The Day [4.4]

Supper was a relaxed and refreshing affair that evening.

There were small bowls of tomato and beef consommé, perfectly clear and a rich auburn color, with a superbly clean taste. To accompany the soup they had fresh-baked, airy crackers. For the entree, they had perfectly round potato dumplings filled with crumbly cheese and bits of pork, on a bed of cabbage and vinegar and lemon juice. A comparatively light spread that nonetheless filled with the belly.

Gertrude and Elena got to enjoy it together within the Villa’s tearoom.

“I apologize that we couldn’t use the deck again milady.” Bethany said. “We’ve moved some unneeded furniture out onto it and turned the lodge into a ballroom for tonight’s event.”

“Right. Tonight’s event. Happening without my consent, on my birthday.”

Elena made narrow, evil eyes at Bethany.

For her part, the maid returned a disappointed gaze back at the unruly Princess.

“You must attend! Your brother arranged for many wonderful people to meet you; it would be a great opportunity to make some connections. Furthermore, the Prince himself will join you!”

“What? My brother is coming here? Tonight? How? I heard none of this!”

Elena stood up from the table in outrage. Gertrude was briefly taken aback.

Bethany looked confused and concerned by the response.

“Goodness. I thought you’d be overjoyed.”

“If my brother invited a bunch of his friends here, do you not think that this means he has designs towards me, and perhaps those friends, Bethany?”

Elena threw her an accusatory glare.

Bethany withered under that royal gaze.

“I’m only a maid! If you’re insinuating I can do anything about your brother trying to match you up with someone for political gain, then you vastly overestimate my power and ability. All I can tell you is to try to endure!”

“You may have no power and ability, but I do.”

Gertrude interrupted at that point, standing up from the table herself.

“Whatever do you mean, Inquisitor?” Bethany said, suddenly scandalized.

Grand Inquisitor.” Gertrude corrected. “I will be attending this party. I will go get changed into something suitable at the Iron Lady. I will accompany the Princess to the ballroom when the time comes.” Gertrude gave Elena a look that was filled with determination — and perhaps even danger.

“Of course you may. I’ll wait for you.” Elena said, preempting objections.

“We can’t delay her long!” Bethany said.

She was exasperated with this scheme already.

Elena however understood Gertrude’s aim, and she beamed with joy.

Gertrude left. The artificial skies beginning to dim to simulate the terrestrial night, Elena had to get ready for the party. Dressing up like a princess was a task she had wanted to do personally, in the best-case scenario. Instead, however, it ended up something Bethany swore to do for her, and the maid shadowed her from the tearoom, up the stairs and into her room.

“I can dress myself you know.”

“You don’t have the special attire I prepared for you for this evening.”

“Special attire? How special could a dress be?”

“As a matter of fact, I have something sublime prepared for this occasion.”

Bethany tittered with a bizarre excitement that caused Elena to feel imperiled.

After leading Elena back to her room, Bethany disappeared out into the halls again, bidding her to wait a few minutes while she returned with the dress. Elena had a half a mind to dress herself up and make all this nonsense moot, but then Bethany returned with the dress in her hands. Though it was hard to determine the fit from looking at it in the bundled-up way that it was, the rich purple and gold colors drew Elena’s eyes.

“This is really very special. Give me a moment here.” Bethany said.

The Maid took the dress into the wardrobe, where there was a slot in front of the walls with a warm press that would get all the wrinkles out and straighten up a bundle of clothes. When she returned, Elena got a good look at the style of the dress, and she was stunned. Bold was certainly one way to describe it. It had a tight, slimming fit, and the neckline was cut low and square such that displayed a lot of collarbone, and with the proper support perhaps some other things. The skirt was split along the sides with the hem at the level of the knee, and the sleeves were connected by two strips of fabric with gaps that exposed the upper arm. It had a provocative style.

Elena gave her chief maid a long look. “Bethany, I don’t know what to say. It’s a beautiful dress. But when you hand a maiden such as myself, something of this nature, I can’t help but feel maybe your eyes are going–”

“PLEASE, please, please don’t pursue that thought any further Princess. It was your mother’s dress.” Bethany sighed with exasperation.

Elena’s impish grin instantly faded away.

“Really? It belonged to my mother? You’ve been keeping it this whole time?”

“She wanted you to wear this on the night of your debut. She had worn it herself when she was a teenager, in her own entry into high society. But then– well, of course, unfortunately, she passed, and you didn’t debut.” Bethany looked conflicted. Elena could not quite understand the feelings that seemed to pass across the features of her face, so fleetingly.

“I’ll be honest Beth, I didn’t think you knew so much about my mother. I might’ve asked you more about her if I’d known.” Elena said. She took the dress from Bethany and held it in front of herself, trying to imagine herself in it. It was uncanny how well it fit. She resembled her mother much more than her father, obviously, but to think the measurements were so close!

It made her wonder: had her mother stood here in Vogelheim, in this room, in this dress? Bethany smiled softly as she watched Elena sizing the dress.

“You could say– I admired your mother. Her wishes informed some of my decisions. But enough about that. We must get you ready.” Bethany said.

This mysterious declaration brought a lot of possibilities to Elena’s mind.

Many of which she wanted to discard immediately. She knew how she felt and where her own sensibilities lay, and to try to project that onto others– Bethany had to be a normal woman with an ordinary affection for her long-passed mother. A lot of people had told her they admired her mother before. Her mother had been amazing: it had been no wonder that Emperor von Fueller sought her as his second wife from among all of the court. Beautiful, a bold dancer, a magnificent singer, a sharp wit and boundless intellect. She had been a prodigy at everything that excited her.

Of course Bethany admired her. That being said, they appeared to have been closer than merely an object of admiration and a pair of eyes that watched her from afar. For her mother to entrust personal effects to her to such a degree, they must have been friends. Close friends even. Elena did not know too much about Bethany personally, she had never been curious. Bethany was a servant, a helpful and sometimes doting and sometimes overbearing caretaker. That was all. Now that she was curious, however, it was in a setting where there was no time to ask her to tell the tale.

So rather than press further, or demand an explanation, Elena merely spread her arms. This was out of her sense of respect for Bethany.

“Help me dress, Bethany. Let’s see how much like my mother I look in this.”

“It’d be an honor, Princess.”

Bethany’s past could wait until morning.

Gertrude’s visit to the party could not.

Her maid had dressed her before, many times.

Elena had been fearful that there would be something odd or off about this particular instance, but there was not. Bethany disrobed her, even helped her out of her suit layer, with the exact same care, attention and detached professionalism with which she always worked. For the party, Elena would not be wearing a full or half suit beneath her clothes. It was seen as provincial to wear swim suits under one’s clothes at formal occasions.

Once she was fully in the nude, she donned a pair of black tights and elbow gloves, and Bethany helped her gently into the dress and zipped up the back. It was surprisingly lighter and simpler than it seemed to wear.

Elena had wondered if any part of the design would necessitate double-sided tape or some other secret tool of truly fashionable upper-class ladies; but in fact, it clung to her well. All of the skin the designer wanted to highlight with the gaps was visible in appropriate quantity, the bodice left no room for the dress to slide, and the skirt reached to the knee perfectly.

Dressed for the party, Elena thought she would now go– but her maid stopped her.

“Not without a touch-up on your face! Sit down.”

At Bethany’s command, Elena sat.

Her maid produced a makeup kit. A layer of foundation, pearl-pink concealer, and the slightest hint of blush touched up Elena’s cheeks. A gentle shadow around her eyes and a coat of glossy lipstick just a touch darker than the natural color of Elena’s lips, gave her a bright, elegant appearance that still looked natural, without too much product.

When the hairbrush came out, Elena feared they might be there all night.

Her maid turned the chair around, and gently stroked Elena’s hair.

Rather than turn it into a project, she just made Elena’s natural looks clean and proper.

To top it off, Bethany affixed a moon-shaped, diamond-studded silver hairpiece on Elena.

“There. Look in the mirror, princess.”

Elena turned around and spread her arms. She lifted the skirt just a little.

She put her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder at the reflection.

Not too much had changed, but it really felt like her best traits were accentuated very well.

“I feared you might doll me up too much, but this is quite pleasant.”

“We don’t have to conceal your looks today. We want them to shine in their organic state.”

Bethany laid her arms on Elena’s shoulders and smiled fondly.

