her face. Were it not for the partial elfin ears which she had — and the perhaps exotic color of her hair, which was natural — it would have been easy to call her the perfect picture of the Imbrian woman.

Teasing that young elf woman was the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Seated on the opposite side of the same table, taking a break. She pulled off her cap and set it down on the table, loosening up her sweat-slick, wavy black hair. Minardo was a formidable lady, with a big chest and wide hips and thick legs, lean muscled arms and shoulders. Atop that shapely figure was a soft face with a bright smile, eyes like jewels, red lips and gentle eyeshadow. Elena had begun to think, maybe she appraised older women differently from younger women. Maybe, just maybe, she had something of a thing for them– but even besides that, Minardo could only have been seen as staggeringly beautiful.

She must have been seen as such by anyone else too.

Thinking about that, Elena averted her gaze.

“Should I not be at this table? I can let you sulk if that’s what you want.” Minardo said.

Gentle, with just a bit of her ordinary teasing tone of voice.

“No, it’s fine. I should stop. There’s nothing I can do.” Elena mumbled. “Even if I could do anything I think Marina deserves to be punished. She’s been so– awful.”

They were talking around it, but Marina’s participation in the Core Separation Crisis was a deed of such disgusting callousness toward innocent lives that it was hard to quantify it. The Captain and Commissar had spoken briefly with Elena about it and seemed more concerned with the breaches of trust, or at least that was what they told her– but maybe that was just processing the horror that lay in the moral dimension of the transgression. Marina nearly abetted the deaths of potentially thousands. Millions? Elena hardly knew the scale.

In her own mind, it was such a crime she could only sulk about it.

She could not possibly process the actual scale of what had happened.

It was simply too big, and she, too small in its shadow.

“Cheer up, she’s just locked up. She’ll be out again.” Minardo said. “You know– I put in a word with the Captain, alongside Dr. Kappel, that I hope Marina will not be mistreated beyond what is necessary to instill discipline. She is a– troubled person– and I sympathize.”

Elena looked up at Minardo’s hesitating tone voice. She narrowed her eyes a bit.

“You’re friends with Marina too? I’ve never seen you together.” She said.

It sounded more accusatory than she wanted it to– but she did not take back the words.

Minardo looked more amused by this response than anything before.

She smiled and laughed and laid her head on her hands while staring down at Elena.

“You’re not her shadow! She can move when you aren’t around.” She said.

Knowing the kind of woman Marina was Elena could imagine she made passes at Minardo.

Something about that annoyed her but she did not interrogate this feeling any further.

Elena remained collapsed against the table and hardly moved except to turn her head away.

“Well– whatever then. I’ll stop worrying.” Elena said.

“Why are you so pouty all of a sudden?” Minardo asked, poking Elena’s cheek.

“Oh, looks like someone is a bit jealous?”

From seemingly out of nowhere, a second attractive older woman swooped in.

Elena let out a groan as Khadija Al-Shajara sat on her side of the table.

“Can you two go easy on me?” Elena moaned. She was practically surrounded.

“I just showed up, and already my character is under question?!” Khadija said.

Her wine-colored lips turned in a little grin; winking a heavily wine-purple shadowed eye.

“She knows what you are.” Minardo said. “Don’t worry Elena, I’ll protect you.”

“Uggghhhh.” Elena put her arms around her head.

Khadija made a cutesy shrug.

Those two played together far, far too well, Elena thought.

“I’m just here to have some lunch. I don’t know what anyone is talking about.”

“Ah, but where’s your new lady friend, Khadija?” Minardo teased.

Khadija averted her gaze with a suddenly sour expression.

“We’re not friends. She’s helping move crates around for the inventory and shuttling.”

Minardo laughed. “She is such a big lady. Glad to see she’s helping out around here.”

“Checking her out?” Khadija accused.

“What? No. But there’s no way to look at her without thinking she is big.”

“Well. You ought to help too. Those guns of yours could use some action again.”

Khadija reached over Elena to poke Minardo’s bicep.

“I do plenty.” Minardo replied. Like Khadija was finally getting under her skin.

“You both are doing plenty right now.” Elena mumbled childishly.

“Elena, did you know? Minardo was an absolute combat monster once upon a time.”

Khadija looked pleased with herself at how annoyed Minardo was getting with her.

“What was it they called you?” She acted dumb for a moment, letting the question hang.

“That was a long time ago.” Minardo grumbled, as if to signal Khadija to drop it.

“You’re not proud of it? Elena, our esteemed cook once earned the title of ‘The Human Stronghold’. Can I tell the story?” Khadija stared at Minardo with her tail swishing merrily behind her. Elena slowly sat up and looked at the two of them with a dull expression. Minardo sighed and shrugged and waved as if to say ‘fuck it, just go’. Khadija took exactly that meaning from it. “Elena, Minardo was part of a landing party in the revolution– all by herself, she held a narrow passage into the Sevastopol port structure, keeping a way open for close to an hour. She killed 26 imperials, turning back their assaults and protecting our beachhead in the port. Then she joined the arriving assault sappers and charged deeper into Sevastopol, and killed 26 more imperials in close quarters.” Khadija punctuated the numbers in her speech each time. “Those station battles were absolutely brutal. It was necessary for us to get foot-holds inside stations to evict the current, disagreeable occupants. And the defender always has the advantage inside of a station’s confines.”

Elena blinked, staring at Minardo for a moment before catching herself.

In turn, Minardo grunted and sighed and looked a bit helpless for just a moment.

“Those Imperials were pansies. It wasn’t much more to say you killed 26 or 52 than to kill two or four, when it came to close quarters battle.” She finally said, grudgingly acknowledging Khadija and her story. “By the time of the revolution I had already been doing like ten years of hard labor. The slave colonies were like a vacation for imperial nepo babies. I was slaughtering stupid kids, not even the guys who clapped the chains.”

“Well, they all deserved to die, and I’m glad they’re burning in hell.”

“Khadija.”

“But yes, it’s that brutal energy now kneading bread and stirring soup.” Khadija said.

“From an old friend to another, please drop it already, kitty-cat.” Minardo said.

“Of course, I’ll win the round graciously.” Khadija replied, winking and pawing.

Elena looked between the two of them with an appraising expression.

She was impressed by Minardo’s strength–

but seeing that it bothered her, she buried her reaction.

She did not want to hurt her feelings.

“Are you actually friends or do you hate each other? I can’t tell.” Elena mumbled.

Minardo and Khadija both looked at her pouting and snickered to themselves.

“Khadija is like this with almost anyone who gives her an opportunity. It’s fine.”

“Minardo needs my labor in the kitchen far too much to ever be rid of me.”

Elena stared at them with the same narrow-eyed look she once gave Minardo.

Minardo reached out and pinched Elena’s cheek suddenly.

“Are you jealous?” Minardo said. “Elena, we’re not romantic at all. You’re so silly!”

“I’m not jealous. I do not care!” Elena whined, pulling Minardo’s hand off.

“Minardo is not my type. You, on the other hand, have a chance, little Elena.”

Khadija winked again, leaning closer, chest on the table.

Elena averted her gaze again.

“Why do I keep trying to come here to relax, when you two don’t let me live in peace.”

“It’s because the practiced teasing of a mature woman wipes away all troubles.”

Elena suddenly broke out into a laugh. She could not stifle it that time.

Khadija was completely right– Elena felt much less troubled than when she first sat down.

Though she would not admit as such with the two of them waiting for a reaction.

She appreciated what they were both trying to do and felt– cared for.

There were other troubles she had in mind that she just could not tell Khadija and Minardo about. Things they would not understand. But coming here and getting fussed over did instill the feeling that these two women cared about her well-being in their own way. They wanted to see her smile and laugh, they wanted her to feel special and receive some attention. Attention that she took for granted when it was easy to come by– Bethany would not have approved of her being so needy and bratty, but it was nice to have that freedom.

“So– what’s for lunch today?” Elena asked. She raised herself back to a proper sit.

“Oh, good idea! You’ll love this, I’m certain. We’ve got gazpacho, eggplant fries, and a little sandwich with pulled soy, brown sauce and tomato pickle.” Minardo said proudly.

“Sounds delicious.” Elena said. She smiled at her companions as brightly as she once did.

For just a little bit she would allow herself to luxuriate in Minardo and Khadija’s attention.

Maybe having someone to fuss over was something those two appreciated as well.


“Braya.”

“Hmm? What’s up?”

“Do you think I should be nervous about my check-up with Ms. Maharapratham?”

“No.”

“What do you know about her? Can you tell me more?”

Braya Zachikova briefly put down her computer and looked over her shoulder.

Their shared accommodation was completely dark except for the light from the portable computer, and a bit of bioluminescence produced by strands interspersed in her partner’s blue hair. Behind her, Arabella smiled, her hands hovering just around Zachikova’s waist, squeezing and loosening in turns. They were sitting together on one bed, as they often did since meeting, Arabella’s back to the wall and Zachikova’s back to her.

Zachikova leaned back against Arabella, her head resting on Arabella’s breasts.

Arabella raised one of her hands and toyed with the end of Zachikova’s spiral ponytail.

“Back when you were a Leviathan, in order to keep you safe, I had to partner up with Karuniya Maharapratham and make you a subject of study.” Zachikova said. It was almost surreal to think back to that time, just weeks ago, when she knew nothing. “During the work we did tracking you and studying video of you– I thought that Maharapratham seemed very compassionate towards you. She cares about animals. I’ve seen how other sickos in the Union think about Leviathans, like it’s free target practice until they fuck up and get eaten. She really cared, and she wanted to prevent unneeded harm. You’ll be fine.”

“I see, so you entrust me to her. I feel relieved then.” Arabella said, smiling.

“You make it sound way too dramatic. She’s just going to take your blood or whatever.”

“Braya, do you think any differently about me now? After all that’s happened?”

“Yeah. You’ve ruined me for life and I can’t get away from you.”

“Hmm? I’m sorry– I’m just nervous is all.”

“I’m joking.” Zachikova sighed.

She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say.

Even as she spoke, it felt like it did not convey the fullness of what she felt about Arabella. She still tried with every new word and did not relent even as she let her passions slip. “I don’t think any differently about you. If anything I feel closer to you than ever. I’m also someone whose head got fucked with– not as maliciously as with you, but I’m still not normal. Like– I’m just a nobody. Before the surgeries, and going into the Academy and then the spec ops, I was just some orphan of slave parents who died. I was nothing. When I think back, I’m still kinda nothing– I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fuck around with other girls in my school or win a video game championship or whatever. I can remember all the nothing I did but when you think about it, I effectively have no fucking memories anyway.”

“I see. In that sense– I guess our situations are more similar than I realized.”

“Memories don’t make you Arabella to me. You’re Arabella right now.”

Zachikova reached down and intertwined her fingers with Arabella’s own.

Arabella started to wiggle happily behind her back.

“Braya! Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” She said.

“It’s fine. I know you’re scared and that a lot of horrific shit has happened to you. But I’ll help you– and there’s good people on this ship too. I think it’s insane how much you’re taking on your shoulders. It’s not your responsibility, to make up for your sister, or the fucks who created you, or anyone else– but I’m still here for you anyway. Whatever you want to do, I support it. God knows it’s not like I have my own ambitions anyway.”

“We’ll find you an ambition while we search for my memories too.”

Arabella leaned down on Zachikova’s shoulder, rubbing her cheeks against it.

She was so warm.

A few weeks ago Zachikova might have pushed back.

Now, she was still a little annoyed– but she wanted to feel Arabella through her skin.

Until she felt a bit of a sting–

“Hey.”

Arabella nibbled on her childishly.

“If you need blood, just say it. Don’t just bite me out of nowhere.”

“Oh, I’m fine for blood. I ate a lot of human meat back there–”

“Don’t remind me–”

“–I’m biting you out of love Braya.” Arabella’s voice turned suddenly coquettish.

“That can wait until after hours. I’m working right now.”

Zachikova picked her computer up and stared down at the screen while Arabella’s head remained firmly on her shoulder. She felt another little nip from her lover, a deep nuzzle, and even the warm slickness of her tongue sliding over Zachikova’s neck, her fingers prodding her belly. She did not allow it to distract her. She was setting up a digital co-working space for the Nationale Volksarmee and Brigand to communicate together– essentially a glorified self-hosted BBS. It was a simple program. Much of the code was “in-strata” from similar programs and the predictor computer generated a decent user interface for it after a few proddings for it to do so. But she had to put it all together in a day or two, while her leg still hurt, and then also make sure it was not horrifically insecure or buggy.

On the Brigand, anyone who wanted to talk to someone could go and find them and talk to them in person. And in a fleet context, the only thing that mattered was following orders and the battle plan. Inventory comparisons only mattered to the logistics officers in the fleet command. One ship was not shuttling junk to another ship unannounced. Two ships did not randomly send engineers to each other to share ferristitcher blueprints or coordinate dangerous underway repairs. Fleet coordination was just totally different.

But the Volksarmee and Brigand were not two Union ships in a Union fleet with a grand battleplan drafted by a dozen Rear Admirals and a Fleet HQ with responsibility for all logistics. There was no huge staff to plan things. They had to exchange a lot of information between two ships on almost impromptu basis. Their work was like an ongoing conversation between new friends, and it needed a place to happen. Engineers did not have standard protocols for cooperating with each other, and there could be miscommunications. When the Captain approached Zachikova for a solution, she felt that a BBS was a more permanent and simple avenue than staging hundreds of video calls between the ships.

Such a piece of software was not in demand in the fleets, and was only used by civilians.

Sailors could use it to goof off; it could also engender bad information management habits.

Nevertheless for the specific use case of the Volksarmee and Brigand, it made sense to her.

It would likely be okay since the first version was deliberately extremely boring.

Nobody would be sharing nude pictures or lewd audio logs ZaChat.

It could not do so.

Or so she hoped. Computer programming in Zachikova’s era was a bit…odd.

Still, ZaChat was a predictable and simple thing.

Eventually she would upgrade it– but by then there would be better access controls too.

Her work was nearly complete.

She had released the beta version of ZaChat to a control group of officers and engineers. She monitored usage closely. Making sure every message was encrypted in transit between the ships, that chat logs were being retained on both the Brigand and the Rostock, and that data and access credentials were not coming or going anywhere they should not. So far everything seemed to go smoothly, for a thing Zachikova simply threw together.

“What are you working on?” Arabella asked, staring over Zachikova’s shoulder.

“It’s a program for people to message each other across ships.” Zachikova said.

“Can’t they reach each other and talk on the computer screens?” Arabella said.

“We want to keep Semyonova from going insane with hundreds of inter-ship calls.”

“Oh, true. You’re so considerate Braya. What are they saying on the program now?”

Zachikova looked at the board.

So far, the top posters were Erika Kairos and Murati Nakara, by orders of magnitude.

Largely talking to each other. Zachikova sighed audibly.

Utterly hopeless dorks talking about history and music in their own little thread.

In a few other threads on ZaChat, Katarran engineers from the Rostock were thankfully having productive discussion with Brigand crew like Chief Galina Lebedova and her nibling Valya Lebedova. They were hashing out work and equipment transfer schedules that worked for both crews as well as discussing events candidly in open chat threads. The atmosphere seemed jovial and there was actual verifiable progress being made.

Judging by that alone, Zachikova felt she could declare ZaChat a success.

Soon she could talk to the Captain about opening it up to more users.

Hopefully the sailors would not be too rambunctious–

It dawned upon Zachikova at that point she may have to moderate ZaChat–

She shut her computer off after a wave of stress.

“Arabella.” Zachikova said, sighing. “I’m taking a break. Bite as much as you want.”

Behind her there was a contented little noise.

Arabella drew her closer, pressing their bodies tight.

Once Zachikova felt the teeth start to dig,

and Arabella’s hands snaking down her belly, under her pants, between her legs,

she felt far more relaxed– until the first tight, warm contraction shook her skin.


“Ahh! That’s the end of the day for me– well. Until the fucking night shift anyway.”

“Indeed, gamer– do not so easily forfeit the call that beckon us to the dance of shadows.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.”

It was late in the afternoon and the weapons officers on the Brigand’s bridge were taking their leave for the “day.” They would be back in six hours to attend the “night shift” that was their main assignment during noncombat duty. Until then they had unstructured time to do with as they pleased. Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were meant to use some of this time to catch up on sleep so they could be ready when needed.

