Mourners After The Revel [12.4]

Through the Osmium shutters, a hair’s-width of purple rays still bled through.

Dim purple sliced the shadows of the upper wall of the reactor engineering pod– leaving the steel thankfully intact. Just a hint of purple touched down upon the tea table set down incongruously below the raised reactor structure in the back of the pod.

Enclosed within enormous osmium and titanium structures flanking the main reactor were steam generators, circuits, converters, backup batteries, and turbines, that captured and converted and stored and transmitted as much energy that reactor had to give as possible. The heat of the agarthic reaction, the motion of the core array suspended in water, the erratic flashes of agarthic radiation that were characteristic of the lower grade agarthicite used in ship cores compared to station cores. All of it was the life-giving gift the sovereign mineral gave to its After Descent subjects. None of it could be wasted.

God lifted and encased upon its throne of carefully alloyed minerals.

At the back of every ship, this was the face that He showed to his subjects.

And within this temple, a few officers infrequently held tea parties.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were both in attendance, on the opposite end of the table. Between the table and the reactor there was a protective shield of lead and osmium for the occupants. Aside from thin, stray rays of agarthic light, the only illumination was a wax candle that had a musky, mineral-like scent. Compared to an electric torch, this knickknack was a waste of resources– but the woman who requested it received any such thing she wanted. She had a supply of such charms for the journey.

“Thank you for once again indulging me, Captain, Commissar.”

“Of course. Compared to everything else, this is an oasis of calm.”

“Strange, isn’t it? I have to consider the end of my life every second of every day that I reside here, but even so, every day is so peaceful. I could not ask for a better place to spend my final days. Even when the ship is shaking, and battle raging– I just have to tend to the temperatures and monitor output. If the worst happens– I’ll be painlessly erased.”

“Ah– no need to be gloomy, Chief! I’m sure you’ll have many long years ahead!”

“Oh, don’t worry. It has no bearing on my mood. I’m simply being realistic.”

Across from the ship’s leadership cadre was the least often seen of its officers.

Chief Core Engineer, and Hero of Socialist Labor, Iessenia Kurchatova.

Iessenia was a few years older than Ulyana but her actual age was not too evident. She was a pale and petite woman, pretty and vibrant, with girlish features and very long hair that had been dyed green to cover the drain of their color over time. Long locks fell over her shoulders, reached down her back, and she had fluffy bangs swept to either side. She wore a touch of lipstick, a bit of eyeshadow– but a lot of blush, coloring the middle of her face. She wore the Treasure Box button-down shirt and tie with a black mini-skirt and tights, with a white coat over it. On her wrists were steel cuffs attached to collapsible mobility aids that, in their resting position, stretched partway down the length of her arm.

More noticeable than these basic facts of her appearance were the vestiges of her vocation.

In several places in her body there were hexagonal burns, colored purple-black like bruises. There was a stretch of these burns across the upper left corner of her face, having claimed one eye which was replaced with a cybernetic implant. Her eyelid and eyebrow were reconstructed such that when she smiled and shut her eyes it looked pretty natural. Bits of less severe patches of burns could be seen on her neck and creeping over her right breast, slightly visible due to a few undone buttons. In the dim illumination in which Iessenia kept the room, there was a dim purple glow from the sinews on her neck and arms.

Ulyana knew this was owed to the level of agarthic salts in her bloodstream.

On her remaining biological eye, the color had been slightly altered as well. Purple was creeping in from the lower right quadrant of the eye. Close inspection revealed that the purple was actually made up of tiny hexagons, as if the visible pixelation on a low quality video monitor. Iessenia disclosed to Dr. Kappel that her circulatory system was largely colonized by Agarthicite in its microscopic “salt” form. Eventually enough agarthic salt inside her would react, causing an annihilation that would maim her internally.

It was likely that she would die from this– and not painlessly as she hoped.

Thankfully, that did not seem to bother the smiling woman who offered the Captain tea.

Unlike all the coffee-drinkers in the ship, she had this special dispensation as well.

Much like her scented soy-wax candles.

All for the comfort of the Union’s Agarthicite genius, awaiting her untimely demise.

Iessenia, like most core engineers, was the sacrifice at the altar of God.

For the sake of Humanity– so anything could be spared for her happiness and comfort.

“Today’s tea is my favorite. Masala chai. Black tea with sweetened milk and spices.”

Iessenia stared at her teacup quietly for almost a minute before taking an indulgent sip.

Ulyana lifted her cup to her own lips. Sweet and creamy and with a complex flavor from the aromatic spices. It was the richest cup of tea Ulyana had ever tasted. Like almost everyone on the ship she had a strict coffee habit to keep herself going during the long hours– but she could appreciate the delicate craft of preparing a nice cup of tea.

Minardo was a quiet genius with tea.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah took a delicate sip.

For a moment, her stony demeanor melted, her ears folding, smiling with pleasure.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? I try to limit myself to one good cup of tea a day– I don’t want to be greedy, you know?” Iessenia said. “Minardo always makes an exactingly beautiful cup.”

“It is pretty good.” Aaliyah said, as if downplaying her earlier reaction.

Behind them, there was a sudden racket from sliding metal.

Double locks on the door into the pod automatically undid themselves to allow access.

Another young woman, also rarely seen among the ship’s population, joined the tea party.

Dressed in the treasure box uniform with a pair of black pants, she was younger than Ulyana and Iessenia and maybe even younger than Aaliyah too. Characterized by short dark hair that was a little bit curly, and light brown skin and a serious face that made small movements in its expression. Her figure was slightly fuller than Iessenia’s but not by much. Her body had not yet incurred any agarthic damage common to her chosen vocation. She was in as good health and spirits, or better, than the typical crew member.

In her hands she had a tray of snacks from Minardo.

Biscuits with a mayonnaise spread flecked with finely chopped pickles; and simple doughnuts filled with an equally simple jelly and cream. There were not a lot of provisions on the ship for fancy cafe desserts, but something could always be baked, and with sweeteners, preserved fruit and powdered milk a lot could be done. The new arrival set the tray in the middle of the table and took seat beside Iessenia with a small smile.

“Thank you for fetching the snacks, Petty Officer.” Ulyana said.

“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the young woman in a quiet and serious voice.

She was once Iessenia’s intern and student. Now closest companion on the voyage.

Petty Officer and Assistant Core Engineer, Nina Srivastavi.

“I’m thankful to you for helping our Hero of Socialist Labor over here.” Ulyana teased.

Aaliyah’s ears twitched slightly as if she picked up something in her tone of voice.

“It’s truly nothing major.” Nina said.

“She has been utterly indispensable to me.” Iessenia added, laying a hand over Nina’s own.

Aaliyah’s eyes darted down to the hands. She sipped her tea as if in lieu of speaking.

Ulyana noticed Aaliyah’s growing concern and steered things back around to business.

“We had a concern we wanted to share with you, Iessenia.” Ulyana said.

“Not about my social life I hope?” Iessenia smiled.

Aaliyah averted her gaze, still sipping tea.

Ulyana laughed it off without a direct response. “It’s about the shield we installed.”

“Oh yes!” Iessenia said. She raised her hand and gestured behind her as if waving to the reactor. “Clever little piece of tech! I am glad we got it to work in the end. I was aware that the ship had channeled paneling installed during its construction– such things have been theoretically possible for a very long time, but a bit useless in a fleet context, so it was not seriously pursued except by the Ahwalia administration. Ahwalia’s people wanted to have a very small, very high tech and elite navy– Jayasankar promoted a doctrine closer to that of the Imbrian Empire. Lots of ships, lots of fleets, lots of shortcuts. In a contest between dozens of ships, a shield on one or two just doesn’t matter to the end result.”

“In our context, it could be incredibly useful.” Ulyana said. “If it could work.”

“Indeed! It sucked a lot of power at Kreuzung, even threatened to blow a few circuits!”

“Initially we believed it was because we were running it out of the water.” Aaliyah said, finally entering the conversation. “But looking back at the maintenance logs, it seems like even with proper cooling we might not be able to sustain the shield for long. What do you think?”

“As far as the reactor is concerned, we certainly have enough capacity for it.” Iessenia said.

“Our problem is the ancillary parts, I think. I recall there being issues there.” Nina said.

Iessennia raised her index finger to her lips. She took a moment to think about it.

“I think the issue is with the converters. Reactor behaviors have to be converted to usable energy. We need to look at the steam capture, heat transfer and electric transformers. That is the bottleneck– the reactor’s effective power is as high as the converters can actually introduce to the rest of the system. So the converters– and then perhaps higher-tolerance cabling from converters to boards. That should enhance energy transmission.”

“Thank you both.” Ulyana said. “It’s a start– I can float the idea by Euphrates and Tigris.”

“My pleasure.” Iessenia said. “Say, can you arrange a meeting between us?”

“You and Euphrates and Tigris?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes! We have only met on brief business during the refit– I’d love to sit down with them as a social occasion and pick their brains. There are not many people in the world who are aware of systems like agarthicite shields– these are high-end theoretical pseudophysics with very little practical use or development. I want to know what else they worked on. I want to talk about stuff that only comes out of dreaming big, like Project Red Star.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was a little bit more brusque.

Iessenia spoke more fondly about the scientific developments of the Ahwalia regime than anyone else on the ship. Project Red Star was like a bad joke to the Jayasankar regime– Iessenia had been right there in the middle of it, however. Given heaps of resources to “dream big” despite practicality and giving her all to advance science. None of the rank and file on the ship knew enough to begrudge her participation with Ahwalia’s biggest policy failure– but Ulyana thought it might have been the reason Nagavanshi consigned her to this dangerous journey, rather than keeping her working in the labs in Solstice.

“They’re busy, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” Ulyana said.

Her voice was gentler as if trying to smooth out what Aaliyah had roughened.

Iessenia did not look like she minded at all. She continued smiling.

“Thank you, Captain. If you have any other questions, I am at your full dispensation.”

She took another delicate drink of her tea. Her hands slowly began shaking.

“Ma’am, I think it’s time for your Neurotin.” Nina said.

“Oh, true. Can you be a dear and fetch it please?” Iessenia asked, putting down her cup.

Nodding, Nina stood from the table.

She crossed a door on the side of the room, entering a small shielded living space in which she and Iessenia slept and cleaned up and stored their things. She searched for the medicine.

Back at the table, however, the tea party simply continued.

“Silly hands.” Iessenia said, ever smiling. “But that’s just part of doing what you love.”

Perhaps in reactor engineering, the mood was always a tea party.

For those fighting aboard ships in this fallen era, perhaps life had to be like a party.


“Homa? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Hovering over Homa’s eyes was a hand, with only the middle and index fingers raised. On each finger, the nails had pink and blue colors beautifully patterned. To acknowledge the owner of that hand, Homa slowly raised her own hand with two fingers up, the “peace sign.” Only, she found that the arm which she had raised, and the fingers which were at its end, were completely black and had a sheen to them. She stared at the fingers, flexing them in front of confused eyes. She had not known what to expect– they were just limbs.

Each digit was visibly articulated, as if exposed bone. She could see the jointed metal bones turn as she flexed. Her fingers were slightly thicker than she was used to, but only slightly. They had tips that seemed soft, like plastic padding, but– Homa could not feel that they were soft. There were some sensations that terminated at her shoulder. Though she was moving something, there was a missing bit of feedback from her new limbs.

“I– I can’t feel it–” Homa mumbled. Talking mainly to herself, as if alone in the room.

“I’m sorry Homa, for military prosthetics, we do not carry nerve stimulators. We had to make some concessions between comfort and utility. It is certainly possible to reinstall the prosthetics with stimulators in the future, once the– current troubles– are in the past and we have the benefit of safety and better supplies. But these prosthetics are very durable and responsive. You will be able to live independently again in no time, I assure you.”

Through a mind fog, Homa vaguely recognized the voice of Dr. Kappel.

She followed the fingers that were adorned with pretty nails, up the arm, and to the face, with its blue makeup and multi-shade blue hair. Dr. Kappel smiled at her, and wrapped her fingers around Homa’s prosthetic hand. Homa could not feel the touch. Right in front of her eyes, she could see contact between skin and the prosthetic, but it lacked the warmth she expected to feel. This made the gesture just a little bit frustrating to receive.

Nevertheless, Dr. Kappel smiled brightly at the result.

“Good. Looks like the basics are in order. All the kinetics parts are working, the plastic sleeves are flush. Don’t make dramatic movements yet. Between the anesthesia and getting used to the neural interface, your arm may not exhibit the fine control you are used to– yet. I can assure you with time, your standard of living will be exactly as it was.”

“Except for the beef pot– I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that for now.”

“Ms. Loukia– please.”

Homa weakly turned her head and saw Kalika sitting on a chair beside the operating table.

She smiled a little.

Kalika smiled back, and playfully waved the fingers of her prosthetic hand.

Rather than the medbay, the operation had taken place in Dr. Kappel’s office, on a table that was set between the door out of the office and the door into the medicine vault. The table was pulled out of the floor and folded out, and would be folded and pushed into the floor when Homa left it. Anesthesia had been administered in the medbay, so Homa was only then getting her first look at the new surroundings. Her head was swimming.

“If it helps, I do not use nerve stimulators.” Kalika said. “I’ve become accustomed to swinging an unfeeling arm. It allows you to push it to its limits. Makes a handy shield too.”

“It will be a little more troublesome to have a leg that you cannot completely feel under you.” Dr. Kappel said. “But only a little. Most of the focus of our physical therapy will be to get you walking, Homa. With confidence and a good balance. We can begin soon. For now, rest as long as you need. You’re almost at the finish line, so no sense in rushing.”

Homa nodded her head. Despite the anesthesia wearing off, she was extremely tired.

There was a small part of her that was a bit sad and a bit bitter.

She had hoped that the surgery would dramatically change how she had been feeling the past few days. That she would wake up on the operating table like nothing bad had happened to her. Feeling whole again– not just functionally but in spirit. There was a part of her that felt that an arm was not simply a tool for grasping, but that she had been afflicted with a condition in which she lacked possession of an arm. She lacked a completeness of self. With that arm many things had been torn from her. Her future, the people she knew, her home. That arm had a spirit– it was touch, it was warmth, it was a sense of tenderness that flowed from her heart, through her veins, into the flesh. That arm was the things it had done just as much as it was the things that it did. That arm was an interlocking part of the puzzle of Homa Baumann’s life. With the prosthetic this was simply just not so.

Perhaps she would feel differently once she was off the table and active again.

But she could not help but to feel disappointed with the result.

Functionally, she could have the things which an arm did returned to her.

However, she still felt anxious at the idea that she would never be whole in her parts again.

Those anxieties festered into self-criticism of her own ungratefulness to the communists.

That ungratefulness, however, finally led her to think–

I never asked to be rescued. I could have been left for dead.

What do I have to be grateful for?

It was so presumptuous of them– my life should have just been over.

I have nothing– no home– no reason to live–

–not even all of my own body.

How am I supposed to live like this? How do any of you live with all of this?!

In the throes of a growing distress, she started to fall asleep once again.

Before she could find the energy to shout or be frustrated she dozed off completely.

Her head, fogged by bewilderment and confusion and pain, emptied completely.

Flexing in her sleep the fingers of the metal thing that had taken the place of her.


“Illya, I’m coming in.”

Shalikova stood in front of the door to Illya’s room for a moment, enough that she should have been acknowledged. When she heard nothing and realized the door was completely unlocked she delivered her intention and walked right through the door. Inside, Illya was surprisingly missing. There was only Valeriya, in a corner of the room, standing near a pull-out desk surface on the far wall. If Valeriya was there, Illya must have been fine.

“Oh, sorry for barging in, Valeriya. I just wanted to see whether you two were okay.”

Valeriya nodded her head silently.

There were a few curious details about the scene that drew Shalikova’s attention. Valeriya was dressed in an atypical fashion– she had a pair of underwear shorts and a flimsy little tanktop but her thin and fair figure was mostly covered up by what looked like a synthestitched plastic apron. On the apron there was a design of a teddy bear with a chef’s hat. It reminded Shalikova of one of her rejected designs for Comrade Fuzzy. Valeriya’s long, blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she had thick plastic gloves.

Hanging from her neck, and sitting atop her breasts, was her tactical mask.

She did not look in a hurry to wear it, even though Shalikova had walked in on her.

On the desk in front of her, a small metal frame had been set up. A recyclable canister of alcohol fuel had been set beneath the frame. To Shalikova’s surprise this canister produced a clean flame that was heating up a small metal cup-pot with something bubbling in it.

Shalikova dimly recalled these items.

Her Diver had a survival kit with food and a petroleum-derived ethylene fuel burner just like this. It was mainly a placebo– Shalikova could not imagine a scenario in which she would need to heat up food to survive inside her diver, where she was not already doomed.

“What are you up to? Is that a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked.

Valeriya nodded her head.

“You are cooking a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked again.

“I am a wife now.” Valeriya mumbled. “So I am cooking.”

Shalikova stared. “Not sure I understand. You’re a wife now?”

Valeriya nodded her head.

It began to dawn on Shalikova what that must have meant.

“Wait. You’re serious? Did Illya– did she really–?”

Valeriya nodded her head again.

Shalikova whistled with surprise and a bit of sudden cheer.

“Wow. I thought you would just shack up forever. Congratulations!”

Valeriya smiled.

A small smile, but for her, it was brighter than the sun.

Even a reserved girl like Shalikova could not help but feel a swell of joy for Valeriya.

For all the time that she had known her, Valeriya had been Illya’s shadow. As teenagers they were always together, and even when Zasha was around, it was clear who Valeriya had a crush on. They went to school together; they went into the Academy together; they went to war together. Even in the special forces, as far as Shalikova knew, they were inseparable. And now, on the Brigand’s historic mission, Valeriya continued to follow Illya without pause. Shalikova knew that Illya reciprocated Valeriya’s feelings romantically, but she also had a low estimation of Illya’s ability to commit– she figured Illya would have sex with Valeriya all her life without even saying the word ‘girlfriend’ to her much less ‘wife.’

In Shalikova’s mind, Valeriya deserved this marriage proposal.

“It’s vinaigrette with beans.” Valeriya said suddenly.

She pointed at the cup-pot, beginning to come to a boil over the alcohol-burning element. Normally in the Union ‘vinaigrette’ referred to a salad of chopped boiled root vegetables pressed together and dressed with vinegar and fat. Usually beets, carrots, potato, onion, and to add protein, red or white beans. Normally all the vegetables used would be pickled, or canned in salted water. Valeriya was cooking from a last resort block, so all the items were vacuum-pressed and dehydrated. She had brought water to a boil, to create essentially a mushy last resort vegetable stew. Judging by the flecks of fat in the water and the smell of vinegar, the vegetables were dressed before dehydration and compression.

Valeriya looked a little proud of herself as she stared at the bubbling little pot.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your meal.” Shalikova said. “Will there be a ceremony?”

“Not now.” Valeriya whispered. “We’re being punished.”

“Oh! Right– I had wanted to ask what happened at the disciplinary hearing.”

Valeriya pointed at the cup. As if to silently say that was the punishment.

“I see. Well– I don’t know whether to say ‘you got off light’ or to wish you luck enduring the torture.” Shalikova said, crossing her arms. “I guess it can’t be that bad when cooked.”

Using a steel spork, Valeriya mixed the stew up as it cooked.

Shalikova realized then that throughout all this talk, Valeriya had never raised her mask.

“You can pull your mask up if you want to. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I want to talk to you.” Valeriya said. Her voice was still quite whispery.

“I see– just don’t push yourself just to be nice to me.”

Valeriya quietly nodded her head again.

Quickly stirring the little stew, breaking up pieces. She looked dedicated to the work.

“Sonya– how do you feel about Illya? Do you still admire her?” Valeriya asked.

Without meeting eyes, she asked the question, still stirring the stew.

And what a question it was– it caught Shalikova by surprise.

What kind of answer did she have to that? What DID she feel about Illya?

Shalikova stuck her hands in her pants pockets.

“That’s– I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? So it’s kinda complicated now.” She took a moment to consider the question. For Valeriya, she tried to be honest. Sometimes Shalikova was quick to be difficult to Illya, but she tried to be kinder to Valeriya. “I don’t idolize her or anything– but like, I got on hormones because she did. I wanted to be a cool soldier like her and Zasha. Illya always encouraged me, even against Zasha’s wishes. So like– Illya is family to me. I care about whether she’s okay or not. I ask her for advice. But we’re both soldiers now and I am an officer too. I can’t ‘look up to her’ anymore like a kid does.”

“She would want you to respect her more than admire her.” Valeriya said suddenly.

Still not looking her way, just messing with her stew.

This was perhaps the most words Valeriya and Shalikova had exchanged in years.

“I guess that’s what I do. I am trying to take her seriously when she says I need to stick up for myself and make my own arguments. That’s something I’m trying to do with her too.”

“That’s good. Thank you for answering.”

“Alright?”

“I love Illya– more than anything in the world. And she cares about you.”

“So in the transitive property of doing the exact same stuff as Illya, you care about me too.”

“Yes.”

“C’mon– don’t just say ‘yes’ to that– I was teasing you–”

Shalikova felt instantly ashamed at her own mean-spirited humor.

Valeriya simply smiled and worked on the stew.

Behind them the door opened once more.

Illya walked in through the door, absentminded.

She had begun partially unzipping her security uniform bodysuit. She must have been working. She zipped it back up when she noticed Shalikova was in the room. Valeriya removed the cup-shaped pot from the spent alcohol burner and laid it down on a separate pull-out desk surface as if to set the table for dinner. She then waved at Illya.

“Sonya, what a pleasant surprise. Came to see whether I was still alive?” Illya asked.

She cracked a grin that Shalikova did not return.

“Uh huh. Looks like you’re good though, so I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Not staying for lunch?” Illya’s continuing sarcasm. Shalikova did not play along.

“Maryam is waiting for me.” Shalikova said. “But– Illya, you better treat her right.”

Illya stared at Shalikova. “Hey, where do you get off on telling me that?”

She was not mad– she looked more amused by the rebuke than anything.

No one knew better than Illya herself all that had happened with her and Valeriya.

“Sonya.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head gently.

“Nah, it’s okay. She cares about you.” Illya said. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

Shalikova sighed but she had essentially said what she had come in to say.

“Maybe I’ll have a bite, just out of curiosity.” She said.

From the floor, Valeriya pulled up a pair of metal seats around the pull-out desk. There was nowhere for Shalikova to sit, but she did not intend to stay long. Illya sat across from Valeriya, each with their own metal spork, and the reheated and boiled vinaigrette mush between them. Valeriya took a sporkful of the stuff, which was tinged red from the beets, and blew on it– then she gestured for Shalikova to taste it from that spork.

In order to satisfy her curiosity, Shalikova leaned in.

“It’s just like when you were a little beet yourself.” Illya said.

Shalikova felt immediately more embarrassed about it, but still ate from Valeriya’s spork.

She did not know what she expected from it. It was a bit– challenging.

There was some flavor. A bit of tang from the vinegar, some savory notes from MSG.

Owing to all the root vegetables, it was very starchy, and a little bit sweet.

However, the foremost characteristic of the meal was its lack of texture. It was impossible to discern an individual bit of carrot or beet despite the sizeable bite that Valeriya had gathered. All of its elements had become homogeneous mush. Even baby food was more of an eating experience. It was not so bad as to make her spit it out, but anyone with even the slightest sensitivity to the mouthfeel of their food might have felt disgusted by it.

With an untroubled expression on her face, Illya began to eat.

Valeriya retracted her spork and waited with a smile as if for Shalikova’s response.

What did she want her to say? She cooked a last resort ration, so her cooking was gross.

Still– it was impossible to be mean to Valeriya. Even about this culinary misfortune.

“Um. It was lovely. Thank you. You’ll– you’ll make a fine wife, ‘Riya.” Shalikova said.

Valeriya nodded quietly, looking pleased with herself. Just like Illya, she began to eat.

Neither of them looked troubled by the meal. They ate almost mindlessly.

For a moment Shalikova just stared at them. What a husband and wife they would make.

In the back of her mind she wondered whether Maryam knew how to cook anything.


“Aww, I hate to see those bright little cheeks of yours frowning. What’s on your mind?”

“Ugh. I’m feeling worried. There’s nothing I can do– Marina really stepped in it this time.”

“Oh dear. I would characterize what she did as much more than just step in it.”

“Agh, sorry– I don’t mean to reduce what she did, she really sucks– I’m just– blegh.”

“My, oh my. A lot of undignified noises coming out of the princess today~”

“I’m not a princess! Proletarians have the freedom to make noises.”

“Anyway, is it even your problem whatever happens to Marina? You’re your own person.”

“I mean– I don’t want her to be hurt. She was my mom’s– uhh– bestie.”

“You don’t say?”

On the Brigand’s cafeteria, a young woman laid over a table, making faces.

She was seated close to the front serving counter, with her head and arms on top of the table. Sometimes her arms would hang, while at others she would hide her head in them. She was easily identifiable to the crew by now: long purple hair, unblemished and heavenly-soft looking skin, a girlish and simple prettiness to her face. Were it not for the partial elfin ears which she had — and the perhaps exotic color of her hair, which was natural — it would have been easy to call her the perfect picture of the Imbrian woman.

Teasing that young elf woman was the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Seated on the opposite side of the same table, taking a break. She pulled off her cap and set it down on the table, loosening up her sweat-slick, wavy black hair. Minardo was a formidable lady, with a big chest and wide hips and thick legs, lean muscled arms and shoulders. Atop that shapely figure was a soft face with a bright smile, eyes like jewels, red lips and gentle eyeshadow. Elena had begun to think, maybe she appraised older women differently from younger women. Maybe, just maybe, she had something of a thing for them– but even besides that, Minardo could only have been seen as staggeringly beautiful.

She must have been seen as such by anyone else too.

Thinking about that, Elena averted her gaze.

“Should I not be at this table? I can let you sulk if that’s what you want.” Minardo said.

Gentle, with just a bit of her ordinary teasing tone of voice.

“No, it’s fine. I should stop. There’s nothing I can do.” Elena mumbled. “Even if I could do anything I think Marina deserves to be punished. She’s been so– awful.”

They were talking around it, but Marina’s participation in the Core Separation Crisis was a deed of such disgusting callousness toward innocent lives that it was hard to quantify it. The Captain and Commissar had spoken briefly with Elena about it and seemed more concerned with the breaches of trust, or at least that was what they told her– but maybe that was just processing the horror that lay in the moral dimension of the transgression. Marina nearly abetted the deaths of potentially thousands. Millions? Elena hardly knew the scale.

In her own mind, it was such a crime she could only sulk about it.

She could not possibly process the actual scale of what had happened.

It was simply too big, and she, too small in its shadow.

“Cheer up, she’s just locked up. She’ll be out again.” Minardo said. “You know– I put in a word with the Captain, alongside Dr. Kappel, that I hope Marina will not be mistreated beyond what is necessary to instill discipline. She is a– troubled person– and I sympathize.”

Elena looked up at Minardo’s hesitating tone voice. She narrowed her eyes a bit.

“You’re friends with Marina too? I’ve never seen you together.” She said.

It sounded more accusatory than she wanted it to– but she did not take back the words.

Minardo looked more amused by this response than anything before.

She smiled and laughed and laid her head on her hands while staring down at Elena.

“You’re not her shadow! She can move when you aren’t around.” She said.

Knowing the kind of woman Marina was Elena could imagine she made passes at Minardo.

Something about that annoyed her but she did not interrogate this feeling any further.

Elena remained collapsed against the table and hardly moved except to turn her head away.

“Well– whatever then. I’ll stop worrying.” Elena said.

“Why are you so pouty all of a sudden?” Minardo asked, poking Elena’s cheek.

“Oh, looks like someone is a bit jealous?”

From seemingly out of nowhere, a second attractive older woman swooped in.

Elena let out a groan as Khadija Al-Shajara sat on her side of the table.

“Can you two go easy on me?” Elena moaned. She was practically surrounded.

“I just showed up, and already my character is under question?!” Khadija said.

Her wine-colored lips turned in a little grin; winking a heavily wine-purple shadowed eye.

“She knows what you are.” Minardo said. “Don’t worry Elena, I’ll protect you.”

“Uggghhhh.” Elena put her arms around her head.

Khadija made a cutesy shrug.

Those two played together far, far too well, Elena thought.

“I’m just here to have some lunch. I don’t know what anyone is talking about.”

“Ah, but where’s your new lady friend, Khadija?” Minardo teased.

Khadija averted her gaze with a suddenly sour expression.

“We’re not friends. She’s helping move crates around for the inventory and shuttling.”

Minardo laughed. “She is such a big lady. Glad to see she’s helping out around here.”

“Checking her out?” Khadija accused.

“What? No. But there’s no way to look at her without thinking she is big.”

“Well. You ought to help too. Those guns of yours could use some action again.”

Khadija reached over Elena to poke Minardo’s bicep.

“I do plenty.” Minardo replied. Like Khadija was finally getting under her skin.

“You both are doing plenty right now.” Elena mumbled childishly.

“Elena, did you know? Minardo was an absolute combat monster once upon a time.”

Khadija looked pleased with herself at how annoyed Minardo was getting with her.

“What was it they called you?” She acted dumb for a moment, letting the question hang.

“That was a long time ago.” Minardo grumbled, as if to signal Khadija to drop it.

“You’re not proud of it? Elena, our esteemed cook once earned the title of ‘The Human Stronghold’. Can I tell the story?” Khadija stared at Minardo with her tail swishing merrily behind her. Elena slowly sat up and looked at the two of them with a dull expression. Minardo sighed and shrugged and waved as if to say ‘fuck it, just go’. Khadija took exactly that meaning from it. “Elena, Minardo was part of a landing party in the revolution– all by herself, she held a narrow passage into the Sevastopol port structure, keeping a way open for close to an hour. She killed 26 imperials, turning back their assaults and protecting our beachhead in the port. Then she joined the arriving assault sappers and charged deeper into Sevastopol, and killed 26 more imperials in close quarters.” Khadija punctuated the numbers in her speech each time. “Those station battles were absolutely brutal. It was necessary for us to get foot-holds inside stations to evict the current, disagreeable occupants. And the defender always has the advantage inside of a station’s confines.”

Elena blinked, staring at Minardo for a moment before catching herself.

In turn, Minardo grunted and sighed and looked a bit helpless for just a moment.

“Those Imperials were pansies. It wasn’t much more to say you killed 26 or 52 than to kill two or four, when it came to close quarters battle.” She finally said, grudgingly acknowledging Khadija and her story. “By the time of the revolution I had already been doing like ten years of hard labor. The slave colonies were like a vacation for imperial nepo babies. I was slaughtering stupid kids, not even the guys who clapped the chains.”

“Well, they all deserved to die, and I’m glad they’re burning in hell.”

“Khadija.”

“But yes, it’s that brutal energy now kneading bread and stirring soup.” Khadija said.

“From an old friend to another, please drop it already, kitty-cat.” Minardo said.

“Of course, I’ll win the round graciously.” Khadija replied, winking and pawing.

Elena looked between the two of them with an appraising expression.

She was impressed by Minardo’s strength–

but seeing that it bothered her, she buried her reaction.

She did not want to hurt her feelings.

“Are you actually friends or do you hate each other? I can’t tell.” Elena mumbled.

Minardo and Khadija both looked at her pouting and snickered to themselves.

“Khadija is like this with almost anyone who gives her an opportunity. It’s fine.”

“Minardo needs my labor in the kitchen far too much to ever be rid of me.”

Elena stared at them with the same narrow-eyed look she once gave Minardo.

Minardo reached out and pinched Elena’s cheek suddenly.

“Are you jealous?” Minardo said. “Elena, we’re not romantic at all. You’re so silly!”

“I’m not jealous. I do not care!” Elena whined, pulling Minardo’s hand off.

“Minardo is not my type. You, on the other hand, have a chance, little Elena.”

Khadija winked again, leaning closer, chest on the table.

Elena averted her gaze again.

“Why do I keep trying to come here to relax, when you two don’t let me live in peace.”

“It’s because the practiced teasing of a mature woman wipes away all troubles.”

Elena suddenly broke out into a laugh. She could not stifle it that time.

Khadija was completely right– Elena felt much less troubled than when she first sat down.

Though she would not admit as such with the two of them waiting for a reaction.

She appreciated what they were both trying to do and felt– cared for.

There were other troubles she had in mind that she just could not tell Khadija and Minardo about. Things they would not understand. But coming here and getting fussed over did instill the feeling that these two women cared about her well-being in their own way. They wanted to see her smile and laugh, they wanted her to feel special and receive some attention. Attention that she took for granted when it was easy to come by– Bethany would not have approved of her being so needy and bratty, but it was nice to have that freedom.

“So– what’s for lunch today?” Elena asked. She raised herself back to a proper sit.

“Oh, good idea! You’ll love this, I’m certain. We’ve got gazpacho, eggplant fries, and a little sandwich with pulled soy, brown sauce and tomato pickle.” Minardo said proudly.

“Sounds delicious.” Elena said. She smiled at her companions as brightly as she once did.

For just a little bit she would allow herself to luxuriate in Minardo and Khadija’s attention.

Maybe having someone to fuss over was something those two appreciated as well.


“Braya.”

“Hmm? What’s up?”

“Do you think I should be nervous about my check-up with Ms. Maharapratham?”

“No.”

“What do you know about her? Can you tell me more?”

Braya Zachikova briefly put down her computer and looked over her shoulder.

Their shared accommodation was completely dark except for the light from the portable computer, and a bit of bioluminescence produced by strands interspersed in her partner’s blue hair. Behind her, Arabella smiled, her hands hovering just around Zachikova’s waist, squeezing and loosening in turns. They were sitting together on one bed, as they often did since meeting, Arabella’s back to the wall and Zachikova’s back to her.

Zachikova leaned back against Arabella, her head resting on Arabella’s breasts.

Arabella raised one of her hands and toyed with the end of Zachikova’s spiral ponytail.

“Back when you were a Leviathan, in order to keep you safe, I had to partner up with Karuniya Maharapratham and make you a subject of study.” Zachikova said. It was almost surreal to think back to that time, just weeks ago, when she knew nothing. “During the work we did tracking you and studying video of you– I thought that Maharapratham seemed very compassionate towards you. She cares about animals. I’ve seen how other sickos in the Union think about Leviathans, like it’s free target practice until they fuck up and get eaten. She really cared, and she wanted to prevent unneeded harm. You’ll be fine.”

“I see, so you entrust me to her. I feel relieved then.” Arabella said, smiling.

“You make it sound way too dramatic. She’s just going to take your blood or whatever.”

“Braya, do you think any differently about me now? After all that’s happened?”

“Yeah. You’ve ruined me for life and I can’t get away from you.”

“Hmm? I’m sorry– I’m just nervous is all.”

“I’m joking.” Zachikova sighed.

She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say.

Even as she spoke, it felt like it did not convey the fullness of what she felt about Arabella. She still tried with every new word and did not relent even as she let her passions slip. “I don’t think any differently about you. If anything I feel closer to you than ever. I’m also someone whose head got fucked with– not as maliciously as with you, but I’m still not normal. Like– I’m just a nobody. Before the surgeries, and going into the Academy and then the spec ops, I was just some orphan of slave parents who died. I was nothing. When I think back, I’m still kinda nothing– I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fuck around with other girls in my school or win a video game championship or whatever. I can remember all the nothing I did but when you think about it, I effectively have no fucking memories anyway.”

“I see. In that sense– I guess our situations are more similar than I realized.”

“Memories don’t make you Arabella to me. You’re Arabella right now.”

Zachikova reached down and intertwined her fingers with Arabella’s own.

Arabella started to wiggle happily behind her back.

“Braya! Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” She said.

“It’s fine. I know you’re scared and that a lot of horrific shit has happened to you. But I’ll help you– and there’s good people on this ship too. I think it’s insane how much you’re taking on your shoulders. It’s not your responsibility, to make up for your sister, or the fucks who created you, or anyone else– but I’m still here for you anyway. Whatever you want to do, I support it. God knows it’s not like I have my own ambitions anyway.”

“We’ll find you an ambition while we search for my memories too.”

Arabella leaned down on Zachikova’s shoulder, rubbing her cheeks against it.

She was so warm.

A few weeks ago Zachikova might have pushed back.

Now, she was still a little annoyed– but she wanted to feel Arabella through her skin.

Until she felt a bit of a sting–

“Hey.”

Arabella nibbled on her childishly.

“If you need blood, just say it. Don’t just bite me out of nowhere.”

“Oh, I’m fine for blood. I ate a lot of human meat back there–”

“Don’t remind me–”

“–I’m biting you out of love Braya.” Arabella’s voice turned suddenly coquettish.

“That can wait until after hours. I’m working right now.”

Zachikova picked her computer up and stared down at the screen while Arabella’s head remained firmly on her shoulder. She felt another little nip from her lover, a deep nuzzle, and even the warm slickness of her tongue sliding over Zachikova’s neck, her fingers prodding her belly. She did not allow it to distract her. She was setting up a digital co-working space for the Nationale Volksarmee and Brigand to communicate together– essentially a glorified self-hosted BBS. It was a simple program. Much of the code was “in-strata” from similar programs and the predictor computer generated a decent user interface for it after a few proddings for it to do so. But she had to put it all together in a day or two, while her leg still hurt, and then also make sure it was not horrifically insecure or buggy.

On the Brigand, anyone who wanted to talk to someone could go and find them and talk to them in person. And in a fleet context, the only thing that mattered was following orders and the battle plan. Inventory comparisons only mattered to the logistics officers in the fleet command. One ship was not shuttling junk to another ship unannounced. Two ships did not randomly send engineers to each other to share ferristitcher blueprints or coordinate dangerous underway repairs. Fleet coordination was just totally different.

But the Volksarmee and Brigand were not two Union ships in a Union fleet with a grand battleplan drafted by a dozen Rear Admirals and a Fleet HQ with responsibility for all logistics. There was no huge staff to plan things. They had to exchange a lot of information between two ships on almost impromptu basis. Their work was like an ongoing conversation between new friends, and it needed a place to happen. Engineers did not have standard protocols for cooperating with each other, and there could be miscommunications. When the Captain approached Zachikova for a solution, she felt that a BBS was a more permanent and simple avenue than staging hundreds of video calls between the ships.

Such a piece of software was not in demand in the fleets, and was only used by civilians.

Sailors could use it to goof off; it could also engender bad information management habits.

Nevertheless for the specific use case of the Volksarmee and Brigand, it made sense to her.

It would likely be okay since the first version was deliberately extremely boring.

Nobody would be sharing nude pictures or lewd audio logs ZaChat.

It could not do so.

Or so she hoped. Computer programming in Zachikova’s era was a bit…odd.

Still, ZaChat was a predictable and simple thing.

Eventually she would upgrade it– but by then there would be better access controls too.

Her work was nearly complete.

She had released the beta version of ZaChat to a control group of officers and engineers. She monitored usage closely. Making sure every message was encrypted in transit between the ships, that chat logs were being retained on both the Brigand and the Rostock, and that data and access credentials were not coming or going anywhere they should not. So far everything seemed to go smoothly, for a thing Zachikova simply threw together.

“What are you working on?” Arabella asked, staring over Zachikova’s shoulder.

“It’s a program for people to message each other across ships.” Zachikova said.

“Can’t they reach each other and talk on the computer screens?” Arabella said.

“We want to keep Semyonova from going insane with hundreds of inter-ship calls.”

“Oh, true. You’re so considerate Braya. What are they saying on the program now?”

Zachikova looked at the board.

So far, the top posters were Erika Kairos and Murati Nakara, by orders of magnitude.

Largely talking to each other. Zachikova sighed audibly.

Utterly hopeless dorks talking about history and music in their own little thread.

In a few other threads on ZaChat, Katarran engineers from the Rostock were thankfully having productive discussion with Brigand crew like Chief Galina Lebedova and her nibling Valya Lebedova. They were hashing out work and equipment transfer schedules that worked for both crews as well as discussing events candidly in open chat threads. The atmosphere seemed jovial and there was actual verifiable progress being made.

Judging by that alone, Zachikova felt she could declare ZaChat a success.

Soon she could talk to the Captain about opening it up to more users.

Hopefully the sailors would not be too rambunctious–

It dawned upon Zachikova at that point she may have to moderate ZaChat–

She shut her computer off after a wave of stress.

“Arabella.” Zachikova said, sighing. “I’m taking a break. Bite as much as you want.”

Behind her there was a contented little noise.

Arabella drew her closer, pressing their bodies tight.

Once Zachikova felt the teeth start to dig,

and Arabella’s hands snaking down her belly, under her pants, between her legs,

she felt far more relaxed– until the first tight, warm contraction shook her skin.


“Ahh! That’s the end of the day for me– well. Until the fucking night shift anyway.”

“Indeed, gamer– do not so easily forfeit the call that beckon us to the dance of shadows.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.”

It was late in the afternoon and the weapons officers on the Brigand’s bridge were taking their leave for the “day.” They would be back in six hours to attend the “night shift” that was their main assignment during noncombat duty. Until then they had unstructured time to do with as they pleased. Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were meant to use some of this time to catch up on sleep so they could be ready when needed.

However, Alexandra, at least had other plans for today.

She kept them to herself– for now.

“So I got to the part where Ythyria starts looking at the prince– I thought this story was supposed to be lesbian? Like what’s going on there.” Alex asked Fernanda.

“Gamer, oh Gamer– how easily you lose faith upon any confrontation with intricacy! As with any endeavor, tribulation and torment enrich the quintessence of experience!”

Fernanda laughed openly while Alex stared at her as they walked down the halls.

Alexandra Geninov, self-described “sexy biracial chick,” with her light brown skin and messy brown hair tied back in a messy bun; Fernanda Santapena De La Rosa, with her fairer skin and straight blond hair with purple streaks. Blue and brown mismatched eyes alongside bright pink-red irises, the work of lenses; tall and short;  pants uniform and skirt uniform. Their animated chatter filled the halls, Alex’s deeper voice and Fernanda’s nasally tone.

Despite their contrasts, they seemed to always arrive anywhere as a set of two.

Arriving at their shared room, they dropped onto their individual beds and sighed audibly.

“Hey, Fernanda. Before nodding off, can I show you something?” Alex said.