Elena almost got a motherly sense out of that expression.

“Leda would be so proud. But let us not tarry. We should go meet that woman of yours.”

How unfair, to mention her mother’s name with that expression, and then hurry her along! Nonetheless, Elena followed Bethany down to the foyer.

There were maids working on last minute dusting and furniture arrangement. While the foyer did not normally look like much, they had added flowers and fine glasswork decorations, a portrait of the Emperor, and extra strips of lights on the ceiling to brighten up the atmosphere. It would not be long before a modest group of guests would arrive through the doors of the Villa. Bethany pushed Elena to a sideroom where the maids kept additional furniture in storage and bid her to wait.

Gertrude would be brought to her.

“Bethany, can you explain why I am hiding with the taxidermy?” Elena pointed bitterly at a stuffed creature occupying a corner of the dim little room. “I’m the birthday girl? What kind of birthday celebration is this?”

Bethany sighed. “Do you want to stand at the doors and greet everyone? It’s what you will have to do, as the Royal Princess, if the guests see you the instant they walk through the front doors. And then imagine the scandal if you leave the guests behind as soon as Lady Lichtenberg shows up?”

“That’s a good point.” Elena sighed. Everything was so complicated!

“I won’t object to the two of you appearing together. But you have to go in after the guests have settled down. It’s the only way that it makes sense. Anything else would be an insult to them. So wait here: be quiet and still.”

Bethany shut the door to the side-room.

Elena could hear the sounds of her heels, growing ever more distant. There continued to be a muffled commotion outside for quite some time.

And so Elena waited, sitting on an old chair covered in a white blanket.

Accompanied by a fiendish creature the size of a dog, frozen in time in its own corner. It looked ridiculous. She wondered whose this thing was.

Elena noticed a sharp increasing the number of footsteps and voices outside. That meant the people her brother had invited had arrived.

She surmised then that her isolation would end soon, but it was several minutes worth of people outside, being greeted she assumed, before the foyer became quiet again. Elena feared her dress would get dusty or wrinkled, but in the dim light of the side-room she was still able to see that her worries were unfounded. The room was fairly clean, even.

She had lost track of time, but in reality she was not in there for long.

And when the door next opened, Elena felt ready to forgive the plot.

She expected Bethany, and readied to hurl some invective.

In her place, however, the one who opened the door was an extremely handsome young woman in a very fitting, buttoned up jacket, and dress pants, black with gold trim. She wore a medal the shape of a white flower on her lapel, that indicated service to the royal family — Elena had given her that medal herself. Hers was a formal uniform, worn by high-ranking officers on special occasions, and it quite flattered the tall and lean frame of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Her hair had been collected into a ponytail, and her face was very slightly made up. Elena could tell that a few blemishes on her cheek had been powdered over, and her eyes looked darker, more intense.

Elena wanted to joke that she appeared more boyish than ever, but that was not true. She was gentlemanly in the best way, not merely boyish. She was gallant and knightly, and in that way she was beautiful too, and she truly shone in that dress uniform. Elena loved every centimeter of her.

Rather than invective, no words at all escaped Elena then.

She was quite stricken.

Gertrude took the initiative and extended a hand to the princess.

“I would be honored to escort the lady to the dance.”

“Y-Yes. Of course.”

Elena offered her hand in turn, and Gertrude took it gently and kissed the back of her glove.

More than in just her hand, Elena felt that kiss as a warmth that spread out from below her belly. An electric sense, an air of romance; it was storybook in a way that felt too good to be true. And yet it was no dream, or she would not have felt that touch at all. Gertrude’s strong hand stroked hers gently, and she gestured toward the door, waiting for Elena to collect her senses.

“Shall we?”

Somehow, the friendly soldier whom Elena had known, had become this enchanted being.

“Of course, ‘Trude.”

She had called her by the nickname as if to confirm this was still to her.

Without responding verbally, Gertrude simply smiled.

Yes; this was her Gertrude.

They held hands, and Gertrude waited for her to cross the threshold first.

Aside from a few maids standing around, the Foyer was completely empty.

There were signs everywhere that the floor had been well trod upon.

Bethany was not around.

She must have had more important duties to attend to.

Now that the party was in motion, she had to coordinate the proceedings.

Like a consummate gentleman, Gertrude helped Elena up the stairs from the foyer. She led her around a corner, toward the second-floor hunting lodge, the largest room in the villa. Gertrude would not have known where it was, as she had never had occasion to visit it. Elena thought then that the maids would have cooperated with her, and maybe prepared her before she took Elena. Her knight moved through the villa with complete confidence. But whenever they exchanged glances as they navigated the halls, Gertrude would smile casually and cheerfully as ever.

That smile indicated that this was simply Gertrude; but a Gertrude trying to impress.

When they entered the lodge, all eyes were on immediately them.

A princess dressing bolder than ever, and a soldierly woman in a formal uniform.

Elena could feel everyone in the room scrutinizing them.

She hardly knew what to say when she entered the room. She started to look around, hoping that the situation would solve itself.

There were perhaps a hundred people in attendance. To accommodate them, the massive hunting lodge had been completely transformed. Elena had always found the space a waste. So much room devoted to trophies and old guns and tacky fur rugs. She imagined those things must have belonged to her father. Bethany and the maids had gotten rid of it all, at least temporarily. For once it was possible to admire the breadth of the lodge’s floor space, the beautiful tiles, the fiery red curtains and decorative rose arrangements. Torches were lit to provide a mood, and the LEDs dimmed.

Along the side walls there were a few chairs arrayed for those who preferred to sit. There were small tables filled with treats.

Mutton and fig meatballs and crunchy bread spread with bone marrow were the most common small bites, along with plates of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit with spicy fish sauce or real honey for dipping. There were maids spread around the room, dressed to impress in frilly uniform gowns, serving a choice of various wines from intricate bottles.

Far in the back, a small stage had been erected where five maids appeared, all dressed up, the more tomboyish ones in suits, and some in ornate dresses, and they sat with instruments in hand and played music for all of the guests. She knew they also had a sophisticated sound system that could back them up, but Elena had several dozen servants boasting a broad array of talents, so she wanted to hope they were all playing the vibrant, sensual music which filled the lodge.

Conspicuously missing was the sapphire-gleaming glare of her half-brother Erich.

Elena wondered if she should say some words.

It was her special occasion, wasn’t it?

It was also true she had never wanted this party.

And none of these people were her friends, or acquaintances of even minor familiarity. None of her school age friends were here save for Gertrude.

Before she could make a fool out of herself, however, a woman stepped on to the stage. A mature, dark-haired beauty in a flamboyant red dress and white gloves, perhaps the singer, she drew everyone’s attention to herself with a clack of her heels. Wearing a smile as bright red as her dress, she addressed the room in a voice that felt strangely familiar to Elena’s ears.

“Everyone! I bid you all a luxurious evening! As you can see, the honored guest has arrived, which means it is time to commence the festivities. You have drinks, good company, and the floor. What are you all staring for? Give the birthday girl and her friend some space; what kind of party is it if we all just stand in a circle? Band, give me something to work with!”

She turned around to the maids, who looked at each other with something approaching disbelief and then began to play a sultry tune at a faster tempo. It was a popular song, particularly among soldiers, about a seeing a beautiful woman at port and spending a night before a fated departure. Snapping her fingers in tune with the music, the woman in red closed her eyes, first humming on stage until she finally broke out into the familiar tune with a rich singing voice. With the lights on her, she was enchanting.

It was then Elena realized that it was Bethany up on stage.

Bethany; her maid, Bethany–

Gertrude responded with a gentle laugh.

“It is a wonderful tune, but it’s so played out with the boys.”

She turned toward Elena, who was still mildly shell-shocked.

“I owe you a dance or two, but would you rather carouse?”

Elena snapped out of her reverie. “Carouse with who? Come on.”

Gertrude did not need to be told twice.

She took the princess by the waist and hand and led her to the dance floor.

Swept up in the physicality of the moment, Elena could hardly refuse.

Elena was unskilled, but Gertrude led well. For the most part, the princess avoided looking completely useless on the dance floor. She did not stomp Gertrude’s feet, and while ungraceful, she met the sweeping movements of her escort as best as she could. She felt as if caught up in a whirlwind. Gertrude had her by the hands, by waist, by the shoulder at times.

