Surviving An Evil Time [10.6]

This chapter contains a torture sequence with a brief moment of heightened violence.


In the context of a station, the overarching structure providing power was referred to as a Core Pylon. To further understand the Pylon, its layout could be broken down into a massive superstructure housing two critical pieces of machinery: the reactor core ring and the agarthic energy array. Agarthicite “fuel rods” were contained in the energy array with complex Osmium shields. This array was submerged within the reactor core as part of normal operation and cooling. Energy was generated in several synergistic ways.

Agarthicite as a material boasted surreal properties that were observed but understood only in a very shallow fashion in the After Descent era. Most visibly, it was known that any solid matter that agitated Agarthicite too much would be annihilated entirely by a fatal discharge from the crystal. This property was not witnessed in particulate agarthicite known as “agarthic salt” but only in cubiform agarthicite “ore.”

No form of Agarthicite “annihilated” water or gas, but it was known that in annihilation of human bodies, the water would be vaporized by the heat of the reaction. Therefore, controlled annihilation of carbons submerged in water could generate heat. While any type of solid matter could be annihilated, Carbon was common, easier to process, and its reaction was well understood. Any material could suffice, however.

Osmium was the great exception. It was the only known case of a material being antagonistic to Agarthicite, both resisting annihilation and even reducing the scope of the reaction and thus allowing some control over annihilations by subjecting the reacting agarthicite to the presence of Osmium.

Osmium tools and devices could be used to mine, shape and manipulate Agarthicite– very carefully.

An eerie and less understood property was that Agarthicite would rotate in bizarre patterns when subject to controlled electrical and magnetic charges and would generate more kinetic energy than was spent agitating them. It was this property that resulted in collapsed ship reactors physically twisting the matter of the ship before annihilating it. Thus, when the energy array was physically hooked into the core ring, the array was also connected to motors that generated additional power by allowing the array to spin in the water. This generated enough power for the operations of the Core Pylon to self-sustain.

Agarthicite could become “spent.” Spent agarthicite would lose its otherworldly purple sheen and become dull and ductile, able to be spun into alloys. In this decayed state, Agarthicite was extremely useful as a metal. Together with Osmium, it was found in all kinds of technology in the After Descent era. For example, decaying Agarthicite alloys led to the electric oscillators used in monomolecular vibroblades.

Both the eldritch rotation and the heat generation could create significant usable energy.

Reactor cores, known as “Core Rings,” were designed both to house and stabilize the energy array and to employ its eldritch properties in the generation of energy. Agarthicite reactors could power the generation of their own magnetic and electrical charges while also generating enough surplus energy to power the massive stations housing underwater inhabitants. Station reactors built in 979 A.D. would be expected to run for multiple decades before needing a replacement Energy Array. Some reactors had been running since the Age of Strife and nobody had touched their Arrays since then. It was unknown by what process their ancient agarthicite was refined to such a degree as to permanently sustain reactions.

Ultimately, very little was understood, truly understood, about Agarthicite. It was only observed.

There were people who believed Agarthicite held powers beyond the mortal ability to “observe” and “deduce.” Agarthicite study was referred to as “pseudophysics.” It had both the academic social credibility of a science and the raving mad reverence of a religion. Most “normal” people beheld Agarthicite this way, no matter how much philosophers and theoretical scientists tried to dispel its myth through logic.

To the people of the After Descent Civilization, Agarthicite reactors and the Stations they lived in had an unspoken near-sacred status. Agarthicite was the true, material God of Imbria and Cogita both, a God capable of both sustaining and destroying life. It was unthinkable to tinker with these systems, innovation in the field of Core Pylons and their constituent parts was glacial wherever it was not outright outlawed. It was known that Agarthicite powered the collapsed Surface Civilization also– but the history of the Reactors for the After Descent civilization began after the Age of Strife with the first reactors created wholly underwater, their designs drawn from studying the Origin Core Pylons of the first stations.

However, it was for this reason that a fleet of Cogitan men and women could convince themselves to attack the Core Pylon of an Imbrian station. Agarthicite was their God, but this was not their land. Imbrians were lesser people, barbarous, evil, enemies of all that was right. Cogitan racism allowed them to see the Imbrians, their stations, and their Core Pylon, as violable, or even worthy of violation.

Their God wasn’t our God. Just as they were the lesser. Anything could be done to them.


Homa left some lonac in the pot in case Leija wanted to eat before she left.

It was simple food, but then again, pulao rice was her favorite meal. She might like it.

After cursing Radu and Imani, Leija said nothing more and finally fell asleep. Since then, she had been resting peacefully on Homa’s bed. Homa had eaten, showered, and laid down on the floor to play with her phone. Leija’s words joined the massive amount of things troubling her during these dark days in which she lived. She had no reason to disbelieve what Leija said: Radu had come to visit her. Since then, she had felt apologetic toward Homa but kept it close to the chest. Did Radu visiting come before or after Imani approached Leija, trying to get connected to a Shimii helper at a dockyard for her schemes?

She mentioned both of them. Why? Why would they be connected in her drunk head?

Could it be that Radu the Marzban was helping Imani? One of the Volkisch Movement?

Imani was a Shimii– but it still made no sense to her that Radu would help her.

Homa was not an authority of what the Marzban’s agenda was.

But he was a wanderer, who lived by his own justice and hid his face from the public.

Could a bandit like that really have ties to a person like Imani Hadžić?

This was something she couldn’t reason out by herself in her room. That was the most frustrating thing– talking to herself about Radu was like ruminating on the agendas of angels or djinn. There was no way to find him, there was no way to even prove his existence anywhere outside the vessel of her own memories. She couldn’t influence him. But she still worried! She couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Because if Radu was helping Imani, the world was a little bit bleaker than she thought.

Heroes and villains would make even less sense than ever before.

She had been sure that Radu was supposed to be a hero. And Imani Hadžić was a villain.

Now, even in the fantasy that supported her life, such things began to lose their meaning.

And it bothered her– because she viewed herself as someone connected to Radu.

Even if they had not seen each other in years.

She couldn’t help it. She was not connected to very many other people.

It was just him and Leija.

If you had no one, no blood– then kin were the people who occupied one’s memories.

Shimii valued kin above all else– and maybe Homa valued Leija and him as kin.

Despite everything they had done–

Homa grit her teeth. Her emotions were so twisted up. It hurt, deep in her chest and brain.

“Maybe when Leija feels better I’ll ask her about it.” Homa said.

Her hands reflexively stroked the necklace, fingers rubbing on the rough bit of silica.

Staring up at the steel ceiling in the dark. Leija’s light snoring the only sound.

Homa stroked the necklace, slowly drifting off, the fog of sleep slowly seeping in.

Peaceful Place.

She shut her eyes and saw the colored lights bouncing behind her eyelids.

Her mind went dark, her body falling gently.

To a world of great open skies, conquered by the crowns of massive trees.

Iridescent foliage casting many-colored shadows the world beneath.

Great silver-white trunks stretched down from heaven to thick, jagged roots prism-purple.

Over soft blue dirt, she sat, her back nestled against the monumental body.

A breeze swept by billowing red algae and weepy fungi and stirred the muddy puddles.

As far as she could see to the horizon and beyond, from the ground to the heaven, it was all the trunks of trees, their crowns making up the sky, their branches making up the clouds and below them the canopy of the forest, low alginic shrubbery under and around their roots, liquid dribbling down their trunks forming channels like erosion on mountainsides, and she was alone, and her mind was mile a minute and slug-like slow– and she felt greatly at peace. Amid whispering families of trees all connected among whom the colors traveled expressing pale blue and white.

Then, amid the trees–

A pale traveler, red-haired with a black horn, white robe and tail dragging on the mud.

Looking over her shoulder, her yellow amid black eyes dilating with hatred as she saw.

Between the sonorously singing trees the colors around her became painted a deep black.

WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?

Colors became tendrils that rushed toward Homa with murderous slashing violence–

“Agh!”

Homa opened her eyes. A tiny sliver of yellow light from the hall shone in her face.

She was on the floor. A metal floor in a metal place.

Holding herself, curling up in her bed. For a moment she was in the grip of something.

A vast forest; whispering trees; the surface? She had dreamed of the surface?

As the scriptures read. A surface with a vast sky and dry ground and breathable air.

There was a monster too. It was a nightmare. Fear shook its way through her body.

It took a few minutes for her wits to fully return to her. For her to realize and admit that it was only a dream and could not hurt her. But she felt something primal before that– a need to make herself small and hidden as if some enormous presence was watching her closely. Was this how ‘mice’ once felt about ‘cats’? She knew both animals and had heard this metaphor used in educational contexts.

But such depredation no longer had many places where it could happen.

Except perhaps in dreams. Dreams, like ancestral visions of what humanity had lost.

“Ugh. What kind of stupid shit is that, Homa Baumann?”

Homa chided herself for her weakness and childishness.

Anxiety must have been getting the better of her. Her mind must have been in shambles.

No wonder she had no control over her life when dreams affected her so strongly.

Gritting her teeth, she finally made herself get up and face reality again.

It was early in the morning.

Homa reached for the wall, turned on a dim light in order to see.

Leija was still asleep. Homa was almost worried, but she was breathing regularly.

Her face was eerily peaceful. Her makeup had run just a bit, lipstick lightly streaked, eyeshadow lightly smeared. Slight lines of aging showed around her eyes and at the edges of her mouth as she rested, more visible than ever, but Leija looked so content, Homa thought she looked more beautiful than ever. When she saw her at peace like this, Homa could overcome that staggering tension she otherwise felt in her presence. There were no glaring eyes and scowling lips, no striking claws. Her prone body, escaped from the world of violence from where she came and imbued with the gentleness of sleep– Homa felt a sudden heart-shudder of sympathy for her.

“I hope you’ll be okay in here.” Homa said.

It didn’t feel right.

Some part of Homa wanted to take care of Leija, but she had no choice.

She would have to go to work and leave Leija behind.

Homa sighed to herself.

Majida had said, there was no place where Shimii could have a storybook life.

Thinking about it, Homa finally put together what she wanted to say–

“I can’t forgive you for everything. I am not the only person you hurt. You hurt people every day in so many ways I can’t even describe. But I still– I do still love you, Leija. Because I know it’s this place, and the way that being here warps people– if we’d lived anywhere else, if we’d lived peacefully, maybe you could have been good to me. You wouldn’t have neglected me– and I wouldn’t have to resent you.”

In her sleep, Leija’s eyes shut a little harder, the fingers on her hands closed and opened.

This wasn’t any kind of closure, nor was it the culmination of anything significant.

It wasn’t a big moment– just Homa coping to herself, functionally alone, in her room.

That’s all it could be and that was all she could do. But she still felt like she had to say it.

Maybe it could serve as a rehearsal for when Leija woke up and they had to confront this.

Homa dressed herself, ate a bit of lonac in a cup and left for work.

Her head felt a bit heavy and foggy. As if she was fighting back tears the whole time.

She expected her day to go by as mindlessly as ever. She hoped for it to be so. She hoped for a day she could run on autopilot. Home, to the checkpoint, to the tram, to the pavilion, to B.S.W. and back home again. Once she got back home in the afternoon, she would have to deal with what happened with Leija, but the rest of the day should have been exactly the same as always.

Leaving home–

Checkpoint–

Tram–

Pavillion–

Two elevators down to her little lost corner of the world, Bertrand Shore Works.

“Homa,”

On the corridor leading to the semi-circular bulkhead into B.S.W, a blond woman awaited her. Wearing a grandiose coat over a ruffled red shirt and a long, tight black pencil skirt and ribbed tights. She smiled and waved in front of the closed bulkhead into B.S.W. Kitty McRoosevelt could not let herself in– Homa had been leaving the bulkhead unlocked for her after she came in, since Kitty was supposed to come later in the day, after Homa already clocked in. This was part of the instructions Bertrand gave clients, so they wouldn’t waste their time while the employees set up. Only employees could work the doors.

“As-Salamu Alaykum!” Kitty said cheerfully.

“You don’t have to do it in Fusha.” Homa said. She sighed internally.

This woman–! Homa had been saying that about a lot of people lately…

“Usually the bulkhead door is unlocked when I come in.” Kitty said.

“Yeah, that’s me who does that. Only employees can open stuff here, so you have to wait.”

Homa walked past Kitty and held her keycards to the door’s reader. After the keycard swipe, she stepped in front of the card reader’s touchscreen for camera authentication. There was a metallic rolling sound shortly thereafter– the Bulkhead door unlocked and could open now.

“Ahh, I see.” Kitty replied. “It has a camera, too? That’s a lot of security.”

“It’s like I told you, only an employee can open it. So don’t come here early.” Homa said.

She walked through the bulkhead door, automatically opened, and thought nothing of this.

Kitty stood off to the side and watched while Homa put on her gloves, mask, goggles and put protective sleeves over her tail and ears and returned to work on her yacht. She had stripped, repainted, and detailed the exterior, so now she had to recoat it with poison and waterproof gel. She big Kitty stand farther back than she had been the past few days and got to work as usual.

Though she was here way too early with nothing to do, Kitty had no complaints.

In fact, the blond hardly spoke to Homa at all that day.

She would have said ‘suit yourself’ to that, but Imani was counting on her.

So she tried to poke Kitty and see if there would be anything to report to Imani today.

“So, any big plans for the yacht?” Homa asked Kitty.

“Nothing special.”

It was as if she was turning the tables on Homa now. She had become the terse one.

“How has your stay in Kreuzung been so far?”

“Amenable.”

“Been to any neat places?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps?!

Homa felt so stupid shouting small talk over the sound of her spray gun.

Especially when she got back next to nothing.

What was going on?

“To hell with her then.” Homa sighed. There was always tomorrow.

If Kitty was grumpy today it didn’t matter at all.

Homa hardly knew what use Imani was getting out of her information anyway.

As the afternoon went on, she focused on her work and did not bother with Kitty.

And Kitty seemed quite content to just stand around in silence this time.

It irritated Homa just a bit– what a stupid turn from how chummy she was earlier!

By the end of the day, she had wandered off out of the dockyard altogether.

Homa clocked out and put it out of her mind. She had to worry about Leija and about whether there to try her luck at the shops again today. She might try to buy something for Leija in the Imbrian shops– if the dynamic pricing wasn’t too bad, a gift might help the Madame’s mood. Perhaps a cake or a sweet?

She put away her tools and walked out of B.S.W, through the bulkhead door and then up the old cargo ramp to the elevator. She tuned out her surroundings, just like she wanted to do. Her auto-pilot took her step by step, steps farther from B.S.W. and steps closer to home, mindlessly. Looking down at the grimy green steel floor of the ramp as she climbed the makeshift steps down the side of it up to the elevator shaft, she wondered how she would approach Leija after all of this.

What would she even say?

All kinds of things floated in her head, but it was such an awkward situation.

“I found you drunk wandering the halls–”

No, not, found you. Leija might twist that to mean Homa specifically grabbed her–

But if she laid the blame on Leija herself too thick that’d piss her off too.

There was no winning–!

Suddenly, Homa hit something soft and firm.

In front of her was supposed to be the elevator, but her mind had wandered off.

When she looked up, there was something in front of the elevator door.

It was like–

A case– a huge white case, with a synthetic felt covering and a steel frame.

For a tool or maybe even a musical instrument? Homa had seen things like this, but–

Someone had left it in front of the elevator door–? Why? It was taller than Homa herself.

She made to move it, more of a reflex than anything, feeling the weight of it as she tried.

Then–

Dull tap-tapping on the floor– heels?

Danger! Cried an unheeded voice in her mind–

Homa looked aside in time to see a black-gloved hand strike her with something.

She felt a brief burning sensation, her muscles seizing up, horrible nausea.

And the hands seizing her– something pricking her– burning in her veins–

Homa struggled on sheer instinct, but her strength faded extraordinarily quickly.

She tripped over her own feet and would have fallen had it not been for the black gloves.

Gripping her by her jumpsuit, unzipping the case blocking the elevator–

Her vision went dark as she caught a flash of waving blond hair in a thickening fog.

Inside the closed case, limbs going limp, Homa’s world and mind went pitch black.


“–Oh look, she’s coming to. I guess we won’t get to see my tenth straight winning hand in a row. Get the synthestitcher ready. I’ll make her smile for the camera. Then we can really get to work.”

Footsteps on water. A voice. A familiar voice.

She quivered, from the back of her neck down to her tail.

Her stomach felt hot, her nose was running. For a moment, the world was spinning.

Slowly spreading eyelids unveiled a world of intermittent, dim red light.

She felt water. Her feet splashed as she tried to move her limbs.

Homa could move her feet just a little, but not her torso, or her arms.

Mental fog cleared up just enough to begin to understand her predicament.

B.S.W, her workplace, was where her body expected to have been.

Instead, she awakened in the middle of an empty place, three times as wide and long as a room, with a bar at one end and shuttered windowpanes on the other. Judging by the bar shelves it may have once been stocked up, but there only scattered old bottles and broken shards left. There was an entrance door and a door out to the back, the former broken open and the latter barricaded with junk drawn from the rest of the venue. There were plastic restaurant chairs whole or in pieces scattered around the room.

Because the lights were malfunctioning, there was only intermittent flashes of white light, coming on with different periods of seconds in between each flash in a way that was maddening. The only consistent light came from the red emergency alarm light, and because this light was revolving, from the high center of the wall, it cast eerie shadows over the other occupants. Taken together it was like a vision from out of nightmare, nearly panic inducing, Homa wanted to keep her eyes shut and go back to sleep.

And indeed, keeping them open was difficult, they teared up.

Struggling to breathe as more of her senses returned to her; enough to realize her arms were bound behind her back, her feet were bound. Involuntarily she started to struggle, forcing her feet apart, forcing her arms, shifting her weight forward and back on the seat. Moaning with frustration when she realized how tight her bonds were, and that they were chafing skin– skin that was out and exposed, because Homa was stripped completely naked. Her entire body shivered with sudden fear. She was bound to a chair with her arms stretched and behind her back, her legs tied apart and to the chair and naked.

“H-h-elp.” She whimpered, as her voice started to return to her. “He-He-HELP!”

“Nobody will hear you. Be quiet.”

Homa heard a voice, and she heard something, like a mechanical switch being flipped.

In front of her, a figure coming into focus threw something on the ground.

She stepped on it, her heels easily crunching it under the water.

Then she closed toward Homa, heels splashing then tapping in succession on the floor.

“Are you awake now? Can you see my hand?”

Waving her black-gloved fingers in front of Homa was Kitty McRoosevelt. She bent in.

Narrowed eyes, messy blond hair, mere centimeters from Homa’s own face. She smiled softly.

“Help me–” Homa whimpered, “Kitty– Help–”

“I brought you here, Homa.”

As if to punctuate this, she ran one of her fingers down the inside of Homa’s thigh.

Homa clenched her teeth, wracked with another full-body shudder. It was so cold here!

And Kitty’s finger was pressing hard on her skin. Near somewhere sensitive–

Homa cried out. “Please let me go! Please don’t kill me!”

“Relax. I’m not going to kill you. And you’ll be freed once everything is over.”

“Everything?”

“It doesn’t concern you. Just be quiet, put your eyes forward, and smile for me.”

Homa realized Kitty wasn’t alone.

When her vision came back in full, the blurry figures farther in the distance came into focus, shifting something on wheels towards her. It reminded Homa of the cameras in the photo booth at Ballad’s Paradise, except that they were on top of a large, enclosed metal box that was itself on a wheeled stand. It was operated by a woman in a black bodysuit with intermittent black or blue plates across the surface, like armor and she looked–

slim and slightly muscular with bright fruity orange skin,

her eyes were green and w-shaped– her hair was long and red and purple, and–

and some of her hair, was positioning the camera, while her arms and legs pushed the cart,

“She needs to look straight at the camera until the datasheet compiles.”

When the Katarran noticed Homa staring at her, she winked with a mischievous smile.

“But she’s preoccupied with other things.”

“I’ll set her straight. How long does she have to stare?”

“We’ve never done this on a Shimii. It might take longer. Maybe twenty seconds?”

At the knocked-down front door, there was a burly blue man without hair, an eel-like tail coming out of his armor. There was a third person, a similar man, who was standing by near the windowpanes. All of them were armed and lightly armored, they had guns, Homa did not know the exact models but the form factor suggested assault rifles, which she knew from studying Diver models and gear.

She felt a light smack on her cheek and shut her eyes reflexively from the touch.

“Homa, stare at the camera for me for thirty seconds with a neutral expression.”

Kitty wanted her to stare at the camera– she would not! She’d avoid it at any cost!

In response Homa shut her eyes and stared straight at the ground, gritting her teeth.

“Don’t be stupid.” Kitty said. “Do this for me and you will get to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and go about your business like none of this happened. Just open your eyes and look natural for the camera.”

”N-n-no. Let me go. Stop this and let me go.” Homa whimpered.

”I’m doing this to keep you safe, you brat. I could drag you with me back to B.S.W, force your face into every authentication camera like you’re a piece of equipment. There are ways to make that work– cruel ways. I’m being humane here, Homa. Look at the camera, now. Or I will have to make you do it.”

She needed Homa’s face to open all of Bertrand’s doors. To get into B.S.W. illegally.

There were cameras with facial recognition. Only Bertrand and his employees, who were registered with the station, could open them. They needed their work permits and to be physically present for security purposes. For the front bulkhead, but also for the cargo elevator access and for the berth authentications– it had to be a B.S.W employee holding the authentication keys and the only way for the computer to know was using imaging cameras. That was what all this was about,

and in the morning, too, when Kitty asked–!

Homa had been so stupid! Imani warned her to be careful! Kitty really was dangerous!

“Where are my clothes? Let me have my clothes and let me go!” Homa begged.

“I’ve found people are more compliant when they can’t hide. Open your eyes, Homa.”

“Fuck you! You’re not using me! You pervert!”

Homa’s insults came out choked, quivering with the rest of her body.

She heard Kitty sigh audibly. Behind her, the Katarran cuttlefish woman laughed.

“Feisty!” She said in jest.

“You know, I had a hunch you’d be difficult. This sucks. You, hold the chair.” Kitty said.

Footsteps splashed over and someone grabbed hold of the back of the chair–

In the next instant, Homa felt her stomach almost push into her spine as something struck.

She was hit in the gut, by something fast, both blunt and sharp, with brutal strength.

Vomit rose to her throat. She choked, she wanted to double over but could not.

Her gagging and gasping for breath turned to pained screams.

There was an immense pain focused upon a point in her upper abdomen.

Kitty had kicked her! She had kicked her with those heels!

Homa was in so much pain, she thought she would die.

Her eyes forced open from the shock, spinning with panic, was that blood–?

No it was just– the water and the red light–

“Next time I’m stomping on your dick.” Kitty shouted. “Stare at the fucking camera.”

Homa gasped for breath, openly sobbing. She couldn’t believe this was happening.

Her surroundings were nightmarish, and she felt the most brutal pain in her life.

Not even the worst of Leija’s beatings had been this terrifying.

Kitty was really going to any lengths. She would mutilate her. She would kill her.

Any thought of resistance had left her body instantly. She was hurt, her mind swimming, she felt so pathetic, so weak, and helpless and useless. Acid-tasting spit dribbling from her open mouth, her stomach a tight knot of unbearable pain. Shivering from the cold that transferred from the water her feet were in and the moist air collecting on her sweating bare skin. Burning tears pouring from her eyes, fluids from her nose, tasting hot bitterness rising at the back of her throat. She couldn’t fight back!

“Please–” Homa whimpered. “Please don’t kill me.”

Click.

Homa felt something cold sliding down from her lower abdomen and stopping at her groin.

Kitty with the long, suppressed barrel of a black pistol pointed at Homa’s–

“Jeez. This is brutal. And I thought it’d be cuttle-quick.” Remarked the cuttlefish woman.

“Shut up. I didn’t pay for your opinions.” Kitty said. “Homa, I’m going to wipe your face with my other hand. Stare at the camera with a neutral expression for thirty seconds and this bullshit is over. I’m on a fucking clock. I’m doing it this way for you. I don’t have to do this. You or your corpse can suffice with a little preparation– I’m trying to be kind to you. I’m trying to put you out of harms way. Stop being so fucking difficult and look at the camera. Thirty seconds. And you never have to see me again.”

As she promised, Kitty’s fingers rolled over Homa’s eyes and nose with a stiff nylon wipe.

Homa’s mind was a blank. There was no way she could resist anymore.

One kick. One kick was all it took.

Her mind was filled with admonishments. You’re so weak, so pathetic, so useless.

Nowhere near close to a hero. Just a sad little sack of tears and blood so easily broken.

Homa looked straight at the camera, keeping as composed as she could.

A thin strip of light glowed across her features. It was a laser scanner, mapping her face.

After twenty-five seconds it stopped. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Said the cuttlefish.

After the camera captured her appearance, the attached box whirred to life. Instruments inside it slid and grinded for a minute, Homa staring at it as if in a trance. Then, from the box, the Katarran extracted what looked like a partial mask, with crosshatched colors blended into its plastic exterior. It was not her entire face, it was parts of the bridge of her nose, her lips, cheekbone, ears.

“Are you sure this is correct?” Kitty asked the cuttlefish woman, staring at the mask.

“Of course. The purpose of this mask is to trick the facial recognition. So the computer scans her face and prints out what it saw. Computers like this don’t recognize your entire face, they are not humans, they don’t see like we do. They see specific unique features that distinguish faces from each other. This mask is a perfect representation of what an authentication camera computer sees when it sees this Shimii.”

With a confident smile, the cuttlefish woman lifted the mask over her own face.

“Want a demo?” She asked.

“No.”

Homa felt the barrel of Kitty’s pistol lift from her groin.

“I’m satisfied.” She said.

”So, mind telling this humble technician what happens now?”

“You stay here. I’m going out with the rest of the team to prepare. We need to be in place for my first package. We have to dock them immediately when they arrive, and we preferably want to move after B.S.W’s work hours. Thanks to sleeping beauty here, our window is tight. Speaking of which,”

Kitty turned to the dazed Homa and looked into her eyes again.

She lifted something to Homa’s sight. It was her black slate portable.

“Unlock this for me, would you?”

Mindlessly, Homa put her thumb on the on/off button when Kitty brought the portable near.

Kitty then scrolled through, making no expression as she rifled through Homa’s messages.

Her coldly inexpressive face lit by the white screen.

After a few minutes, she held the portable away from her, and put a bullet through it.

Homa had been bracing for a booming shot, but it was a sharp thwick instead.

Nevertheless, the discharge of energy was close enough to her naked body to rattle her.

“Here you go, my little snitch.” Kitty dismissively threw the phone at Homa’s lap.

“Does that alter our plan any?” asked the cuttlefish woman, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Nope. Imani Hadžić has no idea where we are or what we’re doing.” Kitty said.

She then engaged the safety with a quick click of a finger and stowed the gun in her coat.

“You three keep an eye on her. Don’t do anything. You should only be under contract for like thirteen hours more, so just kick back and relax. If shit breaks bad, just retreat, and leave her here. Someone will find her eventually. We’re hitting up Bertrand’s tonight to avoid unnecessary issues with the staff. It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it before the packages. I’ll call you when the deed is done and you’re free to go.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Goodbye forever, Homa Baumann. I’m sorry we had to leave on such bad terms.”

Kitty waved her fingers at Homa and promptly left the bar through the front door.

Leaving Homa naked, cold, and alone with the two burly guards and the cuttlefish woman.

As soon as Kitty left, the cuttlefish woman wandered over to the bar and looked behind it.

“It’s dry here. It’s lifted above the flood level. I’m gonna move her chair over here.”

“Whatever you say.”

None of the burly men seemed particularly interested in the cuttlefish woman’s doings.

She grabbed Homa’s chair, seemingly without minding her weight, and moved the hurting and miserably cold Shimii from the flooded floor over behind the bar before setting her down. Homa’s feet touched dry ground, and she felt just a bit of relief. It felt far better when the woman cut open a bag and withdrew Homa’s jumpsuit and tanktop from it, laying the suit over Homa’s body like a blanket, and the rest of the clothes on her lap. She smiled at Homa, seemingly satisfied with the state of things.

Homa felt a brief distress, looking down at her belongings.

Her ID was still there, but her work permit keycard was gone. Kitty must have taken it.

Without it, Homa would not be able to get through the checkpoints!

That Katarran woman did not notice the shift in Homa’s expression back to a brief panic.

“There, it’s better now, isn’t it? Don’t worry– I only do what the client pays for. Wasting time hurting or killing you is just wasting my energy, and for a Katarran, time and stamina are money.”

She returned to the bar floor and pulled up one of the knocked-over chairs and sat on it.

It really did not matter that Kitty had not shot her dick off– Homa was effectively dead.

Without her papers– her mind started spiraling at the thought. All her work was undone.

Kitty had robbed her of everything she had worked so horribly hard for.

“Now we wait. Oh, you know what? Kitty left a few of these behind. These are useful.”

On the bar, the cuttlefish-woman picked up a small black plastic bag. Tearing it open, she withdrew a little black cylinder with three needles and a trigger on the back– a punch-injector.

“Here. This will make it more peaceful for you. I’m truly sorry for all the trouble.”

Reaching over the bar, the cuttlefish woman put the cylinder to Homa’s throat.

Immediately Homa recalled the sensation of the jab as if it was burned into her memory.

Homa struggled reflexively but had nowhere to move. Her tearful eyes soon shut again.

Once more, she fell unconscious, just like when Kitty had attacked her before.


Homa’s mind went black. Falling and falling incorporeally through a void of– colors.

Be At Peace. Sleep Well. Peaceful Place.

Homa’s world of pitch black became replaced with one of stark white.

Her body felt like it was suspended in mid-air, but she was not falling, she was not flying.

She realized she was lying down and staring at a sky of silver-white and gray tree crowns. Laying down in a puddle of lukewarm water, floating just above its surface. She was surrounded by enormous tree trunks. Far in the sky, the branches at the tops of the trees made up the sky, like clouds made of rocky bark. Between the trees, the colors swirled and traveled like floating rivers.

Peaceful Place. Safe Place. We’re Sorry.

That voice reverberated across the clearing in the forest, across Homa’s puddle.

It was so kind–

Homa wanted to cry. It was the kindest, gentlest voice that had ever spoken to her.

It was their voice– all of them were speaking. To each other. To her. To everything.

We’re Sorry.

“Don’t be sorry. Thank you. I can feel how much you care.”

In the next instant, Homa lost all buoyancy.

Her body sank right into the water. It was suddenly so deep, so crushingly heavy.

She sank farther and farther until the trees were impossible to view.

No matter how much she struggled, the pull of the water was inescapable.

Until the light completely vanished in front of her eyes.

Thrown from paradise down into the black depths of the Imbrium Ocean.

Awakening came like a hammer blow to her face.

Her eyes tearful, assaulted by the repugnant colors of the bar. Her sweat-soaked body, cold under the makeshift sheet of her jumpsuit, shivered as soon as sensation returned to it. Her empty lungs demanded choppy, sucking breaths that hurt her chest. She bent forward, caught between heaving from her dry, itching throat and sucking for air for her pounding chest, shaking all over.

Danger!

For the first time, Homa noticed Kitty hadn’t taken her necklace–

“Huh? You two, the door–!”

Light flashed from outside the door, briefly illuminating the room.

Thick smoke poured into the bar. The cuttlefish Katarran yelled for her companions.

Homa could see the silhouette of one of the men running to the side of the door. Putting his back to it, assault rifle in hand. He dropped a small device that he had perhaps intended to use to spy through the door, but it was useless, the smoke was thickest there. Grunting with frustration he reached the barrel of his rifle through the door and began to open fire indiscriminately–

At which point, something slipped into the room right under the gunfire.

There was a bright glint, an arcing flash like swinging a glowstick in a dark room.

In an instant the Katarran’s arm severed at the joint.

His assault rifle fell into the water. Homa heard the blood dribbling onto the floodwaters.

The assailant kicked the weapon away and in one fluid motion leaped the second burly Katarran, moving extremely quickly despite the flooded room. Homa did not even hear a splash, it was as if the figure glided over the surface, leaped in one bound. Heedless of the status of his companion, the second Katarran gunman opened fire toward the entrance of the bar. His wounded companion was cut down by the haphazard hail of bullets, a flashing muzzle in the dark, the sound of shell casings hitting water–

Immediately after, Homa saw that same glint as before, the flash of electricity–

Vibroblade– it was a vibroblade!

Having somehow avoided the gunfire, the assailant thrust the blade through the man.

Engaged to cut, it entered the Katarran’s chest, the light dimming inside him.

Flashing again, when the assailant cut free of his ribcage, spilling his flank onto the floor.

“I surrender! I surrender! I’m just a technician!”

That cuttlefish woman raised her arms and moved away from the Katarran’s gear in the corner of the room. At this point the smoke had begun to settle. Even the damaged air circulators in this disused bar could still sense smoke intermittently and began to suck it out. Once enough of the smoke had gone Homa saw more of the gory scene on the opposite side of the bar. At the door one of the Katarrans was riddled with bullets and his arm was a bloody stump. His blood streaked the water, flowing out of the bar due to the circulators struggling to dry up the floor. Farther along the windowed front wall, the second Katarran– Homa couldn’t even look. It was– it was all coming out of him. Everything inside him.

She didn’t want to think about it or see it.

Brandishing the edge of a vibroblade along the neck of the cuttlefish woman, it was–

Orderly dark blue hair, rounded, neatly manicured cat ears, a long, thick tail–

Glasses– a beautiful, coldly inexpressive, blood-spattered face–

Wearing a black uniform, cape hanging off her shoulders with clips, arms out of the sleeves.

“Imani! Imani, you came to rescue me!”

Homa screamed at the top of her lungs. Tears burst out of her eyes.

Imani Hadžić glanced her way. Her eyes briefly lingered. “I’m sorry it took me this long.”

