Thieves At The Port [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

After several days, the hangar was finally fully prepared and every mech in the Brigand’s squadron had been assembled, charged up and assigned its gantry and equipment. Murati could finally convene and formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron. On the morning of this triumphant day, she set aside some time to look over the official roster and the files on each pilot.

That was when she spotted an oddity. She sought official confirmation from the Bridge.

“First Officer on bridge!” Commissar Bashara called as Murati stepped through the door.

Everyone in the room turned to meet her briefly. Murati felt a little overwhelmed. She was, strictly speaking, their superior and depending on the health of the Captain she might even have to command them someday, but she was not very familiar with the bridge crew. She saw Semyonova on ship broadcasts and had met Zachikova recently, but the rest she had no occasion to speak to.

“It’s really not necessary.” Murati said to the Commissar. She spoke in a low voice.

“Not necessary? As First Officer you should always demand the respect you are owed.”

At the Commissar’s side, the Captain laughed. “I also tell her it’s not necessary.”

You more than anyone need to command more respect also.” Said the Commissar.

She glared sidelong at the Captain in a way that caused her to visibly shrink for a second.

“Let me see there, Murati.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

Murati handed her the tablet with the pilot roster. Murati already had the offending page up.

“Ah, right, this situation.”

The Captain sighed as if it would be a wearying thing to explain.

On the roster, one of the reserve pilots was a young man, younger than Shalikova. Maybe the youngest person on the ship. His name was Aiden Ahwalia. Murati recognized the surname immediately. Anyone in the Union would. Elias Ahwalia had been one of the Union’s founders, and after Daksha Kansal, he was the second Premier of the nation. He was Premier for nearly nine years of the Union’s 20 year life as a state, so he certainly made an impression on the Union.

However, his term was remembered for many bitter difficulties the Union suffered.

Many people felt that after Kansal left, the Union was close to falling apart.

The Union’s recent, comparatively “prosperous” period was thanks to Bhavani Jayasankar rising to power and removing the Ahwalia family from the political sphere. Her administration dispensed with the ideals of the Ahwalian period, where the Union was steered toward fully automated, high-tech utopianism. Bhavani’s Union was more analog, thrifty, and highly militarized in comparison to Ahwalia’s, but everyone had food, everyone had education, health, and some small comforts. As a student of history, Murati could not help but find the Ahwalia surname on her roster ominous.

“I don’t need to explain to you who the Ahwalias are, right?” the Captain asked.

“No ma’am. I’m well aware. I’d like to know why Ahwalia’s youngest is on this ship.”

Commissar Bashara joined the conversation. Her tail was swaying, gentle and relaxed.

“You must think there’s some ulterior motive?” She looked up at Murati from her seat.

Murati felt like that was a trick question, coming from the Commissar.

Captain Korabiskaya was quite relaxed as well, however. They were both untroubled.

“In fact, there is an ulterior motive.” Captain Korabiskaya said plainly, shrugging her shoulders.

“That’s what I was afraid of!” Murati said. “With all due respect, I don’t want–”

“Keep him away from a Strelok and you have nothing to worry about. He’s in reserve.” Commissar Bashara said. “Aiden Ahwalia is here as a punishment on Elias Ahwalia; if you were assuming that then you are correct, Lieutenant Nakara. He’s here because Premier Bhavani and Commissar-General Nagavanshi want to apply pressure to his father through this assignment. Ahwalia will think twice about making any kind of moves if internal security has his sons.”

“His father was purged from the party. His family can’t take public office.” Murati said. “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous? Elias Ahwalia is under house arrest. I don’t see any reason for this.”

Murati felt the Commissar would be predisposed to take the side of the security arm and the intelligence arm of the government on this issue. She looked to the Captain for support, but was met with only a soft, sympathetic expression, like a mother unable to go against the father on some household disagreement. Captain Korabiskaya stood up from her chair to meet Murati’s eyes.

“You’re a really good combat soldier, Murati.” Said the Captain. “But if you want to be a ship Captain or even go to Headquarters, you have to understand politics a bit better. And I don’t just mean Mordecist theory. There are some distasteful things you have to accept. So I accepted Aiden Ahwalia’s posting to the Brigand. That decision is final. If you don’t trust him to pilot a Strelok then don’t give him one. However, as far as he knows he is here on a legitimate mission. He thinks he’s just fulfilling his military duty. So, let him think that while he sits in the reserves, or let him go out if you need him. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

Commissar Bashara nodded. “The Captain’s assessment is uncharacteristically thorough.”

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

“At any rate, Lieutenant, I believe you have work to do. Does this satisfy your inquiry?”

Murati grit her teeth. Her grip tightened around the tablet computer with her roster files.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She did not like it, but she had no choice.

Commissar Bashara turned her eyes from Murati and forward to the rest of the bridge.

“Keep on keepin’ on, Murati. You’ll be fine.” The Captain said, by way of parting.

Swallowing some nasty things she wanted to say, Murati turned and vacated the bridge.


Despite everything, Murati was pretty excited that the pilot group was so diverse.

They had a few dark-skinned North Bosporans (herself included), a few Volgians, a Pelagis and a pair of Shimii. There were three other transgender women with her, a transgender man, and even a pilot identifying as nonbinary. She shouldn’t have been surprised — there were a lot of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Union military, particularly transgender women who got to transition after the revolution. A lot of them became pilots for the respect afforded them.

Almost everyone in the Union had a military background these days, and the Union was pretty colorful.

It made sense the military reflected that.

The Union was fairly socially progressive: it was after all the place where the Empire sent many “undesirable” people to “cleanse” its internal population, so it made sense there would be a lot of their causes championed institutionally in the Union. That by itself did not stop social prejudices, but it did mean the state would protect Murati’s rights. And it also meant she could end up leading a squadron that was so varied in gender expression and sexuality. As a bit of a social activist herself Murati was a champion of workplace diversity — even if Gunther might have been disappointed in her sidelining of some other workplace ethics.

Her pilot group looked very strong. She put a lot of faith in them.

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

Some of their history was a bit more complicated than Murati would have liked.

As a leader, however, she set aside those issues.

Her goal was to lead the people she had. To lead them to safety; to lead them to victory.

At 1200 hours Murati and her pilots finally convened in the hangar.

Even wearing the same uniform, they really did seem like an eclectic group.

“Welcome, comrades! I am Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara. I apologize for the idleness of the past few days, but I am pleased to formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron! Today we begin our mission to uncover, unite, train, and equip anti-imperialist forces in the Imbrium. This was a doctrine originally envisioned by our founder and first Premier, Daksha Kansal. We’ve had many difficulties as a nation since then, but the tide of history turns in our direction and the Union Navy is finally ready to do whatever it takes to seize victory! We have finally embarked on this historic mission, and I wouldn’t have any other crew but this one at my side. Let us work together to topple imperialism in our Oceans!”

Murati had spent some time in her books researching for her little speech.

To say Kansal created this doctrine was putting a heavy coat of paint on the events. She had insinuated in her Premiership speech that she wanted the Union to serve as a beacon for other revolutions in the Empire, and on more than one occasion believed the Empire would someday be split up by revolutions. When she ultimately left the Union, it was broadly believed that she did so in order to foment unrest in the Empire using the skills she gained during the revolution.

That being said, Murati was the only military and political history expert among the pilots.

So she thought it was a good way to get them thinking positively, if they knew no better.

After all, if Kansal had thought of it, then it wasn’t some random idea thought up yesterday.

Despite her passion, however, the response to the speech was a bit muted.

A blond Shimii woman among the pilots gave her an energetic clap and a big smile.

Next to her, a second Shimii started clapping slowly when the blond woman wouldn’t stop.

Shalikova averted her gaze.

Everyone else stood eyes forward with hands behind their backs like good soldiers.

Murati moved as fluidly as she could away from the subject.