They said nothing to one another.

Their eyes locked, their breathing in tune. Their emotions were visible only in their movements. Elena could feel it from Gertrude, from the way she was held, led, touched. A certain possessiveness, a need to assert her place. Back at the tearoom, when Gertrude had spoke up to Bethany, Elena understood what the plot meant, but perhaps, she had failed to understand the degree to which Gertrude would put herself in the position of a lover.

And there they were. While a scant few others had begun to dance as well, it really felt like a majority of the party was not there for Bethany’s surprisingly seductive voice, or the atmosphere, or the drinks, or to take anyone’s hand in dance but the princess’ — or at least, to gain her attention or favor in some other manner. And so a great many men and women remained on the fringes of the dance floor, with what seemed like disconcerted expressions. Gertrude had beaten them to it.

In a sudden move, Gertrude broke from her, extending her arm, and pulled her back in. She bent low with Elena and held her, just barely keeping the princess from the floor. Their eyes, their noses, their lips, merely centimeters apart. Millimeters, perhaps. It was the final act of the show.

Elena could almost taste Gertrude’s subtle but clearly exerted breathing.

Suspended in this position, they spent what felt like eternity lost in each other’s eyes. Elena felt something inside her, brimming under her skin.

Gertrude gently lifted her back up.

She then acknowledged the gawkers with a smug bow.

Meanwhile Elena’s face was blushing red as the curtains, red as the roses, red as the wine.

“Would you like me to stick close, or would you prefer to scout out the room yourself?”

Elena, unprepared to make decisions, wished that Gertrude would just grab her again.

“I suppose I should try to see what these people want with me.” She said, sighing.

She did not go alone, however.

Elena took Gertrude’s hand, and they walked into a small crowd of aristocrats together. Taking up drinks, they introduced themselves together. To this crowd, Gertrude became Elena’s “long-time friend” and “military advisor” in the span of a few minutes, and the words seemed to change the atmosphere with them. It became possible to talk to them about nothing for some time, and nobody was quite able to bring up subjects Elena feared.

Many of them, to Elena’s surprise, expressed a greater lamentation at her brother ghosting the party, than whatever apprehension they may have had about Elena’s choice of companion. Slowly, over the course of several of these paltry interactions with the faceless folk that had heeded her brothers’ summons, she developed a fuller picture of what was going on. None of them had really come to try to woo Elena or even to try to get her to invest her hereditary wealth in the kind of schemes the nobility and petite-bourgeoise got up to for profit. Nobody had come for her.

All of them had been brought to Vogelheim on the promise of her brother’s attendance.

First in line to the throne, overwhelmingly the most powerful man in the Empire now.

That the conversations around the party managed to become about family businesses, the rare vintage of the wines on hand, the array of fashionable suits and dresses on display, and the rare natural beauty of Vogelheim, gave Elena a sense of relief. It also unveiled the stark truth of how little power and influence she had. Nobody had come to her birthday even just to suck up to her personally. And if they were paying attention to her it was because she was inviting scandal with a woman partner. Everyone assembled, at best, thought of her as a proxy to get to her brother and nothing more.

She might have been able to endure at least one or two marriage proposals to avoid having to swallow that bitter pill. But she made the best of it.

With Gertrude at her side, she immersed herself in the people around her, she smiled, she drank. She laughed politely at jokes. She put on a convincing show pretending to be impressed at the son of a cattle magnate or the daughter of a mining industrialist and their petty little ambitions.

As Bethany advised, Elena endured the night.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.1]

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

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

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

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

“That’s the moon, Elena.”

She was in a woman’s arms.

That woman pointed her toward that infinite sky.

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

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

Elena smiled and laughed.

Her mother looked down at the ground around them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ugghhhh.”

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

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

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

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

“Was I really sweating this much?”

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

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

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

“They’re probably about father.”

She sighed deeply.

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

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

Her culture and station mandated a period of mourning.

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

She brought her hands up to her eyes.

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

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

“Milady!”

There was a sudden, startling knock on the door.

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

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

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

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

She leaped out of bed with newfound energy.

Her gallant knight was coming!

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

There was a deep sigh from the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite her protests, the data continued to churn.

Elena sighed and returned to her business.

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

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

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

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

At that point Elena was no longer listening to it.

She had a single destination in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena hurried to the center of the clearing.

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

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

And something was coming up the elevator.

Excited, Elana dismissed the screen and stepped back.

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

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

She could not contain her smile.

Nor could she contain the spring in her step.

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

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

In return, the visitor returned Elena’s embrace.

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

Her voice was deep and rich.

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

Elana hugged her even tighter.

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

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

Gertrude flinched slightly.

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

Elena disagreed strongly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saw combat?”

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

She was being playful, dragging Gertrude around.

Had she seen Gertrude flinch at that time?

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

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

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

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

“Oh no, Gertrude! What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena eyed the teacup suspiciously.

Gertrude let out another laugh.

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.10]

“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”

“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”

“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”

Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.

On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.

“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”

Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.

“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”

Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”

“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”

 “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”

“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”

“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”

“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”

When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.

“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”

“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”

Five years ago, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.

“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”

Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.

“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”

Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”

Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.

“You’d be dead, obviously.”

“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.

Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.

“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”

Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”

Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”

“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”

“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.

Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.

Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.

Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.

They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.

Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.

Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.

Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.

Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.

She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.

For those reasons; and for others too.

So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.

“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”

Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.

“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”

“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”

“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”

Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.

Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.

“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”

“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.

“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”

Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”

“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”

“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.

“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.

“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”

Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.

She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.

Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.

“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”

Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.

She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.

“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”

Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.

Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.

The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.

“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.

At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.

Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”

Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.

“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.

Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”

Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.

In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.

Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.


The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.

A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.

Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.

A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.

When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.

Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.

“It was always going to be this way.”

When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht II, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents.

His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He could be usurped.

Now, the man who seeded this idea had passed on, choking on his own blood and bile.

It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.

“In his absence, everyone will challenge me. Like him, I now welcome it.”

He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.

An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.

A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.

She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.

“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.

“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.

His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.

“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”

Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”

Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.

“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”

Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.

“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”

“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”

“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”

Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.

“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”

She waved at him.

“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”

With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.

Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.

He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.

Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.

He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.

At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.

“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”

On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.

Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.

“Mind if I come in, milord?”

A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.

“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”

Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.

“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”

“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”

“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”

Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.

Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”

“Whatever you wish.”

He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.

“May I confess to something grave, milord?”

“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”

“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”

Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.

But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.

“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”

Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.


In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.

The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.

What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary ­— for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.

Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.

“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”

The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.

“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.

“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”

“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”

At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”

Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.

Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.

“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”

“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”

“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”

Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”

She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.

“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”

“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”

Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.

Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.

“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”

“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.

Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.

“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”

“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”

Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.

Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.

“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”

“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”

“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”

“Whatever you think will be most effective.”

“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”

“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”

“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”

“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”

Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.

“Acknowledged, Sovereign.”

Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.

Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.

“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.9]

“No casualties, so I’ll call that a victory. Tell Nakara to head to the infirmary.”

Captain Korabiskaya released a profoundly weary sigh, dropping back from the edge of her chair and practically melting into the backrest. Around the Bridge there was a sense of elation. Various readouts on the different stations had tracked the battle between the Cheka and the enemy, providing diagnostics and predictions. Algorithms calculated the flow of combat and offered reams of data for the bridge crew to parse through and interpret. Much of it had not been necessary.

Now that victory had been secured, and everyone was safe, most of the bridge crew had a joyful energy to their activities. Semyonova relayed orders for the sailors to resume their scheduled work, and she contacted Nakara personally to send her off to the infirmary, on the Captain’s orders; meanwhile officers like Fatima relaxed, since their active participation had ended. Kamarik was focused on monitoring the ship and programming the autopilot’s route. On the very front of the bridge, the gas gunners practically dropped over their gun stations with heavy, relieved breaths.

At Ulyana’s side, a certain cat-eared young woman cleared her throat softly.

“I admit you carried yourself, quite decently.” Commissar Bashara said. She then sighed herself. “That being said, I believe you were being too lax on the crew with the schedule for departure. We should have been fully combat ready thirty minutes ago, not an hour from now.”

“I know, and you’re right.”