She glanced down at the woman begging for her mercy.

“Homa, was it Kitty McRoosevelt who abducted you? These Katarrans work for her?”

At her feet, the Katarran woman clapped her hands together as if in prayer.

“Yes! It was her, and everyone here was working for her!” She cried out.

“Homa?” Imani asked again for confirmation.

“Y-Yes. It’s like she said.” Homa said. Imani had such a focused expression it was mildly frightening.

Once Homa’s mind began connecting the dots, her body started shaking again.

She had been focusing on the familiar face, reaching out for comfort.

But this wasn’t just the troubled girl she had a sweet date with, the girl she had her first kiss with. Imani Hadžić, in that uniform, was a deadly agent of the Volkisch Movement. On the sleeves of her jacket were the black sun armband and the sword and moon armband that Homa could not place, but she was still part of the Volkisch even without their common symbols. And what the Volkisch Movement did, as far as Homa knew and understood, was killing people. Imani Hadžić had come here to kill people.

Imani had killed two armed men like it was nothing. Using a personnel-size vibroblade.

None of them could even touch a hair on her head.

And now she had her sword to the throat of a third victim.

“Did Kitty tell you what she intended to do?” Imani asked the cuttlefish woman.

“We spoke in confidential language. We are just helping her deliver packages to B.S.W.”

“I see.”

Imani lifted the blade from the woman’s neck.

Her arm pulled back– Homa could already see the swing coming and held her breath–

Then their eyes met, across the room. Imani glanced at her with a troubled expression.

She swung the blade over the head of the cuttlefish woman.

Slicing the very tips of the diaphanous fins flapping up from the woman’s head.

“Think carefully about your choice of employer next time.”

Imani lifted her foot and kicked the woman in the face and into the nearby wall.

Where she came to rest, nose broken, eyes bruised and shut, lying limply in the water.

But with her chest rising and falling. She was breathing. She wasn’t dead.

Homa let out the air she had been sucking in. Accompanied by a tiny, helpless sob.

Imani sheathed her vibroblade and glanced about the room.

“Ya Allah…” She sighed. “What a mess. Let’s get you out of those bonds.”

Nonchalantly she walked behind the bar. Once she got to see Homa up close, her eyes drew a bit wide. Homa had her shoulders up, her head down, the jumpsuit falling off her and exposing her breasts. Her face was deeply flushed and felt hot. Not just from all the crying, screaming, and near-vomiting which she had suffered. She was acutely aware that she was bound and completely naked in front of Imani.

Imani pulled the jumpsuit off her and withdrew from her uniform a small vibroknife.

She crawled around close to the bar cut Homa’s hands free, and then her feet.

Homa thought she would die of embarrassment from having Imani all over her like this.

Far more material and readily present was all the pain that she felt.

Her wrists had red marks, as did her ankles. Her belly had an awful bruise. Her whole body ached from struggling against the bonds, from being stricken by Kitty, from the punctures by the drug injectors, and from the stressful position in which she had been bound to the chair. She felt like she had not eaten in a day and her limbs were like jelly when Imani helped her stand off the chair. Unfortunately, she was not so light-headed that anything felt dream-like. Homa was cursed by a sharpness of her faculties.

“Thank you, thank you, Imani,”

Homa embraced Imani tightly, and Imani gently embraced her back.

“How did you find me?” Homa asked.

Imani briefly knelt down, causing Homa’s heart to jump anew from embarrassment.

From the floor, she grabbed Homa’s portable. It had a bullet-hole right through it.

“This was designed to track you if you failed to answer my messages within a certain time.”

She handed the broken portable to Homa, along with, surprisingly, a fresh one.

“That one’s storage is still good. Copy everything over to this one when you can.”

“Imani–”

“Don’t mention it, okay? I want to stay in touch. Money is no object for my little Ho~ma~.”

Imani walked out from behind the bar with a smile.  

Homa put her clothes back on as quickly as she could and put both portables away.

She got the hang of walking again and rushed over to the Katarran woman on the wall.

Rifling through her suit, she found a communicator.

“Here, Imani! You can use this to track Kitty!”

Homa threw the communicator at Imani, who caught it.

Her own hands lingered a bit longer on the Katarran woman’s gear–

Because– a dark series of thoughts filled her mind as she noticed how calm Imani was.

“Imani, is Kitty really going to destroy the station? You don’t seem to be in a rush.”

All of this time, Imani had been content to sit passively and let Homa report on Kitty’s goings-on. At no point had Imani stopped Kitty despite knowing where she was and suspecting her of plotting some wrongdoing. She put Homa in danger, in fact, which Homa was easily willing to forgive because Imani’s face in the chaotic light of the bar looked too beautiful to hold accountable. She had been tracking Homa, so she was prepared, to some degree, for Homa to be abducted or endangered.

It looked to Homa like Imani knew everything that was going to happen.

And that she was letting it happen. She wasn’t even going to try the communicator.

This was the final tell– how calm Imani was standing in the center of the flooded bar.

Even now that Kitty’s plan was in motion. Imani did not see it as urgent.

“I’m grateful you came to my rescue. I was so scared. They even hurt me, Imani. But you have to tell me the truth now. You are not going to stop Kitty, are you? It’s like– you just wanted to use me to find out when Kitty’s plot got underway. But you aren’t going to stop it at all? I deserve to know.”

Imani averted her gaze.

“I– I wasn’t just using you. I had fun– I’d like to have a different relationship to you.”

“Imani, we can’t have a different relationship right now.” Homa said. “Right now– please tell me the truth. You owe it to me. Is Kitty going to destroy the station? If she is, then you must be completely insane. But she is not going to right? She’s doing something else. And you’re going to sit back and watch.”

Imani smiled gently. She laughed, just a little. It was a bitter laugh.

“Will Kitty McRoosevelt destroy the station? You know, I’m actually not certain, little Ho~ma~. It depends on how she feels. Hers will be the final judgment. Will her hatred toward us allow her to kill us so easily and readily? Will we deserve the fury of her broken heart? At first, I was certain she would not. But recently, Homa, I’ve been feeling like, I wish I could allow myself to destroy everything and remake it to serve my own little heart. Perhaps Kitty will indeed kill us all, profiting nobody in the process.”

She could not meet Homa’s gaze as she spoke. She arranged some hair behind her ear.

Homa silently watched her fidget. She drew nearer as if demanding a real answer that way.

“Kitty McRoosevelt is going to engineer a Core Separation to put the station complex out of live power and into on emergency backup power. Kreuzung is not well prepared for this kind of scenario. Kitty’s aim is to bring down the automated missile and gun defenses of the station complex. This will allow her to infiltrate combat troops and commence a coup. Kitty is a foreign agent, from the Cogitum.”

Speaking those words, Imani finally met Homa’s face with an eerie smile.

“Kitty doesn’t know that the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache is secretly underway to intervene. Her forces will be utterly destroyed, and the station will come under the command of my superior. Her name is Vesna Nasser. Daughter of the late Shimii revolutionary Osir Nasser. I am a member of the Volkisch because of her, Homa. I pledged myself to her cause, to fight to create a new future for the Shimii.”

Tears drew from Imani’s eyes. Smiling and weeping as she laid herself bare.

“Knowing all this, Homa– do you hate me? I don’t care if you find it unacceptable, but–”

Homa took a step in and without thinking or warning, pulled Imani into a kiss.

She threw her reluctance aside, brought her passion forward, seizing upon Imani.

Imani complied readily. Their tear-stained eyes met until hers closed.

Letting herself be taken in by Homa’s ardor, her capturing lips and the snare of her tongue.

One hand brushing Imani’s soft hair aside between kisses, stroking her cheek.

And the second, rising suddenly–

Sticking a punch injector of Kitty’s knockout drug into Imani’s neck.

She expected Imani to fight back then, to be roaring mad, to draw her blade–

Instead, both of them were weeping gently, eyes fixed again as Imani’s senses clouded.

Imani made no move to resist. As if, perhaps, she knew, and allowed it to happen.

Staring deep into her eyes, after tasting her lips– Homa could not help but cry.

“I don’t hate you.” Homa said. “I hate the things that happened to you.”

“Was that kiss real?” Imani asked. Her words slurring. Her face starting to numb.

“Yes. It was real. It wasn’t like the theater.” Homa said. “Imani I– I–”

She couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to Imani. Even though she did– painfully, she really did.

In that moment, Homa wanted to love Imani more than anything.

She wished they could keep texting and go on dates to stupid kitschy places.

But as long as Imani wore the evil skin of that uniform, Homa could not be with her.

That damned uniform, in that moment, Homa hated nothing more than the people behind it.

“Imani– I am going to make that Vesna Nasser regret putting all this in your head!”

Smiling, Imani drifted off to sleep in Homa’s arms.

Homa set her down in the corner with the remainder of the Katarran’s gear.

She quickly applied the last punch injector to the cuttlefish woman’s neck, making sure to prolong her unconsciousness so she wouldn’t wake up first and take revenge on Imani while she slept. Then, rummaging through Imani’s own gear, she took the small vibroknife– and a small pistol. Homa did not know the caliber or model, but it was suppressed, just like Kitty’s. It might come in handy. She had never fired a gun in anger, but she knew the principles behind it. Leija had shown her how to do it once.

Leija–

Swallowing hard, Homa realized what she was embroiled in and stifled a sob.

Crying hard over the sleeping body of Imani Hadžić. She took Kitty’s communicator back.

Looking at the objects in her hands. Weapons and tactical gear– it was war.

War had really come to Kreuzung Station once again. Everything was happening too fast.

All of Homa’s senses told her it was time to knuckle down and run away from this.

She was no hero, Imani would never be her princess to save, none of this was within her power.

Homa thought she was a useless girl who was unlucky enough to be dragged into a mess.

Everything attached to her spine hurt in some way.

She had never been in a real fight. Everyone in this bar could kick her ass.

And she was completely in over her head.

Just a helpless girl crying over the wreckage of everything she ever loved.

“But I can’t just sit here. I have to do something! I can’t just watch! I’d hate myself for it!”

Reflexively, Homa grabbed hold her necklace and squeezed the little rock tight.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she felt a warm, encouraging thought.

We Believe In You.

You Are Courageous.

Taken by a sudden impetus, Homa grit her teeth, put away the gear in her jumpsuit and took off running, splashing through the floor of the flooded bar, out into an unfamiliar and even more flooded street. She saw an elevator shaft in the distance and ran for it, knowing she would at least find the current block and tier on that elevator. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the part-flooded streets.

“I have to stop her. I have to stop her–”

Suddenly, for a second or two, everything went dark.

Darker than it had ever been. Pitch black. Every light, every monitor, everything.

Then the lights came back on. Homa stopped in her tracks.

Revolving red alarm lights flashed from every wall and the ceiling.

On every touch-capable surface, the screens began to display the same thing.

Large red letters and a symbolic image of a pillar being lifted from within a ring.

In every direction, from every surface, as total as the darkness before.

Homa stood, her shadow spinning around her with the red lights and flashing warnings.

Transfixed with eyes drawn wide and lips quivering, in water above her ankles.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING. CORE SEPARATION.


“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia?”

Deep beneath the baseplate of Kreuzung’s Core Station tower were the nearly-abandoned maintenance tunnels for some of the lower-class blocks. Several had flooded, but there were just enough operable passages for the interests of its current occupants, and the flooding in the rest was pretty convenient on the whole. In a long square room, heavily ventilated but with rather poor air circulation due to mechanical failures, the smell of iron from coagulating blood and decaying flesh lingered. Maimed corpses had been lined up against the walls. Someone had put their hands together as if in macabre prayer.

Between the dead worshipers stood two figures.

One entirely pale androgynous body, short-haired, lean, in a white robe.

Another a pale, dark-haired woman in a long black dress, long-limbed, yellow-eyed.

Her face was stark white, with beautiful but vacant features like an exquisite doll.

Over her head, orbited a halo like a circle of blood, semi-solid and spinning.

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia? Tristitia fulfilled her previous purpose.”

Her hands were stained with the blood of the room’s most recent occupant.

“I keep telling you, these are only orders or tasks. A purpose shouldn’t be something as minor as killing people and collecting their bodies! Your purpose should be grand, Enforcer VIII!”

The White-Robed Figure laid their hands on the shoulders of their companion.

“What should be Tristitia’s purpose?”

“Of course, your purpose should be to worship! To become closer to God!”

“Tristitia does not understand. How would Tristitia carry out ‘worship’?”

“Oh but that is a fraught subject! Even with our vast potential, such questions elude us!”

“Tristitia does not understand. Please try to explain Tristitia’s new purpose.”

“It is fine! A fine question! I have not come unprepared! I have been thinking about this, in fact. What should be the form of worship? Why, worship should be closeness to God. But what is God? To know God we must appreciate the form of God. But then what is the form of God? God is the greatest beauty, the greatest strength, the greatest perception– but then, what is the form of greatness? Greatness is indefatigable, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncollapsible! Therefore–”

“Tristitia does not understand.”

Tristitia’s words were no longer being heeded. Her companion was now lost in rhetoric.

“Of course, a God can only be worshiped by sentient, living beings, and as such, a God must be perceptible to them. There is only one power that can be called greatest and unstoppable, while being perceptible to sentient beings– the power of our Lord and Savior Arbitrator II, Titan of Aether! It is the Aether that is the attainable form of God to which the living must aspire!”

They threw their hands up and smiled with vibrating, sharp teeth at the steel roof.

“Endless stillness adrift! Thought flowing downstream! Without space, time, or form, only the purity of the mind released from the impetus of flesh! This is the true form of God– so why worship through hard work and dedication? When God is peace itself? No, no, no– one can only approximate the form of God through Sloth! Sloth so unmoving and grand it reverses creation! That is true worship! That is true Sloth! Our God is only reachable through the ultimate stillness! Be it death or enlightenment!”

After their screaming tirade, the creature turned to their companion with expectant eyes.

“Well? Well?” They demanded.

“Do you have an actionable purpose for Tristitia?” She replied in a dry tone of voice.

“Actionable?”

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia, that Tristitia can actually understand.”

One deadpan voice, belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VIII, “The Despair”– or Tristitia.

And one hysterical, impassioned voice belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VI, “The Sloth.”

These were the only sounds reverberating from these old maintenance tunnels.

Until–

A series of alarms began to ring out from the upper floors.

When they finally made it to the maintenance tunnels, the warnings lit up the cracked screens on the walls behind the corners, creating and eerie scene dominated by the color red rather than the dim yellow-white of tunnel’s LEDs. The appearance of these warnings seemed to cheer up Enforcer VI once again, to the degree that they started cackling almost in tandem with them.

“A signal from God! Oh purposeless doll, it appears it is time for a task after all!”

Enforcer VI turned nonchalantly toward Enforcer VIII, and from the interior of their robe, procured a round lump of meat wrapped in a silvery skin. Enforcer VIII stood blankly staring while Enforce VI shoved two fingers into her mouth, forced it open, and tipped the morsel inside before shutting Enforcer VIII’s jaw forcefully, as if demonstrating to her how she should chew the blob.

“Create a combat form and depart! The Imbrians have begun the festivities!”

Enforcer VIII began to chew the fleshy fruit herself. Her eyes glowed with red circles.

Omenseeing.”

Around the room, the corpses began to stir, to soften, to melt down and slide away.

Coalescing around the blank-faced, angelic doll as a powerful shell of bone, blood, muscle.

“Your purpose is to stalk through this chaos and kill the heretics! Let the festival begin!”            

A choked voice sounded from within the roiling flesh.

“Tristitia will fulfill this purpose.”


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.5]

For a few minutes, Homa drifted in reverent silence through the open ocean.

Outside her cockpit, through the cameras, she could see the bubbles from her exhaust trailing up, she could see the water rushing as she descended, and the bodies of the towers growing larger and farther around her. So she knew she was falling. She had a smile on her face, she could not help but be happy. Encased in metal armor, out in the water, free from the station’s confines.

When the feet of her stripped-down Volker mech touched ground, she pressed down the pedals to engage the hydrojets and accelerated toward the base of Tower 7, where her target was.

Homa’s every muscle brimmed with excitement.

When she was in the Diver, she felt bigger, stronger, freer than ever.

Everything was quieter, too. But she wasn’t just alone with her thoughts. Controlling the machine with the sticks, the pedals, the switches, and triggers, glancing across her monitors and the instrument panels, switching cameras. She was engaged the whole time, working as if with her whole body in rapid succession, but the task was peaceful, almost relaxing, as it frequently occupied all of her faculties.

“Homa– you– hear me?”

Emma’s voice was scratchy, cutting in and out, but Homa could technically still hear her.

The headphones slotted into the fluff of her cat-like ears were connected to the Volker’s acoustic and laser-channel digital communications system. Depending on which could provide the most fidelity, the computer would switch between them automatically. The audio quality going to hell meant that Homa was far enough away now from the laser router at B.S.W to switch to acoustic data transmission. This was basically decoding long-distance soundwaves as a digital signal, from sound to bits and bytes.

Transfer rates over acoustic data protocol were atrocious.

“Barely.” Homa replied.

“Oh–”

Homa knew Emma well enough to fill in her characteristic ‘oh dear’.

She was Bertrand’s secretary, but she was a licensed sonar, radio, and laser/acoustic router operator, so when Homa went out on the Diver to work in the water, Emma was always the voice in her ears. For worker safety, Emma was supposed to fill in Homa on any weather updates from the station, or on any traffic that might be headed her way. But Bertrand cheaped out on his laser router, so most of the time, Homa could barely hear Emma unless the job was at base of the Kreuzung core tower.

Today, Homa was headed out to pry open a stuck runoff gate at the base of Tower 7.

Dockyards got jobs like these from time to time, dockworkers called them ‘gigs.’

Money was money. Getting a gig like this was more marks in her pocket.

Her rent was paid, but her conviction to leave Kreuzung was still as sharp as ever.

For that, she needed money and a lot of it. No two ways about it.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! I’ll finish this and be back soon!” Homa said.

She was sure only every other word of that got through to Bertrand’s.

Between the towers Homa traveled over slushy dirt, made up of the same raining marine biomass that made up the marine fog swirling around her. There were many animals, pale or transparent, soft-bodied, abyssal fish and crustaceans and worms, congregating on the remains of larger animals from brighter waters that had drifted from above and made it into the Kreuzung sea floor.

There was no way to move in her great machine without disturbing these natural sites. Clouds of fish and krill felt water displace around the area and leaped defensively away, before returning to the carcasses in which they made their livelihoods once Homa moved far enough way from them. Out in the water, there was so much more life than anyone would ever see just staring out the sea viewing windows in the Kreuzung complex. It was easy to think the world outside was entirely dead. Walking through the Kreuzung seafloor, Homa got a firsthand view at everything they shared the crater with.

Somehow, while the people were all trapped in ships and stations, life teemed out here.

And up above, from where all the food for these beings fell continuously from the sky.

Homa peered toward heaven, and all her floodlights illuminated was more marine fog.

Brown dust suspended in dark water, and the distant, looming shadows of towers and their bridges. Allah and the promise of heaven. It was far out of her sight, infinitely beyond her reach. At the bottom of the Kreuzung crater she was 2500 meters from the surface. To think, even then, that there were human beings even deeper. Some parts of the complex, deeper underground, went as far as 4000 meters.

Nothing habitable– just old maintenance tunnels and mining shafts, Homa had heard.

Sometimes, when she piloted, she marveled at the enormity of what surrounded her.

But she also felt strangely powerful. She felt a thrill in the center of her chest.

Because she was out here, walking this forbidden land in her suit of armor.

As bad as she sometimes felt for the fish– she felt better than ever about herself.

Closer to each tower, the muddy, biomass-heavy earth was replaced with the steel base plate for the tower. Some of these rings contained massive entrances into underground spaces, but others were just there to provide anchor points and power supply inputs for heavy equipment. There were slots on the floor in places, contact points where construction modules could be attached to power huge cranes or massive underwater welding gear which could be used to repair or replace exterior plates on the tower. There were ships that could repair station towers too, truly massive ones that plugged into the baseplates, Homa had learned about them in school. That was neither here nor there though.

For Homa, at that moment, it only meant she was gliding over steel, rather than soil.

Slowly, the marine fog lifted as she closed in on the structure and she could see the varied man-made geometry of the exterior of Tower 7’s base. The runoff gate she was commissioned to pry open was dead ahead, its indentation in the tower wall visible once Homa got close enough with her Diver.

There were four handholds on the exterior of the gate in case it needed to be forced open, but it was otherwise a door that slid out when enough water was pumped through the connecting chute to force it open. This particular gate, Homa was told, was one of the places water was periodically pumped out to in order to empty the station’s desalination pipelines so they could be cleaned or replaced. When it became stuck, the pipes and tanks couldn’t be fully emptied. It was a quick and dirty job to go out in the water and get it open, so it was contracted out to any company with a Diver. That way the maintenance crews in Kreuzung would not have to keep, train, or assume liability for any Diver pilots and their gear.

“I’m at the site. I’ll just get this cracked open and be back shortly.”

Fuzzy gibberish came through in response. Homa slowed and stopped before the gate.

Technically it would have been possible for Homa to connect to Tower 7 itself and route back to Bertrand’s that way. She could have talked to Emma and had any guidance whatsoever from her; but B.S.W would have assumed the cost of the data transfers and she would have gotten yelled at for it. So instead Homa just assumed nobody would hear her if she died screaming in the open waters.

Not that anything would happen at this point.

She pushed her sticks forward, engaging the finger switches to spread and close the digits on the Diver’s hand. She grabbed hold of two of the handholds on the gate door and pulled back her control sticks to pull with just the mechanical force of the arms. This had no immediate effect, the runoff gate remained shut. Homa angled her hydrojets away and slowly ramped up the thrust, pulled up and back, feet leaving the ground as the current cycling through the machine lifted her completely off the base plate.

Despite the amount of force being applied, the gate remained firmly shut.

“Ugh, this is really stuck!”

Bertrand didn’t want her to use the solid fuel boosters if at all possible. Solid fuel was a misnomer — it was just what people came to call power generation other than agarthic batteries. In this case, the “solid fuel” was actually liquid– they could burn anything that burned, depending on the kind of boosters equipped. Bertrand filled theirs with diesel because it was cheap, but cheap wasn’t free. With a few licks of solid fuel boosting she could have had this open in an instant. She was starting to think she had no other choice, however. She had not come with any tools, just the vibromachete on the magnetic strip.

Cutting through the runoff gate was of course not an option.

“Well! I don’t have a choice! Hey, Emma, if you can hear, I’m hitting a booster.”

Her left hand moved instinctually toward a button panel in front of her, in order to flip open a plastic cap enclosing the trigger that unlocked the solid fuel boosters. On normal Divers the boosters were immediately accessible from buttons on the stick or pedals, but Bertrand installed a mechanism to lock those controls and then put a plastic box over it to really make Homa think about using fuel.

As soon as she unlocked the booster, however, she was alerted to sudden movement–

On her monitors there was a flashing red box placed by the computer over the runoff gate–

Which burst suddenly open, ejecting a cloud of salt residue and water stuck inside.

Unveiling flashing red eyes and a long, eerie shadow–

Homa rapped the buttons on her sticks that engaged solid fuel boost and thrust upward.

She felt her cockpit rattle as something lunged past and slammed into one of the feet.

This threw her off but not enough to completely lose control. She tried to get her bearings.

Glancing at one of her secondary monitors showed her one of the underside cameras. On the feed, there was the long, dark form of a creature about twice the height of her Diver in length, but slightly thinner. A bulbous main body like a huge four-part jaw that attached to a sack for the eyes and brain, tapering into a tail with yellow biological lights glowing across it. Two structures on the rear end of the sack-like portion of the body ejected water and dirt– bio-hydrojets, fed water from the enormous mouth and from four sets of gills on the sides and top of the sack. That meant this eel-like being was a Leviathan.

Twisting around, its jaws and four malicious eyes atop its sack-body suddenly faced her.

“Leviathan! Emma! Leviathan!” Homa cried out.

Jerking her control sticks, Homa faced down the creature, trying to gauge its next move.

A red targeting box drawn around it by the predictive computer, labeled the creature.

Gulp-class, a “lifeboat” level Leviathan. Fourteen meters long.

Had it been hiding in the runoff gate? For how long? How did it get in there?

It must have been holding it shut until Homa disturbed it.

Now it was clearly aggravated.

Engaging its hydrojets and the muscles on its tail, the Gulp-class lunged at Homa.

Rows and rows of vibrating silver teeth gleamed inside its enormous, distending maw.

Monomolecular edges, each one, just like her machete.

They would shred the unarmored Volker. Homa once more launched herself aside.

“Emma! Emergency! Leviathan!”

Homa repeated words, rather than phrases, hoping something would get through.

But there was nothing but static on the acoustic network or laser messaging.

The Gulp-class lunged past her, but this time it slammed its tail at her as it went.

Her entire cockpit rattled and shook, Homa clinging to her controls with a deathly grip.

Gritting her teeth, eyes racing between monitors, heart pounding.

She could connect to Tower 7, but she needed her hands and concentration on avoiding the attacks, she could not work on the computer to swap connections and ask for help. After sweeping past her, the Gulp-class seemed to have learned something from its short-ranged and sudden leaps, and instead gathered momentum by swimming away into the marine fog and doubling back.

“No, no– this is– this can’t be–”

Homa’s vision swam, her undershirt clung to her cold sweating chest.

Her limbs tensed and shook, her feet shook hard enough to tap her pedals.

Shrill screeching roars sounded the violence hurtling her away.

As the monster threw itself forward, Homa shrank away from it with her whole body.

Forward boosters threw her aside the charging, snapping jaw.

Three vibrating teeth grazed the exterior forearm of her Volker, scratching the metal.

And the body disappeared again into the fog, twisting to resume attack.

Had those teeth caught on a pushrod she would have been without an arm.

“No no no no no!”

Was this how she was going to die? All alone out in the ocean, torn out of a Diver by a screeching monster, screaming her heart out without a soul to hear? Every centimeter of her skin was brimming with anxiety, she felt her heart like bass echoing through her pores, into her roiling gut. She could not unclench her jaw and her fingers shook wildly enough on her controls to make up a drumbeat. Flooding tears stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She could not feel her tail.

If even one of those teeth dug deep enough her entire body would be extruded–

Teeth–

–dug,

“I’m– I’m not going to die here! I’m going to escape this place! I’ll escape! Damn you!”

Homa shouted herself hoarse and drew her vibromachete from the magnetic strip.

It was just large enough to hold in both hands like a short sword.

On her monitors a red box indicated the resurgence of the Gulp-class and its heading.

Homa engaged all thrust, throwing itself into the Gulp-class’ charge.

Holding her sword from the shoulder and thrusting with all her might and momentum.

Crashing into the Leviathan’s fat snout and driving the sword between its four eyes.

Its distended jaw slackened from the attack and could not close around her Volker.

Hysterical, Homa pounded her feet on her pedals, tugged her sticks. “Die! Fucking die!”

Furiously tearing across the soft palate and nostril, Homa drove her sword back out. In the wake of her cutting edge issued a geyser of red biomass. The mildly buzzing vibration of the monster’s teeth died out, its jets sputtered and clogged with gore, the mutilated body sank slowly away from the Diver. Coming to fall upon the tower base plate, where curious, wandering krill and shrimp convened.

Homa watched, heaving breath, eyes incredulous, as all the tiny creatures invisibly lost upon the surface of the tower base plate showed themselves. Visible in contrast with the dark body of the Leviathan, they started picking apart the corpse. To them, it did not matter whether it fell to the brown earth or to the metallic plate surface. It was a needed injection of life-sustaining biomass.

Something about the sight of the creature that had brought her so much fear, being so easily colonized by the bottom feeders, left Homa speechless. That feeding frenzy of dozens of creatures the size of one of her fingers, playing about below. Her tears continued to flow, but she fell back upon her chair, releasing her sticks, her feet slack on the pedals. Catching her breath, holding her necklace reflexively. She had fallen back into the habit of doing that, from when she was a kid.

This Is Life.

Homa– did not think that.

It felt like it came from the place of her thoughts but–

It was as if– she heard a voice–?

A very gentle– very soothing voice–?

“Homa! Come in! We bought laser access! Are you okay? Did you say Leviathan? Homa!”

Emma’s voice. Homa was snapped out of her reverie by a crisp call from B.S.W.

She almost wanted to shout back for Emma and Bertrand to go fuck themselves.

But she valued her job– she needed the money.

Homa needed the money to get out of this hellish place. Before it killed her.

So despite the swelling emotion rushing over her body like a shower of stress–

She politely explained what happened.

“Solceanos defend you Homa! Oh gosh! We’re so glad you’re okay!”

Homa practically heard the next words said before they were spoken and braced for them.

“We’ll talk about the fuel and all that when you get back. Be safe, okay?”

Mildly different than what she thought, but still. She grit her teeth.

With the runoff gate forced open and the Leviathan killed, the job was done.

“Bertrand should try to wring some more money out of them for the Leviathan.” She said.

“Oh he will! Don’t you worry!” Emma replied cheerfully.

Homa engaged her hydrojets again, gliding just off of the sea floor. She could have moved faster now that Emma was paying to talk to her, since she would know if there was any traffic. But out of force of habit, she took her time getting back to Bertrand’s to have a stern, frustrating chat about her use of fuel to save her own life from a violent death. Another day at the office.


After Homa left Bertrand’s office and finally found a moment’s peace, she pulled out her phone and found a few messages from Imani Hadžić. She stared at the mails in disbelief for a few minutes. Because she could see the previews in the notification bubbles, she knew only two messages, the first and last, contained nothing but black hearts. However, the other mails had actual content to them, so Homa took a bathroom break in order to read them in private and respond.

“Ho~ma~” began the most substantial message, “During your work, please keep an eye on Kitty McRoosevelt for me. Make idle conversation and try to get her to speak on current events or local politics if you can. Let her run her mouth. If she asks you for any favors, such as hiding or moving things from her yacht, comply promptly and let her use you. Report to me any such events, as well as any names, places, or times she mentions, for example, if she talks about going on dates or being indisposed on certain times. Earn her trust, be compliant to her requests, but take care of yourself. She cannot be allowed to suspect you. If she tries to harm you, do anything that you can to contact me.”

That message, too, ended with a little black heart.

Homa typed up a quick response from the bathroom.

“Will do. Are you okay?”

By the time she was back outside, she would find that this message had been responded to:

“You’re sweet.”

Homa took that to mean Imani was indeed okay.

And despite her complicated feelings toward Imani, she felt relief, nonetheless.

All of the rest of Imani’s messages were just her being needy or sending black hearts.

For all that she said she wouldn’t demand immediate answers, Imani harassed her anyway.

Her slate would have been buzzing nonstop had Homa not been out in the Diver.

Despite having that near-death experience, she still had half the workday to go.

Bertrand’s profits stopped for no one.

“Homa! Our little hero!”

On the dockyard, seated atop barrels of ship coating gel and fluid next to Kitty’s yacht, Becker and Aicher cheered Homa’s return. Becker had one of Bertrand’s portables in hand and showed Homa the footage they extracted from the Diver. Homa felt her stomach turn for a moment at the sight of herself shouting ‘Die! Fucking die!’ while butchering the Leviathan. It was too surreal.

“Crazy piloting out there Homa! Schecter could have never done this!” Becker said.

“I’m glad he didn’t go out then.” Homa sighed. Imagining an even more tragic scene.

“My time on patrol didn’t coincide with a lot of Diver stuff.” Becker said. “But even I can tell Homa, your reflexes are amazing! And that charge? You’re made of stern stuff little lady.”

“I was just freaking out. I’d have really rather not had to fight for my life at all.”

“Well, look at this way. Yes, you cost old Bertrand a little bit money short term for all the fuel, but long term, you’ve proven you’ve got skills Homa! Bertrand won’t have to worry about sending you out anymore. I bet once his fuel cost is covered up, you’ll have a promotion coming!”

Becker’s continued gushing caused Homa’s ears and tail to droop in embarrassment.

“Hell, Homa should just take off of here and join the navy. Better money there!”

Aicher was joking, but Becker quickly shot him a glare.

“No, Homa shouldn’t go near the navy, Aicher! It’s not managed right these days.”

“Didn’t think I’d ever hear that out of you old Beck. I thought you loved the navy.”

Becker’s expression darkened. “Not these days. It’s not– it’s not run right anymore.”

Homa knew what he meant. She recalled their earlier conversation.

The Volkisch Movement was in charge of the Navy now.

But Homa didn’t know that she could agree that the Navy was ever “run right.”

After talking with Imani, she didn’t know whether any part of the world was “run right.”

And after today, she knew she didn’t want to be anywhere near a fight again.

Thankfully, Becker and Aicher ran themselves out of steam on this topic pretty soon.

Soon Homa was left to begin the work on the yacht.

First she was tasked with the exterior, which would take a few days. She had to remove any old coating in order to insure that any new coating was applied evenly. That meant dousing the exterior with a thinner chemical, using a plastic wiper to peel off all the coating; shining, polishing and painting the bare metal and filling any dents or scratches; and then applying the new coating in layers, waiting for each layer to set. Each layer would take, by Emma and Bertrand’s calculations, about eight hours to set. So that meant it took half as much time in reality– but it did extend the work schedule by several more days.

Staring at the massive yacht in front of her, Homa recalled Imani’s message.

If she was supposed to be snitching on Kitty, that meant Kitty was also alive and around.

So Imani and her had not killed each other on that night in Ballad’s Paradise.

Homa internally berated herself for having such a stupid idea in the first place.

Of course these spy games were a lot more complicated than shootouts in public places.

Donning a plastic mask and putting a pair of plastic sheets over her ears, Homa popped a cap off one of the barrels and firmly affixed a hose to it. That hose she connected to her chemical sprayer, and set herself to work, hosing down the stock livery of Kitty’s yacht and with it, the old layers of coating. With a 40 meter long and 13 meter tall yacht there was a lot of hull to hose down.