“Now, I want each of you introduce yourselves to the group. It would be pretty frustrating to operate day to day without names, so let’s all become more familiar. I will go first and then I will select the rest of you to come up one by one. I’m Murati Nakara, I’m 29 years old. I piloted at Thassalid Trench, and before that, I did every odd job you can think of in the military. I really like electronic music and I actually played in a football club, so I’m going to push for us to get some nets down here sometime.”

She smiled at everyone, and a got a few small smiles in response, except from Shalikova.

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

There was an almost audible groan from Shalikova as she walked forward to join Murati.

Stiff and unsmiling, Shalikova turned reluctantly to face the rest of the squad. Murati had seen this unfriendly face before at Thassalid Trench. Shalikova was thin and pale, with long, white hair and wonderfully indigo eyes that really popped amid her pristine skin and girlish facial features. For some reason she had stopped wearing her jacket since they embarked on their journey. With the sleeveless TBT button-down, Murati could see her arms and shoulders had a bit of wiry, athletic definition to them.

“I’m Sonya Shalikova. I’m 23 years old. I also piloted at Thassalid Trench.”

Shalikova started to walk back and Murati gently tapped her on the shoulder to stop her.

“Do you have hobbies or interests Shalikova? Anything you want to go back home to?”

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

“I like hardbass music. And I like crafts. I like– making stuff. I made a bear once.”

“That’s great. Thank you Shalikova. I can have some supplies brought to you–”

Shalikova interrupted Murati. “It’s really not necessary. I’m going back to the line now.”

She returned to the lineup with a bit of desperation in her voice.

However instead of returning to the side of the blond Shimii woman, where she had once been standing, she conspicuously walked all the way to the other end of the line and stood there next to Aiden Ahwalia. Perhaps it had been because the Shimii had been making rather energetic gestures of support throughout Shalikova’s introduction and she did not want to be near her now.

“Well, alright.” Murati suppressed a laugh. “Next up is Lieutenant Khadija al-Shajara.”

Once more, the bubbly blond Shimii clapped her hands together.

She walked to the front with a long, graceful stride and took her place beside Murati.

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

“Hello darlings! As she said, I’m Khadija al-Shajara– ah, do I really have to say my age?”

Murati blinked, surprised. “Err, I suppose it’s not really necessary.”

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

Everything about Khadija seemed to shine brightly. She had a confident, foxy appearance, and her makeup was glamorous. Dark wine-colored eyeshadow; long black lashes; well-kept, slightly thick eyebrows; a rich, dark red color on her lips. She had a sophisticated air, more like an actress or a singer than a soldier. Her figure was more rounded off than Murati’s or Shalikova’s, but still plenty fit. Her natural Shimii features were charming enough on their own too, with her long, tapering ears and fluffy tail.

“Let’s forget about my age then. Let’s just say, I’m a woman in the prime of my life. I’ve been a Diver pilot longer than anyone among us, and I would love to see how all of you keep up with me in the ocean waters. As for my hobbies, I love board and card games, so if you ever want to lose a few social credits to a very beautiful gal, we could play some mahjong or poker.”

She winked at the other pilots with her hands crossed over her breast.

Murati had her official age in the roster, forty one, and she could see the gray in that voluminous and otherwise golden ponytail, and the hint of crow’s feet mostly hidden by her makeup. Khadija definitely wore her beret, nestled between her cat-like ears, to hide some of the gray where her hair parted. Murati found her little vanities charming. She could only hope she would look like Khadija did when she herself turned forty-one years old, after decades of intensive military service.

Maybe she would ask Khadija for her secrets some other time.

“Next, I’m calling on,” Murati paused briefly to look over the entire name before saying it. It was quite a mouthful. Like the name of the bridge officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa it was a combination of the mother’s and the father’s surnames. So it ended up being long and somewhat foreign to Murati: “Senior Ensign Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.”

“Ha ha! Oh my god– please just use al-Shahouh or Raisanen, not both, and not my Loup soulname.”

From beside Khadija, the other Shimii on the team walked forward with a serene smile.

“You want me to pick?” Murati said. “I guess I’ll use al-Shahouh.”

She shrugged as if amused by the decision. “Heh, do I look more Shimii than Loup then?”

Murati simply did not know enough about Loup to answer. Certainly, Sameera had the ears and the tail that resembled those of some kind of heritage mammal. Shimii ears had all kinds of shapes, so it was hard to tell whether Sameera’s tall and bristly ears were more cat-like or dog-like. Her tail was certainly a bit different. Most Shimii swayed their tails gently, but Sameera was wagging hers fast, and the shape had slightly clublike girth — maybe more like a dog. Who could say?

 Loup were a rare sight in the Union. By the numbers among the rarest ethnicities there. Many dissident Shimii were incarcerated and deported to the colonies that would become the Union by the Empire, starting over forty years ago, creating a significant population in the Nectaris ocean. Loup retained a privileged position among the minorities of the Imbrian Empire, and few were deported. Sameera’s roster entry listed her as biracial, both Loup and Shimii — a testament to the barriers that could be broken in the Union.

There was more to her than her ears and tail of course. Everything between them was quite distinctive.

With a sleek nose and a sharp jawline, a tall and lithe build and a confident, graceful demeanor, if Murati was “husband” material in women’s eyes, she felt Sameera would have been a trophy husband. With her brown hair tied in a long ponytail with messy bangs and her light, sand-brown skin completely unembellished, she had an earthy, handsome beauty that was easy on the eyes.

“I’m Sameera. Just call me Sameera or ‘Sam’ please. I’m 27 years old, and single.”

She did a cheeky little bow in front of everyone, with one arm crossed over her chest.

One of her ears did a little twitch. Her tail continued to wag excitedly.

“My previous piloting experience has actually all been Leviathan hunting. I was also the test pilot for that fancy new mech in the back there for a few months,” she pointed over her shoulder at the Cheka with a little grin on her face.

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

“As for my personal life, I like games, drinking, get-togethers, that kinda thing. I prefer being able to host a few friends, or maybe a single special someone.” She winked. Nobody reacted. “If I’m by myself, I like to do yoga actually.”

She walked back to the line of her own accord and stood between Khadija and another pilot, a colorful young Pelagis woman who briefly glared at her from the corner of her eyes. It just so happened that this was the next person Murati wanted to call.

“Thanks ‘Sam’. Maybe I’ll see you at the gym! Next, Ensign Dominika Rybolovskaya.”

Dominika wore a gloomy face as she walked to Murati’s side. That friendless expression, however, was framed with vibrant color. Her hair was a base of red with brown highlights, long and silky. There were black-striped strands of red that blended in with her hair but were actually cartilaginous pelagis fins. Her face looked soft, unblemished, and very uniformly pink, while her eyes were a bright pink with a blue limbal ring — unique and captivating. Her figure was almost as skinny as Shalikova’s. Curiously, Dominika wore the top three buttons of her shirt undone, exposing what looked like a series of tiny bumps of tissue running down her neck and presumably chest. Murati thought she saw a bit of a glow to them, but maybe it was just the lighting.

“I’m Dominika Rybolovskaya. If that’s too much of a mouthful you can call me Nika, but I’d prefer you don’t. I’m 25 years old. I was in the border troops along Campos and the ice frontier. I like target practice, archery, knife throwing. Anything with a target, I’ll be able to hit it.” She briefly and mysteriously sighed. “I guess I also like yoga– Don’t get your hopes up!”

Dominika was so quick that Sameera went from sudden elation to being put down into the ground in an instant.

“Um, thanks, Dominika.” Murati said. She opted to not acknowledge Sameera at all.

Notably, however, Dominika returned to Sameera’s side defiantly, without trying to avoid her but also without giving her any attention. She averted her gaze and Sameera stayed quiet. Khadija, to the right of both, looked between them with growing delight in her eyes. Shalikova stared dead straight at Murati, or maybe even past her, unwilling to acknowledge the rest of them.