However, Alexandra, at least had other plans for today.

She kept them to herself– for now.

“So I got to the part where Ythyria starts looking at the prince– I thought this story was supposed to be lesbian? Like what’s going on there.” Alex asked Fernanda.

“Gamer, oh Gamer– how easily you lose faith upon any confrontation with intricacy! As with any endeavor, tribulation and torment enrich the quintessence of experience!”

Fernanda laughed openly while Alex stared at her as they walked down the halls.

Alexandra Geninov, self-described “sexy biracial chick,” with her light brown skin and messy brown hair tied back in a messy bun; Fernanda Santapena De La Rosa, with her fairer skin and straight blond hair with purple streaks. Blue and brown mismatched eyes alongside bright pink-red irises, the work of lenses; tall and short;  pants uniform and skirt uniform. Their animated chatter filled the halls, Alex’s deeper voice and Fernanda’s nasally tone.

Despite their contrasts, they seemed to always arrive anywhere as a set of two.

Arriving at their shared room, they dropped onto their individual beds and sighed audibly.

“Hey, Fernanda. Before nodding off, can I show you something?” Alex said.

“Is it about video games?” Fernanda said, briefly dropping her pretentious diction.

“Yes. But– before you stop me. It’s a kind of video game you would like.”

“I’ve told you already, that I have played games before– it’s not like I hate them.”

Two sentences without any thee’s or thou’s? A rare undressed Fernanda indeed.

“Okay, then you won’t object will you? For me? Just this once.” Alex said.

“I’m well aware it won’t be ‘just this once’– but sure. I have nothing to do.”

Fernanda sat up in bed. Smiling and laughing, Alex crouched next to her own bed.

From the set of drawers under the frame, Alex pulled out something wrapped in plastic.

She ripped apart the taped-up plastic wrap and unveiled a little beige plastic box.

“What? How did you get a Dendy?” Fernanda asked, staring incredulously at it.

Alex grinned, rubbing a finger over the slightly rough textured plastic on the case.

For now she would not comment on Fernanda being able to spot a Dendy instantly.

“A Dendy II, actually. One of our new allies uncovered this for me.” Alex said.

One of the Volksarmee officers, Chloe Kouri, loved video games and she apparently had something of a knack for infiltrating even crowded Imbrian places and going mostly unnoticed. After discovering this one morning in the Brigand’s cafeteria, Alex got the scheme in mind to see if Chloe could return to the street market and search for a video game console. Through sheer luck the console in question happened to be a Dendy II–

even Chloe did not realize it as she picked it up and brought it back.

Alex did not tell this story out loud– not wanting to try Fernanda’s patience.

It was enough to say that her scheming had paid off, in the familiar beige box in her hands.

Fernanda blinked. “So there was a Dendy in Kreuzung? And you bought it?”

“I also got a few classic Union storytelling games that run on it.” Alex said.

“I am a bit speechless. What the hell was a Dendy doing in Kreuzung?”

“I’m sure there are Imbrian enthusiasts curious about Union gaming.”

“But how would they get access to it? The Union does not have trade with Imbria.”

“Smuggling or something? Who cares– let’s play!”

Alex pulled out a serial cable that was rolled up in a little shelf in the back of the Dendy and found a serial port on the wall to plug it into. She flicked the switch, and in moments, the wall monitor created a window near the pull-out desk in the back of the room. Alex stuck one of the game cards into a slot on the side of the box and pressed a button to lock it. From the front of the Dendy, Alex pulled out two little controllers, with a cross-shaped directional pad and three buttons. She handed one to Fernanda and kept the first one herself.

At first the screen appeared completely black, and then appeared a block-font DENDY logo.

Then, a message from the Union Commissariat of Entertainment stressing that eyes strain, repetitive strain on the hands, headaches, and addiction might result from playing video games too much. The player had to tab through many screens of guidance and informational health material required by the Commissariat of Entertainment specifically for video games. Once this was done, another Commissariat of Entertainment screen urged the player to set an amount of session time, after which the Dendy would automatically save the game progress to battery memory and shut down. Alex set the session time for four hours, which was as long as the Commissariat would allow a single session to stretch.

“We are not playing this for four hours.” Fernanda warned.

“I knooooow.” Alex said. “Relax.”

Fernanda stared at her, sighed and picked up her controller.

They sat on the pull-out chairs near the pull-out desk and watched the screen.

Watching the little crab dig down and down as the game was prepared.

It was the kind of screen that, to a citizen of the sea, screamed– video games!

Perhaps incongruous– perhaps deeply mysterious.

Displayed on the screen, was a true miracle of underwater entertainment, recently arisen.

Each pixel in itself represented the combined efforts of hundreds of years of computing.

Of course, Alex knew all about how video gaming came about.

In order to truly understand “Dendy”, as Alex did–

one had to first understand the “Strata Crab” seen digging so industriously on screen.

Overwhelmingly, small devices in the Imbrium civilizations were thin clients, deferring some or even all of their computing to a vastly powerful supercomputer in their range, either part of a station mainframe or a ship supercomputer. These larger computers were referred to as “Predictive Computers.” True to their name, their primary design function was to assist in underwater navigation, identification and communication through analyzing data and “predicting” environments, trajectories and other partially known conditions with a degree of accuracy. Predictive computers were designed to take many sources of information, acoustic, visual, thermal, electric, and allow ships and stations to see and speak underwater– two things that were far more troubled by the deep than on the surface.

Predictive Computers performed these functions as part of their advanced and highly stable Base Code. This Base Code ran flawlessly in less than seconds and performed incredible computational feats in its specialized functions. Beyond prediction, the Base Code was imbued with a few other useful features. It could store information in databases, accept human language requests for data or analysis, decode acoustic text messages, and compare any number of like things with each other– byproducts of its function to guide humans on their underwater odyssey. However, there was one problem that the Imbrium civilization and, presumably, every other underwater post-surface society stumbled into. They did not understand how the Base Code worked. It was something of a black box.

Presumably, the Base Code had been worked out as a highly advanced form of machine learning, at some point. Predictors were often updated with new data for ordnance and vessels so they could properly identify them. But what the computer did behind the scenes with the data was a mystery– this design remained largely inscrutable to Imbrians.

It was impossible for a human to read the Base Code because there was far too much of it and none of it was legible in Low Imbrian or even High Imbrian– it was inherited from the surface world and went into widespread reproduction after the Age of Strife with the founding of the Nocht Dynasty. Even the scientists and engineers that had survived the Age of Strife had no idea how to actually read Base Code– seemingly, everyone just accepted the Base Code as an immutable part of computing that was inherited from the past.

Much like Agarthicite reactors, the form of the thing could be replicated, but it was not fully understood. Rather it was painstakingly observed to deduce workable interactions.

Base Code was simply copied onto new computers from old ones, making new predictive computers that all had the same functions. Base Code limitations and uses became readily apparent upon observation. It was possible, at times, to get a predictive computer to spit out a breakdown of a base code function through direct querying, but the predictive computer’s own understanding of base code functions was found to be utterly false.

Direct querying became a technical process of its own. Predictive Computers could be asked in various ways to attempt to do things outside of their known stated functions. Results would vary widely. Predictive Computers processed human language querying in bizarre ways, only answering consistently to known functions of the Base Code. A bad query would simply return false information or pretend to be doing something while doing absolutely nothing. This led to the widespread belief in the unreliability and inaccuracy of predictive computing. However, one miraculous function that was discovered was the ability to run subordinate instructions. This allowed the “Base Code” to be expanded through grueling trial and error with the foundations of civilian computing, “Strata Code.” Strata Code was, as its name suggested, piled atop Base Code in a variety of troubled ways.

When Braya Zachikova coded, or Alex Geninov played video games, or Homa Baumann read books on a portable computer, they were interacting primarily with features of Strata Code– these were the Programs most legible and understood to them, built on top of “Strata Functions” that were discovered to work through the expansion function of Base Code. Code that was not itself Base Code but was understood by the Predictor Computer. Knowledge of working Strata had been uncovered throughout the run of the A.D. years.

Therefore one arrived at the venerable “Strata Crab.”

There was a popular illustration of how computers worked in the Imbrium, known as the “Strata Crab.” The Crab was a program that wanted to do something, and its intended functionality was a tasty worm hiding somewhere beneath the sand. However many layers of sand, and the trajectory of the crab, illustrated the layered execution of Strata Code. There were several layers of cruft the Crab had to dig through to find its meal. A Program hit all of the working strata code in the right succession– dug through the layers correctly– to ultimately execute correctly. Of course, this was a simplification that also obscured the fact that a program, or crab, could also itself dump more sand on top– new Strata Code.

Or that most modern Strata Code was executed by flavors of “Silt Code” written in different, simpler programming languages developed over time that varied quite widely.

And so, on screens everywhere, the crab could be seen to dig, loading complex programs.

For those still following along with the history, the worm was in sight– video games.

One of the things Base Code could do was generate graphics. One of the things it did poorly was generate new graphics on command, rather than synthesizing environment graphics from natural sources. Strata Code was eventually invented to provide a graphical display layer for more things than just dataset text or predictive imaging graphics from sonar or LADAR data. However, this code ran devastatingly poorly at first. In addition it was difficult to eke out more performance from supercomputer hardware without impacting its ability to perform Base Code. Owing to a variety of economic, political and social reasons, the Imbrium did not put any of its engineering prowess behind the development of accessible computing or code execution for a very long time. But ultimately, enterprising generations of Imbrium engineers embarked on the creation of ancillary hardware, such as the various thin clients, which were in some ways more sophisticated units than the supercomputers– because they assisted in the running of feature-rich Strata Code.

Thus, the stage of history led inexorably to the video game console.

An ancillary piece of hardware specialized in innovative video game code and associated strata functions, to a degree previously thought impossible. Creating new, rich content experiences for civilians. Not simulations of military hardware, nor the realistic machine graphics used by films, but a brand new form of entertainment all its own. Beautiful, state of the art sprite characters easily generated by small devices, which could be moved on command by the players using various inputs. This allowed the setting of challenges for the player to overcome, the creation of stories for the player to experience and highly stylized characters some might have even considered more beautiful than life.

And it all began, with the hopelessly inscrutable Base Code, and the humble Strata Crab.

As for the Dendy itself– it was a somewhat sloppily reverse-engineered form of an Imbrian video game device that Alex Geninov played as a teenager in the Union during the Ahwalia years, where civilian entertainment products had a boom. That it ended up back in the Imbrium ocean where Imbrian video game enthusiasts became fascinated with this strange foreign device and its games, perhaps said something profound about society.

Or perhaps about Katarran smuggling predilections.

“I already have a headache.” Fernanda groaned.

“Huh? We haven’t even gotten to the title screen.” Alex said.

“I feel like just turning this thing on is radiating tedium.” Fernanda replied.

“I don’t get you. Just hush, you’ll love it when it actually starts.” Alex said.

On the screen, several progress bars appeared, and a graphic of a little crab digging.

Building pixel stores– compiling silt codes– pre-organizing post-routines–

Finally the title screen appeared: “The Solstice War.”

There was a young woman in a military uniform, looking through the glass of a digital porthole at a sphere of annihilation going off in the distance from a destroyed imperial ship. Everything was rendered in gorgeous 12-bit color 2D graphics. Sophisticated and stylized designs lent a certain beauty and attractiveness to the characters and made excellent aesthetic use of the color restrictions. Such was its style that gamers throughout the Union had fallen in love with the brooding, handsome, and charmingly autistic protagonist of the game, whose default name “Madiha” was used to represent her in various fanfictions and fanarts, erotic fancomics and even in small tribute fangames continuing her story.

Alex renamed the character upon starting a new game, to, of course, “Alex.”

“Why am I even here, gamer?” Fernanda grumbled.

“You haven’t played this one? I thought I’d get you to admit you had.”

“I have only read the erotic comics and fanfictions of it.”

“There’s a second player. You can name her after yourself.”

Alex pressed one of the buttons to move to the next screen.

Fernanda turned a bit red. She must have known what this entailed.

That second player had the default name “Parinita”– “Madiha’s” love interest.

Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed, renaming her to “Færn.”

Alex stared at the odd spelling. “Wait– is that like your–”

“Just get on with the game.” Fernanda warned.

At first blush, “The Solstice War” seemed like any standard “dungeon” game.

There was a protagonist and a supporting party member, they had parameters that determined the success and failure of certain challenges, they had items to collect. Maps of locations were presented to the player with “nodes” to which they could travel– these would then expand into “screens” of the dungeon that players could interact with in greater detail. There were battles, talking to NPCs, and puzzles to solve, either with logic, collected tools, or keys or other knickknacks uncovered along the way. Both Player 1 and Player 2 were asked to make decisions and could even separate, splitting the screen in half.

But “the Solstice War” was not known as a “dungeon” game, but a “storytelling” game.

Many challenges could be skipped with a careful eye to the character’s personalities and predilections. Charisma was the most powerful parameter, and a keen understanding of the magic spells, called “tactics” due to the game’s militaristic flavor, could enable the player to sidestep many difficulties. There were hundreds of thousands of lines of text to enrich the story and characters. Developing the love story between Player 1 and Player 2 was one of the game’s joys. Players 1 and 2 were sometimes asked to talk about each other.

Combat was there for those who desired it, but it was not strictly necessary.

This was all quite unlike “dungeon” games, known for their violence and treasure.

A collaborative storytelling experience about a romantic story.

Even across just the first hour of the game, Fernanda seemed to arrive at a burgeoning understanding of what made it special and unique among video games. Alex, who had played the game before, led Fernanda down a path that was richer in stories. She was gripped from the first scene, where “Alex” executed the corrupt military commander who had been verbally abusing “Færn” and blaming her for the many inefficiencies of the outpost. Just as “Færn” was stricken at first sight by the melancholy beauty of “Alex”, Fernanda herself realized they were written as tragic lovers and her face began to light up.

In the next scenes, the two navigated an attack by an Imperial force that outgunned and outnumbered the characters’ and the outpost’s forces. But through their bond, and timely decision-making, as well as “Alex” uncovering her hidden powers, they turned back the tide and bought the Union precious time. There would be more tribulations to come.

So began a story of war, conspiracy, betrayal, and sapphic love.

“Gamer. I hardly knew you had it in you, to appreciate culture like this.”

Alex grinned. “So what do you think of video games, huh? They’re an artform aren’t they?”

Fernanda grumbled. “Hmph! I never said I hated all video games! Don’t act so smug.”

It was not all rosy– some systems and solutions were a bit inscrutable.

Dialog was sometimes very convoluted. Fernanda loved this, Alex not so much.

And the audio was not great– especially on an old, well-traveled Dendy like this.

Room computers and wall-windows were not the best interfaces either.

Without a dedicated “gaming monitor” the fullest beauty of the graphics was lost.

However, by the second hour, the two were practically leaning against each other.

Unaware of their proximity due to how engrossed they had become in their roles.

Talking like one was Madiha and the other Parinita, working through the various challenges– and Alex pretending not to know the solutions, gleefully roleplaying along and letting Fernanda take the lead on what objects to interact with, who to talk to, what conversation strategies to use, what fights to pick and how to succeed. Though they would eventually have to go to sleep to get ready for their shift, Alex felt quite elated.

By the time they shut off the Dendy, Fernanda had Alex promise they would play again.


“Ah! I haven’t had such a good workout in forever! It’s nice to be back to the routine!”

“Hm. I guess it’s nice when the gym is kind of empty too. Though– it could be emptier.”

“Hey. You wound me. I spotted for you and everything.”

“Yeah you were a great help, and you had an amazing vantage point on my tits I bet.”

“Again, your sarcasm wounds me. Ascribing such impure motives.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I don’t actually care anyway. Take a gander as long as you like.”

Aside from the two figures in conversation, the Brigand’s gym was completely empty.

Just past the social area of the Brigand, also nearly empty at peak working hours, was the gym, a vital part of the operation. Everyone got a chance to use it if they liked, and everyone was encouraged to. Physical activity was important to keep a healthy body and mind on the ship and to pass the time healthily. To that end there was something for everyone. Running machines, staircase machines, and stationary bikes were popular. There were of course weights of all sizes, and racks for climbing and pull-ups; punching bags, a small sparring arena with a padded floor; and even a ten meter long range with adjustable targets for archery or air-guns. A dispenser for electrolyte-rich bottled drinks in two different flavors, stationed near the door, reminded everyone to keep hydrated as they worked.