Her sprayer could launch a jet of chemical as high up as the yacht’s bridge and even higher, but to do things safely and smartly, Homa had the nozzle set very tight, and instead used a personal elevator to get up higher. Standing close to the hull, she lifted her platform to the section she was working on and sprayed a cone of chemicals at a low speed, to get a thin film over the hull, enough to wear away at the old coating without wasting product or spraying it everywhere. This method also took more time, which was probably the actual reason that the company did it this way.

When she was done with most of the port-side prow section, she elevated herself almost on top of the deck, and saw over it, in time to spot the bulkhead door into B.S.W opening and admitting a woman into the path toward the main dockyard. Heels clacked on the steel floor, and the approaching woman threw her blond hair and waved at Homa when she saw her over the yacht. On that day she was dressed in a blue blouse with a deep v-neck, and a tight, ruffled yellow skirt, but still wore her distinctive coat.

Kitty McRoosevelt, all smiles, had come to pay them a visit again.

“It’s fine if I look over your shoulder, isn’t it?” She asked, shouting up at Homa.

Comply promptly.

“It’s fine! It’s your money!” Homa replied. “But put on a disposable face mask!”

Safety first. Homa was spraying chemicals everywhere after all.

And she supposed it would be bad if Kitty McRoosevelt had to go to the hospital.

For Homa at least, if not for Imani Hadžić.

Now that Kitty was physically around and watching her from below with her back to a barrel of coating thinners with a little face mask on, fully integrated into the surroundings– Homa had to think about how she was going to get her to talk. Clearly Imani was not just going to come down here and cuff her. So there must have been something Imani wanted Homa to learn from Kitty before arresting her, or something that she wanted Kitty to do. But Homa had no idea, and she was not the biggest social butterfly in the world, so she had no idea how to extract it from her.

And of course, far be it for Imani not to be frustratingly cryptic and actually tell Homa anything.

“Have you ever thought of just blasting the side of the hull from down here?” Kitty asked.

“Huh? Uh, no, that’d be super dangerous. This stuff is really toxic.” Homa said.

She pointed a finger at her chemical sprayer, and Kitty nodded her head.

“Well, I’m glad they’re thinking about your safety around here.” Kitty said.

“I mean, yours too. You should back off a bit more. You don’t have a zip-up suit like me.”

Kitty heeded Homa’s warning and backed up from the yacht– but only a few steps more.

“It’s really impressive how you’re the only woman here. It’s such a male-dominated field.”

“Ah, it’s not really that hard. My co-workers are all super old guys. They can still do it.”

Despite trying not to feel flattered, Homa’s little tail began fluttering in its protective bag.

While Homa worked, Kitty remained near the site, often asking questions about the process or about the equipment Homa was using. These would be interspersed with questions about Homa personally, every so often. “So how old are you kid?” “How long have you worked here?” “How was vocational school?” “Do you guys get lunch breaks? You’ve been at it for a while!”

Homa had curt answers. She was engaged in work, and it was a little bit annoying.

However, she did feel a bit flattered. Even though it must have been part of Kitty’s scheme.

Few people ever took so much interest in what she was doing.

By the end of her shift, she had spent hours with Kitty, and she felt exhausted as she waved the crew goodbye and shambled up the ramp toward the elevator and the journey home. It was like she had done twice as much work today as normal. She almost forgot to account for the fact that she had survived being eaten by a monster. It had been an eventful day and the first many, as Kitty would start visiting the dockworkers every single day, punctuating Homa’s blurry days of eating, sleeping, and working with an intrusive but not always unpleasant or unwelcome burst of color.

Kitty was not alone in disrupting Homa’s life, however.

That afternoon, as Homa exited into the pavilion, she saw new digital signage up on every shop window, and the coming-and-going crowds of busy people began to pool in front of shops, some with their portables out, others asking strangers if they knew or had heard anything about this. On the shops, the signs read ‘Dynamic pricing in effect’. When Homa approached a shop that had sweaters for sale on the front window, she saw, for the first time, a price tag’s number fluctuate before settling on a slightly higher price than before. That sweater’s price rose by 26 Imperial Mark right before her eyes.

It was not a big change, and it did not happen often– Homa kept looking for a few minutes but did not personally see another price change that night, but she thought, it must be happening all over the shopping center, probably with more dramatic effects.

What did it mean?

On the tram, Homa sent Imani a mail. She was part of the government, wasn’t she?

“Imani, the shops in Kreuzung have ‘Dynamic Pricing’ now. Did something happen?”

She received an answer as soon as she got off the tram.

“Yeah, something happened.”

This woman–!

Gritting her teeth by herself on the elevator, Homa sent another message.

“Can you tell me what happened, Imani?”

This one did not receive an answer. Not right away, anyway.

Homa looked around the Shimii market, but there was no ‘Dynamic Pricing’ there– yet.

She stopped by Hasim’s for some more marrow bones and another bag of cabbage.

Paying careful attention to the condition of his wares– everything looked normal.

Those beef cubes must have really been selling out a lot.

“Hasim, has it been tough to source beef lately?” Homa asked.

“Ah, looking to pry into my business secrets, miss Baumann?” Hasim joked.

That was his good-natured way of suggesting she not ask that question.

Nevertheless, she satisfied her own anxiety. The Shimii shops weren’t out of goods.

Prices hadn’t changed either. Yet.

So what was happening in the core station? Homa felt perplexed.

After she returned home she immediately tapped on the wall twice to bring up the launcher and tapped the icon for the television. She already had the news channel playing. While she took off her jumpsuit a few commercials played advertising for Volwitz Foods’ latest ready-meals, for data plans for portables, Epoch Clothiers’ new line of all-vinyl see-through clothing, and finally, the news anchor reappeared on screen. Homa sat in her underwear, on the edge of her bed, ears twitching and tail swishing freely from the back of her shorts, awaiting any pertinent news.

Finally, after a few local puff pieces and some reminders that a murder happened recently, the anchor introduced a colleague who was at a massive wholesaler warehouse. Three enormous cargo elevators were packed full to bursting, and there were a lot of people buzzing around in the background as the camera panned over. The warehouse itself, for all the people in it, looked pretty empty of actual goods. Homa had never seen a place like this, but she assumed the stuff that got brought into Kreuzung from the agrispheres and factories had to be kept somewhere–

“We’ve never seen anything like this!” the reporter said excitedly, “Volwitz’ wholesalers all over Kreuzung have been posting massive delays in returning stock, and its led to a feeding frenzy of ship suppliers rushing in with their bulk orders. In all my years of covering the shipping biz I’ve never seen a warehouse this empty–” the reporter caught sight of a dark haired woman near one of the elevators, clipboard in hand, coordinating a series of forklifts full of crated-up food. He approached her, using a handheld remote to maneuver his drone camera around the other side of her. A dirty trick to make people feel trapped into an interview. Homa saw this often in this news channel.

“Ma’am looks like you made off good before the warehouse got ransacked! What’s your name? Do you work for a ship in port around here? Did you have any idea it’d be this crazy?”

“Um.” The woman stared awkwardly into the drone camera. She was rather pretty, her lips and eyes lightly reddened with makeup. Her uniform looked familiar too. She had a motherly sort of look to her, Homa thought. “I’m– Minardo. I am a ship victualer. I had no idea it would be this busy. I suppose I got lucky? I’m just trying to do my job here.” The drone camera hovered closer and she shooed it away.

Homa thought her Low Imbrian sounded pretty weird– definitely not from the region.

“Got any wisdom for the viewers at home on what these wholesale shortages might mean?”

Again the drone camera got closer to Minardo’s face– meeting a gaze full of killing intent.

Homa thought it looked like when Madame Arabie got mad–

“Leave me alone already!”

In the next instant the drone camera was on the floor and the reporter was shouting.

“No! I have freedom of the press! I was just trying to get some man-on-the-street–!”

As soon as the video cut away to an embarrassed-looking anchor in the studio, Homa felt a buzzing transfer through her bed, across the sheets. Homa realized the only person it could be and practically dove to the other end of the bed to pick it up. It wasn’t a call, however, but a mail, from Imani Hadžić.

She had responded to Homa’s earlier inquiry in much more detail now.

“Rhineanmetalle’s consumer brands have temporarily formed a cartel with Volwitz Foods and Epoch Clothiers, colluding to reduce output sold specifically to Kreuzung core. The cartel is trying to collectively turn the public against further labor strikes and break the strike in Kreuzung through economic shock. It’s a play by the fuhrer Adam Lehner using his influence over the capitalists. Volwitz and Epoch Clothiers were both majority-owned by liberal stakeholders who have since been targeted by the Volkisch. They are in no position to refuse for now. Supplies won’t run out entirely, one hopes, but prices will go wild.”

Homa read the mail twice, trying to pick apart every word for comprehension. She mostly understood it– a bunch of the big brands were refusing to sell to Kreuzung as revenge for the Rhineanmetalle strikes so that people would be scared off from supporting the strikers. Despite this, she still wrote and sent a mail to Imani, her skin tingling with anxiety, that read– “What does that mean for us Imani?”

Her eyes remained glued to the portable for almost ten minutes.

Fingers quivering over the cold metal.

What does that mean for her? Would she be okay?

Then, finally another mail from Imani arrived.

“Together, the cartel represents 63% of all goods sold in Kreuzung. About the Shimii in Tower Eight: a few people like Leija Kladuša have the authority and ability to import goods produced by Shimii in other stations per certain agreements and will continue to make these available. But doing some quick back of the paw math, 43% of consumption by Shimii in Tower Eight is of cartelized goods. There’ll be shortages, especially in food. Volwitz products account for over half the Shimii’s food consumption. It’s only in local textiles and hygiene products that we begin to see a gap in local goods over cartelized goods.”

Leija– that was Madame Arabie’s name. Leija Kladuša. Few people knew it.

Madame Arabie brought in poppy from outside Kreuzung and refined it into drugs.

Homa knew this was the most lucrative pillar of her criminal Empire.

Rich Imbrians loved the heroin and the even stronger and less cut up opium she produced.

That drug money funded a lot of the Madame’s less pernicious pursuits.

There was another buzz, and a third mail appeared from Imani shortly thereafter.

“Without goods to buy, money is useless. Restaurants will get more expensive soon. While you still can, buy a bag of flour, a thing of vegetable oil and buy zlatla. You know what it is right? Western Shimii love the stuff. Half cup water + zlatla + a cup flour, mix dough in a bowl, oil the dough, and fry. Three a day to stay alive. If you can’t fry, put the bowl near your room heater, add a bit more water, cover with a plate, to steam a dumpling. If you have meat or vegetables, eat a little a time with your cakes to ration it.”

Homa blinked at the instructions. Her tail stood up on end as much as it could in surprise.

Was she expecting some kind of famine? This was starting to become surreal.

“Can’t you do anything about this?” Homa asked. “You’re a big-shot, right?”

“Nope~” came the reply. “I’m just a soldier. It’ll get worse if we lose Kitty. So just focus up, okay?”

Upon mention of that woman again, Homa felt her frustrations with Imani resurface.

“What can she do to this station that’s worse than this?” Homa furiously typed.

Promptly: “Destroy the whole thing. Kill everyone. You and I included.”

Homa froze. That had to be a joke right? Nobody would– nobody could destroy a station.

Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the message. So curt and simple, but– terrifying.

Those were the most terrifying words Homa had ever seen on a screen in her life.

Destroy a station? Kill everyone– including Homa? No– that couldn’t be what Kitty–

Nobody would do that. Nobody would. It was completely insane. Out of this world insane.

Another buzz. Another mail. Homa’s shaking hands, her spiraling vision–

“Trust me and stay on task. Love ya~” it said.

A black heart to punctuate it. Homa’s fingers were shaking too much to form words back.

Imani was done talking to her, Homa knew it right then. There would be no more mails.

She leaped off the bed, turned off the television and rushed to her closet.

Throwing on her one good casual pair of pants and a shirt, along with her jacket, she walked back out to Hasim’s with her hands in her pockets and her gaze turned almost exclusively on her own feet. Focusing on walking and breathing while she could feel the walls warping around her. A bag of flour, a tube of cooking oil, and a can of pickles. She could swing that. And it would feel like doing something– in a moment where Homa otherwise felt like she had no control of her life.

There were a lot of things stewing in her brain. Too many things.

Bubbling up to the surface of her anxieties, however, was one question.

Was Kitty really capable of destroying Kreuzung? Was that even possible?


“Homa, what do you think about how the Shimii live here?”

Kitty’s voice snapped Homa out of a reverie.

She opened her eyes wide, suppressed a gasp. She looked down at her hands. She was done dissolving the coating on Kitty’s yacht, so now she had to repaint it to Kitty’s wishes. Her chemical sprayer, after a thorough cleaning, was performing double duty as a spray paint gun with paint canisters. Hefting the object in her hands, the world around her became clearer. She was at work; she had been painting.

Her head had been heavy, brain swimming in a thick stew of her concerns.

In cases like this, she liked to immerse herself in work and drown out the world around her.

Now, one of those worries that swam in her head was also present beside her.

Because the paint was not toxic, Kitty felt like she could stick closer to Homa.

She had been pretending to be interested in the painting, but she really just wanted to talk.

Homa turned her head and tried not to shoot her a glare.

“What were you saying?” Homa asked. Masking her irritation as best she could.

Whenever she looked at Kitty, Imani’s mail came to mind and upset her more than she was.

For her part, Kitty either did not notice or ignored Homa’s attitude. She was bright as ever.

“The Shimii in Kreuzung seem to have it hard– I just wondered how you felt about that.”

Homa grunted. “I mean– What is there to say? Yeah– it sucks. We just live with it.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Kitty said, gesturing with her palm up.

“No? I’m just an ordinary work-a-day girl.”

“Even ordinary people can make a difference! What if you campaigned for office?”

Homa fixed Kitty a look, as if trying to physically scrutinize how she could be so ignorant.

Kitty simply smiled at her. Ignorance must have truly been bliss. She was all smiles.

“I realize it would be difficult– but not impossible.” She said, as if realizing her mistake.

“It is impossible because Shimii can’t even vote in Kreuzung elections.” Homa said.

“I see. I come from Aachen. It’s different there.” Kitty replied. It sounded like it was true.

Homa’s ears twitched with a mild interest. “How much different can it be?”

Aachen was far in the north of Rhinea, on the edges of Eisental. Its waters bordered the Great Ayre Reach to the northwest and the Palatinate to the northeast, and Khaybar’s northern range wasn’t too far. Homa did not know much about it except that there was frequent traffic between Aachen and Kreuzung, both being major cities. When she started working at B.S.W, she would routinely see customers from Aachen, just because it was a major port that issued official papers, so it was a place ships could come from.

“Aachen has a more progressive culture.” Kitty said. “It’s a border station so you have Palatine big shots, Rhinean liberals, Bosporus transplants. It’s a travel hub so all kinds of people go there. There is a big shipyard there with a strong labor culture, and a technology university. And because it’s a border town, it’s a place where there’s been significant cultural exchange across its history. I like to think melting pots breed understanding and sympathy. I guess Aachen has a stronger activist culture than Kreuzung.”

Homa furrowed her brow, skeptical. “Are there Shimii there? Can they even vote there?”

“Interested now?” Kitty chuckled. “There are Shimii. And they can vote in local elections.”

“Do they have good jobs? Can they live anywhere? Do they get to go to the university?”

Kitty’s expression darkened a tiny bit. “They do have their own habitation there–”

“So they live in a ghetto.” Homa said. “Don’t mince words about it. I’m not a dumb kid.”

Words spilled out of her. She almost regretted becoming impassioned. But not completely.

Some part of her thought she should have shouted in Kitty’s face for being so naïve.

No matter what niceties the Imbrians let Shimii have– it was always like this in the end.

“I’m sorry, Homa. I am belying my ignorance, but I do think there is always hope for change. There are places where Shimii have it better– so the Shimii in Kreuzung have models they could follow and hopes that they can have for change in their own lives here. Their struggle isn’t for nothing.” Kitty replied.

“We already live in a ghetto over here.” Homa said. “So what’s there to aspire to?”

This was stupid. She was just trying to gain Homa’s sympathy for her own purposes.

While Homa painted her boat, she was just standing there spouting empty rhetoric.

But it was also the most that an Imbrian had really shown interest in Shimii specifically.

So Homa also felt a bit taken aback, and unable to be fully aggravated with her.

And besides, Imani wanted Kitty to win Homa’s sympathy anyway.

She couldn’t be too mad– but it was still frustrating. Voting? They had bigger problems!

“Why do you care about the Shimii all of a sudden anyway?” Homa asked.

She tried to sound gentle, but it did come off extremely confrontational.

Kitty did not appear offended. She smiled. “Because you are one, maybe.”

She winked. Homa scoffed. Did she think she was being charming?

“How shallow.” (She had to admit she was the tiniest bit charmed.)

“I was joking. You could say I am something of an organizer. Maybe I see an opportunity.”

“Don’t tell Becker that. He hates workplace rabblerousers.” Homa joked.

“Duly noted!” Kitty laughed again. “You know, I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”

“Huh?”

Homa turned off the paint sprayer, pointed it at the ground and looked over her shoulder.

What was this woman about to say–?!

Kitty took a deep breath. Those seconds felt like an eternity to Homa, who had far too many wrong ideas about what Kitty intended to talk about. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of things to try to change Rhinea, and the Empire, to try to do good for its people.” Homa practically deflated like a balloon full of anxiety but tried not to show it. Kitty continued to speak– her voice sounded a tiny bit more passionate than usual. “Not only in Aachen, but across the Imbrium Ocean. I know exactly how hard you have it, Homa. And there are a lot of people who wish it wasn’t so. I can’t say more, I just hope you understand.”

“It’s tough to see it that way from in here. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa replied.

What she really wanted to say, was something like ‘their wishes don’t help me any’.

But she thought, Kitty was trying to sound nice. So Homa should accept it for now.

Their conversation did stick in Homa’s brain for a little bit that day.

How did the Shimii live in other places? Was there anywhere that they were truly free?

And in the places where they were discriminated against– who was standing up for them?

In Kreuzung, it did feel like nobody was doing anything to help them.

Madame Arabie’s kind of help ran on favors and debts and commitments. It was crooked.

Imani was a member of the Volkisch. Was she really able to do anything from there?

On the way home, she thought about Radu the Marzban too. He was a hero, a living legend.

There were a lot of tales of him saving people in shipwrecks, delivering supplies during emergencies, killing Imbrians who committed heinous crimes on Shimii. They said that he and his crew of raiders wandered the seas righting wrongs committed upon the Shimii– but with all his strength, then, why did the Shimii still have to live like this? Couldn’t Radu the Marzban take down all the villains exploiting the Shimii? He saved Homa– but he couldn’t save her mother. He was a legend, flitting in the shadows.

But even their myths and legends couldn’t change things for them fundamentally.

“Could Imani do it? With all her money? With her Volkisch clout? But she isn’t–”

“Hey. You look pretty troubled.”

Homa arrived at her room and was about to head in when she noticed someone standing in front of the next room door over. In fact, this person was leaning against the door, with a small cartridge vaporizer in hand– one of the disposable models, not like Madame Arabie’s pipe. A faint smell of cinnamon wafted from her fingers. To Homa’s surprise, it was Madiha al-Nakara, her pale hair wrapped in a little bun, wearing a garish, flowery green shirt of a similar style to the last.

“I– I’m okay– Miss–?”

Madiha blew out a bit of cinnamon smoke. “No, not miss. Just call me Maj– Madiha.”

Homa stared at her for a moment and then stared at the door– the room right next door.

“Huh? You’ve been staying next-door all this time?” Homa asked.

“Since a few days ago.” Madiha said. “Our schedules don’t intersect much I guess.”

Homa blinked hard. “Is that girl with you too? You’re both staying here?”

“Parinita? Yeah? She’s worn out, taking a nap inside.”

Wait a minute–

Recalling that night, where Homa overhead–

impassioned sounds of lovemaking–

through the room walls–

had Madiha– with that petite companion of hers–?

up so late like that, and the yelling–?!

“Why are you making a face? Did Arabie tell you something distasteful about me?”

Madiha scrutinized her, while Homa took back control of her hanging mouth.

“No! Of course not! I have nothing against you. It’s– It’s really not that.”

“You look even more skittish now. Are you really okay?”

“Well–”

“C’mon out with it already. Tell Big Sister Madiha what the matter is.”

Could Homa really ask her to keep it down at night?

Would Madiha not immediately wring Homa’s neck if those words left her mouth?

Madiha openly sighed, discarded her vaporizer in a nearby trash chute, and walked over.

She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder– she was trying to be reassuring, but her grip–!

“Look, I’ve seen that troubled urchin look before. I can at least hear you out. Okay?”

Homa nodded. “Um, Madiha– what do you think about how Shimii live here?”

Ultimately it was impossible to ask her to fuck her girlfriend more quietly.

It was the fault of the shoddy construction here anyway.

So instead another topic that had been stewing in Homa’s brain came out in its place.

Madiha nodded sagely. “Ah. You’ve got money on the brain again– can’t blame you.”

Homa wished all she had in her brain was money troubles. It’d be so much simpler.

“Homa was your name?” Madiha asked.

“Um, yeah.” Homa replied. “Homa Baumann. I’m– I’m mixed.“ She added to explain her surname.

Madiha gave her a wistful look for a moment. She looked deep in thought.

“You’re a Shimii, Homa. Your parentage doesn’t matter.“ Madiha took in a breath. Homa had never been accepted so casually and confidently. It took her aback some, until Madiha started talking again. “Homa, no matter how bad it gets for us, there will always be dancing, weddings, big pots of stew and bread. Shimii use whatever we have to try to live through the era. We survived the cataclysm and live here underwater. We’ve been through much worse than this. Our religion was nearly destroyed, our people persecuted, our homes and names stolen, but we live. Our ummah pray for better times and live their lives as best they can. So to answer your question: we all know how things are. But why are they? That’s what I ask myself. Not how people live. I know that. They live as best as they can. So ask why instead.”

Homa was surprised. It was a more in-depth answer than she thought she would get. After throwing that dumb question out, Homa imagined she would talk about the food or about parties.

That was the kind of answer Homa expected out of someone much older than Madiha looked.

She had thought of Madiha as being another gangster like Arabie was.

Maybe she was something different. That look in her eyes, it was almost tender.

Homa could almost feel her sympathy wrapping around her like warm colors–

“So if you ask me what I think about Kreuzung; the Imbrian bastards here sicken me.”

She raised an empty hand to her lips, as if so distracted she forgot discarding her vaporizer.

This seemed to make her momentarily frustrated. She closed the hand into a fist.

“Madiha–”

Homa briefly hesitated. Her head stewing again. Kitty’s words; Imani’s words–

“Madiha, can anything change what’s happening to us here?” Homa asked.

“Fighting.” Madiha responded. Quickly; as if a quietly honed reflex.

She grit her teeth. As if it bothered her to have responded so quickly.

“Fighting?” Homa asked. “But– fighting who?” The Imbrians? All of them? How?

“Bah. I’m sorry. I just said whatever. Pay it no mind.” Madiha sighed.

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Madiha. You can speak your mind.” Homa said.

She really wanted to hear what Madiha had to say. She felt like she needed to hear it.

She was so intriguing. Was there someone around here with an actual answer to things–?

Madiha grunted. “Homa, I’m not going to tell you to fight anyone personally. We’re not all fighters. But just don’t be complacent, and never say thank you for the little crumbs you get here. If someone does resort to violence, do not rush to condemn them on that fact alone.”

Those words dropped like a heavy load of ingredients into the pot boiling Homa’s brain.

“I’m just trying to understand.” Homa said. Her emotions got away with her for a second. She started to weep. “You said fighting– but fighting who? How does living get better for us? For the past few months, everything here has been going to hell. Nothing feels certain anymore. I’ve always wanted to get out of here and go out into the ocean. But lately I’m thinking– what if there’s nothing out in the Ocean for me but more of this? Even if I survived all the trouble and got out? So what am I supposed to do? If I stay here I could struggle and maybe die; and it could be the same anywhere! What do I do then?”

She raised her voice, curled her fingers into fists, turned a red weeping gaze on Madiha.

For that instant, a repressed anger she couldn’t direct at Arabie, Imani, Kitty– leaked out.

And yet, the stranger upon whom this childish injustice was done did not condemn her.

“Homa, my answer to that is pretty bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it for you.” Madiha said.

“Then just say it. Nobody around here tells me the truth.” Homa replied, bitterly.

Madiha grinned at her. She crossed her arms, locked Homa’s eyes with a red glint in hers.

“There is no place in the Imbrium Ocean where you can go and lead a happy storybook life as a Shimii. You will run into the hatred the Imbrians project onto our flesh, their hatred of our marked bodies, their hatred of our worship of Allah. But I hate them in turn, and my hatred is a prayer of fire that will consume all of their works. Allahu ackbar. If you don’t want to fight them, Homa, I will fight for you. For every life the pacifists preserve, I will take ten to assure victory. We will kill as many as it takes.”

Behind Madiha, the door to the apartment opened, and a sleepy-looking girl walked out.

Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long blue skirt, yawning.

Homa and Madiha both turned their smoldering gazes her way. She pointedly stared back.

“Ma– oh, that’s the girl from the other night? Are you troubling her Ma– Madiha?”

Madiha shrugged dismissively. “We were having a lively conversation about life.”

“Elocution is a gift from Allah to our people– and you used it to make her cry.”

“I wasn’t trying to– she just asked for my opinion, and I gave it candidly.”

Homa sighed, wiping her forearm across her face. Her brain steeping in frustration.

“No, it’s okay. I appreciated her candidness. I’m sorry for the trouble, Madiha.”

She turned quickly from them and opened her door, as fast as an escape.

“Hey, listen. If you need any help, you can come to me. But think about what I said–!”

Even if Homa did not want to, she would be thinking about it, even as the door shut Madiha out. Even as the door behind her closed, and her legs gave out, and she sat back against the door weeping. Staring up at the ceiling with hands over her face. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.


As-salamu alaykum.”

“Ah, Homa, welcome, welcome. If you’re looking for the marrow bones again–?”

“Hasim I can see it. You’re all out of them. Not even the smallest bones left?”

For days now the beef bones available had been shrinking, and less in the bag, but still–

There had to be something!

“Afraid so. It’s been tough, you know, I get these specifically from the Agrisphere in Suhar, from my Shimii cousins there, they work so hard, it’s the best quality in the whole country. Homa, when you go for quality like I do, it’s tough sometimes, sometimes you just come up empty-handed if you only get the best, but I promise you, Inshallah we’re going to restock soon, and you’ll be amazed at the quality–”

Homa was barely listening to Hasim’s little speech.

She cast disgruntled looks about the shop, taking stock of the potential soup ingredients. He was out of all the frozen vacuum bag meat he normally carried. His refrigerator and freezer were empty save for the frost. He had not done anything to cover them up, so he must have run out recently. He would probably get bony stockfish and throw them in there to look like he had something on hand. In his pantry section he had cans of stuff– there were cans of shredded chicken and ground beef. There was a can of green beans packed in water and salt. It wasn’t cabbage, but it would do. She couldn’t afford to eat restaurants, so she needed to cook with what she could get.

“Pleasure doing business as always, Homa. May Allah see you to safety.”

For want of anything to polite to say, Homa said nothing at all in response.

She walked out with a can of ground beef, a can of ground chicken and cans of green beans.

None of it was her first choice, but it would fill her belly.

She wasn’t at the level of eating fried flour with zlatla just yet.

The deteriorating quality of her lonac was not lost on her, however. It was depressing.

It was a week now since she last had beef cubes. Normally Hasim’s supply was steady.

Bone marrow lonac wasn’t bad– but Homa really wanted to have a nice meal again.

She had been working so hard! On Kitty’s boat– on snitching to Imani–

Didn’t she deserve a treat? But she couldn’t afford it. Especially with things getting worse.

For someone who had been taking care of herself like an adult for years now, she felt utterly without control of her own life. For days now, she had thought of begging Imani for the money to just eat at a restaurant without it coming out of her own pocket, so she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of doing so– but she was ashamed of asking Imani for any help. (And wary of the consequences.)

Everything felt more burdensome, more intolerable. She couldn’t just keep her head down.

As she walked through town, she looked around at the conditions of the other stores.

Imani had been right.

Epoch Clothiers, Volwitz Foods, Arleiter Tools, even Raylight Beauty–

All of the stores associated with Imbrian brands had closed early that day.

Signs on the window exhorted shoppers to subscribe to stocking alerts in their rooms.

Homa wondered if they had no supplies at all, or if they were still getting anything.

Volwitz Foods shops especially concerned her.

If they didn’t restock, all the “mom & pop” food shops would get hammered with orders.

There was an air of tension on the streets. People lingered in front of shops as if in a trance, as if uncomprehending. There were groups in the middle of the street passing around gossip and information. Homa almost wanted to tell them what Imani knew, but she had no idea whether it was public knowledge, or if it could be traced back to her and cause trouble. There were fewer smiles on people’s faces, fewer women in their best dresses going to dance, fewer lads at the pubs watching the football matches. Homa wondered how the Flowing Scarlet would look today too.

Was Madame Arabie still stocked up?

Homa trudged back home, feeling like she was dragging her own body weight.

At least she had the very last pot of bone marrow lonac to look forward to.

Her tail gave a sad little twitch in anticipation.

As soon as she rounded the corner to her own hall, her heart jumped–

“Homa!”

She hardly had time to react when a woman’s arms wrapped around her.

Pulling Homa tight into her chest.

Brown hair, emerald eyes, a brown blouse with gold-painted lines.

“Madame?” Homa yelled out in shock. “What–?”

“Homa, I’m so happy! I’ve been looking all over for you!” Madame Arabie was giddy.

Her breath– she reeked of alcohol. Her words were slurred, her eyes distant.

She was drunk!

At least she was smart enough not to be using the drugs instead–

But it was still a bad situation! Homa tried to extricate herself from Arabie’s grip.

“Madame! I’m– I’m happy to see you too! Let me go and lets– let’s relocate to my room!”

Arabie was so strong! No wonder everyone was so afraid of her!

Homa had never been trapped in a hug so difficult to get herself loose from!

“Homa~” Madame Arabie’s voice slurred. “You’re such a good little kadaif. So good to me.”

Kadaif? As in the dessert? Her brain was truly going out wasn’t it?

“Allah give me patience!” Homa cried out. “Why me? Just– please get moving this way!”

Homa began pulling Arabie’s weight step by step down the hall, over to her door.

Before any nosy neighbors stuck their heads out to watch– especially one in particular.

“Because–” Madame Arabie tried to answer Homa’s cries, which were not directed at her.

She choked up for a moment, her head leaning into Homa’s shoulder.

Her fingers caressed Homa’s dark hair.

“I don’t– I don’t have anyone else.” She mumbled.

Homa grit her teeth.

She managed to shuffle the drunk Arabie all the way into her room, through the door, which she locked behind her, and then finally cast her down onto her bed. Homa stood, breathing heavily, in front of the bed, with Arabie laying down on it. Arms spread, giggling, her chest rising up and down with steady breathing, legs hanging off the end. What was she supposed to do about this?

“Madame–”

“Call me Leija! I’m too young to be a Madame!”

Madame Arabie– Leija curled up her legs on the bed and shifted over onto her side.

Looking at Homa through cloudy eyes, making herself comfortable.

Her cheeks and eyes were red, and the pale insides of her ears were flushed too.

She was completely off the precipice from the alcohol.

Homa could only imagine the disparaging things the town aunties could concoct about this.

Hopefully not too many people saw Leija in this position. Or would see her with Homa too.

“Leija,” Homa acquiesced with a sigh. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Leija shuddered in response. Her brainlessly cheerful demeanor darkened.

“It was so stressful. So stressful Homa. I just want to hide. Can I hide from them here?”

“Them? Who is them? Is someone after you?”

The only reason Homa wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack was that Leija was so drunk she could have easily been making the whole thing up in her head. Homa had enough problems as it was without having to be caught in the crossfire of Leija’s mafia troubles, but also, nobody ever messed with Leija no matter how bad things got. So she assumed it mustn’t have been anything important.

And finally, Leija herself confirmed: “Problems. Problems are always after me.”

“Fine. It’s not use talking to a drunk. Do whatever you want. I can’t stop you.” Homa said.

“You’re so nice to me, Homa.” Leija mumbled. “So good and nice and lovely. My little kadaif.

Her words began to slur much more and to trail off much more quickly.

“Take it easy and sleep it off.” Homa said, trying to sound reassuring.

Leija did not run her own businesses, it was impossible for her to be at so many places or to make so many decisions by herself. She had managers and a chain of command, Homa knew this well from being part of her organization. Homa knew that Leija was not personally needed anywhere unless there was a dispute. She imagined the scenario in her head: Leija’s various cronies gave her the bad news about the shops and prices in Kreuzung, telling her that she would lose money and that things would be rough unless something changed. Feeling helpless about it, she drank too much to cope with it, and ran away from the Scarlet on some aimless anxiety impulse and went in search of someone familiar.

Now she was here, drunk out of her mind on Homa’s bed.

Things had never gotten this out of hand with her, but Homa never put it past her.

Though, she had once imagined that the day Madame Arabie personally came to her room, it would be to drag her out and shoot her. Not to get drunk and sleep it off on Homa’s bed. Out of those two nightmarish fantasies she did not even know which one she preferred. Once Leija came to her senses, she could still very well lose her temper at Homa over the whole thing anyway.

There was no winning with this woman.

Despite how much trouble Leija was causing, Homa didn’t want to disrupt her sleep.

She withdrew a spare gel pillow and a nylon blanket from beneath the bed and made herself a little nest on the floor to lie down on and stare at the ceiling for a while. She needed to decompress. Her stomach was growling for a bowl of lonac, but she did not want to move just yet. Life kept coming at her like hammer blows one after another. Breathing deep was all she could do to surmount it.