Ulyana, metaphorically putting down her Captain’s hat and becoming “Yana” once more, met the Commissar’s eyes. Aaliyah looked surprised to see her expression. Perhaps she thought there would be an argument brewing. But Yana knew that she was being too coddling. Everything was in a remarkable chaos after disembarking, and she had felt too safe in Union waters, so she did not put down her fist and correct everything. She had wanted this launch to be relaxed and comfortable, for a crew that would feel little comfort in the months to come. She was wrong.

“I wanted to give everyone time to get their bearings. I thought we had the space for it.”

“Even the Union’s waters can be breached by enemies.” Aaliyah said. “But I understand.”

For a moment, the two of them looked at one another, and then broke off their eye contact.

“Don’t get me wrong. I won’t judge you too harshly now. But be mindful of yourself.”

Aaliyah said that, staring at a wall.

“I’m getting what I deserve. But do also think of the crew’s morale when criticizing me.”

Ulyana said this, facing an entirely different wall.

“Fair enough.”

The two of them said this almost at once and they both seemed put off by the synchronicity.

Thankfully, their moment was defused almost immediately.

“Hey Captain!”

From below, the uniquely aggravating voice of Alex Geninov sounded.

“Aren’t you going to reprimand that pilot? She disobeyed orders.”

There was a smug look on her face that Yana did not like at all.

“I’ve decided to let her off easy for doing your job.” Yana said. “It’s none of your concern.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed with consternation, but she then turned back around to her station.

“It’s going to be a challenge turning this assortment into a crew.” Yana lamented. She spoke in a low voice such that it was only heard by her and the Commissar sitting beside her.

She hoped she could confide in her new Commissar — like she had once confided in Nagavanshi.

Her Commissar responded in the same volume. She did not betray the little trust Yana had granted. Despite the harshness of the words she would say, her whispers spoke to her cooperation.

“They were each handpicked by the Commissar-General for their talents, as were you. She would not have chosen this roster if she didn’t believe in each of us. I have my doubts about some people as well.” Aaliyah shook her head. She really made that some people sound as accusatory as possible. “But every officer on this crew has achievements and skills. Geninov might look like an annoying twerp, but she proved herself a prodigy in Thassal. And, then you, yourself–”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t finish that sentence.” Yana said, her tone turning severe.

“Duly noted, Captain.” Aaliyah said. Her own tone of voice was quite prickly.

That being said, Yana was happy that she was able to whisper to her when she wanted to. That she had a Commissar who would keep secrets with her, despite her criticisms and objections.

And so, despite the shaky footing in which their journey had begun, the Brigand had set off. It had overcome its first obstacle and proven it could survive a battle out at sea.

For certain definitions of proven, and for certain definitions of a battle.

At this point they were several kilometers from Thassal.

There was no way that they would turn back. Yana knew this, she was prepared for it. And she had no desire to do so. She told herself that she would rather die at sea than return, again a failure. Again proving what Aaliyah clearly thought, what most people who heard about her assignment probably thought: that she was incapable, and that she was bound to fail.

So she sat back in the Captain’s chair of a fully crewed bridge.

Again, looking down at all the beautiful faces of the officers under her command.

Each of them dragging their own histories onto this vessel.

Perhaps, like her, they were working to surpass their ignominy.


Everyone in the hangar was ordered to return to work after being given fifteen minutes to cool off, which many of them spent either trying to congratulate Murati or get a closer look at the Cheka. Once the sailors returned to their work, Murati herself was ordered to the infirmary. Her skin was brimming with excess energy and anxiety, as she came down from the stress of being out in the suit. Despite this, she felt physically fit, but she did not object to getting herself checked out.

With Karuniya close at her side, she left the hangar, feeling the vibrations of the ship through her feet in the cramped corridors between Engineering and the elevator up to the infirmary. Between every pod there were corridors, some for traversal, others exclusively for accessibility to allow maintenance work on various systems. These were divided off by bulkhead doors.

“Karu, how did you find the rest of the ship?” Murati asked.

Karuniya shrugged. “It’s a ship. Not a bad one, but it’s no pleasure cruise.”

“Hey! Wait up a moment, Lieutenant– I mean, Murati!”

Karuniya and Murati turned around to find Gunther running up through the halls.

He was panting, but he had a smile on his face that suggested great satisfaction.

“I’ve got all your combat data.” He paused to breathe. “You were wild out there, Murati.”

“It was all the machine, to be honest.” Murati said.

“She’s too modest.” Karuniya said. “We haven’t met. I’m Karuniya Nakara.”

Murati was shocked to hear that surname in that place.

Karuniya grinned devilishly as she extended her hand to shake Gunther’s.

“Ah, are you sisters or something?” He asked, genuinely and amicably.

At that, Karuniya burst out laughing in Gunther’s face. He shrank back, confused.

“She’s neither my sister, nor is that her real surname! Gunther, this is my fiancé, Karuniya Maharapratham. She’s taking you for a fool right now, but she’s actually our Science Officer.”

Murati rectified the situation quickly, but that did not stop Karuniya’s impish behavior.

Sisters, really, how sheltered can you be?” She mumbled to herself, laughing still.

“Cut me some slack! It’s not like I’ve memorized the roster.” Gunther said helplessly.

“Did you really not think ‘wife’? Come on, we don’t look anything alike.”

“Listen, I’m not psychic okay?”

Murati slapped her palm over her own face, groaning audibly.

“Gunther, ignore her for a bit–”

“–Wow, rude,”

“I wanted to ask you something about the Cheka, actually.”

Gunther side eyed Karuniya but then turned all his attention to Murati.

“I welcome changing the subject! What do you wanna know?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the ERS function? It saved my life.”

“ERS, huh?”

Gunther crossed his arms. He looked troubled. Murati had not expected that response.

It was not like when he described every other exciting feature of the Cheka.

“You say you activated the ERS? That would explain the power spikes.”

“You really couldn’t have missed it if you looked at the data.” She said.

Scratching his head and thinking for a moment, Gunther sighed. He looked helpless again.

“This is strange. I really don’t know; see, the ERS was supposed to be dummied out.”

“Dummied out?” Karuniya asked, inserting herself into the conversation.

“Do you know what that means?” Murati asked her.

“Of course I do.” Karuniya shrugged.

“Well, ok then. Why are you asking? Gunther, go on.”

Behind her, Karuniya stuck out her tongue.

Gunther nodded his head. He rubbed his hands together.

Nervous. Thinking on his words.

“So, we didn’t remove all the mechanisms for it, it was just supposed to be removed from the software. See, the ERS is connected to the verniers, and the pumps and turbines; it builds a reserve of additional power as the verniers and turbines run, power that can be dumped through the suit. We found that the engine and batteries can’t take running with that extra power for very long. I would strongly advise you not to use it in the future. I can’t really dummy it out any more than it is without ripping the Cheka apart, and if you found it useful, then that’s great, but be careful.”

“I understand.”

Murati had been saved by that ERS feature.

To think that if it had been truly dummied out, she might have become Leviathan food.

In the future, she would have a team to work with. She wouldn’t be out there alone.

So it was less of an imperative for her own suit to have so much power.

She could not promise Gunther to avoid it entirely, however.

Not after seeing it in action.

“I’ll be careful.”

“Thank you. You were going to the infirmary, right? I’ll leave you to it.”

He made an awkward smile at Karuniya.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Sure.”

She winked at him, but he turned around and left so quickly he may not have seen it.

“He’s a good guy.” Murati said. “Honest, straightforward and hardworking.”

“Yeah, he seems straightforward alright.” Karuniya said, chuckling to herself.

Murati frowned helplessly. “I see you woke up today to cause problems on purpose.”

At the end of one of the halls they took an elevator up to commons.

Every ship had some social areas, and the one they arrived at was quite lively as there were several sailors who were not called upon to work just yet. While it was less broad and open than the hangar, it had a higher ceiling than the corridors and was far less cramped than many other rooms. This particular room was designed to hold several dozen people carousing and having fun. It was navy blue with adjustable lighting that could fit many different moods, whether the crew was celebrating or relaxing. There were group tables and couches for the social butterflies; game tables that could be adjusted for pool, ping pong or other physical games; minicomputers preloaded with board games like chess as well as a few other approved diversions; and a small stage where a few people could sing songs or put on shows, or where someone could give a speech to a crowd.

“This is lovely. It’s the kind of atmosphere you’d expect at a nice bar.” Murati said.

“You’re right. Kind of reminds me of the places we snuck off to in school.” Karuniya said.