“Is it about video games?” Fernanda said, briefly dropping her pretentious diction.

“Yes. But– before you stop me. It’s a kind of video game you would like.”

“I’ve told you already, that I have played games before– it’s not like I hate them.”

Two sentences without any thee’s or thou’s? A rare undressed Fernanda indeed.

“Okay, then you won’t object will you? For me? Just this once.” Alex said.

“I’m well aware it won’t be ‘just this once’– but sure. I have nothing to do.”

Fernanda sat up in bed. Smiling and laughing, Alex crouched next to her own bed.

From the set of drawers under the frame, Alex pulled out something wrapped in plastic.

She ripped apart the taped-up plastic wrap and unveiled a little beige plastic box.

“What? How did you get a Dendy?” Fernanda asked, staring incredulously at it.

Alex grinned, rubbing a finger over the slightly rough textured plastic on the case.

For now she would not comment on Fernanda being able to spot a Dendy instantly.

“A Dendy II, actually. One of our new allies uncovered this for me.” Alex said.

One of the Volksarmee officers, Chloe Kouri, loved video games and she apparently had something of a knack for infiltrating even crowded Imbrian places and going mostly unnoticed. After discovering this one morning in the Brigand’s cafeteria, Alex got the scheme in mind to see if Chloe could return to the street market and search for a video game console. Through sheer luck the console in question happened to be a Dendy II–

even Chloe did not realize it as she picked it up and brought it back.

Alex did not tell this story out loud– not wanting to try Fernanda’s patience.

It was enough to say that her scheming had paid off, in the familiar beige box in her hands.

Fernanda blinked. “So there was a Dendy in Kreuzung? And you bought it?”

“I also got a few classic Union storytelling games that run on it.” Alex said.

“I am a bit speechless. What the hell was a Dendy doing in Kreuzung?”

“I’m sure there are Imbrian enthusiasts curious about Union gaming.”

“But how would they get access to it? The Union does not have trade with Imbria.”

“Smuggling or something? Who cares– let’s play!”

Alex pulled out a serial cable that was rolled up in a little shelf in the back of the Dendy and found a serial port on the wall to plug it into. She flicked the switch, and in moments, the wall monitor created a window near the pull-out desk in the back of the room. Alex stuck one of the game cards into a slot on the side of the box and pressed a button to lock it. From the front of the Dendy, Alex pulled out two little controllers, with a cross-shaped directional pad and three buttons. She handed one to Fernanda and kept the first one herself.

At first the screen appeared completely black, and then appeared a block-font DENDY logo.

Then, a message from the Union Commissariat of Entertainment stressing that eyes strain, repetitive strain on the hands, headaches, and addiction might result from playing video games too much. The player had to tab through many screens of guidance and informational health material required by the Commissariat of Entertainment specifically for video games. Once this was done, another Commissariat of Entertainment screen urged the player to set an amount of session time, after which the Dendy would automatically save the game progress to battery memory and shut down. Alex set the session time for four hours, which was as long as the Commissariat would allow a single session to stretch.

“We are not playing this for four hours.” Fernanda warned.

“I knooooow.” Alex said. “Relax.”

Fernanda stared at her, sighed and picked up her controller.

They sat on the pull-out chairs near the pull-out desk and watched the screen.

Watching the little crab dig down and down as the game was prepared.

It was the kind of screen that, to a citizen of the sea, screamed– video games!

Perhaps incongruous– perhaps deeply mysterious.

Displayed on the screen, was a true miracle of underwater entertainment, recently arisen.

Each pixel in itself represented the combined efforts of hundreds of years of computing.

Of course, Alex knew all about how video gaming came about.

In order to truly understand “Dendy”, as Alex did–

one had to first understand the “Strata Crab” seen digging so industriously on screen.

Overwhelmingly, small devices in the Imbrium civilizations were thin clients, deferring some or even all of their computing to a vastly powerful supercomputer in their range, either part of a station mainframe or a ship supercomputer. These larger computers were referred to as “Predictive Computers.” True to their name, their primary design function was to assist in underwater navigation, identification and communication through analyzing data and “predicting” environments, trajectories and other partially known conditions with a degree of accuracy. Predictive computers were designed to take many sources of information, acoustic, visual, thermal, electric, and allow ships and stations to see and speak underwater– two things that were far more troubled by the deep than on the surface.

Predictive Computers performed these functions as part of their advanced and highly stable Base Code. This Base Code ran flawlessly in less than seconds and performed incredible computational feats in its specialized functions. Beyond prediction, the Base Code was imbued with a few other useful features. It could store information in databases, accept human language requests for data or analysis, decode acoustic text messages, and compare any number of like things with each other– byproducts of its function to guide humans on their underwater odyssey. However, there was one problem that the Imbrium civilization and, presumably, every other underwater post-surface society stumbled into. They did not understand how the Base Code worked. It was something of a black box.

Presumably, the Base Code had been worked out as a highly advanced form of machine learning, at some point. Predictors were often updated with new data for ordnance and vessels so they could properly identify them. But what the computer did behind the scenes with the data was a mystery– this design remained largely inscrutable to Imbrians.

It was impossible for a human to read the Base Code because there was far too much of it and none of it was legible in Low Imbrian or even High Imbrian– it was inherited from the surface world and went into widespread reproduction after the Age of Strife with the founding of the Nocht Dynasty. Even the scientists and engineers that had survived the Age of Strife had no idea how to actually read Base Code– seemingly, everyone just accepted the Base Code as an immutable part of computing that was inherited from the past.

Much like Agarthicite reactors, the form of the thing could be replicated, but it was not fully understood. Rather it was painstakingly observed to deduce workable interactions.

Base Code was simply copied onto new computers from old ones, making new predictive computers that all had the same functions. Base Code limitations and uses became readily apparent upon observation. It was possible, at times, to get a predictive computer to spit out a breakdown of a base code function through direct querying, but the predictive computer’s own understanding of base code functions was found to be utterly false.

Direct querying became a technical process of its own. Predictive Computers could be asked in various ways to attempt to do things outside of their known stated functions. Results would vary widely. Predictive Computers processed human language querying in bizarre ways, only answering consistently to known functions of the Base Code. A bad query would simply return false information or pretend to be doing something while doing absolutely nothing. This led to the widespread belief in the unreliability and inaccuracy of predictive computing. However, one miraculous function that was discovered was the ability to run subordinate instructions. This allowed the “Base Code” to be expanded through grueling trial and error with the foundations of civilian computing, “Strata Code.” Strata Code was, as its name suggested, piled atop Base Code in a variety of troubled ways.

When Braya Zachikova coded, or Alex Geninov played video games, or Homa Baumann read books on a portable computer, they were interacting primarily with features of Strata Code– these were the Programs most legible and understood to them, built on top of “Strata Functions” that were discovered to work through the expansion function of Base Code. Code that was not itself Base Code but was understood by the Predictor Computer. Knowledge of working Strata had been uncovered throughout the run of the A.D. years.

Therefore one arrived at the venerable “Strata Crab.”

There was a popular illustration of how computers worked in the Imbrium, known as the “Strata Crab.” The Crab was a program that wanted to do something, and its intended functionality was a tasty worm hiding somewhere beneath the sand. However many layers of sand, and the trajectory of the crab, illustrated the layered execution of Strata Code. There were several layers of cruft the Crab had to dig through to find its meal. A Program hit all of the working strata code in the right succession– dug through the layers correctly– to ultimately execute correctly. Of course, this was a simplification that also obscured the fact that a program, or crab, could also itself dump more sand on top– new Strata Code.

Or that most modern Strata Code was executed by flavors of “Silt Code” written in different, simpler programming languages developed over time that varied quite widely.

And so, on screens everywhere, the crab could be seen to dig, loading complex programs.

For those still following along with the history, the worm was in sight– video games.

One of the things Base Code could do was generate graphics. One of the things it did poorly was generate new graphics on command, rather than synthesizing environment graphics from natural sources. Strata Code was eventually invented to provide a graphical display layer for more things than just dataset text or predictive imaging graphics from sonar or LADAR data. However, this code ran devastatingly poorly at first. In addition it was difficult to eke out more performance from supercomputer hardware without impacting its ability to perform Base Code. Owing to a variety of economic, political and social reasons, the Imbrium did not put any of its engineering prowess behind the development of accessible computing or code execution for a very long time. But ultimately, enterprising generations of Imbrium engineers embarked on the creation of ancillary hardware, such as the various thin clients, which were in some ways more sophisticated units than the supercomputers– because they assisted in the running of feature-rich Strata Code.

Thus, the stage of history led inexorably to the video game console.

An ancillary piece of hardware specialized in innovative video game code and associated strata functions, to a degree previously thought impossible. Creating new, rich content experiences for civilians. Not simulations of military hardware, nor the realistic machine graphics used by films, but a brand new form of entertainment all its own. Beautiful, state of the art sprite characters easily generated by small devices, which could be moved on command by the players using various inputs. This allowed the setting of challenges for the player to overcome, the creation of stories for the player to experience and highly stylized characters some might have even considered more beautiful than life.

And it all began, with the hopelessly inscrutable Base Code, and the humble Strata Crab.

As for the Dendy itself– it was a somewhat sloppily reverse-engineered form of an Imbrian video game device that Alex Geninov played as a teenager in the Union during the Ahwalia years, where civilian entertainment products had a boom. That it ended up back in the Imbrium ocean where Imbrian video game enthusiasts became fascinated with this strange foreign device and its games, perhaps said something profound about society.

Or perhaps about Katarran smuggling predilections.

“I already have a headache.” Fernanda groaned.

“Huh? We haven’t even gotten to the title screen.” Alex said.

“I feel like just turning this thing on is radiating tedium.” Fernanda replied.

“I don’t get you. Just hush, you’ll love it when it actually starts.” Alex said.

On the screen, several progress bars appeared, and a graphic of a little crab digging.

Building pixel stores– compiling silt codes– pre-organizing post-routines–

Finally the title screen appeared: “The Solstice War.”

There was a young woman in a military uniform, looking through the glass of a digital porthole at a sphere of annihilation going off in the distance from a destroyed imperial ship. Everything was rendered in gorgeous 12-bit color 2D graphics. Sophisticated and stylized designs lent a certain beauty and attractiveness to the characters and made excellent aesthetic use of the color restrictions. Such was its style that gamers throughout the Union had fallen in love with the brooding, handsome, and charmingly autistic protagonist of the game, whose default name “Madiha” was used to represent her in various fanfictions and fanarts, erotic fancomics and even in small tribute fangames continuing her story.

Alex renamed the character upon starting a new game, to, of course, “Alex.”

“Why am I even here, gamer?” Fernanda grumbled.

“You haven’t played this one? I thought I’d get you to admit you had.”

“I have only read the erotic comics and fanfictions of it.”

“There’s a second player. You can name her after yourself.”

Alex pressed one of the buttons to move to the next screen.

Fernanda turned a bit red. She must have known what this entailed.

That second player had the default name “Parinita”– “Madiha’s” love interest.

Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed, renaming her to “Færn.”

Alex stared at the odd spelling. “Wait– is that like your–”

“Just get on with the game.” Fernanda warned.

At first blush, “The Solstice War” seemed like any standard “dungeon” game.

There was a protagonist and a supporting party member, they had parameters that determined the success and failure of certain challenges, they had items to collect. Maps of locations were presented to the player with “nodes” to which they could travel– these would then expand into “screens” of the dungeon that players could interact with in greater detail. There were battles, talking to NPCs, and puzzles to solve, either with logic, collected tools, or keys or other knickknacks uncovered along the way. Both Player 1 and Player 2 were asked to make decisions and could even separate, splitting the screen in half.

But “the Solstice War” was not known as a “dungeon” game, but a “storytelling” game.

Many challenges could be skipped with a careful eye to the character’s personalities and predilections. Charisma was the most powerful parameter, and a keen understanding of the magic spells, called “tactics” due to the game’s militaristic flavor, could enable the player to sidestep many difficulties. There were hundreds of thousands of lines of text to enrich the story and characters. Developing the love story between Player 1 and Player 2 was one of the game’s joys. Players 1 and 2 were sometimes asked to talk about each other.

Combat was there for those who desired it, but it was not strictly necessary.

This was all quite unlike “dungeon” games, known for their violence and treasure.

A collaborative storytelling experience about a romantic story.

Even across just the first hour of the game, Fernanda seemed to arrive at a burgeoning understanding of what made it special and unique among video games. Alex, who had played the game before, led Fernanda down a path that was richer in stories. She was gripped from the first scene, where “Alex” executed the corrupt military commander who had been verbally abusing “Færn” and blaming her for the many inefficiencies of the outpost. Just as “Færn” was stricken at first sight by the melancholy beauty of “Alex”, Fernanda herself realized they were written as tragic lovers and her face began to light up.

In the next scenes, the two navigated an attack by an Imperial force that outgunned and outnumbered the characters’ and the outpost’s forces. But through their bond, and timely decision-making, as well as “Alex” uncovering her hidden powers, they turned back the tide and bought the Union precious time. There would be more tribulations to come.

So began a story of war, conspiracy, betrayal, and sapphic love.

“Gamer. I hardly knew you had it in you, to appreciate culture like this.”

Alex grinned. “So what do you think of video games, huh? They’re an artform aren’t they?”

Fernanda grumbled. “Hmph! I never said I hated all video games! Don’t act so smug.”

It was not all rosy– some systems and solutions were a bit inscrutable.

Dialog was sometimes very convoluted. Fernanda loved this, Alex not so much.

And the audio was not great– especially on an old, well-traveled Dendy like this.

Room computers and wall-windows were not the best interfaces either.

Without a dedicated “gaming monitor” the fullest beauty of the graphics was lost.

However, by the second hour, the two were practically leaning against each other.

Unaware of their proximity due to how engrossed they had become in their roles.

Talking like one was Madiha and the other Parinita, working through the various challenges– and Alex pretending not to know the solutions, gleefully roleplaying along and letting Fernanda take the lead on what objects to interact with, who to talk to, what conversation strategies to use, what fights to pick and how to succeed. Though they would eventually have to go to sleep to get ready for their shift, Alex felt quite elated.

By the time they shut off the Dendy, Fernanda had Alex promise they would play again.


“Ah! I haven’t had such a good workout in forever! It’s nice to be back to the routine!”

“Hm. I guess it’s nice when the gym is kind of empty too. Though– it could be emptier.”

“Hey. You wound me. I spotted for you and everything.”

“Yeah you were a great help, and you had an amazing vantage point on my tits I bet.”

“Again, your sarcasm wounds me. Ascribing such impure motives.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I don’t actually care anyway. Take a gander as long as you like.”

Aside from the two figures in conversation, the Brigand’s gym was completely empty.

Just past the social area of the Brigand, also nearly empty at peak working hours, was the gym, a vital part of the operation. Everyone got a chance to use it if they liked, and everyone was encouraged to. Physical activity was important to keep a healthy body and mind on the ship and to pass the time healthily. To that end there was something for everyone. Running machines, staircase machines, and stationary bikes were popular. There were of course weights of all sizes, and racks for climbing and pull-ups; punching bags, a small sparring arena with a padded floor; and even a ten meter long range with adjustable targets for archery or air-guns. A dispenser for electrolyte-rich bottled drinks in two different flavors, stationed near the door, reminded everyone to keep hydrated as they worked.

Standing near the exercise machines, pilots Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun and Dominika Rybolovskaya stretched their arms and legs on top of padded plastic mats. They had just gotten done with their daily workouts. Not all pilots took exercise as seriously as they did, so they were often seen together at the gym even when it was nearly empty otherwise. This happened enough Sameera had begun to notice Dominika’s preferences– she was drawn to the archery range, the stair climb and the weights. Sameera in turn loved to push the exercise bike hard, and then she took out a lot of steam on the punching bag. She thought that perhaps Dominika was just more meticulous than her.

Lately, she thought a lot of things about Dominika.

Under the glow of the yellow sunlamps and the white LEDs, Dominika’s pink skin glistened with sweat as she stood to full height from stretching her legs. She went still for a moment, catching her breath, staring down at the floor in her shorts and sports bra. So lightly dressed, more of the chromatophores on her body were exposed, small bumps on her skin that glowed gently. They ran down her chest, on her hips, her back. Interspersed within her long red and brown hair were black-striped, fleshy strands dimly glowing.

And her eyes– bright pink with a blue limbal ring. Absolutely captivating.

They met, Sameera’s admiring gaze and Dominika’s narrow-eyed look of disdain.

Rather than scold her, Dominika sighed and turned around.

“You’re catching a shower too, aren’t you? Come on.” Dominika said.

Sameera was quite sweaty herself. Even the fur on her ears and tail was moist.

She smiled and followed behind Dominika.

To their shared surprise, the Brigand’s shower room was also pretty empty.

Dominika quickly threw off her sports bra and pulled down her shorts. She started walking toward the showers without acknowledging Sameera. Behind her, Sameera disrobed a bit slower. Dominika was so thin and lean and her figure almost nymph-like that she could not help but watch as she left her side. That she was a head taller than Dominika was a fact that buzzed around in her brain infrequently, and always ended up somewhere else.

After a truly laborious removal of her own sports bra and shorts, Sameera followed her to the showers. She sat next to her, set the temperature and dispersion of the showerhead, and relaxed as cool water crashed over her head. Two backs to the wall, smiling with relief as the sweat washed off them. Sameera undid her ponytail, and her long, wild brown hair fell over the sides of her and down her back. Her tail splashed on the water. There were no sounds but the running water and no smell but the shampoo and soap dispensers.

“Nika.”

“Sameera.”

Sameera laughed. “I heard there’s some kind of social function going on tonight.”

“You want to take me out on a date.” Dominika said. She shrugged. “We’re just on the ship it’s not like it’s anything special. So whatever– I’ll go with you. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic.” Sameera wagged her tail excitedly.

“What’s with you?” Dominika asked with evident, narrow-eyed disdain and skepticism.

“What are you asking?” Sameera replied, acting dumb.

“I mean–” Dominika reached behind herself and switched the water from falling in a mostly uniform stream to widely dispersed pattern. “I had fun on our date in Kreuzung, but if you think I’ve fallen in love with you or something– I’m not so easily impressed. You can’t just act like it’s a given I’m letting you have me. You’re not so charming that you can just–”

“Oh? You want to be pursued more aggressively then?”

Sameera practically sprang. Cornering Dominika under her showerhead.

One arm on the wall, another on the floor, their faces centimeters from each other.

Eye to eye, nearly nose to nose. Dominika lying back against the wall. Sameera atop.

Locked eyes, a bigger body, a hunger in her eyes and mischief on her face.

Sameera inched forward and took Dominika’s lips into a kiss.

Tasting her briefly, feeling her out, tentative but energetic–

At no point did Dominika struggled or kick her off.

Encouraged, Sameera slipped her tongue past Dominika’s teeth.

Raising a hand to hold Dominika’s cheek, closing her eyes, kissing her with ardor.

She had demonstrated her intent.

Approached, played, savored– and stepped back.

Smiling with the width of a finger between herself and Dominika.

“Was that more impressive?” Sameera asked.

Dominika averted her gaze, keeping a neutral expression.

“Only– a little– playboy.” She said, struggling to catch her breathe.

Never had such critical words made Sameera so contented.

She winked and got off of Dominika and sat next to her again, laughing.

“At least I know the right direction to take!” Sameera laughed.

Dominika grunted, but smiled just a little.

As much as Sameera liked when Dominika played hard to get, reciprocity was far sweeter.

In the shower, Sameera’s hand laid over Dominika’s hand and was not refused.


Having sailed for months by now, the Brigand’s crew was used to the rhythm of daily activity and they had gained some confidence in their response times should an alarm sound. Union ships valued a balance of readiness and morale. Because the crew had been through so much recently, Captain Korabiskaya had the idea to stage a screening of a film so everyone could get together, relax and have some communal fun for a few hours after work.

She left the decision of what film to show–

To First Officer Murati Nakara. Whose eyes drew quite wide upon hearing the news.

“I– this is– this is a bit sudden.” Murati said.

“Just look at the ship library and see what interests you, Murati!” Ulyana said cheerfully.

“You need to get used to making command decisions again.” Aaliyah said bluntly.

Murati blinked. “I’ve– I’ve been making decisions– I’ve been working hard–”

Even she knew this was not exactly the case. Certainly, Murati had not been doing nothing this whole time. She had been in important meetings. She had delegated a few tasks to her own subordinates. She had gone over Diver combat data working with Valya, and wrangled Aatto– but she had also been writing her book an awful lot handn’t she?

And mostly posting a lot on ZaChat the past day–

Neither of her superiors would have it– Murati had a command decision delegated to her.

“Just pick something, Murati. We’ll show it tonight. It’ll be fine, pick anything.”

“No, Captain! Murati, don’t just pick anything. Pick something that will improve morale.”

Two pats on the back was all she got after that. Murati was left to make the decision.

A few minutes later, she had made her way further to the back of the ship.

Walking stiffly and with a clearly troubled expression.

Crossing the door into her wife’s laboratory.

“Hubby! You’ve come to visit! I haven’t seen you in days!”

Karuniya Maharapratham called out in a sweet voice and clapped her hands together.

“You see me every day.” Murati mumbled this so as to be just barely audible.

“So what has dragged you away from your book, to see your boring old ball and chain?”

“Karu– please– I’m not that bad to you am I–?”

Eventually Karuniya stopped teasing Murati and invited her to a desk around the back of the tree. They sat together and Murati confided her predicament to her wife. It was not necessarily that Murati did not know any films. She had seen films, played video games– she had experienced entertainment. However, none of those things were her first choice for distractions. She was much more of a reader. What movies did sailors enjoy?

Weren’t they rowdy and rambunctious? She had always been cloistered among officers.

“I’m so glad you confided in me, Murati.” Karuniya said. “Your salvation is here.”

She raised an index finger pointedly and winked at Murati.

“Are you a film fan Karu? I really had no idea. We always went to restaurants or concerts.”

Karuniya crossed her arms, and smiled with great confidence.

“I am not an expert. But I can make trivial decisions without thinking about them so much.”

Murati raised a hand over her face. “Karu– Come on– This is serious here–”

“I don’t understand why you are soooo anxious, Murati.” Karuniya said, giggling.

“This is a command decision Karuniya! Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah must be wondering if I can handle the burdens of a commissioned officer and judging whether I can be promoted. I let my guard down and kept working on my book and testing Zachikova’s program, and now this. This can’t be something trivial– they are testing me.”

Karuniya stared at her for a moment, laid a hand over her mouth and stifled a laugh.

“Murati, you really are so cute. I’m so glad I have you wrapped around my finger.”

In turn, her hubby met her eyes with a helpless expression.

That was what it took for her to realize she was being just a bit ridiculous.

“I’m glad you think so, though I object to this characterization.” Murati said, sighing.

Karuniya reached out and squeezed Murati’s hand for comfort.

“I’ll look at the media library with you, and we will pick a movie together.”

“I’ve only got a few hours to pick something. It’s going on tonight. It’s just so sudden.”

“It’ll be fun! Just don’t take it so seriously. Between the two of us, we’ll find something.”

Silently, Murati thanked Karuniya so much for deflating all the tension in her chest.

Taking up a chair next to Murati, Karuniya brought a portable computer for both to use. She accessed the Brigand’s onboard media library, which served the books, music, comics, art collections, programs and films that were approved by the Union Navy. With a few taps of Karu’s slender fingers, she brought up the library of films. There were hundreds of films to choose from. A few independent or classic Imbrian films with “appropriate ideological content” were canonized as part of the Union’s “film history.” But the Union also had a film culture that had produced a few hundred films in the nation’s twenty year existence. There was movie-making going on even during the Revolution.

As soon as there had been a Union, there had also been Union film-making.

Everything from comedies to dramas, romances, morality plays, action stories, and propaganda pieces. They could sort the media library based on a lot of criteria, like the year and the genre, but they looked through everything just to see what was on offer. Karuniya arrived at a good suggestion as they scrolled through. She figured that sailors would appreciate a good comedy. Everyone could use a laugh, and even the cheapest jokes could draw one out, but not all people had a taste for romantic films or dramas.

“That is a very good point. Narrows it down, but it’s still so much.” Murati said.

Karuniya tipped her head closer to Murati, leaning into her while showing her the films.

“Oh, look at this one. A comedy about a ne’er-do-well father-in-law ending up being cared for by his son and the son’s newlywed bride. Sounds like universally-beloved shenanigans!”

“I don’t know that I want to sit and think about these particular themes for an entire night.”

“Huh? But your taste shouldn’t matter– well, look here! There’s a raunchy sex comedy!”

“The Commissar would absolutely object to this! I don’t even know how that got in there.”

“It’s there because we’re all adults who fuck, Murati. Jeez– okay, how about this?”

“A comedy about an Imperial falling into a coma and waking up in the Union during the early years of the Jayasankar regime, experiencing culture shock–? I don’t know. I think we have enough culture shock right now. We want them to take their minds off things right?”

“How is it you’re being this sensitive? They’re sailors–! Oh! Look at this one!”

Karuniya pointed her finger at a movie called “Supply Ship Groza.”

Physical comedy taking place in an inter-station supply ship. It seemed light-hearted.

“Karu, I think this might be the one!” Murati smiled.

Suddenly, she put an arm around Karuniya, pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you! This is perfect. I’ll send this to Semyonova. She’ll help set up the projection.”

Karuniya rubbed up against Murati with a placid little smile.

“You’re welcome. But I require a reward for my services.” She said mischievously.

“Oh?”

“First, you’re going to take me to the movie tonight.”

Then, Karuniya raised a hand to Murati’s cheek and drew her in for a deeper kiss.

It was a quick embrace– but her tongue crossed Murati’s lips in its span.

When Karuniya drew back she looked Murati in the eyes.

“Second, you’re going to do more than kiss me after the movie.”

That coquettish grin on her face said it all.

Murati felt the tensions of mere minutes ago wholly leave her body.

To be replaced by other, more electric sensations.

“You know I can’t ever say no to that face. I’m all yours, Karu.”


Semyonova announced the movie night on every screen in the Brigand, so everyone was instantly made aware of it. It came as a pleasant surprise with immediate effect. There was a burst of excitement from all corners, slightly deflated when a clarifying announcement was issued that there would not be liquor rations. Still, the mood was electric, with everyone in the halls wondering what movie would be shown and looking forward to it.

Homa Baumann was not planning to go watch the movie.

She had woken up in the afternoon and had her wholly vegetarian dinner and felt off.

From the operating table in Dr. Kappel’s office, she was back in the infirmary.

Waiting.

“Sorry Homa! I got pulled aside to take care of the bridge for a bit!”

Through the door into the infirmary, Kalika Loukia reappeared with a bag in hand.

Homa stared at her with an unfriendly expression.

“Was I gone that long?” Kalika asked.

Homa sighed. “Whatever. I don’t care.” She raised her voice, almost without meaning to.

Kalika smiled. “I hoped the prosthetics would cheer you up a bit– I understand though.”

She unzipped the bag and laid some clothes on the bed where Homa was seated.

There was a sleeveless white button-down shirt, a teal half-length jacket with long sleeves, a pair of pants and a skirt both of which were black, a set of white underwear, a green tie, and a pair of shoes. This was the uniform she had seen most people on the ship wearing. Everything was cheaply synthestitched, and the shoes especially looked a bit formless and unappealing. Homa would have to ask if they could give her work boots back.

“I’m not wearing a tie. Can they synthestitch me some casual clothes?” Homa grumbled.

“No~” Kalika bent down a bit and flicked Homa’s nose gently.

For a moment, that little teasing brush felt almost scandalous. Could she do that?

It was the momentary outrage that gave Homa some perspective on her own behavior.

Still– she was not able to fully control herself. Her tone of voice remained a bit elevated.

“Ugh. I get it– I’m being a brat. I’ll just– I’ll just shut up then!” Homa said.

Kalika remained bent forward in front of Homa and leaned even closer.

Speaking almost nose to nose with Homa’s face. A small smile on her red lips.

“I’ve told you, I understand you’re frustrated. I’m not going to ask you to pretend everything is fine. But I also am not giving carte blanche for you to yell at me all day. Let’s cool it a bit. Take a deep breath.” Kalika looked at Homa expectantly. “Deep breath, Homa.”

With Kalika right in front of her face, she could not refuse.

Homa drew in a deep breath.

Then she let it out.

There was nowhere for it to go so she practically blew right into Kalika’s face.

Kalika did not look bothered by it. She looked more content than before.

“Feel any better?”

“No?”

Her head and chest felt a bit less tight and knotted after she let the air out.

But she did not want Kalika to be right.

So she denied anything changed.

“Alright.” Kalika drew back from Homa and gestured to the clothes. “Pants or skirt?”

“That’s actually a really hard decision for me.” Homa said.

“It’s not a final decision, though. You can always wear one or the other.” Kalika said.

“I don’t know, Kalika. Do I look like I should be wearing a skirt?”

“You would look lovely in a skirt. Take it from a real fashionista.”

Homa’s ears folded against her head. She averted her gaze.

“No offense– I’ll just take the pants for now.”

“None taken. Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like my help?”

“I’ll do it.”

Kalika turned her back to Homa. “I can whip right back whenever you want me to.”

They had already seen each other completely naked before, but Homa appreciated Kalika having discretion nevertheless. If she struggled with dressing herself, Homa did not want someone staring at her and trying to gauge whether to jump in to save her or not. That would have made her furious. It made her a lot less self-conscious about relying on Kalika to assist if she could choose at any time when to cut her out or let her in.

Homa reached the end of her hospital gown.

Her biological fingers, and the fingers of her mechanical hand, closed around the hem.

She pulled it up and off of her body. As natural as breathing.

Nothing odd happened.

So far the prosthetic was responding fine.

Homa grabbed the synthetic brassiere, put her arms through.

Reached behind her back.

Her mechanical fingers dropped the clips a few times. It was a tiny bit frustrating.

Nevertheless, with time, her quite modest breasts were quite modestly covered up.

Similar to the brassier clips, it was a bit of a challenge to button up the shirt. Holding really small things in her hands and manipulating them precisely was strange. Her fingers on the prosthetics would drop and slip over the buttons, and even if she tried to switch the hand she was using, it was tough to hold the fabric around the button-hole open. Her hand was just so much clumsier than she was used to, and she could not feel it, no touch, no smoothness of synthcloth nor the roughness of the hard button.

Just as with the brassiere, however, the shirt was buttoned up in due time.

Homa clenched her jaw and let out a low hiss.

With the shirt on, she put on the panties and the black pants she had been given.

No problems with those. Everything fit fine and the efforts to put them on were simple.

Finally, she slipped the shoes right on. Cheap shoes like these just fit like a thick sock.

“I’m done.” Homa said.

Kalika turned around. She clapped her hands. “Look at this handsome young lady!”

“C’mon.”

“You really were serious about the tie huh? Don’t you want to look really professional?”

“Not interested.”

“Fair enough.” Kalika held out her hands.

Homa looked at them for a moment before raising her own arms and taking them.

Entwining her fingers and Kalika’s own. Kalika gently urged Homa stand.

To get her legs off the bed, Homa turned sideways.

She set her prosthetic leg on the floor first. Shifted her weight on it, tested its strength.

Everything seemed firm but–

For a moment, as she made the effort to stand, she could feel the flesh weighing on metal.

There was an uncomfortably cold sensation because of this.

Alarming as it was at first, Homa choked the feelings down, and made to stand straight.

Kalika held her hands tightly, supporting her.

“Do you want to try taking a step?”

Homa nodded her head. She lifted her prosthetic leg, inched forward, set it down.

Again she felt that cold sensation where the metal met flesh, but it was not as bad as before.

However, as soon as she set her foot down, she felt her weight slide a bit.

Kalika steadied her as she stepped back herself.

She cooed to Homa as they walked. One solid step; one clumsy step; one solid step.

“Good, good. Take it easy, one step at a time.”

“Okay.”

“Everything in the world worth doing can be done one step at a time.”

“I don’t need your amateur therapy during all this.”

“One step at a time, and you’ll be less grouchy in no time.”

Kalika laughed a little. Homa grumbled.

She held that hand tight however, felt Kalika’s own steel fingers with her own flesh.

Mirrored her steps, relied on her guidance, leaned into her when near falling.

For a moment, holding Kalika’s hands and walking step by step, almost with grace–

It almost felt like dancing, which Homa had never really done. But she had read about it.

Seen it in films; fantasized about it, maybe, once or twice. Dancing with someone nice.

Homa was not some hero, she chastised herself.

Kalika was not her storybook princess.

But–

it made it easier, and feel better, to think of the infirmary as a grand ballroom.

Her fingers closed tighter around Kalika’s hand.

She met her eyes more closely than before.

Step, by step.

Their little clumsy storybook dance down the aisle across from the beds.

It made Homa feel a little bit more whole than she was before.

Her steel walls and the plastic smell, took on color, took on a floral scent, took on grandeur.

“See? You’re doing great. Soon you won’t need to hold anyone’s hand.”

A chill ran down Homa’s back that she would not admit.

Because she immediately thought–

“I still want to hold your hand.”

She did not say this out loud. She did not want to admit it. She felt ashamed of it.

Such feelings were useless to hold for someone who only pitied her.

And Homa had already been hurt a few times by allowing herself such vulnerability.

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.


“Sonya’s taking me out to a movie! I could turn gold with happiness!”

“What ‘taking you out’? It takes minutes to walk down from my room–”

“Sonya’s taking me out~ Sonya’s taking me out~”

Shalikova looked at Maryam bobbing her head happily and simply smiled.

They walked down the hall holding hands, toward the social area.

Game tables, couches and other furniture were moved or folded into the floor. Chairs were set up for the movie watchers; there was not enough space for everyone so a similar arrangement was made in the middle of the hangar so more would get a chance to join a movie-watching party. Dispensers for pickles, bread, broth and watered-down juice were moved from the cafeteria to the social pod and hangar to give everyone easier access to snacks. On the stage a black rectangle appeared on the wall to demonstrate where the film would be displayed from. As Shalikova and Maryam approached and took a seat at the back row of chairs, there were already dozens of people seated and chatting lively.

There was a lot of curiosity, since the film to be shown was kept secret.

“Sonya, I bet you’ve seen so many movies.” Maryam said.

“Not a lot actually.” Shalikova said. “I preferred the arcade when I was bored.”

“Oh right! You did say you were the ‘terror of the tables’!” Maryam said.

“Not so loud.” Shalikova whispered. “But yes I played a lot of table games back when I was in school. Pool, and table hockey and tennis and all that. All the student lounges had a bunch. Solstice had nice arcades too. I liked going around town looking for them. You could wander off in any direction and find lounges and games. Theaters were a bit less prevalent.”

“I haven’t seen very many movies.” Maryam said. “Do you not like them, Sonya?”

She must have noticed Shalikova’s sour expression as she waited for the movie to start.

“No, it’s just– theaters are really crowded. With pool or whatever it was just a few guys.”

And just like a theater, the social pod was now quite crowded.

Shalikova endured it for Maryam’s sake, however.

It was very difficult to infect Shalikova with enthusiasm, but Maryam was so happy that she could not help herself but to crack a little smile. Watching her on the edge of her seat, hands on her lap, staring at the screen with stars in her w-shaped eyes. Bobbing her head with enthusiasm and waiting for the scenes to fill with color. Maryam had been through so much– and she was on this damn ship now going through even more tribulations.

She deserved a moment of excitement and levity.

To be taken care of and made to smile.

Everyone on the ship deserved it, really. These were the moments they worked hard for.

So when the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up with the film and everyone clapped–

Shalikova reached out and squeezed Maryam’s hand in the dark, for her own happiness.


Movie night came and went, with applause, laughs and a brief respite.

“Supply Ship Groza” became a new favorite among the sailors. Around the halls and hangar they could be heard quoting the jokes at each other, and calling each other Mykolas, after the clumsy protagonist. Having a social function was good change of pace. For everyone, they spent some cherished time shoulder to shoulder, but the work, as always, continued. It was a new day, the Brigand and Rostock were ever closer to Aachen.

It was busy again, and might soon get even busier.

Officers led a different life, however.

On that morning, Murati stood outside of the brig.

She was quite happy with last night. But the task in front of her was a daunting one.

Once the door opened– out walked the task. In full Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Bushy brown tail swinging behind her, now coming out of black uniform pants. Her brown hair tied into a very professional ponytail, a garrison cap between her tall ears. Shirt buttoned up completely this time, a brand new jacket in freshly synthestitched teal. Afforded a ration of makeup she had used to doll herself up quite presentably.

An almost comically saccharine smile on her face upon seeing Murati.

“Chief Petty Officer Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! Reporting for adjutant duties!”

Murati could hardly believe these were words she had to hear.

“How do I look master? It’s such a cute uniform. A very clever disguise.”

“I told you not to call me ‘Master’. How many times do I have to say it?”

“But it befits your great stature and the profound respect I have for you!”

In fact, Aatto had made out like a bandit.

Normally, defectors were viewed as something of a burden to their new country. They probably had a limited amount of intelligence, and limited military utility. Under normal circumstances, unless it was a Katarran mercenary with a crew, a defector was unlikely to be allowed to keep their military rank, or join the host nation’s military. Defectors were usually just a small influx of specific intelligence, and a moral victory for the host.

Because of the Brigand’s unique situation, however, Aatto was getting golden treatment. The Brigand had to be open to defectors as a way to acquire manpower. She had actually been advanced a rank– in the Volkisch, she would now be a Scharführer instead of a Rottenführer. Special assignment adjutants to commissioned officers could not be entry-level Petty Officers. Delegating work to someone with minimal clearance who lacked the rank even to organize the specialists was a waste of everyone’s time, so Aatto had to have a senior non-commission rank. If it worked out with Aatto, raising the Brigand’s practical skeleton crew of officers by one was a significant boon to acquire.

Of course, it might not work out with Aatto. She was a former Volkisch after all.

“We are not going to have a big fight about this. It’s decided. She’s your responsibility, Murati.” The Commissar had said. “I believe you when you say she wants to turn over a new leaf. The Captain and I had this conversation prior– we can’t refuse even Volkisch defectors at this point, and you could use somebody to assist you. But you can consider this a test of your judgment. We are trusting you, not just her; and if she burns us, it’s on you.”

Murati could be putting everyone at risk, and even moreso, her chances for a promotion.

With a sigh, she turned over a portable computer to Aatto.

She then set her shoulders, took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the Loup.

Taking one step into her personal space and standing taller than her counterpart.

“This is yours because it is crucial to your work. It’s disconnected from the network and contains all the data your clearance allows plus some educational products. For now, you will work off this device and if you need anything not on it, you will request it through me. Prove to me that you are reliable and trustworthy and you can get access to the network. Just know and understand this, with great specificity, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather: if you scheme against or betray us, I’ll follow you to the ends of Aer to tear you limb from limb!”

Murati jabbed her finger into Aatto’s chest, frustration clearly spilling out of her.

She had hoped to sound commanding and intimidating, but lost control to her passions.

Her speech had an effect, however.

Aatto’s eyes drew wider, her grin more twisted, smoldering with a bizarre euphoria.

She clutched the portable computer to her chest, her entire body shaking.

“There it is! That grand and dominating power dormant within you–! Such radiance–!”

“I’m being serious!” Murati shouted back at her.

“Of course– of course–” Aatto’s breathing became briefly troubled. “I live only to support you and witness your deeds! I will absolutely, without a doubt, employ every part of this body in most excellent service! Master, what ordeals will you subject me to today?”

Why did she sound so happy to be subjected to ordeals?!

Just as Murati struggled to think of a reprimand Aatto would not somehow enjoy–

There was a voice, low but with an undertone of distress, coming from all directions.

Accompanied by flashing red lights from high on every wall.

It hardly had to be said– before she understood the voice Murati felt she already knew.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon! All personnel shift immediately to duty Semyon!”

Fatima al-Suhar was sounding an alert from the sonar station on the bridge.

One that they had heard a few times already– alert Semyon meant combat stations.

“Master, is this a combat alert?” Aatto asked with vivid excitement in her voice.

There was no time to try to correct her bizarre fascinations.

Once again the currents were sending sharp steel the Brigand’s way.

Murati and the rest of the crew would have to hurry to meet it, for all they held dear.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.3]

Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Tell me– what you’ve forsaken.”

In the shadow of the Patriarch, standing raised upon the church stage, a great gold sun disc hanging on the wall at his back– there was a girl in her blue sailor uniform, ears folded, tail held straight and alert. Around them the church was like a suffocating cage of hard-edged shadows cut only by candles and torches on the stage. A red gleam exposed the severe expression of the Patriarch from around his long hair and thick beard.

“Answer me, Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Do you know better than God?”

She knew the answer she would not speak.

Just as he knew her name and would not use it.

Loup were born into servitude.

Servitude to God, through worship; Servitude to the state, through following of the rightful authorities; Servitude to the Family, and to the Father above all. God, the King, the Father of his House, they were all tiered delineations of the same principal figure of absolute power and respect. Loup valued order, authority, and were born to defend both.

“Salvation is a grueling process.” Said the Patriarch. “It begins, it continues, it never ends, until the Sun finally shines upon you and takes you into the firmament. Salvation requires baptism, its beginning; then it requires supplication and worship, to sustain it. Loup, Gefreiter, are a people of great humility and supplication. Our virtue is to toil in life so we can smile in heaven. But look at you; an apostate under my roof. You wear the uniform of a state you betrayed; given life by a God you swear against; and so you wear the skin of a people you reject! You spit on everything that we are. You humiliated us; humiliated me. ”

“She was my mother.” The Gefreiter finally spoke. “She was your wife!”

Tears formed in her eyes. She cast a helpless, wavering gaze up at the looming Patriarch.

“You were supposed to protect her! You speak of my betrayal; you betrayed her!”

From the stage a swift kick struck the girl in the neck and knocked her on her back.

“Silence! You are truly her child! You hellspawn! I ought to split your skull open!”

“That’s enough Gregor. Or you will meet the same fate to which you consigned your wife.”

White light cut across the center of the red streaked darkness of the church.

Casting the Patriarch into the long shadow of another man much like him, approaching.

Dressed in a black and gold uniform, a tall hat. On his ears and tail, the fur deeply grayed.