“Homa,”

Leija’s slurred voice sounded far less cheerful all of a sudden.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Homa.”

On the floor, Homa turned her back on the bed. Leija had not moved, but if she did, Homa did not want to look at her spouting this nonsense. She grit her teeth, and her ears folded against her head as much as they could, but of course, she could still hear the woman on her bed moaning.

“I’m sorry Homa. I never took good care of you. I even– when I saw you in the suit– I even thought it would be nice to sleep with you. I’m a rotten woman, Homa. I am destined for the fire. You are a treasure that Allah sent to me. I looked you in the eye and discarded you every time.”

“Shut up. I don’t want this from you.” Homa mumbled.

“Homa. I’ve been wanting to say sorry. Ever since he came back. I’m so sorry.”

He? Radu? What was she saying? Was it still all nonsense? Homa sat up.

On the bed, Leija Kladuša was nearly falling asleep. With the last of her strength–       

“Radu and Imani Hadžić. Those bastards– those bastards–” Her voice trailed off.


“Here you go! Everything went quite professionally, even for me!”

Deep in the Kreuzung Core station, inside a pressurized maintenance tunnel just under the rim of the baseplate. A woman dressed casually in a jacket, skirt, and tights, with orange-mottled gray skin and brown hair, handed Kitty McRoosevelt a small, handheld device, put together from parts.

An analog switch, an antennae, an electric circuit, a tiny system-on-a-chip, and the contacts for a crude little battery. When she said ‘everything went professionally’ she must have been referring to the preceding courier work to set it up, because the device itself had rather crude workmanship.

It was difficult to ascertain whether it was real in the dim, intermittent light in the tunnel.

“When you toggle this device on, you’ll have 12 hours to make sure everything is ready. I would suggest taking out the batteries right afterward– the signal is encrypted, and it will be sent to the drone faster than anyone can notice it, but if it stays on, it will keep transmitting and give you away. So just chuck it and step on it when you’re done. The drone will take an 8 hour journey to your buddies in the abyss of Masud. They are ready and awaiting the signal. Then, at full combat speed, the fleet will make it here in 4 hours. I informed them of the location of the B.S.W. dock– it’s up to you to have it secured.”

“Up to me?” Kitty McRoosevelt said. “You’re not coming?”

“Perimeter defense isn’t my thing. But I got you some big strong boys and girls for that.”

Xenia Laskaris smiled girlishly at Kitty and Marina McKennedy, their other witness.

Her dark-green, exoskeletal antennae rose slightly like arms spread in joy.

“She’s kept her word.” Marina said. “I never asked her to stand and fight with you.”

“I wouldn’t have gone this far for you if it’d ultimately lead to that. It’s just not my style.” Xenia said. “Marina will take you to meet the rest of the team. I need to start limiting my involvement because the local crews are skittish about outsider Katarrans. Apparently there’s a whole fleet from the Mycenean Military Commission stuck in Eisental, demanding mercenaries join them– it’s a whole thing.”

“But they won’t object to working for ‘Imbrians’. That is apolitical to them.” Marina said.

“Exactly. Don’t tell them you’re actually Cogitans by the way.” Xenia said.

“I never intended to. Well, I suppose if this thing doesn’t work, I’ll know who to curse.”

Kitty spoke gravely. Xenia seemed more amused by it than anything.

“Trust me, I want you to succeed. I live for this kinda shit. It’s job security for me!”

Chaos, she meant. War: destruction, killings, and upheaval.

Twelve hours away as soon as Kitty hit the button. The G.I.A.’s operation would begin.

Her fingers hovered over the switch. She did not flip it, not yet.

But now, the power to kill had been placed in her hands. Her empty heart unwavering.

She only needed one more day. Kitty would get what she needed from the Shimii girl.

“Kitty.“

Marina spoke up as they left the maintenance tunnel and Xenia Laskaris behind them.

“Think before you press that button. That’s all I ask.“ She said. With an air of grave finality.

Kitty scoffed.

“Marina. I’ve done a lot more thinking than you want to admit.“

There was a current driving Kitty McRoosevelt. The weight of ages, history itself given voice to haunt her.

Through her, through her grief, pain, ignorance and bigotry, it would conclude the inevitable tragedy.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.2]

Madame Arabie casually reached for Homa’s face, taking a lock of her dark hair, and rubbing it between her fingers, feeling the texture. She looked pleased with herself, touching Homa’s hair, rubbing her cheek, as if she had been tending a garden and found bushes flowering. Her proximity and the liberties she took with Homa made the elevator ride extremely uncomfortable. But she did not feel like she could protest.

“Lovely, lovely. You’ve been taking care of yourself.” She said.

“Yes, ma’am. Skin and hair care, like you taught me.” Homa said.

When she could afford to do so, anyway. Shampoo and moisturizer was extra in the shower fees.

“Good. It’s beautiful. You do make a pretty girl, Homa. This is your mother’s hair, right?”

No. That was wrong.

“Yes. That’s right.”

It was her father’s hair color and texture.

Her father was an Imbrian; her mother was Shimii. But Madame Arabie didn’t really care.

And Homa did not want to spoil her seemingly good mood.

Looking on the bright side, she was being taken to Madame Arabie’s club and restaurant.

The Flowing Scarlet, the headquarters of Arabie’s gang and nexus of control over Tower Eight, was a grand building impossible to miss. Its home in tier four was an “open” type layer of the tower, where rather than having a high-ceiling corridor with spaces set into its walls, there was a free, cubical space with discrete buildings inside it and streets which ran through them. This allowed the Scarlet, a two-winged, three-story structure that looked like an entire hotel, to stand on its own over the smaller shops and houses surrounding it. Everything around the Scarlet looked fairly ordinary but the main thoroughfare from the elevator leading to the Scarlet was well lit and amply beautified, like a carpet into the venue.

Once upon a time, this tier had been a warehousing district, with crates stacked high. When the tower was converted from an industrial hub to a segregated habitat for the Shimii, this particularly spacious tier started to be built up by Shimii that had connections to powerful Imbrians in Eisental and beyond.

Homa had heard that this was before Arabie’s time, but that she came in like thunder afterwards, sweeping everything up and quickly climbing the Shimii underworld. She could believe it easily.

Now, this place was her temple, the symbol of her wealth and the pleasures it bought.

Homa had been to the Scarlet before, and she knew the interior well. From the front door was a dazzling lobby branching right and left. On the left wing of the building on the ground floor there was an upscale bar space, while the right wing contained the main attraction: a restaurant space with a theater and a runway that bifurcated the floorspace, surrounded by tables. Dancing girls in revealing, “exotic” clothing performed for the crowd, singing, dancing, putting on short, sexy skits, flashing skin at the men below.

Even Imbrians came into Tower Eight exclusively on the promise of a night of adventure at the Flowing Scarlet. This mystique surrounding the venue helped Madame Arabie to rake in a lot of cash.

Between her qualities as a hostess and all the heroin she traded in, the Madame had made a lot of friends.

On the higher floors of the Scarlet, Madame Arabie herself made her residence, and her close business associates came and went. Behind those beautiful, marbled halls, were nestled the spoils of bribery, extortion, and drug trafficking. Sometimes, even committed by boys and girls Madame Arabie “hosted” as a “benefactor” to lost and orphaned Shimii. This was all part of her power– and it was all tacitly supported by the Imbrians, for whom Tower Eight was a lucrative attraction as well as a ghetto.

Here, the lowlife Shimii unworthy of Imbrian grace could do everything illegal the Imbrians couldn’t.

They provided pleasures that became desirable because they were forbidden and distant.

It was for that reason, and almost that reason alone, that Tower Eight was how it was.

Homa was keenly aware of all of this, of its deepest depths. She had seen it all.

With all that said– the food was delicious. Madame Arabie had priority on goods after all.

Flowing Scarlet was the liveliest place here. Homa could at least enjoy the luxury.

Goods, talent, people’s bodies; Madame Arabie had her pick of all the best from the station’s Shimii.

They were all hers to use, whether they believed it or not.

Better to be used than discarded. Better to have a little pleasure than suffer frugally.

“If it weren’t for the girls being so sensitive, Homa, you would live with me.”

It was a promise she had heard a few times before.

Like everything else Madame Arabie said, it didn’t mean anything until she actually did it.

As soon as they stepped off the elevator, Madame Arabie removed a sash around her waist.

She wore it as a drape over her head instead, like Hijab, to conceal herself on the street.

“You’re not going through the front dressed like that. Come with me.”

Madame Arabie took Homa up the street in front of the Flowing Scarlet and then turned a sharp corner around it, taking her into an alleyway abutting a warehouse that was likely owned by the venue and its Madame as well. She swiped a keycard to open a side-door into the warehouse.

Homa’s assumption proved correct.

Inside, she found herself in a room dominated by long lines of racks from which hung dozens, maybe hundreds of costumes and uniforms for the waitstaff and the dancing girls. There were risqué strapless cut off tops with golden tassels hanging from the underwire, the cups designed to push up the girl’s breasts. There were long skirts with broad slits across the sides to bare the girl’s legs for the customer’s delight. Cut off translucent sleeves and veils added a touch of tantalizing sheer black to the costumes, which came in many colors, but all of which were glittery and filigreed in gold and silver seams.

Stereotypical “harem girl” style costumes– people went wild for these.

It was the complete opposite of what Shimii women were supposed to be like, but no one really cared.

Homa had to admit she would have gone wild for a girl wearing this too.

But about wearing it herself– she wasn’t too sure. She felt a hint of excitement, but it felt weird too.

Homa’s breasts and hips had grown quite a bit– but she probably still couldn’t pull it off.

Still– it was adventurous to think about– girl’s clothes fascinated her–

“Don’t worry, I am aware you don’t like this kind of thing, and besides, it’d only alarm people if I was seen walking around with a dancing girl, it’d be like preferential treatment. Those girls can get quite catty, you know? No, you’ll be wearing one of these instead. It’ll suit you better and draw less attention.”

She withdrew from the racks a button-down shirt, a waistcoat, and a pair of pants.

While it was much less embarrassing to wear, there was a part of Homa that was a little bit disappointed– being able to try on the dancing girls’ costumes harmlessly, without becoming Madame Arabie’s restaurant minion, might have been fun. Still, maybe the waitstaff uniform did fit her better.

Madame Arabie put Homa’s work clothes in a bag and watched her get dressed up as a waiter.

“Put this on too– you’ll be my gentlemanly guest, rather than seen as a waiter.”

Saying this, Madame Arabie handed Homa a blazer to go over the shirt and waistcoat.

“Do I get a monocle too?” Homa joked.

There was a little instant of fear– had she gotten too casual?

But Madame Arabie just giggled at her.

“Don’t get cocky. Usually it’s only people of refinement who get a date with me.”

She poked a shocked Homa in the chest.

“Be grateful and come on. You can get your stuff back from here on your way home.”

With a coquettish expression, she glided out of the warehouse.

Homa donned the blazer and followed her with utter bewilderment.

Inside, the Flowing Scarlet was as opulent as Homa remembered it.

Shiny white floors decorated with geometric, floral patterns, and the banners of the walls with Shimii heraldry, moons and stars and images of mosque architectures– these were the most authentically “Shimii” design elements of this fantasy venue. Golden chandeliers and fake wood desks and cabinets and tables, the torch-lit sensuous atmosphere of the restaurant, the dancing girls putting on their tantalizing show, all the rest of it, catered exclusively to the Imbrian imagination. Not that there weren’t plenty of Shimii enjoying it as well. Those who couldn’t afford the restaurant could go to the bar and get a glimpse of the girls every so often from afar. It was like paying for a drink and a sandwich just to get to watch a distant advertisement for the rest of Madame Arabie’s offerings. Homa couldn’t understand it.

Both halves of the venue were extremely popular, however.

Maybe because there just wasn’t anything else as lively as beautiful as this.

No other clubs, even those owned by Madame Arabie, had this atmosphere.

That mixture of high class with exotic, unabashed sexuality, existed nowhere else.

And on that night, the proprietress herself walked through the front.

As soon as they entered through the door she pulled off the covering from her face.

Madame Arabie began to embody the “madame” once more.

Swinging her hips, smoking her vaporizer pipe, walking with an entirely different cadence.

Keeping up behind her, Homa felt more like a butler than her “date.”

All eyes were on the Madame, every visitor in the lobby and everyone who could see from the bar or the restaurant out to the lobby, they were all following after her tail with their eyes, and she never once deigned to return their attention. She walked as if none of the world existed but each tile she stepped on, as if with the confidence that wherever she trod there would be a step for her.

Of course, nobody dared approach. Madame Arabie touched you if she desired you.

Raising hands to her yourself was tantamount to death. She was nobody’s plaything.

And Homa knew very well– it was not just her goons who could kill you.

If it was just that, anyone who could be Madame Arabie.

Madame Arabie gave her no instructions. Homa just followed behind her.

They got on an elevator together. She blew a puff of fig-smelling vapor in Homa’s face.

“See? You play the part excellently. That’s why I like you so much.”

What part? Boy-toy? Homa liked this situation less and less by the minute.

“Ma’am, I–”

“I’m only teasing you. If you want to me to stop, then stop reacting to it.”

“No, it’s just–”

“Shush. We’ll talk business soon. Just enjoy– not everyone gets this treatment.”

She pinched Homa’s cheek, then the elevator opened.

Homa followed her out onto the floor of what was clearly the private residence. From a small hallway they entered a luxurious living room, by itself two or three times the size of Homa’s room. A false wooden floor painted a rich brown and a pearl-white roof seemed to suggest earth and heaven, and impressionist paintings incorporating fluid geometries interwoven with Fusha calligraphy adorned the walls.

There was a trio of white couches arranged into a square on a raised island, sat around a tea table in the center of the living room, and the space branched from there into a dining area separated off by a long metal island with an overhead air circulator, and a hall likely leading to the bed and bathrooms.  

Though she couldn’t help but be bewildered by the opulence of the upper crust, there was one incongruous element in the living room that quickly caught her eyes– and Madame Arabie’s.

As soon as they walked in, there were people already in room, waiting for them.

Homa glanced at Madame Arabie.

She was grinning, but twining her own hair on one finger– fidgeting. She was agitated.

“My, my. Who let you two in?”

Ana asef. I didn’t have a reservation, so I let myself in.”

There were two seated on the bigger couch, both Shimii women judging by their figures and features.

The one speaking had her arm wrapped around the other, who in turn had her eyes closed and was gesturing apologetically with her hands. That dominant woman was taller and slender, with silver hair down to the shoulder, slightly wavy and with an unevenly cut ends. One of her ears looked like any Shimii ear, sharp with trimmed grey fur in a masculine style; the other ear however was grey and hairless and bent in an interesting angle. Her tail, too, was hairless and gray, and it forked slightly at the end. She was dressed in a gaudy, flowery shirt, and brown pants. Homa had no memory of this woman at all.

Her companion had on a sundress and hat, and was nearly a head smaller, with long brown hair. Her own ears and tail looked completely standard for a Shimii, if a bit unkempt, the fur on them slightly frizzy.

Homa realized quickly that Madame Arabie recognized these two.

“Hmph.”

Madame Arabie switched off her vaporizer and left it on an end table near the door.

“Should I introduce you, or would you prefer to do it yourself?”

“To the kid? Go ahead. But I’m going by Madiha al-Nakar right now. So use that name.”

Madame Arabie turned to Homa and gestured vaguely at the couch.

“Fine then. Homa, this is ‘Madiha,’ a Katarran mercenary playing a Mahdist Shimii activist.”

With a cruel grin on her face, she pointed out the grey-brown skinned, silver haired woman with the odd ear as if introducing an actor to a play. Upon closer inspection Homa thought she could tell– it wasn’t just the ear, but the tail, too, it was so cartilaginous and hairless. Homa had never been aware that there could even be Katarran Shimii– she barely knew anything about Katarrans generally except that they were usually violent criminals and “mercenaries,“ and they were “made in vats full of fish ovaries.“

Madiha glared at Madame Arabie with simmering displeasure.

“Pfeh. You’re lucky you’re too useful to be angry about.”

Madiha’s companion patted her lap with a hand as if to comfort her.

Madame Arabie ran a hand through her hair, thinking. Staring at Madiha’s companion.

“And the girl– I believe that’s– oh, that’s Al-Shahouh, isn’t it? You’ve grown up. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.” The girl muttered a reply almost on instinct, then realized she did wrong.

“Call her Parinita!” Madiha shouted. “Like I said, we’re here on specific business.”

Madame Arabie sighed. “Fine. I have a date, so let’s get done quickly so you can leave.”

Again with the word ‘date’– Homa wanted to sink through to the ocean floor.

“Happy to. I’d be glad to never hear your harpy voice again, inshallah.”

Madiha stood up from the couch.

She raised her hand, and in an instant, something appeared in it, which she was suddenly holding in her fingers. It happened between a blink of Homa’s eyes, like a magic trick, and drew a sharp reaction.

Madame Arabie took a step back in response and raised a hand in front of Homa suddenly, as if protecting her from something. Homa could not understand the situation at all, but she thought Madiha’s eyes had briefly glinted red, and she had stopped approaching. There was a bar in her hands–

–a bar of metal? A sleek, shiny metal?

“Your sorcery doesn’t work on me, Katarran!” Madame Arabie hissed.

“Relax. I’m well aware and I’m not doing anything to you. Here.” Madiha grinned, bearing sharp fangs.

She stretched out her hand. What she had in it– was a bar of gold.

Or at least, it looked like pure gold, shimmering slightly orange-yellow. It was stamped.

There was a moon and a star embossed across the top of the bar, along with numerical codes.

Madame Arabie’s posture instantly softened. Her eyes drew wide at the sight of the bar.

“Mehmedist Gold? Mashallah.” She said, in awe of it.

Mashallah, indeed.” Madiha said. “This bar weighs 12 kilograms of pure gold. Not the ferrostitched bullshit they put in machines. Real, valuable gold, a king’s ransom right in my hand, from a king of our people himself. I want you to take this, and in turn, give me two million of those despicable Imbrian marks from your little gang’s war chest. I have some shopping to do and gold would raise too many eyebrows. You must be well aware of what a tidy sum that leaves you with. Aren’t I generous?”

“There must be a catch.” Madame Arabie said. Glancing between the gold and Madiha.

“Of course there isn’t, Leija–”

Leija? She knew–?

“Don’t call me that, Khaybari.”

Madame Arabie’s hands closed into fists. Madiha shrugged her shoulders.

“Look, I also need papers to come and go, and that’s your deal, isn’t it ‘Arabie’? And I might need a few favors while I’m here. Favors worth a couple million marks. It’s still a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

Madame Arabie grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes.

“Two-faced Mahdist, it’s always like this with you.”

Madiha locked eyes with equal displeasure. “Look who’s talking, you Rashidist viper.”

Parinita ran from the couch and shouted, putting herself between Arabie and Madiha.

“Can we cut it with the name-calling? Please? Let’s behave like adults.” She pleaded.

Madiha looked at Parinita and sighed deeply. Her aggression subsided quickly.

Madame Arabie was far less moved but did not press any further.

Parinita relaxed and clung to Madiha’s side as if to contain her.

“I’ll be needing a lackey sometimes while I’m at Kreuzung. Why not that kid? I can pay.”

Madiha spoke up again after a few moments of silence, her tone moderated.

Homa didn’t know what she was getting into, but the word ‘pay’ was tantalizing.

However, she couldn’t speak in this situation. Not unless Madame Arabie decreed.

That thickening tension between the two of them– someone like Homa could do nothing.

In this atmosphere, she was like a chained convict.

Madame Arabie crossed her arms. “Hmph! Homa, I have some errands for you too. And I expect them to take precedence– but whatever you do with this woman, I don’t care about it, nor will I stop you. But if you take her money, I won’t be able to protect you if she retaliates against you. Be smart about it.”

She said all of this without even once looking at Homa. Madiha laughed about it.

“Look closely, ‘Homa’, at how this woman is. Anyway, whatever. Do it or not.”

Homa would definitely be after this woman’s money as soon as she could– if she could.

But in front of Madame Arabie, she would put on a façade of nonchalance about it.

Finally Madiha reached out with the gold bar again. Madame Arabie scoffed at her.

“Put it down on the table, Katarran.” She hissed.

“Whatever you say, Leija.” Madiha replied. She flicked her wrist with the bar in hand.

Madame Arabie grit her teeth at the taunt again but did not respond.

Homa hadn’t even considered– 12 kg, just casually held in one hand like it was nothing.

At least dumbbells had a grip between the weights. That was a solid bar of gold.

Was that the legendary strength attributed to Katarrans?

Madiha flicked her wrist once more and the gold bar disappeared from her hands.

Suddenly, it was on the table, without even making a sound. Again– like a magic trick.

“You fancy your wicked powers of illusion, I see.” Madame Arabie said.

“I do. Now the gold’s yours. Where do I get my money?” Madiha pressed.

From the sleeve of her dress, the Madame produced a strip of what looked like red plastic.

In the light, it shimmered with lines like a circuit board.

“Take this out of the restaurant, and across the street, to the warehouse front office. You’ll get your money from the bookie there. Don’t cause any fuss. Just have them scan this and tell them the exact amount of money you need, not a cent more. And you better not use your magic tricks to take back the gold after you collect your payment. The entire station will be after your head if you try to cheat me, understood?”

Madame Arabie extended her arm to its full length, offering Madiha the card at a distance.

Madiha’s eyes shone red again, for just a moment. Had Homa imagined it?

Then she laughed again.

“I see– so if you’re holding it, your aura is on it– because you’re resisting– interesting.”

“What are you mumbling about?”

“Nothing~” Madiha put on a mischievous little song-like voice. “Pleasure doing business~”

She snatched the little card from Madame Arabie’s fingers.

With Parinita in tow, they left the room to the same elevator as Homa and the Madame.

For a moment, Madame Arabie just stood there and quietly seethed.

Staring daggers at the gold bar. Then, her shoulders visibly relaxed. She breathed in.

“Money’s money. This will be more valuable even if the Imbrian mark inflates. Idiot majus.”

“Is everything okay, ma’am?”

For a moment after the words left Homa’s lips, she saw the briefest glimpse of the rabidly furious eyes that Madame Arabie had been giving the gold bar but turned upon her instead. Enough time in that glare for her heart to seize in her chest like a heart attack, for her soul to try flying out of her body in terror– but it was only an instant in real time. Madame Arabie softened considerably quickly– her eyes cast down at the floor, just as briefly taking on a sadness and age that Homa rarely saw in her face.

She then smiled again. She put a hand on Homa’s hair and shook it.

“Of course I will be fine. I’m the boss around here. Think about yourself instead.”

Homa could tell she was still troubled, but she was back to putting on an act.

She felt strangely compelled to sympathize– she had to very specifically pull herself out of that thinking.

“I won’t let her ruin our date. Come on, Homa.”

I wish she would stop saying that. I don’t want to think about being on a ‘date’ with her.

She and Madame Arabie had a weird relationship– but it was not that degree of weird.

Right? It wasn’t– it couldn’t be allowed to get that way!

“Sit.”

Past the living room they entered a comparatively intimate dining room, with a glasstop table that sat four at most on artsy glass chairs arrayed in a cross. Overhead hung a lamp with adjustable lighting for mood. There was a button on the table and Madame Arabie pressed it as soon as she and Homa were seated across from one another. While the button was held down, the glasstop exposed itself as a touchscreen LCD in the guise of a tabletop. Madame Arabie ordered dinner via digital menu.

“You don’t have any allergies right? You can eat anything?”

“I can eat anything ma’am.” Homa replied obediently.

“Fantastic.”

While they waited, Madame Arabie laid her hand hovering just over the table.

Homa reached her own hand out, and Madame Arabie held it, stroking the knuckles.

“How have things been, Homa? Have you gotten to pilot a Diver often?” She asked.

“Whenever Bertrand needs it. His other pilot is an old guy.” Homa said.

“Do you like the job?”

“I do ma’am. I like being around the machines. And going out in the water is exciting.”

It was impossible to say, ‘I wish the job you got me paid more’. But she wasn’t lying either.

Her job was the tiniest bit of freedom she had, so she enjoyed it.

Madame Arabie smiled, her eyes narrowing a little, keen, and bright.

“You are allowed to tell me when you are hurting, Homa. And to come to me for help.”

Homa nodded. “I didn’t want to bother you ma’am.” She wasn’t lying about that either.

“Nonsense. You can rely on me, Homa.”

But she didn’t want to.

She didn’t want to crawl back to Madame Arabie and be further in her debt.

Homa needed her own power, her independence, to escape from this rotten place–

“You’ve helped me a lot, you know? I wasn’t aware of the difficulties you were facing– but I heard that it was lean times for some of the private docks. So I wanted to compensate you, bring you back in, give you a little job. Show you that I’m still on your side and make up for any negligence.”

Madame Arabie’s slender fingers pressed down on Homa’s hand, tracing to her wrist.

That touch sent a quiver into Homa. She had to calm down.

If the Madame wanted to hurt her, she would have. She had nothing to hide from her.

For some reason– Madame Arabie needed her. So she just had to play along.

“I’m grateful ma’am.” Homa said, smiling politely. “It’s been kinda fun already.”

“Not the kind of fun I wanted, with that damned Katarran interrupting. But, anyway.”

She leaned a little on top of the table, coming closer to Homa, eyes fixed on her–

Homa trying desperately to keep her eyes up and off her breasts as they rested on glass–

Her whispering voice like a warm breeze. “Now we can continue our little date.”

She winked at Homa and drew back, laughing a little to herself.

“My, my! You’re so red, Homa! Look at you! Such a cute little thing; you can’t handle a woman at all still, can you? I’m telling you, if you keep being so fun to tease, I won’t be able to control myself.”

Homa averted her gaze and grumbled silently.

Then, finally, their food arrived, sparing Homa from more teasing.

One of the waitstaff from the restaurant below came up with a cart and deposited their plates gently on the table. Madame Arabie had ordered two plates of pulao, rice with nuts, peppers and figs layered through it, and topped with hefty slices of glossy red chicken breasts. Chicken breast had never been Homa’s favorite, but the cooks at the Flowing Scarlet never missed (or Madame Arabie would let them know it). For a chicken breast it was richly juicy, pull-apart tender, and the firm exterior of the breast had been fully coated with the spicy glaze– it was to die for, an explosion of savory flavors that made Homa’s life before it feel utterly monochromatic. Meanwhile the varying textures and tastes of the pulao, sweet and spicy, soft rice with firm green peppers and snappy chilies, it practically tasted of wealth.

Homa tried to keep her pleasures as close to the chest as possible.

Madame Arabie’s curious eyes tracked her closely, with a little smile on her red lips.

“Homa, do you think I’m being cheap with you for ordering this?”

“No ma’am! This is fantastic! Thank you for the meal!”

She wasn’t lying, but she did sort of think Madame Arabie was being cheap.

That “melt in your mouth” beef that Hasim had been advertising at his shop was something that Madame Arabie could have any day of the week. In fact, she had better, because Hasim and all the other shops that got shipments from the Imbrians had to sell the absolute best to Madame Arabie first. So for Madame Arabie to choose a chicken dish instead of the high quality beef her restaurant VIPs got–

“Pulao is my favorite dish. This is my recipe.” Madame Arabie said. “I wanted to share it with you.”

That was a surprise– it was just more teasing though. “Thanks ma’am.”

After carefully going through her own meal, eating so as not to spill anything or spoil her cosmetics, Madame Arabie had the plates taken away. Homa felt fuller than she had been in months, maybe years. However, as soon as the waiter and their cart had gone, Madame Arabie leaned against the table again, fixing her deep emerald eyes on Homa’s quickly wavering yellow gaze once again.

“Homa, I promised old man Radu that I would look out for you. I am well aware that my business is not godly, and out of this respect for my esteemed elders and of course, my affection for you, I have tried to keep you on a respectable path. I have only asked for you to run errands when necessary, and I try to keep your hands clean. But I do need your help again, Homa. I have taken every precaution to insure your safety, but it is an important task, maybe the most important I’ve ever given you.”

Homa’s ears stood on end.

Entranced by the cruel but enticing intellect and beauty of those eyes holding her tight.

Mentioning old man Radu was a cheap emotional appeal.

But it was one she very rarely played on Homa.

“Sometime in the next few days, a ship will arrive at Bertrand’s for an extensive repair. There will be a blond woman on the ship who will likely pose as a customer. She is very dangerous, Homa, and she is plotting something, but she will not suspect anything, and you must see that it remains that way.”

Madame Arabie pressed the button on the table to bring up the LCD screen layout again.

On Homa’s side, a photograph appeared of a woman in a dark blue military uniform.

That woman in the picture reminded Homa of Ulyana Korabiskaya, tall and blond standing on the edge of the docks, cutting a dashing figure in uniform, but it wasn’t her of course. Her hair was a different shade of blond, darker, and longer, and her countenance lacked some of the regal maturity that characterized Korabiskaya. She was younger, maybe, or less refined; not that Homa, who was only 21, could say anything like that for sure. Homa had never seen a uniform like hers. Imbrian soldiers had grey uniforms, and the Volkisch dressed in black, not this ocean blue color that this woman was wearing.

Maybe it was ceremonial?

“When you confirm the appearance of this woman at the dock, you will take this letter for me to Tower Twelve, the Laurentius Military Center. It sounds daunting but you don’t have to go in, just call for Standartenführer Imani Hadžić and she will come see you on the gatebridge. Give her the letter and tell her everything you saw and heard. She will likely make you into her informant at that point.”

From her shirt, Madame Arabie withdrew an actual sealed plastic envelope.

Inside, there was likely, from the weight of it, an actual rock paper letter.

Homa could imagine it. Maybe even written in real ink. Containing deadly secrets.

As much as she disdained Madame Arabie and her duplicity–

she couldn’t say,

this wasn’t,

adventurous.

All kinds of dark fantasies began spinning off in her mind.

There was something happening in Kreuzung. Something big and dark and dangerous.

Labor strikes; economic hardship; the Volkisch movement; and these strange visitors.

And Madame Arabie was connected to it? And there was a military officer involved too?

Imani Hadžić — that was a Brenic Shimii name, one of the western cultures.

–her wild leaps of thought were finally interrupted as Madame Arabie spoke up once more.

“Do this for me, Homa, see it through to the end, and if officer Hadžić is satisfied with the result, Inshallah I will make any dream of yours come true. Hell– you may even get to pilot one of your machines for the military or merchant marine, instead of a dingy little dock. Just take this offer from me, and then do what Hadžić tells you. You’ll be a real hero at the end of all of this. You’ll have cachet beyond your dreams.”

Homa– a hero? Fingers in her mind pored over those words, the texture, the color, sound.

Even beyond the grip of spiraling fantasies– the promise of payment alone–

Yes– she couldn’t just fantasize wildly! Madame Arabie was still the same liar as always!

There was some ulterior motive to this. It would be dangerous. It wouldn’t be honorable.

But this wasn’t the first time Homa had done something awful for the Madame’s favor.

She had street smarts, she knew she was she was getting into. She couldn’t escape it.

If she saw it as a gig, she could not turn it down. She wanted the money– needed it.

“Of course, Madame.” She took the envelope. There was no other choice. “Always.”

“Excellent. I would ask you to stay and celebrate, but, you have to go get ready for work, after all.” Madame Arabie winked at her. “Just come see me after everything is done. Keep the clothes.”

So much for things not getting too weird with Madame Arabie–

There was no choice if she wanted to survive. “It’d be my pleasure, madame.”


Homa saw herself out of Madame Arabie’s home, her head still turning over everything that had happened. She just barely registered that she had agreed to rat out someone to the military. She imagined it must have been a business rival of Madame Arabie’s, maybe someone trying to run in contraband or drugs from another station, or maybe someone who owed her money. It didn’t matter in the end. No matter who it was, Homa knowing or not knowing the whole truth would not change anything. If not her, someone else would do the job. Money always found its way to people.

She did not have naive expectations of herself– but some part of her really wanted to be a hero.

On the way down, she almost imagined she might see that “Madiha” character again.

But there was no fuss being made at the warehouse. That woman disappeared too.

Homa got her clothes and bags and left without being noticed by anyone.

Overhead, the artificial sky had turned dark, with only the tiniest crest of false moonlight.

She slunk home.

Homa made her way down the halls, quietly, looking at her own feet.

There was a sense of tension inside her, filling her chest and stomach like a balloon.

Restlessness, anger, worries about the future. Frustration.

Dropping her bags on the floor of the room, undressing, taking off her boots, putting the goods she bought into the cupboard and the refrigerator. Setting her pot to keep the stew barely warm through the night. She hung up her new, fancy set of clothes as well as her work clothes and paid the fee to have them misted, scented, and dried. Then she paid the fee for the shower and locked herself in the bathroom like a sardine. Water came pouring down over her head and back, her arms at her sides.

Her black hair came down over her eyes as she bowed her head, putting it to the wall.

In the shower, she was alone, and no one could see or hear her.

There was no neighbor on the shower’s side of the room.

And even if there was, the mechanisms around the shower that served and drained water and cosmetics and shampoo, the sink that came out of the panel, the toilet that could pulled in, all of those things meant the shower was surrounded by mechanisms. So she was insulated, nobody could hear.

Sealed up tight. In a place truly, completely, alone.

She flipped the lights in the shower on, and via touchpad, also turned on the mirror.

Drawing in a breath, she screamed at the top of her lungs into the mirror.

Breath ripped ragged through her lungs and neck. Her fists clenched hard enough her nails might have drawn blood had she gone any further. Her whole body had tensed. Then she spread her lips, lifting gritted teeth from each other and heaved a sigh. Looking up at her reflection.

She did feel somewhat relieved. But it was not enough.

So she screamed again.