Murati grinned. “We have to drop by later. I want to continue my ping pong streak on you.”

“Oh ho! So high and mighty when it’s a physical game, Murati Nakara. And yet, you are fully aware that if it were chess, you would be begging for mercy.” Karuniya replied, cackling.

The two of them walked past the social space, and across a hallway past the mess. As they walked they examined this important location. There were long, tight row tables that seated many people. Box lunches were cooked and set out on the counters that fenced out the kitchen, to be picked up by whoever desired one. There were also biscuits and broth set out for anyone. Meal allotments determined the amount of biscuits and broth any given person was entitled to eat. In addition to the basics of bread and broth, everyone could get a breakfast sandwich and a lunchbox.

Dinner was their one big, nice meal.

A motivating force for getting through your day.

At that moment, however, there were very few people in the mess.

Murati expected this would be the only time she would see it so empty.

Past the mess and closer to the bulkhead into the Command Pod was the infirmary. It was divided into two rooms across from one another in the hall: there was a larger emergency room with forty beds, and then there was the examination room, which had two curtained off beds and the laboratory, medicine vault and private room of the doctor on-board.

When Murati crossed the threshold into the doctor’s office, the first thing she saw was an open door into a storage space full of medicines in safe containers, bags of nondescript fluids and chemicals, and boxes of medical devices and special equipment. A second, closed door beside it likely led to the doctor’s private room. The rest of the office was unremarkable. There were the beds, the examination table with its cushioned, adjustable surfaces, a sink with running water, and cabinets for the doctor’s tools.

Then there was the doctor, seated on a stool and working on something on the counters.

“Welcome! Murati Nakara, I presume? And does this young woman want a checkup too?”

She welcomed the two of them to her side.

The Doctor looked immediately like quite a character.

A tall, thin woman with a pleasantly deep voice, her face was fair and fine-featured. Her ice blue lipstick and eyeshadow gave her a mature air — Murati felt that she was older than she and Karu. Her hair was also pretty novel as it was colored two tones: an icy, almost white light blue and a darker blue. Some of it was tied behind the back of her head, and the rest was clipped to the sides with a pair of colorful pins.

While her mature looks, white coat and button-down uniform gave the impression of elegance and professionalism, her mannerisms were anxious and flighty. She moved her hands quite freely as she talked, and she had a smile that was perhaps a bit too excited.

On the counter behind her, she had several little cases that she had been preparing before Murati and Karuniya stepped into the room. Murati was familiar with them: they were hormone treatment kits.

“I’m Doctor Winfreda Kappel.” She vigorously shook Murati’s hands, and Karuniya’s as well. “I actually prepared this for you! I’ve been sorting everyone’s medications! It’s so fun seeing how well-stocked this ship is. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a ship with such a king’s ransom of drugs and chemicals! We’ve got prescriptions for everything. I can’t wait to care for all of you.”

She talked quickly, and after the handshakes, thrust a hormone kit into Murati’s hands.

“And by any chance, is this your partner Maharapratham?” She asked.

Karuniya seemed a bit taken aback. Perhaps not so much by the contents of the Doctor’s words as much as the overwhelming energy with which they were delivered to her.

“I am indeed! I suppose that is in the roster?” She said, suddenly shy.

“It sure is! I’ve been reading through everyone’s files. Here, this is for you!”

She pushed a little generic medicine kit into Karuniya’s hands.

“Contraceptives and sexual enhancers. If you need more, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Dr. Kappel had a triumphant look to her face, while Karuniya turned quite red.

“Hey– Umm– Well, t-t-thanks. But this is a lot to take in?” Karuniya stammered.

Murati could hardly look at the kit without feeling somewhat exposed as well.

For her part, Dr. Kappel’s mood was not darkened in the slightest.

“Nonsense! Any capable, open-minded doctor knows that sexual intercourse will happen on ships. Especially when it comes to two people who arrive on the ship as civil partners. I want it to be safe and enjoyable sex. Better to encourage good, safe sex, than to deny your needs!”

“I’ve got to wonder if you know this from experience–”

“What was that dear?”

Karuniya was mumbling in a defeated tone of voice. Dr. Kappel continued to smile.

“Nothing at all ma’am. Thanks. You’re right, I suppose.”

Neither Karuniya nor Murati were puritans whatsoever, but Murati felt terribly awkward openly discussing such things with a third party. Particularly a third party who was this apparently eager about it. And from the look on her fiancé’s face she could tell Karuniya shared this feeling.

That being said, there was no defeating this Dr. Kappel.

Her energy was simply irrepressible.

“Ma’am, I’d like to get checked up so I can go up to the bridge.” Murati said. “Karuniya is accompanying me because we’re headed the same direction. I don’t feel that I’m hurt, so–”

“Indeed, indeed! I will distract you no longer. Come here, Lieutenant!”

Dr. Kappel stood up and took Murati by the arms and pressed against her back.

She made her stretch a few different ways, and began to feel her muscles, to pat down her sides, to bend her wrists, to exert a firm grip on various parts of her limbs and trunk. She crouched in front of Murati and made her move her knees and legs and observed. The Doctor had all kinds of little tests she made Murati do and watched keenly whenever Murati accomplished them.

While this transpired, Karuniya watched with growing indignation.

Finally, the Doctor stopped back, and took one last look at Murati up and down.

“My, the Lieutenant’s quite a specimen!” Dr. Kappel winked at Karuniya. “Great catch.”

Karuniya’s tone began to fit her severe expression. “Uh, excuse me?”

Rolling on from that with no apparent acknowledgment, the Doctor turned back to Murati.

“You are healthy, but I’m sure you’ll be feeling slightly nauseous. Take care when you eat.”

“I’m feeling slightly nauseous right now.” Murati lamented.

All the stretching, if anything, made her feel even worse and more tired out.

“I shall keep you no longer. It was wonderful to meet you two. Do come again!”

Dr. Kappel waved goodbye and immediately turned around and skipped back inside the medicine vault, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the rows upon rows of medications and chemicals to which she had access. She had floated away in an instant, as if the meeting were adjourned the moment that her interest finally wavered. One word came to Murati’s mind right then: blitzkrieg.

There were all kinds of people aboard the Brigand, and some of them were menaces.

Karuniya grabbed hold of Murati’s hand and instantly stormed out of the Doctor’s office.

“What the hell is wrong with that bitch? What kind of doctor says, ‘come again?’” She said.

“Please slow down. I think the forward stretches put my guts out of sorts.”

Karuniya grunted openly and clung to Murati with a petty expression on her face.

She was practically rubbing her cheeks on Murati like a needy puppy.

One thing they could not deny is that the staffing choices so far had been interesting.

Murati was trying to look on the bright side of things as she shambled to the bridge.

Once the two of them regained enough of their composure, they entered the command pod, which was one of the smallest of the ship’s major sections. There was the bridge, the security room, a brig for detaining people and a few planning and meeting rooms. It was one hallway, and the bridge was the largest space in it. There was no missing it when crossing through the bulkhead.

They stood in front of the door to the bridge.

Murati took a deep breath.

“Feeling stage-fright? Or is it still nausea?” Karuniya asked.

“The Captain here fought in the Revolution as a teen, Karuniya.” Murati said. Stage-fright.

Karuniya took Murati’s hand and squeezed it. She looked her in the eyes and smiled.

“I’m sure nobody will mind your relative lack of experience after today.” She said.

Together, they opened the door to the bridge and crossed into it.

All eyes turned briefly over to them.

Murati saluted the Captain and Commissar and introduced herself.

“Comrades, I am Lieutenant Murati Nakara. First Officer, on bridge.”

Everyone in the bridge crew gave her a round of applause. Even Captain Korabiskaya.

She was, after all, the first beacon of hope in their long journey.


Eight hours later, at a coasting speed of 15 knots, the Brigand had traveled quite far from Thassal station and would soon cross the Imperial border, into the southern territory of Sverland, the Empire’s Nectaris border lookout. Owing to the defeat of the Southern Border Fleet, and its understaffed nature even before that, little resistance could be expected in Sverland, and there was no reason for the Brigand to be on high alert quite yet. They would make for a port town first to meet their first contact.

While they had a rocky start, the crew was starting to settle into their duties. After the Leviathan attack, the bridge had been quiet and tidy, with everyone immersed in their tasks. While recording the events of the day, Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, in her own little room, thought to herself that it was actually good they were attacked so soon, and were forced to respond suddenly.