Standing near the exercise machines, pilots Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun and Dominika Rybolovskaya stretched their arms and legs on top of padded plastic mats. They had just gotten done with their daily workouts. Not all pilots took exercise as seriously as they did, so they were often seen together at the gym even when it was nearly empty otherwise. This happened enough Sameera had begun to notice Dominika’s preferences– she was drawn to the archery range, the stair climb and the weights. Sameera in turn loved to push the exercise bike hard, and then she took out a lot of steam on the punching bag. She thought that perhaps Dominika was just more meticulous than her.

Lately, she thought a lot of things about Dominika.

Under the glow of the yellow sunlamps and the white LEDs, Dominika’s pink skin glistened with sweat as she stood to full height from stretching her legs. She went still for a moment, catching her breath, staring down at the floor in her shorts and sports bra. So lightly dressed, more of the chromatophores on her body were exposed, small bumps on her skin that glowed gently. They ran down her chest, on her hips, her back. Interspersed within her long red and brown hair were black-striped, fleshy strands dimly glowing.

And her eyes– bright pink with a blue limbal ring. Absolutely captivating.

They met, Sameera’s admiring gaze and Dominika’s narrow-eyed look of disdain.

Rather than scold her, Dominika sighed and turned around.

“You’re catching a shower too, aren’t you? Come on.” Dominika said.

Sameera was quite sweaty herself. Even the fur on her ears and tail was moist.

She smiled and followed behind Dominika.

To their shared surprise, the Brigand’s shower room was also pretty empty.

Dominika quickly threw off her sports bra and pulled down her shorts. She started walking toward the showers without acknowledging Sameera. Behind her, Sameera disrobed a bit slower. Dominika was so thin and lean and her figure almost nymph-like that she could not help but watch as she left her side. That she was a head taller than Dominika was a fact that buzzed around in her brain infrequently, and always ended up somewhere else.

After a truly laborious removal of her own sports bra and shorts, Sameera followed her to the showers. She sat next to her, set the temperature and dispersion of the showerhead, and relaxed as cool water crashed over her head. Two backs to the wall, smiling with relief as the sweat washed off them. Sameera undid her ponytail, and her long, wild brown hair fell over the sides of her and down her back. Her tail splashed on the water. There were no sounds but the running water and no smell but the shampoo and soap dispensers.

“Nika.”

“Sameera.”

Sameera laughed. “I heard there’s some kind of social function going on tonight.”

“You want to take me out on a date.” Dominika said. She shrugged. “We’re just on the ship it’s not like it’s anything special. So whatever– I’ll go with you. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic.” Sameera wagged her tail excitedly.

“What’s with you?” Dominika asked with evident, narrow-eyed disdain and skepticism.

“What are you asking?” Sameera replied, acting dumb.

“I mean–” Dominika reached behind herself and switched the water from falling in a mostly uniform stream to widely dispersed pattern. “I had fun on our date in Kreuzung, but if you think I’ve fallen in love with you or something– I’m not so easily impressed. You can’t just act like it’s a given I’m letting you have me. You’re not so charming that you can just–”

“Oh? You want to be pursued more aggressively then?”

Sameera practically sprang. Cornering Dominika under her showerhead.

One arm on the wall, another on the floor, their faces centimeters from each other.

Eye to eye, nearly nose to nose. Dominika lying back against the wall. Sameera atop.

Locked eyes, a bigger body, a hunger in her eyes and mischief on her face.

Sameera inched forward and took Dominika’s lips into a kiss.

Tasting her briefly, feeling her out, tentative but energetic–

At no point did Dominika struggled or kick her off.

Encouraged, Sameera slipped her tongue past Dominika’s teeth.

Raising a hand to hold Dominika’s cheek, closing her eyes, kissing her with ardor.

She had demonstrated her intent.

Approached, played, savored– and stepped back.

Smiling with the width of a finger between herself and Dominika.

“Was that more impressive?” Sameera asked.

Dominika averted her gaze, keeping a neutral expression.

“Only– a little– playboy.” She said, struggling to catch her breathe.

Never had such critical words made Sameera so contented.

She winked and got off of Dominika and sat next to her again, laughing.

“At least I know the right direction to take!” Sameera laughed.

Dominika grunted, but smiled just a little.

As much as Sameera liked when Dominika played hard to get, reciprocity was far sweeter.

In the shower, Sameera’s hand laid over Dominika’s hand and was not refused.


Having sailed for months by now, the Brigand’s crew was used to the rhythm of daily activity and they had gained some confidence in their response times should an alarm sound. Union ships valued a balance of readiness and morale. Because the crew had been through so much recently, Captain Korabiskaya had the idea to stage a screening of a film so everyone could get together, relax and have some communal fun for a few hours after work.

She left the decision of what film to show–

To First Officer Murati Nakara. Whose eyes drew quite wide upon hearing the news.

“I– this is– this is a bit sudden.” Murati said.

“Just look at the ship library and see what interests you, Murati!” Ulyana said cheerfully.

“You need to get used to making command decisions again.” Aaliyah said bluntly.

Murati blinked. “I’ve– I’ve been making decisions– I’ve been working hard–”

Even she knew this was not exactly the case. Certainly, Murati had not been doing nothing this whole time. She had been in important meetings. She had delegated a few tasks to her own subordinates. She had gone over Diver combat data working with Valya, and wrangled Aatto– but she had also been writing her book an awful lot handn’t she?

And mostly posting a lot on ZaChat the past day–

Neither of her superiors would have it– Murati had a command decision delegated to her.

“Just pick something, Murati. We’ll show it tonight. It’ll be fine, pick anything.”

“No, Captain! Murati, don’t just pick anything. Pick something that will improve morale.”

Two pats on the back was all she got after that. Murati was left to make the decision.

A few minutes later, she had made her way further to the back of the ship.

Walking stiffly and with a clearly troubled expression.

Crossing the door into her wife’s laboratory.

“Hubby! You’ve come to visit! I haven’t seen you in days!”

Karuniya Maharapratham called out in a sweet voice and clapped her hands together.

“You see me every day.” Murati mumbled this so as to be just barely audible.

“So what has dragged you away from your book, to see your boring old ball and chain?”

“Karu– please– I’m not that bad to you am I–?”

Eventually Karuniya stopped teasing Murati and invited her to a desk around the back of the tree. They sat together and Murati confided her predicament to her wife. It was not necessarily that Murati did not know any films. She had seen films, played video games– she had experienced entertainment. However, none of those things were her first choice for distractions. She was much more of a reader. What movies did sailors enjoy?

Weren’t they rowdy and rambunctious? She had always been cloistered among officers.

“I’m so glad you confided in me, Murati.” Karuniya said. “Your salvation is here.”

She raised an index finger pointedly and winked at Murati.

“Are you a film fan Karu? I really had no idea. We always went to restaurants or concerts.”

Karuniya crossed her arms, and smiled with great confidence.

“I am not an expert. But I can make trivial decisions without thinking about them so much.”

Murati raised a hand over her face. “Karu– Come on– This is serious here–”

“I don’t understand why you are soooo anxious, Murati.” Karuniya said, giggling.

“This is a command decision Karuniya! Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah must be wondering if I can handle the burdens of a commissioned officer and judging whether I can be promoted. I let my guard down and kept working on my book and testing Zachikova’s program, and now this. This can’t be something trivial– they are testing me.”

Karuniya stared at her for a moment, laid a hand over her mouth and stifled a laugh.

“Murati, you really are so cute. I’m so glad I have you wrapped around my finger.”

In turn, her hubby met her eyes with a helpless expression.

That was what it took for her to realize she was being just a bit ridiculous.

“I’m glad you think so, though I object to this characterization.” Murati said, sighing.

Karuniya reached out and squeezed Murati’s hand for comfort.

“I’ll look at the media library with you, and we will pick a movie together.”

“I’ve only got a few hours to pick something. It’s going on tonight. It’s just so sudden.”

“It’ll be fun! Just don’t take it so seriously. Between the two of us, we’ll find something.”

Silently, Murati thanked Karuniya so much for deflating all the tension in her chest.

Taking up a chair next to Murati, Karuniya brought a portable computer for both to use. She accessed the Brigand’s onboard media library, which served the books, music, comics, art collections, programs and films that were approved by the Union Navy. With a few taps of Karu’s slender fingers, she brought up the library of films. There were hundreds of films to choose from. A few independent or classic Imbrian films with “appropriate ideological content” were canonized as part of the Union’s “film history.” But the Union also had a film culture that had produced a few hundred films in the nation’s twenty year existence. There was movie-making going on even during the Revolution.

As soon as there had been a Union, there had also been Union film-making.

Everything from comedies to dramas, romances, morality plays, action stories, and propaganda pieces. They could sort the media library based on a lot of criteria, like the year and the genre, but they looked through everything just to see what was on offer. Karuniya arrived at a good suggestion as they scrolled through. She figured that sailors would appreciate a good comedy. Everyone could use a laugh, and even the cheapest jokes could draw one out, but not all people had a taste for romantic films or dramas.

“That is a very good point. Narrows it down, but it’s still so much.” Murati said.

Karuniya tipped her head closer to Murati, leaning into her while showing her the films.

“Oh, look at this one. A comedy about a ne’er-do-well father-in-law ending up being cared for by his son and the son’s newlywed bride. Sounds like universally-beloved shenanigans!”

“I don’t know that I want to sit and think about these particular themes for an entire night.”

“Huh? But your taste shouldn’t matter– well, look here! There’s a raunchy sex comedy!”

“The Commissar would absolutely object to this! I don’t even know how that got in there.”

“It’s there because we’re all adults who fuck, Murati. Jeez– okay, how about this?”

“A comedy about an Imperial falling into a coma and waking up in the Union during the early years of the Jayasankar regime, experiencing culture shock–? I don’t know. I think we have enough culture shock right now. We want them to take their minds off things right?”

“How is it you’re being this sensitive? They’re sailors–! Oh! Look at this one!”

Karuniya pointed her finger at a movie called “Supply Ship Groza.”

Physical comedy taking place in an inter-station supply ship. It seemed light-hearted.

“Karu, I think this might be the one!” Murati smiled.

Suddenly, she put an arm around Karuniya, pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you! This is perfect. I’ll send this to Semyonova. She’ll help set up the projection.”

Karuniya rubbed up against Murati with a placid little smile.

“You’re welcome. But I require a reward for my services.” She said mischievously.

“Oh?”

“First, you’re going to take me to the movie tonight.”

Then, Karuniya raised a hand to Murati’s cheek and drew her in for a deeper kiss.

It was a quick embrace– but her tongue crossed Murati’s lips in its span.

When Karuniya drew back she looked Murati in the eyes.

“Second, you’re going to do more than kiss me after the movie.”

That coquettish grin on her face said it all.

Murati felt the tensions of mere minutes ago wholly leave her body.

To be replaced by other, more electric sensations.

“You know I can’t ever say no to that face. I’m all yours, Karu.”


Semyonova announced the movie night on every screen in the Brigand, so everyone was instantly made aware of it. It came as a pleasant surprise with immediate effect. There was a burst of excitement from all corners, slightly deflated when a clarifying announcement was issued that there would not be liquor rations. Still, the mood was electric, with everyone in the halls wondering what movie would be shown and looking forward to it.

Homa Baumann was not planning to go watch the movie.

She had woken up in the afternoon and had her wholly vegetarian dinner and felt off.

From the operating table in Dr. Kappel’s office, she was back in the infirmary.

Waiting.

“Sorry Homa! I got pulled aside to take care of the bridge for a bit!”

Through the door into the infirmary, Kalika Loukia reappeared with a bag in hand.

Homa stared at her with an unfriendly expression.

“Was I gone that long?” Kalika asked.

Homa sighed. “Whatever. I don’t care.” She raised her voice, almost without meaning to.

Kalika smiled. “I hoped the prosthetics would cheer you up a bit– I understand though.”

She unzipped the bag and laid some clothes on the bed where Homa was seated.

There was a sleeveless white button-down shirt, a teal half-length jacket with long sleeves, a pair of pants and a skirt both of which were black, a set of white underwear, a green tie, and a pair of shoes. This was the uniform she had seen most people on the ship wearing. Everything was cheaply synthestitched, and the shoes especially looked a bit formless and unappealing. Homa would have to ask if they could give her work boots back.

“I’m not wearing a tie. Can they synthestitch me some casual clothes?” Homa grumbled.

“No~” Kalika bent down a bit and flicked Homa’s nose gently.

For a moment, that little teasing brush felt almost scandalous. Could she do that?

It was the momentary outrage that gave Homa some perspective on her own behavior.

Still– she was not able to fully control herself. Her tone of voice remained a bit elevated.

“Ugh. I get it– I’m being a brat. I’ll just– I’ll just shut up then!” Homa said.

Kalika remained bent forward in front of Homa and leaned even closer.

Speaking almost nose to nose with Homa’s face. A small smile on her red lips.

“I’ve told you, I understand you’re frustrated. I’m not going to ask you to pretend everything is fine. But I also am not giving carte blanche for you to yell at me all day. Let’s cool it a bit. Take a deep breath.” Kalika looked at Homa expectantly. “Deep breath, Homa.”

With Kalika right in front of her face, she could not refuse.

Homa drew in a deep breath.

Then she let it out.

There was nowhere for it to go so she practically blew right into Kalika’s face.

Kalika did not look bothered by it. She looked more content than before.

“Feel any better?”

“No?”

Her head and chest felt a bit less tight and knotted after she let the air out.

But she did not want Kalika to be right.

So she denied anything changed.

“Alright.” Kalika drew back from Homa and gestured to the clothes. “Pants or skirt?”

“That’s actually a really hard decision for me.” Homa said.

“It’s not a final decision, though. You can always wear one or the other.” Kalika said.

“I don’t know, Kalika. Do I look like I should be wearing a skirt?”

“You would look lovely in a skirt. Take it from a real fashionista.”

Homa’s ears folded against her head. She averted her gaze.

“No offense– I’ll just take the pants for now.”

“None taken. Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like my help?”

“I’ll do it.”

Kalika turned her back to Homa. “I can whip right back whenever you want me to.”

They had already seen each other completely naked before, but Homa appreciated Kalika having discretion nevertheless. If she struggled with dressing herself, Homa did not want someone staring at her and trying to gauge whether to jump in to save her or not. That would have made her furious. It made her a lot less self-conscious about relying on Kalika to assist if she could choose at any time when to cut her out or let her in.

Homa reached the end of her hospital gown.

Her biological fingers, and the fingers of her mechanical hand, closed around the hem.

She pulled it up and off of her body. As natural as breathing.

Nothing odd happened.

So far the prosthetic was responding fine.

Homa grabbed the synthetic brassiere, put her arms through.

Reached behind her back.

Her mechanical fingers dropped the clips a few times. It was a tiny bit frustrating.

Nevertheless, with time, her quite modest breasts were quite modestly covered up.

Similar to the brassier clips, it was a bit of a challenge to button up the shirt. Holding really small things in her hands and manipulating them precisely was strange. Her fingers on the prosthetics would drop and slip over the buttons, and even if she tried to switch the hand she was using, it was tough to hold the fabric around the button-hole open. Her hand was just so much clumsier than she was used to, and she could not feel it, no touch, no smoothness of synthcloth nor the roughness of the hard button.

Just as with the brassiere, however, the shirt was buttoned up in due time.

Homa clenched her jaw and let out a low hiss.

With the shirt on, she put on the panties and the black pants she had been given.

No problems with those. Everything fit fine and the efforts to put them on were simple.

Finally, she slipped the shoes right on. Cheap shoes like these just fit like a thick sock.

“I’m done.” Homa said.

Kalika turned around. She clapped her hands. “Look at this handsome young lady!”

“C’mon.”

“You really were serious about the tie huh? Don’t you want to look really professional?”

“Not interested.”

“Fair enough.” Kalika held out her hands.

Homa looked at them for a moment before raising her own arms and taking them.

Entwining her fingers and Kalika’s own. Kalika gently urged Homa stand.