At his side was a younger woman in a similar attire, swarthy-skinned and dark-haired.

The two Inquisitors approached the church stage to shield the girl from the Patriarch.

When the girl reached the side of the Gefreiter she made to assist her–

“No, Gertrude. Not yet.” Warned the older man. He turned to face the Patriarch.

“Samoylovych. The southern heretic.” Said the Patriarch, disdain ample in his voice.

“Gregor.” High Inquisitor Samoylovych replied. “I’ve come to reclaim Imbrian property. That’s how you see us, isn’t it? I am appalled with you. I cannot stop the Council of Officers from enabling zealots like you; but Aatto is completely innocent. She was not in league with anyone, nor plotting anything; she is just a scared girl witnessing the destruction of her family. You cannot charge her with capital crime as you see fit. Even in the Host.”

Never once did the Patriarch cede from his position. His tail swayed gently behind him.

He was not rattled by the words of the High Inquisitor. In his eyes there was only zeal.

“I have done nothing in my life out of convenience.” The Patriarch said. “I have only ever done what was required of me by God or country. To have brought a child into the world with a liberal and a blasphemer and traitor, is a shame to me, a shame to my country and a shame to the Church; and I have done my duty in setting it right. I was tested; I stood with God.”

“And what? You will murder your daughter for God? Is that in the Revealed Truths?”

“Salvation is a grueling process.” The Patriarch said. “None of us can escape the Destiny that God sees in the instant of our birth, Samoylovych. That is why we must submit to the church and the Revealed Truth and set aside our hubris. Leniency nurtured vipers in my home. You ask what I will do? I will repent until my death; and remain devoted to the rightful order.”

The Patriarch turned his back on the Inquisitors and disappeared into the back of the church.

High Inquisitor Samoylovych grunted. He stomped his foot on the floor.

Putting a crack in the tiles. He let out a wheezing cough from the exertion.

“Inquisitor Samoylovych,” Gertrude Lichtenberg asked, “what will we do with the girl?”

“We’ll take her, of course. She can still serve in Rhinea or Veka.” Samoylovych sighed.

On the floor, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather looked up at the gold sun on the wall of the church with terror in her face. As if staring at the candle-lit face of God itself, a horrifying God of blood-letting that longed to devour her. That sign of the collective immiseration of the Loup in the pursuit of further submission to the will of the Divine. That Sun and the God it represented and the teachings that were associated with it had destroyed more human lives than anything in the world; they had destroyed all of Aatto’s life as she had lived it and everything she cherished. In an instant, it had blinked, and the force of its shutting eyes ended her long-held stability. Submission to what family? Submission to what state? Submission to what God? She had nothing and was helpless to do anything!

Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s life as she had known it ended without warning.

“None of us can escape Destiny.” She mumbled to herself. Weeping profusely.

“He’s wrong.” Samoylovych said. “The power to defy Destiny exists. But those who wield it have turned their backs on the Loup and on the atrocity of the Host. That is the truth.”

Aatto would ponder those words for years. Perhaps far longer than Samolovych intended.


Since they left Kreuzung, the Brigand resumed a feverish level of activity.

In the halls, sailors and technicians and engineers, of which the Brigand had well over a hundred, went from repair jobs to meetings, from the hangar to the cafeteria, from work to bed, having but a lunch and three twenty minute breaks throughout the day with which to decompress. It was busier than it had been during their expeditions in Goryk.

Chief among the reasons for this heightened activity was the depth. In Thassal, Cascabel and Serrano, the average depth of human activity was between 900 to 1500 meters deep. It was in these depths that the Brigand had been built and though it was tested at up to 2500 meters in the Nectaris Continental Rift, it was not ran for weeks and months in such depths. Eisental’s floor was on average 1800 to 2800 meters deep, just narrowly avoiding Hadal or Deep Abyss depths. The Brigand would be at this depth for an indeterminate period.

As such, the Brigand was subject to close to twice as much strain from the depths, since the deeper the water, the greater the pressure on all systems of the ship. There was no fear that the Brigand would suddenly spring a leak and explode completely– if that were the case all of humanity would have gone extinct already. Pressure hulls were very sturdy, and advanced forms of flood mitigation, as well as the presence of sealant gel in the centers of plate structures and between the armor and pressure hulls, meant that strikes from ordnance were actually survivable for the internal modules. It was very rare for a ship to implode from mishandling. It had to be considered as a possibility, but it was still rare.

However, the actual routine problem was with small parts. Particularly, the water system and electrical infrastructure. Water for the hydrojets was sucked in through intakes using powerful turbines and pumps– from there, some water was diverted into internal tanks, the crew water system, and reactor cooling. Then the water would go back out eventually, either directly through the hydrojets or fed out of waste chutes or reactor control pipeline.

Pipes inside the pressure hull were prone to leaks, and because the water system had to work harder and under more stress, it demanded more electricity, stressing the electric systems and possibly stressing the reactor core array as well. Sailors and technicians’ time at these depths was spent monitoring for leaks, actively monitoring power, swapping any electrical and electromechanical parts that were stressed or failing, and most importantly, tightly planning maintenance, replacement and recycling of such crucial parts.

Almost anything on the Brigand could fed into the ferricycler to be turned into mineral mush that would then be fed into stitcher machines to make new usable parts to cycle back in. But at some point, new, unrecycled parts had to be introduced back into the system– there were unavoidable diminishing returns involved in recycling parts continuously.

Other things that broke with some regularity included doors, kitchen appliances, the games in the social area, and most of all, the Divers. Divers had to be considered “broke” the instant they left the ship, because their anti-corrosion coatings would start wearing off, joints would take a beating, and small instruments like the sensors would certainly receive some abuse. This was before the sailors considered any battle damage the Divers took on top of that unavoidable wear. As such the hangar saw frequent spikes in activity.

On mission, the sailors kept pretty busy. There was always something to do.

Therefore, the Brigand’s halls and hangar always saw at least some people moving through.

Sonya Shalikova, meanwhile, had precious little to do on any ordinary day.

As an officer and a pilot, she had the privilege of relaxation.

In exchange, she braved the ocean in defense of the ship, risking her life every sortie.

Not everyone was cut out for that.

There were some people who had panic attacks just seeing the empty black ocean all around them, their spotlights unveiling only the endlessly falling rain of biological matter known as the marine fog. Others became greatly sick from the way the Diver moved out in the water, as the Strelok or even the Cheka cockpit was poorly stabilized. Still more refused to have anything to do with the endeavor, as unlike a ship, it was quite easy for a Diver to receive any sort of damage and fail catastrophically, since their hulls were much thinner.

For Sonya Shalikova, throwing her life into this maelstrom was all she knew how to do.

It had never been a question of whether or not to pilot a Diver.

Piloting was all she had to give to the world. Or so she thought.

Lately, at least, she had experienced a few positive additions to her worldview.

She had forgiven herself for the death of her sister Zasha.

Rather than throwing away her life because she felt useless and listless doing otherwise–

Shalikova now wanted to fight to protect her crew and many precious persons aboard.

To uphold Zasha’s memory and the wishes she had for Shalikova.

Fighting to enjoy her moments of happiness; rather than fighting out of a sense of misery.

So now, as she wandered the halls full of sailors, with nothing to do herself,

rather than think,

I’m so useless– all of these people are the real heroes,

she instead reminded herself,

I need to relax more– no use being high-strung then flaming out when it matters.

Taking care of herself and her body and mind was part of her responsibilities as a pilot.

Her free time, that privilege, was also part of the needs of the job.

But–

Ever since the escape from Kreuzung’s core station, something had been bothering her.

They had an encounter outside Kreuzung. Shalikova recalled not only the psionic powers of the enemy pilot and her fearsome aura, but also the sturdiness of a new type of Diver she had been piloting. It had withstood several close bursts from the Cheka’s AK-96 assault rifle. Firing from a distance at a moving target would have severely diminished the effectiveness of the rifle’s 37 mm supercavitating rounds. These weapons had an effectiveness that sharply declined beyond 50 meters or so. In the water, if you could see something to shoot it, it was only then that it was in the effective range of a Diver assault rifle.

However, Shalikova had fired from close range on a stationary enemy, several times.

Everyone else seemed to overlook this freakish durability, but Shalikova could not.

Murati might say that with appropriate tactics, they could still defeat this new model.

Shalikova, who experienced it first-hand, began to believe they needed stronger weapons.

She was not savvy enough to determine what they could do with their current resources.

So she ultimately decided to take the concern to someone who could research it better.

“Valya, do you have a moment?”

“Oh! Shalikova and Maryam! Just a sec!”

These days Shalikova never went anywhere without her brightly smiling marshmallow.

So even as she walked the halls, Maryam was always following along.

Valya could most easily be found in the hangar, where they had increasingly taken on the role of the squad mechanic for the 114th, the Brigand’s assigned Diver unit. In the center of the hangar, along the walls, there were several gantries, each of which held a Diver aloft. Metal arms assisted the Diver so it would not need to stand under its own power while recharging and while undergoing repairs. They also held the machines in place as the ship maneuvered. Shalikova met Valya in the shadow of a Strelok, still the most common mecha in the hangar despite several recent acquisitions. It was the mainstay of the Union soldier.

Like all Divers it was roughly person-shaped, with an oblong cockpit encased in explosive-resistant armor plates that met precisely on the center of the chest, where they could open to allow entry. A hip section attached a pair of legs slightly offset of the cockpit, while a pair of shoulder sections affixed the arms. Atop this stocky body plan was a rectangular, roughly square head. Two cheek plates held together an array of cameras and sensors hidden behind bullet-proof glass, the “eyes” of the machine. Behind the machine were the main thrusters, fed by water from the shoulder and hip intakes. Mounted on a multi-sectioned “backpack,” the jets could rotate as two independent sets for greater maneuverability.

Shalikova whistled when she saw the state of the machine. This Strelok was receiving some specific attention. The unpainted steel plates on its legs having been taken off along with the cap on the hydrojet intakes set into the Diver’s knee that fed its legs jets. In addition, the support thruster for that leg had been removed and set aside. Known commonly as a “vernier” or “solid fuel” thruster– the latter moniker had come to refer to the fact the thruster was not electric, and in truth the fuel used by the Union was usually cheap liquid, though staged-burn solid compounds were higher quality. Under the armor, additional structural plates had their bolts removed and were peeled off, exposing flexible pipe, wires and the inner workings of the Strelok’s knee, such as the mechanical joints.

Inside the exposed metal there was a layer of black-brown grime that had accumulated.

“Coming down!”

Climbing down from a ladder, Valya removed their goggles, leaving a streak of grime on their own cheek. They smiled at Shalikova and Maryam with a refreshingly sunny demeanor. Dressed in a black sports bra beneath a half open gray jumpsuit, soaked in sweat and smelling of grease and metal. Some grime had even streaked over Valya’s salmon-pink hair, which they had not put a cap over while working. With a heavy tool in one hand, and the other waving jovially, Shalikova thought Valya was truly in their element.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you! It looks like a lot of work.” Shalikova said.

“Well, I’m already down! So it’s fine. There’s plenty of time to get back at it!”

Shalikova had thought of Valya as a reserved person, but they seemed to light up more when they were able to work on the machines. Despite the clear grueling effort they were going through, they never seemed to shine as brightly and talk as confidently as when they were covered in grime with a tool in their hands and safety goggles pushed up over their hair.

“Is something wrong with the Diver?” Maryam asked.

One of her tentacles flicked toward the Strelok’s bared knee.

Valya followed the tentacle with their eyes, then laughed.

“Just a routine checkup. It’s filthy inside, isn’t it? This is the Strelok that Ahwalia trashed back in Goryk, and then it got fixed up and returned to the reserve. Recently a sailor piloted it to go out and check how the missile launch bay covers were holding up in the water. When the sailor was on his way back, the leg jet started getting sticky. I think it had microfractures this whole time in the leg so the jet was losing a tiny bit of water into the plates.”

“Wouldn’t it explode or something?” Maryam asked.

“Nope, the leg interiors are not pressurized, but it is still a problem.”

“I see, I see.”

Shalikova patted Maryam on the shoulder, silently asking her to defer questions for now.

Maryam noticed and nodded her head.

“Valya,” Shalikova turned to the salmon-pink haired pilot, “I need to talk to you.”

“Ah, they’re in high demand today I see.”

Valya and Shalikova both turned to meet the owner of a familiar voice.

Elegant, enunciated in a sultry and playful fashion.

From behind them approached a familiar Shimii with long, blond hair and a strikingly glamorous affectation. Her sophisticated radiance was undeniable and it was hard to turn away when she was taking up attention. Heavy wine-purple eyeshadow and well-applied blush, glossy lipstick adorning a confident grin. A hint of wrinkles around the eyes and neck seemed as though an artful exposure of her maturity. On her, the standard uniform shirt and skirt seemed to flatter her curves, black tights accentuating the contours of shapely legs. Her ears and tail were perfectly manicured and had an almost divine appearance of fluffiness, while her tail was exceptionally brushed and strikingly silky and clean.

Her every movement oozed the easy confidence earned with age.

Shalikova averted her eyes before Khadija al-Shajara teased her for staring.

“Aww, I saw you turn away Shali-Shali.” Khadija said. “Don’t hurt a lady’s pride now.”

“It’s not that at all.” Shalikova said, turning a little red.

Teased anyway; there was truly no escaping from Khadija!

At her side, a cheerful Maryam waved to Khadija with both her tentacles and hands.

“Greetings to the lovely V.I.P. as well!” Khadija said. “You two arrived first, so you should conclude your business with Valya first before I steal them away.”

“That’ll have to wait Khadija– I still have to finish this one too.” Valya said.

“Oh, but I need my Strelok to be ready for standby.” Khadija said, leaning closer to Valya.

She put on an expression that was both pouty and somehow still flirty.

“You’ve got a point. I guess I can just leave this here.” Valya said, leaning back a little.

“Why is Valya doing all this work around here anyway?” Shalikova asked.

Valya shook their head. “Too much to get into– but I can handle it, so don’t worry.”

Khadija crossed her arms and leaned back on the leg of the Strelok, waiting her turn.

Her ears were clearly piqued to try to catch some gossip, however.

Shalikova sighed and laid out her request.

“Valya, did you get a chance to look at any data from the Cheka? Or Khadija’s data?”

“Uh huh, I’ve looked at everything with Murati.”

“I’m worried about the model of Diver we fought around Kreuzung.” Shalikova said.

Valya nodded. “That was Rhineametalle’s Panzer model. We actually have data on it from R&D leaks that were turned over to Union spies– but that was two years ago. We didn’t even load that stuff into the dive computers because we never expected to run into it.”

“I nearly emptied my magazine into it and it did nothing.” Shalikova said.

“You’re exaggerating, dame Shalikova.” Khadija interrupted. “You managed to fend it off and we are unsure of how much damage we did to it. Combat damage is more than just dramatic armor penetrations. For all we know it was limping away without life support.”

Shalikova felt mildly irritated at Khadija’s condescension– but it was pointless to pursue.

“Had the Brigand not been close I’m almost sure it would have kept fighting.” She said.

Khadija did not respond, preferring to continue leaning with arms crossed and eyes shut.

“I can try to comb over the data more thoroughly.” Valya said. “I’ll talk to Murati about it too– if she thinks the 37 mm guns seem ineffective against that Panzer we can explore solutions. I think I know what she’ll say though. One encounter is not a lot of data.”

“We don’t even know if they have mass produced the thing.” Khadija replied.

“I just think we need to keep it in mind.” Shalikova said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Khadija winked. “You need to have more confidence in yourself, lady prince.”

“It’s not about self-confidence! One of us could lose our lives if we underestimate that thing in the middle of a fight! It’s senseless not to prepare every possible advantage!”

“Good answer.” Khadija said. “You do make a finer leader than me, Shalikova.”

Shalikova had raised her voice to Khadija, who seemed far too satisfied with the result.

“Hey, c’mon, relax you two. Khadija, you can stop teasing her.” Valya said.

“I’m relaxed. I said what I wanted to say. Come on Maryam.”

Over Valya’s scolding of Khadija, Shalikova turned around and left the hangar.

Trying to work out the frustration that she knew she felt, and hated feeling.

Despite her anger she had grown up just a bit, enough to have more perspective.

In her heart she understood what Khadija was doing.

It was the same thing Illya had told her in Kreuzung. She had to speak up her convictions, even against her experienced seniors. If she was wrong, she was wrong, like Illya said– if she was right then she had to be ready to meet the confrontation and prove herself right. That was part of being in the military alongside war heroes like Khadija and confident theoreticians like Murati. Shalikova had a fearful conjecture and Khadija challenged it with her own knowledge and experience– they didn’t know if there would be more Panzers and they didn’t even really know what effect they had on Nasser’s Panzer. Khadija probably wanted her to stand up for herself and her ideas instead of turning cheek.

Shalikova just was not used to having arguments and resolving confrontations.

When she was assigned to the Thassal fleet she just did whatever she was ordered.

She never would have thought she would have the ability to influence a mission long-term.

Some part of her hated the idea of ‘being a leader’ more than anything.

It was annoying! It exposed her to stupid contradictions! It meant talking to people!

But another part felt that it was necessary. Especially in this case, she couldn’t keep quiet.

“Sonya, are you okay?” Maryam asked. “Are you mad at Khadija?”

They got on the elevator to ride back up to the Brigand’s upper tier.

“I’m annoyed. I felt like Khadija was treating me like a kid.” Shalikova said.

“I think she respects you a lot! I’m positive she just wanted to help!” Maryam said.

“You’re too nice, Maryam.” Shalikova sighed. Her softie marshmallow at it again.

“It’s okay Sonya. I think everyone on the ship thinks highly of you!” Maryam said.

“It’s not that– whatever.” Shalikova simply let things lie at that point.

Once the elevator doors opened, Shalikova led the ever-cheerful Maryam back to their room. As soon as she was through the doors, Shalikova threw herself on her bed and hugged her hand-sewn teddy bear plush, Comrade Fuzzy, tightly against her chest. It was cathartic to hold something tightly. She needed a few minutes to decompress and she wished for silence– and Maryam had seen this enough by now to know. Shalikova heard her girlfriend sit on her own bed, and then no other sounds of cuttlefish activity. She felt grateful for the silence, and even more grateful that at least Maryam truly understood her.

“Maryam, just give me a minute. I’m sorry I haven’t been great company today.”

“It’s okay Sonya! You take all the time you need. I completely understand!”

Shalikova could see Maryam smiling in her mind’s eye and it warmed her heart.

Another thing she never thought she would find herself doing, back at Thassal.

In just a few months, she had changed a lot, hadn’t she? It all felt so– silly.

She hugged Comrade Fuzzy less tightly and a bit more tenderly instead.

Tension was slowly leaving her body. The voices in her ears began to quiet.

I’ve grown a lot I guess– but damn it if I don’t still have a lot of work to do.

Shalikova sighed to herself.

Nothing could ever be easy– not for every long.

Not for soldiers out fighting at sea.

After a short rest, Shalikova turned around in bed, still cuddling with Comrade Fuzzy against her chest. She faced Maryam’s bed and found Maryam seated cross-legged on top, with her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her chest. Her top fins wiggled gently and her tentacles swayed within her hair. She breathed in and out with a deliberate timing. Her soft facial features were slightly screwed close, furrowed brow and cheeks pulling up.

“Trying to concentrate?” Shalikova asked.

“Oh! Sonya! No, I was just relaxing.” Maryam said.

She opened her eyes and smiled. Shalikova’s face sank into Comrade Fuzzy.

“Maryam, don’t keep things from me. You’re no good at it.”

“Ah– well, alright. Since you caught me.”

Maryam shut her eyes, crossed her arms and put on a confident little expression.

“Sonya– I have been finking about our royal cuttlenundrum.”

Maryam grinned.

Shalikova groaned.

“Did you think about it beyond what fish puns to make?” She said.

In response Maryam turned red and puffed up her cheeks, prompting Shalikova to be quiet.

“Okay, sorry–! I was just making fun! Go ahead.”

Maryam shut her eyes, lifted an index finger and looked deep in thought for a moment.

Shalikova stared at her while she puffed herself up for whatever she was about to say.

“Sonya–”

Lifting her pink hands and putting one fist on the other palm like a gavel.

“–it’s time to ask Euphrates, because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah I kinda figured we would arrive there eventually.”

Shalikova laid a hand on her own forehead, lifting up her bangs and sighing.

“After I confessed I was psionic to Murati she told me Euphrates and Tigris were helping her– so I guess it’s okay. As long as Murati does not become involved.” She said.

“Sonya, why are you so against the Lieutenant? She seems nice.” Maryam asked.

For a moment Shalikova imagined Murati fussing over her and Maryam and grimaced.

“Because she’s annoying. Let’s leave it that.”

Maryam gave Shalikova a scrutinizing look before dropping the matter herself.

Shalikova hid fully behind Comrade Fuzzy again.

While the two of them were staring from across the room, something lit up on the door.

In the middle of it a picture appeared in a square computer window.

Short blue hair, wavy and messy, on a youthful, fair-skinned face.

Euphrates was right outside the door, politely requesting access to enter the door.

Shalikova stared at the door with mild surprise.

She half-expected anyone looking for her to be like Illya and just bang and shout on it.

“Speak of the devil. Come in!” Shalikova called out.

Across the room, Maryam had a conflicted expression for a moment and averted her gaze.

Shalikova let go of Comrade Fuzzy and sat up, tossing her hair.

“Good afternoon, Maryam, Sonya Shalikova.”

Euphrates and Tigris crossed the threshold and closed the door behind themselves.

It was the first time Shalikova had a meeting in private with the ship’s “technical partners.”

Shalikova waved quietly in response. Maryam continued averting her gaze.

“I’m surprised she hasn’t turned tomato-colored yet.” Euphrates said.

In response, Maryam puffed up and went red and continued quietly refusing to respond.

“We just came to check up on you.” Tigris said. “On both of you.”

“In fact we just got done covering up for you.” Euphrates said.

“What?” Shalikova stood up straighter in bed. “What does that mean?”

Euphrates put her hands in her coat pockets and smiled.

“Your ability to use psionics came up in conversation– the Captain and Commissar were a bit alarmed to hear that Maryam was psionic as well. I knew she had to be responsible for the Ensign’s psionics.” Euphrates said. For a moment Shalikova went wide-eyed with burgeoning panic. Euphrates must have noticed, as she took her hands out of her pockets to make a comforting gesture. “No, no, no, don’t be afraid. We vouched for Maryam’s trustworthiness and made ourselves responsible for preventing such surprises in the future.”

Shalikova sighed. Maryam continued to give Euphrates and Tigris the silent treatment.

“I figured Murati would have to tell them eventually.” Shalikova said.

“Don’t blame Murati, she has been incredibly discreet.” Euphrates replied.

“Fine. So then– what are the two of you checking up on us for?” Shalikova asked.

“We’re supposed to–” Euphrates began–

“Slow down with the we,” Tigris interrupted. “You volunteered to compile everyone’s psionic potential on the ship. I’m a mechanical engineer, I have things to do. So you have fun covering up all the staring you’re going to do at people on this ship. I am not helping.”

“Can you help me just this once? I really need your assistance.” Euphrates said.

Tigris averted her gaze in the same direction as Maryam. She crossed her arms.

“Whatever. Whatever! I’ll stick around this once.” She said.

“Thank you. Now, take a look at Ms. Shalikova here– you’ll see the problem.”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes, meeting Euphrates and Tigris’ gaze with quiet consternation.

She saw red rings appear on their eyes. Tigris in particular scrutinized Shalikova for longer.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tigris said. “I can’t see anything, no matter what I try. What the hell?”

“Indeed.” Euphrates said. “Ensign, are you employing psionics at the moment?”

“No, I’m not.” Shalikova said. “This is something Maryam said too. My aura is weird.”

Tigris took a deep breath and looked at Shalikova again with renewed intensity.

Shalikova heard Tigris’ speaking in the back of her mind–

Oracle’s Voice: Epexegesis.”

Shalikova instinctively responded with her own psionics having detected Tigris invoking a power. She then saw several thread-width lines of colored light, connecting the fringes of Tigris’ aura to her own– or perhaps to where her own aura should have been. Except, the threads stopped just short of Shalikova and hung in mid-air utterly disconnected from anything. She knew right away that whatever Tigris had attempted to do failed.

“Now you can see why I wanted you to try.” Euphrates said.

“Yeah? But I still can’t understand anything even with Epexegesis.” Tigris sighed.

“What are you two up to?” Shalikova asked. “Why are you trying to read my aura?”

Despite the sudden intrusion and strange behavior of their guests Shalikova was not fearful. This was because Maryam, on the other side of the room, was still pouting and staying out of it as if it was just any other casual occurrence. Maryam would have definitely rushed to defend Shalikova from anything violent or harmful. In addition, Shalikova almost felt like she had her own voice in her mind which was telling her that it was harmless, or perhaps more accurately, it was making that knowledge implicit to her understanding.

Shalikova felt like she had always known, somehow, what this power was meant to do.

It was meant to read auras more deeply than was possible by simply looking.

“Aura reading is something common to psychics. It should not offend you.” Euphrates said.

“She has a right to be offended.” Maryam said. “It’s not up to you.”

“Finally, my dear former pupil deigns to speak with me.” Euphrates smiled.

Maryam stuck out her tongue at her.

“I’m trying to read the aura to get a feel for your psionics, but it’s impossible.” Tigris said.

“And we’ve never seen anything like it.” Euphrates added. “So it’s quite novel.”

“Okay? I have no idea what means for me.” Shalikova said.

“Neither do we.” Euphrates said. “But you don’t look unhealthy, at least.”

“She’s fine.” Maryam said. “Sonya is special! She will use her powers for good.”

“Right. And she’s particularly special to you, isn’t she?” Euphrates said.

She reached out and poked one of Maryam’s head fins, causing Maryam to flinch.

“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a kid.” Maryam said. “I’m not the same as I was!”

“No, you are not. You’ve traveled, found a purpose and people to care about. I think that is lovely, and it was never our intention to bar you from it.” Euphrates said. “You can disagree as vehemently as you want with our ethics as you see them. But to me, you will always be a special pupil whom I had a wonderful time teaching. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Hmph. No thanks. All you taught me was to do the opposite of you.” Maryam said.

“She’s become such a cuttletrarian.” Euphrates said.

“Ugh. I’m leaving.” Tigris mumbled.

“Wait.” Shalikova said, raising her hand. “We need your help with something.”

She turned to face Maryam. “Maryam, tell them. You yourself said we needed them.”

Maryam’s colors went dull for a moment. Her fins and tentacles deflated a little.

“Maryam, please.” Shalikova said. “We promised to help, remember?”

“We did promise.” Maryam had an uncharacteristically disagreeable expression.

With her eyes narrow and an unfriendly glower, she explained their predicament.

Recalling how Elena Lettiere told them that Norn prevented her from using her psionics.

Euphrates and Tigris were quiet as Maryam explained Elena Lettiere’s predicament.

At various points in the story they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes.

Shalikova noticed it– Maryam might have not, or not cared.

After the conclusion of the story, Tigris looked conflicted and Euphrates unmoved.

“So– I dunno, you tell me. How do we exorcise a psionic effect from someone?”

Maryam asked with some of her quiet innocence returning to her mannerisms.

“Maryam– tell me this. How do you define what is real?” Euphrates asked back.

She smiled as if she had just said something very profound.

Maryam’s face instantly turned tomato-red and her eyes went suddenly wide with fury.

“I knew it! I’ve had it up to here with you! Goodbye! I’m not dealing with this again!”

In an instant Maryam stood to leave–

but just as fast Shalikova stepped forward and grabbed her by the jacket.

They stood in the center of the room, with Maryam frowning as she was ensnared.

“Maryam, c’mon, have some patience! For me!” Shalikova pleaded.

Arms crossed, face boiling red, cheeks puffed up, Maryam sat back down on the bed.

This time Shalikova sat beside her to comfort her while Euphrates and Tigris stood.

“I know how you feel– but try to endure it. I get what she’s saying.” Tigris sighed.

“I’m not that annoying, am I?” Euphrate asked. “It’s actually important to consider for this scenario, Maryam. You heard Elena Lettiere describe her experience and drew a conclusion, but think about it: what makes an experience ‘real’? Is there an objective quality, extrinsic to humanity, that makes information, experience, or sight, concretely ‘real’?”

Maryam stared at Shalikova and gestured toward Euphrates with exasperation.

“I’ll answer.” Shalikova said, before Maryam could say something rude or irascible. “I’m not the biggest brain around here, but I’ll try my best to answer earnestly. In the Union, we are taught to be materialists. We believe that the world and its laws are knowable– thinking comes from material conditions. So I guess that, whatever someone experiences, comes from a condition of their material existence. So– whatever you think, it is rooted in something which is real. So Elena must have a reason for what she saw.”

“That’s a good answer– but, do you think you fully verified Elena’s ‘experience’ here?”

“We took her at her word. She told us what she felt.” Shalikova said.

“But people can misinterpret fraught subjects such as these. Especially naïve people.”

Even Shalikova was starting to get agitated. “Look, I’m not a philosopher.”

“Alright, let us set aside the frameworks.” Euphrates said. “Let me clarify what I mean as much as I can. Maryam has presupposed that Elena is ‘under some kind of curse’ that ‘Norn put on her using King’s Gaze’ which then ‘prevents her from performing psionics.’” Euphrates held out fingers for each of these conditions in her argument. “However, how do we confirm this is the case? These are some big leaps of logics. I actually have a counterexample: it is also possible that Elena simply believes she is incapable of performing psionics due to Norn’s influence, without the existence of an actual ‘curse’ at all. You said you read Elena’s aura, but that aura is primarily borne of her own emotions. Even if you think you can feel a trace of Norn there, you do not know why or how. It could all still be ‘in Elena’s head’.”

“That’s what she means by whether something can be objectively real.” Tigris said. “How can we be sure of what happened to Elena? It’s actually easier to believe that Norn influenced Elena’s behavior like, on a traumatic level perhaps, without it having anything to do with ‘curses.’ It could be Elena’s got some learned helplessness to deal with. Or she’s been in Norn’s shadow enough to have internalized a fear of her retribution.”

“Why does any of this matter?” Maryam said. “You’re just philosophizing not helping!”

“I never said I wouldn’t help.” Euphrates said. “But you have to understand, where psionics is concerned, we have to be really careful to consider the variability of the human psyche and of human emotions. My answer from experience is that there is only observable reality– therefore we must be careful what we make others believe to be real. Maryam, if you had tried to ‘remove a curse’ from Elena without understanding what is truly happening, you could have irreparably influenced her mind and damaged her sanity. Imagine if by tinkering around with Elena’s mind within this rhetorical framework of ‘removing Norn’s curse’, you caused her to irrevocably believe Norn is her enemy? You have to be careful.”

Shalikova nodded along. She was a bit fascinated by Euphrates’ logic.

She supposed human minds were still highly complicated, even to experienced psychics.

Henceforth she would have to be careful when she encouraged Maryam to use psionics.

She had not realized she could so much harm to a mind.

“Human minds are conceptual spaces. To their owner, the information that their mind can process is the only thing they can confirm to be ‘reality’. The information and ideology they acquire throughout their life is a function of their material circumstances, that is very true. But what you see, hear, and even smell or taste can still be altered by the condition of the mind. There are people who see things that are not real, and staunchly believe in things they cannot substantiate.” Euphrates said. “Knowing this to be true, you have to be wary of executing a ‘conceptual attack’– using psionics in a way you think is helpful, but that could alter their reality in a way you might not have intended. Not only will the effort be very taxing on your psionics, the end result could be horribly disruptive to your patient.”

“Norn doesn’t even need to use her King’s Gaze to affect Elena.” Tigris added. “For example, if she got to Elena as a kid, when her mind was the most pliable and vulnerable, she can make her believe anything. She could have already been under conceptual attack– we don’t know.”

“It may even be simpler than that, far simpler. At least, simpler in comparison to a decades long conspiracy.” Euphrates said. “Before we do anything, Maryam, I need to talk to Elena Lettiere myself. I want to ask her about Norn and their relationship and then see how she feels. To take it for a given that she is under attack by Norn, and try to tinker with her mind to change that– it could be a horrible mistake. You can’t do such things lightly.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Maryam said, averting her gaze, crossing her arms and pouting.

“It’ll also have to be another day. We’re kinda busy, you know?” Tigris said.

“I understand.” Shalikova said. She turned to Maryam and touched her shoulder for support and affection. “Maryam, I know you wanted to be the big hero, but they’re right. Elena should not just go along with our conjectures. Even if we have the best intentions we need to be careful. Let’s get everyone together and try to figure out more, okay?”

“Sheesh.” Maryam snorted. “Fine, fine, fine. I never said I wanted to force her or anything.”

“Of course. You just got a little over-enthusiastic. It’s part of your charm.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph. I’ve not forgiven you two.” Maryam said. Pointed glaring at the two women.

“Forgiven us for what? We haven’t ever done anything to you.” Tigris said, exasperated.

“For being bad and selfish people!” Maryam said, raising her voice.

“Huh?” Tigris cried out, taken aback by her tone and forcefulness.

“Hmph!” Maryam averted her eyes and puffed her cheeks up.

“Tigris is extremely altruistic. You can be pointed and say it’s my fault.” Euphrates said.

“Hmph!!” Maryam puffed her cheeks up to an even greater degree.

“I won’t disagree with you either.” Euphrates said. “I am– amending– my ethics a bit.”

For the first time her words sounded just a bit hesitant and unsure.

Maryam opened one curious eye to stare sidelong at Euphrates.

Even Tigris started staring at her too.

Euphrates held her hands together in a plaintive gesture, still smiling.

“Inaction and indecision– played more of a part in my thinking than I’d like. I admit it. I allowed events to spiral out of control. I lost perspective.” Euphrates said. “Being on this ship has made me feel that time is moving again for me. And that I must move with it. I can’t remove myself from culpability. I am looking to set things right. Norn, Mehmed, Ganges, Yangtze– any pain they caused is my shared responsibility. I accept it now.”

“Great. Could’ve fooled me.” Tigris replied, glaring at Euphrates again.

“I am not asking for forgiveness, Maryam. But I’d love to have your help in the future.”

Euphrates adjusted her coat, and bid farewell, with Tigris following close behind.

Still arguing about what Euphrates meant and whether she was serious.

That conversation was not for the two left behind, however.

When the door shut, Maryam let out a breath that must have been held long.

She then leaned heavily on Shalikova, squishing her cheeks up against Shalikova’s chest.

“Sonyaaaaa that was super annoying! You have to be really nice to me now, okay?”

“Sure, Sure. Come here. You’re still a big hero to me. A big, squishy softie of a hero.”

Shalikova held Maryam close, stroking the fins on her head and laughing a bit.

Thinking about Maryam and Euphrates, she felt a bit silly about her feelings toward Murati.


After what she considered a somewhat embarrassing appearance at the ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’, Murati made for the brig. Hardly knowing what to make of it that the enemy officer whom she had captured had requested an audience with her specifically. She had no investment in whether or not she would be effective in extracting any information from the captive, so it made no difference to her and she was not exactly anxious.

But she was perplexed and a little bit annoyed.

What would she even say to a fascist, face to face?

Murati had argued with fascists in her head for years.

Anyone who studied theory would likely have had similar moments– putting together a worldview and acquiring a set of convictions required challenging their competing notions in her own head. In Murati’s mind, she had argued with the Imbrian Empire, and lately she had argued with the Volkisch Movement as she learned more of their ideology while continuously refining her own. Why was she not a Fascist? Why was she against Imperialism? Answering these questions was necessary to arrive at the truth of communism.

But she had never thought about what she would say to a living fascist in a discussion.

She had at most thought about what she would say if she had to execute a fascist.

“The People make up a Nation; you’ll never build a Nation without lifting them up.”

Then she would pull the trigger and turn around without even looking at the gore.

Maybe it could use some refinement–

At any rate– on the walk over, Murati wandered what she would say.

To Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, sitting in the brig, requesting to speak with her alone.

Without much progress made in refining a concept of this encounter in her own mind, Murati stood at the door to the brig and gathered her breath. When the door slid open, Murati saw Dr. Kappel jotting something down on her portable clipboard computer. The doctor noticed Murati at the door and gestured for her to wait before coming in. She then stepped outside the brig and shut the door and bid Murati follow her a few steps away, so they would be farther from the brig when speaking. Murati figured she had been evaluating Aatto, and caught a glimpse of a photo of Aatto taken with the computer camera for her file.

“Murati, I completed a preliminary evaluation of Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Dr. Kappel said. She clicked the switch to shut off her computer. “This evaluation was performed for the sake of her health, as one of my new patients– and I will not disclose any specific physical health conditions, or anything she specifically confided in me. But I thought that it might help you to speak with her more effectively if I gave you my basic assessment of her first.”

Murati bristled a little bit. “So the fascist also has medical rights on this ship?”

“Murati, everyone has rights on this ship. As long as I am the ship’s Doctor, we will not deny captives basic treatment. It would be senselessly cruel.” Dr. Kappel sternly said.

“Fair enough.” Murati replied. She felt a little embarrassed in her response.

However, she was also too stubborn to apologize, and still felt she was justified too.

“At any rate. I am not a psychotherapist, but I am trained enough to serve as a counsel for the ship, and I performed some initial assessments of Aatto’s mental health. Are you interested in hearing them, or would you prefer to form your own?” Dr. Kappel asked Murati.

“I’m interested. How coherent is she? Is she holding up well in the brig?” Murati asked.

“She’s quite coherent.” Dr. Kappel replied. “She is willing to talk and is in fact affable in conversation. She answers questions and does not appear distressed by her current predicament. She has realistic expectations about her captivity, but has not expressed any anger, frustration or anxiety about being imprisoned. Her physical health is adequate. However, despite her attitude– I would say her mental health could be at risk.”

“How so?” Murati asked.

“I believe she might be a suicide risk.” Dr. Kappel said. “And my true motive for speaking with you is that, during your interrogation, please be wary of Aatto and if needed, stop her from hurting herself. She has expressed that she holds her life in low regard, and made a few morbid jokes without prompting during our discussion that trouble me. Coupled with the certainty and confidence she projects, I fear she may decide to– escape, in that way.”

Murati was a little bit shocked. She was briefly unable to speak as she processed.

More shocked about her own reaction than anything– she felt a bit of a pang of nerves.

Why would she care if the fascist does anything to herself? They were lower than dirt.

And yet– she didn’t want to be party to someone trying to hang or stab themselves either.

Not in this sort of environment. There was no battle raging in here.

“I won’t bring in anything into her cell, and I’ll watch her carefully.” Murati said.

“Thank you. I don’t expect you to treat her kindly– but remember we have standards.”

“I know.” Murati said. Internally, bristling at the idea that Aatto deserved anything.

Dr. Kappel nodded her head in acknowledgment and turned to leave.

“Wait, Doctor.” Murati said. Dr. Kappel paused to hear her out. “Do you know why Aatto wants to talk with me? Did she tell you anything about that? The Captain and Commissar have not had time to properly interrogate her just yet– but they wanted me to acquiesce to her request. I do not know what benefit she gets out of talking to me.”

“My fear aside, I think it may be a matter of pride or respect for her.” Dr. Kappel said.

“That makes sense. She confronted me directly and I made a fool of her.” Murati said.

“Right. She may want to look into the eyes of the person who captured her, to hear her voice, to be processed by you, as a form of accepting and coping with her failure. I will keep to myself exactly what she said, and like I said, I won’t ask you to moderate your voice.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I will do my best to try to handle things– humanely.” Murati replied.

“That’s all I ask. She may be unworthy of our respect, but she’s still our responsibility.”

Dr. Kappel reached out a hand and Murati shook with her, leaving on better terms.

Now, however, Murati was actually troubled by the idea of meeting Aatto.

Her situation became more complicated than ‘yelling at the fascist.’

Nevertheless, Murati returned to the brig with her hands closed into fists.

Farthest from the door were the few barred cells on the ship. On the right-hand side were the solitary confinement cells, all of which were now unoccupied. Just past the door, standing between the landing and barred cells, Zhu Lian stood guard. Murati found her in the midst of untying her long, dark hair and retying it into a ponytail. She dressed in the same nanomail bodysuit she usually wore, with thicker plates of separated armor on her chest, gloves, waist and leg guards. She had a collapsible baton hooked to her belt and no other weapons. Murati waited for her to be done with her hair before speaking.

“Greetings, comrade. How’s the prisoner doing?” Murati asked.

Zhu opened one eye and let go of her ponytail. “Oh! Hello Lieutenant. She’s behaving.”

“I’ll be stepping in to talk to her.” Murati said.

“Yeah, I heard from the Commissar. She’s all yours. Where should I wait?”

“You can stay here for now. Has she said anything?”

“She said she was excited to meet you. Weird, huh? Like I said, she’s quite well-behaved. I expected her to be more aggro but she has been remarkably quiet and polite.”

Murati nodded her head, walked past Zhu Lian and stepped up to the bars of the cell.

As soon as her shadow crossed the bars, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s gaze lifted to follow her every move. Aatto was seated on the fold-out bed provided in the cell, her hands crossed on her lap with eyes cast downcard. She smiled and raised her head upon seeing Murati approach. Aatto had been stripped of much of her uniform. Her coat was gone, her boots were gone, her hat, all of her pins and collar patches and armbands. Aatto was only allowed to keep her button-down shirt, sans tie, as well as her pants, sans belt.

Even her brassiere had been taken– exceptionally evident with her shirt halfway open.

Dark blue eyes meet auburn; Murati stood across the bars.

Aatto stood in turn to meet her.

“Thank you for granting my request. I’ve been dying to meet you.” Aatto said.

“I am just following orders. I’m only curious to know what you want.” Murati replied.

Aatto smiled, a little too happy for Murati’s taste.

She was shorter than Murati, though she would not have called Aatto short overall. She was a well-proportioned young woman, busty, average in figure, decently fit. Fair skinned, dark-eyed, with sleek cheekbones and a small nose with a tight bridge and slightly rounded end– she certainly could have been described as attractive. Her long, brown hair was well-kept, silky and shiny even with minimal hygiene the past few days. Blunt bangs covered her forehead, while the rest of her hair was long and straight. Her tall, sharp ears had abundant fluff while her tail was bushy and bristly, widening with fur across its length.