She believed it would not be the last time the Brigand had a sudden emergency.

Their war, which began today with nary a trumpet, would be one of sudden, shocking turns.

No one had ever done what they proposed to do.

Though they had a plan to follow, she knew everything would change in the Empire’s seas.

And yet everyone on the ship accepted this insane mission, from the greenest sailor to the most experienced among them. Everyone had their own reasons for doing so, even the Commissar. Maybe it was hard to truly understand the scope of the undertaking and to be able to tell oneself that it should not be done. Maybe it was too incredible to refuse. Being told by Nagavanshi that the situation was revolutionary and world-shaking did nothing to convey the true difficulties that lay ahead. And so everyone was caught up in the glory, or maybe trying to normalize it.

Aaliyah focused on her duty as Commissar. She would be ready to do it each day.

Now that it was “night,” for her, she had another task to perform.

It was the Commissar’s duty to record the ship history.

Every ship had a chronicle of its days, from the perspective of an officer.

Ships kept all kinds of statistics, but the chronicle was different. A ship’s chronicle was far more than just records of work done or missions accomplished. Each chronicle was an organic and unvarnished look into the kind of living that was had aboard ships. It was about the life and mind of the officer who wrote it. Every Chronicle was different because every ship was different.

For centuries, Imperial Chaplains performed this duty in the Imperial Navy. It was highly likely that the Republicans also had chronicles. Commissars continued the tradition in the Union.

Aaliyah had a minicomputer made just for the purpose. It was even more ruggedized than normal minicomputers. It was the sort of computer that could survive the ship. Like a black box, except that it was recorded by hand. Perhaps the Commissar’s most sacred task lay within that inviolable record of the lives and desires of the crew, so that they could be known in death.

Even if an Imperial ship killed them, those records would be preserved.

In fact, the Chronicle of an enemy ship was a treasured thing. It was a trophy for victory.

For the defeated, it was the tiniest comfort that their names and lives would be known.

This was the honor that all sailors gave one another, even despite their most bitter hatred.

An acknowledgment of each other’s existence. Even an imperialist would give this much.

Aaliyah sighed deeply as she booted up the Chronicle.

It was not a novel or something that had to be crafted. A Chronicle, she was taught, should come from the heart, and it should include all the first things one desires to say, before the mask of modesty and other social mores colors over those raw feelings. Aaliyah found this difficult.

Nevertheless, she began to write.

She recorded that on Cycle 150 of the year 979 A.D., the UNX-001 Brigand launched–

“Can I come in?”

There was a knock on the door. A most familiar voice.

“You may, Captain.”

Through the door, the figure of Ulyana Korabiskaya took a step filled with trepidation.

Aaliyah turned around to meet her, trying to avoid her eyes.

“To what do I owe this– why are you here?” She asked, switching tones mid-sentence.

In response the Captain bowed her head. Her long, blonde hair fell over her face.

“Commissar, I wanted to apologize. I’ve stumbled over my words so many times toward you, but you are right. I was a cad, and I treated you terribly. I owed you more respect as a lover.”

She was speaking vaguely, as if she did not know exactly what part of her conduct had been wrong. She could have openly admitted to being a horny drunk or an oafish sweet talker. She could have admitted to leaving her in bed soaked in sweat and alone and ashamed, with no reassuring voice to comfort her. She could have apologized for sounding so sincere that night.

On some level, Aaliyah herself did not whether those things actually bothered her though.

She did not want to admit it, but she had reacted in a highly emotional fashion.

“Captain let us put personal things behind us. I have only been judging you on your professional merits since we stepped into this ship. I shall continue to do so.” She said.

That was not exactly true.

It did help her save face, however.

Ulyana nodded her head and raised it. She wore a bashful, almost girlish expression.

Aaliyah thought she looked beautiful and did not want to look directly at her.

“Besides which. It was stupid of me to think– anyway, no, everything is fine.”

Why did you even think you merited this woman’s attention anyway?

You’re so naïve; so easy. All she had to do was talk you up, and you spread your legs.

You let your guard down and look what happened. How was that fairy tale night of yours?

Do you think you deserve any better?

Those sorts of self-hating thoughts filled with Aaliyah’s mind when she recalled the night they shared together. Perhaps that was what she hated the most. Her feelings were muddled.

“I, too, shall swear to behave professionally. Because– I want us to succeed–”

Aaliyah caught the briefest glimpse of Ulyana’s eyes as she stammered.

For a moment, she saw an expression that was full of some unmentionable pain.

“For more than just the Union; because we have hope in ourselves.”

There was something she wanted to say, but she was clearly not ready to do so.

Aaliyah was the same. And thinking that the two of them were similar frustrated her.

“I agree. I need to write the ship’s chronicle. May I return to my work?”

Ulyana nodded her head. “Yes, yes of course. I’ll see you on the bridge next shift.”

“Indeed. Work hard, and don’t become distracted, Captain.” Aaliyah replied.

As awkwardly as she had entered, Ulyana slipped back out the Commissar’s door.

 Aaliyah closed her eyes, trying to find inner peace.

Perhaps in the months to come she would be able to forget all of this.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.8]

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

She was determined.

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

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

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

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

Even though she was standing still, waiting for communication.

Through the ship LAN she connected with the bridge again.

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

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

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

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

Murati switched on a speaker to talk to him.

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

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

“Less talk, more action then!”

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

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

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

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

Murati engaged the Cheka’s power unit.

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

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

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

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

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

The Brigand was deploying its very first Diver in anger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below Murati, the chute opened up to the ocean.

“Good luck and good hunting!”

Semyonova saluted her.

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

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

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

That dark-blue void that encompassed their entire world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the ship pass beneath her was amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a request for laser communication. Murati accepted.

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

“Murati, can you hear me?”

Though the voice was immaculate, the image was lagging.

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Korabiskaya was clearly worried about her.

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

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

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

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

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

She caught the haunting cry of the Leviathan moments later.

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

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

Her computers immediately pinpointed the source of the sound.

“It’s here. We can do this.”

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

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

According to the computer visibility was fifty meters.

And the approaching object was bearing in at 60 knots.

“I’ll see it for a second.”

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

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

Three rounds of supercavitating ammo flew off into nothingness.

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

“No chance!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding her breath with terror, Murati continued shooting.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave them alone!”

Massive amounts of bubbles blew out from around the monster.

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

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

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

Murati had made an impression on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like any animal, it could die from violence.

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

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

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

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

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

From below, the tail swung with even greater speed.

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

A hail of projectiles suddenly peppered the water around her.

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

Six or seven tracking boxes appeared for the briefest instant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not this time!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no time to admire the wound.

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

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

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

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

Murati had finally inflicted a real injury.

Another alert appeared on her screens: red biomass warnings.

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

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

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

Her computer did its best to continue tracking it.

She then received an alert about an object below.

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

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

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

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

It took Murati a moment to process that.

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

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

“Too late for that!”

Murati engaged full thrust, breaking the laser connection momentarily.

From above, the Leviathan dove straight down.

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

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

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

It was chasing.

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

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

“Come on! Give it everything!”

A notification appeared on one of her consoles.

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

Energy Recovery System: Fully Charged. Deployable power available.

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

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

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

Murati thrust straight up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red biomass burst from the Leviathan’s underbelly.

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

One of her eyes darted to the diagnostics.

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

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

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

A series of titanic exchanges ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s discharging agarthicite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commissar’s cat ears twitched with anger.

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

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

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

Both Commissar Bashara and Captain Korabiskaya turned evil looks at the screen.

Feeling quite happy-go-lucky, Murati simply shut off the video feed.

Wasting no more time in the increasingly reddening waters in the middle of the Thassalid plain, Murati navigated the Cheka back to the Brigand, swam beneath it and up into an open chute. Beneath her the hatch closed, the water drained, and the pressure was adjusted. Then the top hatch reopened, and Murati used handholds on the side of the chute and climbed up into the hangar.

As soon as the head cleared the top of the deployment chute she saw the crowd gathered around her. The crowd gave her space as the Cheka took its first steps into the hangar. She bowed the suit’s body and opened the hatch, since it seemed like everyone wanted to greet her. When she stepped off the cockpit chair and out into the light of the hangar, everyone clapped.