To get her legs off the bed, Homa turned sideways.

She set her prosthetic leg on the floor first. Shifted her weight on it, tested its strength.

Everything seemed firm but–

For a moment, as she made the effort to stand, she could feel the flesh weighing on metal.

There was an uncomfortably cold sensation because of this.

Alarming as it was at first, Homa choked the feelings down, and made to stand straight.

Kalika held her hands tightly, supporting her.

“Do you want to try taking a step?”

Homa nodded her head. She lifted her prosthetic leg, inched forward, set it down.

Again she felt that cold sensation where the metal met flesh, but it was not as bad as before.

However, as soon as she set her foot down, she felt her weight slide a bit.

Kalika steadied her as she stepped back herself.

She cooed to Homa as they walked. One solid step; one clumsy step; one solid step.

“Good, good. Take it easy, one step at a time.”

“Okay.”

“Everything in the world worth doing can be done one step at a time.”

“I don’t need your amateur therapy during all this.”

“One step at a time, and you’ll be less grouchy in no time.”

Kalika laughed a little. Homa grumbled.

She held that hand tight however, felt Kalika’s own steel fingers with her own flesh.

Mirrored her steps, relied on her guidance, leaned into her when near falling.

For a moment, holding Kalika’s hands and walking step by step, almost with grace–

It almost felt like dancing, which Homa had never really done. But she had read about it.

Seen it in films; fantasized about it, maybe, once or twice. Dancing with someone nice.

Homa was not some hero, she chastised herself.

Kalika was not her storybook princess.

But–

it made it easier, and feel better, to think of the infirmary as a grand ballroom.

Her fingers closed tighter around Kalika’s hand.

She met her eyes more closely than before.

Step, by step.

Their little clumsy storybook dance down the aisle across from the beds.

It made Homa feel a little bit more whole than she was before.

Her steel walls and the plastic smell, took on color, took on a floral scent, took on grandeur.

“See? You’re doing great. Soon you won’t need to hold anyone’s hand.”

A chill ran down Homa’s back that she would not admit.

Because she immediately thought–

“I still want to hold your hand.”

She did not say this out loud. She did not want to admit it. She felt ashamed of it.

Such feelings were useless to hold for someone who only pitied her.

And Homa had already been hurt a few times by allowing herself such vulnerability.

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.


“Sonya’s taking me out to a movie! I could turn gold with happiness!”

“What ‘taking you out’? It takes minutes to walk down from my room–”

“Sonya’s taking me out~ Sonya’s taking me out~”

Shalikova looked at Maryam bobbing her head happily and simply smiled.

They walked down the hall holding hands, toward the social area.

Game tables, couches and other furniture were moved or folded into the floor. Chairs were set up for the movie watchers; there was not enough space for everyone so a similar arrangement was made in the middle of the hangar so more would get a chance to join a movie-watching party. Dispensers for pickles, bread, broth and watered-down juice were moved from the cafeteria to the social pod and hangar to give everyone easier access to snacks. On the stage a black rectangle appeared on the wall to demonstrate where the film would be displayed from. As Shalikova and Maryam approached and took a seat at the back row of chairs, there were already dozens of people seated and chatting lively.

There was a lot of curiosity, since the film to be shown was kept secret.

“Sonya, I bet you’ve seen so many movies.” Maryam said.

“Not a lot actually.” Shalikova said. “I preferred the arcade when I was bored.”

“Oh right! You did say you were the ‘terror of the tables’!” Maryam said.

“Not so loud.” Shalikova whispered. “But yes I played a lot of table games back when I was in school. Pool, and table hockey and tennis and all that. All the student lounges had a bunch. Solstice had nice arcades too. I liked going around town looking for them. You could wander off in any direction and find lounges and games. Theaters were a bit less prevalent.”

“I haven’t seen very many movies.” Maryam said. “Do you not like them, Sonya?”

She must have noticed Shalikova’s sour expression as she waited for the movie to start.

“No, it’s just– theaters are really crowded. With pool or whatever it was just a few guys.”

And just like a theater, the social pod was now quite crowded.

Shalikova endured it for Maryam’s sake, however.

It was very difficult to infect Shalikova with enthusiasm, but Maryam was so happy that she could not help herself but to crack a little smile. Watching her on the edge of her seat, hands on her lap, staring at the screen with stars in her w-shaped eyes. Bobbing her head with enthusiasm and waiting for the scenes to fill with color. Maryam had been through so much– and she was on this damn ship now going through even more tribulations.

She deserved a moment of excitement and levity.

To be taken care of and made to smile.

Everyone on the ship deserved it, really. These were the moments they worked hard for.

So when the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up with the film and everyone clapped–

Shalikova reached out and squeezed Maryam’s hand in the dark, for her own happiness.


Movie night came and went, with applause, laughs and a brief respite.

“Supply Ship Groza” became a new favorite among the sailors. Around the halls and hangar they could be heard quoting the jokes at each other, and calling each other Mykolas, after the clumsy protagonist. Having a social function was good change of pace. For everyone, they spent some cherished time shoulder to shoulder, but the work, as always, continued. It was a new day, the Brigand and Rostock were ever closer to Aachen.

It was busy again, and might soon get even busier.

Officers led a different life, however.

On that morning, Murati stood outside of the brig.

She was quite happy with last night. But the task in front of her was a daunting one.

Once the door opened– out walked the task. In full Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Bushy brown tail swinging behind her, now coming out of black uniform pants. Her brown hair tied into a very professional ponytail, a garrison cap between her tall ears. Shirt buttoned up completely this time, a brand new jacket in freshly synthestitched teal. Afforded a ration of makeup she had used to doll herself up quite presentably.

An almost comically saccharine smile on her face upon seeing Murati.

“Chief Petty Officer Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! Reporting for adjutant duties!”

Murati could hardly believe these were words she had to hear.

“How do I look master? It’s such a cute uniform. A very clever disguise.”

“I told you not to call me ‘Master’. How many times do I have to say it?”

“But it befits your great stature and the profound respect I have for you!”

In fact, Aatto had made out like a bandit.

Normally, defectors were viewed as something of a burden to their new country. They probably had a limited amount of intelligence, and limited military utility. Under normal circumstances, unless it was a Katarran mercenary with a crew, a defector was unlikely to be allowed to keep their military rank, or join the host nation’s military. Defectors were usually just a small influx of specific intelligence, and a moral victory for the host.

Because of the Brigand’s unique situation, however, Aatto was getting golden treatment. The Brigand had to be open to defectors as a way to acquire manpower. She had actually been advanced a rank– in the Volkisch, she would now be a Scharführer instead of a Rottenführer. Special assignment adjutants to commissioned officers could not be entry-level Petty Officers. Delegating work to someone with minimal clearance who lacked the rank even to organize the specialists was a waste of everyone’s time, so Aatto had to have a senior non-commission rank. If it worked out with Aatto, raising the Brigand’s practical skeleton crew of officers by one was a significant boon to acquire.

Of course, it might not work out with Aatto. She was a former Volkisch after all.

“We are not going to have a big fight about this. It’s decided. She’s your responsibility, Murati.” The Commissar had said. “I believe you when you say she wants to turn over a new leaf. The Captain and I had this conversation prior– we can’t refuse even Volkisch defectors at this point, and you could use somebody to assist you. But you can consider this a test of your judgment. We are trusting you, not just her; and if she burns us, it’s on you.”

Murati could be putting everyone at risk, and even moreso, her chances for a promotion.

With a sigh, she turned over a portable computer to Aatto.

She then set her shoulders, took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the Loup.

Taking one step into her personal space and standing taller than her counterpart.

“This is yours because it is crucial to your work. It’s disconnected from the network and contains all the data your clearance allows plus some educational products. For now, you will work off this device and if you need anything not on it, you will request it through me. Prove to me that you are reliable and trustworthy and you can get access to the network. Just know and understand this, with great specificity, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather: if you scheme against or betray us, I’ll follow you to the ends of Aer to tear you limb from limb!”

Murati jabbed her finger into Aatto’s chest, frustration clearly spilling out of her.

She had hoped to sound commanding and intimidating, but lost control to her passions.

Her speech had an effect, however.

Aatto’s eyes drew wider, her grin more twisted, smoldering with a bizarre euphoria.

She clutched the portable computer to her chest, her entire body shaking.

“There it is! That grand and dominating power dormant within you–! Such radiance–!”

“I’m being serious!” Murati shouted back at her.

“Of course– of course–” Aatto’s breathing became briefly troubled. “I live only to support you and witness your deeds! I will absolutely, without a doubt, employ every part of this body in most excellent service! Master, what ordeals will you subject me to today?”

Why did she sound so happy to be subjected to ordeals?!

Just as Murati struggled to think of a reprimand Aatto would not somehow enjoy–

There was a voice, low but with an undertone of distress, coming from all directions.

Accompanied by flashing red lights from high on every wall.

It hardly had to be said– before she understood the voice Murati felt she already knew.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon! All personnel shift immediately to duty Semyon!”

Fatima al-Suhar was sounding an alert from the sonar station on the bridge.

One that they had heard a few times already– alert Semyon meant combat stations.

“Master, is this a combat alert?” Aatto asked with vivid excitement in her voice.

There was no time to try to correct her bizarre fascinations.

Once again the currents were sending sharp steel the Brigand’s way.

Murati and the rest of the crew would have to hurry to meet it, for all they held dear.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.3]

Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Tell me– what you’ve forsaken.”

In the shadow of the Patriarch, standing raised upon the church stage, a great gold sun disc hanging on the wall at his back– there was a girl in her blue sailor uniform, ears folded, tail held straight and alert. Around them the church was like a suffocating cage of hard-edged shadows cut only by candles and torches on the stage. A red gleam exposed the severe expression of the Patriarch from around his long hair and thick beard.

“Answer me, Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Do you know better than God?”

She knew the answer she would not speak.

Just as he knew her name and would not use it.

Loup were born into servitude.

Servitude to God, through worship; Servitude to the state, through following of the rightful authorities; Servitude to the Family, and to the Father above all. God, the King, the Father of his House, they were all tiered delineations of the same principal figure of absolute power and respect. Loup valued order, authority, and were born to defend both.

“Salvation is a grueling process.” Said the Patriarch. “It begins, it continues, it never ends, until the Sun finally shines upon you and takes you into the firmament. Salvation requires baptism, its beginning; then it requires supplication and worship, to sustain it. Loup, Gefreiter, are a people of great humility and supplication. Our virtue is to toil in life so we can smile in heaven. But look at you; an apostate under my roof. You wear the uniform of a state you betrayed; given life by a God you swear against; and so you wear the skin of a people you reject! You spit on everything that we are. You humiliated us; humiliated me. ”

“She was my mother.” The Gefreiter finally spoke. “She was your wife!”

Tears formed in her eyes. She cast a helpless, wavering gaze up at the looming Patriarch.

“You were supposed to protect her! You speak of my betrayal; you betrayed her!”

From the stage a swift kick struck the girl in the neck and knocked her on her back.

“Silence! You are truly her child! You hellspawn! I ought to split your skull open!”

“That’s enough Gregor. Or you will meet the same fate to which you consigned your wife.”

White light cut across the center of the red streaked darkness of the church.

Casting the Patriarch into the long shadow of another man much like him, approaching.

Dressed in a black and gold uniform, a tall hat. On his ears and tail, the fur deeply grayed.

At his side was a younger woman in a similar attire, swarthy-skinned and dark-haired.

The two Inquisitors approached the church stage to shield the girl from the Patriarch.

When the girl reached the side of the Gefreiter she made to assist her–

“No, Gertrude. Not yet.” Warned the older man. He turned to face the Patriarch.

“Samoylovych. The southern heretic.” Said the Patriarch, disdain ample in his voice.

“Gregor.” High Inquisitor Samoylovych replied. “I’ve come to reclaim Imbrian property. That’s how you see us, isn’t it? I am appalled with you. I cannot stop the Council of Officers from enabling zealots like you; but Aatto is completely innocent. She was not in league with anyone, nor plotting anything; she is just a scared girl witnessing the destruction of her family. You cannot charge her with capital crime as you see fit. Even in the Host.”

Never once did the Patriarch cede from his position. His tail swayed gently behind him.

He was not rattled by the words of the High Inquisitor. In his eyes there was only zeal.

“I have done nothing in my life out of convenience.” The Patriarch said. “I have only ever done what was required of me by God or country. To have brought a child into the world with a liberal and a blasphemer and traitor, is a shame to me, a shame to my country and a shame to the Church; and I have done my duty in setting it right. I was tested; I stood with God.”

“And what? You will murder your daughter for God? Is that in the Revealed Truths?”

“Salvation is a grueling process.” The Patriarch said. “None of us can escape the Destiny that God sees in the instant of our birth, Samoylovych. That is why we must submit to the church and the Revealed Truth and set aside our hubris. Leniency nurtured vipers in my home. You ask what I will do? I will repent until my death; and remain devoted to the rightful order.”

The Patriarch turned his back on the Inquisitors and disappeared into the back of the church.

High Inquisitor Samoylovych grunted. He stomped his foot on the floor.

Putting a crack in the tiles. He let out a wheezing cough from the exertion.

“Inquisitor Samoylovych,” Gertrude Lichtenberg asked, “what will we do with the girl?”

“We’ll take her, of course. She can still serve in Rhinea or Veka.” Samoylovych sighed.

On the floor, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather looked up at the gold sun on the wall of the church with terror in her face. As if staring at the candle-lit face of God itself, a horrifying God of blood-letting that longed to devour her. That sign of the collective immiseration of the Loup in the pursuit of further submission to the will of the Divine. That Sun and the God it represented and the teachings that were associated with it had destroyed more human lives than anything in the world; they had destroyed all of Aatto’s life as she had lived it and everything she cherished. In an instant, it had blinked, and the force of its shutting eyes ended her long-held stability. Submission to what family? Submission to what state? Submission to what God? She had nothing and was helpless to do anything!

Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s life as she had known it ended without warning.

“None of us can escape Destiny.” She mumbled to herself. Weeping profusely.

“He’s wrong.” Samoylovych said. “The power to defy Destiny exists. But those who wield it have turned their backs on the Loup and on the atrocity of the Host. That is the truth.”

Aatto would ponder those words for years. Perhaps far longer than Samolovych intended.


Since they left Kreuzung, the Brigand resumed a feverish level of activity.

In the halls, sailors and technicians and engineers, of which the Brigand had well over a hundred, went from repair jobs to meetings, from the hangar to the cafeteria, from work to bed, having but a lunch and three twenty minute breaks throughout the day with which to decompress. It was busier than it had been during their expeditions in Goryk.

Chief among the reasons for this heightened activity was the depth. In Thassal, Cascabel and Serrano, the average depth of human activity was between 900 to 1500 meters deep. It was in these depths that the Brigand had been built and though it was tested at up to 2500 meters in the Nectaris Continental Rift, it was not ran for weeks and months in such depths. Eisental’s floor was on average 1800 to 2800 meters deep, just narrowly avoiding Hadal or Deep Abyss depths. The Brigand would be at this depth for an indeterminate period.

As such, the Brigand was subject to close to twice as much strain from the depths, since the deeper the water, the greater the pressure on all systems of the ship. There was no fear that the Brigand would suddenly spring a leak and explode completely– if that were the case all of humanity would have gone extinct already. Pressure hulls were very sturdy, and advanced forms of flood mitigation, as well as the presence of sealant gel in the centers of plate structures and between the armor and pressure hulls, meant that strikes from ordnance were actually survivable for the internal modules. It was very rare for a ship to implode from mishandling. It had to be considered as a possibility, but it was still rare.

However, the actual routine problem was with small parts. Particularly, the water system and electrical infrastructure. Water for the hydrojets was sucked in through intakes using powerful turbines and pumps– from there, some water was diverted into internal tanks, the crew water system, and reactor cooling. Then the water would go back out eventually, either directly through the hydrojets or fed out of waste chutes or reactor control pipeline.

Pipes inside the pressure hull were prone to leaks, and because the water system had to work harder and under more stress, it demanded more electricity, stressing the electric systems and possibly stressing the reactor core array as well. Sailors and technicians’ time at these depths was spent monitoring for leaks, actively monitoring power, swapping any electrical and electromechanical parts that were stressed or failing, and most importantly, tightly planning maintenance, replacement and recycling of such crucial parts.