Her body language was confident and quick. Her hands moved a bit as she spoke.

Unlike her stern commands in Kreuzung, her voice in captivity turned somewhat sweet.

“I would like to throw myself upon your mercy, and under your power.” Aatto said.

She bowed her head, at first– then dipped into a stage bow, with one arm out.

“No mercy is necessary. As far as I know, nobody intends you harm.” Murati said.

“It’s more than that. It’s about my purpose.” Aatto said. She stood back up to full height.

Her voice reverberated through Murati’s chest like a shockwave.

Those dark-blue eyes flashed a strange gaze at Murati’s own.

In that instant, Murati pulled her internal trigger in reaction.

Red rings glowed around her eyes which met their counterparts in Aatto’s own.

They were reading each other’s auras– Aatto had some psionic ability.

Not only that– Murati could see in her aura the bizarre euphoria slowly becoming evident in her expression as they stared each other down. Aatto’s tail began to wag so strongly it started striking the bed repeatedly. A cheek-to-cheek smile flashing white teeth; embroiled in a white and blue flame of an aura, impassioned, exuberant, sublime–

With a texture like a waterfall, like rushing silk, an unbroken current–

There was no denying what was going through her mind.

“Murati Nakara, please take me as your own instrument! Let me be of use to you!”

Murati was stunned to silence. Those words completely shattered her composure.

There was not a hint of aggression or hesitation in Aatto’s aura or her body language.

She was sincere; utterly sincere. Her every emotion was sharply focused on Murati.

“I want nothing more than to serve you! I wish I had been born a part of your body rather than all of mine. I want to see your power! Let me defect and I will show you how useful I can be! This body– you can do anything you want with it! All of my life has led me to this moment. Take me, or strike me down, whatever you wish! But I know that in life, I can be a great asset to you! I will tell you anything you want about the Volkisch! And I’m not just an informant; I’m a great analyst and organizer! Let me be your personal adjutant!”

Aatto’s speech continued to rise in volume and her expression grew wilder.

As if by continuing to speak she was making herself more and more excited.

When she finally finished, there was an enormous void where her shouting had been.

Readily filled anew– by the roaring indignation within the object of her admiration.

“Are you insane?” Murati shouted back. “You want to defect because of me?”

“Yes! Please take me under your command! I will do anything!” Aatto said.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! I would never–! You insane fascist!”

“I’m not a fascist! I’ll be whatever you need! Please let me join you!”

“Do you even hear yourself? Have you any shame? How can I possibly trust you?”

“Give me a chance and I will absolutely prove myself worthy of trust!”

Murati and Aatto shouted back and forth at each other, as if neither was listening.

Nothing could have prepared Murati, this situation was in none of her plans.

None of the possible conversations she imagined with this woman led to this outcome.

Aatto did not seem suicidal, at least– but she was certifiably, completely insane!

It shook Murati– the kinds of words she had never heard in her life.

Murati had never been so admired, no one had ever thrown themselves on her.

And all of this desire was coming from the imprisoned fascist?

Some part of her was susceptible to the flattery– but she categorically rejected it!

“Why me?” Murati asked, sounding like a mortified girl. “What’s wrong with you?!”

“Of course it has to be you!” Aatto said. “You demonstrated true power to me, Murati!”

“Power– right! You’re also– no, shut up, one moment–!”

Murati turned around suddenly. Near the door, Zhu Lian stood with her mouth covered.

She saw Murati turn to face her, and silently realized the reason for her doing so.

Zhu Lian, nearly laughing, left the room instantly. Hopefully she would be discreet.

Murati turned back to Aatto to find her holding the bars with her face against them.

That demented smile as if a permanent feature of her expression.

In her mind, Murati superimposed the black uniform full of fascist symbols over her body.

She shook her head, balled up her fists with frustration. Her head filling with violence.

Stepping up to the bars herself to lock eyes with Aatto, so close she could feel her breath.

“Be completely serious. Nobody is listening. Tell the truth. Now.” Murati said.

“You know I am telling the truth. You can see it. I am not lying to you.” Aatto said.

She was not lying to Murati. She was completely earnest, completely certain, and peaceful.

That smile on her face that seemed like it would never wipe off was utterly sincere.

But none of it made any sense!

“Who are you? Who are you really, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather?” Murati asked.

“I was but a living corpse until the sight of you made me want to live again.” Aatto said.

“Ugh! That’s insane! That’s nonsense! Stop making shit up! I won’t fall for your tricks!”

Murati knew Aatto was not tricking her. Murati knew that Aatto was telling the truth.

However, in the landscape of what should have been true, her answer was impermissible.

“Tell me the truth! The actual, whole truth, Aatto! What are you trying to do?”

“Murati Nakara, the Loup are a warrior culture of the Imbrium Empire. We are born to follow the orders of unworthy masters. I was nothing but a soldier, but hardly any good at direct combat– in Rhinea, they made me into an intelligence analyst and then a field agent. I did this task for the Imperial Navy and then the Volkisch inherited me like an old coat left in a closet. But I was never loyal to the Volkisch– in fact, I actually saved many Liberals from persecution! I falsified information, rerouted patrols! I betrayed the Volkisch!”

“Like I believe that.” She was telling the truth. Still telling the truth. Her aura was bright and untroubled and unmistakably clear. “Do you have any proof?” (She was telling the truth.)

“Ask the social-democrats in Aachen about Illaria Howell and Heimdall.” Aatto said.

“I suppose I will.” Murati said. Her resistance remained firm. “But why would you spy on or turn against the Volkisch? Why help the Liberals? What was in it for you? I know you possess powers yourself. You just showed them to me– I’m sure you meant to do so as well.”

“Yes, I meant to show you– though my power is far weaker than yours. I can only see.”

“Fine. Answer the question. You had personal power and standing– why risk yourself?”

Aatto’s smile wore steadily away as she answered.

“I helped the Liberals because I thought that they would take up arms and fight against the Volkisch. It all came at me like a flash. Several most-wanted persons cases fell onto my lap. In the course of my typical work, I had the opportunity to fix papers and assist in the escape of Illaria Howell, a big liberal politician, before she was purged by the Sicherheitsdienst. We met briefly in the course of events, and she vowed that she would form a resistance network, and I agreed to help save more liberals in order to help her do so. My heart fluttered– I wanted to see the Liberals destroy the Volkisch and reassert their place in the world– I wanted to see if they could overturn what seemed like their wretched Destiny.” Aatto said. Murati noted her darkening demeanor. “But all they wanted was to escape with their lives. Illaria had lied, none of them resisted. They simply wanted to go into hiding and avoid any danger. Their cowardice sickened me– I endangered myself for nothing. So– I resigned myself to return to the Volkisch, to what seemed like my own fate. Then I was captured by you.”

She raised her head again to look at Murati. Some of her bright cheer slowly returned.

That way she looked at Murati– with such fondness and tenderness– it was frightening.

“You rescued me from them, Murati! From my indenture to those weaklings!”

“Stop calling me by name, I don’t know you!” Murati grumbled.

“Oh! Of course. Of course! Forgive my impudence. You are someone who is worthy of the utmost, strictest respect. What is your rank– or should I just call you my Master?”

“What?! No! People will misunderstand! Don’t call me Master! I’m nobody’s Master!”

Murati stepped away from the bars while Aatto kept a thoroughly fixed gaze on her.

“Of course. Whatever you say.” Aatto replied. “You are my King.”

“Absolutely not! I’m nobody’s King!”

Exasperated, Murati turned her back on Aatto to avoid her eyes.

Behind herself, she heard a sharp intake of breath as she took steps toward the door.

“Please don’t go! I’m sorry! Please! I’m truly serious! I am defecting! Please!”

Murati fully intended to leave and did not immediately pause when she heard the cries.

“Please don’t abandon me! I truly can get better! Please! I want to change my fate!”

Close to the door, Murati fully stopped. She sighed to herself. She laid a hand on her face.

Aatto was openly crying and screaming and begging like she had been beaten.

I want to change my fate.

At no point had Aatto been lying to Murati. She knew that well.

Maybe even without psionics, she would have felt Aatto’s bizarre sincerity as well.

Her demeanor had changed entirely like she had swapped one identity for another.

It was shocking– but it was also hard to trust anything she said.

However–

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Murati asked, still not turning around.

She felt a pang of a truly wretched sympathy.

“My father once said– the world is a barrel-organ that God turns. We are just spectators to a song already recorded on the drum.” Aatto said, breaking out into outright sobbing and weeping. Her voice cracked– Murati thought she heard a banging on the bars and recalled Dr. Kappel’s words. She turned around immediately and found Aatto thankfully unharmed but drooping against the bars with all of her brightness and strength sapped. “I was born to be a servant– to unworthy rulers– but I don’t want the fate of the Loup– I don’t want the fate of the Loup–! Please, don’t abandon me– don’t– when I found hope–”

“Be quiet!” Murati said. “Just for a moment– be quiet. Please. I won’t leave yet.”

Aatto seemed to have spent all of her exuberance. But she dutifully quieted down.

Hanging against the bars as if holding them was all she could do to stay up.

Her eyes running red, tears down her cheeks, lips quivering with sobs.

If this was all acting– it was terribly convincing.

(And could her aura even lie about such clear and open intentions?)

Murati was torn in half by opposing instincts.

There was a part of her that reveled in the power to cause Aatto suffering.

That voice said,

“this fascist should die screaming with the agony the Volkisch inflicted on the world.”

There was a part of her that softened to the plight that had reduced Aatto to begging.

That voice said,

“this girl should be able to overcome the ideology that has had her captive for life.”

How was it that a person lived ‘inherited like an old coat’ by an evil military regime?

But then again– Murati did not know that much about Imperial Loup culture either.

What was the fate of the Loup? What would Murati be consigning Aatto to suffer?

What had Aatto suffered already that led her to this place? To her present mania?

Murati walked back to the cell and stood opposite Aatto once again.

Aatto raised her head and stared at Murati. Not smiling anymore– broken down.

It was tough to look at her now, having seen her previously carefree smile shatter to this.

Knowing that all she did was turn her back once to cause this to happen.

“Do you believe in the racial superiority of a class of ubermenschen?”

Murati’s question momentarily perplexed Aatto. But Murati did not follow up.

She did not even meet Aatto’s gaze until the captive provided an answer.

“Of course not. I’m a Loup. I wouldn’t be considered as such.” Aatto whimpered.

“Do you believe there’s an untermenschen class unfit to have agency in their lives?”

There was a heavy note of bitterness in the next answer.

“I believe the Imbrian people are largely a smooth-brained rabble.” Aatto replied.

Murati’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you believe there is ‘life unworthy of life’ such as social parasites and degenerates?”

Aatto paused for a moment, catching her breath. “Well– It depends–”

Murati frowned. “Do you believe that all Imbrians form a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ that must carry out their unique racial destiny through the conquest of enemy racial communities?”

“I guess my definition of Imbrian is pretty broad, if I were to submit it–”

“Do you think there is a conspiracy of enemy races against the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’?”

Aatto put on a small carefree grin again.

“Well– I think, if you look at the evidence, the Cogitans and Hanwans recently–”

Murati slammed her hands on the bars in exasperation. She failed every question!

Aatto drew her eyes wide with surprise at the striking on the bars.

“You think exactly the same as a fascist! You’re still a fascist with fluffy ears and a tail!”

“Please forgive me! All I’ve ever known is the Northern Host and the Volkisch Movement! I can change if you help me! Show me your books! Teach me what you believe!” Aatto said.

“Damn it, you’re just saying whatever I want to hear?! You manipulative bitch!”

“No! It’s the truth, you know it’s the truth! You can see it! Please– I’m begging you.”

Aatto lifted her hands from the bars and clapped them together, shaking.

As if in prayer or reverence, a supplicating gesture. Her ears folding, tail dropping.

Murati was utterly exasperated and out of sorts with this whole charade, but–

No matter how much she wanted to harden herself and cast this woman into the fire.

It may well have been cruel and inhumane to simply walk away and ignore Aatto.

She could feel what she believed to be truth in her heart and it weakened her front.

There was no equivocating that Aatto was an Imperial officer and had worked for the Volkisch. Wearing that uniform was an atrocity. She tried to do some good in her position, maybe– but she had warped reasons for doing so. Even if she was perhaps not an ordinary fascist she was certainly an elitist and a mystic. That idea of hers– trying to find someone who would fight the Volkisch to “overturn Destiny,” it was clearly a gigantic delusion. Aatto could have easily just been fishing for the winning side to save her own skin.

But– it felt more difficult to condemn her after seeing her break down.

Murati started to retrace the path of her own current convictions, searching her heart.

Child to labor organizers who were punished with slavery, and who died in the service of communism. A nun and a traveler who became scientists, who became communists, who became fighters willing to kill for their beliefs. They had changed over time. Like all citizens of the Empire they had not been born communists. They had arrived at that conviction.

Murati became a communist in the nation her parents helped to found, and now she could judge Aatto for what she thought with a lifetime worth of living and studying under communism. Her material conditions led her to her present state. It could have all gone quite wrong somewhere in the middle. Even in the Union, there were still nonbelievers in communism and even people who still held on to nationalistic or liberal ideas.

Murati had an opportunity that was explicitly denied to someone like Aatto.

Aatto had been brought up to an entirely different set of circumstances. She could have been said to have been a slave herself. Loup were a racial minority in the Empire, raised and valued as military manpower. That much Murati knew, even if she did not know the exacting cultural specifics of the Loup Hosts. She did not know much about their religion or traditions or family lives, and had only superficial knowledge that the Northern and Southern Hosts differed culturally. She did know that Imbrians could put Loup in torpedoes and shoot them at enemy ships to try to board them. She did know that the royal family once upon a time had a tradition of keeping a royal guard brigade half-composed of Loup kidnapped from their homes as children and raised as soldiers entirely within the captivity of Heitzing.

Even if that tradition had been overturned by the Fuellers– it still spoke to something.

Imbrians saw the Loup as inferiors. They were not equals in society. Far from it.

They were all objects; instruments of war that could only thrive in the military.

Despite this, there were plenty of Loup still fighting for imperialism and the Volkisch.

There were many Loup who still internalized fighting for this status quo as a virtue.

But there was one Loup, in front of her, begging for a chance to do otherwise.

Perhaps a Loup could not be a fascist in the way an Imbrian could. It was more complex. Perhaps that was only an excuse Murati was making for herself, for this Loup. For this fascist— specifically. Because she could see her hurt right in front of her eyes. Even despite her convictions. Even despite everything she had come to believe. Her rationality told her that it was too convenient to view Aatto as a special case among the fascists.

Aatto had not been without choices. Her condition could not be entirely given onto fate. She could not be seen as entirely helpless. Even if she seemed to believe that she had been led to this by the nose, she always had choices. All humans did, even if those choices were grim and hopeless at times. To wear that uniform and work as a fascist, was a horrific choice– but she had also made the choice to rebel. More than once. And perhaps given a chance, Aatto could rebel enough to make amends for whatever circumstances led her to Volkisch service.

To condemn Aatto to “the fate of the Loup” as she put it– Murati did not have the steel in her chest to do that. As much as she felt like she was betraying her own convictions for not hating Aatto with every fiber of her being, for not stepping past those bars and beating her into a pulp the second she tried to beg for forgiveness. None of that would actually be justice. None of that would overturn the yoke the Volkisch had on anyone else. It would just be petty, senseless vengeance, in effigy, for the same monsters that probably tormented Aatto greatly herself. Murati grit her teeth at her own soft-heartedness.

Defectors existed in all causes to all causes– by that rubric, Aatto was not hopeless.

For everything else, Murati could only have faith and hope she would not regret her choice.

“I will talk to the Captain and Commissar about your defection.” Murati said.

She tried to keep a stoic tone and would not meet Aatto’s eyes any longer.

Aatto stared at her and smiled through her tears. Her face instantly brightened.

“Thank you! I won’t let you down! Your magnanimity is radiant! You are a true saint!”

“I’m not guaranteeing you anything!” Murati said sharply. “But I will talk to them.”

“Of course. I know you don’t have absolute power– though you deserve it–”

“Ugh. Don’t make me regret this.” Murati said. “You better be serious about it.”

“I am serious! I will be more than an adjutant! I will bear your scepter! I’ll be your knight!”

Murati could not have balled up her fists any tighter hearing all of that nonsense.

What kind of a mess am I getting myself into with this woman?

She tried to focus on material things. There was too much idealism in the atmosphere.

A Volkisch defector could be a great asset!

Aatto had been part of the Volkisch intelligence, the Sicherheitsdienst. If she truly had the kind of access to divert prisoners, fool patrols, and falsify documents, then Aatto could be a trove of information on the Volkisch and their operations and processes. Even taken with a grain of salt, it could help. And if she was telling the truth, she was crafty enough not to be caught, and she had connections with the liberals. They could use Aatto to help them find more Volkisch willing to turn and talk, or act as spies, perhaps. Even if she also insisted on being Murati’s adjutant– well, Murati could always use the help. She had been incredibly busy lately. But Aatto’s slavering displays of devotion were incredibly vexing.

It would be terribly embarrassing if she spent all her time trying to lick Murati’s boots.

But– Murati had given her word now. She had set her mind to being responsible for this.

Having Aatto locked up until she lost her mind and hurt herself was not a solution.

Maybe accepting her defection was not a perfect solution. But it was comparatively better.

So, Murati could say, in a unforeseen and surreal way, this was a productive outcome.

She could say that to herself repeatedly like a mantra until she shouted down her anxiety.

Still– Aatto’s behavior was unnerving. Something had to be done.

Something had to be said.

She turned her back again and found the words to voice her worry.

“I’m leaving. By the way, I have a wife. So– if you’re after me for– baser reasons, you had better not get your hopes up.” Murati said. She felt insane for feeling like she needed to clarify such a thing. But Aatto’s behavior had to be corrected somehow.

“I see! Well, that’s not a problem for me.” Aatto casually responded.

Murati was not facing Aatto but could practically see her expression in her mind’s eye.

Her mind was briefly overcome in a storm of emotions.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? WHAT–?!

Murati vocalized nothing of the screams and expletives going off in her mind.

She simply and silently put one foot in front of the other and vacated the brig.

Her head throbbing and pounding– but her heart lighter and less aggrieved.


“Marina, we’re back here again. Again! After all the times you withheld information from us that ended so well.” Ulyana said sternly. “What do you have to say for yourself now?”

“At this point I am not sure I’d ever trust another word out of your mouth.” Aaliyah added.

“I have nothing to say in my defense. I apologize profusely.” Marina mumbled.

“You apologize– and yet keep choosing to lie to us every time anyway!” Ulyana shouted.

For their final disciplinary meeting of the day, Ulyana and Aaliyah saved the worst.

Marina McKennedy in her suit and button-down shirt, with her hands cuffed behind her back. Seated on a table across from Aaliyah and Ulyana, with Klara van Der Smidse looking over her. Out of everyone on the ship who had taken some misguided action, Marina was the only one being treated as actively dangerous. Ulyana felt like she had ample reason to think so. Marina was the only one who had consistently been in a situation like this and simply never reformed herself. In every situation since they allowed her aboard Marina had deceived them. And now Marina was also the one who had caused actual, verifiable harm.

For Illya or Zachikova, their last escapade was the first time they disobeyed orders.

Both of them at least had a noble reason– saving their comrades.

Marina, meanwhile, had aided and abetted in the Kreuzung Core Separation Crisis.

She confessed to everything with hardly any prompting.

“I was looking for information on an old partner of mine– a scientist named Asan. In the course of that, I ran into Kitty McRoosevelt, a GIA agent who was behind the Core Separation plot. I knew what Kitty was up to, she told me up front. I tried to dissuade her from it; but then I assisted her. I helped her secure mercenaries and refined her plan. I knew if I didn’t do anything, she would just get herself killed. I could see it in her eyes that she was ready to die. I thought if she succeeded it might create an opportunity for you and that it might save her life. I was wrong. I knew I was the moment I saw those lights start flickering.”

“You’re damn right that you were wrong!” Ulyana shouted. She could not help but feel incensed at the unfeeling delivery of this excuse, for the degree of evil that had been committed. “Marina, potentially torching an entire station is not worth an opportunity! You assisted this madwoman in attacking a reactor! You could have compromised the entire structure! Citizens of a station have nowhere to run to or hide from that! If you destroy the tower they will die crushed within it! Without hope of escape! Anyone who could escape would be the rich or the Volkisch! Is this truly how the G.I.A. operates?”

Unlike in past confrontations, Marina did not try to excuse herself.

She did not meet Ulyana’s shouting with her own, nor did she continue equivocating.

Instead she looked down at the table, her hands tied behind her back.

Unable to meet the eyes of her now captors.

“An apology is worth nothing to us Marina. The scale of your deceit here is intolerable. You almost certainly have the blood of innocents on your hands for this.” Aaliyah said.

“I’ve always had the blood of innocents on my hands.” Marina mumbled.

“Don’t even try it.” Ulyana said. “You’ll find no sympathy from us with that excuse.”

While the Republic of Alayze and the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice were strategic allies against the Imbrian Empire, Ulyana would not tolerate Marina’s lazy and callous defense. The G.I.A. could lie, cheat and steal all it wanted, but all was not fair in the course of war– there were things which were beyond the pale for even special forces or spy agencies to do. There had to be a level at which brutality was not worth success– and there was one.

On a material level, attacking stations was difficult for any combatant under the ocean, because a station was an enormous prize that was easy to destroy, and thereby condemning and annihilating everyone inside it– but useless in such a state. Capturing stations was the most difficult part of any armed conflict, more difficult than fighting fleets. There were ways to do it. Compromising the electricity or blowing it up was not on the table.

It was taboo– because it was foreclosing the possibility of human life itself.

Such wanton brutality did nobody favors. It moved humanity closer to total extinction.

Even the greediest and most sadistic madmen of history had avoided the cardinal sin.

There was nothing but water out there– the human world was inside the stations.

Whether to plunder, whether to build power, or set people free– the stations had to stand.

To attack a station with the intent of destruction was to attack human life in itself.

Nobody would gain anything from it. All of humanity would simply, permanently lose.

“What can I even say to this anymore?” Ulyana said. She had shouted herself out of breath.

There was nothing more to say. Marina had gone too far. They could hardly fathom it.

It was hard to speak of punishments for something like this.

Somehow anything they said or did felt like it was not possibly enough.

Still, they had to reach beyond the emotional and assert a realistic response.

“I advise we strip Marina of the rank and credentials we afforded her.” Aaliyah said.

“I’m still on your side. I still want to help.” Marina said. Still staring down at the table.

“You have gone too far this time Marina. I am not able to excuse what you did, to myself, in any fucking way.” Ulyana said. “You’re damn lucky. We are not about to have an execution carried out on this ship. Your words are meaningless; but your actions may yet redeem you. For now what you’ve earned yourself is two weeks of solitary confinement, and the loss of your rank aboard the ship. Once you come back out, you’re a civilian to us.”

“An untrustworthy civilian who will be monitored stringently.” Aaliyah added.

Marina smiled bitterly. “You’re right. I’ve been lucky one too many times haven’t I?”

“Sit in the brig and think about what you did. It’s you who has to live with that.”

Marina grit her teeth. She still could not lift her gaze to meet theirs.

“Damn it. You’re both soldiers too. Where the fuck do you two get off on judging me?! Commie bastards. How many people wouldn’t you kill for a victory?”

From across the table, Ulyana suddenly raised her arm and slapped Marina across the face.

With such vehemence she knocked Marina sideways out of her chair.

Aaliyah had no admonishment for this act of impulse.

She quietly stood up from her chair and with Klara’s help got Marina up from the floor.

Marina weakly struggled in Klara’s grip, but could not escape the security girl.

From her expression it was evident she knew she was completely out of hand.

“Take her away.” Ulyana said sternly. Klara nodded and led Marina out of the room.

The last Ulyana saw of Marina that day, was the glint of tears in her eyes.

When the door shut, Ulyana broke out into tears too.

The Captain’s whole body was shaking from the anger and shame bound up inside her.

How could all of this mess have happened, under their watch?

Were they that useless and helpless?

“Captain, we trusted her and had that trust violated. It wasn’t our fault.” Aaliyah said.

“I know.” Ulyana wiped her eyes in vain. “It’s just– god damn it. It’s so senseless.”

Aaliyah returned to the Captain’s side and rubbed her shoulder for support.

“There’s always going to be a horrid, bloodstained line between the need to take action and the need to take the right action.” Aaliyah said. She was not weeping, but had a tender expression. “We can’t hold ourselves up too high– we can be as ethical as the situation allows us; we can try to avoid unnecessary, senseless violence. But our actions against the Empire will have consequences like this– or worse. We have to be ready.”

“I know.” Ulyana said. She lifted a hand to her face to cover her weeping eyes.

Deep down what hurt the most is that only a very thin line separated them from Kitty McRoosevelt. Would they ever become as desperate as she had been?

Ulyana could not deny it– not decisively. That was the worst feeling of all.

“You have a good heart Captain.” Aaliyah said. “You don’t have to bear Marina’s burden.”

“Thank you.” Ulyana said. “I just feel responsible. She admitted to it so callously.”

“Can I be frank with you, Captain?” Aaliyah said.

“Always.”

“Don’t let this become another Pravda for you.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Aaliyah for a moment. She swallowed the shock.

Despite a brief surprise she quickly recognized Aaliyah’s support for what it was.

“Thank you for your candor. I won’t break down. I just need time to process.”

“Thank you. I understand. It has been a heavy few days for you.”

“For us, Aaliyah. You are invaluable to me. I’d go insane without you.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. I believe you’re stronger than that.”

Aaliyah smiled at Ulyana. Despite her tears, Ulyana smiled back.

They remained together in the room for a few moments, decompressing.

Then, the meeting room door blinked, a bright computer window opening on its surface.

Murati Nakara was requesting access to the room.

Unexpected but not a problem.

Ulyana wiped her tears.

Aaliyah sat beside her and verbally commanded the door to open.

“Greetings. Captain. Commissar. I spoke with the prisoner– it’s funny, actually–”

Murati walked into the room and sat on Marina’s chair– she had on a strange expression.

They had never seen her so apparently nervous, and yet almost laughing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah followed her with their eyes. Murati had a manic sort of energy.

When she spoke, she started gesticulating with her hands in a rather dramatic fashion.

“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather– is defecting to become my personal adjutant. There are a few things we can confirm to be sure of her sincerity, but I will take responsibility for her.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah blinked at her silently for several heavy heartbeats.

In both their heads a calculation of the circumstances seemed to play out.

Their facial expressions went through several increasingly darkening shifts.

“I guess we need to discuss what to do about her rank right? I have some ideas.”

Murati added this while nervously picking at her own tie and collar.

Speechless, Captain and Commissar both laid their heads against the table.

As if a wave of exhaustion had suddenly claimed their ability to stand.

Instantly, the room went silent, save for Murati laughing a bit, nervously still.

For several minutes the Captain and Commissar simply groaned in response.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.2]

A pair of dark-furred cat-like ears stood up straight and engaged in a subtle wiggling.

“I’m hearing an Imperial ship! Ritter-class Cruiser!” Fatima al-Suhar called out.

Several bridge officers stiffened up in their seats.

The Ritter-class encompassed quite a few ships that had given the Brigand and its guests substantial grief in recent events. The Aleksandr detected near the end of the battle for Kreuzung; the Greater Imbria that had chased Elena Lettiere out of her home; and worst of all, the Antenora, flagship of the fearsome Norn the Praetorian. Ritters were high-tech types of vessels that could fight toe to toe with the Brigand if not give it pause outright, with comparable 150 mm guns, secondary 76 mm guns, missiles, torpedoes, drones and Divers.

“Check for the IFF before getting nervous.” Olga Athanasiou said, in a blunt tone of voice.

There was a rare configuration of command on the bridge. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya was out taking care of ‘personnel issues’; Commissar Aaliyah Bashara joined her; and Premier Erika Kairos meeting the sailors and thus, also indisposed. Prior to their adventure in Kreuzung this should have made Murati the next-in-command on the bridge as First Officer.

Instead, Erika’s right-hand woman Olga Athanasiou was given the bridge, sitting in the big chair in her black hoodie and long casual pants, her pale hair tied up in a ponytail. This was more of a mercenary situation than the strict military regimentation the crew was used to.

On the main screen, a small Zachikova model appeared and nodded her head.

She pointed her round, tiny hand at waveform graph that appeared beside her little body.

“This signal perfectly matches the ‘Day Code’ given to us by Premier Kairos to identify the Volksarmee’s acoustic beacon IFF. I am certain that this is an allied vessel.” She said.

Olga smiled and leaned farther back in the Captain’s chair, putting her feet up.

“That’s the Rostock then. Helm, rendezvous with them. Signals, send an acoustic hail.”

“Yes ma’am!”

Kamarik and Semyonova worked as instructed, efficiently and without complaint.

“So– do you think she is ever going to learn our names?”

On the opposite side of the bridge from signals, Torpedo Officer Alex Geninov grumbled.

“Gamer, tis been but few moons since she joined our band. Silence your errant tongue.”

Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa whispered back with typical verbosity.

Olga sighed audibly at the two of them.

“Rejoice you two; I know your names, because you get scolded the most!” She said.

Fernanda shot Alex a glare as if to say ‘you got me in trouble again!’

Alex squirmed in her seat, under both Olga and Fernanda’s glowering expressions.

Even with Olga in the Captain’s chair, there could still be an air of familiarity.

Soon after, the National Volksarmee flagship answered the Brigand’s message. Within 30 minutes the two vessels closed enough to one another for laser-based communications. On the main screen, the Rostock came to loom massively within 50 meters of the Brigand in the otherwise empty-seeming, near-black landscape of Eisental. It was the first time since they had left Thassal Station that the Brigand was face to face with an Imperial model ship on assuredly friendly terms. Quite a unique image to be seeing in ultra-high resolution.

The Ritter-class, also known as the “Sword class,” resembled what its nickname suggested. The prow of the ship was sharp and roughly triangular, while the gently flared rear armor over the hydrojets resembled a sword’s handguard. Atop the slight curve of the top deck rested the main gun turret, its dual 150 mm barrels and their chunky drainage housings permanently engaged, unlike the Brigand’s retractable guns. But the Rostock had a few modifications. Most obviously, it had a livery, dark green with a red stripe running across the bow. In addition to the interdiction gas guns and the secondary 76 mm cannons, there were also additional jet anchor pods installed on the front and rear of the ship. Sixteen cells of vertical missile launchers were evident as well. How had Erika acquired such a vessel?

Olga always answered the same– that is a story for another day.

So the crew remained curious but nonetheless professional as they could be.

“Yeah, that’s her all right.” Olga said. “Accept the hail, Sig– Semyonova. Main screen.”

Semyonova smiled at Olga. “Yes ma’am. Right away.”

She promptly routed the communication from the Rostock to the main screen situated on the forebridge. After a few seconds a woman appeared, saluting the entire time, rendered massively in front of everyone due to the size of the main screen. Like Olga and Erika, the captain of the Rostock had the same rectangular horns coming out of the back of her head pointed up, barely visible from behind her peaked cap. Her skin was lightly pink with orange mottles visible around her neck. On her cap, there was a silver badge that had been evidently defaced, a crude star cut over whatever it had once represented. She dressed in a long red coat over black pants and a cut-off black top, and wore her dark blue hair quite long.

“Comrade Olga. Captain Daphne Triantafallos of the Rostock is reporting in.”

Her voice was serious and her enunciation was very deliberate.

Olga cracked a little grin upon seeing her.

“How have things been, Daphne? We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we’re going to have do it while on the move. It is going to be pretty annoying, you know, so get ready for that. But until Erika gets back from chatting, we can take it easy for a little bit.”

Rather than respond, Daphne glanced around.

From her vantage, she could see some of the Brigand’s bridge crew.

“These are Union soldiers, Olga?” Daphne asked.

“Indeed they are.” Olga replied dryly.

“To think– I will fight alongside the great liberators of the southern sea. It is my honor!”

Semyonova narrowed her eyes with confusion as Daphne adopted a more compliant tone.

“May I attend the Brigand for a spell in order to observe their operations? I’m sure we can learn something that will improve the Rostock’s efficiency!” Daphne said, with a little smile.

Olga laughed. “Sure, sure. We’ll have a lot of people coming and going.”

“Are we that special?” Geninov whispered, but not low enough–

“Have some faith, torpedoes!” Olga declared almost as quickly as Geninov spoke.

Geninov frowned, and there was some light giggling throughout the bridge at her expense.

On the leftmost edge of the main screen, beside Daphne, a second figure peeked into the picture. Daphne turned to acknowledge her and bid her to come closer and greet everyone. In the next instant, a round-faced and pretty young woman took the opportunity to jump in, cling very close to Daphne and fully enter the picture. Dressed in a plastic, hooded coat with numerous pockets that seemed like it had either been sloppily dyed red over or blue; or that it had faded from red with specks and streaks of blue dotting its surface. When she pulled her hood down, she rendered visible her brown hair, collected into a big braid. Her skin was a brownish-grey with spots of white, but most peculiarly, she had a single horn stretching from the top of her forehead, a few centimeters long before it was broken off. Big orange eyes and rosy cheeks, gave her a more girlish and soft appearance than Daphne’s sleek edges.

“Greetings everyone! I am Nomia Grammateas. I am Daphne’s adjutant. Nice to meet you all.”

She spoke in a voice so dulcet-soft she earned an easy comparison to Semyonova.

“You can catch up later.” Olga said. “Daphne, we should not stay put for much longer. We need to get the show moving. Pull the Rostock alongside us, we’ll synchronize navigation data. We can use shuttles or Divers to ferry personnel between the ships in motion.”

Daphne acknowledged with a shallow nod.

In a corner of the main screen, a camera picked up movement and brought up a picture-in-picture showing the ocean ahead of them and what had been detected. There was only one sight to see. The Rostock began to pull water through its jets again, leaving the area of the forward cameras to be picked up by side cameras. Slowly circling around the Brigand to face in its direction while maintaining a fifty meter distance from starboard. Olga ordered Kamarik to get the Brigand moving also; the two ships resumed their journey together.

Olga sat back in the Captain’s chair and shut her eyes for a moment.

She thought of the amount of work ahead of them before Aachen. They had to synchronize the data of both ships; come up with a slew of protocols for working together; collate a shared inventory; make communications routine enough that both crews became habituated to working together and making joint decisions; all of this just in the middle of the ocean while hurtling toward greater troubles. There would be even work at Aachen, and even more to do once they worked out any kind of plan against the Volkisch Movement.

As with all previous events that transpired– Olga simply grinned to herself.

There was a lot of toil ahead, and she would certainly complain.

But she was excited to be out of that stuffy Kreuzung station and back in the ocean.

In the ocean, where there was a fight, there was the possibility of change.

Victory or death.

Erika’s dream was one step closer to being realized.

And that was all that mattered to her. A world where Erika would not need to work.


At Dr. Kappel’s request, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya visited her clinic.

Of the many meetings on her schedule this would be the first.

She was grateful for the opportunity to put off the disciplinary meetings with Illya and Valeriya– and Zachikova and Arabella after them. She also had a meeting with Erika, Murati, Euphrates and Tigris to catch up on the events surrounding Arabella, the Omenseers, and “Psionics.” Then she had to finally reprimand Marina. Compared to all of those topics, talking to Homa Baumann, if not any lighter, would at least be easier to approach.

Ulyana walked into the clinic and made note that all of the disciplinary hearing subjects had already been collected from their beds by Akulantova and taken to the meeting place. Aaliyah was likely already there with them. There were a pair of sailors helpfully assisting in putting away the plastic screens that had been installed between each bed. It made the clinic look a lot less occupied. There was one barrier at the end that would not yet be moved.

Behind it was Homa Baumann.

(And Kalika Loukia, seated beside her and in the middle of conversation.)

Ulyana arrived swiftly, interrupting the two and introducing herself.

“Greetings, Homa Baumann. I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Let’s have a little chat.”

In her bed, Homa Baumann looked– small.

She was not necessarily a very short girl, and it was not necessarily because Ulyana herself was taller than average. Rather, Ulyana felt that Homa was making herself small, distant. She was nervous and closed off. Whether voluntarily or not, she seemed like she was shrinking back from Ulyana. Compared to when Ulyana had last seen her, when she was brought into the ship, Homa was cleaned up and healthier, her dark hair attaining a lively luster again, her eyes brighter. She was looking even skinnier than she did in Kreuzung, when she greeted Ulyana at the port. But she was eating again, so she would be restored in time.

“Do you recognize me, Homa? We actually met when my ship arrived at Kreuzung.”

Homa briefly glanced at Kalika and then back to Ulyana.

“Yes, I do recognize you.” Homa said. “I remember. The Pandora’s Box– I always knew you guys were shady.” She averted her gaze. “Two days ago– I had just been operated on and I was really freaked out. But I get it– I’ve ended up on a mercenary vessel. Isn’t that right?”

“Close. I suppose you could say that about our present situation.” Ulyana smiled.

Homa narrowed her eyes.

“Are you going to try talking in circles around it too?”

“No. I will tell you everything you want to know. Then you can decide whether to stay with us or part ways. So just ask. I can spare ten or twenty minutes. You can ask me anything.”

For a moment, Homa was warier than she had ever looked.

“What happens if you tell me your secrets and let me go, and I snitch to the Volkisch?”

Kalika sighed openly and put her biological hand over her face in response.

Ulyana smiled, because it was such a farcical proposition, and such a prickly response.

She was not threatened in the slightest.

This outburst came from a place of hurt.

“Nothing will happen to you. At least not by our hand.” Ulyana said. When she spoke her voice was gentle but firm. “You can go directly from our ship to the Gau office at Aachen. Nobody will stop you. You can say what you want to say to them, and certainly we may be inconvenienced by it, but more than likely you will end up being arrested by them and we will just escape and find another way to conduct our business. You have some lurid fantasies if you think I’m going to silence a helpless girl as a threat to our security. We operate just a bit more ethically than that. Besides, you hate the Volkisch too, don’t you?”

That final point was the most important one.

Knowing what Ulyana knew about the situation, made it much easier to sell things softly.

Had Homa been any more ambiguous– she may well have had to cover off the possibility.

But the sad, withdrawn girl in front of her was no threat to anyone right now.

She would not do anything to merit extreme measures.

“What makes you say that?” Homa said bitterly. “There’s a lot of Volkisch Shimii now.”

Homa could not meet her eyes. She had never once looked at Ulyana directly as they spoke.

Poor girl. Her voice was trembling. Her state made Ulyana’s heart quiver with pity.

“You fought them in Kreuzung. You killed them too. You threw yourself right at them.”

At the sound of the word ‘killed’ Homa seemed to flinch and stare down at her own lap.

“Homa. Please. Nobody will hurt you.” Kalika finally interrupted.

She reached out a hand to comfort her– and Homa gently shied away from it.

“It’s not that.” Homa said. Partially through gritted teeth. Her hand clutching her blanket.

“Homa,” Ulyana said, believing it was time to just put everything on the table with finality, “I’m a Captain of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s Navy.” She waited a moment for Homa to draw her eyes wide. “You may have heard of us referred to as rebels or bandits; but we are communist soldiers and we have not come here to plunder or enrich ourselves. We are here to help the people of Eisental to resist the Volkisch Movement.”

“The Union?” Homa said. Her lips quivered. “So you’re not mercenaries. You’re real soldiers.”

Her initial shock seemed to quickly abate, but she still could not lift her eyes from the bed.

“Before either mercenaries or soldiers, we’re all communists.” Ulyana said. She bent over slightly to try to get closer to capturing Homa’s eyes. Homa continued to avoid her gaze. “We don’t want to cause you unneeded suffering, Homa. When we dock at Aachen, no matter what, you will have a chance to leave. But we know that you fought the Volkisch at Kreuzung. If you are opposed to their injustices, then we can be your allies in that regard.”

Homa narrowed her eyes. Her ears folded. She looked more conflicted than before.

“You don’t have to make any decision right now.” Ulyana said. “You don’t even have to decide when we get to Aachen. Take your time and think about it. Staying with us will put you in a lot of danger– but as long as you remain here, we will feed you and take care of you. You’re not the only guest we have. We don’t have infinite capacity but we can certainly help you. We’re not in the habit of abandoning innocent girls to the elements. We will not make you fight either, so you do not have to worry about that. You can still do what you want with yourself. But if you want to leave, you can leave. We’ll do our best to assist you.”

Homa bowed her head. Her hair fell messily over her face, enough to cover her eyes.

“Why?” Homa asked. “I don’t understand why– why would you be like this? Didn’t one of you look at the data from my machine? I was afraid you wanted me to fight. So– why–?”

Ulyana suppressed a laugh.

She must have gotten wind of Murati’s thoughtless intentions.

“I’ll tell Murati Nakara off if she gets too excited. I am not recruiting you Homa.”

“I don’t understand!” Homa cried out. “Why would you be this accommodating? I’m just some nobody! No, even worse– I’m just a big target now! I killed Volkisch back at Kreuzung. I killed dozens– no, hundreds of them! So I’m a murderer and a criminal! They’ll find me and hunt me down and make me pay! Meanwhile I’ll just take up space, eat your food, and you’re even giving me a free surgery. I don’t understand why you would do any of this for me!”

Homa had made her own voice crack several times. She was losing control.

Ulyana tried to reassure her again.

“We are doing this much for you– because it’s right, Homa. Because causing you harm or neglecting you is the senseless, needless option.” Her calm gaze met Homa’s impassioned eyes directly for the very first time in their conversation. “Because I couldn’t live with myself throwing you out of this ship knowing you have no means to sustain yourself. Because what is convenient for me is not what is right or just for the world. That is why, Homa. We can adjust the rations; we can get more medicines; we can move around people so you can have a place to sleep. But we rescued you; we have a responsibility to help you!”

That screaming which had shaken itself out of her chest seemed to leave Homa hollow.

“I– I–” Homa began to weep. “I see. I see. I– I don’t have any more questions. Sorry.”

She turned suddenly in bed, wrapping herself in her blankets, turning her back and sobbing.