Her tired yellow eyes and long black hair in the mirror, over her soft, smooth face, slick with the little trails of water coming down from her crown. Water trailed down the muscles of her back, across the slope of the shoulders, over her breasts. Sometimes, Homa needed to look, to remember that she wasn’t a mass of scars, that her hair wasn’t going white yet, that her back wasn’t out, and she had all her limbs.

She was very young– some people still called her a kid.

And yet, she still felt like she had lived too long and lived through too much sometimes.

What did other early twenty-somethings do? They still went to school didn’t they?

Homa looked at the sad girl in the mirror and narrow her eyes.

“Listen up. None of this is going to bow down your back.”

She told herself. And that girl in the mirror– didn’t look any less sad.

Homa banged her head against the mirror, gritting her teeth.

Thankfully, the “mirror” was only the LCD layer over the wall, projecting her face.

“Old Man Radu, huh?”

Hearing that name again after so long, it bothered her then, it infuriated her.

What did that man care how Madame Arabie treated her?

And why would Madame Arabie care what he told her either?

It was all cheap emotional manipulation!

Radu the Marzban was somewhere out there having adventures without her.

Some big hero he was supposed to be! Her mother was dead! He couldn’t save her!

And her father– who knew who that was?

All she’d ever known was Kreuzung, Tower Eight. Loneliness and Arabie’s fickle moods.

With her head up against the mirrored wall, she looked down at the water draining at her feet.

“If Kreuzung goes through something really bad– what’d be left for me, then?”

There was nowhere to go. Out there, was only the Imbrium Ocean.

Stations were only connected by ship docks. Nobody could just travel or move anywhere.

Everyone was trapped!

And ships were a luxury– or a grave danger.

“Old Man Radu. You might as well have just thrown me out of an airlock.”

She was full of trepidation– and now she was in the clutches of Madame Arabie again.

How could she ever get out?

There was no way to get out clean– without dirty work, without blood on her hands.

“I wish! I wish everything could be fucking perfect! But it’s not possible!”

At least she would have money now! She would be taken care of!

“Who cares if I’m doing some nasty thing for that bitch Arabie! What choice did I have?”

She shouted her heart out in that empty shower where no one could see or hear.

“I need money to live! Now I’m getting it! I’m not going to feel guilty or afraid!”

She continued to shout. As if a voice long suppressed needed to finally escape.

“In fact, I’m glad! I don’t have to worry about the fucking rent! No one else will help me! So nobody can blame me for this! I’ll get out of this place! I won’t die old in this ghetto! I’m glad! Thank you Madame Arabie! Yes ma’am, I’m grateful ma’am, I’ll do anything you say ma’am! Nobody else will help!”

Her mind was made up. She set her feet, straightened her chest.

She wasn’t going to change her mind.

(Not that she could– not when she gave Madame Arabie her word.)

“Fuck!”

Once more she banged her head against the wall.

Everything from her ethnicity to her womanhood to her livelihood, everything was so much trouble, nobody made it easy, nobody helped her, nobody ever let her just have anything she wanted. She was a freak to everyone in Kreuzung who thought themselves a “decent” person so all she had left was the basements, the dark corners, places unwanted. She struggled for every bit of cheer she ever had.

Whoever it was Madame Arabie wanted her to feed to the sharks– fuck them.

That was her thought. They could complain if they had a solid alternative.

“Fuck them.”

She looked up in the mirror.

Now that was a determined little grin from that once sad and downtrodden girl.

That’s what she wanted to imagine herself looking like.

“I’ll get out of this place. I’ll get out of here, whatever I have to do.”

Overhead, the stream of water shut off, having dispensed what was paid for.

Homa felt a warm breeze instead, blowing to partially dry her off.

Without waiting for it, she stormed out of the bathroom and threw herself into bed.

Nude and still a bit wet, she rolled up herself up in her blankets and closed her eyes.

Trying to lose herself to the comforting softness of the mattress and the bed’s warmth.


“Homa! If any ships come in today, you take the lead, okay?”

“You’re being awful kind, Becker.”

“Well, if you don’t get any work, Bertrand will fire you, and if he does, I’ll have to quit. If I can’t look at your little ears and tail all day, there’s just no point to coming back to this dump every day.”

Homa grumbled and thought of throwing something at Becker.

But she wouldn’t say ‘no’ to the work.

Around noon the next day, Bertrand Shore Works got a new customer approaching, and there was a great excitement about getting two ships in two days after such a drought in the work.

Unlike the Brigand, which had been an enormous Cruiser, this was a humble yacht, just 40 meters long and 13 meters tall, with a blue and white livery that was generic to the specific model, made by a company called “Tigershark.” It had an exposed bridge compartment at the top, a sleek pointed box that followed the profile of the hull, with a long, thick titanium-strutted glass roof allowing for the person at the helm to look at out into the water above them as they sailed. The rest of the hull was beautifully curved down to its keel, it looked flawless. Through and through a rich person’s toy.

“They’re coming in for a full maintenance and repair job, repainting, and a jet replacement? And they’re coming here for that? We either have God or the Devil on our side here.” Aicher said.

It was a big job, it’d be a lot of piecework on a delicate ship, a lot of expensive parts.

Everyone was surprised. Yachts usually went to subscription yacht clubs for this kind of thing. Bertrand’s usually worked with larger ships that didn’t travel to Kreuzung enough to pay for an expensive licensed space in the Seaport or didn’t want to deal with Seaport security or pay union rates for repair work. Old Bertrand would collect a premium on having a little toy taking up space he “could” be using for industrial ships — if there were any coming through, which there weren’t, but he wouldn’t tell the customer that.

He would definitely play up the opportunity cost to seem aggrieved.

So B.W.S was buzzing. Becker and Aicher were leading the crew like a battalion.

Homa meanwhile just acted surprised. She recalled the conversation with Madame Arabie.

Someone knew this ship was coming, and that someone was working through the Shimii in Tower Eight to snoop on it. Madame Arabie had warned that it was dangerous– Homa tried to act natural, but as the ship was brought into berth, and then deposited by the metal arms from the drained berth into the workshop area, beached inside the dockyard, her anxiety and trepidation grew stronger. An icy chill gripped her heart as the side of the hull opened and a ramp extended down from it.

Aicher waved Homa over to go greet the owner of the ship and get them an airstair.

And from out the bulkhead door, came the woman Homa had seen, exactly as the picture.

Rather than the uniform in Arabie’s photograph, the young, long-legged blond beauty was dressed in an extremely fancy-looking fur coat (it couldn’t have been real– it had to be synthetic) over a collared shirt and shiny leather-like pants. She wore tall black pumps for shoes and perched on her strong nose were a pair of black spectacles. Her earrings and fingers glinted with jewelry, with rings and gems.

Bonjour!” She called out with a glossy red smile, descending the airstair like a runway model.

Homa found her brain utterly arrested by the sheer aggressive beauty of this woman.

In the damp, drab environment of the B.W.S. dockyard she was like a flashbang grenade.

Aicher surreptitiously tapped Homa in the back, and she walked forward to meet the lady.

As soon as they neared each other, Homa caught a strong, sweet scent from her.

“Oh what a dear! I’m so happy I decided to berth here. I’m Kitty McRoosevelt.”

“Uh. Hello!” Homa smiled awkwardly. “Welcome! I’m Homa Baumann, I– I work here.”

She hastily extended her hand and “Kitty McRoosevelt” gave her a firm shake.

Not a common name but that didn’t matter; Homa wasn’t an expert on names.

Madame Arabie’s words rang in her head as she shook that soft, slender, but strong hand.

This woman was dangerous. She didn’t seem like it, but appearances weren’t everything.

All of this, her glamor, sweetness, energy– it could be an act.

“Pleasure to meet you. Got my papers right here.”

Kitty handed Homa her portable and Homa scanned it. Everything came up fine.

Her last port of call was Worms, which, from what Homa knew, wasn’t too far, and made sense. Worms and Mostar were the two closest stations. For a yacht, 40 meters was big, and pretty seaworthy, so she could travel it between stations. She had one item of listed cargo, which was a leisure submersible stored in a cargo hold in the prow. None of them would need to touch that. All their work would be in the back, with the hydrojets and the intakes in the rear underside, and on the bridge and the living quarters in the rear center where they were swapping some electronics. And everything was indeed registered under Kitty McRoosevelt. Her papers were stamped by the Aachen Station Authority. It was all legit.

That didn’t mean anything by itself though.

Madame Arabie could get legit papers for people who didn’t exist.

Maybe this Kitty was the Madame Arabie of Aachen Station. Homa couldn’t know.

“Checks out. You can go into the office to work out pay and a work schedule.” Homa said.

Kitty smiled at her. “Thank you dear. By any chance, will you be working on her?”

Homa blinked at her, briefly stunned at this deviation from the typical script.

“Oh, yeah!” She averted her eyes from Kitty’s own. “They’ll probably have me doing the exterior. I can help out a little with the duct work too, but I am not certified to do anything with the electronics. So uh, I guess I’ll be painting and shining and applying the anti-organic coating and stuff like that.”

“Ah! So all the stuff I care about the most. I’ll be looking over your shoulder then.”

She briefly met Kitty’s eyes out of shock, and then averted them again.

Her client patted her shoulder with a knowing smile before walking away to the office.

Becker and Aicher then, unfortunately, approached the stunned Homa at the airstair.

“Ah, damn it, the customer’s trying to steal her away– and she looks a damn sight nicer than I do.” Becker said. “I don’t have a chance. I better enjoy having Homa around while I can.”

Homa narrowed her eyes at him.

“Homa Baumann, popular with the guys and the ladies. This black cat’s got all the luck.”

Homa turned her evil, narrow-eyed gaze at Aicher instead.

There was some levity, everyone was happy to have more work and pay coming in.

As the woman disappeared into the office, and they began to assess the work that would be done to the ship, however, Homa felt that tension in her chest start to build again, constricting her breathing and heartbeat. Kitty was exactly the woman in the photos that the Madame had shown her. Come to think of it– it had skipped her mind, but she never got a name for the woman out of Madame Arabie, only the photo and her instructions. This was all deeply mysterious, but she had shown up, Kitty, the cosmetics, and fancy clothes aside, had the same face as the woman in the photograph.

After work, she would have to head to Tower Twelve.

Laurentius Military Center.

And there she would meet–

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.

“Becker? You were in the military right? Can I ask you something?”

She and Becker were sizing up the ship using a digital laser scanner when she asked.

Becker was holding the laser, and she the cable. His wizened face looked suddenly proud.

“Ah, but I was a volunteer patrolman, not really military. Those were good days though.”

Homa interrupted. “Is Standartenführer a really high rank?” She asked.

His expression darkened suddenly. He looked at Homa with surprise. Maybe– maybe fear.

“Homa– are you in trouble?” He lifted a hand from the laser. He looked startled, worried. “Is that why you’ve been looking down lately? Listen, if it’s anything with your papers, I can vouch for you. If the Volkisch are hounding you– If you have a citizenship hearing or something– I can–”

“No, no!” Homa replied, as surprised as he was. “Becker, I’m okay. I was just curious.”

“I see. Homa, that’s a Volkisch political rank. That’s– it’s not a– it’s not normal. It’s bad news.”

Homa tried to persuade the stammering Becker that she was fine, and everything was okay, but his reaction, and that little episode with him, just made the fear gripping her heart swell tenfold.


Tower Twelve loomed like a gun to the temple of Kreuzung station.

Homa had learned a lot about it in the past months due to the ongoing imperial unrest.

Laurentius Military Center was the main garrison of the Kreuzung Complex. While there were troops also stationed in the walls of the Kreuzung crater for defense and patrol purposes, if anything happened in Kreuzung’s core station, the response would come from Tower Twelve. Eight weeks ago, the election of Adam Lehner led to an enormous crisis in the Kreuzung complex. Imbrians rioted in the core station, prompting severe lockdowns, and the troops in Laurentius picked sides within the chaos.

Some of them joined the rioters, some of them deployed to contain the riots and ended up fighting their own colleagues, and others broke into factions within Laurentius itself. Perhaps the largest group of security forces simply refused to participate in this and guarded the Kreuzung government center at the top of the core station while the violence worked itself out elsewhere. The Volkisch eventually took control of Laurentius, but nobody was successful, whether Volkisch or not, in toppling Governor Werner, who navigated the entire crisis and came out of it with both the grudging respect and cooperation of both the rioters and the Volkisch. The Shimii in Tower Eight had been distant witnesses to the violence, because their tower locked down during the chaos, preventing them from resupplying needed goods.

She hadn’t been there to see any of it, but Becker and Aicher had a lot to say about it.

Especially Becker– he followed conflict news closely and knew a lot about the military.

So he explained everything to Homa– from his perspective.

Regardless, what happened, happened. And Homa had not been hurt, except that Kreuzung locking out Tower Eight led Homa to spend extortionate amounts of money for pitiful amounts of food in the Shimii market, barely keeping herself alive. It was a shock to her, one she had not felt since she first started her gender transition– at 19, she realized that for her, being a woman required the mercy of the Gender Equality Center and their policies. And now at 21, she realized, everything, food, shelter, electricity, was at the mercy of the Kreuzung Core Station’s security and stability. Tower Eight was their hostage.

Weeks later, things settled down. Life returned to a sense of normalcy at Kreuzung.

Laurentius, however, continued to represent the threat of the Volkisch attaining complete control over the station, or at least, that’s what Becker and Aicher thought about it. If there was a crisis again, the Volkisch might have the excuse they need to not just station their black-uniformed forces in Laurentius, but to replace the Kreuzung Core Station’s police and security– and the local government.

All of this grand politicking was over Homa’s head. She only vaguely understood.

However, the idea of Laurentius as a threat felt visual when she beheld the tower itself.

Unlike the rounded, drum-like towers meant for people to live in, Laurentius looked like a weapon from afar. From the gatebridge, she could stare out the glass panels at the tower, some thirty meters separate, its shadow like a coiled cylinder made up of brutal spikes. The Gatebridge itself was like the closed maw of a beast with black iron teeth and camera eyes. Laurentius was home to warships, armed Divers, missiles and guns, and the black uniformed soldiers that made old Becker pause, unable or unwilling to fit them into his heroic myths of the gallant frontier patrolmen. It was an evil place, death at the midnight hour.

Homa had traveled through a lot of Kreuzung to make it here.

Through elevators and steel hallways and civilian checkpoints.

Now, standing in front of the armored entryway to the station, she had no idea what to do.

There was an enclosed guard post, but the glass was tinted. Was anyone actually in there?

Swallowing hard, she pushed herself to go near the box.

She raised her ID and work permit to the wall of the box to be scanned.

A red square appeared around her papers that flashed. Normally it was green.

Confused, Homa raised her card and permit off the wall of the guard post and set them back on to try to rescan them. She got the same result. There was a red box around them and it started to flash. She waited a moment for anyone to say anything, but the guard post was silent.

Mind in a fog from the stress, Homa was about to try again–

When, from the guard post, an irate voice sounded.

“Are you fucking stupid? You’re not allowed in here, Shimii! Go back to Tower Eight!”

“I’m sorry!” Homa cried out. Her ears curled against her head in fear.

Suddenly, a line of green and yellow laser light traveled over her body from the box.

“You’ve got nothing in your hands, nothing in your clothes– consider yourself lucky.”

Homa stood there, briefly speechless. Staring with wide, nearly weeping eyes at the glass.

Unable to see a person inside– at least the Tower Eight border guard were visibly there.

“Fuck off kid. Keep standing there and I’m going to read it as intent, understand?”

“I’m– I’m looking for someone! Please, it’s really important!”

There was a grumbling noise over whatever hidden sound system the guard post possessed.

“God damn it. Name and rank and you better be exact, kid. Or I’m calling this shit in.”

Homa cried out, “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić!”

Silence.

When the guard spoke again, she sensed a change in his tone.

“Um. Repeat please.” Was that a tremor in his voice?

Homa blinked. What was going on? “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.” She repeated.

There was no further response from the guard post. For a few minutes, nothing but silence. No motion, no lasers, nothing. As the silence stretched, it scared Homa more than the shouting.

Just at the point where Homa thought she would scream with anxiety–

–without warning, the black teeth of the bridge gate began to spread open.

Then she heard a pair of sharp footsteps approaching, a tap and a clicking heel.

Looking through the open gate, Homa spied the figure and her long, confident stride.

A swishing noise– a black peaked cap twirling on one of her fingers.

Homa had been right. Imani Hadžić was a Shimii like her, with rounded off ears and a very long, thick tail perfectly manicured into an unbroken little cylinder behind her. She had long limbs and a young face, cutting an attractive silhouette, a Madame Arabie in the making, Homa thought, but she was far tidier. Her dark blue hair was shoulder-length and orderly, covering the sides and back of her head quite evenly, with perfectly arranged bangs over her forehead and a slight curl at the back. Homa couldn’t tell whether she was wearing makeup, but she had a tiny bit of a blush to her. Thin spectacles perched on her nose.

Draped over her shoulders like a cape, the empty sleeves swaying with her movements, was an all-black Volkisch coat, with two red armbands around the sleeves emblazoned with black symbols in a white circle. One was a black disc surrounded by lightning bolts, the disc itself made up of a single line, like a picture of a complicated maze; the second armband had a black moon and a black sword in the white. Neither of these were symbols that she recognized; it was a Volkisch coat, but their symbol was an eagle.

Aside from the coat and the hat twirling like a toy in her slender fingers, she had on a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a buttoned-up collar, a black skirt, and pitch-black tights. Those sleek, sharp heels of hers lent her footsteps an almost metallic ringing on the thick concrete of the bridge. On the collar of the coat draped on her there were several pins, maybe signifying her rank or awards. Homa could not read or understand their significance, but she recalled what Becker had told her earlier.

From just looking at her, before she ever spoke a word–

That cold, cutting gaze on her pretty face– her self-confident stride–

a little grin forming on her lips as she approached–

–and the casual way she wore and played with her symbols of office.

Something, maybe her own nervousness, Becker’s words, a gut feeling, it all told her.

Imani Hadžić was the most dangerous person she had ever met.

She could almost see a black outline, like a dimension of death swirling around her.

And a red, furious glimmer in her eyes for the briefest of instants.

Was Homa hallucinating? When did she get like this?

Homa closed her fists and caught her breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her wits now.

Not in front of this woman.

As soon as Imani Hadzic crossed the bridge, Homa extended a hand in greeting.

Try to be brave now. She told herself.

As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Hadžić accepted the handshake and answered in a sickly-sweet voice.

Wa Alaykum Salamu.”

“I’m Homa Baumann. Madame Arabie sent me to deal with you–”

Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words!

“Eh– I mean–!”

“Oh? Deal with me? That’s very interesting. Then, let’s deal, Homa Baumann.”

Imani leaned into Homa and pulled her close, invading her personal space instantly.

They were almost breast-to-breast– Imani was nearly the same size as her.

Her grip was much stronger than her appearance would have suggested.

“Imani Hadžić. But you knew that already.”

Imani’s tail curled around Homa’s leg, prompting her to quiver.

Her warm breath in Homa’s cheek, and the smell coming off of her chest–

–unlike the sweet-smelling Arabie with her perfume, Hadžić smelled like chemicals.

Homa almost thought she might faint when she caught a whiff of it. She held back disgust.

“Homa Baumann. An interesting name; enchanted to meet you.”

Imani drew back, releasing Homa from her viper-like grip.

Her smile looking particularly twisted for a moment.

“So, I take it you’ve confirmed the appearance of our mutual acquaintance? And so soon, too.”

Awaiting an answer, Imani seamlessly went back to twirling her black cap on one finger.

Homa was forced back to reality. She was on the hook to complete this job.

“Yes, sorry, I did. There was a yacht in today, from Aachen, by way of Worms. Registered to Kitty McRoosevelt. She came with it too. Blond– there was a picture that Madame Arabie–”

“Indeed, this picture.”

With her free hand, Imani produced a small portable handset.

On its LCD screen was the exact photo that Madame Arabie had shown her.

The Standartenführer transitioned seamlessly to a calm, interrogative tone of voice.

She was not playing around with Homa anymore.

“So it was this woman?” Imani asked.

Homa started to feel at ease. “Yes, it was her. I’m completely certain, I talked to her.”

“What did she bring the yacht in for?”

“A lot of work. Full hull repainting and coating, hydrojets, electrical system.”

“How long will that work take you and your company?”

“We quoted her seven eight-hour days. We have a 2-day weekend this week, and next week we only get the Seventhday off, so– we’ll probably be done the week after, on that Firstday, I think.”

“Ah, the bottomless joy of the Imbrian work calendar.”

“We could have done it in a few days but we’re trying to wring money out of her.”

“You’re an honest girl. Well, don’t you worry about being too greedy. I’m positive she doesn’t care. She’s not in here to get that yacht repaired. That’s the crux of our entire dilemma, after all.“

“Madame Arabie told me to give you this letter.“

Homa withdrew the letter from the interior pocket of her jumpsuit.

Imani took the envelope and dextrously split the glued flap with her gloved fingers.

She withdrew the stone paper from inside. A single sheet, folded closed.

Her eyes scanned over the contents quickly, and then stashed the letter in her coat.

She seemed far less interested in the letter– than in Homa herself.

Slowly, that playful smile from before faded back in over her once neutral expression.

“Ho~ma~”

She said the words in a too-sweet singsong voice.

“Yes. I believe this can work Ho~ma~. Indeed, indeed.”

Was she talking to herself? Homa couldn’t tell where the conversation was going.

For a moment, Imani tilted her head toward the guard post.

“Hey, dumbass. This girl is with me. You scared the fuck out of her. Apologize now.”

From the hidden speakers on the guard’s box, Homa heard the guard’s trembling voice.

“Y-Yes ma’am. Acknowledged. Ms. Baumann– I’m terribly sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“You’d better show her outstanding customer service from now on.”

She didn’t have to say more. They all felt it. From the dreadful glare she was directing at the box, the threat was implicit. Homa almost imagined that she had said ‘I’ll kill you,’ ‘I’ll torture you,’ ‘you’re a dead man’ after each of those sentences. It seemed like the natural extension, and it felt like a form of cruelty to withhold the obvious. But Imani looked delighted with the response from the guard.

When she turned back to Homa, she was all smiles again.

“Ho~ma~ heh, what a cute name.” She leaned into Homa again, but not as close as before. Homa tried not to breathe in the smell. What was it anyway? It smelled like the inside of a hospital. “I asked Arabie,” Imani continued casually, “if she had an urchin with connections to a private dock, so we could have a firm hand in Kitty McRoosevelt’s scheming. After our arrangement, I surreptitiously worked to have her land in B.S.W to keep an eye on her. I never expected to get such an interesting specimen in return though. Yes, I’m interested in you. Homa, from now on, you’re working for me, okay? Kitty McRoosevelt is a dangerous terrorist and has done many misdeeds in Eisental. I am afraid she might be plotting her worst attack yet. With your help, however, we can save Kreuzung Station from another catastrophe.”

“Ma’am–?”

She saw it again– those red glinting eyes that stared as if right through her.

What was it that Imani Hadžić was seeing through those eyes that interested her this much?

Madame Arabie had made it sound like she would be Imani’s gopher for a bit, which was an ordinary task for Homa, but she didn’t expect Imani to get so handsy. Her entire demeanor was terrifying. Her presence was so heavy, so morbid, but Homa barely understood where those feelings were coming from. She tried to be rational, to return to her own motivations. She needed to stay good with Madame Arabie, and she wanted money, whether Hadžić’s, Arabie’s or even that Madiha character’s money–

–and even more than that, the word terrorist began ringing around in her brain.

Joining the expanse of black, mottled with colors, that had overtaken her emotions.

There really was some catastrophe brewing in the station.

And if it hit, maybe Homa wouldn’t even survive it this time.

She didn’t think Imani Hadžić was a good or heroic person at all. She was a soldier, and in Kreuzung, the soldiers had been beating and killing people weeks ago in order to “restore order” and “prevent a catastrophe.” Homa had no sympathy for that kind of wanton terror. But if she could help Imani to keep things from escalating to that point, then maybe such an action could be called heroic.

There was another voice, that Homa didn’t want to acknowledge.

Because it felt childish, and simple, the thinking of a kid when she needed to be an adult.

However– she did, distantly, think that this would be adventurous, exciting

“What do you say, Ho~ma~? Would you be willing to help me– or–?”

Imani Hadžić was not going to give her a choice, anyway.

Homa saw it written in her face. She was already Imani’s puppet, she was destined to be.

But she wasn’t going to do it for nothing.

“Ma’am, I’ve been promised a lot of payment and gotten none. I need a guarantee.”

“Oh? How bold of you. Trying to extort something upfront? My, my, my–”

Imani’s fingers suddenly darted to Homa’s cheek. She thought she would be slapped–!

Instead, however, they simply patted on the edge of her jaw and sat there, holding her.

“–You’re lucky that you’re a Shimii. Or at least, half one.”

Her disdainful, icy gaze locked on to Homa’s own.

“If I didn’t have a soft spot for you, that would have been a slap. Little~ Ho~ma~”

She drummed her fingers on Homa’s cheek. Homa remained speechless in her grasp.

“I– I need money for my rent. It’s coming up. Otherwise I’ll be kicked out.”

It took all her strength to speak despite the smothering, invisible weight around Imani.

But Homa spoke up. She tried to meet Imani’s icy gaze with determination.

For a moment, she realized Imani’s eyes were two different shades of icy blue.

Among the Shimii, this was exceedingly rare. Mismatched eyes.

As rare as Homa’s mutant tail– but viewed as beautiful rather than shameful.

Imani Hadžić was not only a full-blooded Shimii, she was an exceedingly rare kind.

“That’s it? That’s such a humble request. It’s so cute. Sure. I’ll pay your rent. Personally.”

Imani drew back, crossing her arms and giggling.

“Ma’am–?”

Personally? Why did she emphasize that?

“But maybe I’ll use your address to come bug you too~ we’ll see!”

Oh no–

Before Homa could object or respond, Imani reached into her coat and procured a second handset portable of the same model as the one she had been using before. It was a trendy new model, handheld with a slate form factor, jet black with a crisp touchscreen. If Madame Arabie was 15 years younger she might have been glued to a device like this. It fit perfectly in one’s hands, could go into any pocket, but it had the same computing potential as a normal portable terminal or room computer connected to the station’s network. Homa had seen them advertised around the pavilion shopping center.

Nonchalantly, Imani handed to Homa ten thousand marks worth of tech.

“I’ll contact you through this whenever I need you. I’m not clingy, I don’t expect you to twist into a knot to call me back or answer my mails immediately, but if I don’t hear from you within the same day, I will camp out at your apartment and get answers personally. Fair warning not to leave me hanging.”

“What? I can just have this–? Ma’am, this– this is really expensive–”

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Take good care of it. Don’t lose it– or pawn it or anything.”

“I wasn’t going to! So to be completely clear, I can just keep this, to talk to you?”

“You can use it to watch videos or play games or whatever too. I don’t care.”

Homa blinked, looking down at the handset’s black LCD with confusion.

“I’m– I guess I’ll give it a go? Um. Thanks ma’am. This is– a lot more than I expected.”

“Uh huh. Anyway. I’ll call or mail you when I need you. We’ll talk about your rent later.”

She turned sharply around, waving her hand behind herself.

Homa could still see that grin, clear as day, still right in front of her.

That was how fast, how confidently, she dismissed her.

“Take care, my~ little~ Ho~ma~,” she laughed, as the black jaws of the gate shut behind her.

Leaving Homa paralyzed for a moment, still processing the wind that had swept her up.


By the time Homa had walked all the way back to Tower Eight from Laurentius, it was night again, and she wouldn’t have time to go food shopping. However, because she had eaten with Madame Arabie yesterday, she still had beef cube lonac in the morning, and could have more of it when she returned. Then tomorrow, she could set her bone marrow lonac to cook and have it for dinner.

She did not usually meet anyone on the way back to her apartment, but coming back this late at night, two nights in a row, made her feel a bit lonelier. There was nothing to be done about it, however. Homa had no friends, a generational difference to almost all of her coworkers, and was foreign enough, weird about gender enough, and secular enough, that she didn’t feel comfortable going to the mosque, or hitting the clubs. She worked, and she ate– her only hobbies were just reading fantasy stories, which was hard to do on the walls of her room, and sports, particularly waterjet racing, which were cancelled.

From her pocket, she withdrew the slate Imani Hadžić had given her. It was nice to have a portable.

When she graduated from vocational school, they took the terminal she got loaned for studying.

And Shimii weren’t allowed to withdraw anything from Core Station lending libraries to take home.

Maybe she would spend her days off playing with this portable. Figure out the games and such.

It’d be easier to read books on it too. She could pick up reading The Coral Knight again.

As soon as she returned to her home, she threw off all her clothes on the floor and jumped into bed. She would have to get up soon to eat and shower, but she had been walking for so long and she needed to relax. That cool comfort of her room’s climate control, the LED clusters overhead, the stale scent of metal around her, it brought her relief. She was home, she was safe. No more walking. No work.

She lifted the portable in both hands, holding it over her eyes. Her mind drifted off.

Kitty McRoosevelt, the terrorist. Madame Arabie, the gangster. Imani Hadžić, the cruel and dark soldier. Homa Baumann, the noble knight, caught up in the whirlwind of events. Her exhausted mind drifted off into little fantasies of this. Her pure heart standing determined against evil; but aside from fantasy, she felt no emotions. In that moment, she was not shaking, and the stress had passed her by. She felt fear when she was in the presence of some bigshot. But in her room, everything was eerie, normal.

Out there, outside her door, there was some kind of plan in motion.

In here however– well, wasn’t that always the case?

Homa was not an esteemed knight involved in some quest. She was just some kid.

Shimii had no knights. They lived in the shadows of the Imbrians’ wars and upheavals.

Things just happened to them. They did not have the power to be involved.

“Ugh. Quit thinking about that big brain stuff. You’ll go insane, Homa Baumann.“

She rolled over on her side, toying with the portable, her tiny tail wiggling what it could.

“I’m gonna pick up the Coral Knight where I left off this instant.“

A dose of pulp heroics would do wonders for her mood–

Then as she began to feel cozy and relaxed, the portable lit up suddenly in front of her face.

She saw a portrait appear on the display and a recognized name to match the face: Imani Hadžić.

Homa fumbled with the portable, sat up, put it to her ear; heart gripped instantly in fear.

“Oh good.” Imani’s tinny voice sounding from the portable. “You’re awake, Ho~ma~”

That little drawn-out singsong rendition of her name again. “Um, officer Hadžić, ma’am–?”

“Eww, don’t call me that. Homa, you are to call me ‘Imani’ at all times from now on, okay? Anyway. We’re going on a date. Meet me in Kreuzung, G3 Block, Tier 8, tomorrow at 9 o clock sharp. The block is called ‘Ballad’s Paradise’ if that makes it any easier to find it. Wear something decent, okay?”

Homa felt like someone had taken a mallet to her chest. “A– um– uh– a date?”

“Uh huh. You ever been on one? Don’t worry. I’m the kind of girl who takes the lead if she has to. You just show up and look nice next to me, okay? It’s a really nice place I’m taking you, expensive too.”

“Um. Imani. With all due respect– why are we going on a date?”

She heard a loud and clear and extremely dismissive scoff on the line.

“It’ll be super fun and you’re gonna love it. C’mon, it’s the last day off I’m gonna have in a while.”

Homa heard a softly ringing noise as Imani suddenly disconnected.

Surprised, she lifted the slate from her ear, stared at the screen in disbelief.

A moment later, a little banner on the screen notified her of a message.

Homa flicked her finger at the banner–

And found a mail, consisting of nothing but a black heart, sent by Imani Hadžić.

She fell back down to the bed, the slate slipping out of her fingers.

Up from her chest, she lifted a hand and set it over her eyes.

Homa drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs.

In silent awe and growing exasperation of the capricious witch she was involved with.

“What have I gotten myself into? She better fucking pay my rent.”

So much for all the adventure and mystery. This really was her life now.

Of course, there was no choice. Not with this woman– not with any part of it.

She was someone who things happened to. Not someone who could do anything.

So then– now the only question was, what would Homa even wear?

To her date tomorrow. With Imani Hadžić.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 2 Intermissions [II.5]

Awaiting the Storm

“I hope I did not keep you waiting too long.”

“What are you talking about? You’re right on time as always.”

“Oh! Look at that– I could have sworn I’d disappoint you this year.”

“Of course not. I had complete confidence in you.”

New Karach Station had declared there would be a simulated rain in the park and some commercial tiers of the station that day. Simulated rains were infrequent, because they annoyed ordinary station-goers, but it was viewed as a valuable way to keep people in touch with nature and its volatility. For Shimii, who made up most of New Karach’s population, there was a unique importance to weather simulations. It was a way to remind themselves of the acts of God, which could be seen in deep readings of their religious literature. Such literature was fragmentary, much of it having been lost in the tumult of history, but it did mention things like sunshine, clouds, rain. It was important to do what they could to experience these things that God had meant for them, to subject themselves to natural adversity with a sense of humility.

In Martyr’s Park, which had been built around the Union Shimii’s memorial cemetery, the rain was also meant to inspire mourning that day. Water came down from the high ceiling of the broad tier that encompassed the park, with an artificial hill overlooking a plain of grass intercut by a concrete path through the gravestones. None of the graves contained actual remains, but that did not matter.

There was a single large tree in the middle of the park, and it was real, not in a bubble or kept alive by machines, it was real, carefully tended, and on that day, buffeting gently in the simulated breeze that drove the rain at an angle. It was pouring rain, the ceiling elements cycling desalinated water in large amounts for the task. It was the birthday of Movlid Omarov, a hero of the Union’s Shimii, so on that day, the sky was weeping. He who had been first to break his shackles, and whose next action, was to break the shackles of his neighbor, and the neighbor after that, until he had freed scores of his kin.