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

There were two members of the squadron left to introduce, and one was listed as a reserve for rather dire reasons, so Murati did not have to think much about who she would call next. It was the one nonbinary member of the roster.

“Next to step forward will be Ensign Valya Lebedova. Gender neutral pronouns, correct?”

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

Valya’s voice trembled just a little as they stepped forward in front of everyone.

They pushed their glasses up the bridge of their nose and held their hands behind their back.

“I’m Valya Lebedova. I’m 26 years old. I identify as nonbinary, um, thanks to everyone for respecting this.”

They bowed their head a little bit, their bangs briefly obscuring their gentle, demure face.

Valya took a rather guarded stance as they stood up in front of the squadron, their slight, curvy frame shaking from the knees up. They had a small nose and thin lips with a gentle expression, their face framed and partially hidden by messy, neck-length salmon-colored hair. Their long, straight bangs swept to the right side of their face, with one bright green eye peeking out. From what Murati could see, it was a stylistic choice — not covering up any kind of mysterious scars or anything so stereotypical. They wore the TBT pants and half-jacket uniform, all buttoned up over a dark blue bodysuit, quite tidy, with no customization.

“I’ve only had simulator experience, but um, my performance in the simulator was used to program the Veteran level OPFOR. So you may have actually fought against me in training. I really enjoyed simulator work but I was called on to join the team here, so I couldn’t really say no! Um, for my personal life, I like computers, programming, tinkering with stuff. I know how to solder!”

Their last words escaped them like an anxious gasp. Their cheeks flushed lightly.

“Thank you, Valya; relax, you’re among friends!” Murati said.

Finally, Murati got to the last name she wanted to speak about on the roster.

Not knowing what to expect, good or bad, she drew in a breath and prepared herself.

“Last but not least, our reserve team member, the cadet Aiden Ahwalia.”

Valya, Khadija, and Dominika all turned to face Aiden when his name was spoken.

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

Murati nearly cringed. She had really hoped to avoid things like this.

Aiden looked a little annoyed, but he walked forward with his head held high. He was a thin, athletic, smooth-faced young man with long, tidy black hair, tied into a short ponytail. His bright red eyes stood out more in contrast with his dark brown skin. His expressions and movements conveyed a bit of arrogance, and it only made him look more like a kid putting on airs. Even compared to Shalikova or Valya who had somewhat similar height and figure to him, and were not much older, he looked somewhat babyfaced and far too young to be among them.

“I’m Aiden Ahwalia. You all know my family, from the looks on your faces, so I won’t need to explain it. I’m 19 years old. I completed my initial enlistment like everyone else. I scored highest in the simulator against the Valya-level program out of any cadets in my class.” He put on a little grin. “My outstanding scores and performance are why I’m here. I want to represent my family and restore our standing. You all probably hold it against it me, but to be frank I don’t believe we deserve–”

“You’re doing nothing but taking up space here, you brat.” Khadija butted in.

 Aiden’s outrage was immediate. Almost as if he had been ready to put on that face.

“Hey, nobody else got interrupted! You see what I’m talking about here?”

Aiden looked to Murati for support, but Khadija quickly continued to argument.

“I interrupted because you’re talking a load of shit. Like your god damned father–”

Khadija turned and poked her finger right into Aiden’s chest accusingly.

“Everyone, calm down!” Murati raised her voice. While she did not like Aiden’s attitude, she did not want this to escalate further. Khadija really looked ready to beat him up — and capable of it. “The Captain approved of him coming aboard, and I’m responsible for him. It won’t be a problem unless we all collectively make it a problem, so please, just treat him professionally.” 

“I have no problem with anyone but him. I’m probably not the only one.” Khadija said.

“I know where you’re coming from.” Valya replied. “But Lieutenant Nakara is right.”

“We must listen to the commander.” Dominika said, arms crossed and head down.

“I agree, let’s just relax. Why don’t I treat you later, Lieutenant al-Shajara?”

Sameera tried to sweet-talk Khadija, but the older woman was clearly not in the mood.

“I apologize, Nakara. Please continue. I would like permission to retire for the day after assignments.”

“Permission granted. Aiden, come talk to me after I finish the assignments.”

Murati looked down at Aiden at her side. She nodded, directing him to leave.

He crossed his arms and returned to the line of pilots in a huff.

Now that everyone was introduced, the final official step in establishing the squadron was the assignments. Khadija would have known that — she was a veteran who had been through several missions already. Union Divers worked in pairs, often two to three pairs per squadron. Working as a pair gave everyone in the squadron a buddy to rely upon. Pairs were more resilient than individuals and gave the squadron more flexibility. Originally the Brigand had five Divers with two reserves, but Murati successfully lobbied the Captain for Valya to become a full member.

“I’ll start giving the pair assignments. This will be short for today, but we’ll flesh out our roles and capabilities more in the coming days, when we really start training and when we will be expected to be on call 24/7 as part of the ship’s combat power.” Murati said. “First off, the flanking unit will consist of myself in the Cheka alongside Ensign Shalikova in the Strelok ‘I-bis.’”

Murati looked to Shalikova with a big, happy smile that was not returned in the slightest.

“Ok.” Not even a ‘looking forward to working with you’ or anything of the sort.

Hopefully, that withdrawn attitude was something they could work on together.

“Next, our breakthrough firepower unit will consist of Ensign al-Shahouh in the Strelok C.Q.C. ‘Cossack’ and Ensign Rybolovskaya in the Strelkannon ‘Modular Weapons Platform.’”

Sameera turned cheerfully to Dominika for acknowledgment. Dominika turned her cheek.

Clearly the assignments Murati had made on paper would need some work in practice.

“Lieutenant al-Shajara and Ensign Lebedova will pilot Streloks in our support unit.”

Khadija walked over to Valya and gave them a friendly squeeze on the shoulder that took the latter by surprise. Valya nearly jumped, and then tried to smile at Khadija to play it off. No sooner had the Shimii’s hand lifted off her assigned enby’s shoulder than Khadija took off casually toward the hangar elevator, wanting to leave the hangar as soon as possible. Murati sighed.

“Finally, Cadet Ahwalia will be in reserve. Everyone is dismissed for the day. At ease.”

As soon as they were released, the pilots wandered away. Shalikova waited for everyone else to take the elevator first; Valya headed toward their Strelok’s gantry to inspect it; Dominika found herself closely followed by Sameera who was quiet but had a cheeky expression as she quite clearly and obviously shadowed her partner but pretended to be merely going her own way.

Murati, meanwhile signaled for Aiden to come forward to talk to her. She whispered:

“I don’t care who your family is. I won’t judge you or protect you for it. Next time you get a rise out of anyone, it will be up to Akulantova to get the boots off your face, because I won’t.”

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


Previous ~ Next

First Blood (52.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


 

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges IX

This chapter contains bigoted words used in a fit of self-loathing by a character, against herself; it also contains violence, and familial abuse and manipulation. 


37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

After an agonizingly tense dinner with the queen and her maiden, Salvatrice retreated to a room set aside far in advance. It was a room that she had perhaps been meant to stay in several times, but those visits never came to pass. Decorated pastel pink, it was larger than her apartment at the academy, containing a bedroom, a living room, and a small study.

In place of the kitchen there was a massive wardrobe.

Salvatrice ran her fingers across the hundreds of outfits in her size that hung from the long racks across the musty wooden room. There were plaques with her name emblazoned on them everywhere. Their presence disturbed her. ‘Salvatrice’s shoes;’ Salvatrice’s hats.’ It was eerie, like staring at a not-quite-right reflection in the mirror; or another world.

Was there a Salvatrice somewhere who had been enjoying these goods?

There were dresses, beautiful, ornate, gilded and silver in the same fashion as her mother’s clothing. They made her fine silks look humble. There were all manner of sporting outfits befitting an active young woman. A rider’s uniform with a crop; a duelist’s coat and pants, paired with a crystalline blue sabre; a modern tennis uniform with a skirt. There were fur coats, so many that it almost seemed like a zoo had been depopulated to furnish them.