Ulyana looked at Kalika, silently requesting her input.

Kalika shook her head and made a waving hand gesture as if to say ‘go, I’ve got this.’

Ulyana nodded back.

She turned her own back on Homa’s bed for now and walked away.

In her years as a Captain she had built up some experience dealing with traumas like this.

And she herself had a complete breakdown too– after the Pravda incident in the Union.

Back then she had completely blamed herself for the accident.

For the sinking of the newest Union dreadnought and the loss of hundreds of lives.

Ulyana knew the sound of those words that Homa spoke against herself.

Blame and self-hatred and confusion. After the Pravda sank, the questions would torment her mind for years. “Why did I live when others lost their lives?” “Where did I go wrong?” “How can I keep living like this?” To silence those voices, Ulyana drank and fucked and retreated from the world. She ignored her friends and shouted and spat at any stranger who tried to drag her back or to give her a way out. Only Nagavanshi succeeded.

She saw so much herself in Homa that it was almost painful to bear witness to it.

Ulyana had grown too, however. She was not still the woman of mere months ago.

For a woman in her mid-30s, the last few months had done the work of years.

Overcoming had been slow– but she forgave herself.

She would not avert her gaze from Homa. She had to meet that girl’s eyes at her level.

She also knew that trying too hard to help could become its own torture for poor Homa.

Instead Ulyana hoped that Homa would slowly accept the everyday kindness of living on the ship and come to a decision for herself. Exposed to the frequent and unexceptional kindness that everyone on the Brigand would receive in their time of need. She hoped that given the right opportunities to fight her own helplessness, Homa would take them and it would build her spirits back up, so that she felt like she had found her own power and purpose again.

That was what the Brigand and its mission, had done for Ulyana herself.

Ulyana had learned to forgive herself for the Pravda.

All she wanted for Homa, was that she could forgive herself for her own tragedy.

At least Kalika had put herself at Homa’s dispensation. Having a friend would help.

There was not much Ulyana could do. She walked out of the clinic feeling ambivalent.

Walking slowly through the hall to have a moment’s peace to decompress.

Before all of the exhausting meetings about to come.

“Homa Baumann is the least of my problems.” Ulyana said to herself.

Still– that meeting had been nowhere near as simple as she had hoped it would be.

People could hurt so badly– in every piece of them, the cruel Imbrium could put a scratch.

Just like the Brigand itself, sailing immaculate before being patched up over and over.

All Ulyana could do was keep patching, to keep the water out.

Several doors down the hall, her next problem awaited in a nondescript meeting room.

There was a table, some chairs, the blue walls, nothing exceptional or different.

Akulantova at the door; Aaliyah waiting on the other end of the room, alone.

And between them, Illya Rostova, her arms crossed; and Valeriya Peterburg, avoiding eyes.

Perhaps one of her most dangerous set of problems.

“Have they been behaving?” Ulyana asked upon walking in.

“They know better than to piss me off worse than they already have.” Akulantova replied.

Her voice was gruffer than usual. She was more unreservedly blunt to these two.

Neither Illya nor Valeriya made a sound despite being mentioned so roughly.

Ulyana walked around them and took a seat next to Aaliyah.

“Are we ready to begin, Captain?” She asked.

“We have to be.” Ulyana said. She meet Aaliyah’s eyes– her Commissar looked wary too.

Together, the two of them faced Illya and Valeriya on the other side of the table.

“Let’s cut the bullshit.” Ulyana said immediately. Aaliyah’s ears stood on end. “You two don’t respect me or Chief Akulantova. You are probably laughing to yourselves because Akulantova values human lives and I was just an ordinary ship Captain. You probably don’t respect Aaliyah because she’s ‘just’ a Commissar too. Am I wrong? You believe your special forces clique are the center of the universe don’t you? That you are all above the law?”

“Captain–!” Aaliyah gasped with surprise.

Ulyana did not draw her eyes away from Illya.

Even Akulantova had her eyes drawn wide at the Captain’s aggression.

Illya raised her eyes from the table, her icy gaze meeting Ulyana’s passion.

“Dead wrong.” Illya said. “I believe no such things, Captain.”

“Then I misread you. I sincerely apologize. Let us put it behind us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand to shake. Illya looked at it and quizzically returned the gesture.

Neither of the two made any sort of show of their hand shaking.

Just an ordinary firm shake. As if nobody had shouted.

When their hands retracted, Ulyana crossed her arms. She let out a breath.

“Tell me why you and Valeriya left the ship without authorization, in full combat gear.”

Illya shut her eyes. “To rescue Zachikova.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Do you think I would have forbid her rescue?” Ulyana said.

“I worried you might put the mission ahead of a single crew member.” Illya replied.

“And you wouldn’t?”

“I don’t leave people behind if I can help it.”

“People, writ large– or people, as in just your former squadron?”

“We would have done the same. For you.”

Valeriya finally spoke up in the middle of them. She was covering her mouth with her hand and would not make eye contact with anyone. Both of them were dressed in the Treasure Box uniforms, and Valeriya was not given her tactical mask back to wear. So she was covering her face and speaking from behind her fingers. While Illya’s body language was firm and determined, Valeriya looked shaken and unable to hold her gaze on anything.

Despite this, she spoke up when she needed to.

Ulyana sighed. These two weren’t necessarily ill intentioned– just difficult.

Difficult girls whose history Ulyana was not allowed to know.

For the first time Ulyana felt that it would be difficult to make friends here.

She had to be the boss, rather than the inspirational figure or the ship dad.

“You misjudged me as well, Illya Rostova. In that situation, I would not have abandoned Zachikova. Our mission has paramount importance, of course– but I need my crew to complete my mission. I need Zachikova, you, and Valeriya. More than that– I am responsible for you. It would take the most dire circumstances for me to abandon you.”

For the first time, Valeriya briefly glanced at Ulyana directly.

“It’s my responsibility– what we did.” Illya said, raising her voice as if hoping to center all attention on herself. Meeting Ulyana’s eyes while reaching out a hand and gripping Valeriya’s shoulder to comfort her. “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I own up to it. You’re partially right, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I do not know you as a Captain. So I would rather break a few plates, and be yelled at, and learn my lesson, than lose my chance. So I went out and brought back Zachikova. Because she was a comrade– and friend. So I just broke the plates.”

“Does this mean henceforth you will correct your behavior?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes.” Illya said. “Next time this happens, I’ll follow protocol and trust you.”

“We’ve been pretty speedy decision-makers when it has mattered. We could have avoided a lot of trouble.” Ulyana said. “Anyway. Let me be clear about where we stand. You are all valuable members of my crew. I have decided to punish you, and the punishment has been decided too. But I will expect both of you to continue doing your jobs, and to perform with excellence. I expect you to follow orders. You want those guns out of their lockers, you request it from the Chief. You have a situation, you report it to me or to the Commissar– or hell, even Murati! We just can’t afford to be completely in the dark. You had that scuffle with Ahwalia, and now this. You will learn to cooperate with others properly. That is the only thing you are missing. You must recognize that you are part of my team. Understood?”

“Yes, Captain.” Illya said. “I intended no disrespect. I am not trying to subvert command.”

“Good. And while you intended no disrespect, you disrespected me nonetheless.”

“I apologize, Captain. I will do whatever it takes to rectify the situation.”

“Just do your job. Do it right. Look at Klara and Lian for examples.”

Illya seemed to bristle ever so slightly at that suggestion, but said nothing more.

Maybe she was a good girl after all.

Ulyana turned to Valeriya and spoke to her directly.

In that instant Illya looked more alarmed for a moment.

“You care about Illya quite deeply. But don’t just do whatever she tells you. I want you to be able to exercise your own judgment and rein her in if you must. Are we clear?”

Valeriya nodded her head quietly. It was difficult to be firm with her.

“Good. You two have demonstrated a lot of skill– I will be needing you. So shape up!”

The Captain turned her attention back to Illya and smiled.

“Now, let bygones be bygones, agree to do better next time– and accept your punishment.”

From a corner of the Akulantova, who also had a grin on her face, picked up a box.

She dropped the box in the middle of the table between Illya and Ulyana and chuckled.

“You are all cordially invited to café Last Resort Rations. Three meals a day, two weeks.”

Ulyana opened the plastic box to unveil several compressed bricks of food vacuum packed in transparent wrappers. Each of them had a sticker with the packing date, fall-off date and the name of the item. She held up one which was a muddy dark color and had specks of green within it. It was evident through the packaging that the brick was dense and crumbly.

“Look! Soy sauce cabbage congee! Amazing!” Ulyana said, putting on a sadistic smile.

Aaliyah picked one up and showed it off with the exact same expression as Ulyana.

“And here we have red rice with beans and peppers. Scrumptious.” Aaliyah said.

“But we’re not monsters here. You’ll also have water from your rooms, and one of these.”

Ulyana produced from the ration box a tiny two-piece alcohol stove, a pack of fuel tablets for the portable stove and a little steel cup. An entire portable mess kit for survival use.

“You can bite straight into the food bar, or you can dissolve the contents into a little stew.”

“Three a day.” Aaliyah added. “We will be checking in on you to make sure you eat them. If you even as much as look at Minardo’s cooking we have some creative ideas to make this worse, so it’s best to steel yourselves for it now. While you eat, think about what you’ve done and the social contract for being on this ship. I don’t care how classified or not the two of you are; you’re under the Captain’s command and my supervision. End of story.”

Enjoying herself far too much, Ulyana pulled out a third bar and waved it gleefully.

“Straight out of our old homeland: buckwheat with mushrooms and algae!”

Aaliyah followed her, producing a fourth block. “Homestyle tofu rice with green onion.”

“I get it, I get it.” Illya said. “We’ll eat out of the box and be good girls from now on.”

Valeriya nodded her head alongside Illya.

Even she looked a bit more amused than before at the nature of the punishment.

“Did you think we were going to vent you of an airlock?” Ulyana asked.

“No, more like shoot me in front of the crew as an example.” Illya said.

“We’re not putting that entirely off the table on a repeat offense.” Aaliyah replied.

Now it was Ulyana’s turn to look momentarily shocked at her Commissar’s aggression.

Off to the side of the table, Akulantova made a face and averted her eyes.

Illya and Valeriya looked completely unphased by the comment.

“Well– I suppose that is most of what needed to be said on this topic.” Ulyana said trying to fill in the sudden silence, and wanting to move on to her next meeting. “Illya and Valeriya; we will be monitoring you more closely from now on. I want us to have a better relationship. My style of leadership is that I want to trust that everyone working for me is an adult with an ethical compass who can do their job correctly and communicate well. I am grateful that you were able to bring Zachikova and Arabella back safely. But you have shaken my trust in you — needlessly — and it will need to be rebuilt. But I want to believe in you two.”

Illya nodded her head. “Acknowledged. I will endeavor toward excellence, Captain.”

“See that you do.” Ulyana said. “Is there anything more you want to tell me?”

“Actually, there is, Captain. There is something you can do for me.”

Ulyana awaited for Illya to explain– instead she got up from her chair.

Akulantova stiffened up– Aaliyah was about to shout for her to sit until dismissed–

But everyone quieted when Illya kneeled beside Valeriya, taking her hand.

“Valeriya Peterburg, will you marry me?”

In that moment, Valeriya’s eyes drew wider open than Ulyana had ever seen them.

She was rendered perhaps more speechless than usual.

“I want to take care of you forever. I never want to leave your side.” Illya continued. “So much has happened to you for following me all of this time. For every one of my horrid decisions, you have supported me. At my every lowest point, you have been forced to watch me struggle to stand. Whenever I falter, you are forced to save me. When we were in the middle of a firefight again, I trusted you with my life, but I was– I was so deeply afraid for yours. I can’t pretend like this will make up for everything, but it’s a real commitment I can make to you right now. I want to spend the rest of my life treating you like a queen, Valeriya.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana stared in mute surprise. They glanced at each other helplessly.

Valeriya lifted her hand from over her mouth– she was smiling, a little bit.

“Y-Yes. Thank you.” She whimpered, her voice lower than ever.

Her eyes glinted with a hint of tears. But she was smiling, happier than ever.

From her kneeling position, Illya turned to face the others.

“As soon as possible I want this to be completely official. The Commissar is a communist party official, so she can notarize; and the Captain and Akulantova are our two witnesses. We have cohabitated for years. I want to marry her. You don’t have to put me on any lists for bigger rooms or whatever the fuck– just fill out the form for us. Please.”

Illya sounded far more serious than she had been during the entire conversation before.

This meant even more to her than her life, Ulyana thought.

These two– they really were very difficult women. But very tender too.

Aaliyah sighed. “I’ll add your paperwork to my unending list of things that need doing.”

“Thank you, Commissar, Captain, Chief.” Illya said. “Truly. Thank you for everything.”

“You two are always the biggest pain in my ass.” Akulantova said. “Congratulations.”

“Congratulations.” Ulyana said, helpless to add anything more substantial.

“Congratulations.” Aaliyah added in a monotone voice.

All of the reluctance in the world had taken residence in her. She was nearly shaking.

Regardless, there was a confession and everyone accepted it.

Illya and Valeriya stood up, and Valeriya threw her arms around Illya without hesitation.

In return, Illya kissed her with her own unreserved passion, the audience be damned.

Neither of them stretched out the scene any further. After the kiss, they were dismissed.

Illya took the box of rations and carried it, beside an uncharacteristically smiley Valeriya.

Akulantova watched them go with a critical expression, jaw twitching with irritation.

And so concluded that piece of business.

“Well,” Ulyana said, “Never knew this whole mess would end in a wedding. Fun, huh?”

Aaliyah stared sidelong at Ulyana, frowning, her arms crossed, seated back on her chair.

“Personally, I must express disapproval. But administratively, I will comply.” She said.

Ulyana laid a hand on her shoulder with a smile. “That’s our charming Commissar.”

“Hmph.” Aaliyah’s ears folded, but she did not shake Ulyana’s hand off her shoulder.


Another meeting room door opened in the wake of the Captain and Commissar.

Seated across the table from Arabella and Zachikova this time. Both of them out of their hospital beds and back in uniform. Arabella had been retrieved with some truly grisly wounds, and had recovered exceptionally. However, ever since she was brought aboard she had refused to take on any color in her skin or hair. A pale girl with completely white hair and pale eyes, even the once flush and vascular tips of her horns were stark white.

Meanwhile Zachikova was still quite herself, but she was nursing a serious injury to her leg and sat on a wheelchair during the meeting. For once she had an emotion on her face.

She looked nervous.

As soon as Ulyana and Aaliyah took their seats across the table, Arabella bowed her head.

She bowed so low that her hair covered her face. Aaliyah sighed.

They heard her sob but could not see her tears.

“I apologize for the danger I brought upon all of you. I am so deeply sorry.” Arabella said.

Zachikova remained quiet, her hands on her lap with the fingers curled into fists.

“We are still almost completely in the dark about what this danger was,” Aaliyah said, “and about your role in it,” she then turned to face Zachikova, “and why you snuck out to go after her without telling anybody. More than punishing anyone, we need to understand the circumstances. We can leave some things to a report, but I want a motive.”

Zachikova raised her eyes from the table and met Aaliyah and Ulyana’s gazes.

“She went missing and I had a feeling she was in danger. So I went after her.” She said.

“When a crew member goes missing, Braya Zachikova, we form a rescue party, and then we know where everyone is, what they are doing, and we can coordinate them. When we work together we have a much higher chance of bringing everyone back safely!”

“I had an emotional response.” Zachikova said. Averting her eyes.

“It’s not that I can’t sympathize with that. We are all emotional on this ship.” Ulyana said, entering the discussion. “But when another crew member’s life is on the line, we need to temper our emotions with rationality. We can’t act on pure impulse. There is always enough time to make sure the crew knows what you are doing and can back you up. Zachikova, the way you decided to do this could have jeopardized your life, that of Arabella, and Illya and Valeriya, who also went after you in secret. You could have all died without us ever knowing where you were, or what had happened to you. Akulantova had to run out to find you! You should thank her for your lives. We can’t allow this to repeat ever again.”

Zachikova paused to think for a moment.

But even she seemed frustrated with her own response when next she spoke.

“I understand perfectly well. It’s not like me– but Arabella isn’t like anyone else to me.”

“It was my fault.” Arabella interrupted. “Please do not chastise Braya.”

“I must chastise her.” Ulyana said. “Because she knows better than to have done this.”

“I know– but what I mean is, I called out to her in a panic. I called out to her to save me.”

“You’re talking about psionics, aren’t you?” Ulyana said.

Betraying a sudden weariness.

Arabella nodded her head. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms.

“Zachikova heard my psionic screaming. That’s the reason she came after me.” Arabella said.

“You don’t have to make excuses for me. I made my own decision.” Zachikova said.

“Let her talk.” Ulyana said. “Arabella. Why did you run away in the first place?”

Arabella looked utterly defeated as she spoke.

They could barely see her face and she was weeping.

“When you came back from your meetings with the United Front groups, I caught the scent on you– the scent of some awful people of my own kind. They are known as Enforcers of the Syzygy. They are brutal and they disdain hominins. I was terrified that they were plotting to trick you and kill everyone here. I felt that I needed to go after them– that only I could do it– in order to protect Braya and all of you. I prepared for a few days by gathering my old memories and then I escaped to go after them. Perhaps it was also the hunger– pushing me into conflict with them. But ultimately, I did what I did. It was reckless and useless. I did enormous damage to my mind and body, and betrayed your trust, for nothing.”

“Have we really just not engendered any trust in you all?” Ulyana said sternly.

Somehow, she felt more saddened that nobody reported to her when they were in need.

Perhaps because that was something easier to grasp than the rest.

“You caught the scent of your kind on us?” Aaliyah asked. “So we met with Omenseers?”

Arabella nodded her head.

“So these Enforcers you mentioned– we can rule out Erika and her troops, or Arabella would have made her scene on the ship rather than vacated it. We can also rule out the demsocs, since Gloria was not physically present but Orlan is on the ship and getting along–” Ulyana felt her heart beat faster. She recalled the strange behavior of the anarchists, utterly false in their ideology and confessing that they believed some bizarre theories.

“It was Zozia and Ksenia then.” She finally said. The Imbrium was cruel indeed.

“I might be able to describe their hominin likenesses for you.” Arabella said.

“So you were not successful in eliminating them.” Aaliyah said.

“I’m afraid not.” Arabella said. “They almost killed me. I wasn’t strong enough.”

“Then we’ll be running into them again at Aachen.” Ulyana said gravely.

Aaliyah’s tail stood up straight. “We need more info– how do we even respond to this?”

“Arabella, are you okay with telling us all of this? You don’t have to do this.”

Zachikova spoke up in defense of Arabella. Aaliyah shot her a furious look.

Ulyana laid her hand on Aaliyah’s shoulder and shook her head to stop her going further.

“Zachikova. Arabella saved our lives back at Goryk. We deferred prying into her affairs back then. But now we need more information. We are not doing this out of convenience– if we want to protect her from her enemies, who clearly meant her harm, then she has to work with us. She can’t keep going around behind our backs anymore. Do you understand?”

In response, Zachikova quieted and averted her gaze. Arabella held her hand briefly.

“It’s okay, Braya.” Arabella said. She put on a brave face.

Facing an Ulyana trying her damnedest to smile, and Aaliyah’s fiercely skeptical eyes.

Arabella began to speak, and she told Ulyana and Aaliyah something new.

“My name is Arabella– it is what I was originally called. Arbitrator I– that was something my sister made up. Her name was Caderis– now Arbitrator II.” Arabella began. Then her tone grew impassioned, and the things she said made both Aaliyah and Ulyana stare fixedly. “My sister and I were created as weapons. Biological weapons. By people up there.” She pointed at the ceiling. She clearly meant the surface. Ulyana and Aaliyah followed where her finger pointed with wide-eyed confusion. “They used DNA from the original Omenseers to make us. We were meant to be extremely adaptable weapons that could be used to control the hominins. Hominins were more scared than ever, and fighting each other, and the world was in a truly horrid shape. When I was born, the sky was already purple. ‘Biomechanoids’– as they called us– did not need fuel or munitions, and we could repair ourselves– and we derived our fighting energy from the most abundant resource left in the world. Expendable, infinitely replaceable hominins. We could kill them, eat them, and then kill more.”

Ulyana could hardly believe what she was hearing. She did not know how she could reply.

Or at least, that was her snap reaction.

After a few moments she realized the world had been overturned and made a farce in front of her eyes so many times already. She could believe almost anything after she overcame her initial shock. Then again– judging by Homa’s reaction, to her, communism was as incomprehensible as the idea of talking to a surface world bioweapon. So perhaps musing on the weirdness of the particulars here was nothing but good old human emotion.

Aaliyah did not raise her voice to interrupt either.

She had her arms crossed, she had her eyes to the table. Mulling over as Arabella spoke.

Hearing no interruptions, Arabella caught her breath, continued– but quickly deteriorated.

“I wish I could tell you more– about my self or Caderis or the original ancient peoples. I wasn’t lying when I said it takes me some time to remember my memories. I’m sorry. It’s because I’m not a real person– I believe you are all real people, and I’m a fake person. Back then– the hominins came up with the idea that there were ‘Genuine Human Beings’ who had to survive. But I’m not one of those– because Genuine Human Beings have a normal brain, and they have a soul too and God loves them. I’m a ‘Biomechanoid’– I’m only conscious because of a DNA computer inside me. Not because I’m a person. And–” Arabella grew more distraught as she spoke. Zachikova started to look at her with clear distress. But she also did not interrupt. She seemed as shocked as everyone else. Arabella looked like she had to make a physical effort to control her stuttering and complete her sentences again. “I know it must sound dumb, and I’m really sorry! But I broke the computer! I wanted to get all of the data blocks out of it and read them again but I was careless and now I can’t remember half the things I should know anymore. Back then– I put them all away, because I was scared of everything and I wanted to run away! But then when I wanted to be brave all of the blocks are broken and I cannot read them now! I’m really sorry! Now I’m useless to everyone!”

“Arabella, please calm down!” Ulyana said. She reached out and held both of Arabella’s hands in her own, giving her knuckles a gentle squeeze with her thumbs. “It may be cold comfort to you– you have experienced things we can’t possibly imagine– but I believe you are a human being! Humanity is more than just your biology. You’re human to me– I care about you.”

Hands smashed down on the table from beside Arabella.

“And it doesn’t matter if she isn’t a human being!” Zachikova said suddenly. Angrier and more emotional than she ever had been. She stole one of Arabella’s hands from Ulyana and held it herself. Arabella turned to look at her, Zachikova with her cybernetic eyes that still wept, her brain implants and her antennae-like ears. “Humans aren’t the only things worthy of existing in the world and having their lives respected! I know– I know what it is like to not feel human. Arabella, you don’t have to be ‘a person’– you’re important to me! To hell with the computer too! You’re more than the data some bastards left behind! I don’t care about it!”

“Braya–” Arabella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry– I broke it– I’m–”

“I told you before. I need you. You’re not useless– never say that again. Never.”

Zachikova squeezed her hand.

Arabella shut her eyes and smiled. She took in a deep breath.

“Thank you. I won’t say it again Braya. I won’t say it again. I’m so sorry.”

Both of them wept and held each other’s hands and fixed their gazes.

Intertwining fingers, tearful smiles.

Ulyana could have almost cried herself.

Zachikova had changed a good bit since the Brigand had set out too.

She had found the person who, in the entire ocean, brought out her warmest feelings.

“Arabella, we’re not here to torture an innocent girl for information.” Aaliyah said, piercing the silence that had befallen the room as the lovers comforted each other. Ulyana could see that it was taking her some effort to hold her own passions in the midst of all of this emotion. “I can understand that with the trauma and injury you’ve suffered, which would have killed any ordinary person, you are unable to recall what has– apparently– been an incredibly long life’s worth of complicated information. I’m not going to insist on wringing your memories out of your mind. The Captain is correct– before we are military officers, we are communists. For now, try not to stress out over your lost memories.”

Arabella looked from Zachikova over to Aaliyah and wiped her tears.

Her eyes shut–

and in an instant, her skin flushed, turning a light brown with a slight pinkness.

Color surged across her skin like a time-lapse of a flower blooming. Her hair became dark purple-blue, shrunk to back-length, with somewhat disorderly bangs. When she reopened her eyes they had become blue and purple as well. Her horns glowed with thin purple veins. She gave off a very different kind of presence. No longer slouching and defeated.

As her lover had found her warmest feelings; Arabella found her colors again.

Zachikova stared speechless at the rapid transformation, still holding Arabella’s hand.

Arabella squeezed that hand with a fond expression on her face.

She suddenly looked much more like herself.

“Thank you, Commissar, Captain. I’ve been a lot of trouble, but– I won’t run away again. I promise. Even if my brain is more scrambled than ever, I know what is important.” Arabella said. Her tone started wistful but slowly became firmer again. “You are all so incredibly kind to me. I feel ashamed of what has happened. I will take responsibility for myself. I want to protect Braya. I want to protect her friends too. I will do whatever you say, Captain.”

“Arabella– you don’t have to–” Zachikova began to speak, but Ulyana interrupted.

“You’re not going to reject her determination, are you? She’s trying to move forward.”

Ulyana smiled. Zachikova narrowed her eyes and grunted but then quieted.

She averted her gaze but then found herself looking at Arabella, who was also smiling.

Zachikova seemed trapped between the two of them and bodily relented.

“Fine. I’ll be there every moment, anyway, so I needn’t worry.”

“You really are getting emotional huh?” Aaliyah interjected teasingly.

“We’re not treating her like equipment.” Ulyana said. Also teasing the self-described ‘robot’.

“Captain, you know how I feel about that already, so please just drop it.” Zachikova said.

“Alright, alright.” Ulyana said, smiling.

Aaliyah crossed her arms and stared at the table, shaking her head.

“I was already planning on doing so, but we need to have Maharapratham look at her.”

“Maharapratham?” Arabella said. “That’s the mushroom lady right?”

“She would be so upset at you calling her the mushroom lady.” Ulyana said, amused.

“She’s our resident scientist and lab technician.” Aaliyah said sternly. “She was supposedly a wunderkind at the academy– even has two degrees supposedly. Recent events got me thinking that with Arabella’s cooperation and consent, Maharapratham might be able to learn more about Arabella’s kind through lab tests. I think it is worth trying.”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova expecting an overprotective comment in response.

But Arabella also turned to Zachikova after hearing Aaliyah’s suggestion, smiling brightly.

The attention of the two women caused Zachikova to wither, silently disgruntled.

“Braya, would you be okay with your mate becoming a science experiment again?”

Arabella smiled again in the silly way she once used to address the world around her.

As if to remind everyone that this purple-haired, darker-skinned version was still herself.

“Do what you want.” Zachikova grunted. “But I want to be included in the project too.”

“It’s settled then. I’ll inform Maharapratham. It’ll have to be later– I’ll have to catch her up on all of this.” Aaliyah said, gesturing around herself. “In the mean, Zachikova, you will assist in gathering Arabella’s testimony. Compile all intelligence about the Kreuzung Omenseers into a detailed report. That way when we get to Aachen we can more easily disseminate information to the Volksarmee about the fake anarchists to keep everyone safe.”

“Sounds good. Just one more agenda item on the unending pile.” Ulyana sighed.

“Don’t forget we’re also punishing them.” Aaliyah said. “Go on and punish them, Captain.”

“Punishing us?” Zachikova said, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh that’s right! I almost forgot. You’re going to eat nasty food for a week.” Ulyana said.

Ulyana got up from the meeting room table, ready to show the pair a packaged ration–

“Whatever. I don’t care. I’m not even sure if Arabella can taste food normally anyway.”

Zachikova deflated the performance before Ulyana could even put down the ration box.

“I’ll eat anything for Braya! No matter how gross! She was going to eat a man for me!”

Arabella called out in solidarity. Zachikova flinched and stared daggers at her in turn.

Out of surprise and consternation, Ulyana dropped the ration box on the table with a thud.

“Wait! She was going to do what?! Back up! Say that again?!” Aaliyah shouted.

Ulyana felt her poor pitiable heart start banging up a storm again inside of her chest.

“Let’s– Let’s just leave that– for the official report Zachikova will be writing for us.”

“No–” Aaliyah said, her voice sounding distant and distraught. “I need to know now.”

“I’d– I’d really rather not today. I’d really rather just read about it later.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah and Ulyana gave each other the most haunted gazes they had ever shared.

“It better be in the report.” Aaliyah said, staring at Zachikova. “It better be in the report.”

“God damn it.” Zachikova grit her teeth. “I didn’t eat anyone. I was trying to feed her.”

Realizing too late what she had just said, Zachikova suddenly shrank further in her chair.

Arabella was all smiles, as if the atmosphere in the room had not become a thunder cloud.

“It better in the report.” Aaliyah said again, dangerously. “I’ll be– displeased– if it isn’t.”

Ulyana, similarly shaken by what she had heard insinuated, supported the Commissar.

“You better write an entire novel explaining what happened in grotesque detail.” She said.

“I’ll type everything up. I’m really sorry.” Zachikova said. “You’ll know everything.”

“Two weeks eating the bricks.” Aaliyah said suddenly, raising her fingers in a V-shape. “Don’t even think about going near the cafeteria. Or I’ll make you wish you were a cannibal.”

“Yes ma’am.” Zachikova said. She had never sounded so compliant as she did right then.

In Ulyana’s eyes everything was a surreal blur and in her ears words rang distant.

Zachikova and Arabella were ultimately ushered out of the meeting room by Akulantova.

While Ulyana and Aaliyah stayed, staring at the metal table surface and middle distance.

“Well. I guess– actually, is there even something in the regulations about–?”

“Please, Ulyana. Just. Please.” Aaliyah put her head down on the table.

Ulyana reached to stroke her ears gently.

They stayed together for fifteen minutes, sighing, before the next meeting.


Euphrates waved with a sunny smile as if she had not a care in the world.

“So compared to the rest of your day, how easy do you think this one will be?”

“Don’t even joke about it. If I wasn’t the Captain I’d call in sick tomorrow.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah wearily sat down in an even smaller room than before with even more people than ever. It was their most familiar meeting room yet. Because it was the room they worked out of the most, during their stay in Kreuzung. While the two of them looked quite worse for wear, the rest of the participants seemed quite fresh. Euphrates in her spiffy sportcoat, her shoulder length messy blue hair having just barely met one more comb than usual; Tigris in brown overalls and a long-sleeved white shirt, her red hair tied into a long ponytail, without a drop of grease on her; Erika Kairos, sharp as ever, her coat and business attire pristine and her smoke-blue hair silky and shiny; her companion Olga, her feet up on the desk, wearing a black hoodie and long, tough pants, her white hair collected into a ponytail framed by her horns; and Murati Nakara in a uniform worn perfectly, shoulder-length hair disorderly, having grown out a bit since the start of their journey.

“Wait, who has the bridge right now?” Aaliyah asked.

“Kalika is up there, don’t worry.” Erika said. “Homa Baumann is sleeping.”

She added the last detail with a little grin.

“She’s really taken to that kid huh? I didn’t know she could be so nice.” Olga replied.

“She can be a bit tetchy about politics, but she’s not heartless.” Erika said.

Once everyone was gathered and seated, Ulyana and Aaliyah took a moment to compose themselves before diving into the meeting’s topics. Since Ulyana felt she would leave any meeting with Arabella having more questions in mind than answers in her pocket, she had requested that Euphrates and Tigris meet with her directly afterward for a session to discuss the session. Euphrates was amenable to more discussion surrounding the Omenseers and suggested they also review what Murati had learned about psionics so far.

“We now convene the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff.’” Ulyana said.

“Take it seriously.” Aaliyah sighed.

“How should we begin?” Euphrates asked. “Anything on your mind, Captain?”

There was so much on her mind it was hard to narrow it down. “By any chance, are you familiar with DNA-based computers?” Ulyana asked. “We just got done talking to Arabella and she claims her consciousness is in the form of a computer inside her that is now broken, so her amnesia won’t recover. I’m inclined to believe her– if she meant us harm, she would have caused her ruckus inside of the ship rather than sneaking out. But does that mean every ‘Omenseer’ is also some kind of flesh computer? Can her ‘data’ be recovered?”

“Tigris, any ideas?” Euphrates said suddenly, smiling at her companion.

Tigris had her arms crossed and her head down and looked surprised to be addressed.

“Why the hell are you asking me? I work with machines not with meat.”

Euphrates shrugged comically. “There you are, Captain. I’m afraid it’s beyond us.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know anything! Idiot! You agreed to this meeting!”

Erika raised her hand as if in a classroom.

Ulyana was surprised to see her interject. Having access to the Brigand’s classified operational data for a few days already, Erika knew at least as much about Omenseers and psionics as they did. She had been included in the meeting on a purely informational capacity– their political leader should just be aware of these ‘classified’ subjects. There was no expectation she would have information of her own to share about the situation.

Instead the Premier smiled mischeviously once she was given the room.

“I am here to make an important disclosure– which is why I brought Olga.” Erika said.

“I’m an Omenseer.” Olga said suddenly, crossing her arms and averting her gaze.

Everyone else in the room turned reflexively to stare at Erika and Olga.

“What? You’re not going to be nervous around me now, are you?” Olga grumbled.

“She won’t bite.” Erika said, calm and affable.

“C’mon, don’t put it like that.” Olga replied, further annoyed.

“Well, it looks like my work here is done.” Euphrates replied, shrugging again.

“No it’s not! You’re going to talk if they ask you something, you clown!” Tigris shouted.

“Time out!” Aaliyah said, forming a ‘T’ with her hands. “We need to speak in turn!”

“Premier,” Ulyana started, still grasping for what to say, “How did–?”

“Much as with you and Arabella, my dear Olga stumbled into my life a mystery. Over time I slowly unraveled a few parts.” Erika replied, remaining calm and amused despite the attention. “But I have never needed to know more than what she wishes to tell me. I have never demanded any more. She has never intentionally hurt me. I trust her more than I trust any other person in the world. So I will request that you do not try to force any information from her– or from Arabella either. Regardless, she and I are at your disposal.”

“It’s about time to tell the bits I know.” Olga said. She sighed again. “Look, Arabella is not incorrect in what she told you. She might not be able to recover some of her memories again. Omenseers’ heads work differently than those of ordinary people. Think of it like having two sets of memories: there’s your everyday stuff, and there’s more tucked away somewhere. You kind of know it’s there, but ‘thinking’ about it is more complicated. I think that is what Arabella is talking about with ‘DNA computer’. In my head, I know it is called STEM.”

“Okay. So, are you going to tell me that yours is broken too?” Aaliyah asked.

Olga put her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “Yeah. I am. Mine is incredibly fucked up by this point. See– the STEM stuff is in our bodies, right? I don’t know whether it’s DNA or what it is exactly. It’s inside this body, the data is stored in my flesh or organs somewhere, but it is different. Then– Well, Omenseers can shape our bodies into different forms. It’s called ‘biokinesis’. Doing that, we can recover from injury faster, or grow weapons. Look.”

She raised one hand out of her pocket and waved it in front of everyone.

Ulyana stared at her raised index and middle finger, which Olga pressed together.

Until they joined to become one combined digit that was sharper than before.

Then in the next instant, with seemingly great ease, she split the fingers apart again.

Perhaps a more dramatic version than what Arabella commonly did to her own body.

“Now think about the data that is stored in my body. I do not know where it actually is. I do not know how this STEM or whatever inside me works, I just know I have it and that if I think in a certain way I can try to access it. But it’s in this body that is constantly changing, getting fucked up, getting patched up– of course after a while the data has to be scrambled up some. So if I tried to access my STEM it would be like an insane dream.”

“Well. It’s a bit surreal to watch it in action, but it makes sense.” Ulyana said.

“I guess it does.” Aaliyah said, putting a hand on her forehead as if nursing an ache.

“Olga, how did you come to be an Omenseer? I still don’t understand that.” Murati asked.

“Before, Arabella told us she was a thousand-year old member of a ‘culture’ but now she is saying she was a surface-era biological weapon that was made from the DNA of– I assume– a member of that ancient culture. I am having a tough time squaring it.” Ulyana said.

“Huh?” Murati nearly shouted. “A bio-weapon? That’s– that’s incredible if it’s true!”

Her eyes had lit up like twin jewels with the excitement of discovering an ancient weapon.

Ulyana was torn between thinking it was cute and thinking it would be annoying.

“Don’t get too excited.” Olga replied. “I don’t know anything about that. It’s definitely not how I ended up here. But who knows– maybe Arabella is just special and different.”

“Don’t bother Arabella, Murati– or Homa Baumann, either.” Ulyana said.

“Wait– why Homa Baumann?” Murati looked suddenly helpless.

“Be quiet, Murati. It’s not your turn.” Aaliyah said, raising her voice.

Murati turned a downcast expression at her corner of the table.

Erika covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.

“Olga, can you tell them your story? I’d love to hear it too.” She said.

Olga met Erika’s eyes. Her stern expression melted in one softer and more relaxed.

When they looked at each other it was as if they were alone in the room.

Ulyana thought this was an opportunity for Erika too, not just the Brigand’s crew.

And that Olga was not resentful to have that opportunity.

“Damn it, you already know the important bits Erika. You’ll just be bored.” Olga ran her fingers through her hair and chuckled. “But fine. Whatever. Believe me if you want or not. But I was actually a Leviathan before. Weirdly, I remember what I looked like– I was thick and kind of blunt, all tail but with a horned head. That’s where these are from.” Olga poked at her horns. “Most of my life is a huge blur to me, but sometimes, I see it in my dreams– the ocean, being huge again. I feel like if my STEM worked it would have those memories.”

Not exactly coffee-table conversation, but everyone around the table kept quiet.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah and found her screwing her face up and folding her ears.

Whenever she was met with something wild like this, she would physically resist it.

She was quiet, however. Quiet, and listening, and with eyes inquisitive.

Even if her face looked like she had just tasted soap.

“Omenseers now, are Leviathans that became human. Over time Leviathans just get more intelligent I guess. Honestly I barely remember when I changed, and what happened afterwards. I see it in my dreams and I want to believe it was true– that one day, I got sick of fighting for my life every single day like an animal. I discovered that I could be something less violent and less rapacious and I took the chance. But I don’t really know.”

“Being an Omenseer seems like a pretty psychedelic sort of experience.” Euphrates said.

“C’mon, I’m baring my soul here. If you think it’s useless I can just shut up.” Olga said.

“I think it’s lovely.” Erika said.

“I agree, and I can relate.” Euphrates said. “To knowing something only in dreams.”

“Well, maybe you ought to tell the room yours.” Olga said. “Anyway– one day, all my bulk was just gone, and I was like this. Floating in the ocean. Somehow I was not crushed by the water or eaten by a monster– but I was visited by something truly demonic. Arbitrator II.”

“The Autarch of the Syzygy.” Euphrates said.

“You’ve mentioned it before.” Ulyana said. “You and Tigris have history with this being.”

“We killed her. A long, long time ago.” Euphrates said. “The Sunlight Foundation briefly became interested in abyssal exploration, and to make a long story short, we came into contact with the Syzygy and it tempered our ambitions quite harshly. Arbitrator II confronted us personally as we began to dive more frequently and deeper, and we were forced to attack her. I can hardly claim that we succeeded. We never went that deep again.”

“So we’re dealing with an immortal cult leader here?” Ulyana asked, sighing.

“Olga,” Aaliyah said, “Are all Leviathans human, then? Can they all become like you?”

Ulyana felt her chest tighten– she had not put together this suggestion herself.

Certainly it matched everything they had learned so far.

After Goryk, Euphrates had referred to Omenseers as ‘humanoid Leviathans.’ Arabella had been a Leviathan once. Olga confirmed this was not necessarily anything special– there was, in front of them all, a second person who had once been a Leviathan. With this information, it was reasonable to believe that every Leviathan had the potential to become a person. And therefore, that perhaps all Leviathans were already humans, to some degree.

And, if Arabella was to be believed, that meant Leviathans were anthropogenic.

Perhaps they were made with that ‘original Omenseer’ DNA too.

Perhaps they were all bio-weapons.

Perhaps they were all humans.

To think then– that they had spent all this time killing them– no, it did not really matter.

Ulyana was a soldier. She had been killing humans already, in less complicated ways.

Whatever happened– there was simply no reasoning with a giant, dangerous animal.

Olga shrugged at the question that had shaken Ulyana so much.

“Yeah? I think so. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself.” She said simply.

“Olga, the Autarch found you– she did not make you into an Omenseer?” Euphrates asked.

“Right. Sometimes she just finds strays, like me. But I’ve also seen what she can do. She has troops go out looking for Leviathans with psionic potential. We captured them, and she would use psionics on them and have them shed their forms. That’s her preferred method of recruitment. I changed myself– but I do not know how many of us leave our leviathan forms naturally or how we are different from the ones Arbitrator II makes. Except for one detail. For the ones she changes she can brainwash. She could not brainwash me.”

Euphrates looked for the first time truly captivated by what Olga was saying.

“So she seeks out potential in Leviathans and baptizes them– interesting.”

Her jokey demeanor had faded slightly. But she did not follow up that statement.

“What does the Autarch want? What is this ‘Syzygy’ doing all of this for?” Aaliyah asked.

“I mean, like anyone, she wants control over people.” Olga said. “She wants control over humans. It makes sense when you think about it. Now, don’t freak out at this next bit, it’s annoying if you do– Omenseers feed on people. You guys knew that right? Arabella had to have had at least human blood or she would go crazy.” Olga scanned the room and saw Ulyana, Aaliyah and Murati making faces. She threw her hands up in frustration.

“I’ve been feeding Olga my blood. That’s one of the things we do in private.” Erika said.

“Premier– we did not need the clarification that you do more than that in private.”

Leave it to Aaliyah to be more offended at the insinuation of sex than the cannibalism.

“Quit gawking!” Olga said. “I’m really good at controlling myself and I have Erika. You don’t need to be fucking scared, okay? Anyway– you can put two and two together here right? If the Autarch can build up her army, she could basically start her own human farm and never have a worry in the world again. She needs to rule over the humans to eat them more easily. I’m not just painting a picture with the farm stuff either– she literally can capture humans and grow a kind of crop from them. Her own sick little garden in the abyss.”