Almost anything on the Brigand could fed into the ferricycler to be turned into mineral mush that would then be fed into stitcher machines to make new usable parts to cycle back in. But at some point, new, unrecycled parts had to be introduced back into the system– there were unavoidable diminishing returns involved in recycling parts continuously.

Other things that broke with some regularity included doors, kitchen appliances, the games in the social area, and most of all, the Divers. Divers had to be considered “broke” the instant they left the ship, because their anti-corrosion coatings would start wearing off, joints would take a beating, and small instruments like the sensors would certainly receive some abuse. This was before the sailors considered any battle damage the Divers took on top of that unavoidable wear. As such the hangar saw frequent spikes in activity.

On mission, the sailors kept pretty busy. There was always something to do.

Therefore, the Brigand’s halls and hangar always saw at least some people moving through.

Sonya Shalikova, meanwhile, had precious little to do on any ordinary day.

As an officer and a pilot, she had the privilege of relaxation.

In exchange, she braved the ocean in defense of the ship, risking her life every sortie.

Not everyone was cut out for that.

There were some people who had panic attacks just seeing the empty black ocean all around them, their spotlights unveiling only the endlessly falling rain of biological matter known as the marine fog. Others became greatly sick from the way the Diver moved out in the water, as the Strelok or even the Cheka cockpit was poorly stabilized. Still more refused to have anything to do with the endeavor, as unlike a ship, it was quite easy for a Diver to receive any sort of damage and fail catastrophically, since their hulls were much thinner.

For Sonya Shalikova, throwing her life into this maelstrom was all she knew how to do.

It had never been a question of whether or not to pilot a Diver.

Piloting was all she had to give to the world. Or so she thought.

Lately, at least, she had experienced a few positive additions to her worldview.

She had forgiven herself for the death of her sister Zasha.

Rather than throwing away her life because she felt useless and listless doing otherwise–

Shalikova now wanted to fight to protect her crew and many precious persons aboard.

To uphold Zasha’s memory and the wishes she had for Shalikova.

Fighting to enjoy her moments of happiness; rather than fighting out of a sense of misery.

So now, as she wandered the halls full of sailors, with nothing to do herself,

rather than think,

I’m so useless– all of these people are the real heroes,

she instead reminded herself,

I need to relax more– no use being high-strung then flaming out when it matters.

Taking care of herself and her body and mind was part of her responsibilities as a pilot.

Her free time, that privilege, was also part of the needs of the job.

But–

Ever since the escape from Kreuzung’s core station, something had been bothering her.

They had an encounter outside Kreuzung. Shalikova recalled not only the psionic powers of the enemy pilot and her fearsome aura, but also the sturdiness of a new type of Diver she had been piloting. It had withstood several close bursts from the Cheka’s AK-96 assault rifle. Firing from a distance at a moving target would have severely diminished the effectiveness of the rifle’s 37 mm supercavitating rounds. These weapons had an effectiveness that sharply declined beyond 50 meters or so. In the water, if you could see something to shoot it, it was only then that it was in the effective range of a Diver assault rifle.

However, Shalikova had fired from close range on a stationary enemy, several times.

Everyone else seemed to overlook this freakish durability, but Shalikova could not.

Murati might say that with appropriate tactics, they could still defeat this new model.

Shalikova, who experienced it first-hand, began to believe they needed stronger weapons.

She was not savvy enough to determine what they could do with their current resources.

So she ultimately decided to take the concern to someone who could research it better.

“Valya, do you have a moment?”

“Oh! Shalikova and Maryam! Just a sec!”

These days Shalikova never went anywhere without her brightly smiling marshmallow.

So even as she walked the halls, Maryam was always following along.

Valya could most easily be found in the hangar, where they had increasingly taken on the role of the squad mechanic for the 114th, the Brigand’s assigned Diver unit. In the center of the hangar, along the walls, there were several gantries, each of which held a Diver aloft. Metal arms assisted the Diver so it would not need to stand under its own power while recharging and while undergoing repairs. They also held the machines in place as the ship maneuvered. Shalikova met Valya in the shadow of a Strelok, still the most common mecha in the hangar despite several recent acquisitions. It was the mainstay of the Union soldier.

Like all Divers it was roughly person-shaped, with an oblong cockpit encased in explosive-resistant armor plates that met precisely on the center of the chest, where they could open to allow entry. A hip section attached a pair of legs slightly offset of the cockpit, while a pair of shoulder sections affixed the arms. Atop this stocky body plan was a rectangular, roughly square head. Two cheek plates held together an array of cameras and sensors hidden behind bullet-proof glass, the “eyes” of the machine. Behind the machine were the main thrusters, fed by water from the shoulder and hip intakes. Mounted on a multi-sectioned “backpack,” the jets could rotate as two independent sets for greater maneuverability.

Shalikova whistled when she saw the state of the machine. This Strelok was receiving some specific attention. The unpainted steel plates on its legs having been taken off along with the cap on the hydrojet intakes set into the Diver’s knee that fed its legs jets. In addition, the support thruster for that leg had been removed and set aside. Known commonly as a “vernier” or “solid fuel” thruster– the latter moniker had come to refer to the fact the thruster was not electric, and in truth the fuel used by the Union was usually cheap liquid, though staged-burn solid compounds were higher quality. Under the armor, additional structural plates had their bolts removed and were peeled off, exposing flexible pipe, wires and the inner workings of the Strelok’s knee, such as the mechanical joints.

Inside the exposed metal there was a layer of black-brown grime that had accumulated.

“Coming down!”

Climbing down from a ladder, Valya removed their goggles, leaving a streak of grime on their own cheek. They smiled at Shalikova and Maryam with a refreshingly sunny demeanor. Dressed in a black sports bra beneath a half open gray jumpsuit, soaked in sweat and smelling of grease and metal. Some grime had even streaked over Valya’s salmon-pink hair, which they had not put a cap over while working. With a heavy tool in one hand, and the other waving jovially, Shalikova thought Valya was truly in their element.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you! It looks like a lot of work.” Shalikova said.

“Well, I’m already down! So it’s fine. There’s plenty of time to get back at it!”

Shalikova had thought of Valya as a reserved person, but they seemed to light up more when they were able to work on the machines. Despite the clear grueling effort they were going through, they never seemed to shine as brightly and talk as confidently as when they were covered in grime with a tool in their hands and safety goggles pushed up over their hair.

“Is something wrong with the Diver?” Maryam asked.

One of her tentacles flicked toward the Strelok’s bared knee.

Valya followed the tentacle with their eyes, then laughed.

“Just a routine checkup. It’s filthy inside, isn’t it? This is the Strelok that Ahwalia trashed back in Goryk, and then it got fixed up and returned to the reserve. Recently a sailor piloted it to go out and check how the missile launch bay covers were holding up in the water. When the sailor was on his way back, the leg jet started getting sticky. I think it had microfractures this whole time in the leg so the jet was losing a tiny bit of water into the plates.”

“Wouldn’t it explode or something?” Maryam asked.

“Nope, the leg interiors are not pressurized, but it is still a problem.”

“I see, I see.”

Shalikova patted Maryam on the shoulder, silently asking her to defer questions for now.

Maryam noticed and nodded her head.

“Valya,” Shalikova turned to the salmon-pink haired pilot, “I need to talk to you.”

“Ah, they’re in high demand today I see.”

Valya and Shalikova both turned to meet the owner of a familiar voice.

Elegant, enunciated in a sultry and playful fashion.

From behind them approached a familiar Shimii with long, blond hair and a strikingly glamorous affectation. Her sophisticated radiance was undeniable and it was hard to turn away when she was taking up attention. Heavy wine-purple eyeshadow and well-applied blush, glossy lipstick adorning a confident grin. A hint of wrinkles around the eyes and neck seemed as though an artful exposure of her maturity. On her, the standard uniform shirt and skirt seemed to flatter her curves, black tights accentuating the contours of shapely legs. Her ears and tail were perfectly manicured and had an almost divine appearance of fluffiness, while her tail was exceptionally brushed and strikingly silky and clean.

Her every movement oozed the easy confidence earned with age.

Shalikova averted her eyes before Khadija al-Shajara teased her for staring.

“Aww, I saw you turn away Shali-Shali.” Khadija said. “Don’t hurt a lady’s pride now.”

“It’s not that at all.” Shalikova said, turning a little red.

Teased anyway; there was truly no escaping from Khadija!

At her side, a cheerful Maryam waved to Khadija with both her tentacles and hands.

“Greetings to the lovely V.I.P. as well!” Khadija said. “You two arrived first, so you should conclude your business with Valya first before I steal them away.”

“That’ll have to wait Khadija– I still have to finish this one too.” Valya said.

“Oh, but I need my Strelok to be ready for standby.” Khadija said, leaning closer to Valya.

She put on an expression that was both pouty and somehow still flirty.

“You’ve got a point. I guess I can just leave this here.” Valya said, leaning back a little.

“Why is Valya doing all this work around here anyway?” Shalikova asked.

Valya shook their head. “Too much to get into– but I can handle it, so don’t worry.”

Khadija crossed her arms and leaned back on the leg of the Strelok, waiting her turn.

Her ears were clearly piqued to try to catch some gossip, however.

Shalikova sighed and laid out her request.

“Valya, did you get a chance to look at any data from the Cheka? Or Khadija’s data?”

“Uh huh, I’ve looked at everything with Murati.”

“I’m worried about the model of Diver we fought around Kreuzung.” Shalikova said.

Valya nodded. “That was Rhineametalle’s Panzer model. We actually have data on it from R&D leaks that were turned over to Union spies– but that was two years ago. We didn’t even load that stuff into the dive computers because we never expected to run into it.”

“I nearly emptied my magazine into it and it did nothing.” Shalikova said.

“You’re exaggerating, dame Shalikova.” Khadija interrupted. “You managed to fend it off and we are unsure of how much damage we did to it. Combat damage is more than just dramatic armor penetrations. For all we know it was limping away without life support.”

Shalikova felt mildly irritated at Khadija’s condescension– but it was pointless to pursue.

“Had the Brigand not been close I’m almost sure it would have kept fighting.” She said.

Khadija did not respond, preferring to continue leaning with arms crossed and eyes shut.

“I can try to comb over the data more thoroughly.” Valya said. “I’ll talk to Murati about it too– if she thinks the 37 mm guns seem ineffective against that Panzer we can explore solutions. I think I know what she’ll say though. One encounter is not a lot of data.”

“We don’t even know if they have mass produced the thing.” Khadija replied.

“I just think we need to keep it in mind.” Shalikova said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Khadija winked. “You need to have more confidence in yourself, lady prince.”

“It’s not about self-confidence! One of us could lose our lives if we underestimate that thing in the middle of a fight! It’s senseless not to prepare every possible advantage!”

“Good answer.” Khadija said. “You do make a finer leader than me, Shalikova.”

Shalikova had raised her voice to Khadija, who seemed far too satisfied with the result.

“Hey, c’mon, relax you two. Khadija, you can stop teasing her.” Valya said.

“I’m relaxed. I said what I wanted to say. Come on Maryam.”

Over Valya’s scolding of Khadija, Shalikova turned around and left the hangar.

Trying to work out the frustration that she knew she felt, and hated feeling.

Despite her anger she had grown up just a bit, enough to have more perspective.

In her heart she understood what Khadija was doing.

It was the same thing Illya had told her in Kreuzung. She had to speak up her convictions, even against her experienced seniors. If she was wrong, she was wrong, like Illya said– if she was right then she had to be ready to meet the confrontation and prove herself right. That was part of being in the military alongside war heroes like Khadija and confident theoreticians like Murati. Shalikova had a fearful conjecture and Khadija challenged it with her own knowledge and experience– they didn’t know if there would be more Panzers and they didn’t even really know what effect they had on Nasser’s Panzer. Khadija probably wanted her to stand up for herself and her ideas instead of turning cheek.

Shalikova just was not used to having arguments and resolving confrontations.

When she was assigned to the Thassal fleet she just did whatever she was ordered.

She never would have thought she would have the ability to influence a mission long-term.

Some part of her hated the idea of ‘being a leader’ more than anything.

It was annoying! It exposed her to stupid contradictions! It meant talking to people!

But another part felt that it was necessary. Especially in this case, she couldn’t keep quiet.

“Sonya, are you okay?” Maryam asked. “Are you mad at Khadija?”

They got on the elevator to ride back up to the Brigand’s upper tier.

“I’m annoyed. I felt like Khadija was treating me like a kid.” Shalikova said.

“I think she respects you a lot! I’m positive she just wanted to help!” Maryam said.

“You’re too nice, Maryam.” Shalikova sighed. Her softie marshmallow at it again.

“It’s okay Sonya. I think everyone on the ship thinks highly of you!” Maryam said.

“It’s not that– whatever.” Shalikova simply let things lie at that point.

Once the elevator doors opened, Shalikova led the ever-cheerful Maryam back to their room. As soon as she was through the doors, Shalikova threw herself on her bed and hugged her hand-sewn teddy bear plush, Comrade Fuzzy, tightly against her chest. It was cathartic to hold something tightly. She needed a few minutes to decompress and she wished for silence– and Maryam had seen this enough by now to know. Shalikova heard her girlfriend sit on her own bed, and then no other sounds of cuttlefish activity. She felt grateful for the silence, and even more grateful that at least Maryam truly understood her.

“Maryam, just give me a minute. I’m sorry I haven’t been great company today.”

“It’s okay Sonya! You take all the time you need. I completely understand!”

Shalikova could see Maryam smiling in her mind’s eye and it warmed her heart.

Another thing she never thought she would find herself doing, back at Thassal.

In just a few months, she had changed a lot, hadn’t she? It all felt so– silly.

She hugged Comrade Fuzzy less tightly and a bit more tenderly instead.

Tension was slowly leaving her body. The voices in her ears began to quiet.

I’ve grown a lot I guess– but damn it if I don’t still have a lot of work to do.

Shalikova sighed to herself.

Nothing could ever be easy– not for every long.

Not for soldiers out fighting at sea.

After a short rest, Shalikova turned around in bed, still cuddling with Comrade Fuzzy against her chest. She faced Maryam’s bed and found Maryam seated cross-legged on top, with her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her chest. Her top fins wiggled gently and her tentacles swayed within her hair. She breathed in and out with a deliberate timing. Her soft facial features were slightly screwed close, furrowed brow and cheeks pulling up.

“Trying to concentrate?” Shalikova asked.

“Oh! Sonya! No, I was just relaxing.” Maryam said.

She opened her eyes and smiled. Shalikova’s face sank into Comrade Fuzzy.

“Maryam, don’t keep things from me. You’re no good at it.”

“Ah– well, alright. Since you caught me.”

Maryam shut her eyes, crossed her arms and put on a confident little expression.

“Sonya– I have been finking about our royal cuttlenundrum.”

Maryam grinned.

Shalikova groaned.

“Did you think about it beyond what fish puns to make?” She said.

In response Maryam turned red and puffed up her cheeks, prompting Shalikova to be quiet.

“Okay, sorry–! I was just making fun! Go ahead.”

Maryam shut her eyes, lifted an index finger and looked deep in thought for a moment.

Shalikova stared at her while she puffed herself up for whatever she was about to say.

“Sonya–”

Lifting her pink hands and putting one fist on the other palm like a gavel.

“–it’s time to ask Euphrates, because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah I kinda figured we would arrive there eventually.”

Shalikova laid a hand on her own forehead, lifting up her bangs and sighing.

“After I confessed I was psionic to Murati she told me Euphrates and Tigris were helping her– so I guess it’s okay. As long as Murati does not become involved.” She said.

“Sonya, why are you so against the Lieutenant? She seems nice.” Maryam asked.

For a moment Shalikova imagined Murati fussing over her and Maryam and grimaced.

“Because she’s annoying. Let’s leave it that.”

Maryam gave Shalikova a scrutinizing look before dropping the matter herself.

Shalikova hid fully behind Comrade Fuzzy again.

While the two of them were staring from across the room, something lit up on the door.

In the middle of it a picture appeared in a square computer window.

Short blue hair, wavy and messy, on a youthful, fair-skinned face.