On that day, Bhavani had dressed in as fine a vest and pants as she owned, took up a parasol from a rack in the elevator, and after traveling the winding cemetery path in Martyr’s park, she arrived at Omarov’s simple grave in a corner of the park. There were already stacks of handmade gifts left to him.

At the grave she joined Omarov’s daughter and sole remaining relation, Milana Omarova.

A tall woman, light brown skinned with long, golden blond-brown hair and dark orange eyes, standing under her own parasol, dressed in a ruffled green synthetic cape over her chest and back, beneath which was a Union navy uniform. On her hip, she had a holster for a diamond sabre, with an LED in the handle indicating battery power for the chainsaw motor. Her tail necessitated its own multi-section plastic covering to avoid the rain, because it was very large and very fluffy, a trait which all of her family and many displaced Volgian Shimii shared. For this occasion, she wore very light red cosmetics.

Milana was younger than Jayasankar by over a decade, having been a teen in the revolution. She was in her prime, lean, long-limbed, with a good figure and beautiful smile which she brandished as they met. Despite everything, she was like a ray of sunshine, full of energy, shining in the heavy rainfall.

As-salamu alaykum!”

“Greetings, Milana.”

Bhavani had thought she might have been late, but Milana assured her she was right on time for their yearly ritual. With everything else happening, Bhavani really had to fight to set aside the time to visit New Karach. That very night, she would have to be on a ship bound for Sevastopol Station to headline Maya Kolokotronis’ award ceremony. From there she had to meet with the Shipbuilders Union in Daman Station, and travel to Lyser to gather all the stakeholders for a final decision on the agricultural program. Then she would be going back to Solstice to prepare to fight out the Supreme Soviet’s “Motion to Retain” in the coming weeks. Milana would actually be joining her on some of these excursions, at least.

After all, she was the leader of the “Omarovist” Shimii brigade loyal to Jayasankar.

So she and her father were always worth the visit. It was an event both heartfelt and convenient.

Once they exchanged their initial pleasantries, the two of them paid their respects.

Milana went down to her knees in front of the grave, holding the parasol with one hand.

With the other, she rubbed her fingers over the smooth carving, displacing water from over it.

“These are chaotic times, father. Death and duty hang over us, as they loomed large over you and your generation. I have been thinking about you throughout. I know that I will surmount these challenges, because it is of course nothing like the suffering our ancestors endured, and I am thankful for their deeds, the same as I am thankful for yours. We miss you dearly, but Allah, subhana watala, saw fit to relieve you of duty, with your work done. All I can ask is for you to smile on us. We’ll find our way, by the grace of the most exalted and merciful.” Milana smiled, her bushy tail gently waving behind her. “Bhavani has visited again this year too, of course; and aren’t we blessed? Does she not look gorgeous as usual?”

Bhavani knelt down next to Milana, in front of the grave. She remained quiet, reserving her thoughts as a non-believer in the Shimii religion. For “Mahdist” Shimii, there was an element of positive reflection to visiting graves. Milana did not come to this grave to cry, as Bhavani might have cried and screamed and shouted on the graves of her parents– but to seek strength and the example of her father as a living man who lived right and took care of his family and his duties. It did not matter that Omarov had died unjustly.

Milana did not cry, and her tone of voice was always moderated, as if speaking respectfully to a man who was still in her presence. The way she controlled herself and kept positive was truly inspirational.

After paying their respects, Milana recited a prayer, and then they left the cemetery together.

On the way back, Bhavani became curious about her attitude and tried to air her interest.

“I had to keep silent, because when I think about what happened to him it burns me up.” She said.

“I’m glad you kept quiet then. You know it’s not a time for that today.”

“I do know. But how do you maintain such an iron will? You didn’t even shed a tear.”

Milana glanced at Bhavani with a little smile. “I put everyone in a grave who deserved it. Their families mourn them and their deeds now. It’s not me who needs to be thinking about it. What do I have to be sad about the past for? I will be killing for the rest of my life, but when it comes to my family affairs, I’ve paid back the blood and ended the feuds. There is no use thinking about my father’s killers anymore.”

Bhavani smiled back. “You’re a uniquely strong individual, even for your family. I hope you know that.”

Scary girl. I did help her with that killing, so at least I don’t have anything to worry about there.

“Will you stay for the procession? At 01600. There’ll be songs and cheering.” Milana said.

Bhavani smiled, with a bit of guilt. “I’m afraid I am too busy this year. I would love to, but–“

“Then you must at least stay for a meal.” Milana said. “We can talk about whatever business then too.”

She just knew; Bhavani always had some ulterior motive.

“Sorry, sorry,” Bhavani said, in a sing-song voice, before switching to a more neutral register, “I can’t help but have business everywhere I go. I hardly have time to just bask in good company anymore.”

“I understand perfectly well. I appreciate the visit, you know. We all love you here, Bhavani.”

Milana gave her a playful little punch in the shoulder and smiled brightly.

She meant the visit; but not only these visits. Bhavani had visited often.

Among other things, these visits led to the building of three Mosques and several other amenities.

“I am flattered as always, Milana. This is the most homey place I ever have a chance to visit.”

“I’m glad you think so. Not much has happened since your last visit, but let me take you around anyway.”

Bhavani smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, and Milana led the way to the elevator.

New Karach Station was a multi-section pillar on the border between Ferris and Lyser. Set into a rocky crater 1500 meters below the surface, it was initially an excavation hub for mining, and had both above ground and below ground facilities. Crucially, the yields were mediocre. It was only Shimii slave labor that made it profitable for Imperial companies to dig here. Brutally exploiting free labor for construction and extraction allowed the Empire to settle down anywhere. But once the Union overturned colonial rule, New Karach was made into a habitation that would allow the Shimii within to lead dignified lives. There was no point mining here, but the people of New Karach needed homes, and wanted to retain their community.

There was one habitat, an enormous dice cube shaped structure, positioned above the seafloor, but it was the size of four habitation blocks of other Union stations stacked together and astride. When the station was founded, the Shimii were crammed into the underground section of the station while the Imbrian colonists and officers lived in discrete sections above them, with luxurious amenities. The Shimii were moved to these sections, which were overhauled to allow more people to live in them. Thereby, no Shimii lived entirely underground anymore, a symbolic victory for the residents. The underground habitat was converted into commercial spaces, that housed state-owned distribution centers, co-op shops, several mosques, and other amenities, such as schools, clubs, theaters, plazas, sports fields, among other things.

There was also the large “industrial” section underground where the Shimii retained the equipment left behind by the Empire. They gave the mining equipment to the Union for use elsewhere, but kept the imperial assembly line and manufacturing. They focused on producing finished goods with materials ferried in by the Union. They spun synthetic textiles and manufactured things like plates, mugs and cutlery with Synthestitchers, and built complex parts for ships and computers using Ferristitchers.

New Karach manufactured weapons too. Reportedly the best AK-pattern rifles in the Union!

There was also a massive underground dock at 2000 meters depth for commercial and industrial traffic, accessible by several hatches and tunnels on the exterior of the New Karach crater. A section of the port had become the headquarters of the “Omarov brigade” and its associated Fleet Combat Group.

Martyr’s Park was above all of this, at the highest level of the station, closest to God.

When they left the elevator, they walked through one of the commercial areas. It was the newest one, slowly built in place of a decommissioned prison section. Bhavani and Milana arrived at a multi-story interior pavilion, each story linked by elevators and staircases. There were several spaces all of which were colorful, brightly lit with LEDs and displaying signs and banners, some of which were animated.

Directly from the elevator, Bhavani could see study hall where several dozen Shimii were gathered on mats, learning scripture and the Fusha language together, and practicing song-like prayers; there was a co-op “Shawarma” shop; a state-owned clothing and laundry center; a large food court that occupied several “lots” in the commercial area by itself; and a messenger station where people could get help connecting to long distance friends or relatives, or pick up physical mail if they received any.

They were on the second tier, so they could look over the railings and see the plaza below, which was being used as a football field. There was a heated match underway between rival clubs from the station and their supporters and banners were gathered on either side — it was quite lively.

“It feels like every time I come here it’s more active. It’s very positive.” Bhavani said.

Milana nodded. “It’s not all fun and fancy, but we’re thriving compared to how it was.”

Everywhere Bhavani turned there were people, out on walks, eating, praying, reading, diving into the clubs for live music or dance. Everywhere she turned there were fluffy cat ears and gently swaying tails as well. There were over 300,000 civilians inhabiting this station, mostly Shimii, and near entirely Mahdist Shimii. Milana showed her around, pointing out a few new venues that had been received state licenses recently; boasting about the taste of the local biostitched shawarma, almost like real meat she said; explaining the football club rivalries. People recognized her along the way gave her their blessings.

“Commander, may the favor of the almighty be with you.”

“Commander! Praying for your good health!”

“Thank you for your visit Commander!”

Bhavani smiled. “My, my– you’re quite popular.”

“I’m on local TV frequently.” Milana replied, as if trying to brush it off.

As they wound their way through, they picked up food to go, and walked back to an elevator, crossing again in front of the study hall. There was no music, but the prayers were so melodic by themselves that it felt like there was song. Even though they were young amateurs learning, it still sounded beautiful to Bhavani’s ears. Inside the study hall there was a big banner with a symbol in Al-Fusha, the Shimii “High Language.” Bhavani recognized the shape: it represented the “Mahdi,” a legendary Shimii figure who was admired as the savior and ruler of the first underwater Shimii civilization in the far past. It was not permissible to depict the Mahdi as a person, so he appeared only as these written characters.

All Shimii believed the same origin story: a grand figure known as the Mahdi revealed himself at the hour of the Shimii’s almost assured demise during the destruction of the surface world, and shepherded them to the ocean. He became their first king, and along with his companions, established life underwater. “Mahdist” Shimii were unique in that they believed that the legendary Mahdi had been betrayed, and that the following Caliphs, Shimii kings, distorted his dying wishes and perverted the religion to seize power.

Due to these firebrand beliefs, the Union had to be delicate in how they treated the community.

“Milana, if I may be so bold as to ask–“

When they returned to the elevator, and the doors closed, shutting the sound of the prayers, Bhavani grinned to herself. She had the history of the Shimii in mind, and it brought another curiosity forward.

“Do the Rashidun Shimii here give you any trouble?” She asked with a slightly mischievous tone.

Milana gave her a skeptical and mildly annoyed little look.

“Of course not. They know how things work. There’s like a handful of them. I know them all by name.”

“Oh I understand how meticulous you are, believe me. I’m just curious.”

“It’s entirely fine. We’re all Union here. Those feuds stay in the Imbrian Empire.”

“It’s not so much the feuds as the religious curriculum that I’m curious about.”

“They know how things work. I said it’s fine, Bhavani. Don’t concern yourself with it.”

Milana’s implication was clear: the mosques in the Union were by and large Mahdist mosques. The Rashidun Shimii were the majority in the Imbrian Empire, and that was the reason why the Mahdist Shimii became a majority of the Shimii in the Union. So the Rashidun Shimii here would just have to suck it up for standing by or supporting the ethnic cleansing that transpired to create this situation. Milana would have no sympathy for them. Bhavani supported Milana: so the Union would not have much sympathy.

“I am unconcerned. I support you unconditionally. I just want you to know you can lean on me.”

Her younger companion laughed raucously as the elevator doors opened.

“I’m not a teenager anymore, Bhavani. I can handle this. But thank you for the offer, nonetheless.”

Such a conversation to an onlooker might have carried an implication of a benefactor haranguing her subordinate, but Bhavani had a lot of affection for Milana, and simply couldn’t keep herself from mothering this quite grown woman to some degree even now, after all these years. She wanted to tease her, to poke at her feelings, and to coddle her like a daughter. There were some in her cabinet who did not grasp the sheer importance of Movlid Omarov and the Omarov family had for the Premier.

On a personal level she had fought alongside Omarov, and respected him greatly as a fighter and as a statesman. She and Ahwalia both had promised to take care of Milana, though Ahwalia did not care much for this promise in the pursuit of his grand dreams. But Bhavani had wholeheartedly wanted to share the power of the Omarov family, a girlish dream of twenty years past, she admired him almost as much as she had admired her teacher Daksha Kansal. His name deserved to be spoken in the same breath as her.

On an ideological level, while he was not necessarily the best-read communist, Omarov was keenly aware of the nature of power. To Bhavani, Omarov was not just a hero. He was a template, for forms of power she needed to command. Omarov understood that politics entailed suppression, the wielding of power.

If your ideas did not suppress your opponent’s, theirs would be adopted and yours would be crushed.

So your aim should be to suppress your opponents and crush their ideas to reproduce your own.

This was the only way to create the world that you desired, which was the aim of politics.

After all, why would you fight for ideas you did not believe to be necessary and true?

Necessary and true enough to kill for? So he united his Shimii kinfolk with that sense of urgency.

Those who treated politics as a game would be swallowed by those who engaged in it with zeal.

Before Jayasankar knew this, Omarov knew this. He didn’t write books. He knew it in his skin.

Knew his comrades, knew his enemies, knew his aims and ambitions, and his vision for the world.

The Shimii militias were perhaps the most fearless, disciplined, and ruthless revolutionary soldiers.

Ahwalia’s utopian supporters denigrated the Shimii behind their backs, calling the influence of Omarov by a pejorative Volgian term, an “Omarovschina.” But Bhavani took this as a term of endearment. If such an “Omarovschina” existed then this phenomenon fostered great and laudable deeds in the Revolution.

Legends like Khadija al-Shajara arose out of the “Omarovschina” and achieved great victories.

Omarov’s influence rallied the Shimii, and rallied them not only together, but with the rest of the Union. Gracious and humble, it was Omarov who proposed alliance first, he was keener in that than Ahwalia or Kansal. It would be a more fragmented Union without the Shimii community, and so Bhavani placed a lot of importance in them, and their special needs– and that importance she channeled through the figure of Omarov, his history, his place in the revolutionary legend, and thus, promoted the “Omarovschina.”

It was the influence of the “Omarovschina” which meant that Bhavani could walk alone in New Karach. At ease without an escort, coming and going like a member of the community. Watched over by everyone. Given blessings on the street, loved and welcomed and thanked as if she herself was a Shimii too. It was this way, in part, because nobody would dare mess with Milana Omarova or one of her guests.

Within New Karach, Milana Omarova was what Bhavani Jayasankar wished to be: without enemies.

“Follow me to my office, we can eat and chat in there in peace.”

When the elevator door opened, the two of them stepped into a central lobby which snaked off into several directions. There were larger rooms with multiple people, hallways with smaller rooms. Bhavani saw an open door to a large room where the floor was padded, and several cat-eared men and women were learning hand-to-hand combat. Without the padding, their instructor would be knocking them to a metal floor. In the far distance, even through the soundproofing, Bhavani could hear the reports of rifles from the training range. There was a small break room with water and bread– the general mess would be far larger and was likely on a floor below, along with the barracks and the quartermaster’s warehouse.

Every wall was steel grey-blue, unpainted, unadorned. Only the prayer rooms had been done up, with colorful quilts on the floor, the ceilings and walls projecting false polished masonwork and an ornate domed roof where there was not any such thing. As they traveled the halls, marines and support staff saluted Milana and Bhavani, some cheerfully crying “Urrah!” or “Allahu Akbar!” when they saw her, particularly those visibly sweating and breathing hard from a round in the training rooms.

“Such excitable and hard working folks.” Bhavani said fondly.

“Hah! They’ve just learned to find it fun because its mandatory!” Milana said, her voice without malice. “You put a fish in an aquarium full of knives and they either learn to love dodging them or die.”

“Colorful as always, Brigadeer Omarova.”

They had taken the elevator down to the lower level, the headquarters of the Ashura’s “3rd Separate Brigade”, the “Omarov Brigade.” They had a fleet of twelve Frigates and the Cruiser “Kaman”, as well as two troopships to transport the Brigade’s 3200 dedicated Marines. They were not all bunked and mobilized at that moment, as the headquarters had the room to house about three thousand personnel total. Half the fleet’s ships were manned at any given moment. Personnel were cycled in and out of reserve so they could be among their community. Between the Marines, ship crews, and support staff there were almost 10000 Shimii personnel involved with the Omarov Brigade when fully mobilized.

“Does Nagavanshi have some kind of spy tailing you to make sure you’re okay?” Milana asked.

“I’m sure she does, I just don’t know who or where.” Bhavani replied, her tone casual.

Milana briefly narrowed her eyes and then sighed. “You’re probably right.”

“Does it not sit right with you? Would you want to be out of her reach?”

“No, I just don’t want some lout reporting gossip to her. About us being alone together.”

“We’ve been alone together before.”

“We’re at war now, so I’m afraid of auntie Nagavanshi being at her most paranoid.”

She said the word “auntie” in a quite derisive tone of voice.

Bhavani grinned. “Now it’s my turn to tell you: don’t be concerned about that. I can handle it.”

Milana shrugged her shoulders. She stopped at a nearby door, swiped her keycard.

“If you say so. Right this way.”

Though Bhavani had a similar same age gap to Milana that she did to Nagavanshi–

Milana was like a daughter to her. She would never.

While Nagavanshi was her little snake, and was treated accordingly.

Past the door, they entered an office about 5 meters by 10. There was a long couch against one of the walls, and on the wall opposite the couch was a large framed portrait of Movlid Omarov, a stocky, well-built man with a keen glint in his eyes, greying fur on his cat-like ears, and graying hair on his head, dressed in a Union uniform. This was a revisionist sort of image– Movlid did not live long enough for the green uniforms of the Union navy to become standard, nor did he live to wear the many medals on his breast, but it did not matter. Had he not been betrayed, he certainly would have been honored like this.

At the back there was Milana’s desk, which had a computer terminal with a screen on an arm mount, from which Milana could make video calls or perform other tasks. Behind her desk hung a very large flag, the Omarovist flag, all green with a yellow half-moon and a yellow sword crossing over the thin side of it, framing a yellow star in the middle. On her desk there was a much smaller Union flag on a little pole, all red with a yellow plow and sword framed by the black, globe-like shape of an Agrisphere’s main module.

Milana set her lunchbox on the desk, and she removed the diamond sabre in its sheathe from her belt and dropped it on the side of her desk surface. She then sat back in her desk chair, and gestured for Bhavani to sit. From the floor in front of the desk, a chair lifted up that Bhavani could make use of.

“Crack it open, it’s good. Lunch is always fantastic here.” Milana said.

Bhavani sat as requested and opened the lunchbox.

Indeed, it was fantastic. The multi-section lunchbox contained a fired flatbread wrap around pickled tomatoes and cucumber and smoked cheese, along with a dish of stewed beans and chickpeas, some intact and some slightly mashed for contrasting texture, topped with crumbled hard cheese drizzled with the corn oil the cheese had been packed into. There was also a baked cutlet of chickpea and potato, and a small container of a watery juice drink, which had been enriched with some needed vitamins.

Soon as Bhavani began to eat, she could not disguise the sounds of pleasure drawn from her by the tastes. Everything was delicious. She loved the oven-fired char on the bread, the mellow tang of the cheese, and the starchy richness of the beans. People assumed that Bhavani must have lived large as the Premier, but she was not like Ahwalia, who gave himself the free time to have dinner parties. As an obsessive who insisted on having her hands on every project, Bhavani’s most frequent meal, aside from Nagavanshi, was broth, pickles, biscuits and coffee that were ubiquitous in every workplace.

Things within reach that she could push down quickly. Things she could taste out of sight.

Milana did not interrupt her. While Bhavani ate uncharacteristically slow and savored everything as if it was a gourmet meal, Milana tucked her food away efficiently, like a soldier at the mess. She was done minutes before Bhavani, but did not insist that her guest eat any faster and did not distract her with questions until Bhavani had finished everything. But she did scrutinize the lunchbox every so often, as if to check that everything was indeed being eaten. A habit of how thrifty she was raised, no doubt.

Once they were both done eating, Milana collected the lunch boxes.

“I’ll drop these at the collection point later. So, Bhavani, how is everything? The vote to retain is coming up, so that must be why you’re visiting. If it was about the war you would have asked me much earlier. If you’d left it up to me I would have had Serrano in the pocket even faster than Kolokotronis.”

Milana put on a softer expression, despite the fact they were now ‘discussing business.’

Bhavani relaxed in her chair as well. If anything, this was a more natural environment for her.

All of her relationships were in some way transactional– that’s just how things were.

Once the transactional quality was laid bare, and the facade broken, she felt more at ease.

They were both using each other. But that didn’t mean there was no love between them.

“Right, it’s about that.” Bhavani said.

For that instant– she hesitated. She was only human, after all. Any biography that touted someone’s impossibly decisive character was propagandizing them. Bhavani Jayasankar, the staunch communist militarist bent on imposing her vision of the Union, could hesitate, and did so then. She thought of what she would say and what it would mean and she hesitated. Because it was simply an enormous task.

She paused for a moment– just enough for Milana to interject.

“Bhavani, you know I am your infantryman. Just tell me what you need.” She said.

This girl– this woman, had so much respect for Bhavani. Her soft eyes were full of genuine emotion.

It hurt to ask her to fight for her. She dreaded the moment that was to come for them.

Because the guilt she felt then, worming its way around her heart–

If she ever had to send Milana to her death, she would never live that guilt down.

But what Milana had said was true. She was, through and through, “Bhavani’s infantryman.”

So she had to overcome her hesitation. For the world that they envisioned.

That was what it meant to desire power, to gather power, and to wield power.

Milana; Nagavanshi; even someone like Murati Nakara–

They were people she loved. But also the tools that she had at her disposal to achieve her ambitions.

“Right now, Ahwalia’s supporters in the government and the Council are arraying against me in opposition to the war, our alliance with Veka and other policy shifts. Left to their own devices, they will only prolong a state of political stalemate. I’m having to take action outside the system, mainly through the military. The war is an escalation on my side, and there will be more. I want Ahwalia to escalate in turn– I want his people to think they have a decisive chance against me. We are going to provoke them, bait them into risking everything. Then we will destroy them once and for all. This situation will become complicated, and I will need your help. Nagavanshi is aware of this. I will be asking a lot of you.”

There it was. Laid bare. Her ambition, and the future she felt brimming in her skin.

She did not say everything, but she said everything she needed. More could be said later.

In the next instant, with a dark grin on her face, Milana put a fist up to her chest.

Her ears perked and there was a red, bloody glint in her eyes.

“So the time has finally come.” Milana said knowingly.

“It is coming. If we emerge from this storm, it’ll be our Union henceforth. No more compromises and no more backroom dealing. We’ll build our righteous Union that spans the ocean.” Bhavani replied.

Alhamdulilah.” Milana replied. All praise be to God. She was still smiling.

Bhavani smiled back. “Glad to fight by your side once more, my lion.”

Tightening around her heart, those thorny coils of guilt. She did not flinch despite the pain.

For those who pursued power, this feeling would forever live in their chest, no matter what.

No matter how righteous their ambitions, how correct they believed their ideology.

Humans felt guilty; humans using other humans for their own ends could only feel guilty.

Bhavani knew, in her guilt-stricken heart, that, when even the great man himself armed this girl, his little daughter, and had her fight and kill to achieve victory at whatever cost– Bhavani knew that Movlid Omarov felt the exact same way as she did. Every painful step toward his new world, the defeat of his enemies and the dignity of his allies, the great works he envisioned and the peace that he desired.

Each step like this, was one more ugly, grim brick in the edifice, the cracks filled in blood.

No matter what the bricks built. There was no beautiful way to wield power. No bloodless revolution.

She could only hope that after everything was done, she would be remembered as well as he.

That the edifice of her Union could be seen to shine as brightly as his vision, despite the blood spatters.


When Fuhrer Lehner would have received the news, he was in the middle of his private lunch.

He ordered the officer arriving outside his office to wait, regardless of the urgency.

Lehner was the great leader. It was he who decided urgency, and nobody else.

He was in his unofficial office at the top of the R.N.N. main building in Thurin Station. The R.N.N. building had become the fortress out of which he ruled, despite the seat of administrative power lying in Weimar. Military officers and politicians thus came and went from the R.N.N. building– but the news kept going out regardless. Because it was already messaging “pro-Conservative” in the past, it was pretty easy to turn the dial on the R.N.N’s broadcast up a notch to “pro-Volkisch” and full-throated support of Lehner.

At his desk, alone, Lehner had a lovely lunch served out in front of him that day.

Honey-garlic glazed ribeye steak on a bed of polenta served as the main course. Lehner focused his attention on the steak, mainly, ignoring the polenta. On the side, he had cubed, battered and deep fried potatoes served with melted cheese, and a salad that was lightly flecked with greens and onions but was mainly shredded egg and bready white croutons. Despite their ubiquity in the diets of his citizens, there was no dark bread, no pickles and no sausage on his plate. Lehner despised all three of these food items.

He didn’t inherit a fortune from his family to be eating crated-up preserved rations like the rabble.

Once he had thoroughly savored his meal, Lehner allowed the officer to meet him.

It was the chief of staff of the Rhinean National Navy, his direct subordinate, Walther Weddel.

“Why are you always so dumpy? At least try to look heroic.” Lehner said.

In Lehner’s mind his chief of staff should be an absolute mound of muscle, enormous, a man who looked like he lifted Diver suits, with angled jowls so deep it looked like he chewed through bones all day. Instead he had Walther Weddel, a smooth, egg-like man with a boyish face who was always sweating. His uniform hung off him like a grandmother-gifted coat. Had Lehner the luxury, he would have told him he should be ashamed to promote himself as a racial superior, but Walther’s administration skill was sorely needed in order to keep the Rhinean forces in order. Only Walther could organize their mess of a Navy.

“I’ll try, Fuhrer.” He said. “I apologize– I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”

Lehner locked his eyes on him immediately.

That was how Lehner learned of the loss of roughly a third of the Volkisch Movement’s fleet.

Walther told him what they knew at the time.

Their operation in Serrano had been absolutely crushed — by the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.

At first he looked incredulous. This wasn’t unbelievable but he needed specifics.

Without specifics, without people to berate other than Walther– he had nothing.

“Do you have a report? Numbers? Names?”

Walther glowered and stuttered. “We are trying to confirm who is alive and get a timeline of what actually happened. There’s some fog of war– I just thought I’d inform you– we– we– may need to–“

Lehner began shouting. “Consider me informed, and go find out what actually happened! Tell Warteburg and Jagow! If we really had a complete collapse in Sverland it’s the front line that needs to know! Fuck! What am I supposed to do Walther? I can’t just pull out a chess board and figure this all out for you!”

He sent Walther away to find a way to reword the loss and report on it when Lehner was in a better mood. It wasn’t that Lehner didn’t believe him. Lehner believed him completely. But he was paralyzed with frustration, and did not know what orders he could give, or to whom, to fix what was broken. He had not even considered the Union, hiding in the remnants of the Empire’s colonies, as a threat, until then.

One more enemy in a world full of them.

For the Volkisch, their bid to become the true lords of the Imbrium ocean was going awry.

They had given the Royal Alliance several black eyes in the open waters between Sverland and Rhinea, but the Royal Alliance’s defenses within the Yucatan Peninsula itself had completely stopped the momentum of the Volkisch forces. The Royal Alliance had baited the Volkisch into overextending while they remained near their stations and bases, where they would be close to supply, and benefit from the support of stationary torpedo and cannon emplacements, missile launch sites, Diver bases, and minefields.

Meanwhile the Volkisch supply situation was a mess, their lines overstretched, the supply of raw materials and finished goods subject to irregular delays. Their officers were unwilling to engage in siege warfare and still sought an impressive maneuver victory. Lehner had to specifically order Reichsmarschall von Jagow to reform the Volkisch line closer to Rhinea and regroup, because he became alarmed at the enormous salient stretching into the Yucatan. It didn’t take a genius to see the problem– so why couldn’t his command staff figure that out? Lehner had begun to worry that his entire armed forces was useless.

While they had the most advanced industrial complexes, in the form of the Rhineanmetalle group, the resources needed to replace an entire fleet were enormous. Shipbuilding wasn’t even the most immediate problem either– staffing their Navy was. There was a surplus of militiamen, and from them, they had trained rudimentary marines and diver pilots. But it didn’t solve the lack of experienced sailors and officers who could staff ships and do the grunt work of maintaining a sailing, blue water navy. While the Volkisch rabble could beat up unarmed liberals on the streets, they were being exposed as poor warfighters.

Those 150 plus ships they sent to the Serrano region was the result of weeks of recruiting and training, filled in with some of their veterans from the Rhinean Defense Force of the old Imperial Navy. They could rebuild that many ships before the end of the year if they set their mind to it, but the training, the leadership, if it had all been destroyed, could they replace it in time to crew those ships? They had been deemed too green to fight the Royal Alliance effectively– and now it appeared they were also too green to fight the Union effectively as well. So in what capacity could they be used to support the war?

As Lehner ruminated on this, it was not even the worst news he received that day.

“You’re fucking kidding me.” was his response to the next emergency call that he received.

Strikers at Rhineanmetalle steelworking plants in Kreuzung had completely paralyzed steel production. They had occupied the plants, and were effectively keeping out local police. Rhineanmetalle forbid the use of lethal weapons in their plants, fearing the destruction of expensive equipment or the deaths of skilled workers who would be difficult to replace. A stalemate was forming, and orders went unfulfilled.

Lehner met with his economic ministers, with representatives from Rhineanmetalle, with quartermasters–

This situation could become dire. They were not ready for work stoppages. Production was too tenuous.

Without continuous production of armor plate, coilgun missiles, cannon barrels, and other such things, they would not be able to support day to day fighting at the front within weeks. Furthermore there was a possibility if this strike dragged on it would inspire more strikes. Lehner went with his standby solution to every problem: cracking heads. He promised he would have Marines in there beating the unholy fuck out of those steelworkers until they were back to soldering plates through the pain of broken hands.

“With all due respect,” the Rhineanmetalle representative did not call him ‘Fuhrer’, so he avoided saying any title, “Heavy fighting inside of our plants is categorically impermissible. Our equipment is specialized and delicate, difficult to replace. The Trade Union knows this very well. What we demand is an economic stimulus package, then we can pay the strikers and continue to meet our supply obligations for the navy.”

“You just want to bribe them? What if they ask for more?” Lehner shouted.

“We’ll meet that when it comes. Going forward we will be taking steps to insure the workforce is unable to occupy the plants so easily, but right now, we will not support any fighting in our plants. We believe there should be ample funds from the former Rhinea’s surplus years to cover such a cost. This is the only request of the Rhineanmetalle Group and affiliated entities. We hope to see a speedy resolution.”

Lehner was furious after the string of meetings.

Rhineanmetalle only cared about their own pockets. They just wanted a bigger war chest to feel the burn of negotiating with the trade unionists less in their yearly corporate earnings. Meanwhile those trade unionists had no patriotic sense of duty whatsoever. They only cared about their own stomachs, not that their country was torn apart and their region locked in a war! They knew that this strike would hurt Rhinea massively at this exact moment. They had probably been biding their time, waiting for this opportunity.

He didn’t care what Rhineanmetalle wanted. There was only one viable solution.

Crush the trade unionists, now, and force all of them back to work without objection or negotiation.

One problem begot another, however. What forces could he send to do this?

Kreuzung was a gigantic station-complex, and Rhineanmetalle did not only have the plants in Kreuzung, they owned the mines in the same region, Eisental, and they owned the petroleum industry and carbon manufactures too. Those were also Rhineanmetalle workers, and he could not take the chance that the trade unionists had not gotten them involved too. In Lehner’s mind, this situation was quickly escalating to a total state of emergency for the entire Eisental region. If he sent a small force just to slowly grind the workers at the Kreuzung plants, it wouldn’t be enough if it became widespread unrest and labor riots.

He needed enough forces to crush all dissent decisively and dissuade further uprising.

Not just at Kreuzung, but enough troops to patrol Eisental and make sure the unrest did not spread.

Eisental was a big place. This would be an enormous undertaking. Who could get this done?

He could not send the north border force, even though it was closest to Eisental. That would open a hole that Erich von Fueller’s Grand Western Army could exploit. He could not send his frontline troops, obviously. There were available reserve forces for the front, but the frontline commanders would go insane if he took their reserves from them. So it would have to be militia and internal security troops. But he needed the bulk of the Stabswache to enforce order in the political centers, like Thurin and Weimar. It was a tenuous time and without the firm hand of the Stabswache, the liberals and anarchists might rally. Hell, the strikes in Eisental could spread into Central Rhinea– then everything would be truly fucked.

Lehner walked in circles around his office, thinking himself sore.

Militia could absolutely not be sent alone. They had to be supervised by the Stabswache.

Or could they–?

No–

Volkisch militiamen might just wreck all of Eisental’s industry in the process of suppressing dissent.

God damn it– the militia could definitely not do this without tight supervision.

He convinced himself.

Stabswache, his elite political troops, would be needed– but which unit? Who would lead it?

He needed a force that was large enough to patrol an entire region with a station-complex that had twelve towers, and a dozen other stations besides, six agrispheres, and several industrial works.

Size wasn’t the only issue either.

He needed an elite, disciplined force, that was already equipped and able to not only fight in stations but patrol in the open water; but one that would not be missed at the front, nor in the political centers. He needed it to be led by someone intelligent, but who would be careful with the logistics of the operation. Someone with a vested interest in smoothing things out, who could get Rhineanmetalle on board. But who was ruthless enough to not slack off or go easy on the trade unionists for the sake of peace either.

It couldn’t just be a Volkisch zealot– they would be just as bad as the militia.

Who did he trust to take this issue seriously?

Then, he remembered, buried deep in the ledger in his mind–

Like a bolt of lightning–!

Vee.

Vee!

Vee was both a Stabswache commander and a major Rhineanmetalle shareholder!

Vee had a force with personal loyalty and their own equipment!

Vee (Lehner pointedly avoided pronouns and this person’s proper name in his mind) could handle this.