Hats, seemingly hundreds, in every conceivable style and every acceptable color.

Enough shoes to equip every fashionable girl at the Academy, lined the walls.

Salvatrice picked up one of the uniforms and pressed it against her chest. It seemed surprisingly well tailored to her slender and petite shape, as well as her height and the length of her limbs. She reasoned that she could put on any of these and it would fit.

She also reasoned that the spying she suffered was more intrusive than she thought.

Behind her, Byanca Geta panned across the room in silent awe, staring at all the coats and the various hats, the numerous shawls and fox-tail scarves and other accessories.

She picked up the sword and examined it briefly. “Do you know how to use this?”

“I took lessons as a teenager. But that was some time ago.” Salvatrice replied.

“Ms. Mariel told me the Queen practices every night. I guess she wanted to share her hobby with you; maybe you can spar with her some time.” Byanca amicably said.

This remark Salvatrice ignored. She examined the furs along the rack instead.

“Salva, how many paychecks do I have to save to get a place like this?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. She was too absorbed in the room to take offense at her bodyguard’s familiarity. “Infinite paychecks. You can’t buy something like this. It’s something that can only be granted or stolen. It’s a privilege of power.” She said bitterly.

She spread her fingers and allowed a beautiful mink shawl to fall to the floor. It was despicable, to think that through all her sufferings the Queen was collecting all of these expensive things in this room. What was the purpose of it? Did stocking Salvatrice’s future room provide enough stimulation to replace Salvatrice’s actual presence in it? Did she consider herself a great providing mother for stuffing an unused closet full of silk?

Salvatrice stormed out of the wardrobe in disgust, slamming the door behind her.

Byanca then opened the door again, letting herself out, and slammed it behind her.

Every room was lavishly furnished. It felt like a crime to sit in the plush living room seats, gathered around a television set the size of a bed and with just as much wood around its screen, along with a radio set and jukebox loaded with a massive stack of shellac records. There was a pearl coffee table upon which a jade tea set had been left. Salvatrice absent-mindedly touched the pot, and recoiled; it was still hot, and there was warm tea inside.

“For all the trouble they went through, they didn’t leave any biscuits.” Byanca said.

Salvatrice shot her a dirty look, and Byanca sank into her couch in response.

“What are we going to do now?” asked the Centurion.

“I do not know.” Salvatrice said. “I was not planning to stay more than a few days.”

“But it feels like we’re trapped, doesn’t it? There’s an oppressive atmosphere.”

The princess deeply shared her Centurion’s feelings. She thought she felt them much more acutely. These walls felt as if built to keep her trapped. This was not a cage for Byanca.

From the first brick these walls had been made to contain Princess Salvatrice Vittoria, the future Queen Vittoria II. However much Byanca must have felt her freedom curtailed by the etiquette, the stuffy atmosphere, the imbalance of power between the royals and herself, a lowly soldier in the Palazzo; Salvatrice felt those bonds strangling her with tenfold strength. Byanca was beneath their notice; but all their covetous eyes were on Salvatrice.

In this palace her wings were destined to be clipped.

But she was also keenly aware of her mother’s designs.

For the moment, they guaranteed some measure of freedom.

“She will release us. She needs me outside the walls to complete her plot.”

“Plot?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice felt her breathing momentarily quicken.

Just thinking about the near future gave her terrible anxiety.

“I’ve become bait, to lure out the leader of the so-called anarchists.” She said.

Byanca opened her eyes wide and sat up straighter.

“THAT’S what you two talked about?”

Salvatrice bowed her head, her shaking fingers tightly gripping her skirt. “My sister was exiled to a nunnery for participating in a plot to kill my mother and usurp her. That is the reason why I’m the First Princess now. Her co-conspirator can no longer get to my mother, now that my sister’s intentions are in the open. But he can get to me.”

She could see her bodyguard’s heart sinking. Her torment was plain on her face.

“I thought I was prepared to hear something unpleasant, but this is too much.”

Salvatrice almost felt comforted by Byanca’s sympathy. Were it not for the string of torments she suffered the past day she would have felt tender enough for an embrace.

“Salva, this is too dangerous. You must protest this! Not only does it put you in peril, it could turn the academy itself into a battleground! These people have bombed buildings before, they’ve driven trucks through gates, they’ve shot up police stations midday. They will not bat an eyelash at gunning down the academy to get to you. Your mother has gone mad!”

In her despair, this was an angle that Salvatrice had not considered. She had been focused inward; on the danger to herself, now that her mother relaxed her security and revealed her intentions. Everyone suspected she would be a target, and she believed it now; but her surroundings would be just as much a target on any attack targeted at her.

She envisioned a car bomb going off at the Academy gate, the same as on that night at the Previte estate, pursuing its vengeance regardless of who might become involved.

How many innocent young women would die alongside her then? Women like the late Lady Mina, gunned down mere meters away fom her? She felt a wave of helplessness, like a cascade rushing down her shoulders and weighing her down on the couch.

She licked her lips absentmindedly, having no words to offer.

“Princess, let’s go after the Queen right now! We can’t just give up!”0

Byanca stood up to punctuate her insistence.

Salvatrice, however, felt only weariness.

“Please stop being so loud.” Salvatrice moaned. “Turn on the radio.”

The Centurion stared as the princess gave a dismissive wave of the hand.

Defeated, Byanca bowed her head and ambled stiffly to the radio, turning the knob. From the speakers blared crackling noise and a chaotic mixture of voices, changing with every millimeter turn of the frequency switch. Once Byanca let go of the knob the wailing settled into the calm, baritone voice of a popular opera singer.

She returned to her chair and took a sip of tea. Under the heart-wrenching melodies of betrayal and bitter destiny that characterized this opera, Byanca drank in silence, alone. Salvatrice did not touch her tea. Cozzi was such a horrible thing to have to listen to; Salvatrice almost wanted to throw her cup of tea at the radio in the hopes of a short-circuit. But she felt so weak and beaten that she did not manage to do anything.

In his handsome voice, the male lead sang of the two sisters, both beautiful and wealthy. Though his courtship should have been directed at the eldest, his eyes wandered to the youngest, and there was all manner of acrimony as lust destroyed them.

A despicable tale of women swooning and dying, and rapacious, pathetic men.

Not the type of man nor the type of woman Salvatrice would ever want to be.

“Could you change the frequency? Put it on Cybelle.” She said.

Nodding her head, Byanca put down her cup, stood, and twisted the knob again.

For a second the voices mixed again before settling on the awkward speech of an older woman, slowly enunciating the winning numbers for a small lottery. After this, she began to discuss the local weather for the week. Though far less dramatic, Cybelle was a reliable news station with round-the-clock programming. It was a sweet background nothingness. But the sting of Cozzi’s warring sisters lingered in her mind. It made her think.

Salvatrice wondered whether, trapped in that nunnery, her sister hated her.

She wondered whether things could have been different had Clarissa succeeded.

Had her sister taken power, what would have become of Salvatrice Vittoria? They were only half-related by blood, each created by vastly different fathers. They had little contact over the intervening years. Certainly no familiarity bound them to each other. Would she have gotten rid of Salvatrice? Would she have hid her like an embarassment, in the way her mother did? Would she have set her free after taking her mother’s head?

Shaking her head, Salvatrice brought herself out of her thoughts in time for the news.

“At the top of the hour, we’ve got an update on a breaking story from earlier in the day. Agents of the Queen’s Coorte 17th Legion have reportedly carried out a wave of highly successful arrests aimed at suspected terrorists around the Palladi region.”

Byanca raised her head from the tea. Salvatrice felt her body tense.

“This operation became possible after a Coorte agent captured an insurgent after a shooting at the Pallas Academy where one student was killed and several injured. The 17th Legion took the man into custody and extracted information which then led to several more arrests in and around the Palladi region. The 17th Legion has also confirmed that they have captured the ringleader responsible for planning the attack on the Previte estate, the grenade attacks in Ikrea and the shooting at the Academy, along with numerous cohorts.”