Euphrates was right outside the door, politely requesting access to enter the door.

Shalikova stared at the door with mild surprise.

She half-expected anyone looking for her to be like Illya and just bang and shout on it.

“Speak of the devil. Come in!” Shalikova called out.

Across the room, Maryam had a conflicted expression for a moment and averted her gaze.

Shalikova let go of Comrade Fuzzy and sat up, tossing her hair.

“Good afternoon, Maryam, Sonya Shalikova.”

Euphrates and Tigris crossed the threshold and closed the door behind themselves.

It was the first time Shalikova had a meeting in private with the ship’s “technical partners.”

Shalikova waved quietly in response. Maryam continued averting her gaze.

“I’m surprised she hasn’t turned tomato-colored yet.” Euphrates said.

In response, Maryam puffed up and went red and continued quietly refusing to respond.

“We just came to check up on you.” Tigris said. “On both of you.”

“In fact we just got done covering up for you.” Euphrates said.

“What?” Shalikova stood up straighter in bed. “What does that mean?”

Euphrates put her hands in her coat pockets and smiled.

“Your ability to use psionics came up in conversation– the Captain and Commissar were a bit alarmed to hear that Maryam was psionic as well. I knew she had to be responsible for the Ensign’s psionics.” Euphrates said. For a moment Shalikova went wide-eyed with burgeoning panic. Euphrates must have noticed, as she took her hands out of her pockets to make a comforting gesture. “No, no, no, don’t be afraid. We vouched for Maryam’s trustworthiness and made ourselves responsible for preventing such surprises in the future.”

Shalikova sighed. Maryam continued to give Euphrates and Tigris the silent treatment.

“I figured Murati would have to tell them eventually.” Shalikova said.

“Don’t blame Murati, she has been incredibly discreet.” Euphrates replied.

“Fine. So then– what are the two of you checking up on us for?” Shalikova asked.

“We’re supposed to–” Euphrates began–

“Slow down with the we,” Tigris interrupted. “You volunteered to compile everyone’s psionic potential on the ship. I’m a mechanical engineer, I have things to do. So you have fun covering up all the staring you’re going to do at people on this ship. I am not helping.”

“Can you help me just this once? I really need your assistance.” Euphrates said.

Tigris averted her gaze in the same direction as Maryam. She crossed her arms.

“Whatever. Whatever! I’ll stick around this once.” She said.

“Thank you. Now, take a look at Ms. Shalikova here– you’ll see the problem.”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes, meeting Euphrates and Tigris’ gaze with quiet consternation.

She saw red rings appear on their eyes. Tigris in particular scrutinized Shalikova for longer.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tigris said. “I can’t see anything, no matter what I try. What the hell?”

“Indeed.” Euphrates said. “Ensign, are you employing psionics at the moment?”

“No, I’m not.” Shalikova said. “This is something Maryam said too. My aura is weird.”

Tigris took a deep breath and looked at Shalikova again with renewed intensity.

Shalikova heard Tigris’ speaking in the back of her mind–

Oracle’s Voice: Epexegesis.”

Shalikova instinctively responded with her own psionics having detected Tigris invoking a power. She then saw several thread-width lines of colored light, connecting the fringes of Tigris’ aura to her own– or perhaps to where her own aura should have been. Except, the threads stopped just short of Shalikova and hung in mid-air utterly disconnected from anything. She knew right away that whatever Tigris had attempted to do failed.

“Now you can see why I wanted you to try.” Euphrates said.

“Yeah? But I still can’t understand anything even with Epexegesis.” Tigris sighed.

“What are you two up to?” Shalikova asked. “Why are you trying to read my aura?”

Despite the sudden intrusion and strange behavior of their guests Shalikova was not fearful. This was because Maryam, on the other side of the room, was still pouting and staying out of it as if it was just any other casual occurrence. Maryam would have definitely rushed to defend Shalikova from anything violent or harmful. In addition, Shalikova almost felt like she had her own voice in her mind which was telling her that it was harmless, or perhaps more accurately, it was making that knowledge implicit to her understanding.

Shalikova felt like she had always known, somehow, what this power was meant to do.

It was meant to read auras more deeply than was possible by simply looking.

“Aura reading is something common to psychics. It should not offend you.” Euphrates said.

“She has a right to be offended.” Maryam said. “It’s not up to you.”

“Finally, my dear former pupil deigns to speak with me.” Euphrates smiled.

Maryam stuck out her tongue at her.

“I’m trying to read the aura to get a feel for your psionics, but it’s impossible.” Tigris said.

“And we’ve never seen anything like it.” Euphrates added. “So it’s quite novel.”

“Okay? I have no idea what means for me.” Shalikova said.

“Neither do we.” Euphrates said. “But you don’t look unhealthy, at least.”

“She’s fine.” Maryam said. “Sonya is special! She will use her powers for good.”

“Right. And she’s particularly special to you, isn’t she?” Euphrates said.

She reached out and poked one of Maryam’s head fins, causing Maryam to flinch.

“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a kid.” Maryam said. “I’m not the same as I was!”

“No, you are not. You’ve traveled, found a purpose and people to care about. I think that is lovely, and it was never our intention to bar you from it.” Euphrates said. “You can disagree as vehemently as you want with our ethics as you see them. But to me, you will always be a special pupil whom I had a wonderful time teaching. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Hmph. No thanks. All you taught me was to do the opposite of you.” Maryam said.

“She’s become such a cuttletrarian.” Euphrates said.

“Ugh. I’m leaving.” Tigris mumbled.

“Wait.” Shalikova said, raising her hand. “We need your help with something.”

She turned to face Maryam. “Maryam, tell them. You yourself said we needed them.”

Maryam’s colors went dull for a moment. Her fins and tentacles deflated a little.

“Maryam, please.” Shalikova said. “We promised to help, remember?”

“We did promise.” Maryam had an uncharacteristically disagreeable expression.

With her eyes narrow and an unfriendly glower, she explained their predicament.

Recalling how Elena Lettiere told them that Norn prevented her from using her psionics.

Euphrates and Tigris were quiet as Maryam explained Elena Lettiere’s predicament.

At various points in the story they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes.

Shalikova noticed it– Maryam might have not, or not cared.

After the conclusion of the story, Tigris looked conflicted and Euphrates unmoved.

“So– I dunno, you tell me. How do we exorcise a psionic effect from someone?”

Maryam asked with some of her quiet innocence returning to her mannerisms.

“Maryam– tell me this. How do you define what is real?” Euphrates asked back.

She smiled as if she had just said something very profound.

Maryam’s face instantly turned tomato-red and her eyes went suddenly wide with fury.

“I knew it! I’ve had it up to here with you! Goodbye! I’m not dealing with this again!”

In an instant Maryam stood to leave–

but just as fast Shalikova stepped forward and grabbed her by the jacket.

They stood in the center of the room, with Maryam frowning as she was ensnared.

“Maryam, c’mon, have some patience! For me!” Shalikova pleaded.

Arms crossed, face boiling red, cheeks puffed up, Maryam sat back down on the bed.

This time Shalikova sat beside her to comfort her while Euphrates and Tigris stood.

“I know how you feel– but try to endure it. I get what she’s saying.” Tigris sighed.

“I’m not that annoying, am I?” Euphrate asked. “It’s actually important to consider for this scenario, Maryam. You heard Elena Lettiere describe her experience and drew a conclusion, but think about it: what makes an experience ‘real’? Is there an objective quality, extrinsic to humanity, that makes information, experience, or sight, concretely ‘real’?”

Maryam stared at Shalikova and gestured toward Euphrates with exasperation.

“I’ll answer.” Shalikova said, before Maryam could say something rude or irascible. “I’m not the biggest brain around here, but I’ll try my best to answer earnestly. In the Union, we are taught to be materialists. We believe that the world and its laws are knowable– thinking comes from material conditions. So I guess that, whatever someone experiences, comes from a condition of their material existence. So– whatever you think, it is rooted in something which is real. So Elena must have a reason for what she saw.”

“That’s a good answer– but, do you think you fully verified Elena’s ‘experience’ here?”

“We took her at her word. She told us what she felt.” Shalikova said.

“But people can misinterpret fraught subjects such as these. Especially naïve people.”

Even Shalikova was starting to get agitated. “Look, I’m not a philosopher.”

“Alright, let us set aside the frameworks.” Euphrates said. “Let me clarify what I mean as much as I can. Maryam has presupposed that Elena is ‘under some kind of curse’ that ‘Norn put on her using King’s Gaze’ which then ‘prevents her from performing psionics.’” Euphrates held out fingers for each of these conditions in her argument. “However, how do we confirm this is the case? These are some big leaps of logics. I actually have a counterexample: it is also possible that Elena simply believes she is incapable of performing psionics due to Norn’s influence, without the existence of an actual ‘curse’ at all. You said you read Elena’s aura, but that aura is primarily borne of her own emotions. Even if you think you can feel a trace of Norn there, you do not know why or how. It could all still be ‘in Elena’s head’.”

“That’s what she means by whether something can be objectively real.” Tigris said. “How can we be sure of what happened to Elena? It’s actually easier to believe that Norn influenced Elena’s behavior like, on a traumatic level perhaps, without it having anything to do with ‘curses.’ It could be Elena’s got some learned helplessness to deal with. Or she’s been in Norn’s shadow enough to have internalized a fear of her retribution.”

“Why does any of this matter?” Maryam said. “You’re just philosophizing not helping!”

“I never said I wouldn’t help.” Euphrates said. “But you have to understand, where psionics is concerned, we have to be really careful to consider the variability of the human psyche and of human emotions. My answer from experience is that there is only observable reality– therefore we must be careful what we make others believe to be real. Maryam, if you had tried to ‘remove a curse’ from Elena without understanding what is truly happening, you could have irreparably influenced her mind and damaged her sanity. Imagine if by tinkering around with Elena’s mind within this rhetorical framework of ‘removing Norn’s curse’, you caused her to irrevocably believe Norn is her enemy? You have to be careful.”

Shalikova nodded along. She was a bit fascinated by Euphrates’ logic.

She supposed human minds were still highly complicated, even to experienced psychics.

Henceforth she would have to be careful when she encouraged Maryam to use psionics.

She had not realized she could so much harm to a mind.

“Human minds are conceptual spaces. To their owner, the information that their mind can process is the only thing they can confirm to be ‘reality’. The information and ideology they acquire throughout their life is a function of their material circumstances, that is very true. But what you see, hear, and even smell or taste can still be altered by the condition of the mind. There are people who see things that are not real, and staunchly believe in things they cannot substantiate.” Euphrates said. “Knowing this to be true, you have to be wary of executing a ‘conceptual attack’– using psionics in a way you think is helpful, but that could alter their reality in a way you might not have intended. Not only will the effort be very taxing on your psionics, the end result could be horribly disruptive to your patient.”

“Norn doesn’t even need to use her King’s Gaze to affect Elena.” Tigris added. “For example, if she got to Elena as a kid, when her mind was the most pliable and vulnerable, she can make her believe anything. She could have already been under conceptual attack– we don’t know.”

“It may even be simpler than that, far simpler. At least, simpler in comparison to a decades long conspiracy.” Euphrates said. “Before we do anything, Maryam, I need to talk to Elena Lettiere myself. I want to ask her about Norn and their relationship and then see how she feels. To take it for a given that she is under attack by Norn, and try to tinker with her mind to change that– it could be a horrible mistake. You can’t do such things lightly.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Maryam said, averting her gaze, crossing her arms and pouting.

“It’ll also have to be another day. We’re kinda busy, you know?” Tigris said.

“I understand.” Shalikova said. She turned to Maryam and touched her shoulder for support and affection. “Maryam, I know you wanted to be the big hero, but they’re right. Elena should not just go along with our conjectures. Even if we have the best intentions we need to be careful. Let’s get everyone together and try to figure out more, okay?”

“Sheesh.” Maryam snorted. “Fine, fine, fine. I never said I wanted to force her or anything.”

“Of course. You just got a little over-enthusiastic. It’s part of your charm.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph. I’ve not forgiven you two.” Maryam said. Pointed glaring at the two women.

“Forgiven us for what? We haven’t ever done anything to you.” Tigris said, exasperated.

“For being bad and selfish people!” Maryam said, raising her voice.

“Huh?” Tigris cried out, taken aback by her tone and forcefulness.

“Hmph!” Maryam averted her eyes and puffed her cheeks up.

“Tigris is extremely altruistic. You can be pointed and say it’s my fault.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph!!” Maryam puffed her cheeks up to an even greater degree.

“I won’t disagree with you either.” Euphrates said. “I am– amending– my ethics a bit.”

For the first time her words sounded just a bit hesitant and unsure.

Maryam opened one curious eye to stare sidelong at Euphrates.

Even Tigris started staring at her too.

Euphrates held her hands together in a plaintive gesture, still smiling.

“Inaction and indecision– played more of a part in my thinking than I’d like. I admit it. I allowed events to spiral out of control. I lost perspective.” Euphrates said. “Being on this ship has made me feel that time is moving again for me. And that I must move with it. I can’t remove myself from culpability. I am looking to set things right. Norn, Mehmed, Ganges, Yangtze– any pain they caused is my shared responsibility. I accept it now.”

“Great. Could’ve fooled me.” Tigris replied, glaring at Euphrates again.

“I am not asking for forgiveness, Maryam. But I’d love to have your help in the future.”

Euphrates adjusted her coat, and bid farewell, with Tigris following close behind.

Still arguing about what Euphrates meant and whether she was serious.

That conversation was not for the two left behind, however.

When the door shut, Maryam let out a breath that must have been held long.

She then leaned heavily on Shalikova, squishing her cheeks up against Shalikova’s chest.

“Sonyaaaaa that was super annoying! You have to be really nice to me now, okay?”

“Sure, Sure. Come here. You’re still a big hero to me. A big, squishy softie of a hero.”

Shalikova held Maryam close, stroking the fins on her head and laughing a bit.

Thinking about Maryam and Euphrates, she felt a bit silly about her feelings toward Murati.


After what she considered a somewhat embarrassing appearance at the ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’, Murati made for the brig. Hardly knowing what to make of it that the enemy officer whom she had captured had requested an audience with her specifically. She had no investment in whether or not she would be effective in extracting any information from the captive, so it made no difference to her and she was not exactly anxious.

But she was perplexed and a little bit annoyed.

What would she even say to a fascist, face to face?

Murati had argued with fascists in her head for years.

Anyone who studied theory would likely have had similar moments– putting together a worldview and acquiring a set of convictions required challenging their competing notions in her own head. In Murati’s mind, she had argued with the Imbrian Empire, and lately she had argued with the Volkisch Movement as she learned more of their ideology while continuously refining her own. Why was she not a Fascist? Why was she against Imperialism? Answering these questions was necessary to arrive at the truth of communism.

But she had never thought about what she would say to a living fascist in a discussion.

She had at most thought about what she would say if she had to execute a fascist.

“The People make up a Nation; you’ll never build a Nation without lifting them up.”

Then she would pull the trigger and turn around without even looking at the gore.

Maybe it could use some refinement–

At any rate– on the walk over, Murati wandered what she would say.

To Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, sitting in the brig, requesting to speak with her alone.

Without much progress made in refining a concept of this encounter in her own mind, Murati stood at the door to the brig and gathered her breath. When the door slid open, Murati saw Dr. Kappel jotting something down on her portable clipboard computer. The doctor noticed Murati at the door and gestured for her to wait before coming in. She then stepped outside the brig and shut the door and bid Murati follow her a few steps away, so they would be farther from the brig when speaking. Murati figured she had been evaluating Aatto, and caught a glimpse of a photo of Aatto taken with the computer camera for her file.

“Murati, I completed a preliminary evaluation of Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Dr. Kappel said. She clicked the switch to shut off her computer. “This evaluation was performed for the sake of her health, as one of my new patients– and I will not disclose any specific physical health conditions, or anything she specifically confided in me. But I thought that it might help you to speak with her more effectively if I gave you my basic assessment of her first.”

Murati bristled a little bit. “So the fascist also has medical rights on this ship?”

“Murati, everyone has rights on this ship. As long as I am the ship’s Doctor, we will not deny captives basic treatment. It would be senselessly cruel.” Dr. Kappel sternly said.