“That’s– that’s actually– a lot more dangerous than we imagined.” Ulyana mumbled.

She could hardly even imagine it in full– she supposed ‘biokinesis’ was responsible.

Responsible– for turning a human into a sick little garden.

Aaliyah heaved a weary sigh. “Yes, that is disturbing, but I am not impressed with Omenseers yet. For example, if Akulantova is to be believed, she nearly punched one of those Syzygy fighters to death, and a small and well-trained spec ops squadron can fight it out with them and kill a good half-dozen. They are not yet ‘Imbrium-conquering’ level threats.”

“The rabble is not– the officer ones are a lot scarier, but there are not enough Enforcers to just overthrow humanity overnight. That’s why they are trying to sneak around and join a faction here, I guess.” Olga said. “I know the Enforcers are searching for something. But as a whole Syzygy are biding their time. Gathering intelligence, forces, and useful idiots. Just like you, I suppose– you’re in a little race with them for the Imbrium. Who will win?”

Olga leaned back and grinned to herself as if amused by the mental image.

“Obviously I intend to win that race.” Erika said. “And you will be at my side.”

“Of course. Between us, I’d love to rip out the Autarch’s throat myself.” Olga said.

“For a taste of your own kind?” Erika teased.

“Hey– shut up. I mean for justice or whatever.” Olga said, turning slightly redder.

“Somehow I doubt ripping her throat out will do much justice.” Euphrates said.

She sounded much more wistful than normal– but it was not followed up on.

“Then I suppose we can only do what we came here to do.”

Ulyana sat up straight and stretched her arms, feeling a bit sore from sitting tensely while she listened to all of this bizarre knowledge being shared. She tried to relax her muscles and to still her heart. There was only solution to this– they were just as prepared for the Syzygy right now as they were for the Volkisch. They did not know the total strength of their forces, they did not know their logistics, they had not found their bases or political supporters or the locations of their officers, and so they had no plan of attack. They could not allow themselves to be mystified by the more esoteric side of this situation.

They had to gather more intelligence and be prepared for a fight.

It was an uphill road, but the Volkisch controlled the government and the Syzygy did not.

Within the framework of the Imbrium, the Volkisch Movement was currently immortal.

To the layperson, they were just as mystical as this Autarch.

Just as powerful, indefatigable. Just as disturbing and cruel.

Nevertheless, the Brigand plotted to fight the Volkisch. It was an essential inevitability.

That was their mission. They had taken it up, knowing it was that difficult.

Nagavanshi pushed them hard. She was a damnably persistent recruiter.

But she had known that every single member of the crew would take up the challenge.

All of them were here because the impossible called to them, and they dared stare it down.

“At Aachen, next time I see Zozia, I’ll punch her right square in her jaw and see how her makeup holds up to it. I’ll scuff that well-to-do fuckboy coat she always wears.” Ulyana said.

“I know what you’re capable of– so I truly hope you are joking.” Aaliyah said.

“Sometimes I want to be the manly sort of Captain who pops off.” Ulyana said.

“Not that I mind popping off, but let us be delicate at Aachen, specifically.” Erika said.

“Of course, Premier. I would only pop off with your permission.” Ulyana said.

Her ridiculous declaration seemed to clear in the tension in the room just a little bit.

“Are you all satisfied or do you have more questions?” Olga asked, sounding annoyed.

“Is it too personal to ask how you and the Premier met?” Aaliyah said.

“It won’t elucidate anything about the Syzygy. That part is simple– the Autarch never had control over me because I was not an Omenseer that she made. So at one point, I got sick of being ‘Hunter I’ and I saw an opportunity to escape. I just ended up in Katarre after a lot of struggle that is pointless to recount. The rest is irrelevant. Hell– some part of me thinks the Autarch put no effort into stopping me either. She is not threatened by deserters.”

“Alright. Then–” Aaliyah turned to Erika. “Premier, are you psionically capable?”

Erika smiled. “Yes. I was going to disclose it when you were done with Olga.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Aaliyah said. “I was mainly wondering for your own safety.”

“I am not in Olga’s thrall.” Erika said. “If that is what concerned you.”

“I could not control this insane woman even if I tried with all my strength.” Olga said.

“Apologies. I rest my case.” Aaliyah said. “Anything more can be the subject of a report.”

“I am not offended. It is your job to consider every possible dangerous angle.” Erika said. “I quite like that about you, Commissar. To be clear, I knew much of what Olga had said– she said certain things to me, and now disclosed others to you. I wanted to be part of this meeting not just to play a perfunctory political role, but as a resource. Ultimately, however, Olga does not have encyclopedic knowledge that can answer existential questions about her origins and nature; anything she knows about the Syzygy’s tactics, I am sure she would willingly disclose in a report or some other official dissemination.”

“Right. I’m fine with that.” Olga said. “But there’s not much to say. There is regimentation like in a normal army. I was a ‘Hunter’ so my role was to move from the deep abyss up to the human world and carry out reconnaissance and retrieval missions. I hardly did much– I was not trusted, since the Autarch did not personally turn me. I joined her because I was lost and had nothing, and she and her Enforcer cronies were there to shelter me. Once I was grown a bit more into my new form and had my own thoughts, I wanted to escape. I do not know much about the other types of Omenseer beyond the surface level.”

“Do you have any ideas as to what Omenseer bases survive to this day?” Euphrates asked.

“Good point. You said they live in the deep abyss– so there was a Syzygy base at Goryk?”

Ulyana asked, recalling the rising of that enormous leviathan at Goryk, Dagon.

Arabella had told them back then that it was a Syzygy battleship.

They had not taken it seriously enough in the moment. Now it made much more sense.

“When I was part of Syzygy, I operated out of northwestern Veka.” Olga said.

“That is kind of close to the farthest Goryk aperture. Maybe they are linked.” Ulyana said.

“We’re just guessing. Nobody has an accurate abyssal topography.” Aaliyah replied.

“Not even among present company, I’m afraid.” Euphrates said.

“We wanted to try to do it someday– the Agni was partially for that.” Tigris added.

Breaking a long silence in which she had mainly crossed her arms and harrumphed a bit.

“Alright. Well. A lot of exciting reports going into the drafts today.” Ulyana said.

“We wanted to ask Murati how she was doing with psionics.” Aaliyah reminded her.

Murati, who had been mainly making faces quietly in her seat, suddenly revived.

Like a flower that had been splashed with water, she stood up straighter and more alert.

“Ma’am–”

Murati addressed the Captain but then paused without speaking further for a moment.

“Um– I guess I don’t actually have much to report. I’m still evaluating things.”

“Are you feeling hale and whole?” Erika asked in a sweet voice.

“I suppose so.” Murati replied. Clearly confused at Erika’s sunny, impromptu check-up.

“You’ve seen her handiwork recently, Captain.” Euphrates said. “She’s a fast learner.”

Euphrates looked pleased with herself. Probably as much genuinely as teasing Murati.

Ulyana knew that this ‘handiwork’, however, involved turning a Volkisch guard squadron into a mess of shattered bones and crushed organs on Alcor’s blacktop. This was something that a grenade could accomplish with much more control– and it was easier to teach anyone to throw such a grenade. While it had been undoubtedly helpful, Ulyana remained wary of psionic powers. She wondered how much use they actually could be.

Murati averted her eyes. “I have a little trouble controlling my own strength.”

“I will preempt the obvious question that the Captain and Commissar must be preoccupied with,” Tigris spoke up suddenly, “and say that no, I do not think the rest of the crew should be taught about psionics yet. Not until we figure out what’s going on with Murati.”

“There is nothing going on with me.” Murati said. “I just need more practice.”

“At any rate, we can’t consistently teach anyone else right now.” Tigris said.

“Murati, what about Shalikova?” Ulyana asked. “How is she doing?”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about that.” Euphrates interrupted. “Maryam will support her.”

Murati raised her index finger and then put it back down immediately.

“Maryam?” Ulyana said. “Is Maryam psionic too?”

Aaliyah’s ears perked up again.

“Who else is psionic around here?” Aaliyah cried out. “This is out of hand.”

“I’ll tell you what– I’ll write a report on everyone’s psionic potential on the ship.”

Euphrates smiled congenially despite the tension she had reignited in the room.

Aaliyah and Ulyana dropped back into their seats.

“Thank you, Euphrates.”

“Fine. Fine. Just fine.”

They were both clearly stressed to their limits by this conversation–

Until a firm voice spoke up from beside them and excised the disquiet.

“Captain, in situations like this, we must center rationality and ethicality in our response.” Erika said. Her tone was still gentle but she sounded much more declarative. This was the ‘Premier’ speaking now, Ulyana thought. Erika pointed a finger up and circled it as if to encompass the room. “You have used this rubric a few times in these conversations before– we have reasoned that the ‘guests’ aboard this vessel, like Arabella, or Maryam, have had ample chances to sabotage it, subvert your control, alert your enemies, or otherwise cause grave inconvenience. None of this has happened. There is no reason to believe that some kind of secret plot is brewing. I believe we should formalize that logic and establish a standard that a crew member in otherwise good standing, who is found to possess psionics, is not ipso facto a threat to the mission. In this way we can avoid circular debates about the loyalty of particular individuals, and in turn, avoid wasting time and resources.”

“You’re right. We shouldn’t keep stressing out about this.” Ulyana replied.

“Premier, that is a reasonable standard.” Aaliyah said. “While I am continuously surprised at how much esoteric information and concepts keep getting wrapped up in our humble guerilla mission, it is unproductive to become paranoid. However, I must insist on a different standard for Omenseers and psionic users other than our current roster. Any future psionics users that we meet, we must be wary of and more wary than normal.”

“I don’t disagree.” Erika said. “But also, I think we already have wonderful standards and procedures by which we gauge our trust in strangers. We must also have a view toward the utility of dealing with the Omenseers, including Syzygy, and psionics users like our friends Euphrates and Tigris. We must keep our goal in focus. In Eisental, the law is not written by this Autarch– we must seize every opportunity to inflict defeat on the Volkisch.”

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah said. She did not sound completely satisfied.

But she would follow orders. Both Ulyana and Aaliyah had thrown in their lot with Erika.

And Erika thankfully seemed to keep a clear head even in these bizarre situations.

“Anything further should be part of classified reports. We cannot trust that we will retain verbal information indefinitely and we all have other jobs that need doing.” Erika said. “Package every report and everyone in this room will commit to read them, request any further deliberation, and then rationalize a final version. Then we will be on the same page vis a vis Omenseers and psionics in the future. Does everyone agree?”

There was a hearty nodding of heads and a few salutes in the room. As always with some answers and ever more questions, the second ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ thus concluded. Ulyana tried not to let the sensationalism get the best of her.

Truly, however, the Imbrium Ocean was deeper than she had ever thought possible.


Erika and Olga left the meeting room and made their way back to the bridge. Despite all of the shouting and turmoil throughout the discussion, Erika was, in her heart, quite pleased with the events. She walked with a light step and was even humming a tune. Ulyana and Aaliyah had one more visit that day and would not join them, leaving the bridge to the Volksarmee officers for now; and even Murati had someone she needed to talk to.

Everyone was working hard.

“Erika, did that go how you wanted?” Olga asked.

“Nothing ever does, because my imagination is too extravagant.” Erika said. “But I have full confidence in our alliance. They have been thrust headlong into events of incredible magnitude, but retain their heart and spirit. They are like us. That satisfies me.”

“I can write up more in the report, I guess. It just feels kinda pointless.” Olga replied.

“If you don’t think it’s important to say something, I trust you completely.” Erika said.

“I know you do.” Olga said. She put her hands in her hoodie pockets, grunting. “Part of me just feels guilty I’m not wracking my brains to tell them every little thing, and I do wish I could access my STEM better, but like– they’re fighting a war, and what Omenseers eat or how my Nest used to look or whatever, that does not really help them out. My dreams about living under a big silver tree. All of that just feels pointless to say.”

“Dreams are important! But you’re right, they’re not militarily actionable.” Erika replied.

Some secrets hardly mattered to anyone; some secrets changed the world.

It was impossible to tell which was which to women with as many secrets as them.

Whenever Erika told anyone even an inkling of the secrets that she shouldered–

She expected bedlam to follow. Despite this, her load was now lightened.

Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara had already seen impossible sights, after all.

More so than psionics, the dream of liberation felt impossible until it was achieved.

Maybe in the future she would tell them about her own DNA.

“Olga, do you know ‘The Union Officer’s Pledge’?” Erika asked.

“No?” Olga replied, narrowing her eyes.

Erika put a hand to her chest and shut her eyes while reciting.

“I am an officer of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. My rank is proof of the faith placed on me. I accept the responsibility of living up to my title, with honor; to serve the Union, with distinction; to acquire correct understandings, with humility; and thus to lead the downtrodden masses by example. I agree to live and die a worker, without a name.”

“That’s intense.” Olga said. “Do they all have to say that?”

“They all did– I found it in the ship’s files. It’s part of the commission process.”

Erika looked ahead.

She imagined everyone, from Murati Nakara to Ulyana Korabiskaya to Alex Geninov reciting this pledge. How did they feel? Did they know the power of their words?

All around her, she was surrounded by the people of the Union, just walking this hall.

That pledge was everything she wanted to be.

An impossible dream for a girl in the gutters killing to survive every day.

And yet, she saw it!

In their humble, everyday demeanor that they themselves never questioned.

In their minds, perhaps they did not think themselves communists, nor anything special. All of them took this pledge for their families or homeland. But to even be a communist, to accept it, to say it out loud, required immense bravery. All of the world told them they were insane, dangerous, even evil– but they fought on for those taboo ideals.

It was electric.

Her Rostock in formation with this ship full of quiet, impossible dreams.

She felt a bit embarrassed, but she wanted the Volksarmee to take the pledge too.

Without realizing it at first, Erika put on her sunniest smile yet.

“Psionics and Omensight both pale in comparison to the sheer power contained here.”

Olga smiled. “I am not sure that I agree with any of that, but I’m glad you’re happy.”

She was happy– she could see her dream in this place.

Arriving on the bridge, Kalika stood from the captain’s chair and greeted them.

“It’s been uneventful. The Rostock is alongside; operating normally.” She said.

“Glad to hear it. Olga and I can relieve you.” Erika said.

Kalika’s brow furrowed and she put her hands on her hips.

Erika could foretell the scolding.

“It’s not necessary.” Kalika said. “You’re the one who could use some rest, Premier.”

“Nonsense,” Erika replied. “I’m feeling spry and the coffee here is fantastic.”

“Olga, please tell her that she works too hard.” Kalika said.

Olga shrugged. “You can tell her all you want; when it comes to work, she won’t listen.”

Kalika shook her head and relented. “Alright, if you insist. I can go find something to do.”

Erika and Olga stepped aside and allowed a reluctant Kalika to leave the bridge.

“Order on bridge!” Olga called out. Imitating the Commissar; she was grinning in fact.

“We don’t need to be stuffy. At ease everyone!” Erika called out right after.

While the Brigand made its way through unoccupied territory, there was hardly anything for the bridge crew to do moment to moment. Over on Erika’s left, Natalia Semyonova had a deck of cards and was perhaps practicing some kind of divination or magic trick; Fatima al-Suhar read a book on a portable, still wearing the sonar station’s earbuds; Braya Zachikova was still only present as a cute miniature on the main screen. On her right, she saw that Alex Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were discussing something about ‘shipping’ that Erika came to think was not logistics-related; and Abdulalim Kamarik looked over the ship’s autopilot every so often while listening to music on a communication headset. Or so Erika assumed from his casual body language. They all heard and acknowledged Olga’s declaration before returning to their hobbies. A rather homey atmosphere.

“Olga, I think they’ve earned a bit of peace, don’t you?” Erika said.

Olga shrugged. “Until we run into a patrol or something.”

Erika took seat in the captain’s chair, while Olga occupied the Commissar’s beside her.

“Semyonova,” Erika said, “could you message the Rostock and put Daphne on my screen?”

“Of course! Captain Triantafallos assured me she was at your disposal at all times.”

Semyonova cheerfully swiped her finger on the screen of her station to wake up the display.

Within moments, Erika had Daphne on the computer affixed to the captain’s chair.

“Premier!” Daphne saluted the screen. “I am elated beyond measure to see you!”

“I’m happy to see you too Daphne. How has the crew been?” Erika asked.

Daphne seemed quite pleased with herself as she answered. “Our cadres remain well supplied, amply motivated, and operationally efficient. Our consumption is controlled and we have not had any encounters. Magdeburg and Gera are presently lying low around Rhein-Sieg-Kries, awaiting orders. We can collect them on the way to Aachen if you desire, just say the word. Enemy activity remains low. Patrols are clustered around the Ayre border– their last order from Thurin was likely to guard against Palatine troops. We noticed the patrol fleet are avoiding Stralsund and the edge of Khaybar, so the east is open.”

“Unfortunately, that’s because of the Mycenae Military Commission. They simply do not want to cause a confrontation.” Erika replied. “So the east is still not open to us. Thank you for the report nevertheless, Daphne. I wanted to ask if you had collected any broadcasts from Kreuzung in the past few days. Some newly arrived tenants are likely to be our main concern going forward. The Brigand has been disconnected for a while.”

“As a matter of fact, we did capture a speech by the ‘newly-arrived tenants.’” Daphne said. “Kreuzung’s station broadcaster pushed it through every laser line and every channel carried it. They intended to make a nation-wide statement. In a matter of hours, northern Rhinea has been declared ‘Reichskommissariat Eisental’ and this Violet Lehner is now in charge of the place as its ‘Reichskommissar.’ No response yet from the Thurin Reichsgau.”

“We need to gather as much information as we can on this event. After Aachen we will have to make a pit stop in Trelleborg to see what the underground knows.” Erika said.

“Trelleborg?” Olga said. “The madwoman there wanted to bite you last time.”

Erika looked a little embarassed. “It will be fine Olga– nobody will bite me.”

“Nobody will bite the Premier on our watch, Olga.” Daphne replied, sounding deadly serious. “Premier, about the current tasks. Tomorrow we will begin work on operational integration between the Brigand and Rostock. It will be a tight few days. I am not sure we can complete all the necessary work before we reach Aachen. We have to sync the computers, rationalize supplies, set up recurring channels, appoint cadre liaisons–”

“Don’t worry, Daphne. Aachen is not the deadline.” Erika said. “Whatever you can get done during the journey is appreciated, but it will be an ongoing process to get everyone talking and working together. It will be gradual. I am not expecting it tomorrow.”

“Acknowledged, Premier. Your magnanimity is appreciated. Shall we reconvene later?”

“We should plan to meet. For now send me the video. I am curious about the rhetoric.”

“Of course. I look forward to shaking your hand and saluting in person, Premier!”

Daphne disappeared from the screen. In her place, a transfer bar appeared.

Once it completed, Erika played the video of the broadcast from Kreuzung.

The Rostock had captured the event in-progress.

Partway through an introduction by a state news anchor, who was cut from shortly after the video started. When the camera finally captured its intended subject, it was clear that Violet Lehner was settled into the old office of Kreuzung’s governor. Everyone in Eisental had seen the room used in broadcasts before, by old Werner. Now, rather than reflecting sky or grasses, the projection walls around the stately old desk projected instead red banners each with a central white circle. In one circle was a black sonnenrad, and on the other a diagonal hooked cross. Neither of these symbols were common to the government in Thurin, who preferred to identify with iron eagles, bundled arrows and straight, steel crosses.

Rather, the bannered symbols belonged to the ‘Esoteric Order’.

Within the broader Volkisch Movement, the Esoteric Order was not the most extreme nor the most niche group. Erika was aware of far smaller and far more violent elements. Esoterics were instead characterized by a greater radicalism. Ordinary right-wing elements sought to preserve or harken back to ‘better times’ in the past– to turn back the ‘progress’ of liberalism. The Esoteric Order had a complex transformative rhetoric. They believed in the new– they believed that Fascism was ‘modern’ and that through Fascism, a new mode of being could be discovered. Rather than harken back to the past, they believed the Nation was yet to be attained, that the ‘Volk’ had to struggle to be worthy of it. Their racial destiny was not in the past, but in the future. The Nation could not be moved to suit the fascist ubermensch; the fascist had to become ubermensch to suit the Nation. They did this through personal ritualization, religious mysticism, and bizarre nouveau racialism.

Erika had not been aware that the esoterics had an armed wing, however.

And that this armed wing was now personified by the woman with the long two-tone hair.

Violet Lehner sat behind the desk, in her black uniform, surrounded by esoteric symbols.

A lean, striking and pretty young woman with just a hint of exoticism to her appearance.

Her eyes had the slightest slant; her nose just a bit of hook; her skin tone just slightly deep.

To the most extreme elements of the Volkisch, she might’ve been too racialized in fact.

In the Esoteric Order, however, she was racialized enough.

As if Violet Lehner herself was an example of the all-encompassing Nation.

“Good greetings, citizens of Kreuzung, Stralsund, Rhein-Sieg-Kreis, Aachen, and many such places in the Eisental region– and to those watching from farther afield, perhaps! I appear before you today by way of introduction and to pledge my commitment to you. It is unlikely that many of you have seen or known much of me before recent events. Events that saw me thrust from a position of humble servitude in the backdrop of the Volkisch revolution, to the peak of Kreuzung in search of justice. My name is Violet Lehner. I am the only child of the Fuhrer Adam Lehner. My parentage has been heretofore a secret, albeit an open and unguarded one– I simply wished to forge my own path in life, and that is that.”

“By education, I am a laywer and a businesswoman. In my life, I have been a student, a shareholder, an advisor, a writer and in recent months, formally a military officer. It is with this eclectic character that I view the state of the Nation with anger and sorrow. Since the profligate Konstantin von Fueller saw fit to finally abandon the territories he had grown bored of plundering and toying with, and seek the retribution of the next world, our economies nearly collapsed, and we became surrounded by enemies.”

“We could have allayed the consequences of the Imperial collapse with decisive action, but the liberals and their committees and subcommittees hindered our response until death was at the doorstep. It is only through the brave actions of our National Socialist Navy and the Stabswache that we were able to deal with the saboteurs and meet the enemies; and only because of our swift and innovative Corporations that we forestalled material collapse. I am here following the examples that have been set. Eisental has suffered crisis after crisis, abetted by the remains of the liberals, by the saboteurs, and by the political-academic elites, who led the working men astray, sowed division within the Volk, allowed infiltration by foreign elements, and stifled and strangled our economic prospects.”

“No more will this be tolerated. Today begins a new era for Eisental. I and my forces have already arrested all of the criminal elements who had entrenched at the top of the tower; liquidated the foreign elements who went mad with bloodthirst and rampaged under Adolf Werner’s knowing eyes; and we will soon take all needed measures to restore the dignity of Eisental’s people and resume production of all the needed goods and materials to revitalize the economy, and pump blood back into our Volk and our Nation. We have stricken down the liberal elites and put men and women of sense in charge of everything.”

“Starting today, I have accepted the mandate of Reichskommissar of this territory, the Reichskommissariat Eisental, to oversee the return of order and the restoration of the Volk in this area and advance our shared cause. Eisental is the motherlode and breadbasket of Rhinea. Restoring Eisental to glory is to restore the Nation, which has been grievously wounded; and restoring the Volksgemeinschaft that has been splintered into a million pieces on spurious, ideological bases by the liberals. Starting today, you will recognize you are all Imbrians, and are all blood-siblings of the Nation. All of you are one.”

“Our task is monumental, and the stakes are high. We have everything set against us.” Reichskommissar Lehner raised her voice. That camera focused on the desk zoomed closer to her impassioned expression. Before she had spoken calmly, but she allowed greater fervor to bleed into her voice until it raised. “We are surrounded by charlatans who seek to plunder our wounded nation and erase the Volk! The victor shall always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused: we fight not just to exact justice, but to enshrine our struggle as the world’s truth! Should we fail, they will forever laugh at us for our toil. But we will prevail! Because unlike the liberals we have not turned our backs on the Nation!”

“Ethnicity, class, sex– these identitarian categories are part of an antiquated ideology that prevented us from achieving our shared Destiny. But I know the truth, the secret, that the liberal order wished for us to never seek; we are the one Volksgemeinschaft, one Imbria! Our Nation bleeds and cries out for all of us to save her! So we will unite under black sun and the wolfsangel! National Socialism gives us the path to our revolution! Our Nation calls us to action! We answer as one people, one struggle! All that matters is this: will you work? Will you fight? Will you answer her call? Those who turn their back on the call will be shunned by Destiny! They will be left behind to die with no one to save them! But to those who fight for Destiny’s favor we can say: you have all of the Volk behind you!”

“So come tomorrow, when you clock in to work, when you return to school, or when you pick your gun on patrol, or when you set sail for battle, think of this with seriousness. I am an Imbrian! What can I do to advance the Volk? What can I do for my Nation? Who are those around me that reject the Nation and seek to drive us back into squabble and misery? Who are those around me that will march alongside? All of you are the Nation! Your individual actions and decisions are what will make up the whole of our success! Kill the sniveling liberal in your brain who tells you that you the Nation is not worthy of you! By your actions, make yourself worth the glory of the Nation! Endsieg shall be yours!”

Violet stood up from her desk, and raised her right hand, from the shoulder, straightened.

“In your workplaces, in your places of worship, in your homes; you are one people with one united struggle! You all work toward fulfilling one immutable Destiny! You all work toward one Nation and will seize victory together! Stand proudly, and prove yourself worthy! Today begins your very own National People’s War! SIEG HEIL!”

Around her, the walls with the banners instead displayed several uniformed soldiers.

All of them were Shimii. Black uniforms, decorated in the same symbols on the banners.

And all of them hailed victory behind Violet Lehner with perfect precision.

Curiously, Erika noted, the victory salute was not followed by a salute to the Fuhrer.

As should have been customary: Sieg Heil, Heil Fuhrer. An omission rich in meaning.

“Violet Lehner is staking out for herself.” Erika said. “Her Nation will not include Thurin.”

“She’s a fucking lunatic.” Olga replied, peeking in over Erika’s shoulder.

Erika shut off the video and laid a hand on the screen as if she could make it disappear.

All of this was an opportunity– if they could seize it. If they were up to the task.

But the sight of Shimii soldiers doing the fascist salute was somewhat disquieting.

They were not the only ones fighting for the souls of Eisental’s dispossessed peoples.

Could Violet’s fascist subsumption of the will appeal to the broken masses of Imbria?

How many Shimii, Katarrans, and the Imbrian poor would be taken by this rhetoric?

Led astray by honeyed steel from a false savior, in the hour of their greatest desperation.

In that moment, Erika’s grand dream finally, truly met its nightmarish competing vision.

Past tragedies; present tensions; and the uncertain future all bled in front of her eyes.

Even in the quiet, empty ocean of middle Eisental, it could be felt–

the currents carried, along with Violet’s voice, and the cries of salute,

the brimming violence of the Nationale Volkskrieg.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.1]

In the beginning the world was silent and pitch black.

Then, she heard the distant sound of a harp and became aware of sensations.

Slowly the errant strings became a melody, building in intensity, a tremor on skin,

and with it there was light.

In the center of the darkness, a spotlight shone in a great white circle.

Casting a shadow in the center of that circle was the graceful figure of a woman. Her hair was partially covered by a long, dark blue veil, but much was still visible. She had a matching blue outfit with long sleeves, a high neck, with simple yellow embroidery forming geometric patterns across her chest and flanks. Gaps in the fabric exposed some of the upper back and belly in diamond cutouts; a long and covering skirt from the waist down completely hid her long, graceful legs. She wore a single black glove that seemed out of place with the rest.

It was evident that she was a dancer, and in that instant, the music queued her.

Joining the harp was the sound of drumming and jingling metal rings at once.

To her music, the figure began to dance.

Hers was a natural progression with the music. Between sweeping, dramatic full-body movement; toward tight, slow and deliberate waving of the hands, fluttering of the fingers, turning of wrists, and flowing extensions of the arms. She would spin once with her arms wide and then pull them close, to cover the face, while gracefully separating them, with a confident gaze slowly unveiled. She would cross her wrists, flutter her hands like a bird’s wings while slowly taking a shallow bow, before rising suddenly, spreading them out as if casting something into the air. In her every move, there was that flowing of states, between precision and release, tension and freedom, slow deliberation and wild passion.

In the middle of that spot of white light, surrounded by nothingness, she danced.

But she was not alone. There had always been someone watching.

Yearning from afar, a girl stepped forward out of the shadow and held out her hand.

To her surprise, the dancer moved nearer, and made to touch her with her gloved hand.

Soft fingers met the sleek plastic– slick with blood slowly coagulating between.

Then there was no dancer, and the light shone accusatory on the girl alone instead.

As if she had dared in yearning and now suffered for her greed.

She stood framed, her shadow immensely long like a trail of gore-ridden sludge.

And there were bodies. Crawling, shambling toward her. Begging for their lives back.

“No! No, stay away! Stay away from me! I didn’t– I didn’t want any of this–!”

She fell back, swatted with her hands, crawling, her eyes filled with tears.

Then there was no spotlight.

An unsettling half-darkness suddenly loomed overhead. In her defense, a mechanical arm extended that bristled with weapons, attached to a massive body– a Diver. Great flashes and detonations and the booming reports of the guns made their own music, and the bodies burst into blood and meat that sprayed across her in great whipping gusts of viscera,

And she screamed and cried and she begged hoarse for it to stop–

It would never stop– she felt like she was defiled forever–


A dark-haired, cat-eared young girl opened her eyes and squirmed in her bed.

Her breathing came in fits and starts, and the blanket felt so heavy that she felt trapped, and it provoked a sudden and intense need to get it off herself. She crawled up against the headboard, lifting her back onto her pillows, but she found the task so monumentally difficult to perform with her missing arm and leg that it engendered ever mounting desperation. She continued to feel ensnared until she had fought for almost a minute.

Then she realized what she was doing–

and felt so deeply pathetic she could have cried.

Dripping with sweat, her long hair disheveled and gritty and greasy, dressed in a little white hospital smock clinging to her breasts. Her breathing started to normalize.

Her panic-addled sight came slowly into focus.

Homa Baumann bowed her head.

Examining what had become of the arm that Nasser cut off.

There was dim illumination from a tiny white LED on her headboard. She could see how her arm, missing above the elbow, had a black cap grafted onto it. They did not even try to make it look pretty– Homa had seen some prosthetics around Kreuzung before that had these sleek carbon-fiber and transparent glass looks. This was a simple metal cap with the grooves and holes to affix the rest of the arm later. There were exposed mechanical ligaments which would probably be connected to the rest of the arm once the whole thing was installed.

Maybe it would look okay when she had the whole thing.

She felt a bit disgusted.

Her left leg was in a similar state. Nothing but a cap and the wriggling ligaments.

When she tried to “move” the parts of her which were gone, instead the ligaments would move, but they were connected to nothing. So it appeared to her that worms were trying to crawl out of what remained of those lost limbs. It sent a chill down her entire body, it was so disgusting, it made her want to cry. But sometimes, she couldn’t help but try to move her lost limbs anyway. In the attempt the ligaments wriggled uselessly out of her control.

Tears welled up in her eyes but she tried not to cry. It was stupid to cry.

But she was that weak– weak enough to just cry and do nothing and hate herself.

She laid back against the pillows and the headboard. Tears spilled from her eyes.

While the blanket did not feel so heavy anymore, she was still trapped.

Homa could not get up out of bed. And even if she could, she was not in Kreuzung.

Kreuzung was impossible to return to now. She had abandoned her old home.

And had instead found herself aboard a ship that rescued her.

Because of the drugs, and the suddenness and horror of the surgery, she had been going in and out of sleep, dragged into fantastic nightmares and then back out into the mundane nightmare of living over and over again. She did not really know where she was, nor what kind of people had rescued her. It was only now that her wits were beginning to slowly return to her, and she could worry about what sort of situation she was in.

But that brought its own new agonies as well.

Her newly lucid thoughts filled with shame that she struggled to cope with.


“Good morning, Homa. Have you been awake long?”

“Oh, no, only for a little while. Sorry; my head’s been all fuzzy.”

“You do sound much more lucid. I was worried about your mental state yesterday. You may not have been in a condition to realize before; there’s a labeled button on the bed arm. Here. Do you see it? Whenever you feel any discomfort or distress please try to push that button. Even a quick tap will do. I will be at your side as fast as I can. Do not hesitate to use it.”

“Thank you. I will keep that in mind.”

They were both speaking Low Imbrian; or at least, Homa could understand her easily.

Everyone here had just a little bit of an accent, but Homa could not place it.

Her new doctor, who had been responsible for her surgery, was Winfreda Kappel. Despite how much a blur the past day had been for her, Homa still remembered this name. She was a truly colorful individual– quite literally as her hair was a few different shades of blue. Homa wondered whether she dyed it that way as a color theory kind of thing, like the reason that hospitals for children had walls painted certain colors to be inviting and calming. Probably not. Her attire under the white plastic coat was pretty casual, with a synthetic orange turtleneck and skirt and what looked like black tights or a black sheer bodysuit.

That led Homa to think she may have been saved by a merchant vessel or something of that nature. It felt foolish to speculate any further than that with the information she had.

“Doctor, can we talk?” Homa asked. “I– my head has been kinda hazy before, but now–”

“Of course. But I want to bring you food and medicine, and give you a check-up first.”

“Oh, yes, thank you.” She tried to sound grateful– and not too sad.

Dr. Kappel left the room with a brisk walk, after turning the bed’s arm around presumably so that Homa’s plate and drinks could be set on it. Homa looked around the room.

There was nothing too identifiable in her immediate vicinity. There was a green plastic separator set up between herself and an adjacent bed that seemed too quiet to be occupied. All of the walls were bare metal, and projecting different charts, reminders, and posters. Next to Homa’s bed the wall projected a poster with a pretty blond girl striking a pose with bionic limbs, the caption reading, “She is your comrade! She can do anything!”

It was pretty strange– the art style, and especially the choice of words. Comrade, huh?

Homa appreciated the attempt to motivate her, not that it actually helped much.

When the Doctor returned, she had a plastic bowl that had spork in it, along with a plastic cup and a tiny pill bottle containing yellow and blue pills. The bowl contained a porridge, from the look and taste Homa recognized it as maize. White corn porridge dusted with cinnamon and speckled with fruit. Meanwhile the drink looked like a creamy coffee.

Homa had not realized how hungry she was until just then.

“Would you like to try eating yourself? Or would you prefer to have assistance?”

“I can feed myself. Thank you.” Homa reached for the spork with her good arm. She took a sporkful of porridge and discovered the fruits were jammy, preserved figs. It was a good porridge, creamy and gently sweet. She put down the spork and picked up the cup to taste the coffee; and almost smiled at the sweet and heartwarming creaminess of the condensed milk that had been added to it. It was a simple but invigorating breakfast.

“Our chef, Minardo– her favorite trick is adding sweet condensed milk to dishes.” Doctor Kappel said, with a bit of a sigh. “If it is too sweet for you, let me know so I can scold her.”

“Oh no, it’s lovely. Please let her know I liked it and that I am very grateful.” Homa said.

“She’ll love to hear that. We’ll hopefully get you something more substantial later today.”

Dr. Kappel sat by Homa’s bedside, watching her eat with a relaxed contentment in her face.

One arm was more than enough to eat porridge, drink coffee and swallow some pills.

It took more effort than if she had both. Sometimes she tried to reach for the cup with her nonexistent arm, or thought of shifting the spork to her missing hand.

But she could do it.

Homa felt like if she asked for too much help, it would be shameful of her–

“Oh, wait– Doctor–” Homa had a sudden, arresting thought. “I– I can’t really pay for–”

“No, no, it’s all free. You worry about recovering, not about money.” Dr. Kappel said.

Homa blinked her eyes hard. “It’s free? I don’t understand. Is someone else paying?”

Dr. Kappel nodded. “You don’t owe us or anyone, any amount of money. Don’t worry.”

“But– you’re giving me a new arm and a leg, right?” Homa said. She was still shocked.

“Absolutely. Please do not be concerned about our supplies. We want to help you.”

Homa felt a continuing swell of concerns. “I mean– the drugs too– all of this costs–!”

“Homa, if it helps you feel better, maybe once you’re recovered, you can help around the ship. You could help the cook, or be a nurse, or something like that– but nobody will demand compensation. It costs us money, not you. All of your care will be absolutely free.”

Dr. Kappel stood firm. Homa could not understand it.

In Kreuzung everything cost money. Even existing cost money.

Failing to make rent at best landed you in a shelter until you could save up for a place– at worst it landed you on the streets at night until a K.P.S.D cracked your skull open one day. Food cost money! Without money you would have to find a soup kitchen every day, or beg, or starve to death. Healthcare certainly cost money. There was no place that would see you without at least some token bit of payment. Right now, Homa was eating their food, taking up space and time, taking hormones; she was getting two limbs replaced–! For free?!

Who were these people? Were they crazy? Was this some kind of a cult?

Dr. Kappel narrowed her eyes and looked suddenly a bit exhausted.

She could see the fright and confusion on Homa’s face.

It looked to Homa as if Dr. Kappel was torn up about what she wanted to say.

“Homa– the reason it’s free is because we are communists.”

Homa blinked. “Communists?”

“Yes. We’re communists. We are not trying to profit from you. Do you understand?”

Dr. Kappel seemed to be bracing for Homa to be upset at her, but Homa remained confused.

Nobody could have lived in the Imbrium with their eyes and ears open without hearing the word communist at one point or another. Older Imbrians grumbled and blamed the communist rebels for various things. Ever since the Volkisch took over they accused various people of being communists, and people accused the Volkisch of being communists too.

This did not engender an understanding of what communism was, but Homa had certainly heard the word. She did know that the people at the gender clinic received some money from social democrats whom, as Homa understood it, were kind of like communists. These grants were part of the reason they could keep the clinic open at all, since the Rhinean government was not fond of transgender people or their healthcare needs.

She had also heard that communists followed military dictators who completely controlled their government. But that it was different from swearing fealty to the Imbrian Emperor; sometimes she had heard communism compared to the people who had followed Mehmed the Tyrant during the Jihad in the Age of Heroes too. Homa did not know what to think about Mehmed, and she certainly did not know what to think about communists.

Her mind spun around in a momentary circle, moving quickly to arrive nowhere.

“I– I have to admit I didn’t know there were really communists here.” Homa said.

“We’re not from around here, really.” Dr. Kappel said in a guarded tone.

Homa picked up her spork again and took another bite of the porridge.

“I guess that explains things.” She said. She hardly interrogated it any further.

Imbrians were all greedy shaitans, but these folks were just political oddities.

Maybe they were Bosporans– she had heard the Bosporans had a revolution now too.

Her thoughts started spinning again.

“I promise we will explain everything– for right now, I would like to focus on your care, and I would like you to focus on resting, taking your medicine, and letting us know how you feel.” Dr. Kappel said. Homa nodded wearily. “Right now, we just need to observe the interface for a day or two for any rejection symptoms. Then I can install the mechanical limbs.”

Homa nodded her head with compliance. She was in no position to resist anything anyway.

And even if she was– she didn’t even know what kind of a life she could even have now.

All of the rationality left in her mind was screaming at her that this was too weird.

But so what? What did she have left? Maybe– if she died, it wouldn’t even matter now.

The Homa Baumann who worked and lived in Kreuzung was dead anyway.

Dr. Kappel reached out and laid her hand over Homa’s good hand, with a smile.

“I know things must be very tough for you right now. But I am not lying nor exaggerating when I say, we all want you to recover. Even the sailors who got you out of the Diver have been asking how you’re doing. You’re not alone; we want to help you, Homa.”

“Thank you. I– I’ll think about it. Things are– things are fine right now.” Homa said.

After the pep talk, the doctor gave her a closer look, asking her questions about the remains of her limbs, how they felt, whether she had certain symptoms or discomfort. She had Homa try to move her limb remnants, which resulted in the exposed filaments wriggling out of the metal interfaces. Unlike Homa, the doctor seemed pleased by their appearance. She also examined Homa’s good limbs, and checked her for cold and flu symptoms. Everything she found, she would input on a portable computer– a quite chunky and beige model that Homa had never seen the like of. It was nothing like the sleek devices sold on Kreuzung.

“Thank goodness, everything seems to be going well. I want to take a few scans soon to make absolutely sure, but there don’t appear to be complications.” Dr. Kappel said. “You may not see it that way, Homa, but you are very lucky. You’re all set for a full recovery from very serious injuries. Once the limbs are installed, we’ll start physical therapy soon after.”

Homa again nodded her head compliantly. She had nothing to say. She was not elated.

Dr. Kappel sat down again and reached out her hand and patted Homa on the shoulder.

“I wanted to ask you– with your consent, I have a volunteer willing to help with your care.”

Homa nodded her head. “I don’t mind.” She muttered, staring at the empty porridge bowl.

Avoiding Dr. Kappel’s cheery face. Even if she was sincere, Homa couldn’t meet her eyes.

“Alright. She did say you were acquainted– if there are problems, please let me know.”

Homa’s ears stood on end upon hearing that. Acquainted? Who could it possibly be?

She started wracking her brain and her heart started to pound.

There were very few people she would consider herself “acquainted” with–

And in this situation–?

“Knock, knock~ is it okay to come in, doc?”

From around the open door threshold, there was a sound like metal knocking on metal.

“Ah! We were just talking about you. Please come in, Ms. Loukia.”

Sounds of heels clicking the floor, moving closer.

Loukia–? Just as she started to remember–

Around the green barrier, appeared a woman Homa was surprised to be able to recognize.

A Katarran woman, identifiable as such by two rectangular horns coming from the back of her head and framing a reddish-purple ponytail of shiny, silky-looking hair. Her skin was a matte pink, with a lighter shade of purple eyeshadow and lipstick than the color of her hair, and her beauty and style were as elegant as the art by which she applied those pigments. Her fashion was quite arresting as well, with a fancy steel-grey jacket worn over a button-down shirt, and a pencil skirt and tights. Her high heels could not be seen from Homa’s vantage but she could easily hear them, and in her mind, she had filled them in.

Homa had indeed met this woman before, and never imagined she would see her again. She had tried to assist in finding a prosthetics shop that used to be in Tower Seven. It was a somewhat embarrassing memory– Homa had been utterly crestfallen, coming home from a date with her ears folded and her head down. She then walked right into the lady.