Though a more credulous person would have felt relief, Salvatrice immediately thought that something had to be wrong here. She turned to Byanca, silently demanding an explanation.

“It’s impossible; a minion like him wouldn’t have known any important anarchists.” Byanca said. “I interrogated him myself. He was in hysterics. Nothing from him is credible.”

Salvatrice turned again to the radio as the news-woman continued to speak.

“The 17th Legion has published a list of names of those arrested. Should you have any further information on these men, you are advised to visit the legionary office immediately.”

Calmly the woman began to read the names on the air.

Byanca’s eyes drew wide and her jaw hung, her lips spread. Her fingers shook.

Each name seemed to knock her words further down the throat.

Only once the full list had been read did Byanca find the strength to speak again.

“Those are all people connected to my investigation.” She said, her voice quivering.

“Why would they be arrested?” Salvatrice demanded.

“I don’t know! They’re all pub crawlers and poets and beatniks. Some of them might write bawdy lyrics about the Queen but none of them have the spine to throw a bomb!”

“So then you’re telling me that everyone who testified that they were friends with the shooter has been falsely rounded up as an anarchist?” Salvatrice shouted back.

Byanca clenched her fists. She bowed her head in disgust.

“Not just those who testified. There are names on there that I just got from people, but never managed to interview. It’s practically everyone who had any tenuous link.”

Salvatrice covered her mouth with her hand, not knowing what to think or feel.

Over their silence the broadcast continued in a cheery tone.

“17th Legion Legatus Marcel has gone on record as saying that owing to the swift capture of the perpetrators, enhanced security around the Palladi region will be relaxed. To quote him: ‘citizens of Lubon should sleep soundly and walk proudly, knowing their land is now safe.'”

That was it; the final piece slid into place. She was bait and this was the lure shaking in the water. Now that the anarchists had been “caught” everyone could rest easily.

Especially the real anarchists, who would soon catch on to the fabricated blunder.

Innocents sacrificed to enable the princess’ own sacrifice. God save the Queen.

Her heart burning with rage, Salvatrice thrust to a stand and stormed away from the couch and into the hated wardrobe, so fast Byanca nearly tripped with surprise trying to follow her. Inside the wardrobe she ripped the duelist’s uniform from the racks and drew the saber from its sheathe. She swung it once, testing its weight and her own strength.

Laying eyes on the weapon, Byanca held out a shaking hand in defense.

“Princesss, please calm down.” She pleaded.

Over her shoulder, Salvatrice laid a fiery gaze on the Centurion.

“Help me out of this dress.” She ordered.


Perhaps it was a ballroom on certain nights, with a chandelier like a blossom of glass hanging over the dancers. Certainly the piano was still in the corner, and could have been played. On the wooden floor the tapping steps struck with quick sounds that then echoed across the high ceiling and broad walls. Tonight, however, Queen Vittoria was not dancing.

Instead her steps took her closer and father from an invisible opponent, a shadow, that she fought with an ornate saber. Quick lunges and careless sweeps sliced the air. A subtle rush of noise accompanied each swing. In her dueling uniform the Queen had an entirely different air from the tantalizing, extravagant clothing she often wore.

She was covered up to her neck in a purple jacket, and dark pants. Her hair was collected in a simple ponytail. As she swung and stepped, practicing her stances, the Queen looked almost rugged. Alone in this grand stage, the Queen seemed to be in her own far-off world. There were no guards, no servants, just the fairy queen, and the swirling air around her.

Salvatrice spied her from afar as she traversed the long connecting hallway.

She was almost a mirror to her mother then, dressed in a duelist’s jacket and pants herself. Her own hair, shorter than her mother’s, was instead clipped behind her head.

Nevertheless, she thought they must have looked keenly alike. Perhaps everything in that wardrobe was meant to make her more a picture of her mother, in all her forms.

Even when dressed in a more masculine fashion.

Bloodthirst as ancient as the uniform and blade directed the Princess then.

Saber in hand, Salvatrice made to walk into the room, when a hand seized her shoulder.

Behind her, Lillith Mariel appeared suddenly and seemingly without a door.

At her side there were only paintings and stone.

Salvatrice did not see her coming.

She had perhaps been waiting in ambush in a niche, like a counter-assassin.

“Your mother does not wish to be disturbed.” She said sternly. “I will not ask why you take a weapon to her presence if you surrender it to me and turn back around now.”

Salvatrice glanced side-long at the maid with a snarl on her face.

She did not stop walking, and she had no intention to surrender anything.

“Byanca, get her out of my way.” She commanded.

From farther down the hall, the dutiful servant dashed into action.

In a moment, the Centurion approached and quickly seized the older maid by the arms, ripping her from Salvatrice’s presence and pulling her kicking and cursing back into the long hall behind them. The Princess strode confidently into the ballroom, her saber swaying casually in the air as she walked, her steps light, imperious, entering the Queen’s stage.

Behind her the maid and Centurion struggled in each other’s arms.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Mariel, but please stay out of this!” Byanca gently said, trying to hold down the Queen’s maid. Though the woman periodically thrashed, the Centurion seemed to have her well in hand, maneuvering behind and then taking her by the shoulders.

“You’re the one who will be sorry.” Lillith replied.

Though Byanca was well younger, Lillith was a woman not yet old in spirit.

Byanca seemed to take note of the woman’s zeal far too late.

She threw herself back suddenly, butting Byanca’s nose with the back of her head. In shock, the Centurion released the maid, who followed the assault with a sweep of her feet that knocked Byanca to the floor. Spinning around, the maid started down the hall, but Byanca had presence enough to leap after her shoes, seizing her and bringing her to the floor too.

Salvatrice ignored the scuffle and approached the center of the room.

Ringed by the gilded lines on the floor and by the chandelier above, the Princess stopped, and unsheathed her sword. The sliding of metal finally caught the Queen’s attention.

As if awakening to reality, the Queen half-turned to meet the new arrival.

She stared incredulously at her daughter.

There was one instant of panic on her face before her composure returned.

“Surprised?” Salvatrice said, a savage grin on her face.

“I arranged for the lessons, so I’m not completely surprised.” Vittoria said.

Perhaps for a moment she had thought this an assassination, but she no longer seemed to fear. Salvatrice was perplexed; did she not consider her a threat? What was going through her head now? Salvatrice had a weapon in hand, and they were all alone in here.

“Before I departed, I thought I’d show you the fruit of that labor.” She said.

Vittoria shook her head. “I am not in the habit of sparring at my age.”

“Do you fear twisting something tender, mother?” Salvatrice cockily replied.

“Yes. But something of yours rather, not mine.” The Queen calmly said.

Her demeanor was infuriating. Salvatrice wanted the panic in her eyes back.

“So you’ll deign to strike this misbehaving child then?” Salvatrice shouted.

“I will not strike you, Salvatrice.” Vittoria said, ignoring the outburst.

Salvatrice held up her blade and sized up her opponent. Her mother had her children young. Salvatrice was only a few years older than Clarissa, and only just pushed into her twenties. Vittoria was hardly of age when she first bore a child. Even though she saw both her children come of age, the Queen had not yet reached her fifties. She was sprightly and healthy and youthful not just for a woman her age but for a woman in general.

Still, that was only the skin. There was more to the body than that.

Salvatrice was less than half her age, and though her own constitution was poor, she was decently rested, and she felt the adrenaline and anger course through her veins. It might have been the fire of youth, but she thought she had an advantage on her mother.

She might not best the Queen but she could hurt her; and she so terribly desired to inflict pain on her mother at that moment. All she wanted was to lay sword on the Queen, whatever she hit, whatever it took. Whether it cut a cheek or sliced an eye, whether it grazed or killed. Salvatrice was seeing so red that any outcome would feel just.

Soon as Vittoria began to raise her sword, Salvatrice lunged forward.