“Fair enough.” Murati replied. She felt a little embarrassed in her response.

However, she was also too stubborn to apologize, and still felt she was justified too.

“At any rate. I am not a psychotherapist, but I am trained enough to serve as a counsel for the ship, and I performed some initial assessments of Aatto’s mental health. Are you interested in hearing them, or would you prefer to form your own?” Dr. Kappel asked Murati.

“I’m interested. How coherent is she? Is she holding up well in the brig?” Murati asked.

“She’s quite coherent.” Dr. Kappel replied. “She is willing to talk and is in fact affable in conversation. She answers questions and does not appear distressed by her current predicament. She has realistic expectations about her captivity, but has not expressed any anger, frustration or anxiety about being imprisoned. Her physical health is adequate. However, despite her attitude– I would say her mental health could be at risk.”

“How so?” Murati asked.

“I believe she might be a suicide risk.” Dr. Kappel said. “And my true motive for speaking with you is that, during your interrogation, please be wary of Aatto and if needed, stop her from hurting herself. She has expressed that she holds her life in low regard, and made a few morbid jokes without prompting during our discussion that trouble me. Coupled with the certainty and confidence she projects, I fear she may decide to– escape, in that way.”

Murati was a little bit shocked. She was briefly unable to speak as she processed.

More shocked about her own reaction than anything– she felt a bit of a pang of nerves.

Why would she care if the fascist does anything to herself? They were lower than dirt.

And yet– she didn’t want to be party to someone trying to hang or stab themselves either.

Not in this sort of environment. There was no battle raging in here.

“I won’t bring in anything into her cell, and I’ll watch her carefully.” Murati said.

“Thank you. I don’t expect you to treat her kindly– but remember we have standards.”

“I know.” Murati said. Internally, bristling at the idea that Aatto deserved anything.

Dr. Kappel nodded her head in acknowledgment and turned to leave.

“Wait, Doctor.” Murati said. Dr. Kappel paused to hear her out. “Do you know why Aatto wants to talk with me? Did she tell you anything about that? The Captain and Commissar have not had time to properly interrogate her just yet– but they wanted me to acquiesce to her request. I do not know what benefit she gets out of talking to me.”

“My fear aside, I think it may be a matter of pride or respect for her.” Dr. Kappel said.

“That makes sense. She confronted me directly and I made a fool of her.” Murati said.

“Right. She may want to look into the eyes of the person who captured her, to hear her voice, to be processed by you, as a form of accepting and coping with her failure. I will keep to myself exactly what she said, and like I said, I won’t ask you to moderate your voice.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I will do my best to try to handle things– humanely.” Murati replied.

“That’s all I ask. She may be unworthy of our respect, but she’s still our responsibility.”

Dr. Kappel reached out a hand and Murati shook with her, leaving on better terms.

Now, however, Murati was actually troubled by the idea of meeting Aatto.

Her situation became more complicated than ‘yelling at the fascist.’

Nevertheless, Murati returned to the brig with her hands closed into fists.

Farthest from the door were the few barred cells on the ship. On the right-hand side were the solitary confinement cells, all of which were now unoccupied. Just past the door, standing between the landing and barred cells, Zhu Lian stood guard. Murati found her in the midst of untying her long, dark hair and retying it into a ponytail. She dressed in the same nanomail bodysuit she usually wore, with thicker plates of separated armor on her chest, gloves, waist and leg guards. She had a collapsible baton hooked to her belt and no other weapons. Murati waited for her to be done with her hair before speaking.

“Greetings, comrade. How’s the prisoner doing?” Murati asked.

Zhu opened one eye and let go of her ponytail. “Oh! Hello Lieutenant. She’s behaving.”

“I’ll be stepping in to talk to her.” Murati said.

“Yeah, I heard from the Commissar. She’s all yours. Where should I wait?”

“You can stay here for now. Has she said anything?”

“She said she was excited to meet you. Weird, huh? Like I said, she’s quite well-behaved. I expected her to be more aggro but she has been remarkably quiet and polite.”

Murati nodded her head, walked past Zhu Lian and stepped up to the bars of the cell.

As soon as her shadow crossed the bars, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s gaze lifted to follow her every move. Aatto was seated on the fold-out bed provided in the cell, her hands crossed on her lap with eyes cast downcard. She smiled and raised her head upon seeing Murati approach. Aatto had been stripped of much of her uniform. Her coat was gone, her boots were gone, her hat, all of her pins and collar patches and armbands. Aatto was only allowed to keep her button-down shirt, sans tie, as well as her pants, sans belt.

Even her brassiere had been taken– exceptionally evident with her shirt halfway open.

Dark blue eyes meet auburn; Murati stood across the bars.

Aatto stood in turn to meet her.

“Thank you for granting my request. I’ve been dying to meet you.” Aatto said.

“I am just following orders. I’m only curious to know what you want.” Murati replied.

Aatto smiled, a little too happy for Murati’s taste.

She was shorter than Murati, though she would not have called Aatto short overall. She was a well-proportioned young woman, busty, average in figure, decently fit. Fair skinned, dark-eyed, with sleek cheekbones and a small nose with a tight bridge and slightly rounded end– she certainly could have been described as attractive. Her long, brown hair was well-kept, silky and shiny even with minimal hygiene the past few days. Blunt bangs covered her forehead, while the rest of her hair was long and straight. Her tall, sharp ears had abundant fluff while her tail was bushy and bristly, widening with fur across its length.

Her body language was confident and quick. Her hands moved a bit as she spoke.

Unlike her stern commands in Kreuzung, her voice in captivity turned somewhat sweet.

“I would like to throw myself upon your mercy, and under your power.” Aatto said.

She bowed her head, at first– then dipped into a stage bow, with one arm out.

“No mercy is necessary. As far as I know, nobody intends you harm.” Murati said.

“It’s more than that. It’s about my purpose.” Aatto said. She stood back up to full height.

Her voice reverberated through Murati’s chest like a shockwave.

Those dark-blue eyes flashed a strange gaze at Murati’s own.

In that instant, Murati pulled her internal trigger in reaction.

Red rings glowed around her eyes which met their counterparts in Aatto’s own.

They were reading each other’s auras– Aatto had some psionic ability.

Not only that– Murati could see in her aura the bizarre euphoria slowly becoming evident in her expression as they stared each other down. Aatto’s tail began to wag so strongly it started striking the bed repeatedly. A cheek-to-cheek smile flashing white teeth; embroiled in a white and blue flame of an aura, impassioned, exuberant, sublime–

With a texture like a waterfall, like rushing silk, an unbroken current–

There was no denying what was going through her mind.

“Murati Nakara, please take me as your own instrument! Let me be of use to you!”

Murati was stunned to silence. Those words completely shattered her composure.

There was not a hint of aggression or hesitation in Aatto’s aura or her body language.

She was sincere; utterly sincere. Her every emotion was sharply focused on Murati.

“I want nothing more than to serve you! I wish I had been born a part of your body rather than all of mine. I want to see your power! Let me defect and I will show you how useful I can be! This body– you can do anything you want with it! All of my life has led me to this moment. Take me, or strike me down, whatever you wish! But I know that in life, I can be a great asset to you! I will tell you anything you want about the Volkisch! And I’m not just an informant; I’m a great analyst and organizer! Let me be your personal adjutant!”

Aatto’s speech continued to rise in volume and her expression grew wilder.

As if by continuing to speak she was making herself more and more excited.

When she finally finished, there was an enormous void where her shouting had been.

Readily filled anew– by the roaring indignation within the object of her admiration.

“Are you insane?” Murati shouted back. “You want to defect because of me?”

“Yes! Please take me under your command! I will do anything!” Aatto said.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! I would never–! You insane fascist!”

“I’m not a fascist! I’ll be whatever you need! Please let me join you!”

“Do you even hear yourself? Have you any shame? How can I possibly trust you?”

“Give me a chance and I will absolutely prove myself worthy of trust!”

Murati and Aatto shouted back and forth at each other, as if neither was listening.

Nothing could have prepared Murati, this situation was in none of her plans.

None of the possible conversations she imagined with this woman led to this outcome.

Aatto did not seem suicidal, at least– but she was certifiably, completely insane!

It shook Murati– the kinds of words she had never heard in her life.

Murati had never been so admired, no one had ever thrown themselves on her.

And all of this desire was coming from the imprisoned fascist?

Some part of her was susceptible to the flattery– but she categorically rejected it!

“Why me?” Murati asked, sounding like a mortified girl. “What’s wrong with you?!”

“Of course it has to be you!” Aatto said. “You demonstrated true power to me, Murati!”

“Power– right! You’re also– no, shut up, one moment–!”

Murati turned around suddenly. Near the door, Zhu Lian stood with her mouth covered.

She saw Murati turn to face her, and silently realized the reason for her doing so.

Zhu Lian, nearly laughing, left the room instantly. Hopefully she would be discreet.

Murati turned back to Aatto to find her holding the bars with her face against them.

That demented smile as if a permanent feature of her expression.

In her mind, Murati superimposed the black uniform full of fascist symbols over her body.

She shook her head, balled up her fists with frustration. Her head filling with violence.

Stepping up to the bars herself to lock eyes with Aatto, so close she could feel her breath.

“Be completely serious. Nobody is listening. Tell the truth. Now.” Murati said.

“You know I am telling the truth. You can see it. I am not lying to you.” Aatto said.

She was not lying to Murati. She was completely earnest, completely certain, and peaceful.

That smile on her face that seemed like it would never wipe off was utterly sincere.

But none of it made any sense!

“Who are you? Who are you really, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather?” Murati asked.

“I was but a living corpse until the sight of you made me want to live again.” Aatto said.

“Ugh! That’s insane! That’s nonsense! Stop making shit up! I won’t fall for your tricks!”

Murati knew Aatto was not tricking her. Murati knew that Aatto was telling the truth.

However, in the landscape of what should have been true, her answer was impermissible.

“Tell me the truth! The actual, whole truth, Aatto! What are you trying to do?”

“Murati Nakara, the Loup are a warrior culture of the Imbrium Empire. We are born to follow the orders of unworthy masters. I was nothing but a soldier, but hardly any good at direct combat– in Rhinea, they made me into an intelligence analyst and then a field agent. I did this task for the Imperial Navy and then the Volkisch inherited me like an old coat left in a closet. But I was never loyal to the Volkisch– in fact, I actually saved many Liberals from persecution! I falsified information, rerouted patrols! I betrayed the Volkisch!”

“Like I believe that.” She was telling the truth. Still telling the truth. Her aura was bright and untroubled and unmistakably clear. “Do you have any proof?” (She was telling the truth.)

“Ask the social-democrats in Aachen about Illaria Howell and Heimdall.” Aatto said.

“I suppose I will.” Murati said. Her resistance remained firm. “But why would you spy on or turn against the Volkisch? Why help the Liberals? What was in it for you? I know you possess powers yourself. You just showed them to me– I’m sure you meant to do so as well.”

“Yes, I meant to show you– though my power is far weaker than yours. I can only see.”

“Fine. Answer the question. You had personal power and standing– why risk yourself?”

Aatto’s smile wore steadily away as she answered.

“I helped the Liberals because I thought that they would take up arms and fight against the Volkisch. It all came at me like a flash. Several most-wanted persons cases fell onto my lap. In the course of my typical work, I had the opportunity to fix papers and assist in the escape of Illaria Howell, a big liberal politician, before she was purged by the Sicherheitsdienst. We met briefly in the course of events, and she vowed that she would form a resistance network, and I agreed to help save more liberals in order to help her do so. My heart fluttered– I wanted to see the Liberals destroy the Volkisch and reassert their place in the world– I wanted to see if they could overturn what seemed like their wretched Destiny.” Aatto said. Murati noted her darkening demeanor. “But all they wanted was to escape with their lives. Illaria had lied, none of them resisted. They simply wanted to go into hiding and avoid any danger. Their cowardice sickened me– I endangered myself for nothing. So– I resigned myself to return to the Volkisch, to what seemed like my own fate. Then I was captured by you.”

She raised her head again to look at Murati. Some of her bright cheer slowly returned.

That way she looked at Murati– with such fondness and tenderness– it was frightening.

“You rescued me from them, Murati! From my indenture to those weaklings!”

“Stop calling me by name, I don’t know you!” Murati grumbled.

“Oh! Of course. Of course! Forgive my impudence. You are someone who is worthy of the utmost, strictest respect. What is your rank– or should I just call you my Master?”

“What?! No! People will misunderstand! Don’t call me Master! I’m nobody’s Master!”

Murati stepped away from the bars while Aatto kept a thoroughly fixed gaze on her.

“Of course. Whatever you say.” Aatto replied. “You are my King.”

“Absolutely not! I’m nobody’s King!”

Exasperated, Murati turned her back on Aatto to avoid her eyes.

Behind herself, she heard a sharp intake of breath as she took steps toward the door.

“Please don’t go! I’m sorry! Please! I’m truly serious! I am defecting! Please!”

Murati fully intended to leave and did not immediately pause when she heard the cries.

“Please don’t abandon me! I truly can get better! Please! I want to change my fate!”

Close to the door, Murati fully stopped. She sighed to herself. She laid a hand on her face.

Aatto was openly crying and screaming and begging like she had been beaten.

I want to change my fate.

At no point had Aatto been lying to Murati. She knew that well.

Maybe even without psionics, she would have felt Aatto’s bizarre sincerity as well.

Her demeanor had changed entirely like she had swapped one identity for another.

It was shocking– but it was also hard to trust anything she said.

However–

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Murati asked, still not turning around.

She felt a pang of a truly wretched sympathy.

“My father once said– the world is a barrel-organ that God turns. We are just spectators to a song already recorded on the drum.” Aatto said, breaking out into outright sobbing and weeping. Her voice cracked– Murati thought she heard a banging on the bars and recalled Dr. Kappel’s words. She turned around immediately and found Aatto thankfully unharmed but drooping against the bars with all of her brightness and strength sapped. “I was born to be a servant– to unworthy rulers– but I don’t want the fate of the Loup– I don’t want the fate of the Loup–! Please, don’t abandon me– don’t– when I found hope–”

“Be quiet!” Murati said. “Just for a moment– be quiet. Please. I won’t leave yet.”

Aatto seemed to have spent all of her exuberance. But she dutifully quieted down.

Hanging against the bars as if holding them was all she could do to stay up.

Her eyes running red, tears down her cheeks, lips quivering with sobs.

If this was all acting– it was terribly convincing.

(And could her aura even lie about such clear and open intentions?)

Murati was torn in half by opposing instincts.

There was a part of her that reveled in the power to cause Aatto suffering.

That voice said,

“this fascist should die screaming with the agony the Volkisch inflicted on the world.”

There was a part of her that softened to the plight that had reduced Aatto to begging.

That voice said,

“this girl should be able to overcome the ideology that has had her captive for life.”

How was it that a person lived ‘inherited like an old coat’ by an evil military regime?

But then again– Murati did not know that much about Imperial Loup culture either.

What was the fate of the Loup? What would Murati be consigning Aatto to suffer?

What had Aatto suffered already that led her to this place? To her present mania?

Murati walked back to the cell and stood opposite Aatto once again.

Aatto raised her head and stared at Murati. Not smiling anymore– broken down.

It was tough to look at her now, having seen her previously carefree smile shatter to this.

Knowing that all she did was turn her back once to cause this to happen.

“Do you believe in the racial superiority of a class of ubermenschen?”

Murati’s question momentarily perplexed Aatto. But Murati did not follow up.

She did not even meet Aatto’s gaze until the captive provided an answer.

“Of course not. I’m a Loup. I wouldn’t be considered as such.” Aatto whimpered.

“Do you believe there’s an untermenschen class unfit to have agency in their lives?”

There was a heavy note of bitterness in the next answer.

“I believe the Imbrian people are largely a smooth-brained rabble.” Aatto replied.

Murati’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you believe there is ‘life unworthy of life’ such as social parasites and degenerates?”

Aatto paused for a moment, catching her breath. “Well– It depends–”

Murati frowned. “Do you believe that all Imbrians form a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ that must carry out their unique racial destiny through the conquest of enemy racial communities?”

“I guess my definition of Imbrian is pretty broad, if I were to submit it–”

“Do you think there is a conspiracy of enemy races against the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’?”