Judging by the one black glove, she must have actually found some help.

“Fancy meeting you here, Homa Baumann.”

She waved elegantly with that one black-gloved hand.

It was so surprising– why would anyone remember her?

“Oh! I– wow–” Homa blinked hard as if disoriented. “I never thought–”

“Me either.” Said the woman. “But life’s little coincidences can sometimes be beautiful.”

Dr. Kappel smiled. “I don’t know the circumstances, but this is Kalika Loukia, Homa. After your surgery, she confided in me that she had met you before and was worried about you. I thought it would be helpful to have a friend here with a shared experience. She also had a traumatic injury requiring a prosthetic, so you can lean on her experiences for support.” 

While the Doctor spoke, Kalika removed her glove to show Homa her mechanical hand.

Homa vaguely remembered that Kalika’s old, broken arm used to have a syntheskin cover.

She wondered then if she, too, would just have bare metal limbs exposed at all times.

“Of course, this is only if you are comfortable with it. Feel free to say no.” Dr. Kappel said.

“Thank you. I’m– I’m okay with it. Thanks.” Homa was rather taken aback by Kalika’s appearance. Why was she on this ship; could it be that it was a mercenary ship that rescued her? She assumed that all Katarrans were mercenaries– Homa tried to push the detective-level thoughts into the back of her head, but the coincidences were staggering. She shook her head, and twitched her ears, trying to recover her sense and to speak without affect. “It– sorry– It looks like you were able to get your arm fixed. I’m like– I’m glad.”

No matter what, she was having trouble speaking.

Her thoughts as murky as the deep ocean.

“It was actually all thanks to you, kind stranger.” Kalika said. “I was standing on the verge of a nervous breakdown when you went out of your way to help me in Kreuzung. No one else would have bothered– I think it’s only right that I be your kind stranger now.”

Homa smiled. It was a bit wan. But– Kalika was nice. It was nice to see a smiling face.

Nothing else that had happened to her recently was this nice–

even if it was an exceedingly odd little coincidence.

“In my memory of it I just bumped into you and acted like an idiot.” Homa muttered.

“Are you trying to downplay being a nice girl? It won’t work on me.” Kalika said.

Dr. Kappel seemed pleased with their rapport.

“Homa, remember that you can always tell me anything or make any requests to me; but Kalika is– well, she is an employee of ours on this ship. I trust her, so you can trust her too.”

Kalika put a hand on her chest.

“I am a typical fixer.” She said, smiling. “I think it will help with the physio and all that to have someone who has experienced it before. Also, I think you ought to take her out of this stuffy room, and maybe give her a shower– you’re supposed to be on station, but I can do all that. Is it depressing being bedridden like this, Homa? Wouldn’t you like to ride around a bit?”

“Hey now– wait a second–”

Homa interrupted Dr. Kappel. “No offense, but it is a little depressing. I’d love to go out.”

“Well– she’s not so delicate she can’t go out, but–”

“Then it’s settled. Can we get a blanket and a wheelchair?” Kalika said.

Dr. Kappel looked between Homa and Kalika and looked a bit helpless herself for once.

“Fine, fine. Kalika’s right, I have other patients and you could use some cheering up.”

Kalika gave Homa a victorious little thumbs up.

Homa felt ever so slightly more elated than before. She wanted to look around.

“Have you ever been on a ship before, Homa?” Kalika asked.

“Not for years and years. I can’t really remember what it’s like.” Homa replied.

“It’s my habit to say ‘it’s not so different’ from living on a station– but Kreuzung is a bit more luxurious than here. It’s a Cruiser though; as sardine cans go, it’s spacious.” Kalika said.

Homa wanted to ask whether Kalika thought this was comforting– but suppressed the urge.

Perhaps this was just a Katarran’s sense of humor.

Dr. Kappel left their side for a moment and returned with a foldable wheelchair. She set it on the floor near Homa’s bed and stretched it out, locked in the plastic frame parts and made sure the arm and footrests were leveled correctly. Homa sat up and slid herself to the side of the bed and Dr. Kappel lowered the railing for her. But as much as she initially desired to do so, she could not get onto the chair by herself. Instead, Kalika soon picked Homa up without much effort and laid her gently on the seat. A synthetic blanket was then laid over Homa’s lap, covering her legs. She could pull it up to her chest with her good hand.

Behind her back, Homa felt Kalika’s hands take hold of the push handles.

Her ears twitched ever so slightly, as did her tail, at the proximity of her touch.

“Comfy? Ready to go?” Kalika asked.

“I’m fine enough.” Homa replied.

Kappel waved her hand at them and watched them leave the clinic.

As she was wheeled out, Homa noticed that there were several more beds in the clinic, and that several of them had other patients too. She could see through gaps in the green dividers set between each bed that they appeared occupied. It had been very quiet in the clinic, so she assumed she was alone all this time. She wondered whether they had rescued any more people– and how badly wounded they must have been to be so deathly quiet.

Dr. Kappel really was busy. Homa felt a bit ashamed about it.

She felt that a Doctor’s time and medical resources ought to have gone to anyone else.

Rather than all of this apparent focus on herself. What good was she, anyway?

“There are not very many places to see, but I will take you to the nicest ones.” Kalika said.

“Anywhere is nice enough.” Homa said. “Nicer than being in bed all day.”

Kalika wheeled Homa at a gentle pace out of the clinic door. Directly outside there was a large connecting hallway that seemed to go from one end of the ship to the other. Homa was not able to gauge its length. All of the wall panels had separators with exposed bolts, and there were vents on the lower wall and on the ceiling that hummed constantly. The air smelled stale and there were two dozen people walking up and down the hall at any given time, not mention the ones ducking into and out of meeting rooms and other facilities. Everyone had the same uniform: white shirts, teal half-jackets, black bottoms.

Homa knew nobody, and nobody knew her– but there were people waving at her the instant she stepped out onto the hall. Homa bashfully waved back with her good arm– at first. It happened enough throughout her trip, however, that she ultimately started nodding her head or smiling when more of the crew would wave or wish her well. There were so many people greeting her. At least Kalika was there to keep people moving. None of them stopped to talk, they all had places to go and work to do. But Homa must have received two dozen well wishes and salutations in just her first short trip down the hallway alone.

She did not know how to feel about that– and so she tried to push it to the background.

Something immediately surprising to her was how many different kinds of people there were on the ship, judging by the crew in the main hall. There were a few fair-skinned blonds and brunettes around, but there were also other Shimii, and more Katarrans than just Kalika, and dark-skinned Bosporans as well. Homa was aware that Kreuzung had a particular problem with racial divide, and did not expect everywhere in the world to be as racist– but the veritable melting pot on this ship was still bewildering to see. Everyone was wearing the uniform, or work coveralls like Homa used to wear. Nobody had weapons.

“Hey, um, Ms. Loukia–”

“No~; please call me Kalika, Homa.”

“Kalika– what kind of business is this ship involved in?”

“Ah. Well. It’s part of a ‘transport company.’ That’s all I can say.”

“So they’re doing something illegal.” Homa whispered.

“You didn’t hear it from me.” Kalika said, betraying a hint of amusement.

Working at Bertrand’s, Homa had first-hand experience with the shady outfits coming and going under that euphemism. ‘Transport company’ meant smugglers, hired guns, gangsters; port privatizations in Kreuzung created a boom in illicit logistics for syndicates and privateers alike. Men like Bertrand took anyone’s money. Homa’s sense of morality led her to look upon criminals unkindly– but then she quickly felt she no longer had any higher ground to speak from anyway. Not after everything she had done in Kreuzung.

But– there was also another thing she heard that was difficult to square away–

“But they’re communists? Communist mercenaries?” Homa asked.

“It’s funny how the world works sometimes– that’s all I’ll say.” Kalika replied.

Homa was not an expert on the interiors of ships, but in the ‘After Descent’ era, there was no part of humanity that was not confined to a metal habitat of some description.

So living on a ship was perhaps not so unfamiliar to her. From what she saw, the interior of the ship felt only ever so slightly more confining than her old hallway in Kreuzung. In the hall, people could easily move two abreast with potential room for a third, rather than single file like the training ship Homa had sailed with during her vocational studies. The clinic was bigger than her old room several times over. Kalika wheeled her past a social area that looked actually cozy, with several plush couches and booth seats, and even games. She imagined the individual accommodations for the crew were probably as cramped as hers back home, but overall, it seemed surprisingly humane and livable for a ship.

“Want to go see the ‘ship’s tree’? It’s the darnedest thing.” Kalika asked.

Homa gasped. “Wait, what? They have a tree in here? Do you mean a real tree?”

“It’s a real tree! I had the same reaction. It’s apparently a tradition where they come from.”

A tradition? Keeping a tree inside of a ship of all places?! Homa was quite curious to see.

Despite Kalika’s gentle demeanor and measured pace, Homa still felt strange being pushed around on a wheelchair. It was comfortable enough, and it was nice seeing a different set of metal walls, as well as people coming and going. However, it was hard not to succumb to a feeling of helplessness. As much as she was under the thumb of various forces in Kreuzung, Homa had her independence. She could fend for herself. She had been fending for herself for years. It was routine to her. Wake up, eat from the pot, go to work, come back, eat from the pot, go to sleep. For close to four years that had been her stable, unbroken routine.

As reliable as the beating of her heart.

Or the movement of her limbs. When they were whole, anyway.

Food could be scarce; wallets got tight; but her room was her room, her life was her life.

Everything that once constituted that life was now as distant as a dream.

Homa could not help but feel trapped. Her blankets felt heavier than they should. There was a restlessness working itself out in the remaining muscle of her missing limbs. She wanted to stand up! She wanted to get her own food; she wanted to ‘go to work’ again like she used to.

There was an even more devastating thought that had embedded itself in the back of her mind like a knife, sending a burst of pain through her when prodded– what would her life even be like now? Without a home; without family; having done– the things she had done. (She could hardly envision the events of that awful day again without breaking out into shivers and sweats.) She was a criminal now. She was a killer; she was not innocent.

Before she could fall into a spiral, an elegant and rich voice shook her out of her thoughts.

“Homa, we’re almost at the lab. You can meet the science officer there too.” Kalika said.

Her gloved hand laid on Homa’s shoulder and gave her a friendly little squeeze for comfort.

“Oh. Sure.” Homa replied. She did not know how to feel about mingling with the crew.

She was still not able to fully accept her situation– everything felt transient, surreal even.

Why bother ‘introducing’ her to anyone? Why would anyone here care to know her name?

But she did not say the impolite things that had come to mind. Kalika was trying to be nice.

“She’s a real chipper one. If it gets to be too much, just wink at me.” Kalika added.

At the end of the hallway, there was a doorway into a very large room. Larger than any of the other spaces Homa had seen on this ship. It was even bigger than some of the upscale stores Homa used to see on her way to work. White-ceilinged and brightly lit, the middle of the room had several desk stations and work benches with glass boxes, plastic baubles, table-mounted machines and various smaller devices bubbling and whirring. There was some kind of analysis being done on some fluids and tissues with the results pending.

Homa thought that the equipment appropriately conveyed the function of a ‘laboratory’.

Much of the wall on two sides of the room was taken up with tanks, one of which was covered in grey mushroom caps each the size of a fist; the other full of vibrantly green and blue algae. Each tank was divided into sections that could be independently controlled, and each section had its own diagnostic screen. They were rather orderly and surprisingly clean. Though there was a lot of growth, the strata for the mushrooms looked healthy, and the algae tank was not too murky. Everything seemed close to ready for harvesting.

However, what truly dominated the space was an enclosure of steel, glass and plastic that was indeed encasing a real, live tree available for everyone to see. Boasting a vibrantly green crown, a multitude of sturdy roots and a thick brown trunk. Beneath the tree was a mound of black soil. When she approached it, Homa could even smell the earthy, sweet scent of the leaves, piped out of the enclosure. This tree was planted in the center of the laboratory– everything else Homa saw was arrayed with this tree as a reference point.

Even enclosed as it was and surrounded in its life support machinery and the rest of the laboratory amenities, seeing that beautiful lush greenery through the glass lifted Homa’s ailing heart just a little. For a moment, her emotions were arrested by it. Kalika wheeled Homa close to the tree and then walked beside the wheelchair and kneeled down. She smiled and looked over Homa’s expression as if hoping to see the same– and sure enough, Homa found herself smiling. Inside this can of sardines there was a living thing.

“It might sound crazy, but looking at it just fills me with cheer somehow.” Kalika said.

Homa did not respond, because she was still taking in the sight of the tree. It’s not like she had never seen a tree before. Kreuzung had trees in enclosures just like this. And yet, seeing this tree inside this ship, with its tight halls and small rooms, it was different than meeting it in a station. She did not know where ‘they’ had come from who had this ‘tradition’, but Homa thought in that moment that she understood it. Sitting in front of that marvelous tree, a real tree, a living being that survived so much, as alien to the ocean as human beings were.

It could live in this ship too. Heedless of the circumstances, it reached skyward.

It almost felt like– Homa had a responsibility to sit up a bit straighter for that tree.

Like a venerable elder was watching her and wishing her well.

“Oh! Visitors! I’ll be there in a moment!”

On the far wall of the room there was storage space for the lab. A woman deposited a big brown cube of carboard into one of the units and slid it into the wall. She then turned around sharply and walked briskly around the tree to greet Homa and Kalika. Homa was surprised to see a pretty girl working in the Science pod. She was a Bosporan, too, dark haired and bright-eyed, her brown skin a bit more of a light honeyed color. She wore a white coat instead of a teal jacket over the sleeveless button-down and black skirt that was common on the ship. She was lithe and lively and probably older than Homa by a few years, but still young.

“Welcome to ‘Science & Observation’! My name is Karuniya Maharapratham!”

In her hands, she had a phial of white fluid which she quickly shoved into a pocket.

Homa opted not to bring it up. In fact she had lost all desire to raise her voice.

Looking at the bubbly woman in front of them, she tried to make herself small.

“Back to see the tree again? You must be really fascinated with it.” Karuniya said.

“I’m showing our guest around.” Kalika said, tapping her hand on the wheelchair handles.

“How kind of you! Hopefully the vibrant color of our tree can help lift her spirits.”

Karuniya winked at Homa, who said nothing and averted her gaze.

“Homa this is the ship’s resident expert on all things non-human. We met a few days ago. Now that I think of it, is it alright to call you ‘doc’?” Kalika asked Karuniya suddenly.

“Nope! I haven’t earned it and I don’t want to hear it.” Karuniya said, shutting her eyes and smiling mischievously. She spoke quickly and with a strangely cheerful and excited affectation. “I have not gone on my scientific commission, and I haven’t formally completed my thesis. Therefore, I am but the people’s very own lovely Karuniya Maharapratham, one of the ship’s ‘Four Beauties’– and not a doctor of any kind! Please just call me Karuniya!”

“Wow, okay!” Kalika said, laughing. “Karuniya it is then. Or perhaps ‘Karu’?”

“Only my hubby gets to call me ‘Karu’!” Karuniya replied sharply.

Kalika shrugged comically. “You’re really a stickler for names, aren’t you ‘doc’?”

Both of them laughed.

Homa looked between Kalika and Karuniya and wondered how they could be so chummy.

Then Karuniya bent over a little to acknowledge Homa specifically.

“Homa Baumann! Our latest guest. I hope it’s not too awkard to say, I’m happy to see you, miss! You may be surprised for the attention you’ve been receiving, but it was a dramatic scene when you were rescued. There were a lot of people in the hangar, and everyone who was not there passed on the story about what they saw– everyone on the ship was so nervous and hoped you would pull through against the odds. It’s like witnessing a miracle. Sailors love their death defying tales– I hope you can forgive their enthusiasm.”

“It’s alright. Everyone’s been quite kind.” Homa said politely. “I– I appreciate it.”

Karuniya nodded her head and patted Homa on the shoulder. She was far too chummy.

She then stood up to full height and smiled at Kalika.

“Feel free to look around. I’m available to answer any science trivia type questions.”

Of course– but not any fundamental nature of this ship type questions, Homa supposed.

“What do you say Homa?” Kalika asked. “Want to bask in front of the tree some more?”

“Let’s keep moving. No offense.” Homa avoided Karuniya’s gaze. “It’s a lovely tree.”

“No worries at all. Feel free to come to me for help if my crazy husband annoys you.”

Homa fixed Karuniya a stare suddenly. “Your husband? What does he want with me?”

“She’s a military nerd and is impressed with the data out of your Diver.” Karuniya said.

Wait– She–? Did she not just call this person her ‘husband’?

Homa averted her eyes again.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep your fans off of you.” Kalika said, leaning close to Homa.

Somewhat mortified at the idea that anyone grabbed the combat data from the DELTA and could plainly see all of what she now considered ‘her crimes’; Homa was wheeled out of the lab in a state of quiet consternation. She had managed enough politeness to wave goodbye to Karuniya Maharapratham, but dreaded ever meeting her ‘husband’. The idea that anyone could have poured over those records and not felt immediate disgust, and instead become excited– it troubled Homa. What possible reason could they have for that?

“Homa, the bathroom is vacant. What do you say to a nice refreshing shower?”

Homa was unprepared for that suggestion. “I’m– I don’t know that I’m able to– my arm–”

Kalika read right through the stuttering. “Of course, in this case I would assist you.”

Homa’s ears folded. She shrank a little in her seat. Her face felt hot and her skin shuddered.

“We don’t have to.” Kalika said gently. “But I think you’ll feel better afterward.”

When she thought about it– Homa could practically feel the grit in her ears. Her hair had a bit of salt in it too. It had been a while since she had the opportunity to bathe. How her body was now– it was a direct product of that day– all of it– so awfully filthy– covered in blood–

Thinking about it instilling a sudden, driving need to be cleaned.

“Alright. Please help me.” Homa said. She tried to suppress a sob and partially succeeded.

Her head was spinning with shame when Kalika took her into the bathroom.

Thankfully, it was empty, just like Kalika had said.

Half the space was a blue-tiled set of showers that were completely open and undivided, essentially just six or seven shower heads hovering over drains, each spaced about a meter apart. The other half of the room had basins for washing hands and faces, stalls enclosing toilets, and a few mirrors. There were dispensers for mouth wash, toothpaste, soap and hair formula, as well as recyclable synthetic towels and wipes. Despite the comfortable size and openness of the space, there was no privacy in the shower. Homa sighed to herself.

Behind her, she heard Kalika’s coat rustle. Her ears and tail stood on end.

Partially turning, she saw her volunteer chauffer undressing. Hanging up her coat, undoing the buttons on her shirt and pulling down her skirt. Homa spread her lips as if to speak but the words caught in her throat catching a glimpse of a fancy, lacy black brassiere and a hint of Kalika’s breasts. She turned back around sharply. Kalika tittered in response.

Of course she had seen it.

“I can stop if it bothers you; but I’d rather keep my clothes dry, you know?” Kalika said.

“No. I’m just– I’m being silly.” Homa said. “It’s okay. I– I really– appreciate the help.”

After putting up her clothes on a series of hooks and drawers outside the shower area, Kalika sought and received Homa’s consent to remove her blanket, and pull off the hospital gown she had been wearing and hang both up with the rest of their clothes. Gingerly, she lifted Homa onto her remaining good leg, with her good arm held over the shoulder. She helped Homa walk to a pair of shower heads, and sat with her on the tiled floor.

“Hot or cold?” Kalika asked. She reached up to a square of wall that accepted touch input.

“Warm.” Homa said dispiritedly, looking down at the bare remains of her leg.

Kalika set the temperature on the wall. A few seconds later, water came out of the spouts that was just warm enough, causing little wisps of mist begin to rising around the two of them. It was a somewhat pleasant temperature on Homa’s skin and hair. Regardless her mood had cratered. Sitting down in the shower, she felt like she did not know how she would stand up again. Everything felt too heavy. She sat under the water despondent and silent; while Kalika sidled closer. Homa’s skin shuddered when she first touched her, Kalika running her slender fingers through dirty dark hair, holding her shoulder for support.

Into a dispenser on the wall, Kalika reached her hand. She collected a bit of foamy, thick fluid on her palm. She spread the foam across Homa’s scalp, working it into her hair, between and around the cat-like ears atop her head. Homa shut her eyes. It was strange but not necessarily unpleasant. Had her mood been stable and all of her wits available, she would have appreciated Kalika’s gentle ministration. Having someone wash her hair, lather her back and breasts with soap, looking over her in detail. It was a luxury she had never experienced in her life. And yet she could not fully appreciate it, not in that moment.

Kalika must have felt the tension.

Her hand stopped along the middle of Homa’s back.

“How are you feeling, Homa? You can be honest with me; and yourself. Under the shower nobody can tell whether your eyes are full of tears, nor hear you sobbing.” Kalika said.

Homa finally broke down at Kalika’s suggestion.

That unwarranted kindness was finally unbearable.

Tears that streamed down her cheeks along with the water washing over her hair.

Her chest seized into an ugly sob. Her shoulders slouched.

She grit her teeth and closed the fist of her good arm.

“I don’t know what to do.” Homa said. “I feel like I don’t know why I am still alive.”

“Your life is irreplaceable Homa; as long as you have it, there’s hope.” Kalika said gently.

“How?” Homa shouted. “I don’t have a home– or job– I don’t have anything anymore!”

Leija– she could not even say goodbye to Leija. She would never know if Leija was okay.

Her gnawing sorrow began to tear free the resentment and anger inside of her.

Kalika rubbed her shoulders a little. Homa shoved back against her suddenly to push her.

She suddenly wanted Kalika off of her and gone. Her heart surged with violence.

“Why are you paying me any attention?” Homa shouted. “What’s in it for you?”

“You are deserving of kindness, simple as that.” Kalika said. “When I saw you dragged out of that Diver, and how badly you were hurt, I was upset with myself. I was in Kreuzung; I was able to fight; but everyone in my crew was blind to the true danger taking place all along. We were caught up in the crisis as helpless as anyone else. We couldn’t stop anything.”

“Nobody could’ve done shit to stop that.” Homa grunted. “Nobody fucking wanted to.”

“You wanted to.” Kalika said. “You fought hard, all alone, trying to stop it. Am I wrong?”

Despite Homa’s petty resistance, Kalika never raised her voice back to her or judged her.

She remained unfailingly kind despite how petty Homa was acting.

She even praised her.

“I’m sorry.” Homa whimpered. “I’m sorry for yelling. And shoving back at you.”

“I don’t hold it against you.” Kalika said. “I know exactly how you feel right now.”

“You think you know?” Homa said, sobbing. “Because you’re disfigured like I am?”

“You’re not disfigured and neither am I. We are more than our limbs.” Kalika said. “But I still remember exactly when I lost my arm. I remember what I lost with it. People I cherished; a place I belonged to; a path I believed in. I fought as much as I could, alone against a tide, to the bitter end. I will never forget that. I know you have suffered a scar like mine too.”

“Yes. That’s right.” Homa replied weakly. She was exhausted; the tears wouldn’t stop.

“But, I’m here now Homa. I survived back then; and so I am alive now. I am still living.”

Homa could not help herself but to scoff. “Yeah? So then– what? I become a merc too?”

“You can do whatever you want to. Nobody here will coerce you, I promise you that.”

In that moment Homa was too resistant to empathy. Too bitter and angry still.

She was collected enough not to snap or shove or be too awful to Kalika.

But she did not want to listen to sense. Not right now.

She just wanted to feel the water washing over her head and back, and nothing else.

All around her the warm water fell in a steady stream of fast, heavy droplets.

She wished it would dissolve her and pull her down the drain.

Homa remained quiet. Trying not to think of anything or have any sensations.

Kalika respected her silence for a few minutes. Then, the water shut off.

All of the warm mist began to fade.

And at least– Homa felt just a bit less filthy.

“Here, I can dry you off. It’s really okay.” Kalika said.

She retrieved a towel, and rubbed it over Homa’s hair and shoulders.

Homa complied.

“Thank you.” Homa mumbled. She turned to look Kalika in the eyes.

“It’s nothing.” Kalika replied. She smiled. “I’m just a fellow survivor.”

“No,” Homa whimpered, “I really mean it. Thank you. For everything. Kalika.”

Kalika pulled the towel from over Homa’s hair. “You’ll be okay, Homa.”


“…for too long, military planning has concerned itself exclusively with the political, social and economic basis of the military endeavor, with only pale reflections of thought spared to the actual military conduct, as in the movement of the weapons and the combat aims of the forces. There is a widespread belief in the Imbrium that as long as sufficient ships are built, and the crews of these ships have enough biscuit, and the people’s unrest against war is sufficiently nullified, then the carrying-out of combat is a secondary concern. Admirals of the Imbrium Empire, during the Revolution, performed maneuvers like rigid chess strategies based purely on intuition without thought to the Union’s intentions. They had become used to equally languid Republic forces that emerged from Ratha Flow in specific formations with limited operational thinking, then clashed over the Great Ayre Reach, a flat and shallow domain with limited possibility. They expected that their larger resource base and greater quality of arms presupposed victory, and they lost many battles and ultimately retreated in shame because they had no operational theory by which to adapt to the new conditions the Union imposed on them through hit-and-run warfare and new improvised weapons, like the use of Divers hidden in benthic rifts to create unexpected marine ambushes.”

“However, the Union, having won their right to exist, also entered a languid period in which the operational art was given very little thought. The Kansal administration believed that the building-up of the productive forces of the state was a sufficient military endeavor, and the Ahwalia regime then tried to abandon military build-up altogether. Even in the current Jayasankar administration, in which the military is the primary receiver of the state’s resources, military thinking is subordinated to production of arms, to building up rations, and conditioning the people militarily. There is great concern about having ‘only’ built a fleet numbering the low thousand of ships, supported by several thousands more Divers and scores of logistical objects and even bigger thousands of supporting personnel otherwise. While there are theorists among the military high command, the development of an operational art is nascent, and Academy graduates are still mainly taught the basic handling of weapons, and for the officers, the basics of managing people socially and politically. Thinking about the battlefield is still at a nascent, improvisational stage, where it is subordinated to thinking about shipyards, agrispheres and councils. It is not my aim with these writings to say such things should not be seen as military concerns. But focusing on these concerns exclusively, leaving the battlefield itself to happenstance, is just as foolish.”

“It is incomplete thinking to view, solely, the deployment of economic, social and political forces as the means to render the foe suppressed; and to respond, if the foe has greater such forces, by surrendering that our own must surpass them to succeed or all else is lost. Logistics remains the mother concern, without which there can be no war– but it is in the operational art that the appropriate usage of the arms must be found, and theory developed to employ the arms and personnel that we possess in a way which maximizes a strategic aim. The Union did not secure its freedom because it had more arms than the empire, nor because its economy was stronger, and not because its social conditions were more stable. Rather, the Union operationally employed its forces to maximize their strength, exploit weaknesses, and shape the conflict itself. This is not solely because the Union has developed the most correct political system. It is not solely because of war communism as a productive model, or because the proletariat are better conditioned for war. It is my intention in this thesis to fully detail the lessons we should have learnt from past conflicts, and draw solid and sensical conclusions from them in order to extrapolate how to properly conduct war in the terms of employing arms, interacting with the enemy, and shaping the battlefield–”

Murati Nakara heard the door to her room open behind herself.

She adjusted her reading glasses and turned around from her desk, expecting Karuniya to have barged in– but finding someone else in her place. A salmon-pink haired, soft-faced young Diver pilot with a curvy figure and a reserved body language– the unassuming Valya Lebedova had appeared at the door. Dressed in black-spotted coveralls and work goggles, they resembled a bit more their formidable aunt, the mechanic chief Galina Lebedova. Except Valya was a bit rounder where Galina was much more well-muscled.

“I apologize for just walking in Lieutenant! I wanted to talk to you.” They said.

“It’s not a problem. I would have locked the door if I wanted privacy.” Murati replied.

“I also apologize if I smell a bit oily. I was lubricating all the Diver’s joints.” Valya said.

“That’s nice of you– but shouldn’t Cohen be in charge of that type of thing?” Murati asked.

“Engineering is busy with the machine we picked up.” Valya said. “And, um, if I’m allowed to speak freely ma’am–” Murati nodded and Valya continued. “I feel that Gunther’s work has been noticeably bad lately. I don’t know I trust him much with my machine anymore. And if I have time, nowadays I also tune up the squad’s machines myself too. It’s fun anyway.”

“What do you figure is wrong with Cohen? Have you heard anything?” Murati asked.

Valya loved to do little optimizations to the machines, so they were the pilot who was most often around the engineers. Murati knew she could trust them when it came to hangar chatter. Valya was a bit bashful, but they never withheld anything from Murati.

“It’s because of Tigris.” Valya said. “I think Gunther feels like Tigris has disrupted things.”

“I’d call her disruptive too.” Murati sighed. “But probably not in the way Cohen means.”

“He seems less motivated since Tigris has unofficially become our technology chief.”

“There’s nothing I can do about that.” Murati said. “Tigris is an incredible resource for us.”

“I agree.” Valya said. Then their voice picked up and they looked even more excited while they spoke. “I’d love to learn from her, to be honest. And she’s not just loud– she works hard! She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she’s the first one who lines up for repairs– we’ve already seen her suit up and go repair the ship while it’s in the water and in motion a few times already. She’s not just a ‘hangar queen’ like some big-headed engineers can be. That’s why the crew as a whole really likes her, I think. Cohen is a rules type of guy, not a fast action type of guy. I think Tigris makes him look bad, so he sulks and tries to throw the book at her.”

Murati smiled. “I appreciate your candor, Valya. I’ll try to be in the hangar a bit more and see the situation for myself. Then I might bring it up to the Captain– I do trust you, but I don’t want to use your own experiences as evidence, otherwise you would be dragged in.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I don’t like ‘office politics’ either– but it is what it is.” They said.

“I believe I interrupted you though. You did not come here to talk about Cohen, I presume.”

“No, I did not.” Valya said. “On a break from tuning stuff up, I looked at that combat data.”

“What did you think? How would you rate Homa Baumann’s piloting skill?” Murati asked.

Back in the Union, Valya participated in the Diver training programs for the Academy. Because they had mechanical engineering and piloting skills, they helped the Academy to update their Diver simulations. Valya themself was the opponent that the current crop of Academy pilots would test themselves against. The new simulations also made use of new material models for movement, weight, response, and other such properties that Valya helped to implement. Because of this, Murati sought a second opinion from Valya on the data recovered from the Delta, the diver the injured Homa Baumann had piloted.

They had the machine down in the hangar and were working to restore it, and to make the necessary changes so it could wield Imbrian and Union weapons rather than its stock Republic kit. Murati was curious about Homa Baumann’s predicament. Had she used the machine to try to escape from danger, or had she been deployed to do battle against the Volkisch? She found her answer in the combat data of the “SEAL Delta.” It was an impressive machine, but Murati found Homa’s piloting of it quite remarkable. Before she made any decisions that the officers might typify as rash, however, she wanted a second opinion from someone whom nobody would be so quick to dismiss as reckless or impassioned.

“Well, we lack some context. We don’t know her background.” Valya said. “But just from the data we can read off the Dive computer’s logging, I feel that she has strong fundamentals. In my view, she has definitely piloted before, and I think she piloted regularly. She has certain habits; you can see patterns in the hardware inputs that were recorded. I think that she mastered moving efficiently in a Diver, trying to cover distances quickly. Her use of weapons is not meticulous though. I don’t think she had problems killing, which is a normal hurdle for a rookie in a combat situation. Her computer recorded several kills, including a scout ship. She used all available weapons; but she was reckless with her ammunition usage.”

“From what you saw, do you think she is a republic soldier?” Murati asked.

Valya shook their head. “The machine was activated using an external hardware ID and did not log a pilot ID, so I cannot be certain that it was intended for her. The Delta’s depth logging began tracking the water table just above the baseplate, while the Republic ships came from above to attack Kreuzung below. If I were to extrapolate, I think Homa Baumann somehow got her hands on the Delta, activated the Delta from a lower port, and then fought her way up. She fought exclusively Imbrian model hardware, so she must have been trying to help the Republicans against the Volkisch. We can only speculate about her origins.”

“Thank you. Your insight is invaluable. I knew I could count on you.” Murati said.

“My pleasure!” Valya said in a chipper voice. “Let me know if you want a typed-up report.”

“Valya, I think I want to try to recruit Homa Baumann to our cause.” Murati replied.

“That explains your interest.” Valya said. “Well, I’m not opposed to it. She can definitely pilot that machine, and there are not a lot of other convenient options for it. Maybe if she joins the squad I can retire from piloting and focus on tuning up. Give me Cohen’s job.”

They grinned with a little bit of mischief.

“You’re going to have to slow down a bit on that one.” Murati said, in good humor.

Valya laughed. “Well, that’s my report Lieutenant. I should get back to the hangar.”

“Indeed. Good luck, future engineering chief.” Murati said, with a little laugh.

With a final salute, Valya left the room, the door shutting automatically behind them.

Though the question of Homa Baumann would have to wait for some time, Murati felt that she had the answers she needed. There were more pressing concerns needing her attention.

Murati turned back around. On her desk there was a portable and a digital keyboard.

She had begun writing her own book.

Untitled as of yet; but a military treatise in nature.

After she talked to Premier Erika Kairos, Murati had gotten the idea to write a book in her spare time. At first she considered writing a political thesis, but she realized there were enough spirited defenders of Mordecism and Jayansakarist thought in the world already.

However, when she sat down and thought about the state of Union scholarship, what she realized was missing was a central military thesis. A collection of techniques that actually fit the conditions of current warfare, and not the past. The Academy taught a lot of military history, and combat training taught weapons handling as well as piecemeal “tactics.” But many officers followed a script, and lacked complicated critical thinking about warfare.

If Murati had to describe the current state of the Union’s military doctrine, and as far as she knew the Imbrium as a whole, she would have likened it to handing officers a hand of playing cards to use. “Flanking” was a good tactic, you should try to do it, the card has a pretty symbol and a high number in the corner; direct assault was a tough card to play, not one you want in your hand; the teaching of officers was trapped at that level of thinking. Specific maneuvers that should be used based on their desirability rather than the situation.

Murati had already experienced several cases of this simplistic mentality.

For example, The Third Battle of Thassal, where Admiral Gottwald presupposed that dividing his forces to attack from two sides would be advantageous and so he split the fleet as soon as possible, long before the battle had started. Murati predicted they would meet one element far sooner than the other and thankfully her superior officers listened to her. The Union concentrated their forces and completely nullified the advantage of the pincer by destroying one half of the flanking attack before the other half could join battle.

However, prior to the intervention of Murati, the Union was planning to divide its forces too and meet both sides of the flanking attack. That was the entrenched, simplistic thinking.

Even outside of conventional situations the same tactics saw overuse.

Gertrude Lichtenberg, during the chase out of Serrano, seemingly believed her superior armaments would force the surrender of the Brigand and engaged in a direct chase of her target vessel. She gathered a fleet combat section with force protection, big guns and superior scouting capability. She had every advantage in a conventional scenario– but she did not realize that her chosen tactics contradicted her unique operational goal!

To retrieve Elena Lettiere alive, she could not risk heavily damaging the Brigand. Showing her hand and attempting to attack them directly was foolish. Murati saw an opportunity to fight back despite being outnumbered and outgunned, exposing the contradiction between Lichtenberg’s tactics and objective and ruining her plans. A more sophisticated approach could have allowed Lichtenberg to track the Brigand until it was vulnerable to boarding or could be surrounded or sabotaged for capture. Lichtenberg was too blunt and too desperate to achieve her goal and so she employed her considerable assets to complete failure.

Certainly, many officers in the Imbrium and the Union could exceed that level of thinking and become distinguished in battle. Murati did not think she was special. Any officer could potentially read their enemy and respond in an effective way to achieve success. But those who simply followed their script could be condemned to failure at the cost of many lives. Murati found it intolerable to accept this as the baseline for training. Officers could not be programmed like little machines with binary responses to complex situations.

But they had been; and it would cost them.

It was inevitable. One of many poor admirals would make a mistake someday.

She had seen many pathetic officers in her time in the Union. They were not rare.

And she knew this was not an individual but systemic issue. No one had fought with the Academy for better training more than Murati. Ever since she was a kid, in fact.

She could do nothing about this now. But she could do something for the future.

Murati wanted to teach prospective officers to read the battlefield, know their weapons, synthesize multiple types of information and consider the day to day employment of various technologies in developing plans that supported a comprehensive strategy. Best practices that could elevate an ordinary officer and empower already talented officers to shine even brighter and think even more radically. So if Murati returned alive from this journey, what she wanted to bring back to the people of the Union, was her first-hand accounts of real military combat, as well as her theories collected into a complete military doctrine.

Since she began to write, it had taken up many hours. It would be worth it.

In thinking about her book, Murati caught sight of the chronicle device at the end of the desk. Euphrates had given her parents’ records to her. They remained in arms reach.

And Murati had not dared yet to open them.

She knew some things about her parents. Her mother had been a Solceanos sister for a time and gotten an education that way, before leaving the convent with her father. Her father had been part of a long line of academics whose fates were tied to Bosporus’ chaotic world of scholarship. Until that lineage ended with Murati, who would never be a professor at a Bosporan college. And yet, she was afraid of some things she did not know.

There would probably be a disappointing answer as to why the General Strike failed to materialize; there would probably be some liberal ideas about war and violence; there might be some wishy-washy naïve hopes for some utopian future. Murati, who had once admired the idea of her parents greatly, now feared more disappointment in their reality.

Rather than worry about their legacy; perhaps she wanted to focus on her own instead.

So whenever she caught sight of that chronicle in the corner she felt compelled to write.

It was good inspiration; but perhaps not a healthy response.


After the shower, with permission, Kalika helped Homa to dress and got her back onto her chair. She then nonchalantly stepped in front of Homa and began to dress herself up seemingly without paying her any mind. Seeing this caused Homa to realize how close and how naked their bodies had been the whole time, and it made her run a bit hotter.

Kalika was laissez-faire about the whole thing, a confident nudist, to the point Homa wondered if this was what ship life habituated in people. That and the lack of privacy.

Homa tried not to act too childish about the situation.

She wasn’t a kid, and Kalika had already gone over all of her body in the shower; she tried to avoid acting embarrassing. It helped her a bit when she realized that Kalika was also transgender and had not made any untoward comments about Homa in the shower. She wondered what kind of hormones Kalika was on to get that kind of figure though– unless it was a Katarran thing. Maybe it was– Katarrans were custom made in tubes–

–or so Homa had heard. She had no first-hand knowledge of such things and,

then her wondering, largely brainless gaze descended to somewhere sensitive,

“Checkin’ me out?” Kalika said, a sly smile on her face. “It’s okay, I’m flattered~”

Homa’s gaze darted back up to Kalika’s face and then sideways to avoid her eyes.

She was remarkably pretty even with all of her makeup washed off. And her dick was–

AAAAAAAHHHHHH

“Uh, no, not at all. I mean– no offense or anything– I just wasn’t–” Homa mumbled.

Kalika giggled. “It’s okay. I think I know what you must be thinking, actually.”

Her eyes wandered down between Homa’s legs, causing her to twitch–

“I’m afraid while they might look similar, yours definitely works– while mine does not.”

Then with a fox-like grin, she pointed at Homa’s– and then at herself– and winked–

THIS WOMAN–!

–as usual Homa found only misfortune when it came to the world of “gender stuff.”

Thankfully that was it for Kalika’s teasing. She must have seen how red Homa had gone.

So she put her remaining clothes on with her back turned and allowed Homa to cool down.

After that episode, they were all set to go. Kalika seemed excited to continue their trip.

Homa was not so eager however. She put a sudden stop to the festivities.

“Sorry. I’m feeling more tired than I thought I would be.” She said.

“I understand. I’ll come visit again, or you can call me any time you want.” Kalika said.

“Thanks. I really– I had fun.” Homa said. It was even true– partially– a little bit–

Kalika dutifully wheeled Homa back to the clinic and helped her back onto her bed.

She then left to collect the Doctor herself and inform her that Homa had been returned.

Homa sighed deeply when Kalika left. She both welcomed the silence but felt lonely too.

Like all of her feelings, it was a paradoxical spiral that she could not get control over.

Nevertheless– she was in bed, she had her blanket up to the shoulder and a comfortable pillow behind her. Her skin was soft and felt moist and pliable. Her hair smelled minty like the shampoo. She felt so clean! There was nothing like the feeling of a warm blanket over freshly-showered skin. It was the best Homa had felt, physically at least, in days. Overcome with warm and tender feelings, She shut her eyes and emptied her thoughts.

She managed to rest a bit.

Hours later, her breathing was troubled, her heavy lidded eyes between sleep and wake–

“Homa? Homa, are you okay?”

Her folded ears stood up straight. Homa recognized the world around her again.

At her side, Doctor Kappel had been shaking her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, doctor.” Homa said, reflexively.

“Nothing to be sorry for. How do you feel? Your breathing sounded troubled.”

“I’m okay. I’m breathing fine, I think.” She couldn’t remember anything from her sleep. Maybe she had a nightmare. It wouldn’t surprise her. Her mind felt like pieces barely held together.

The doctor put her hand to Homa’s chest and wrist and seemed satisfied she was okay.

“If something is bothering you, please know that you can speak freely.” Dr. Kappel said, bending so she was eye-level with Homa on the bed. “I’ll do everything I can for you.”

“Thank you, doctor. I think I’ll be okay. Just a little hungry.” Homa said.

Dr. Kappel nodded her acknowledgment. “I’ll go get you a plate. Dinner should be out.”

Out the doctor went; and in a few moments she returned with a cheerful demeanor.

“Minardo had Khadija as a volunteer tonight, so they actually made some Shimii food!”

She brought a multi-sectioned tray of food, a vitamin pill, pain medication and a cup of citrus water clearly flavored by a powder. For the main course, there was a mound of fluffy yellow rice topped with roughly chopped cashews, raisins and carrot strips. There was a small mound of light brown spread flecked with chickpeas that Homa suspected was just itself mashed, seasoned chickpea. On the side, a fresh biscuit, still warm and soft, and a salad of pickled, chopped up onion, cucumber and tomato glistening with a fresh dressing.