Hoping to disarm her mother while her blade was still low and off-balance, she struck down upon the body of the opposing weapon with all of her strength. She felt her blow deflect off the flat of the Queen’s saber, hastily turned and held firm against the attack.

After the contact the blades suddenly separated, and the Queen stepped back and fully formed her guard. Salvatrice brought up her own blade to defend as well.

For the Queen to have avoided dropping that sword, she must have had a monstrous wrist. Salvatrice already felt an aching across her arms and back after only one swing.

“I take up the saber to relieve stress. There is no point in this for me.” Vittoria said.

“It is a relief for me!” shouted the Princess. “Hitting you is a great relief!”

Salvatrice stepped forward and swung her arms in a fury, striking her mother’s raised blade over and over. She felt as if striking glass, as if battering down an effigy. She pounded her saber against her mother’s guard, driving the Queen back step by step.

Mindlessly Salvatrice beat at the blade until her arms were raw from the savage outburst. Looking up she found her mother’s calm visage behind the blade and grit her teeth.

“I hate you!” Salvatrice shouted at her. She swung her sword again, smashing the blade like a metal bar against the iron wall before her. “I hate you!” She shouted, dividing the words among blows, repeated again and again, while her arms shook and her face glistened. She tasted fluid salt seeping down her lips from her brow, from her eyes.

With a mad grimace, the raging Princess switched from a battering downward swing to a sudden sideways sweep. Blood drew from the Queen’s hand as she was surprised by the new attack. Her blade fell to the ground, and she staggered back, holding her injured hand. Now there was not only red in Salvatrice’s eyes, but in the air and on the floor.

Gasping for breath, trapped in the throes of sadness and hate, Salvatrice threw her own blade to the floor and charged her mother with her arms out and brought her to the ground. They grappled beside the fallen swords, Vittoria pushing her away but never shoving, nor kicking, or putting up much fight. Salvatrice quickly gained an advantage.

With a closed fist she struck her mother in the eye and pinned her face-up on the floor.

Laying over the Queen, Salvatrice dug her fingers into her mother’s neck and squeezed.

“What do you think of me now?” She shouted. “What do you think of your half-elf androgyne freak child? Are you happy now to be getting rid of me once and for all?”

The Queen’s stony expression resisted admirably the physical pain she must have felt.

Tears drew from the Princess’ eyes as she savaged her mother.

“What do you hide behind that mask of yours? Tell me you hate me already!”

Salvatrice lifted her mother’s head and thrust her down against the hard floor.

Vittoria briefly winced. Her own eyes reddened, and voicelessly, she wept.

But her expression did not change. Beyond the merest and most basically necessary expressions of pain, the Queen had no emotion for Salvatrice, no dramatic reaction to her attack. She merely lay, weeping, coughing and choking, as though prepared to die.

Staring deep into those moist, bleak green eyes Salvatrice felt her grip slacken.

Failing to draw any reciprocal reaction, the fire in her breast burnt out.

Her curled fingers shook and shrank back from the marks left on the Queen’s flesh.

Salvatrice stood from the floor, stunned, shaking. Without the rage driving her, she was bereft of mind and memory. For a moment she almost wondered where she was, but it all hit her again in the next instant. She felt a fear that shuddered in her chest like a crawling worm, sinking deeper in. She doubled over suddenly, sick to her stomach.

She had failed again; she had done nothing that mattered.

In front of her, Queen Vittoria stood. Her eyes were still stained red, bloodshot and tearful, but the empty expression on her lips remained. Fluid dribbled from her nose, and she coughed periodically, struggling to regain her breath after Salvatrice’s attack.

“I do not hate you.” Vittoria slowly said, as her voice returned.

Her voice was so imperious that Salvatrice was again left speechless in her presence.

“You are the child I chose, Salvatrice.” She continued. Her words sounded almost heartfelt. “I could never hate you. Even if you hate me; even if you kill me.”

Salvatrice’s lip quivered. She reached for words, and found, hearing her mother’s voice, another brief burst of violence inside her. “Shut up! How could I ever believe that? I was treating as nothing but an embarrassment to you! You kept Clarissa and discarded me!”

Vittoria shook her head. “Clarissa was but an imposition of this place! I am your Mother, more than I am anyone else’s Mother! Your birth sex does not and has never mattered to me. Your blood does not and has never mattered to me. From the moment you were born, you were my treasure. In unfavorable circumstances I did everything for your better–”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Salvatrice shouted. Her own voice was losing its power. “You say all these things to get into my head! I know you mean none of them! You’re just using me!”

“We are both being used to further this Crown.” Vittoria said. “Because without it, I cannot survive, and neither can you. I am doing all of this so we can survive. You might not understand my methods, but you must believe my motive.” She took a step.

Extending her bloody hand, Vittoria caressed Salvatrice’s cheek.

Upon it she left a spatter of red upon the light brown flesh.

“You are my beautiful daughter, the most beautiful, wonderful, special child that any mother in this land could have. Everything I have done, I have done for you.”

Salvatrice drew back, her expression blank save for a nervous twitch along her cheek. She was shaking, though her back was ramrod straight. Where the blood had spattered her jaw shuddered and ached. Her mind was in chaos, and she knew not what to do.

In front of her, Vittoria knelt down and picked up Salvatrice’s saber.

“I respect you, Salvatrice, more than you know. It is because I respect you, because I believe in you, that I am pushing you to take charge of our current predicaments. However, if your ambitions have grown this much, I am willing to step aside. Here, my daughter.”

She pointed the blade between her breasts and pushed the handle toward Salvatrice.

“Under this crown, everything you hold dear will be in jeopardy. If you believe you can resist it better than I, and that you can shoulder this cursed Kingdom, slay me and take it. Nobody will retaliate against you. I will make your designs reality if you desire them. But be forewarned: the moment I draw my last breath, so will you. Salvatrice Vittoria will die and this crown will take her place. No matter how much I struggled against it, I am nothing but this crown in the end. It will always win. Over you and over me. I pray that the legends about your third sex are true: that you possess the will of a woman with the endurance of a man.”

Again she pushed forward, blade against breast, the handle out to the Princess.

“You will not be punished for ambition as Clarissa was. If you hate me, then kill me.”

Vittoria took another step, and once more Salvatrice drew back from her, horrified.

“Whether today or within decades, you are going to carry this weight.” She said. “Because I love you, because I respect you; I will honor whatever you decide, my daughter.”

Weight; the word echoed within all of Salvatrice’s being, tearing her apart from inside.

Salvatrice reached for the handle, seized it– and threw the sword down on the ground.

There was a sudden and agonizing lapse in her murderous desires, and just as sudden an all-encompassing fear of the gravity surrounding her mother’s presence. As if witnessing a walking ghost, Salvatrice turned from the Queen and fled blindly back down the hall, past the brawling Centurion and maid, past a pair of confused guards, past torches and doorways and stone and banners, not knowing where she was headed, running without end.

Into the labyrinth of the palace, and her own mind, she fled screaming.


38th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

“How is the tea?”

“It is fair, dear mother.”

“Only fair? It appears Lillith will never enter your heart as she did mine.”

“Oh ho ho! I have no designs to that extent. I’ve a royal already.”

“Of course. I would not tolerate my dear maid stolen from me.”

“I would never steal from my own mother. It would mean falling quite low.”

Byanca stared quietly at the trio with a skeptical expression.

Salvatrice drank her black tea in delicate sips with a demure expression. Her depature dress was a bit more extravagant than those of the past two days, with pink lace that nearly matched the color of her hair, and an open back. She had been surprised to find it among her things in the morning. Byanca supposed Canelle packed it a bit too well. A pity she could not have worn it to the dinner instead, the better to match her mother’s fashion.

She looked quite flashy. Her face was fully made up, with a brush of light gold pigment on her lips, and red shadow over her eyes. Her light figure was well represented.