Aatto put on a small carefree grin again.

“Well– I think, if you look at the evidence, the Cogitans and Hanwans recently–”

Murati slammed her hands on the bars in exasperation. She failed every question!

Aatto drew her eyes wide with surprise at the striking on the bars.

“You think exactly the same as a fascist! You’re still a fascist with fluffy ears and a tail!”

“Please forgive me! All I’ve ever known is the Northern Host and the Volkisch Movement! I can change if you help me! Show me your books! Teach me what you believe!” Aatto said.

“Damn it, you’re just saying whatever I want to hear?! You manipulative bitch!”

“No! It’s the truth, you know it’s the truth! You can see it! Please– I’m begging you.”

Aatto lifted her hands from the bars and clapped them together, shaking.

As if in prayer or reverence, a supplicating gesture. Her ears folding, tail dropping.

Murati was utterly exasperated and out of sorts with this whole charade, but–

No matter how much she wanted to harden herself and cast this woman into the fire.

It may well have been cruel and inhumane to simply walk away and ignore Aatto.

She could feel what she believed to be truth in her heart and it weakened her front.

There was no equivocating that Aatto was an Imperial officer and had worked for the Volkisch. Wearing that uniform was an atrocity. She tried to do some good in her position, maybe– but she had warped reasons for doing so. Even if she was perhaps not an ordinary fascist she was certainly an elitist and a mystic. That idea of hers– trying to find someone who would fight the Volkisch to “overturn Destiny,” it was clearly a gigantic delusion. Aatto could have easily just been fishing for the winning side to save her own skin.

But– it felt more difficult to condemn her after seeing her break down.

Murati started to retrace the path of her own current convictions, searching her heart.

Child to labor organizers who were punished with slavery, and who died in the service of communism. A nun and a traveler who became scientists, who became communists, who became fighters willing to kill for their beliefs. They had changed over time. Like all citizens of the Empire they had not been born communists. They had arrived at that conviction.

Murati became a communist in the nation her parents helped to found, and now she could judge Aatto for what she thought with a lifetime worth of living and studying under communism. Her material conditions led her to her present state. It could have all gone quite wrong somewhere in the middle. Even in the Union, there were still nonbelievers in communism and even people who still held on to nationalistic or liberal ideas.

Murati had an opportunity that was explicitly denied to someone like Aatto.

Aatto had been brought up to an entirely different set of circumstances. She could have been said to have been a slave herself. Loup were a racial minority in the Empire, raised and valued as military manpower. That much Murati knew, even if she did not know the exacting cultural specifics of the Loup Hosts. She did not know much about their religion or traditions or family lives, and had only superficial knowledge that the Northern and Southern Hosts differed culturally. She did know that Imbrians could put Loup in torpedoes and shoot them at enemy ships to try to board them. She did know that the royal family once upon a time had a tradition of keeping a royal guard brigade half-composed of Loup kidnapped from their homes as children and raised as soldiers entirely within the captivity of Heitzing.

Even if that tradition had been overturned by the Fuellers– it still spoke to something.

Imbrians saw the Loup as inferiors. They were not equals in society. Far from it.

They were all objects; instruments of war that could only thrive in the military.

Despite this, there were plenty of Loup still fighting for imperialism and the Volkisch.

There were many Loup who still internalized fighting for this status quo as a virtue.

But there was one Loup, in front of her, begging for a chance to do otherwise.

Perhaps a Loup could not be a fascist in the way an Imbrian could. It was more complex. Perhaps that was only an excuse Murati was making for herself, for this Loup. For this fascist— specifically. Because she could see her hurt right in front of her eyes. Even despite her convictions. Even despite everything she had come to believe. Her rationality told her that it was too convenient to view Aatto as a special case among the fascists.

Aatto had not been without choices. Her condition could not be entirely given onto fate. She could not be seen as entirely helpless. Even if she seemed to believe that she had been led to this by the nose, she always had choices. All humans did, even if those choices were grim and hopeless at times. To wear that uniform and work as a fascist, was a horrific choice– but she had also made the choice to rebel. More than once. And perhaps given a chance, Aatto could rebel enough to make amends for whatever circumstances led her to Volkisch service.

To condemn Aatto to “the fate of the Loup” as she put it– Murati did not have the steel in her chest to do that. As much as she felt like she was betraying her own convictions for not hating Aatto with every fiber of her being, for not stepping past those bars and beating her into a pulp the second she tried to beg for forgiveness. None of that would actually be justice. None of that would overturn the yoke the Volkisch had on anyone else. It would just be petty, senseless vengeance, in effigy, for the same monsters that probably tormented Aatto greatly herself. Murati grit her teeth at her own soft-heartedness.

Defectors existed in all causes to all causes– by that rubric, Aatto was not hopeless.

For everything else, Murati could only have faith and hope she would not regret her choice.

“I will talk to the Captain and Commissar about your defection.” Murati said.

She tried to keep a stoic tone and would not meet Aatto’s eyes any longer.

Aatto stared at her and smiled through her tears. Her face instantly brightened.

“Thank you! I won’t let you down! Your magnanimity is radiant! You are a true saint!”

“I’m not guaranteeing you anything!” Murati said sharply. “But I will talk to them.”

“Of course. I know you don’t have absolute power– though you deserve it–”

“Ugh. Don’t make me regret this.” Murati said. “You better be serious about it.”

“I am serious! I will be more than an adjutant! I will bear your scepter! I’ll be your knight!”

Murati could not have balled up her fists any tighter hearing all of that nonsense.

What kind of a mess am I getting myself into with this woman?

She tried to focus on material things. There was too much idealism in the atmosphere.

A Volkisch defector could be a great asset!

Aatto had been part of the Volkisch intelligence, the Sicherheitsdienst. If she truly had the kind of access to divert prisoners, fool patrols, and falsify documents, then Aatto could be a trove of information on the Volkisch and their operations and processes. Even taken with a grain of salt, it could help. And if she was telling the truth, she was crafty enough not to be caught, and she had connections with the liberals. They could use Aatto to help them find more Volkisch willing to turn and talk, or act as spies, perhaps. Even if she also insisted on being Murati’s adjutant– well, Murati could always use the help. She had been incredibly busy lately. But Aatto’s slavering displays of devotion were incredibly vexing.

It would be terribly embarrassing if she spent all her time trying to lick Murati’s boots.

But– Murati had given her word now. She had set her mind to being responsible for this.

Having Aatto locked up until she lost her mind and hurt herself was not a solution.

Maybe accepting her defection was not a perfect solution. But it was comparatively better.

So, Murati could say, in a unforeseen and surreal way, this was a productive outcome.

She could say that to herself repeatedly like a mantra until she shouted down her anxiety.

Still– Aatto’s behavior was unnerving. Something had to be done.

Something had to be said.

She turned her back again and found the words to voice her worry.

“I’m leaving. By the way, I have a wife. So– if you’re after me for– baser reasons, you had better not get your hopes up.” Murati said. She felt insane for feeling like she needed to clarify such a thing. But Aatto’s behavior had to be corrected somehow.

“I see! Well, that’s not a problem for me.” Aatto casually responded.

Murati was not facing Aatto but could practically see her expression in her mind’s eye.

Her mind was briefly overcome in a storm of emotions.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? WHAT–?!

Murati vocalized nothing of the screams and expletives going off in her mind.

She simply and silently put one foot in front of the other and vacated the brig.

Her head throbbing and pounding– but her heart lighter and less aggrieved.


“Marina, we’re back here again. Again! After all the times you withheld information from us that ended so well.” Ulyana said sternly. “What do you have to say for yourself now?”

“At this point I am not sure I’d ever trust another word out of your mouth.” Aaliyah added.

“I have nothing to say in my defense. I apologize profusely.” Marina mumbled.

“You apologize– and yet keep choosing to lie to us every time anyway!” Ulyana shouted.

For their final disciplinary meeting of the day, Ulyana and Aaliyah saved the worst.

Marina McKennedy in her suit and button-down shirt, with her hands cuffed behind her back. Seated on a table across from Aaliyah and Ulyana, with Klara van Der Smidse looking over her. Out of everyone on the ship who had taken some misguided action, Marina was the only one being treated as actively dangerous. Ulyana felt like she had ample reason to think so. Marina was the only one who had consistently been in a situation like this and simply never reformed herself. In every situation since they allowed her aboard Marina had deceived them. And now Marina was also the one who had caused actual, verifiable harm.

For Illya or Zachikova, their last escapade was the first time they disobeyed orders.

Both of them at least had a noble reason– saving their comrades.

Marina, meanwhile, had aided and abetted in the Kreuzung Core Separation Crisis.

She confessed to everything with hardly any prompting.

“I was looking for information on an old partner of mine– a scientist named Asan. In the course of that, I ran into Kitty McRoosevelt, a GIA agent who was behind the Core Separation plot. I knew what Kitty was up to, she told me up front. I tried to dissuade her from it; but then I assisted her. I helped her secure mercenaries and refined her plan. I knew if I didn’t do anything, she would just get herself killed. I could see it in her eyes that she was ready to die. I thought if she succeeded it might create an opportunity for you and that it might save her life. I was wrong. I knew I was the moment I saw those lights start flickering.”

“You’re damn right that you were wrong!” Ulyana shouted. She could not help but feel incensed at the unfeeling delivery of this excuse, for the degree of evil that had been committed. “Marina, potentially torching an entire station is not worth an opportunity! You assisted this madwoman in attacking a reactor! You could have compromised the entire structure! Citizens of a station have nowhere to run to or hide from that! If you destroy the tower they will die crushed within it! Without hope of escape! Anyone who could escape would be the rich or the Volkisch! Is this truly how the G.I.A. operates?”

Unlike in past confrontations, Marina did not try to excuse herself.

She did not meet Ulyana’s shouting with her own, nor did she continue equivocating.

Instead she looked down at the table, her hands tied behind her back.

Unable to meet the eyes of her now captors.

“An apology is worth nothing to us Marina. The scale of your deceit here is intolerable. You almost certainly have the blood of innocents on your hands for this.” Aaliyah said.

“I’ve always had the blood of innocents on my hands.” Marina mumbled.

“Don’t even try it.” Ulyana said. “You’ll find no sympathy from us with that excuse.”

While the Republic of Alayze and the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice were strategic allies against the Imbrian Empire, Ulyana would not tolerate Marina’s lazy and callous defense. The G.I.A. could lie, cheat and steal all it wanted, but all was not fair in the course of war– there were things which were beyond the pale for even special forces or spy agencies to do. There had to be a level at which brutality was not worth success– and there was one.

On a material level, attacking stations was difficult for any combatant under the ocean, because a station was an enormous prize that was easy to destroy, and thereby condemning and annihilating everyone inside it– but useless in such a state. Capturing stations was the most difficult part of any armed conflict, more difficult than fighting fleets. There were ways to do it. Compromising the electricity or blowing it up was not on the table.

It was taboo– because it was foreclosing the possibility of human life itself.

Such wanton brutality did nobody favors. It moved humanity closer to total extinction.

Even the greediest and most sadistic madmen of history had avoided the cardinal sin.

There was nothing but water out there– the human world was inside the stations.

Whether to plunder, whether to build power, or set people free– the stations had to stand.

To attack a station with the intent of destruction was to attack human life in itself.

Nobody would gain anything from it. All of humanity would simply, permanently lose.

“What can I even say to this anymore?” Ulyana said. She had shouted herself out of breath.

There was nothing more to say. Marina had gone too far. They could hardly fathom it.

It was hard to speak of punishments for something like this.

Somehow anything they said or did felt like it was not possibly enough.

Still, they had to reach beyond the emotional and assert a realistic response.

“I advise we strip Marina of the rank and credentials we afforded her.” Aaliyah said.

“I’m still on your side. I still want to help.” Marina said. Still staring down at the table.

“You have gone too far this time Marina. I am not able to excuse what you did, to myself, in any fucking way.” Ulyana said. “You’re damn lucky. We are not about to have an execution carried out on this ship. Your words are meaningless; but your actions may yet redeem you. For now what you’ve earned yourself is two weeks of solitary confinement, and the loss of your rank aboard the ship. Once you come back out, you’re a civilian to us.”

“An untrustworthy civilian who will be monitored stringently.” Aaliyah added.

Marina smiled bitterly. “You’re right. I’ve been lucky one too many times haven’t I?”

“Sit in the brig and think about what you did. It’s you who has to live with that.”

Marina grit her teeth. She still could not lift her gaze to meet theirs.

“Damn it. You’re both soldiers too. Where the fuck do you two get off on judging me?! Commie bastards. How many people wouldn’t you kill for a victory?”

From across the table, Ulyana suddenly raised her arm and slapped Marina across the face.

With such vehemence she knocked Marina sideways out of her chair.

Aaliyah had no admonishment for this act of impulse.

She quietly stood up from her chair and with Klara’s help got Marina up from the floor.

Marina weakly struggled in Klara’s grip, but could not escape the security girl.

From her expression it was evident she knew she was completely out of hand.

“Take her away.” Ulyana said sternly. Klara nodded and led Marina out of the room.

The last Ulyana saw of Marina that day, was the glint of tears in her eyes.

When the door shut, Ulyana broke out into tears too.

The Captain’s whole body was shaking from the anger and shame bound up inside her.

How could all of this mess have happened, under their watch?

Were they that useless and helpless?

“Captain, we trusted her and had that trust violated. It wasn’t our fault.” Aaliyah said.

“I know.” Ulyana wiped her eyes in vain. “It’s just– god damn it. It’s so senseless.”

Aaliyah returned to the Captain’s side and rubbed her shoulder for support.

“There’s always going to be a horrid, bloodstained line between the need to take action and the need to take the right action.” Aaliyah said. She was not weeping, but had a tender expression. “We can’t hold ourselves up too high– we can be as ethical as the situation allows us; we can try to avoid unnecessary, senseless violence. But our actions against the Empire will have consequences like this– or worse. We have to be ready.”

“I know.” Ulyana said. She lifted a hand to her face to cover her weeping eyes.

Deep down what hurt the most is that only a very thin line separated them from Kitty McRoosevelt. Would they ever become as desperate as she had been?

Ulyana could not deny it– not decisively. That was the worst feeling of all.

“You have a good heart Captain.” Aaliyah said. “You don’t have to bear Marina’s burden.”

“Thank you.” Ulyana said. “I just feel responsible. She admitted to it so callously.”

“Can I be frank with you, Captain?” Aaliyah said.

“Always.”

“Don’t let this become another Pravda for you.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Aaliyah for a moment. She swallowed the shock.

Despite a brief surprise she quickly recognized Aaliyah’s support for what it was.

“Thank you for your candor. I won’t break down. I just need time to process.”

“Thank you. I understand. It has been a heavy few days for you.”

“For us, Aaliyah. You are invaluable to me. I’d go insane without you.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. I believe you’re stronger than that.”

Aaliyah smiled at Ulyana. Despite her tears, Ulyana smiled back.

They remained together in the room for a few moments, decompressing.

Then, the meeting room door blinked, a bright computer window opening on its surface.

Murati Nakara was requesting access to the room.

Unexpected but not a problem.

Ulyana wiped her tears.

Aaliyah sat beside her and verbally commanded the door to open.

“Greetings. Captain. Commissar. I spoke with the prisoner– it’s funny, actually–”

Murati walked into the room and sat on Marina’s chair– she had on a strange expression.

They had never seen her so apparently nervous, and yet almost laughing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah followed her with their eyes. Murati had a manic sort of energy.

When she spoke, she started gesticulating with her hands in a rather dramatic fashion.

“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather– is defecting to become my personal adjutant. There are a few things we can confirm to be sure of her sincerity, but I will take responsibility for her.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah blinked at her silently for several heavy heartbeats.

In both their heads a calculation of the circumstances seemed to play out.

Their facial expressions went through several increasingly darkening shifts.

“I guess we need to discuss what to do about her rank right? I have some ideas.”

Murati added this while nervously picking at her own tie and collar.

Speechless, Captain and Commissar both laid their heads against the table.

As if a wave of exhaustion had suddenly claimed their ability to stand.

Instantly, the room went silent, save for Murati laughing a bit, nervously still.

For several minutes the Captain and Commissar simply groaned in response.


Previous ~ Next