Vee had a personal and financial interest in this mission. The 7th Stabswache was unorthodox, but the one thing they weren’t lacking in was discipline and skill. They were also walking a thin tightrope as one of the ethnic legions of the Volkisch– hungry to prove themselves, and willing to go all out in the service of Volkisch interests. This could be their chance to prove they were worthy, and worth more than just a reserve force. Lehner hated having to ask, but this was his best option. The 7th used to be part of his mercenaries after all, the Lehner family private army. By right, he should be able to call upon them now.

His mind was racing. A thousand kilometer per hour, breakneck g-forces of thought–

Vee– Vee was difficult. Extremely difficult– Lehner felt ancient pains unearthing themselves.

It could end up embarrassing for him if word got out– about their relationship.

But he had no choice. Vee was in the Stabswache for a reason. Independent even of his own judgment, the 7th Fleet had come to join the violent pastiche of the Volkisch Movement for their own interests, but they had served excellently so far. And nobody in the Volkisch political class would miss them if they were gone somewhere– they were not Imbrians after all. He convinced himself. It had to be Vee.

She–

She– that was right.

He would call Vee a she to butter her up a bit. Then she (he was practicing) would definitely agree.

She was whip-smart, a genius, enough to make her own money, serve her own interests.

It was decided. He had no choice. His manic energy had finally given him a good solution.

Yes– everything would get taken care of now.

Lehner called his secretary. “Connect my office through to the 7th Stabswache. I don’t care where they are. Put me through to Vee– just connect to the Aleksandr and the communication officer will know!”

Even his secretary was a little shocked at the request.

After a few minutes of finagling behind the scenes, Lehner’s office was relayed through various laser stations until, on the border with Sverland, he connected to the Cruiser Aleksandr. A bewildered Shimii woman answered the call first, but then quickly put the Fuhrer through to the commander of the vessel. On the main screen of his office, Lehner put the commander’s wry little grin up and began to chat.

“Vee, I’d been thinking about you a lot lately.” Lehner said. “You look amazing in uniform. Real heroic.”

He segued easily into the act. He was her political leader– but also a concerned father.

And Vee responded to the act with her own, immediate restraint. Playing along cheerfully.

“Opening with the compliments? I’m surprised. Maybe I’ll actually believe you were thinking about me.”

On the screen, the confident young woman staring back at him rested her head on a fist, with a delighted grin on her soft, slim face. Her all-black uniform was pristine and expertly fitted her lean proportions. She had a peaked cap with silver, cat ear-like decorations atop, and a red armband indicating her membership in the political paramilitary of the Volkisch, the “Stabswache.” She toyed with her long hair, mostly light blue but with one pink stripe running through several long locks which she spun around one finger.

Lehner had to grit his teeth around this one, but he had no choice. In the end, as much as he disdained his son-turned-daughter, this really was a situation he could only entrust to her and to her troops.

“So, are you ready to owe me a favor? Or perhaps you’re ready to talk seriously about Pan-Imbrianism?”

Said Violet Lehner, Oberführer of the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, “Zabaniyah.”

Presaging the discussion that would lead her and her troops to Kreuzung, into the stage of history.

Carried by the currents on a collision course with a certain traveling band of revolutionaries.

And the next site of their destiny.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.12]

This chapter contains explicit sexual content.


“Ensign Anahid, how do you feel about the Republic of Alayze? You can be candid.”

It’s a dump.

A failed state.

We should be ashamed. We should beg for forgiveness.

“I think as the sole remaining democracy of the sea, it’s worth fighting for.”

Ensign Samuel “Sam” Anahid stood in the middle of a dim blue windowless room with a high ceiling. In this room there were only three things. The desk of the Director of the General Intelligence Agency, the director himself, behind the desk, and a miasma of palpable deceit that was everywhere in the Republic of Alayze. No adornments, no windows; this cell-like room was the heart and the soul of the G.I.A.

Wearing a neutral expression, Sam told a lie. Not a muscle in his face twitched out of place.

“Good answer, candid and honest. You are quite correct Ensign. Ours is not a perfect country; everyone can see this easily. But our role, nonetheless, is to protect it with all of our might. Because its people can still make it great. If we surmount the firestorm of this era, because we are a democracy, we can achieve anything. Those despots in the Imbrian Ocean can only lord over an unchanging and stagnating relic.”

It was customary for G.I.A. officials with important missions to take on new identities.

To become Director, the man before Samuel had to abandon his old name. That plaque on his desk, which read Albert Ford-Reagan, was just another falsity that was borne out of this room and its mission. For a man who sat behind a desk all day and gave orders, he was solidly built, broad-backed, square-jawed. He had an open case of cigars on his desk from which many pieces were missing. His eyes were crystalline and upon them information could be seen flitting– cybernetics. His hair was voluminous for his age, slicked back. There had been an older Director when Sam first joined. But he looked like this too.

Maybe if Sam did outstandingly, he might someday be reborn as a broad-backed blond bear.

Rather than a narrow-chested, slender-limbed twink, hiding half his face behind his long hair.

But the thought of becoming like that man– disgusted him.

He had some unreachable ideas of what he wanted–

No use contemplating it. Not here anyway.

“Indeed, Director.”

Sam was sparse with his words. What could he say?

He didn’t even know why he was summoned.

And no matter what he said, he would find out sooner or later.

“From now on, you will go by Blake McClinton.” Director Albert said suddenly.

Sooner–

“Sir?”

“We’re assigning you a valuable mission in the Imbrian Ocean. Your right to forfeit this mission was the question that I asked you earlier.” Director Albert said. “You will receive field training and full details in the coming weeks. You are now a full-fledged field agent, Ensign. Congratulations.”

It was that sudden.

And that was, truly, all the Director said, or needed to say.

Every blank he left was filled in by the culture of the G.I.A. Sam did not even have to acquiesce or accept the mission. He had accepted such a mission already, every time he lied in order to protect his career prospects. He had done the work to remain in the office, to continue to don his badge, and he had done enough that there was no running away from it anymore. He was the best analyst, so there was only one way for him to go. The G.I.A. had more desk officers coming, and the Republic’s war was endless.

All of this because I was too much of a pussy to fight on the front lines from the start.

He made Ensign off the back of being able to read better into data than his colleagues.

All because he didn’t want to die in a Cutter’s bridge fighting the Hanwans or Imbrians.

Now he was getting field duty– in Imbria, no less.

Sam quietly left the office after the conversation with the Director.

There was nothing more to be said.

He left for home while he had the chance.

Madison Station was the home of the G.I.A Central Directorate. It was a squat cylindrical station with only two stories, the top tier having discrete buildings inside while the bottom provided transport infrastructure to outlying habitation spires. Overhead, the thick titanium roof was like an eternal gray sky. There was a fake, grassy park stretching out from the white slab of the Central Directorate building, surrounded by high fences patrolled by quad-rotor drones. Each stretch of the park had a sun-lamp to keep the grass alive that was uncomfortable to stand under. And in fact, even agents would be chased off by the drones if they loitered in the lawn anyway– to say nothing of the few bubbles which contained trees. Everything was look-don’t-touch, the tiniest splash of aesthetics below the grey horizon.

Outside the fences, there were long roads for personal electric cars and for the electric ferry. There were few such cars parked near the street. Cars were like toys; you could drive your car if you lived in the habitat in Madison itself, and you drove it from your work which was a few blocks away and back to your home. It was a novelty. If you lived in an outlying hab like Sam, you could not possibly take your car there and back. Some people did keep a car in the car park in Madison, so they would tube to their hab and back, but drive to work using their car– it was nonsense. He had the money, but why would he bother?

Besides the cars, the streets around the Directorate were sparse with people.

Across the road, however, the crowd was much thicker.

The Central Directorate was an isolated bubble.

Everywhere else stood the teeming mass of the Republic’s people. Madison was nowhere near the most crowded, but Sam still had to push in a little after crossing the road. Office buildings, restaurants, store-fronts, no matter where he walked, the street was teeming. Dim lights. Everything was dim, as if the city feared any bright colors. Amid a crowd of people in similar office-wear to his own, all dimly looking around as if dazed. Sam had been places where walking down the street felt like a queue system.

Madison was not that bad– yet. It would get there someday.

There were less and less stations going up these days. Building them had become very convoluted.

Politically and financially–

No sense in thinking about it too much.

He made his way to an elevator and rode it down into the lower tier.

Here, the steel guts of the station were on full display. There was nothing but metal, tubes and vents and pipes, sealed off rooms with mechanisms. No attempt to embellish anything. Wide and broad hallways full of people led between tube stations out to the outlying spire hab blocks that surrounded the main structure of Madison. There were some shops here and there for the people coming and going, cramped little restaurants that were literally holes in the wall, kiosks with patriotic trinkets for folks visiting the Capital. With his hands in his pockets, Sam made his way to the tube out to Hab block “Clancy.”

Entering a tight train car, standing in the center holding himself up with a bar.

Once the train got going, fake windows would project an idyllic view of the outside.

Madison had been built at 300 meters depth on the Great Alayze Reach.

That was the base. These tubes were actually at 250 meters depth.

The Great Reaches were sacred places rendered safe by some poorly understood force, maybe some weather pattern, magnetic field, some forgotten surface device, God knew why– but there was none of the aggressive megafauna, wild currents, storms, red tides, and residual corruption that plagued the rest of the photic layers of the ocean. So when Sam peeked out of those false windows there was a bit of light outside, the marine fog was not as thick. Everyone felt safe. Nobody was terrified of the water.

You could see schools of fish, life, a place teeming with biological hope.

To leave Madison for the neighboring Pennsylvania Station you had to cross the Upper Scattering Layer and dive down into the aphotic depths, as most of the Republic lay between 900 to 1500 depth in the Cogitum Ocean. The USL was called that because most of human civilization was beneath it, but Madison was one of the few places above the USL where the moniker made no sense to the ruling class of people who got to live in this privileged bubble. Sometimes Sam nursed a catastrophic idea– if the Surface got worse, and the Great Reaches became as dangerous as the rest of the photic ocean around them.

Madison and the entire Republic government would be completely annihilated.

Maybe that was what it would take. The Imbrians, Hanwans, Katarrans, they could not end the Republic.

But maybe someday God would strike the Republic down just as He struck the surface down.

When the tube stopped inside of Clancy hab, the view became a lot less pretty.

Out on the platform, a police officer had pulled aside a civilian. There was a brief argument before the officer laid an unprompted beating that Sam could not bear to watch it and hurried away.

Leaving behind the depressing tube platform he found himself at the base of the hab, a cylindrical promenade around the elevators, where there was a shabby cafeteria and a few sparse storefronts. Nothing staffed by people, everything was pay-to-operate and self-serve. Sam hated these– he would not eat here unless the situation in his apartment was truly dire. But he was well paid, he could afford to keep his own food at home. Most of the people in this hab were immigrants in the service industry.

Yellow lights gave the halls leading to his apartment a gloomy ambiance.

Everything was so dim– why? Why couldn’t they have some brightness for once?

When Sam arrived at his own hall there was an enormous mess in front of him.

There was an eviction happening in his hall, so a person’s belongings were getting dumped out of an apartment like trash by several police officers. Sam had to navigate a maze of trash bags and furniture to get through, and the police officers gave him a disdainful look for it and barked at him to hurry up. There was a bloodied young man up against a wall, his nose punched deep purple — Sam didn’t know anyone here so he didn’t know who it was. He assumed that was the former inhabitant after the police got him.

Evicted from here, he’d be taken directly to a prison station.

He would either rot in jail or be sentenced to a Debtors’ Corps for work or war.

When Sam finally got to his own door, the hallway lights were blinking on and off.

He sighed. They couldn’t even have steady power– how would they manage color?

Then, he got his colors–

Inside, the first thing he saw was a big red flashing warning on his wall.

Rent due: $2000 Republic New Dollar or RND.

That warning would flash like a mental assault at him from every wall until it was paid.

Exasperated, Sam easily dispersed the warning by flashing his bank card at the wall.

Turning the dire red light back to the dim, depressing yellow.

$2000 RND was like a fifth of his monthly salary. It was barely anything to him.

For the laborers it could be close to three quarters of it.

Sam imagined that for that evictee, this warning flashed at him for a whole month.

He saw it every day awaiting the knock from the police, helpless.

Some holy land, the Great Alayze Reach. Some country, the great Republic of Alayze.

Sam slammed the door behind himself and laid back against it, breathing heavy.

He almost thought he would have a panic attack.

Rotten fucking day– rotten fucking place–

“What do I think of this place? I fucking hate it. I can’t imagine Imbria is any worse.”

Sam took in a deep breath.

Using the wall to help himself stand back up straight.

Thumbing the wall touchpad to bring up the lights, brightening up his 7 by 5 meter space.

They never got too bright, but it was a less dim yellow than the halls now.

The apartment was divided into three sections, the living space, kitchen, and bathroom.

There was an island that separated the living space and kitchen, while the bathroom was tucked away behind another door. From the hallway door, Sam was in his living space, with a combination sofa and bed, that folded out, a table, a combination video-screen and terminal mounted on the wall that had its own processor, making it just a bit faster and nicer than using the room computer. In his kitchen, there was an electric cooktop with a small convection box, and an icebox and pantry.

Sam used to pay to get his food automatically restocked, but he stopped. It was people from Clancy that delivered it, and he hated the idea of his neighbors running to Madison and back for him.

So he just made it part of his routine to shop in Madison and bring stuff back sometimes.

It also gave him an excuse to stick around Madison– sometimes he needed that.

Soon as the lights went on, Sam pulled off his tie, dropped his suit jacket on the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it too but kept his pants on. He had a little ritual– he was deeply ashamed of it, but it gave him a specific thrill that made him feel more at home with himself. He would grab a smoke, lay on the sofa in just his pants, shirtless, no shoes– but he would put on a woman’s brassiere.

A black, padded bra that fit tight on him, sleek, with a floral pattern. He had picked it out, bought it “for a girlfriend” that he obviously did not fucking have. Then he wore it at home– it felt sexy.

Between drags of his cigarette he would look down at his chest. It titillated him a bit.

“I’m nothing but a fucking pervert. But so is everyone fucking else in this country.”

This wasn’t something that was wholly unknown to the Republic–

Tranvestism– no, it was transgenderism— whatever. Wanting to be a woman.

Sam could have talked to a doctor, gone through psych evals, gotten real-looking tits.

He could afford it– but–

But–

It’d have ruined his career.

That sort of thing was tolerated, but not truly permitted.

He was in his early 20s and already Ensign. He was good at lying and fucking people over and arranging schemes for the most evil and savage freaks on this planet so they could keep killing in the name of democracy and freedom. That was his job, and he was good at it, and if he showed up to those people in a pencil skirt and tights and makeup with a pair of C-cups they would politely make her a lowly accountant who could just barely afford her room and diet until she just quit.

Sam considered himself far too entrenched in his work, and too useless at anything else.

He looked feminine enough in his own estimation to feel like a woman at home.

That would have to be enough. He was barely alive now; if he was fired it’d really kill him.

Smoking cigarettes at home in women’s underwear, hair long and loose, lounging.

He’d tried makeup, sometimes. It was fine. Everything was just fucking fine–

“I wish I’d been brave enough to just fucking die in the wars.”

Sinking in an awful little ship somewhere that was peaceful before the Republic got there.

Torn apart by a torpedo from a Katarran or a Hanwan or an Imbrian even.

“Maybe I’ll have a chance soon.” He thought morbidly, his mood crashing.

He was headed to the Imbrium to do God knows what. He would almost certainly die.

And even if Blake McClinton did not die then, Samuel Anahid was already dead.


The Republic of Alayze had a single connection to the Imbrium Ocean that was indisputably under their control and contiguous to their territory. Navigating the Cogitum into the northern Nubium sea that lay within the continent of North Occultis, to a small gap in the continental wall into the Imbrium, called Ratha Flow. Ratha Flow served as the most recent Naval Headquarters of the Republican Navy, having moved there from the inner Cogitum hundreds of years ago when the Republic and Empire declared war.

The Republic had a much larger share of the world’s wealth than any other power.

It spent an outsize amount of these resources on its military, crusading for “global democracy.”

The Hanwans and the Katarrans were the nearest enemies, but the chief evil of the world, according to the Republic’s politicians and media, was the Imbrian Empire, hegemon of the western hemisphere of Aer.

At all times, the Nubium Sea was required to host at least 800 to 1000 vessels, for defense.

Then, when the Republic war machine really got going, it would send an additional 800 to 1000 vessels to Ratha Flow, which had to possess the capacity to temporarily host them. This reinforcement was always in preparation for a concerted attack on the Imbrium Ocean. Across from Ratha Flow was the conflict zone known as the Great Ayre Reach. Beyond the Ayre Reach they could attack the Empire’s throne state of Palatine, or the economically powerful financial-industrial state of Rhinea. If the Republic could successfully occupy either state, it’d be a death-blow to the Empire in their great war.           

There had been numerous battles for Ayre Reach in the history of the Great War.

Because of the war, the Nubium Sea bases and Ratha Flow itself, were overcrowded, dismal and miserable. Everywhere, so-called elite soldiers lived shipment to shipment from the Cogitum.

There was no production of anything in the Nubium, it was all bases and stockpiles, nothing but huge dock-stations and barracks-stations and depot-stations. Nothing was made there, everything had to be shipped, so there would be space to hold the massive fleets in place ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the absurd mass of human life required to fight for, direct and maintain the war machine.

Stockpiles were jealously guarded, to be cracked into only if there was a delay in the tight logistic chain from the Cogitum’s rich core stations to the “trenches” of the Nubium Sea and Ratha Flow.

The Republic of Alayze almost felt like it was designed to be this rich, this powerful, so it could afford the insane, bleak task of having 2000 ships in an 800 by 200 kilometer stretch of habitable water, surrounded on all sides by either the hopeless ice wall of the pole or the corrupted mass of the continent and its evil weather and monstrous fauna. The Nubium, and Ratha Flow, were the vilest fucking places on Aer, Blake McClinton thought, as he stared at the scope of the human suffering contained in each base.

Everywhere, the soldiers tried to put on a brave face. It had been drilled into them that they were the front line in a global war between democracy and despotism. They had to suffer endless days with poor food and little entertainment, working hard to keep their equipment ready and their skills sharp, their boredom broken up by drills and military panic, so that they could “defend their way of life” by invading the Imbrian Empire and being repulsed, time and time again, with only the Ratha Wall staving off defeat.

“This is a pure atrocity. Only we could’ve done this shit this bad.”

It was no wonder the Empire continued to defeat them. Who would have the energy to fight for this?

Nevertheless, the Great War for Global Democracy continued apace.

There were always soldiers, whether the brave and bold, the poor and hungry, or prisoners without choice. Despite his relative privilege– Blake characterized himself as a prisoner without choice.

“Imbria, here I come.” He joked dismally to himself.

When Blake McClinton arrived at Ratha Flow, preparations were underway for a massive attack, perhaps the largest in the history of the Great War. He would not be part of it. Instead, he would be sallying out with a small raiding force that would provide cover for him to infiltrate the Empire in a tiny vessel.

At the moment, the Empire was facing some unrest within its southern colonies.

There were rumors of rioting and a potential slave revolt that could brew in the coming months if something was not done. The Republic did not have much hope of these actions leading to a larger revolt within the Empire and felt they would be put down very quickly; but they could use the distraction, if they could attack while the Empire was gathering or in the process of a punitive expedition.

To support a potential upcoming attack on the Great Ayre Reach, Naval HQ had requested for the G.I.A. to reinforce its intelligence gathering position in the Empire with extra field assets. Priority was placed on gaining access to the Imperial dynasty– if unrest could be spread into the Emperor’s court, the Republic believed that the “despotic top-down leadership structure” of the Empire could be brought to a crisis point. Combined with the southern unrest and a massive attack from Ratha Flow, the scales would tip.

And so, Blake’s duty was to become an “extra field asset” in the Palatine state for this purpose.

Aboard the infiltration cutter Mata Hari, Blake waited in a small, cramped break room alongside two other agents destined for the Imbrium Ocean. Cutters due to their size had few amenities. On most ships, the roof was at least two meters up, but here, even someone Blake’s size would feel like they were a fish being canned. His compatriots, both taller than him, seemed to relish getting to sit down somewhere.

One was a dark-skinned man, hair packed into tight braids which were themselves tied into a ponytail. He looked young, just a bit older than Blake perhaps. He was tall, physically fit, and looked friendly.

They were both accompanied by an older gentleman, who exuded a bit of adventuristic charisma, the sort of man who smelled heavily like whiskey and cigarette smoke, slicked silver hair, a mustache and shaved beard but with such a deep shadow that one could imagine how thick it must have been. A man who looked like he belonged on the cover of a thriller movie poster holding a woman a fraction of his age.

He introduced himself first, before anyone asked: “Piedmont’s the name, Dusan Piedmont. Is this your first time venturing out into the Imbrium? Don’t worry one bit– I’ve got everything down to a science.”

Blake immediately disliked him.

“I’m Burke, Burke Zepp.”

The dark-skinned man beside Blake reached across a tiny fold-out table between the two cramped little couches in the Cutter’s break room. Piedmont looked delighted to be shaking his hand.

Blake noticed Piedmont seemed to be making much more effort with the shake than Burke.

“Firm grip, Petty Officer Burke! That’s good. You can tell a lot about a man by–”

Blake started to tune him out. He was careful not to roll his eyes too obviously.

“Blake McClinton.”

He introduced himself in the least dismissive voice he could muster.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClinton.” Piedmont said, briefly looking Blake over. “May I inquire as to your specialty? I like to know the skills of those I am working with– Mr. Zepp’s faculties are quite evident, but I’m very interested in what you bring to the table. It’s always the unassuming agents who end up being the most critical for the mission in the end, in my vast and credible experience.”

Burke did not respond to Piedmont’s clear typecasting of him.

Blake sighed internally.

He was going to have to get along with this fucking cartoon for months, maybe years.

“Disguise.” Blake said. “I’m good at disguises, makeup, forging identities.”

“Disguises? Fantastic! And if I may be so bold as to say– both genders, correct?”

Blake had not wanted to bring it up. Now he understood why Piedmont was staring at him.

“Yes.” He said bluntly, and no more. Piedmont must have thought he was a fucking queer.

Though it was something he did recreationally, the makeup skills and cross-dressing had ended up being part of what his G.I.A. handler noted about him as a potential asset in his ascension to field agent.

New agents were put through simulations of fieldwork to prove they had what it takes to be sent to the Imbrium or Hanwa as infiltrators. Blake characterized himself as a good liar and during the simulations deceit was, in his estimation, his key weapon to the fieldwork problems given to him to solve.

He was not going to fight his way into or out of anywhere and he frankly thought such a meatheaded approach would have made any intelligence he acquired along the way functionally useless. In his mind, field agents should get close to objectives and secure them wholly unnoticed to maximize their value. A lot of his solutions ended up incorporating constructed identities, creative use of fashions, and even impersonating people to get in and out while being able to interact with the operational space.

He played to his strengths a little too well.

To the point that the kit of gear prepared for his Imbrium journey now had a set of professionally-crafted breastforms, a full makeup kit and a fitted cocktail dress so he could cross-dress like a pro. He was not necessarily ashamed of his assessment, since as long as he was thought of as male it was only a skillset he used in his job and not something about him that was viewed as strange. But of course, a fossil like Piedmont who groomed his fucking mustache must have seen him as a limp-wristed freak.

Thankfully he had precious little time to say anything to Piedmont right then and there.

Alarm lights flashed red in every compartment.

“Imbrian vessels dead ahead! There’s– there’s a lot!”

On a nearby monitor the bridge crew piped in footage from the predictors of the larger vessels in the fleet. The Republican flotilla numbered six ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and three frigates escorting the disguised cutter. Opposite them, the Imbrian fleet– had several dozen ships. Led by a Koenig class dreadnought, there must have been at least thirty. An entire combat group approached.

“I’m fucking dead.” Blake whispered under his breath.

Staring at the monitor, that projection of barely-lit black water replete with clouds of brown biological dust, the distant outlines of the mass of enemy vessels, it was like swimming at full speed into a wall. Every nightmare Blake had ever had about fleet combat, what he had always ran away from, what he lied and struggled not to experience, it was all right here in front of him. He had run away too strongly and too well– he had circled right around back to the feared Imbrium and its deadly machines.

Maybe it was for the best to die alone with nothing but fantasies of a better life–

As soon as the Imperial ships began firing, Blake’s ship dove right to the ocean floor and cut away from the battle, moving within the chaos. On the monitor, a text overlaid on the video bid the crew to be silent as the cutter slinked away. Blake briefly watched the fleet being blasted to pieces on the cameras while his own ship stole from the battlefield beneath the notice of his absolutely massive enemy.

Somehow, within minutes, he had put that nightmarish sight of the enemy fleet behind him.

It would not be the first time that people would die to propel his journey forward.


Piedmont, that fucking idiot!

Blake seethed internally.

He scanned his eyes across the colorful ballroom from the second story. Overhead, the grand gilded arch of the ceiling played host to chandeliers with LEDs providing a sensuous, simulated ambiance below. Used to the dim but consistent yellow from ordinary station lights, Blake had trouble spotting his man in the crowd below. Besuited men, women in colorful dresses, dancing in the glamorous ballroom floor. On a small stage a brunette in a revealing red dress sang a song of love and longing that stirred his heart.

An ostentatious festival of barely-hidden sexuality– Blake even smelled it in the air.

That hedonism which characterized the Empire to him in the past few months.

On some level he had come to respect it. Despite all the money it had, the Republic was a bleak place utterly without aesthetics or sensuality. For the imperial ruling class, money was about the aesthetics. Rich finery, beautiful homes, retinues of servants and frequent, feverish trysts. To have power was to exert it for pleasure. Blake would have felt a bit more alive if he performed all his misdeeds for a beautiful and lively woman like the Lady of the House, Leda Lettiere. He had heard many rumors about her. It was the gravest misfortune of his birth that he instead worked for the tasteless, anhedonic stock-hoarders of the Republic.

Today the theater in which his continuous misfortune played out was Schwerin Island.

A beautiful station in the Palatinate, it once served as the “summer palace” of the Emperor, now given over to his newest, youngest wife as a semi-permanent abode. The Lady of this House was the mysterious and much sought after Leda Lettiere. She was not the target tonight– the G.I.A.’s mission was not so ambitious yet. But this was a place where they could gamble on finding a steppingstone to Leda, and from there, to begin building a network adjacent to the ruling Fueller family in some capacity. Because of the gamble and the rewards it could bring, the G.I.A. had to be absolutely, ironclad cautious tonight.

“It’s already cocked up. We’ve already fucked it up completely.”

Blake muttered to himself, scanning the vast room in a panic.

That moron, Piedmont, was nowhere to be seen. They had gone out of contact!

Blake was supposed to stand in the upper story with a fan over his richly dolled-up face.

Wearing his red cocktail dress, made up to be ‘Christina Becker’, aspiring theater actress.

With his dark hair done up in a fancy bun. He surprised himself how well he pulled it off.

Christina was supposed to stick to the second story to signal Piedmont, who was “Lord Beck.”

There were a few dangerous individuals here tonight, to be avoided at all costs.

Blake nearly choked on his wine when he spotted the worst one of all.

There would be a single person in attendance wearing a gray uniform–

–with a blue and green shoulder cape and a stylized semiconductor symbol upon it.

Norn Tauscherer, the most feared of the ruling Fueller family’s bannermen.

Nowhere that the G.I.A. went in the Imbrium did they fail to uncover myth and legend surrounding this vastly evil woman. Invincible, unkillable, seemingly all-knowing, plots broke upon her like tides on rock. She alone was responsible for more G.I.A. casualties in the Imbrium than the entire Imperial Navy, and it was her doing that an entirely new cell had to be created to gather intelligence. An entire cell fell to her a few years ago. The silver lining was that, reportedly, Norn had done such a thorough job of uprooting them that she believed she had wiped out the G.I.A. in the Imbrium entirely, and of course, she could have had no awareness of when or where they would rebuild their networks. This allowed Blake to do his job without having her immediately on his back — for now. And it absolutely had to stay that way.

From up above Blake spied her in the crowd, the cape an easy beacon of her position among the peacocks and doves playing out their grand mating rituals below. She was a good-looking, fair-skinned blond of unexciting stature with a sabre gleaming on her hip. Both handsome and beautiful as if each angle of her face could show a new and different side to her– each side still grinning maliciously.

Even going near this woman was game over for them.

“We have to abort if Norn even looks at you. We can’t take any risks.” Blake had said.

“Of course, of course. I’ve also heard of how scary she is, I’m not deaf to it.”

“You’re not deaf, but you’re too proud. Don’t chase anything if the cost is her attention.”

Piedmont hadn’t responded to that in their briefing. Of course he hadn’t.

He was off being a big trumped-up hero somewhere– until Norn caught up to him.

Then he would be an extremely dead hero.

Blake tracked Norn from the second story while trying to spot Piedmont in the crowd.

They had all these novel physical signals they practiced so as not to have to carry hidden equipment. And all those signals depended on Piedmont being the hall and looking up! Helpless, Blake scanned the entrances he could see, the middle of the ballroom, the positions of servants, back to Norn–

He felt something like a wind rushing past him.

His exposed back shuddered.

Norn had tipped her chin up, brought up her eyes, scanned across the second story–

–seen him?

Blake thought for a brief instant they had made eye contact– and it terrified him.

Those vast red eyes and the promise of their infinite violence–

He looked away and began to fan himself with his carbon-fiber fold-out fan.

It had a red back and a green front. If Piedmont saw him he would know to abort.

Thankfully Norn continued to walk among the crowd. But her behavior–

She’s looking for something. God damn it. She’s not mingling at all.

Her trajectory was like a shark sniffing blood from kilometers away.

Why does everything go wrong for me? Literally everything!

There was no training on Aer that could prepare an agent for the plan going awry.

At that point, it was down to experience, instinct, luck, x-factor, whether an agent survived.

Blake tried to calm himself down. He tried think about his options rationally.

All he could do was to weigh the pros and cons and optimize for the best outcome.

For the moment Blake could at least keep track of Norn. However, she was clearly heading through the crowd and might leave into one of the adjoining halls. When she did so, Blake would lose track of her. And unless Piedmont magically showed up from the opposite end of the ballroom like a fucking cartoon character, Blake would have no agent to support and no enemy to track. He could stand around uselessly until he was certain Piedmont was not coming back for good, or he could leave his position.

If he left his position, he could either escape, try to gather information on his own, perhaps approaching one of the lesser noblemen or women– or try to find Piedmont and extract together.

“If I go looking for him I might expose myself. It’s a huge risk.”

Blake’s fingers tightened on the fan. He knew in this situation that he should run away.

They had a lot riding on this. It was not so easy to leave empty handed.

Despite the legendary graciousness of the hostess, Schwerin Island only rarely opened to the aristocratic masses rather than a few intimate, select invitees. While the crowd below was quite rich it was not entirely exclusive. Leda Lettiere was giving the bourgeoise and aristocracy a rare chance to network within her home, to potentially meet her, thus displaying her social power. The G.I.A. had worked hard to create the conditions for Piedmont and Blake to attend this ball while remaining anonymous and being able to leave behind their identities if needed, and it was the design of the party itself that allowed for this. They could not have been invited to such a thing, at least not yet. It was a juicy opportunity.

However, if they all got caught it would be for nothing.

Their cell was still relatively new. Living to fight another day was warranted.

Blake could run away, rendezvous with Burke, return to the cell and hatch new plans.

Empty-handed, maybe having lost Piedmont, but with hope for a future.

There were other nobles, other social events, entire other avenues of networking to pursue.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck me.”

Muttering under his breath Blake gathered all his strength into putting up a smiling façade.

And ventured into the adjoining halls, walking delicately on his heels, fan aloft.

Piedmont, if I can get you out of here I’m going to kill you myself.

He was just going to do some reconnaissance. Ready to leave at any moment.

That’s what he told himself.

Blake took the stairs down on the opposite side of the building from where he had seen Norn going. Downstairs and in the outlying hallways there were very few people. Most of the crowd stuck to the ballroom hoping to get a chance to see Leda Lettiere come down to meet them. Those few who were out in the halls were typically younger, perhaps children of the social climbers in the ballroom area or perhaps romantically eager lords and ladies hoping for more pleasure than business on this evening.

Everything was absolutely ostentatious, the walls in the hall looked like they had been made of pearl, the corners etched like false colonnades. On the southern-facing halls there were gaps in the wall with long horizontally stretched oval windows out into the vast green fields outside. Blake could not just run through the halls at full speed without drawing attention, so he walked, smiling, and acknowledging the few people that he passed by, stealing glances into the ballroom through the doors as he passed them.

He saw servants refreshing the caviar, crostini, and drinks for the ball.

No sign of Norn Tauscherer. He had completely lost her from this vantage.

He would have to be extremely careful.

When he circled around the eastern halls adjacent to the ballroom there were far more people.

That eastern hall connected with the central wing of the palace, through which there were still people arriving, some latecomers, and some caterers getting ready to serve a banquet in the palace interior. Blake had initially that hoped Piedmont would have found someone to sit at the banquet with, and then he himself could have held back and avoided the whole situation, since his own position was more precarious when it came to finding himself a “date” for the evening. No such luck now.

Now he had to leave, to escape. But if he saw Piedmont somewhere–

From afar, at the other end of the hall.

A tall, silver-haired gentleman in a suit, walking away with urgency.

Toward the northern wing, perhaps out to the interior garden in the center of the palace.

Blake could not call or signal to him. Nobody was supposed to go back there.

He looked around, briefly, trying to see if anyone could have been following Piedmont.

No one that looked obvious– certainly not Norn.

God damn it Piedmont!