“Murati!”

From among the mechanics and engineers, a familiar dark-haired young woman leaped up onto the Cheka’s knee and seized Murati by the TBT half-jacket, baring teeth at her.

“I turn my back for thirty minutes, and you do this!”

“Karu, I–”

Karuniya’s eyes moistened, but rather than cry, she pulled Murati into an abrupt kiss.

People started to cheer. A few of the younger comrades turned away with embarrassment.

“Welcome back, hero.”

Karuniya smiled.

Her relief that Murati had returned safe seemed to overcome her anger.

“I’ll leave the heroics to someone else for the next few days. Sound like a plan?”

Murati scratched the back of her head and acted cute.

Karuniya let go of her jacket and dusted it off. “That’s a deal then.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.7]

War and tragedy didn’t simply alter space. In a sense, they also altered time.

The threshold between an ending and a beginning was thin, ludicrous, and maddening.

A step through the invisible, past a shadow; the delineation between an era and the next.

Nobody had quite come to terms with the fullness of their condition before the ship had begun to move. In the preceding days they had not been able to; and the maybe in the subsequent days they would fail to do so as well. When war came to Thassal, everyone’s connection to their previous future had shattered. Since then they were just pantomiming with fate.

Needless to say, nobody was truly situated when Brigand began disembarking procedures.

They had a tight schedule, and a crew that was not used to launching a “brand new ship.”

So there were a lot of sailors lollygagging still, but three conditions had been met.

First, the essential bridge crew was assembled. They had the Captain, Commissar, Helmsman, and Communications, and they also had Sonar operational. Those were the basics for running the ship.

 Second, the Reactor crew had come with the ship from Solstice.

So they were accounted for, already in position, and knew what they were doing.

Third and finally, Specialist Semyonova’s beautiful, calming voice had called out to everyone on the ship to please access their nearest terminal or use any portable minicomputer to answer a roll call, which she then initiated. Within moments, the entire roster was accounted for.

At that point it didn’t matter if the sailors were looking for their rooms still.

Most of the systems were automatic anyway.

And the ship absolutely had to move.

Perhaps before anyone could regret what they had chosen.

As suddenly as everything else, and with as little fanfare as everything else, the Brigand undocked from Thassal Station. It was officially in open water and would officially begin its months long journey through the heart of the Empire. In the same confusion, surreality and haste that had characterized the rest of the crew’s life for the past few days, the Brigand now departed.

When it did, Murati Nakara did not quite notice it because she was passing through one of the workshops leading to the hangar. She marveled at all the amazing tools they had and became excited when she walked down to the massive, wide-open hangar to inspect the Divers they had. The Hangar was bigger than the Formidable’s, which was impressive considering the Brigand was the size of a cruiser. Big, but not dreadnought big.

There was equipment everywhere, being moved, or set up, by a platoon of sailors, so the final workspaces were still heavily in flux.

Most of the sailors on the Brigand were mechanics or engineers, and it felt like Murati was staring at all of them working right there. She felt a different sensation from her past forays. She felt proud.

This was her ship, in part, that these folks were setting in order.

She almost wanted to help them. To pick up a pneumatic bolt-driver and get to work on the gantries and get the charging stations cabled-up and tested. That was not her role, however.

It was at that point that a message finally went out.

“UNX-001 Brigand has officially departed Thassal Station!”

It was the saccharine voice of Specialist Semyonova, handling bridge communications.

Murati whistled with amazement. She had felt nothing stirring in the secondary hull.

Just like that, without even knowing it, she was now at sea. Her mission had begun.

Semyonova continued with an update on initial crew duties.

“All sailors not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time to inspect their quarters and the amenities of the ship, before joining their work cohorts for their first briefing. All officers not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time as well. All essential personnel have already been engaged with their work cohorts and will have two hours of free time available in four hours.”

“How organized. Launch is really going smoothly, isn’t it?” Murati asked.

“I guess so. But nothing announced for essential officers?”

At Murati’s side, Karuniya was also inspecting the ship with ample curiosity.

They had been basically inseparable since their cohabitation agreement.

Though they would work different roles, they could at least live together in their habitat.

“Important officers would already be in the bridge. I’m guessing we’re not essential.”

“You’re the First Officer Murati. You should put in an appearance at the Bridge.”

“I will! I need to inspect the Divers first. I’m also Diver Leader, you know?”

“You’re just a hopeless military nerd.”

Ignoring Karuniya’s bullying remarks, Murati headed to the center of the hangar.

“Can you go ahead and see if our stuff got to the room ok?”

“Seriously? You’re going to treat me like the disposable wife already?”

Karuniya had a sly face on. Murati felt uncomfortable with the teasing.

“I’m really not trying to, and I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“You’re so defensive! I’m just teasing. You better make this up to me though.”

Murati smiled nervously. “I’ll think of something.”

Still grinning like a devil, Karuniya willingly left Murati’s side.

At the hangar there were six Divers in place, five of them in various states of disarray. Only one had a complete gantry and was set in its proper place, with seemingly all of its parts assembled. The rest were sitting against corners for lack of proper gantries to dock to, missing weapons and even limbs, and had their battery packs uncharged and laid out nearby. It was a mess, but it was exciting to see the Streloks that she may someday command into battle, in their nascent state.

However, it was the remaining Diver, the assembled one, that really caught her eye.

This Diver looked like an entirely different model. It was not just a Strelok.

Rather than the almost oblong shape of the Strelok’s central body, the new model had a somewhat more triangular body shape, with more angled surfaces forward and flatter surfaces in the back. The head, rather than being flat and square, was shaped more like a triangle as well, with a central eye and multiple rotating eyes. Angled points stretched from the “cheeks” of this “head”.

While the arms were slightly sleeker, they had armored extensions covering the elbow verniers, and the legs and feet much the same. It was a much more aggressive design. She could see that the back had been completely redesigned as well. The rear flaps flared out a bit more, and there were five hydrojets rather than four. Two were set on either side of a new central jet. The intakes had been integrated into the main hull rather than being run out to attachments on the hips and upper chest. There was an extra intake around the “collarbone” of the Diver’s torso for the extra jet.

“Diver Leader Nakara, right? Taken in by the new model?”

Coming in from behind her, a man called for her attention. He wore a yellow and orange work vest over the white and blue of the fake company they pretended to be, “TBT.” He had a hard hat and safety goggles, but removed them when he approached, revealing a strong, square face with a friendly smile and slick blond hair. He reached out, and she shook his hand.

“That’s me. Are you a mechanic?” Murati asked.

“Engineer, actually. I’m a Warrant Officer instead of a Sailor. Gunther Cohen.”

“Nice to meet you, Warrant Officer Cohen.”

He raised his arms behind the back of his head and laughed, in an affable gesture.

“Nah, nah, call me Gunther! We’re going to be at sea for a while, you know?”

“I suppose so. I’ve never served on a ship for long enough to get over the formalities before.” Murati replied. All of her missions lasted days or weeks. This was her first long-term post.

“Then let’s get over them right now. Most of the comrades here are on a first-name basis.”

He had such a chummy look on his face that she couldn’t help but be nice about it.

“Well then, I suppose you can call me Murati then.” She said.

Gunther nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned right around to the Diver.

“In truth, I had been hoping that you would pilot this one.”

Murati had not really given it any thought.

She figured they would be assigned machines.

“The Diver Leader should get the best machine. It’s only proper, isn’t it? And in truth, this one’s a little tougher to handle than the Streloks. It could use somebody with a bit more experience in the cockpit.”

“So it’s not a Strelok, then?”

 Just by looking at the machine it was plain to see that it was not a Strelok.

Murati still felt compelled to ask the question out of her own curiosity.

Gunther seemed to know a lot about the suit, and he was open about his desire to show it.

“Well, we can’t deny that the Strelok is in the DNA of all our Diving suits, the same way the Rabochiy is in the Strelok’s DNA. But they’re vastly different machines. We made this one to really push Union war manufacturing to its limits. We thought, if we could imagine anything we wanted, without worrying about the cost; and there it is, the ISU-100 Cheka.”

“What does ISU stand for? Diver models had UND designations before.” Murati asked.

“Ah, I guess a connoisseur would stumble into the grimmest part of this huh?”

Murati could not decipher Gunther’s bashful response to her question.

“Well, we don’t have to go into it, I was just curious.”