Across the table, Vittoria was, in turn, rather modestly dressed. Her long sleeves and shaped skirt showed no skin save for her neck and some collarbone. Scrunchy lace and frills decorated the end of a fluffy shawl. A lacy white choker matched the bandage around her black eye and over her injured hand. It covered the marks Salvatrice had left on her neck.

Like her daughter, she was nicely made-up and appeared in decent spirits. A small smile played over her lips as she and her maid made polite chatter. Byanca could have confused her for a gentle, doting older mother, had she not had so much prior cause for skepticism.

There was quite a spread on the table. Tea, biscuits, grapes, honey cheeses, in beautifully garnished plates. The Centurion tasted the food and was nearly moved to tears. Byanca turned to Lillith with a special regret, in light of how delicious the honey cheese turned out.

There were visible marks on the maid’s exposed neck and shoulders, and a scratch across her cheek, all where Byanca had beaten and banged and otherwise manhandled her. It had been all she could do to keep the woman trapped in melee and a way from the royals. That maid had proven too tough an opponent the night before. Had she decided to fight instead of trying to run, Byanca was sure she would have been beaten to a pulp by her.

Lillith seemed to notice the attention, and shook her head with a smile on her face.

“You look tense, Centurion. Drink your tea and take in the lightness of things.”

Byanca couldn’t understand how after everything that happened the night before, they could gather in the morning for tea as if they were a family. She was sure, though perhaps it had all been a dream, that Salvatrice had tried to kill the Queen last night. She remembered returning to Salvatrice’s room and finding it locked, after she had run away. Only God knew; perhaps the Queen had just tripped and hurt herself. Maybe Salvatrice wasn’t screaming her lungs off all night. Who knew; who knew? Byanca sighed helplessly and sipped her tea.

At around noon, the Princess and her Centurion had gathered their things and were once more ready to depart the grand Palazzo. At the outer gates, back into the city, the Queen herself rode out on a sleek white horse to bid her daughter adieu. From inside the car, Salvatrice waved her goodbyes to her mother, and their driver took them into the city and out into the country once more. Back to the familiar setting of the Messianic Academy.

Salvatrice stared glumly out the windows, holding her head up by one hand. Though the landscape scrolled by them as beautiful as it always was, she seemed as if she were staring through it or past it, into a world for her eyes only. She was not taking in the sights.

Byanca sat back in the car, feeling restless from the silence.

“Got anything in mind, Princess?” She asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. “I’m going to take care of some things first, to clear my head. Then we will take care of all of this. I’m going to need your help more than ever.”

The Centurion nodded her head, satisfied with the response.

In fact, she felt a bit happy that the Princess was going to rely on her.

But she could not keep her mind off the past night’s events. She had to speak.

“Salva, about your mother–”

“That never happened.” Salvatrice replied.

Byanca nodded her head again. At least it was some kind of acknowledgment.

“Do you really hate her?” She asked.

Without turning her head, Salvatrice spoke in a dull tone of voice.

“I hate her. But right now, I need her. I will find a solution.”

For the rest of the journey, the Princess was silent, staring out the window.

However, Byanca felt no tension from her. She was either determined, or resigned.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The 1st Day Of Training (38.1)


46th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“Welcome, noble and brave soldiers of the Bada Aso Regiment! I am Inspector General Chinedu Kimani, and henceforth I will personally oversee your training!”

Underneath the searing eye of Rangda’s noon sky there was a mass movement of people in the 8th Division Garrison, the likes of which the empty plots of land on the base’s northern side had not seen since before the Demilitarization act. Assembled between foundation outlines hidden in sparsely grassy land, standing unknowingly over floor plans that had been smashed, and now reclaimed by the soft brown dirt, several hundreds of soldiers stood in rapt attention as a tall woman in a flashy red and black uniform hailed them.

“The Battle of Bada Aso is over! We were victorious; my precious comrades, you have accomplished many feats! However, we must wipe that slate clean! There are new, greater victories to reap, and to do so, we must all take hard steps beyond Adjar’s border.”

Many a fighter had glanced at or heard of Kimani in the past, but for most this was their first time coming face to face with one of the major commanding voices in their unit. She was an impressive sight — taller than any of them, black skinned, with dark, curly hair to mid-neck level and sleek, striking features. A hint of crow’s feet around her eyes was rendered visible only by the glistening of sweat crawling down her forehead, cheek and jaw under the hot Rangdan sun. She had an air of strength and exuded professionalism; a real soldier.

“Doubtless many of you have received basic training in your firearms and grenades, in first aid, in rudimentary battle tactics. Doubtless, all of you survived Bada Aso, and have seen and fought our enemy first-hand. Yet, regardless of your ranks, and your merits, for the next week, every man and woman in front of me is once more a green Private!” She said.

Behind her a fleet of nurses, construction workers, and computers labored to set up examination tents, establish medical stations and assemble tables behind which documents of all kinds would be handed out and filled for the records staff to archive. Preliminary tests would be conducted, and information collated to help Colonel Nakar and Inspector General Kimani understand just who it was that they would lead to battle.

“Nobody can diminish your struggles, nor the sacrifices you and your comrades have made. Your past has honed you into a blade. That you stand before me, means you have been drawn from your sheathe to do battle. But right now, though you desire to cut the enemy, your edge must labor to draw their blood. It is my duty to start sharpening you, so the same cuts you dealt in Bada Aso will do more than draw blood. They will slice Nocht to pieces!”

She spoke in a strong and serious voice, and even when she raised her pitch, her affect was subtle. The Inspector General always seemed to speak in a tone both calm and intense.

Her declarations moved through the hundreds of men and women in the crowd like a wave. Everyone stood straighter and tighter when they felt her eyes over them and quivered when they heard her her voice. In their green uniforms, stripped of whatever rank markings they earned in Bada Aso, the troops of the 1st Battalion of the Askari Motor Rifle Regiment “Bada Aso” watched her every move with tense attention, and a brimming of unused energy.

In the same field where the 8th Division would perform marching drills before the war, the troops of the Bada Aso Regiment prepared for a week of short training courses.

Though the Regimental command couldn’t offer them extensive training quite yet, they would not allow them to sit around. Everyone had already lounged too much at sea. Bada Aso felt distant; but the war wasn’t over. Command wanted to keep them on their feet.

Kimani explained. “From now to the month’s end, with a break for the festival on the 48th, you will clock in 100 hours of training in infantry combat, tank-infantry cooperation, signals discipline, and much more. My staff will give you a crash course on modern combat to give you an idea of the multifaceted duties, skills and responsibilities of a soldier in maneuver warfare! I hope that you enjoyed the peaceful voyage here — because I will make you sweat here in Rangda, comrades! And it will be an inkling of what awaits you in Solstice!”

For an instant, the Inspector General flashed a little smile at the crowd of soldiers.

There was a collective gulp in response. That was a lot of hours worth of training. It appeared command counted their days at sea as a vacation, but they had not had much of an opportunity to de-stress while crammed into a troopship or a cruiser. In whispers, the crowd started to lament being driven so hard after the chaos in Bada Aso. At least some of them, however, were excited for an opportunity to learn some new fighting skills.

One such person was Gulab Kajari, standing off to the side and back of the crowd with stars in her eyes. She looked around the field and through the fence to the base, catching glimpses of tanks and guns and other equipment being brought in or serviced, perhaps to participate in the exercises. She fantasized about this training both as an opportunity to show off her energetic strengths, and to be able to brag about her elite skills later on.

Already she was a military hero! Now she could rise to the level of a battlefield legend!

“Charvi, do you know anything about this? Do you know what we’ll be doing?”

Gulab nudged her constant companion, Charvi Chadgura, but the Sergeant was nearly inanimate. On a good day, Charvi was still emotionless, but at least a little sprightly. Yesterday the two of them had helped out at the headquarters, walked around the whole base, and been yelled at by a variety of guards about where they should and shouldn’t be. Through all of that, Charvi had the same face, but her demeanor at least felt lively.