Masking his anger, Blake gracefully followed the trail of Piedmont from afar, walking across the eastern hallway, waiting until no one was looking and then sneaking out of the ballroom wing entirely, taking the main hall in the north out of the palace entirely to a hallway encircling an open air garden. Under a stone ceiling lifted by more fake colonnades, half without a wall. Simulated moonlight shone down upon a tree grown on a mound of rich soil in the center, surrounded by grass and flower bushes. There was a small path which led through the garden from one end to the other, but Blake would not take it.

He walked around the corner from the garden, got his first glimpse of the moonlight–

And immediately saw Piedmont face to face with Norn Tauscherer.

In that instant Blake, praying to have not been seen, hid with his back to the corner.

Out of sight. No one else around.

“Madame, I’m afraid your treatment of me tonight has been quite irregular.”

Piedmont, you useless fossil.

Then, for the first time, Blake heard the deep, viper-like voice of the fabled Norn Tauscherer.

“Good men with nothing to hide don’t approach me so brazenly, lord Beck. It is only the scoundrels of the world who will flirt with Norn Tauscherer after everything said about her. I was immediately suspicious of you, but your rat-like behavior since your initial error can only possibly point to conspiracy. This garden is off-limits to guests, lord Beck. You will now follow me to the police station for a chat instead.”

That fool must not have realized it was Norn! But he was debriefed?! How the fuck–?

How did all of this happen? After all their preparations, how? Was he just not listening?

“Oh dear. It’s funny, lord Beck. Even now, you truly don’t know who I am, do you?”

Blake had no weapons, and even if he did, escape after shooting Norn would be impossible.

He peered around the corner again–

–and saw Piedmont turning a firearm on Norn. Blake was speechless.

His heart sank. Where had Piedmont gotten a gun? They had agreed not to bring any gear!

All of this time, that old bastard was doing everything his own way!

He had thrown all of their preparations into the trash!

“I’m afraid it is you, my dear, who does not–”

Blake hid back behind the corner. Piedmont did not get to speak a final sentence.

Cut off, abruptly, and then a gurgling sound–

Though Blake did not know how, there was no gunshot, and everything became silent.

Frightened out of his wits, Blake started walking back toward the ballroom area again.

He had to escape, he could not possibly remain in Schwerin now.

Norn Tauscherer could have glimpsed him and taken off down the hall.

Every moment he heard nothing his imagination grew more vivid in its terror.

Halfway down the hall, he saw another figure come turning into the palace interior. Trying to mask his fear and discomfort, Blake kept walking. He recognized the woman as they closed. It was the singer, from the ball. Red dress, brown hair– a pair of spectacles perched on her nose. Blake tried to act like he belonged there. Walking casually, without acknowledging anyone, despite his quick-beating heart.

Blake barely walked past her–

–when he felt something jab him in the side, sharp and hot.

His legs turned to jelly, his vision swam, and he fell into a sudden darkness–


Something hot and fast struck his face but only half-awoke him to his surroundings.

His vision was blurry, he was nodding off. Colors, snatches of a face, a glint of metal.

Everything smelled strangely sweet. And there was gentle music playing.

A shot of pain right through the core of his body jolted him awake.

That glinting– a knife. He had been cut across the chest with a knife.

Pain burned across the center of his chest, but he was still only barely aware.

Running on animal instinct–

Blake struggled, tried to get up–

He could not move.

His field of vision was filled with the sight of a person– pearlescent skin, long hair–

a woman in a pale blue dress– a radiant woman framed in an arch of blue moonlight–

–smiling as the knife laid shallow upon his skin and easily drew his blood,

“Is this what brings our mystery woman back to the world? Does she respond only to pain?”

She had his arms bound.

He was bound to something, soft below, hard behind.

Bound to–

He was on a bed. Her bed; arms bound behind him to the rear post.

That sliver of glinting light that had already tasted his blood retreated from his chest.

Blake felt a brief, cold touch between his legs.

He was nude.

He was nude and bound and at the mercy of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

His captor was staggeringly, blindingly beautiful. Had she not had the backdrop of arched balcony doors letting in a beam of white-blue light, Blake felt she would have shone on her own, hair blowing light in the gentle midnight breeze. Her skin, an unblemished pearl-pink, her indigo hair lustrous and long. Long-limbed, lithe in figure, almost diaphanous in her silken dress. Red lips ever so expressive with the slightest movement of her cheek. Her ears were a bit sharp. She was an elf– a most uncommon ethnicity in Imbria.

“I can be cruel or kind at your behest.” She said. “Crueler or kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

Her voice was as a melodious as the orchestra music playing in the room.

“Please don’t. Please.”

Finally voice managed to escape Blake’s dry, burning throat.

She smiled at him. But the knife hovered close to his dick, nonetheless.

“You had no identification on your person. And not even in your coat and purse. I had a feeling about you, seeing you from afar, but you went into the inner garden. Did you think I would not notice it? Were you so desperate for an audience? Now Norn Tauscherer made a scene– I’m quite concerned.”

She turned the knife on its side and stroked Blake’s genitals with the cool, blunt metal.

Blake shuddered and squirmed. He was beyond caring if he looked pathetic.

His mind and body torn between pain and pleasure driven into erratic physical reactions.

“Who are you? You looked fantastic in a dress– are you a woman or a good actor?”

She winked at him. She was just toying with him now. He was truly helpless.

Blake was not going to fight it. He wanted to give up– he wanted to surrender to her.

He tried to rationalize his cowardice, but he was in truth completely broken down.

Emotions like he had never felt swelled in his chest.

Nevertheless in his mind he thought– Piedmont is gone.

Burke, by design, would have no idea if anything went right or wrong until they returned. He was just on a clock and if they did not come back to station then he had to live on and do what he could for the G.I.A. until more agents arrived. Blake could not possibly rat him out– they had agreed to disband their current hideout and switch after this mission and only Burke knew where he would go if Blake and Piedmont never returned. So it was not as if Blake had much to give up to his captors anyway.

However–

That wasn’t even the salient point. Blake had suffered so much– and for what?

The Republic, the G.I.A, it was all a bunch of crap. None of it was worth dying for.

Even if giving himself up to this woman so immediately and without resistance would end up constituting the beginning of the end for the Republic somehow, Blake would not mourn it. He went so far as to think– maybe the Imbrian Empire deserved to crush the Republic of Alayze! Fuck their so-called democracy, individual liberty, fuck all of it, none of it was real, it was slogans, hot air! There was no act of bravery or cowardice that mattered to the soulless inhuman ghouls running Alayze! Blake was nothing to them despite all of his service and anyone beneath Blake was less than nothing to them!

None of them were worth defending!

Blake had told himself time and again that he had no choice. The G.I.A. had been his only means of escape from a life of either poverty and struggle or suffering and exploitation on the front lines. Now he had a choice, the clearest choice that ever faced him. Painful death; or even a second more of life.

He could get his dick chopped off or he could surrender to the sliver of moonlight filling his eyes.

There was no question, between his bleak colorless masters and this richly glowing fairy.

“I’m Blake McClinton! General Intelligence Agency. I will cooperate. Please just– don’t hurt me anymore. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know without lies. I’ll give it all up I swear but– I– I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Our structure is semi-decentralized, so no matter what you cut, there’s shit I can’t–”

“That’s fine enough, Blake. I’d prefer you resist dashingly than start crying.”

Smiling, she set the knife aside, and with a slender finger, tipped his chin up.

She looked him directly in the eyes, just centimeters away. “G.I.A you said? Interesting.”

That touch sent a thrill right down his core. And her scent– it was incredible–

Blake started to weep, overcome with emotion. Leda Lettiere simply continued smiling.

“Would you consider leaving the Republic to work for me when I rule the world, Blake?”

Her eyes–

Blake stared directly into those crystalline eyes that seemed themselves to glow. Her voice, the gentle movement of her lips as she whispered to him. There was power, so much power that suffused her, power and beauty and ambition. Just being touched by her sent an ardor through Blake like he had never felt in the Cogitum Ocean. She was unreal, sorcerous, pleasure made flesh, setting his synapses alight.

“I would do anything for you.” Blake whimpered. “Anything. Just– please–”

“I won’t hurt you. I have a good feeling about you. You weren’t sent here to kill me.”

“I wasn’t! That was never my intention! I would never do anything to hurt you.”

“We can be more than allies. It might be impulsive– but I feel a resonance from you.”

He felt her fingers, silk-soft touch teasing where the blade once was.

Gentle and firm between his legs with a playful smile. Caressing him first– then stroking.

His back shuddered, his toes curled. He thought his head might go hazy.

Was he really awake? There was so much color, such a rush of sensations.

He could barely breathe as if emotion like he had never felt before stood to choke him.

“Blake, I meant it when I said I could be crueler and kinder than you’ve ever seen.”

One gentle stroke of her hands across the length of his shaft–

Blake gritted his teeth, sucking in air.

He thought he might cum just from the briefest brush of her skin on his own.

She leaned in over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

“Let’s use each other.” She said. “I’m a powerful woman. I can give a lot to the G.I.A.– but so much more to you. You want to make war on the Empire? I could be your greatest weapon, Blake McClinton, and you mine in turn. All I ask is that you put me ahead of your paymasters and have a little fun. I’m a jealous woman. When I get a hold of a treasure,” her fingers squeezed to punctuate, “I cannot just let go.”

“I’m– I’m a treasure to you?” Blake said. It was the most beautiful thing anyone ever told him.

Leda laughed, gentle and songbird-like. Even just hearing her laugh drove Blake crazy.

“It’s just a feeling I have. Something subtle and soft that I feel from your aura.”

“My aura–? I don’t–“

She laid a finger over his lips– while her other hand squeezed his cock.

Blake was stunned to silence, not as much by her bidding but by the overwhelming heat in him.

“Quiet now. Over time, we can substantiate it. We can call it anything we like. But for right now–”

She reached for the knife and dexterously maneuvered it behind the bedpost.

Setting Blake free– but he was so shocked, his hands remained as if bound behind him.

Even as her own free arm coiled around him and took him into her sensuous embrace.

Eye to eye, lips grazing, her weight bearing on —

“For right now just take in the mood. Your miraculous survival and my glorious mercy.”


“Let’s go. We don’t want to linger here.”

“Bethany–”

“Marina, don’t disobey the head maid.”

Bethany winked at her. ‘Marina’ was a female name Leda helped Blake come up with.

It was useful to have an alter ego– for disguise purposes–

They departed from the central palace building at Schwerin, making their way out north, to the “back.”

The two of them were made up to look like Leda’s maids, in long frumpy dresses and aprons. Bethany did this often, and was, essentially, already Leda’s head maid. Marina, however, was always disguised one way or another. She felt somewhat uncomfortable to have a disguise chosen for her this time. Especially last minute. After everything they had worked on for the past year, she felt a creeping dread that day.

And not just for Leda alone– not anymore.

“Don’t worry. Leda is not afraid of Norn. She’ll handle her and we’ll wait until it blows over.” Bethany said.

Contrary to their intention, those words shook Marina even more.

“She should be afraid Bethany. Norn is a demon.” Marina replied, clutching her hands together.

Schwerin Island had been their fortress for months. From here the three of them, Leda the mastermind, Marina her attack dog and Bethany in support, lied and fucked and killed and ran through every documented sin in their ambitious climb to the throne room in the Imperial Palace at Heitzing, and the death of Konstantin von Fueller. But not only that– had Leda wanted him dead, Marina felt she could have done it. Killed him out of passion and vengeance and suffered the consequences for it.

Leda wanted to replace him. She wanted to take on Konstantin’s power.

That took more than just killing him. She could not just stab him in his bed at Heitzing.

They needed contacts, supporters, resources. To isolate the Emperor at his court.

Little by little, blackmailing, corrupting, bribing and liquidating, using every dirty trick.

They were almost poised to make a move on Heitzing.

And it was that which, on that fateful day, brought Norn Tauscherer to Schwerin Island.

Despite all the care Marina had taken– she couldn’t help but feel responsible.

Somewhere along the line, she fucked up. Despite her paranoid attention to detail.

Marina had made some mistake that led Norn to suspect something.

Clutching her heart, gritting her teeth, feeling unworthy to stand beside her partners.

Hating herself, powerfully hating herself, for even potentially hurting Leda and Bethany.

“Listen, Marina, if Leda is confident, we should be too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”

“If you say so.”

Trying to avoid the imperial inspection, Bethany and Marina stepped out of the palace into the garden in the far north of the grounds. There was a gentle breeze carrying the smell of flowers all around them.

Outside the pearlescent archway of the rear door a tiled path flanked on all sides by bushes led to a small hill upon which sat a naturally growing tree. Encircling the hill were vast fields of all manner of flowers, like a biological rainbow carefully tended. Overhead the artificial lights were configured to resemble the sun, and a sophisticated projection system created a blue sky. Marina had never seen anything like it in the Republic. She still marveled at it even if she could now see such things frequently. It baffled her that the Republic, with all its wealth, never tried to create something this beautiful, this organic and real.

Perhaps it was a waste– but if you were rich, why not live it up?

After years of dim, stultifying existence in the Republic, Marina refused to surrender this bliss.

At the top of the hill, Marina expected to see Elena, Leda’s daughter. Five years old or so, an incredibly beautiful and energetic kid that took after her mother. She was sent back here to play with a friend, a child of the Schwerin guards’ captain. Gertrude, Marina thought it was, Gertrude something or other. Elena was a precious little elf in a long-sleeved dress, hair a lighter a hue of purple than her Leda’s, while Gertrude was a swarthy dark-haired little tomboy in a long shirt and pants with suspenders.

However, when Marina and Bethany got outside, they saw that the children were not alone.

There were two figures sitting down with them, playing, and laughing with them.

One was a tall man, brown-haired with dog-like ears on his head and a bushy tail. Dressed all in black, with an impressive cape upon which he was casually seated while next to the children atop the hill. Beside him was a blond woman dressed in Imperial navy grey, a blue and green armband on her right arm, gloved hand stroking Gertrude’s hair and laughing with the little tomboy. Elena, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to whistle and started spitting on the dirt in her efforts– this caused all the laughter.

Marina tried not to panic.

“Keep trying!” Norn Tauscherer said, laughing and encouraging Elena who continued to spit on the dirt. “You’ll get it eventually! Remember Elena, you can only fail if you give up and do nothing!”

“Can she run out of spit? I’m worried she’ll run out of spit.” Gertrude joked.

“I will not!” Elena said determinedly. “I will whistle, and I will not run out of spit.”

“That’s it! That’s the indomitable Fueller spirit!” Norn guffawed.

“I believe in her. She’s got her mother’s force of will.” Said the man sitting with them.

“She’s got her mother’s everything!” Norn said. “That’s why she’s such a delightful kid!”

Marina eyed Bethany, who laid a hand on Marina’s own and squeezed to comfort her.

She raised a finger to her lips to signal for Marina to be silent.

Then she led her toward the hill, approaching the merry little group that had formed there.

Marina could not allow herself to panic– the sight of Norn sent a chill down her spine, but a maid would not have thrown at the fit at the sight of a Fueller bannerman. After all, Norn was supposed to also be one of Leda’s bannermen, she was part of the Fueller family. Elena was the Emperor’s daughter.

Above all the bannermen, Norn was extraordinarily privileged, too.

She was the favorite enforcer of Konstantin von Fueller, someone rumored to be loved by him as much as he loved his wives. She had defeated many obstacles in his path over the years. Nobody could criticize her, and by all accounts, while brutal with her enemies, she behaved honorably and did not harm anyone with which she had no personal quarrels. She was certainly welcome to play with Elena and Gertrude and there was no fear that she would have caused them any harm or endangered them.

Looking at that woman, laughing and smiling with the kids– who would have panicked?

If Marina broke down at the sight of Norn, it was a clear sign that something was off.

And Norn was an expert at noticing the tiniest things wrong with her surroundings.

Marina had spent considerable effort and resources to escape Norn’s notice.

Now, she was walking right up to that demon who had killed so many people like her.

“Excuse us, lords! We were sent to care for the children. I hope they are not troubling you.”

Bethany called out with a smile and bowed her head to Norn from the foot of the little hill.

Beside her, Marina bowed as well.

“I am Bethany Skoll, and this is Marina Holzmann. We are maids in our Lady’s service.”

“Greetings, greetings. Of course the children are not troubling us. Pardon our intrusion.”

Norn stood up from the floor, wiping dirt from her pants.

Beside her the man in Inquisitorial garb stood up as well.

“How may I assist you today? Are you the guests our Lady is waiting for?” Bethany said.

“Indeed. We were simply inspecting the garden. It’s magnificent.”

Norn turned a smile on them completely unlike how she looked with the children.

Marina realized she had been genuinely happy with the kids, but with them–

That dark, malicious grin, with her billowing blond bangs lightly shadowing her eyes.

“I am Norn Tauscherer, a humble bannerman of the Fueller family.”

Norn put a fist to her own chest then waved over her companion.

“This is Vekan Inquisitor Pavel Andrevi Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

At her side the Inquisitor gave a shallow bow back, running a hand through his brown hair.

“Pleased to make the acquaintance of such lovely ladies. Call me Andrevi.”

“Do not call him Andrevi. Call him Inquisitor or Lord Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”

Norn elbowed him gently and the Inquisitor laughed. His dog-like ears folded slightly.

“Norn let’s not take up their time. We saw what we wanted back here anyway.” He said.

Marina felt a flash of fear at that comment. What had Norn and the Inquisitor seen?

At that point, as if in the very instant that Marina’s fear actualized in her own mind–

Norn turned her eyes on her, walking down from the hill with the Inquisitor.

Giving that devilish smile to Marina who tried strongly to hide her own expression.

She was good at lying. She was the best liar in all of Madison Station.

All of them had believed that she was a democratic, patriot man who would die for them.

When she purged her face of all emotion, when she got into the character of the maid.

Marina was assured of her own success. She felt relief– she felt like she mastered herself.

She was sure she was able to lie to Norn Tauscherer right to her face–

–until Norn stopped at her side, briefly, and looked her over.

And for a second, Marina’s calm face struggled titanically to hide the storm in her chest.

Those bright red eyes–

and the unfathomable depth of the violence they had seen and committed–

“Marina Holzmann? It’s nice to see Lady Lettiere has help of such fine breeding.”

The Inquisitor laughed. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

With that brief tease, Norn continued, and the Inquisitor followed.

Until both of them were out of sight.

“Calm down, Marina.” Bethany said. “They don’t know anything. Let’s just stay here.”

“Bethany, what if they want to hurt Leda?” Marina whispered.

They were trying to keep the kids from overhearing.

Bethany fixed Marina with a serious look.

“Can you stop them? Could you heroically fend off Norn and Samoylovych and whatever small army awaits behind them and save Leda then?” Bethany said. “Norn is a threat that can’t be physically defeated. I believe you are well aware of this. However, she is not a ravening beast. She is here to carry out an inspection, and I am almost positive she will not work one more second than she has to or do anything other than follow the letter of what she was told to do. She is just a servant– just like us.”

“Just a servant?” Marina asked. Nearly reeling– how could Bethany be so sure?

“Marina, the Imbrian Empire is the thing Leda fears– not just someone like Norn.”

“Bethany–”

“I know you love her, Marina. But if you love me too– just calm down and trust me.”

“Fine.”

Leaving behind the garden path the two of them reached the top of the little hill.

“It’s okay if you can’t whistle. I’ll do all the whistling for you.”

“You will? You really will?”

“Sure! I’ll whistle whenever you want!”

Gertrude began whistling while Elena clapped her hands joyfully.

Marina and Bethany sat under the tree’s shadow, looking at the massive palace sprawling before them, surrounded by fields of flowers. Wind gently blowing their hair. Aside from the breeze the only sound was the children playing. Gertrude and Elena hardly paid the maids any attention, and ran into the flower field, laughing and jumping around, calling each other’s names and saying silly things. They were so carefree. In their minds, there was nothing sinister or wrong happening around them. Those happy days of theirs would stretch on forever under the false blue sky and in the carefully tended flower garden.

Marina wished she had the same confidence that they did. Everything felt so fragile.

No matter how well they lied to Norn today everything felt like it was teetering.

They were always close to the edge. Everything they loved and had could be taken.

“Bethany, I do love you.” Marina said.

“As much as you love Leda?” Bethany said. She had on a mischievous grin.

“Don’t do that, it’s really not funny.”

“What if I said I loved you more than Leda?”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

Bethany shrugged. “Hardly matters anyway. You’re still a good lay even if you hated me.”

Marina sighed. But she felt a little less burdened after a bit of teasing. Leda Lettiere’s head maid was really something else– she had to be as much a woman as her Lady to keep up with her, after all. She had grown to really admire her, to desire her, to love her. She and Leda meant the world to Marina.

That little storm of laughter they were looking after finally wound its way back up the hill.

Gertrude sat down under the tree near Marina, catching her breath with a big smile.

Close behind her, Elena walked up, face flushed, hiding something behind her arms.

“What do you have there?” Bethany asked the little princess in a playful tone.

Smiling, Elena unveiled a crown of flowers, and set them playfully on Gertrude’s head.

“It’s for Gertrude! She’s my prince now, just like how I am a princess!” She declared.

Gertrude squirmed a little bit, clearly embarrassed by the younger girl’s effusive affection.

It was such a beautiful sight. Marina could not help but liven up.

“You hear that, kid?” Marina said, finally speaking up, giving Gertrude a mischevious little look. “You’re her prince! You need to take care of her, okay? You gotta make her smile from now on, you hear?”

In response, Gertrude rubbed her hands together, but smiled gently.

“I will.” She said.

She looked down at the grass, cheeks turning a little red.

“I will. I love her a lot.” She whispered.

As if only for Marina to hear and not for Elena or for Bethany.

Marina laid a hand on Gertrude’s head, stroking her short hair.

“I know you’ll make her happy, kid.” She said. In her heart, truly wanting to believe it.


It felt like the ocean had never been darker.

Why? Why do I always come up short? Why do I always fuck everything up?

In front of her, the enemy Diver stood as an insurmountable obstacle.

This knight-armor clad pilot had completely dismantled Marina McKennedy.

Looming powerfully in the sea before her, shield in one arm, assault rifle in the other.

In the cockpit every red flashing warning that could do so pulsed and throbbed in her face.

Fuck. Fuck. Some fucking hero I am! I can’t do anything but fail her, over and over!

The S.E.A.L.’s chest was pitted with dozens of shallow detonations, one of the shoulders was nearly destroyed, the jet anchor’s inner workings spilled out like entrails. Some of the hip armor was gone, exposing a leg joint, and one of the leg verniers on the opposite side had blown. One of the arms had a broken extension rod so she could barely flex it anymore. She had maybe 70% of her normal thrust if she blasted with her remaining verniers every time she tried to move from now on. Meanwhile that colossus in front of her was unblemished, its pilot clearly far more experienced than Marina, practically dancing around her while taking initiative to attack wherever they pleased with a superior machine.

Only one thing had saved her– the pilot wanted to get away.

They were desperate to attack the Brigand. Marina was just a waste of time for them.

And all Marina could do was stand in their way, take a lump, and stand in the way again.

She was buying time but for what? Nobody else was backing her up.

On the communications all she heard was a bunch of inaudible trash. She was alone.

Alone with her ghosts, the burden of her failures, and the reaper that had come for her.

Her vibro-axe was nearly broken in half from blocking the enemy’s sword.

She had reloaded her rifle in the last exchange, but her aim was garbage.

What the fuck am I going to do?

Die, she thought. I am going to die here. I was never made to be a soldier.

All of the things she endured that did not kill her.

For all of the people that she had loved who were no longer with her.

And now, she was going to be killed here at her lowest point.

No, forget about me, damn it.

Marina cracked a grin, her own grim reflection on one of the darker screens.

All of this sorrow and frustration she felt was the result of one thing.

Unlike when she called herself Sam, she now had something worth fighting for.

More than the vapid ideas of Republic “democracy” or the paycheck to make rent with.

She could not surrender to this enemy. She could not brush off this defeat.

She had too much to lose.

“What’s there to feel sorry for? I never had any expectation of living a life worth feeling sorry for. Right now, nobody would mourn me– but we’ve all given up so much for that little girl with the purple hair. Even if she doesn’t mourn me or doesn’t care. She’s a victim of all this too, but she’s helpless to do anything about it. That’s just– that’s always stuck in my fucking craw. Elena deserves better!”

Smiling to herself, pumping herself up (lying to herself).

Her grip tightened on the sticks. She was still standing between that pilot and the Brigand.

That pilot would charge again, as they had been doing.

They knew that they were wearing Marina down while minimizing their own damage.

All of this could be Marina’s advantage. After all– she was a great liar, wasn’t she?

And as bad as she was at tactics, she still knew deception was important on the battlefield.

She quickly switched weapons between the S.E.A.L.’s hands.

Axe to the good arm —

Rifle to the damaged arm–

If I’m right, this might get her to draw her sword–

Marina could not lift her rifle arm, so she used the rifle camera to align herself with the enemy, an obvious movement to shoot. Before she could pull the trigger, that mecha came hurtling toward her.

Rather than shoot, however, Marina charged as well, brandishing her vibroaxe to retaliate.

Trying to throw her one good shoulder forward.

They were not far apart, and they cut the distance to each other within seconds. Rather than its powerful grenades or rifles, the enemy lifted its vibrosword to finish her, conserving its precious ammunition — it did everything to spare its resources for the Brigand while being rid of a pest barring its way.

I got you, you son of a bitch.

That blade rose and fell with a flash and Marina’s vibroaxe clashed with it.

Already damaged, Marina’s vibroaxe practically snapped like a twig.

Holding its shield in front of itself, the enemy suit launched a vicious overhead slash that sundered her axe from head to handle and crashed into her functioning shoulder. Slicing through layers of metal armor, power routing cables and gear, the water system for the backpack– and entombing itself in the steel.

Her enemy’s sword did not go through one end of her mecha and out the other.

Chopping vertically through her axe into the thick tangle of systems within her armor, it became stuck.

She could pull it out but, but–

For a split second, Marina had the enemy suit where she wanted it!

Without moving her arm, Marina held down the trigger for her rifle.

At point blank range 37 mm explosive shells crashed one another after into the shield.

Her cockpit shook from the repeated close blasts.

Under a dozen pressure bubbles and shockwaves the shield pitted, buckled, and shattered.

With a panic, the enemy thrust back with everything it had, absorbing stray shots to its chest once its shield split into pieces, pulling out its sword and clumsily retreating several meters away.

Debris and gases and water vapor obscured the two enemies from each other momentarily.

Marina hovered on one side of the cloud, completely helpless.

Several systems went completely offline. She could not move either arm.

Her backpack thrust was nearly dead. She could only thrust with the legs.

Electrical power was uneven. If she made any more effort her life support might blink out.

She had broken the shield and pushed her enemy back one last time.

One last time– there would be no further resistance. She had nothing.

Without the rush of adrenaline, without another option, without the ability to claw for life.

Everything seemed to come crashing down.

Her hands left the useless controls of her now disabled machine.

Madison, Ratha Flow, Schwerin, Heitzing, Vogelheim–

Her life flashed before her eyes. She had seen so much, felt so much–

Pain,

Love,

Elation,

Despair,

Had her journey been for nothing? Had she finally failed all those people she loved and lost?

She raised her hands to her face and felt compelled to cry out. “Elena,” Marina said, hoping and praying that it might reach the Brigand somehow. “Please survive this and find your own strength. That’s what your mother would have wanted– and–” she sighed, tearing up. “Bethany, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t do anything. I love you so much Bethany. After everything you gave up– if we meet again this soon, will you spit on me in heaven? Have I really lived a life that was worthy of you and Leda?”

When the gases dispersed enough, Marina could see the enemy mecha across the cloud.

Their rifle unfolded from its stowed position.

Lifting the barrel, the machine took aim at her.

Slight pits from shell impacts and detonations on the breastplate– not enough to stop it.

Had they only wanted the Brigand they could now sweep past her useless machine.

Now, however, they were furious.

To deliver the coup de grace. To finally end Marina’s long, arduous journey.

But she felt no peace. She had lost everyone and left everything unfinished.

In that moment, she prayed, she begged, pleaded dearly for even one more day of life–

“Agent McKennedy! Don’t give up!”

Her once useless communicator suddenly sounded with a crisp, clear voice.

Rather than shoot, the enemy dashed to the side to avoid the grasp of a pair of jet anchors.

They retracted to the chest of a Diver that shone like a sun underwater.

As if in its presence it was suddenly easier to see through water.

Interposing itself between Marina and the enemy, a golden knight against her silver reaper.

“I’ve only known you for a short time– but you’re still a comrade to me. I don’t want to see anyone who fights bravely for the Brigand lose her life. Please retreat, Agent McKennedy! Let us handle this!”

Marina could not help but smile at the foolish voice of Murati Nakara on the communicator.

You don’t know anything about me– but thanks, you big-hearted commie fool!           

She tried to wipe her tears, but she found herself weeping even more.

Weeping for the life she had again–

Back in Schwerin, she thought she had been blessed with life by a being of moonlight.

And just when she really thought everything was going to end–

Now, that life was protected by a colossus made of the sun.

Broad-shouldered, with strong limbs, clad in bright, perfectly sculpted armor.

Appearing out of nowhere to confront that mysterious enemy.

Those commies, even in their darkest hour, they always came up with something.

Her prayers had been answered.

Even despite everything, Marina McKennedy was still fighting for the light she had found.

“This one’s no joke!” Marina called out, heart soaring. “Give ‘em hell, commies!”

“Acknowledged!”

Her heart lifted–

As she bore witness to nothing short of a miracle.

Like Leda had once said– a glorious mercy.

“Murati Nakara–”

“–Karuniya Maharapratham!”

Two pilots called out over the communicator from the machine.

Both voices finished as one with a roaring determination–

“Arrived at the combat area! SF-014X Helios, ready!”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.10]

“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”

Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.

She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.

There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.

Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.

It was so much more difficult to live than to die.

Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.

She was old. Something always ached.

Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.

As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.

“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.

Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.

Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.

The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.

Then–

“That little fucking worm!”

Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.

Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–

And she would not have it for long.

Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–

In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.

And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.

That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.

Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.

Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.

“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”

“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”

“Yes! Go!”

Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.

Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.

I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.

The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.

Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.

Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.

In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.

It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.

Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.

Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.

This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.

Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.

It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.

She was ready to take up the sword at any second–

Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–

When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.

The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.

Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–

Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.

Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.

Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.

She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.

Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–

Still moving as opposing poles–

but the circle they formed began to tighten–

in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–

Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.

Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.

Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–

Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–

She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.

Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.

Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.

Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.

Now I have you.

Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.

Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.

The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.

Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.

Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.

Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.

She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.

Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–

Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–

Click.

Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.

It’s always something.

She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–

About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.

Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.

An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.

Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.

Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”

“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.

“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”

“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”

“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”

“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”

Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.

“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”

Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.

She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.

This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.

“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”

This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–

Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.

And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?

Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”

Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.

“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”

Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.

How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?

When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!

“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”

There was that word again. Surrender.

There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.

“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”

Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”

For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.

Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.


I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.

“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”

Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.

Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.

Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.

Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.

She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–

Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.

Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.

“McKennedy.”

Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.

It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.

A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.

“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”

“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”

Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.

“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.

Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.

Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.

Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.

All of them leading up to Vogelheim.

It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.

All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.

“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”

Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.

“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”

She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.

She looked so tired.

As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–

Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.

This must have been what it was like, being a parent.

Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.

She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–

Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–

“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”

Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.

In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–

Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–

Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.

Heading straight for the Brigand.

“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”

It was that silver-white unit!

Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.

Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.

Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–

–and killed Elena along with them.

“I’m going after it!”

“Huh?”

Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.

Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.

You’ll die.

There was too much left to do to die now.

But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.

Leda.

Bethany.

They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.

Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.

So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.

And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.

A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.

Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.

It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–

Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–

Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.

Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.

“It’s fast!”

She gasped for breath and held it.

In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.

An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–

–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.

There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.

Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.

Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.

Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.

Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–

When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.

Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.

Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.

That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–

Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.

Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.

That pilot, too, was no joke.

Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.

In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.

Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.

Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?

A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?


Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.

“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.

“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.

Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.

“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”

She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.

Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.

“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”

“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”

Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.

“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”

“Acknowledged!”

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.

The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.

In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.

At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.

In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.

Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.

“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”

“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”

Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.

But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.

As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.

“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.

Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.

In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.

It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.

Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.

This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.

They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.

War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.

A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.

The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.

And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.

On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.

Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.

“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”

Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.

“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”

Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.

“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”

Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.

Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.

Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.

Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.

That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.

Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.

And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.

One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.

“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”

Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.

“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.

In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–

And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.

“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.

“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”

“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.

Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”

“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”

In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.

“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”

“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.

“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”

Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.

About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.

And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.

What can I possibly do about this?

“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”

Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–

She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”


What am I doing? What am I doing?

Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.

Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.

Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.

Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?

Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.

And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.

Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.

Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.

I’m going to kill her!

Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.

Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.

The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–

Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.

She’s going to kill me!

Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.

As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.

An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.

Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.

Please stop, please turn around, please.

No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.

Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.

Her arms could only wield weapons of war.

Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.

Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.

She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.

No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.

The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.

As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.

The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.

Converting that miracle to further tragedy–

The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.

Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.

Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.

Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?

What?

Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.

Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–

As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.

She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.

The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.

“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”

Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–

“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”

She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.

“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”

The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.

Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.

She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!

The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–

Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–

Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.

Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–

–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.

This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?

It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–

The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.

She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?

As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.

“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”

Too much was happening too fast.

“I– I–”

Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.

Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.

Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.

The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!

The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–

One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.

And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.

Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.

Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!

“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”

Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.

Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.

The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.

Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–

There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!

Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.

All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.

Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.

“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”

Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.

There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.

Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.

 “I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”

While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.

She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!

The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.

No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!

Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.

Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!

Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.

On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.

Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.

Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–

–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.

On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.

She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.

To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.

She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–

–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,

and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.

Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.

“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.

Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.

She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.

Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.

She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.

The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.

And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.

Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.


Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.

She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.

On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.

“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”

They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.

Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.

“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.

“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”

“For my sake, huh.”

Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.

Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.

“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”

At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”

“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”

“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”

“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”

She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.

Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.

And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.

“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”

Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.

Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.

“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.

Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.

How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–

–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?

Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.

But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.

In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.

Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.

Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:

“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”


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