“No, it’s ok. I helped with this project for the past few months, to get it over the finish line. A couple of different groups worked on it, and we kind of put together everything at the end. But the genesis of the idea was for the Cheka to be a small production line of Internal Suppression Units for the Ashura’s security division. It had to be better than a Strelok, to suppress a mutiny, in case something happened where some rebel force got ahold of our current ships and divers.”

Murati’s eyes drew wide with the recognition of this machine’s purpose. She supposed even in the kind and caring society that the Union tried to be, there were people who were tasked with upholding the peace, and they had to be prepared for the worst possible circumstances. At least she could take heart that the machine would not be used on Union citizens now.

“So that’s why it is an ISU. It’s not a Union Navy Diver, but an Internal Suppression Unit.”

Gunther finished his explanation running his hand through his hair, looking offput.

“It’s fine.” Murati said. “Thank you for explaining it to me. I don’t hold anything against you or against that machine. I’m happy that it will get to see a more worthy use. I will pilot it.”

If for no other reason that no one else should be responsible for that kind of firepower.

“Great!” Gunther clapped his hands together and brightened up instantly. “I saw data from your recovered Strelok in Thassal. For someone who had never fought a real battle in a Strelok before, you showed a lot of potential. And, I mean, I say that as number-crunching nerd– I’m absolutely terrible as a pilot. From the data, I think you’ll love what the Cheka can do.”

“At a glance, it looks much more sophisticated. But what can it do, better than a Strelok?”

Gunther rubbed his hands. “I’m glad you asked. The Cheka is a meter taller than a Strelok, but it’s actually faster. It has more rear thrust, stronger verniers for better snap maneuverability in combat, and instead of using those huge battery packs, it has Agarthic energy cells built-into the works of the hull and backpack. That’s how we saved so much on space and weight in the design.”

“I see, but then, that means the power unit is not interchangeable. So if it gets damaged, it has to be repaired in place, and then it can’t just be hot swapped in the field, isn’t that true?”

Almost thoughtlessly, Murati came out with a criticism that floored Gunther.

“I mean– well, yes. That’s true. But the performance gains are crazy to make up for it!”

“And it has all the standard weapons, correct?”

“It can use the AK-pattern rifles, and tube-launched torpedoes. Um, well, funny you ask, but another place where we differ from the Strelok is encumbrance. It can’t really support huge cannons or a lot of the shoulder weapons. The Strelok just has a heavier, stabler center mass.”

Gunther sounded embarrassed every time he had to mention a flaw in the Cheka.

Murati understood the changes, however. This was a Diver meant for a new era, when outmaneuvering enemy fire and clashing with enemy Divers would become more important. It was forward-looking and highly specialized. Maybe it really was a suit tailored for her own ideas.

“That’s fine. I would love to take it out for a test.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! I can get authorization right now.” Gunther said.

He patted her on the back in a cheerful fashion, as if they were all best friends who had agreed to go to the bar for some drinks. Murati was nearly swept up in his frenetic energy.

“Wait, right now?”

As she asked that terribly important question, there was a sudden blaring of klaxons.

Everyone in the hangar stopped what they were doing.

First they looked up, at the alarm lights and sounds being played.

They then turned to the nearest console for an explanation.

For messages like this, a video from the bridge crew would play.

Soon enough, the pretty, round face of Communications Officer Semyonova appeared, her blond hair expertly tied up, her makeup neatly applied. Many of the sailors were captivated with her and began to joke that being startled by a test of the emergency system was a small price to pay for getting to finally see the face of the beautiful siren-like voice that had been bossing them around. For a moment, as they watched her appear, they smiled and waved at the screens.

It was not a test.

“Battle stations! All crew, battle stations!”

All of the sailors, men, women, both and neither, who had been expressing their feelings for Semyonova, practically fell over backwards on their discarded tools and messy work areas. They scrambled to find something to do or some place to be. Many had not been fully briefed. While the chaos reigned in Engineering, Semyonova continued to explain the situation.

“At roughly 1135 hours, our bridge crew detected the active biosonar of a Barding-class Leviathan approaching from roughly north-northwest in what we assume is a steep, high speed dive. Due to our heading, we must assume we have now been detected by the Leviathan. We don’t know the reason for the Leviathan’s appearance, but it is possibly injured, and therefore erratic and aggressive. We are now 10 kilometers from Thassal Station and must assume we will be the only responders. By procedure we have labeled this Leviathan “Union-Sighted Leviathan 96” or USL-96. All crew assume battle-stations and await further orders for action against USL-96.”

Semyonova’s face vanished from the consoles, which now displayed diagrams drawn up by the predictive computers. This showed the Brigand and its heading, and the potential route of collision with the Leviathan. They would do their best not to near it, but the Leviathan moved faster and with greater agility than any ship, so it was likely they would have to euthanize it.

Murati ran from Gunther’s side and made for the nearest console.

Authorizing herself as the First Officer she was able to get a priority line to the bridge.

In a moment, Captain Korabiskaya’s face appeared on the screen.

“Lieutenant, good to see you. I’m glad you were in the Hangar as I assumed.”

“I was inspecting the Divers. I apologize for not coming up.” Murati said.

There was no aggression whatsoever in the Captain’s response.

“It’s all fine. We expected to have more time to sort things out. We’ve barely left port!”

Murati nodded. “Ma’am, I need to deploy in the Cheka.”

Captain Korabiskaya drew back with surprise at this sudden demand.

“That experimental Diver in the equipment list? Is it even set up yet?”

“It is completely ready.”

In terms of firepower, any ship could potentially kill a Leviathan. However, firepower was the least important factor in a confrontation between humans and beasts. Larger vessels suffered much more from the impacts and attacks of Leviathans. They presented larger targets that a Leviathan’s biosonar would interpret as another Leviathan class enemy, and it would bring out the worst and most targeted of their aggression. Bigger, slower ships could not avoid a Leviathan easily, and might suffer terrible damage trying to fight off the faster, more flexible creature.

If they had a fleet, they could use their faster escort ships to engage the monster.

They did not have a fleet. They had one large ship, and Divers.

Murati’s heart was full of determination, and her face reflected it.

She believed strongly that if she did not protect everyone their mission could be over.

Captain Korabiskaya seemed to sense the stubbornness engraved in her brows and lips and sighed with exhaustion. “Lieutenant, I’m hesitant to authorize this. Right now nothing is set up, you’ll have no backup out there.” She said. “We need to get everyone organized, and then–”

“I’ve got enough help right here. Gunther!”

Murati turned around. Gunther was still near the Cheka, standing around in confusion as the world moved at a frenetic pace around him. Calling his name seemed to snap him out of his anxiety and he ran over to the console. When he laid eyes on the Captain, he immediately saluted.

 “What was all that about formalities?” Murati said.

“It’s the Captain! It’s different!” He said stiffly.

“Captain,” Murati turned back to the console and locked eyes with Korabiskaya. “This man worked on the Cheka. He knows more than just what’s on the datasheets or programmed into the computers. Gunther, do you think the Cheka could stand up to a Barding-class Leviathan?”

Gunther scoffed. “It was designed to fight Streloks 1 against 3 and win, of course it can!”

He collected himself immediately and made a nervous gesture at the Captain.

Murati gestured with her palm up toward Gunther and winked at the Captain.

“I have Gunther here who will help me deploy. And the Cheka can handle the rest.”

“You’re too stubborn, Murati Nakara. You’ll have to work on that when you return.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s gaze avoided her, and her lips turned in a worried expression.

At that point, the video feed cut off, and a message authorizing the launch appeared.

On the Cheka’s gantry, the locks were undone automatically by the bridge crew.

The suit’s heavily angled forward surfaces moved to reveal a hatch, allowing entry.

Murati was still dressed in the TBT half-jacket and pants, but she wore a full bodysuit under it, and told herself this was adequate enough for a snap deployment. Without changing into a diving suit, she rushed over the front of the gantry, climbed up to the Cheka’s hull and slipped into the cockpit. Behind her, the frantic energy of the Hangar was silenced as the hatch closed.

For an instant, she was alone in the pitch black. She could hardly believe where she was.

Then her instruments began to light up. It was all familiar.

She was a Diver; ready to fight.            

On one of the screens, the words ‘For the workers’ revolution!’ briefly appeared.


Previous ~ Next