Today she slumped forward, mumbling to herself in that dry, affect-less voice of hers.

She barely seemed to pay Kimani any attention. She was mostly staring at her feet.

Acknowledging Gulab, she clapped her hands twice, softly, in quick succession, but she said nothing. Her eyes seemed fixed on her own feet, and her shoulders drooped low.

“Are you ok? Do you have heatstroke?” Gulab asked. Charvi clapped to relieve stress.

“I want to go to the post office.” Charvi replied in a barely audible voice.

Gulab crooked an eyebrow. She had not seen a post office anywhere, but she had also not seen much of the city in general — she and Charvi were bused in on the 44th along with fifty other soldiers from the port, and dropped off at the base. All they had time for (and all they were allowed to do) was registration, two meals, equipment check-in, and bunking. The day after that, on the 45th, they still weren’t allowed off-base, and took a tour of the facilities.

That must have been it; after yesterday’s tour, Charvi must have realized that the base had no available post office, and it must have made her a little depressed. Her precious hobby was stamp collecting, and being in Rangda there was an opportunity to collect new pieces. Putting all of this together, Gulab thought she had an idea of how to cheer Charvi on.

“Hey, look, we have the festival day off! You can go to the post office then.” She said.

Charvi bolted upright suddenly. She stood at attention, staring forward inexpressively.

Her head turned stiffly toward Gulab. “Are you sure? Will we really be allowed out?”

“Positive!” Gulab replied. “She said we had a break on the festival day, right? Obviously that break is for the soldiers to go out and join the festivities, otherwise what’s the point?”

Charvi pressed her hands against her cheeks. “You’re correct. You must be.”

“Trust me! We’ll have a party at the post office on that day. Just cheer up a bit, ok?”

“Yes. I admit that I felt and still feel restless, but I will be fine now. Thank you.”

When it came to Charvi, emotion was never written on her face, but it could be evident in the air around her. Her words hinted at a renewed intensity of feeling. Charvi turned her head again, and stood straighter, her legs set, her back erect, her chest out.

“I must live until that precious day.” She said.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t live until then, but ok.”

“You never know. I must try extra hard to live until then.”

Her deadpan expression made Gulab smile. She raised a thumbs-up.

“As long as you’re feeling chipper! I’ll help out.”

Gulab petted Charvi on the shoulders and turned back around with a grin on her face.

At the conclusion of the Inspector General’s motivational speech, the soldiers were divided into several groups and pointed toward the newly-raised tents far behind them. They were big green field tents. Many of them had the telephone symbol, a handset in a black circle. A soldier who saw it was supposed to interpret that as a communications, liaison or headquarters tent, but there were a dozen strung up. So then, what did it mean?

“What the heck are those?” Gulab asked in whispers.

Charvi shrugged. “I think they’re conducting some sort of test there.”

Gulab soon found herself in a line stretching out from one of these impromptu offices.

She felt her heart thumping as everyone started to move forward into it. She could not see anyone inside, but she could see a light shining briefly through the canvas as someone exited out the back of the tent and let in sunlight. There was a little bit of chatter inside. Gulab could make out words like “official” and “documentation” and felt anxious.

“I think they’re checking papers in there.” Gulab said, looking behind herself at Charvi, who had been a step behind Gulab in the press of bodies that formed their waiting line.

“Well, they’re out of luck, because I don’t have mine.” Charvi said.

It was easy to see how those could have been lost given the events of the month.

As someone from the Kucha, where Solstice’s reach was weak, Gulab had no official papers to begin with. Her only documentation was her army sign-up forms from years ago, which she was told would be, cryptically, “good enough for anything.” She had no birth documents. This was a blessing, because it meant nobody could contradict her on anything about her identity but her family, who were far away; but might become a curse. She didn’t know.

Her mind filled with nightmares in miniature, playing and replaying before her eyes as the line pushed her toward the tent flaps under the muggy heat of a Rangdan morning.

Soon Gulab stood in front of the tent flaps and heard a female clerk calling out, “Next!”

Looking over her shoulder at Charvi, Gulab wiggled her fingers in the air as a little wave. Swallowing with a gulp, she closed her eyes briefly and stepped through the tent flaps.

When she opened her eyes, the place was a little gloomy, but uncrowded and neat.

Gulab took seat at a little table, one of six. Across from her sat a dark-skinned clerk in a pristine uniform. Her frizzy hair was styled big and round, and her friendly blue eyes were heavily magnified by the lenses on her thick glasses. With a big smile on her lips, the clerk pulled a form letter from a box and set it in front of Gulab along with a loaded ink pen.

“Good morning, comrade! I’m Warrant Officer Keisha Tamsi, and I just need a little moment of your time to insure we get a good form we can file for the Regiment.” She said.

Her tone of voice was pleasantly deep. Gulab’s anxiety at being seated in such an official-looking tent, with such official-looking person, very slightly diminished. She felt less scared and more sheepish at being in front of a nice stranger on this strange errand.

“Now, before we begin, I’d just like to know your home region. Can you tell me?”

“I come from the Kucha mountains.” Gulab said.

“I see! So that means you have no official papers. Am I right?”

Gulab felt an icy stiffness going through her chest. “Yes, sorry. I have none.”

“No birth certificate or anything like that, right?”

“My birth was handled fairly sloppily. I don’t even know my exact age.”

Gulab’s voice trembled. She expected to be told to pack her bags and leave the army.

Comrade Tamsi nodded her head in response and smiled.

“I understand. It’s perfectly fine, comrade. Your army sign-up forms, and any forms we fill today, can be used as your official papers henceforth. So don’t worry about it!”

“Oh, good.” Gulab sighed with relief. That had been easy; she had worried over nothing.

“There are many villages and unincorporated territories that have less than stellar documentation. So over time, we’ve learned not to be sticklers for stamped papers.”

From the box, Tamsi withdrew a few additional forms, stacked them neatly together, and pushed the stack forward. Gulab picked up the top form. It had basic things like name, date of birth, gender. That last one gave her a fresh shot of little anxieties, but she figured she could put anything on it and that nobody would check it or care. She was right.

“Answer with anything you want for any of the fields and we will consider it wholly official with the state’s blessing — if you want to change your name even, go for it! As far as The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is concerned, everything you write there today is your official paper information as valid as anything a doctor writes at the side of a birth table.”

Comrade Tamsi sounded almost excited for Gulab to invent herself in this little tent.

Gulab, however, was not feeling terribly creative. Though she could have chosen a more feminine name, perhaps, she was rather fond of Gulab. And while she hated her father and brother, her beloved grandfather had been a Kajari, and her fun and helpful cousins were all Kajaris too, so she had nothing against her maiden name either. Thus she made her decision.

Atop the form, she proudly wrote “Gulab Kajari” and beside it, “24”, her best guess for her age, and “M” for “Mwanamke” or woman. Her hand shook a little after that. She set her birthday as the 23rd of the Lilac’s Bloom, the date she came down from the mountain.

There were other fields, such as any conditions she had, or any levels of schooling earned.

“I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on my army sign-up forms. Is that ok?”

She knew back then she had signed up as a woman too. She had made the decision to live that way a long time before she came down from the mountain. However, she still felt a little scared that the two forms would be cross-referenced in other ways. Again she overestimated the importance of the forms and the bureaucracy’s level of efforts here.

“Not at all! As a matter of fact we don’t even have access to those! They were probably burnt in Adjar to keep them from Nocht. Write anything with confidence.” Tamsi replied.

Gulab realized how perfunctory all of this was, and her heart and stomach finally settled.

No one was trying to kick her out of the army. In fact they seemed to be making every effort to keep her, and everyone in the regiment, in the army. That was reassuring. She had nowhere else to go — though she could have settled down anywhere, that meant she would not have been able to fight alongside her comrades. Alongside Charvi; she was glad to stay.

Smiling, she started scribbling down whatever came to mind for the rest of the papers.


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