Homa looked over the plate. Pulao rice, an attempt at humus, shiraz salad. Everything was fragrant with the vegetal smell of pickles and the earthy scent of the spiced rice almost feeling like home. Homa rubbed the fingers of her remaining hand gently over the surface of the plastic spork that came with the tray. She forked through the rice meticulously. Turning it over, mixing up the nuts and raisins, but staring at it as if searching for something.

After a few moments, she sighed and worked up the courage to ask what had been bothering her as she mixed the items on the tray. It felt embarrassingly selfish.

“Doctor– I am really grateful for the food– but is it okay if I have some meat?” She asked.

Dr. Kappel suddenly put on a helpless expression, perhaps involuntarily.

“I used to start every day with a pot of beef. I would make it myself– I had a little pot back home.” Homa said. She had called Kreuzung home and it tore at the glass cracks in her little soul. But she tried not to cry about it. “I would put cabbage and beef in the pot and flavor it with zlatla and top off with water. It was really simple, but I kind of miss it right now.”

She put on a little smile. Already, she sort of knew the answer.

Just from the Doctor’s face.

Dr. Kappel shut her eyes and shook her head gently.

“I’m sorry, Homa.”

“Can you tell me why not? Is it my condition, or–?”

“No. We just don’t keep meat aboard. It’s– well, it’s not part of our culture.”

“I see.”

Homa shed a tear, but she prevented herself from crying further.

She took a sporkful of the colorful rice and tasted it.

Her cheeks tingled suddenly– it was really quite flavorful.

There was the earthiness of the spice mix in the rice, the savory notes of the stock, the sweetness of the raisins, the crunch of the nuts. Strong notes of umami and a certain creaminess to the dish, an unctuous mouthfeel. While the humus was just okay on its own, it made a good companion with the warm, fluffy biscuit that melted in Homa’s mouth. Meanwhile, she was surprised at the subtle vinegary tang of the Shirazi. She expected the pickles to come in too strong and mushy, but they had bite and were dressed well.

Compliments to that certain ‘Miss Minardo’ in the galley, and her Shimii helper tonight.

Everything was delicious. Almost as good as Madame Arabie’s restaurant dishes.

It just did not have any meat– and Homa dearly wished for some.

She wished she had her pot from back home.

She wished that she was back in Kreuzung and none of this had happened.

“Doctor. What will become of me?” Homa asked.

Her little wan smile enduring bravely.

Even as the tears started to flood from her eyes that she could no longer stop.

“Whatever you decide, Homa.” Dr. Kappel said. “Our officers are good people, they would not force you to stay here. We are headed to Aachen– we can set you down there, with your new prosthetics, and with some money. We could help you find a place to stay. We have a few connections we can pull to get you a job, perhaps. Or you can stay with us.”

“I don’t know who any of you really are.” Homa said, her tearful eyes meeting the Doctor’s.

“I’m so sorry Homa.” Dr. Kappel said. She laid a hand on Homa’s shoulder and held her hand as well, trying to comfort her. “We are not trying to hide anything from you. Things are busy and I would just like you to focus on recovery. I can try to get our Captain to come talk to you as soon as possible. I understand you have many questions and need more information before making a decision. But right now, you don’t have to trouble yourself. We are a week out or so from Aachen. You can just relax and recover until your surgery.”

“Why are you all doing this for me? I don’t understand it! Am I worth all of this?”

Homa raised her voice.

Dr. Kappel spoke with a gentler tone in return.

“You are absolutely worth it. Your life is precious to me, Homa. I want you to recover.”

“What about your crew? What do they want with me? Why would they care?”

“They rescued someone from a horrible situation. They just want her to get better too.”

Homa knew she was just being difficult. But she could not help but be cynical.

“I’m supposed to believe you’re, what? A bunch of wandering heroes?” She said bitterly.

“I’m not asking you to believe anything.” Dr. Kappel said. “As your doctor, the only thing that I am asking is that you take your meals, take your medicine, and rest up. Right now, your life does not need to move at 90 knots, Homa. I don’t know what your life was like before; and I do not need to know. Whatever you believe; whoever you are; I just want to treat you.”

“A communist doctor; for some transport company. Whatever then.”

Homa stopped talking and doggedly polished off the rest of her meal.

She then turned her shoulder on Dr. Kappel, wrapping herself up in her blankets.

Staring at the wall. Not wanting to see the doctor or anything else.

“Let me know if you’re having nightmares, or a hard time sleeping.” Dr. Kappel said. “There are a few medications we can try to reduce your stress or to help you sleep better.”

“Fine.” Homa said.

“Good night, Homa.” Dr. Kappel said.

Still gentle with her. Still without cause.

Homa heard her walking away, and closing the green shutters around Homa’s bed.

She grumbled and turned and tossed in bed, feeling restless and angry. A directionless, amorphous anger, like barbed wire writhing in her chest. At first it was directed at this ship and its crew. Soon it turned inward. She felt so stupid. Ungrateful, childish, even evil.

But she would not call back the doctor. She wanted to rot in her wicked futility.


Later in the night, Homa rolled over in bed, groggy, and froze up at the sound of voices.

Across the barrier from her own bed, the doctor and a patient conversed.

Everything was dark save for a dim white LED cluster across the plastic barrier. It cast the shadows of the doctor and patient onto the wall. Nobody had noticed that she had awakened so they spoke candidly. Homa could hear everything as they spoke.

She made herself small and still in bed; deeply curious.

“–I don’t have the materials or expertise to repair this sub-dermal nanomail you have. I’ve never seen anything like it. I know you and her are under Nagavanshi’s curtain of silence. But as a doctor, I’m going to request a detailed specification of your body modifications.”

Doctor Kappel.

“You’re not getting one. But it’s fine. Don’t worry. What did you do to the wound?”

That was the patient then.

“I secured it with a sterile mesh-plate. I am hoping that promotes recovery.”

“That’ll be fine then.”  

“Don’t get shot in the sternum again.”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“No strenuous exercise for a few days. We need the wound sealant to incorporate. That’s only for the flesh wounds. I’ve no idea how your body will respond to other treatments.”

“I’ll be fine with just the mesh. How is Valeriya doing?”

“Better than you. Nothing wound sealant and stitches could not fix.”

“That’s great. I was more worried about her than anything.”

“You should worry about yourself some more!” Dr. Kappel sighed.

“I only worry about the things I have no control over.”

“Illya. Valeriya is highly dependent on you. That’s why you need to care for yourself!”

For once, the patient, Illya, was quiet in the face of the doctor’s scolding.

Homa thought she saw the shadow of the patient on the wall turning.

“I’ll avoid strenuous activity for as long as I can. It’ll heal up right. Don’t worry.”

Dr. Kappel shook her head.

“I’ll tell the Captain you’ll both be walking out of here tomorrow then.”

“Wouldn’t it be funny if she had me executed after you did all of this work?”

“No, it truly would not be. Go to sleep. If not for my sake then for your poor partner.”

Homa heard Dr. Kappel stand up and start walking away.

That one little LED cluster went dark. Casting the entire room into darkness.

Tired but with her mind abuzz, Homa thought about what she had heard.

On the next bed from hers, was someone who had been shot in the chest.

And she would recover from that injury, and leave as early as tomorrow?

Homa was dead certain now that they were mercenaries, but she also realized they must have been formidable. They had tough chicks with body mods so scary-advanced a medical doctor had never seen them. They had a Captain who had the power of death over them. Dr. Kappel treated gunshot wounds and amputated limbs every day because of all the combat they saw. They had Katarrans with them! A Katarran like Kalika, wandering the halls being a tart at a random girl they picked up. And that science lab was growing so much food, and had its own tree– were they rich? But then what did it mean for them to be communists?

Could there really be rich communists?

The more she pored over the details the more Homa just gave herself a headache.

Would she really be alright?

She was helpless to do anything about it.

Turbulent images turned over in her head. Homa shut her eyes, trying to sleep again.

“Hey, kid, trouble sleeping over there?”

Homa’s eyes drew wide and she curled up tighter under her blankets.

“I know you’re awake.”

It was the patient in the next bed over– Illya. Were her blankets rustling that loudly?

“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, I guess. Homa, right? You don’t have to be scared. I saw when they brought you in, so I know you’ve been through some shit. It will pass. Hell, if you’re like me, you might even like the bionic shit better. Anyway: they don’t let me ‘bother’ you, so I’ll just say this. If anyone gives you shit and I haven’t been executed for treason, you can tell me.” Illya laughed a bit, seemingly amused at the idea.

Homa swallowed a lump and kept quiet.

“I have a– let’s call her a ‘kid sister’. Around your age.”

“Where is she now?” Homa felt compelled to raise her voice after a moment of silence.

Illya laughed again.

“She’s on this ship actually. Maybe you’ll get along? She pilots Divers too.” Illya said.

“Maybe. I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa said.

“Good. Now go to sleep. Pretend you didn’t hear anything, and that we didn’t speak.”

At Illya’s prompting, Homa shut her eyes again– and somehow, she did manage to sleep.

She did not recall any dreams and nobody tried to wake her up hours later.

When she next opened her eyes, she did so slowly and naturally. Her blurring vision of the room slowly came into focus, and she lifted her head from her pillow and pulled the blankets from over her hair. She looked around with a bleary expression. There was gentle yellow light from the sunlamp clusters overhead, but the white LEDs that made up most of the illumination had not yet been turned on. On one side of her bed, diagnostic equipment which had been absent yesterday was now there, perhaps ready for her surgery.

On the other side– Kalika was sitting in a chair.

Homa looked at her, slightly dumbfounded.

Kalika noticed, smiled back and waved.

“Good morning, Homa.” She said.

There was a thick beige portable computer in her hands just like the Doctor’s model.

“Good morning.” Homa said. “You don’t have to wait for me.”

“I only got here a little bit ago.” Kalika said. “I don’t have much to do.”

“So I’m entertaining you?” Homa said. More bluntly than she intended at first.

“It’s not like that.” Kalika said.

Homa laid back down, adjusting her position in bed and staring up at the ceiling.

“Sorry.” She mumbled.

“It’s fine. I get it. But look, I actually brought something for your entertainment.”

Kalika stood from her chair, closer to Homa, and showed her the portable.

Looking at it up close, and being able to hold it with her hand, it was a little bit heavier and chunkier than the types of devices like this sold in Kreuzung. The screen was 200 mm by 140 mm or so, not counting the bezel around it, and it was about 9 or 10 mm thick on the whole. There were buttons on the front bezel as well as the sides. Kalika also demonstrated that part of the top bezel slid out, and within it there were a pair of small earbuds that were permanently affixed to the machine with thin wires. Homa had never seen a device quite like this, and it did not have any corporate brand logos that she could recognize.

Kalika helped stretch the earbud cord and put the buds comfortably in Homa’s ear fluff.

With a few taps of her finger, she summoned a woman’s voice; a pop music track.

Just as easily, she put on a video from one of the ship’s underside cameras, with full audio.

Mostly marine fog. There was the odd shadow rushing past that could have been a fish.

Then, Kalika tabbed through the interface and opened up a small book of poetry and puns.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can do with it. And, even better for your current situation,”

Kalika demonstrated that a pair of bracing legs could be pulled from the back of the device.

In this way, it could sit on Homa’s lap, so she would not need to hold it all the time.

“Um, wow. Thank you. It’s– it’s nice.” She was at a momentary loss for words.

Homa felt touched. She was not necessarily a fan of any of the pieces of media that Kalika had so excitedly shown her on the device. But there was something so warm about it that it made her want to cry. When Kalika slid out the device’s little legs, and she could look at it sitting stupidly on her lap, this thing which initially read as a chunky beige piece of crap that was uglier and heavier and less glitzy than the devices she knew– it now felt like something that was made for her. Perhaps even something that was made for humanity— something that was made for people rather than money. It even had little earbuds attached with a design, and long enough cord, for use with Shimii ears as well as other types of ears. That would have been a separate device worth fifteen or twenty marks in Kreuzung.

She almost wanted to ask again, who even are all of you?

Where does this all come from?

But she knew– communist mercenaries or whatever– no point in asking Kalika again.

Seeing the little device, its screen filled with a page of childish puns, made Homa laugh, a bit bitterly but also, a bit fulfilled. Her heavy heart was beating, her skin was warm.

Despite everything– she really was alive.

“Thank you. Now that I think about it, I haven’t listened to a lot of music.” Homa said.

“How did you pass the time before?” Kalika asked.

“I watched TV I guess. I read books sometimes. Mostly I worked.” Homa said. She let out a sigh and laid back in bed. “I used to work morning to night. Then I ate and I slept with the TV on. When I had a day off– ah, I can’t even remember. I guess, I haven’t thought about what I wanted to do with myself for a really long time. I wanted to make money to pay my bills.”

“Well, one positive about being a mercenary is having decent free time.” Kalika said.

“How about a positive of being a communist?” Homa asked bluntly.

Kalika grinned. “Having a decent amount of free time too. Also, being in the right.”

“Being in the right, huh.”

Homa brushed the top of the device with one of her fingers.

“I can’t promise promise anything, but I will try.” She whispered, smiling a little at Kalika.

Whether Kalika had heard her or not, she simply smiled back.

Homa started to play with the touchscreen controls again right when a new visitor appeared.

Having walked all the way past the other beds to stop at the end of Homa’s medbay bed.

Homa lifted her eyes from the screen to see a familiar fair and long-haired blonde woman.

Long-legged, busty, tall and fit, a bit of makeup; a mature beauty in mercenary uniform.

Along with a peaked cap that had a gold-bordered red star displayed front and center.

“Greetings, Homa Baumann. I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Let’s have a little chat.”


After the Core Separation crisis, the Brigand finally escaped from Kreuzung Station.

Now they traveled across the rocky and deep terrain of Eisental, close to 2000 meters deep.

Rendezvousing with the rest of the Rotfront, before heading north-northwest to Aachen.

Between them and the destination was almost the entire length of Eisental.

And all of its many features. Barely recognizable in the pitch darkness and marine fog.

Low-lying underwater peaks, rising and falling mounts, rocky stretches of flat ground; smooth silt valleys and plains where dust and sand sometimes streamed across as if carried on a wind; mineral-rich continental rifts and underwater caves. Abutted to the west by the continent wall and to the east by Jabal Khaybar. Eisental teemed with humanity in its stations, substations and ships, along with aphotic creatures languidly exploring the deep with their bioluminescent bodies. At times, an abstract tunnel of fast-moving water could be observed to snake around the darkness, spiraling here and there and into the distance, part of the treacherous Rhinean jet-streams that could have shaken to pieces a smaller ship.

Commonly seen were small columns of gas wafting up from small pockets of geothermal activity throughout the region. Perhaps during the travel one’s sensors might pick up a particularly consistent outgassing in the distance while navigating the rocky terrain. In the northern and north-western Imbrium, like Rhinea and the Palatine, there were several areas that were home to notably livid rifts, seen to shine red with hot magma or even to crackle purple with massive, exposed clusters of high-grade Agarthicite too reactive to safely mine. These rift areas bore the prefix ‘Bad’ in their names, such as the site where Mehmed’s ambition met its end, Bad Ischl. In these names ‘Bad’ meant ‘Bath’ or ‘Hot Spring’.

As far as humans were concerned, Eisental was a producing region.

Vast mining projects cut deep into the rock to extract a king’s ransom of minerals. Clusters of Agri-Spheres in the calm silt valleys harvested seabed soil, pearlite and geothermal deposit to use in meticulous and vital agroponic works. These produced multiple millions of tons of food– much of it sold unprocessed, requiring extensive logistics to deliver it to upscale grocers and restauranteurs in good condition. Hydrocarbon rigs collected petroleum and natural gas necessary for plastics, an absolutely vital component of deep ocean living. Factory complexes turned these and many more millions of tons of raw materials into products for numerous brands that had become aspirational parts of Rhinean life.

Yet, the ocean was vast and dark, and each of these necessary parts of Imbrian living could no better see one another than the blind creatures of the abyss saw their next meal. Between all of these stations and substations were vast stretches of lonely ocean, within which it still felt as if humanity had ceased to exist and never rebuilt their world under the waves. So as the Brigand navigated the waters, the crew saw darkness, marine fog, and more silt and rock. Stray animals; and perhaps the distant blip of merchant vessels on sonar.

 “Onward to destiny I guess.” Olga Athanasiou said sarcastically at the empty screen.

On the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand, Erika Kairos, who had sat beside her, stood up.

“Not for destiny!” Erika said. “To defy Destiny and those who would confine us to it!”

With a dramatic flourish and a self-assured grin, she pointed her index finger at the dark.

And so resumed the journey of the revolutionary ship from the communist Union.


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.7]

This chapter contains themes of suicidal ideation and child abuse.

“I won’t let them touch you, master.” Azazil said.

Azazil’s baton collided with the mask of the blue-robed aberration with a loud–

–nothing.

Blue color wafting from the entity met the deep purple color from Azazil’s silhouette, as solid a collision as the physical blow. Gertrude’s mind wanted there to be noise, the sound of an impact, so she heard the thud that should have been there, saw the crack it should have inflicted on the mask, saw the figure driven back by the attack in a natural response to pain. In a microsecond of thought, she envisaged what should have been.

Deep down, she was unsure if it happened.

It was an insane, split-second anxiety of reaching for a grounded reality.

It was not untrue that she saw that; but she also saw the creature simply dissipate into blue particles. One second there; one second gone as if it had never existed.

Which was the truth?

Soundless; formless; without a trace in the world.

Except a sparse instant of dancing color. Was that really what happened?

Gertrude stood shock still, drawn-wide eyes witnessing Azazil’s glowing purple baton crack into the shadows one after the other in swift retaliation for their advance.

They continued to twitch her way in jerky movements like badly-edited stop-motion. Their limbs would be retracted one instant and suddenly reaching the next. Trying to strike Azazil with their claws, trying to get their wafting blue clouds upon her, kept at bay by the purple color that was wrapped around her like a billowing cloak or a localized gust of wind.

Another enemy neared, its languid face briefly lighting up–

Azazil took a solid step forward for momentum before swinging.

Her eyes narrowed, her lips inexpressive, her face briefly lit up by the flash of an entity bursting under her attack. This time Gertrude could have sworn her baton went through the entity entirely, even before it had burst and dissipated. Azazil brought the baton back in front of her chest, her eyes keenly following the approaching entities, matching and checking each creature’s moves. She was agile and flexible and undaunted.

Gertrude observed everything happening, but it was as if her head was caught in a fog.

She felt sleepy. She was so exhausted, so drained.

She felt like she couldn’t take another step.

Her eyes became heavy. Her head pounded from the effort to stay awake.

As her vision wavered, the blue color of the entities seemed to grow in intensity.

Then she felt Azazil’s elbow strike her in the rib suddenly.

Not hard, but enough to startle her. Her vision focused again– but only briefly.

“Master, don’t fall asleep. That is their objective.” Azazil said.

“I–” Gertrude couldn’t speak. Her words sank back into her throat.

Sounds felt heavier than the strength of her vocal chords to lift them.

She was so tired that it was almost hopeless to try to do anything.

It was as if her body was slowly forgetting how to move, everything was so sapped from her, thinking was fast becoming an impossibility. Her body hurt, as if her muscles could no longer lift her weight and had begun to collapse from the effort of standing. Unfathomable sights that should have evoked apoplectic terror instead put a cloud before her eyes, as if she was too enervated to scream, too weary to break down into tears. She wanted so badly, more than anything, to lay down and fall asleep and ignore everything in front of her.

Her skepticism, her need for a material grounding to the world, her desire to make sense of the madness in front of her; all of it becoming as dull as her muscles felt supporting her weight. There was no rationality. She was like an animal. She was aware only of her body and the sheer agonizing need that was slowly making itself more and more real to her.

It was hopeless.

The world was so heavy. Her limbs started to shake with the weight.

And so, ever grew the fog. Turning intensely blue before her eyes.

“I’m sorry– I can’t– I can’t go on–”

Gertrude’s knees began to buckle. Her chest could not stay upright.

Azazil half-turned to look back on her, eyes widening with concern.

“Master!”

Gertrude mumbled to herself in lament.

“I was useless the whole time. I was helpless. There’s nothing I could do.”

“Master– no–!”

Blue color began to overtake the surroundings, crawling across the walls, rippling on the ceiling. Rock and metal and the pale moon of Azazil’s face all began to dissipate in the blue. With the blue there was not peace, however, only weight, sluggishness, burden. Blue like the crushing weight of the ocean, strength-sapping blue that slowed the world, thick enough to give light pause. She was being pushed down against the floor and even past it.

Gertrude began to tumble backward.

Her body fell and fell and did not hit the ground.

Nor the ocean around her.

Succumbing to the aberrant blue aether, Gertrude left the material world entirely.

It was not sleep, but a stillness that had deteriorated even the passage of time.


Gertrude fell and fell and she knew she was falling, but the lack of weight was a relief.

Despite the falling, she was at peace.

It was blissful, even, to descend into the eternal blue where nothing changed.

She felt that she was unburdened of the task of being, the effort of maintaining her own existence. There was no effort, there was simply the perfect stillness. To drift was automatic, to fall was just enough inertia to feel alive without the violence that was inherent in deliberate movement. In front of her foggy eyes there was a constellation of lights that were, all of them, blue. None of them shone brightly enough for feeling. There was no warmth, but unchanging surroundings left her with a comforting sense of stillness.

Was there a fall if there was no destination?

Here, there was no pain–

No thought, no worries, nothing external to consume her.

She drifted peacefully as if cradled on a breeze.

But there was in the midst of the fall an introduction of something else–

Passion.

It was like a painful spark that jabbed through her chest.

Spreading to her limbs, beckoning her to struggle.

Gertrude suddenly remembered all the currents that had come to intersect her own.

At first there was a sense of relief– but it was different than the blue nothingness.

It was mixed with her emotions– with them came regrets, frustrations–

She would not have to carry the burden of being High Inquisitor anymore.

No longer would she need to find a place in the world after failing to be Elena’s knight.

There was no need to reconcile her lust toward Ingrid with the lust she felt for other women.

Nile’s secrets could simply remain her own.

Victoria and her would not have to navigate the messy rekindling of their relationship.

Azazil would remain something like a bad dream that disappeared with the morning alarm.

Monika–

Suddenly none of these things felt comforting anymore, none of them felt weightless.

She could not let them come and go. They were hers, she claimed them!

Her heart began to feel hot, and the world began to feel heavy again–

Gertrude opened her eyes and immediately her throat filled with water.

She was surrounded in blue because she was submerged completely in water and it was terrifying to her. Her eyes burned from it, her throat and nose hurt immensely from being filled with it, her lungs struggled. She started thrashing limbs, kicking and paddling in a panic, trying to force herself out of the water with no sense of direction.

Being out in the water was death; every cell of her body screamed for escape.

In a panic she exerted so much force, that she felt as if she had overturned something.

She tumbled, arse over head, and then she hit something solid and flattened out.

Gasping for breaths she could finally take; her entire body in intense pain.

Somehow she had escaped the water and hit a hard floor. Her eyes still burned.

But when she opened them, she began to see blue again. But it was solid blue this time.

Not water, not lights, not those masked things and their blue spores and clouds.

Gertrude found herself laid flat on a tiled floor, its light blue cubic pattern extending all around her. It was on the floor, on the walls, it covered the roof without any change or deviation. Her hand reached out, and it touched water again– she whipped it back as if she had touched a burning chemical, but it was only a panic response.

She forced herself to sit up against a wall.

There was no explaining the transition in her surroundings,

from the station, from the cave, to this place.

In the small room she found herself in, there was a small pool. Not deep enough for her to have been fully submerged and drowning in it. It, too, was tiled the same as every other surface. There was dim light coming as if from under the water, projecting a swirling pattern over some of the roof. She could see out of this room, that there were even more pools connected by a short adjacent hallway. None of these pools followed a logical configuration– there were shallow and deep pools, some only one meter by one meter wide and long, others several cubic meters deep, arranged throughout the space at seemingly random. They reminded Gertrude of hot baths, in their seeming uniformity. But some were too deep, and others were shallower than a shower’s basin. They were connected by tiled walkways.

Forcing herself to a stand, her entire body aching, Gertrude walked to the next room over.

From it, she could see pathways snaking on all sides.

As far as she could see, every hall, every doorway, all led to even more pools.

These seemed to become even more bizarre the farther in she walked.

She began to see pools on the walls, retaining their water despite their position.

Pools on the roof, in places, with their water as still as if they were flat on the ground.

Gertrude walked for several minutes in stunned silence.

Everything was whisper quiet, and there were only more tunnels to follow, more pools.

It was as if she had fallen into some kind of maze.

“Azazil!” Gertrude screamed.

Somehow, her voice did not echo through the corridors and pool rooms.

Nothing in this place made any sense.

She was screaming for Azazil because that was the last person she had been stuck with. But she truly knew next to nothing about Azazil, or the old station in which they had become trapped. For all she knew, it was Azazil who was responsible for all of this, and trying to protect her from the creatures was entirely a façade. Gertrude wondered if someone had drugged her, or if she had been taken away to some bizarre place. Maybe there was equipment fucking with her senses– Azazil had mentioned being enthralled to a computer, maybe that was also the case here? No– that was because of STEM– it made no sense.

As far as Gertrude knew, she did not have a STEM, so that could not apply to her.

Gertrude’s mind was hurtling in every possible direction for answers.

What was the last ordinary thing she remembered?

She and Nile and Victoria had found those boxes marked with a surface era political logo.

Then Gertrude had heard Azazil cry for help– gotten separated– found Azazil–

Learned about Norn–

And then the creatures attacked them.

“I can’t even trust that I didn’t just go insane at some point during that.”

Did insane people realize they were insane? No– they were unaware of it, right?

Could she really have been seeing these pools in the flesh right now?

It was so frustrating.

She walked through the identical corridors unfolding into more bizarre pool rooms.

Finding nothing else anywhere around her. Unable to even tell if she was going in circles.

“My body hurts, so I can’t be dreaming. And I’m wracking my brain, so I can’t be crazy.”

At least she had water– and there was a vac-sealed dry ration bar in her suit too.

So she could endure at least a few more hours of walking.

But to what end?

If she wasn’t so terrified of just sitting down and dying, and if her mind was not so occupied with the bizarre images around her, she would have begun to fear a likely demise within this place. Walking kept her sane within the blue purgatory in which she found herself– if she could even be sane, while traversing such an inexplicable landscape as this. But was there any possibility of escape? Everywhere she had walked looked exactly the same.

Gertrude withdrew her sidearm. She made note of a wall and shot into it.

Tiles cracked and fell from the stricken site, jingling on the floor.

Leaving a little scar, unveiling plain baby blue concrete wall behind the tiles.

She could use this to make sure she was not walking in circles.

Continuing her journey, she put a hand on the left-hand wall and followed it.

Walking past several more pools, through several more hallways.

And never again seeing the hole she had put into the wall.

“I’m making progress, I guess.” Gertrude to herself. Her teeth chattered.

She was growing a bit cold. Though the air was very still in the pool rooms, she was wet.

Hand on the wall, she continued her journey.

After some time, Gertrude found herself in a distinctly larger room.

This in itself did not arouse her attention. But to follow the wall, she had to skirt around the edges of many more pools than before, and those edges were thin and tight. In the dim blue light and the shimmering ripples of water on the ceiling it was difficult to keep focus. She could have lost her footing entirely and fallen into a pool quite easily, which in her mind would not have done anything but annoy her– but then she considered she did not actually know whether what was in the pools was water– or whether that liquid would actually behave normally, nothing else about the situation was normal.

Nevertheless, she followed the wall with continuing frustration.

Then she chanced a look at her reflection in the still and clear water of the adjacent pool.

And the shock she felt almost did cause her to fall into it.

She drew back against the wall, kicking her feet.

Initially in the fear of some figure without description that she thought might jump at her.

But then with the stunned realization that she was seeing herself.

Herself– in a black uniform festooned with symbols of esoteric fascism.

She could even hear her own voice as if surrounded by the figure in the water–

“Standartenführer Gertrude Lichtenberg, reporting for duty. Mein schatzi.”

Smiling, even in that despicable uniform, and saying the last in such a sweet voice–

and a woman’s hand reaching from afar to lift her chin as if owning her–

Gertrude caught the briefest glimpse of the ‘little treasure’ of her other self.

Elena with blue and pink hair, in the same uniform, covered in hooked crosses and sun discs–

Tearing herself away from the sight, Gertrude charged across the thin strip of tiled floor separating one pool to another, and dropped, almost falling, hoping to see her reflection as it should have been. But the adjacent pool had a separate vision, both from reality as Gertrude knew it and from the last pool she had seen. Instead of a Volkisch officer, this Gertrude had clerical robes and wore her hair long and half-covered in a loose habit.

She silently entered a dark room filled with paintings and symbols of Solceanic belief.

“Apologies, holy pontiff. I needed to check up on you.” She said.

In the center of the room, a thin and bedraggled looking Elena gave her a tired look.

Now she was dressed in the papal garb and hat–

“Of course.”

“Another failed experiment?”

“Let’s not speak of it. Tend to my ablutions. I’m feeling– stiff.”

And the nun Gertrude smiled and bowed reverently, and the pontiff shed her robes,

exchanging glances full of– lust–

Gertrude tore herself from the pool and crawled pathetically to a third within reach.

Then she found herself in such an intersection of pools that she could see many of herself at a time, reflected in the waters. Then she was reflected in the ceiling and the walls, surrounded in herself as if carried on a mist that blended the light into apparitions. They walked past her, beside her and through her like ghosts but always playing their own scenes with their own aims as if these histories were currents washing over the unseen woman observing them from the pools. So many Gertrude Lichtenberg overwhelming her.

She saw one Gertrude who was a Katarran in the Pythian Black Legion, carrying out the ancient prophecy of an annihilating battle of the fittest, under the orders of the warlord, Elena; a Gertrude who was an officer in the Hanwan Konoe Shidan, and having been promoted following the crushing of a rebellion against the Empire as well as meritorious service in the conquest and subjugation of the Yu states, reverently sought even the briefest glimpse of Empress Elena; G.I.A. agent Gertrude McLyndon proudly holding a pile of compromising documents and photographs sure to discredit and tear apart the progressivist coalition challenging President Elena’s reelection; Gertrude as the Political Commissar of Captain Elena in a Union Cruiser on an important communist mission; and Gertrude the Praetorian, holding the power of life and death over Fueller Empress Elena–

“No– No– Stop it– I’m not– I can’t–”

Breathless, unable to escape from the figures and shadows, Gertrude shut her eyes.

Unable to make it all go away, unable to bear it–

So badly, she wanted to give in to the worst of herself and be one of those images.

To do anything, destroy anything, compromise anything, to hold the whole world back.

In exchange for her– but no– not these horrid facsimiles–

There was such a thing as a price too high to bear! Gertrude told herself this.

That if Elena had been anyone but herself, Gertrude may well have not followed her.

“Elena was none of those kinds of people. That’s why I love her–”

Gertrude grit her teeth. Of course, Elena was not the monster. Never Elena.

She was the monster. And it was her love for Elena which had made her a monster.

“No– that’s not true– I could have done things right– it was all my mistakes–!”

Some part of her realized that the thoughts she was having and voices she was hearing–

They were all mixing in her brain until she could not sort out what was real.

Unable to escape, to sort out her thoughts or bear any further visions–

Gertrude slid herself to one of the pools and pushed herself into it.

Immediately, she sank deeper and deeper than was possible.

Water filled her throat and nose with incredible rapidity.

Instantly, she was drowning again.

Panicking, thrashing, choking, in immense pain until her consciousness was obliterated.


Blue.

Even as her tear-stained eyes struggled to open, she still found herself surrounded in blue. Now the tiles were an even darker blue than before and their sectioning was much less obvious. She instantly felt ever more enclosed. The light, too, was dimmer, but it still seemed to come up from within the pools, of which there was one nearby.

Her hand had dipped inside it.

Gertrude laid on her back.

Soon as she recognized that she was herself, and awake, and saw her surroundings, she felt the biting cold again and resumed shivering. She retracted her hand from a pool and hugged herself, curling her legs up closer to her body. On the ceiling, the water, lit from under, cast shimmering white waves over the dark blue tiles. She stared at it, helpless and cold,

following the waves–

Until she noticed the shadow cutting across the center of the light show.

In a panic, Gertrude pushed herself up onto her feet and to a thundering step,

sliding over smooth slick tiles

falling hard on her shoulder and coming to lie

staring

into a pool much larger deeper darker like a blue hole in the world

occupied

“You’ve done more harm to yourself than I mean to you already.”

With her back to the wall, shivering with cold and fear, Gertrude stared in the center of the gaping blue maw that had become of the pool. There was a figure there, floating gently atop the surface. Slender with a long torso and limbs, and almost nymph-like, not simply in her beauty but in the pallid softness that her features seemed to take. Her hair was long and red and flowed over the water around her like a spreading bloodstain. She was dressed in a long robe which had been entirely soaked through, and clung to her hips and her small breasts in a way that, even in this situation, made Gertrude run a bit hotter than before.

Curiously, she had one single black horn and an over-long white tail, its end splitting like that of a whale or dolphin, almost as long as her body and somewhat thick.

When their eyes met– Gertrude could have sworn they were black with a yellow slit.

Then imperceptibly fast, so that it made her previous perception appear a mirage–

Those eyes changed color, becoming blue and green.

“I remember you.” Gertrude said, her lips trembling. “You– you attacked me–”

In her dreams, she had seen the trees, and seen a woman giving a speech, and seen a vast and horrible machine processing something ungodly and inhuman. Visions as if of other worlds, impossible places that felt terrifyingly familiar. In those places, this woman appeared. At times callous; at times barring the way; at times, tearing Gertrude apart.

Those memories of the pain inflicted by this woman caused Gertrude to wince.

And push herself further back against the wall–

There was nowhere to go.

When Gertrude pushed back, the edge of the pool became, suddenly, closer.

Her legs were in the water, she now sat on only enough tile to sit in at all.

Just as that edge had come closer, the woman now lounged right beside her.

Head and arms out of the water, her long and voluminous red hair on Gertrude’s lap.

One slender white finger traced the front of Gertrude from her sternum to her belly.

Spreading warmth wherever it touched. Giving off a hazy wisp of those strange colors.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the object Nile had given her was buzzing uncontrollably.

“You needn’t fear me. Like you, I am given into my passions. Sometimes I can no better control myself than if my right half and left half were different people. It’s hard to explain; but I’m in a good mood. I wanted to follow after you again. You have stumbled upon an interesting place. You have an uncanny ability to stumble in this way. Because you have a passionate, chaotic heart that is tearing through the world for a purpose. Just like mine.”

Gertrude felt her tensions dissipate, her muscles loosen up, and the cold fading.

The touch of this woman was perhaps the most soothing sensation she had ever felt.

Enough that Gertrude almost gasped when the woman simply lifted her fingers from her.

“Can you help me?” Gertrude asked. “You said I wandered here– well, I’m trapped now.”

At her side, the woman smiled. “You’re so bold– going right past names to favors.”

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

“But you don’t know who I am. And you won’t, without a proper introduction, Hominin.”

“Hominin? Well– I am Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Gertrude said, submitting to the demand.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Alright then– can you call me Eris?” Asked the red-haired woman.

Gertrude smiled a little. She started to feel safe. “As you wish. Thank you, Eris.”

Eris closed her eyes. Her lips slowly turned into a smile. She looked strangely placid.

“What are you thanking me for, Hominin? So easily forgetting the danger I represent?”

“You’re the only thing keeping me sane right now.” Gertrude said.

She was being coy, but Gertrude was certain this woman was doing something to her.

Something that helped her stave off the rot of mind and spirit in this place.

Gertrude came to realize that ever since the katov mass had turned blue, the same blue that permeated this evil place, she had felt tired. Tired, helpless, rushing blindly. Desperate to outrun something, so desperate it wiped her out; everyone else was just as tired as her too. No amount of vitamin jelly drinks could restore her. Blue that made the marrow turn cold, that made the fog of mind freeze into hard walls around thought and meaning. She had been so stupid; Nile had tried to tell her, but she did not want to stop and understand.

Gertrude had marched them all into the abyss’ insanity. Into its consumptive power.

Hundreds of expeditions had been devoured in holes like this. Unknowing until the end.

Only now, with that healing touch, was Gertrude finally able to realize her predicament.

But she did not feel panic. Her heart was steady and her breathing calm.

Instead, she felt like she had finally made a breakthrough.

Gertrude sat up straight.

Her boots sank further into the water, but she didn’t care anymore. Being wet was the least of her worries. Unable to make any headway, she resolved to catch her breath and try to clear her head. Blue ripples reflected eerily upon her face, which was mostly in shadow and barely visible in her reflection until a blue streak crossed her eyes. She glanced at the woman in the pool, who floated gently toward her, long tail curving further into the pool.

“You look so resigned. Have you finally accepted your situation?” Eris said.

“I’m collected. I’ve been going around in circles and getting jerked around for so long. Now I don’t know. I feel some kind of way. Right now, I just want to talk to you. Is that okay?”

She looked down at the water just as the red-haired woman floated closer to her.

Their eyes met, golden yellow and dark green.

In good humor– for once.

After circling these pools for so long the she wished she could gut herself with her knife–

Eris in the water, however absurd a sight, gave her hope for something.

“You remind me of someone.” Eris said.

Turning her head to meet her eyes further, her cheek caressed by the tiles.

Eris had an expression of uncanny fondness on her face. She looked so placid.

“Is the resemblance positive or negative?” Gertrude asked.

“She was someone who said she would protect me, no matter what.” Eris replied.

Gertrude smirked a little. “You feel too formidable to need protecting.”

Eris smirked. “What if I did? What if, as we speak, I’m in the greatest danger of my life?”

“Don’t tempt me.” Gertrude said. “I’m also the type to say ‘I would give my life for you.’”

“You are an awful cad.” Eris laughed. “I’m not so easy, you despicable hominin.”

“I’m serious.” Gertrude replied. She even started laughing a little bit too.

“Even if I told you my enemy is something too vast and impossible?” Eris replied.

She raised her eyes from Eris to the walls around them.

There seemed to be no passages out of this pool. No matter.

For once, Gertrude did not really want to go anywhere. Eris was too interesting.

“I’ve spent all my life putting my body between women and something vast and impossible. Sometimes, they even wanted me to do it.” She said, betraying a hint of sadness.

Eris seemed to pick up on her wistful tone of voice.

Her own eyes wandered too. She looked up at the tiled walls and the ceiling.

“Would you protect me, if I myself became your enemy?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Gertrude said. Now even more weary-sounding than before.

“You should give up. I am not able to be protected, nor am I worthy of it.” Eris said.

“And I’m not worthy of protecting anyone. You can’t be any worse than me.”

“You say that so easily. But my sins are monumental.”

“There are people who would say I’m utterly unforgiveable too.”

Gertrude swayed her legs gently in the bewitchingly blue water of the pools.

“I used to be a High Inquisitor of the Empire. My hands are stained permanently with so much blood. Blood from innocents whom I suppressed, and from my own allies and the people I turned into enemies.” She said. “I made many deliberately evil decisions. And as many mistakes. I don’t think I can make amends. But if you need someone– I can help you. I can’t just walk past someone drowning in the same stagnant water I’m drowning in.”

Eris looked up at the roof with a wan expression. Avoiding Gertrude’s own eyes.

“You’ve come a long, painful way, since your journey began.” She said. “In that sense, we are alike. Both groomed into the weapons of greedy empires, fighting for injustice, losing everything by our own foolish hands, including our identities. Trapped in liminal space, with a dead past and a foregone future. All we can do is to despair and rebel against the world.”

Eris continued to give the walls the same narrow wistful gaze.

“Eris– you know what this maze actually is, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

There was a note of frustration finally creeping into Gertrude’s voice again.

She had been stuck, in motionless suspension, a blind idiot trapped in limbo. Time and again, dangers and obstacles beyond her ability and cognition erupted in front of her, and she would be rescued from her vanity by an ally with the answers. Her own power and skill had been utterly worthless. She was forced to grovel or to become someone’s damsel, unable to resolve any situation by herself. It was the same here. Whether it was Norn, Victoria, Nile, Azazil or now Eris. Gertrude was lucky to have their pity or she would be dead.

Every time, she lacked the ability to change anything.

Even outside this blue hell– everything had been going in circles.

Ever since she left Luxembourg– circles,

ever since she first stood between Sawyer and Elena,

ever since,

she was born,

spinning circles on her own heel,

all of it in vain,

“Ahh– to think I have to give succor to a Hominin. But– this doesn’t feel too bad.”

From the water, an arm stretched up, and silk-soft fingers caressed Gertrude’s cheek.

That touch, so tender and warm, snapped Gertrude out of her sudden despair and fury.

“Listen well Hominin. Rarely do I enlighten your kind. This liminal space is built up of resonant human emotions.” Eris said. “The Aether is a reflection of humanity. It is a body whose flesh is the human soul. Its blood formed of human perspective, and circulated in veins the gifted can see. Everything that is human can exist here, circulating endlessly wherever humans have been and wherever they desire to go. Everything you fear, everything you love, everything that brings despair, joy or even stultification. But in this specific place, a single emotion has overwhelmed everything, and the ‘blood’ has become clotted.”

Ordinarily, Gertrude might have reacted adversely toward that explanation.

She had been doing a lot of that lately too.

But at that moment she wanted that to stop and had the conviction to stop it.

No more panicking and shrieking pathetically at the things she did not understand.

She wanted to understand. This was part of the world too– she had to master it.

Gertrude kept hurrying to get somewhere, and she ended up here, nowhere.

She ran past every explanation only wanting what was convenient and simple.

Always missing the important context, the crevices between statements, the hard truths.

Her heart needed to open itself to the possibility of what she was seeing.

“You are saying that this is a place of emotions; an overwhelming emotion created it. Can my emotions change this place back? Can my emotions free me from here?” Gertrude said.

“It’s not so easy– but your emotions are powerful, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Eris said.

Gertrude scoffed. “My emotions have only brought tragedy– I fear relying on them.”

Eris’s eyes met Gertrude’s again.

This time, they had some of their former scrutinizing coldness again.

“Your emotions forged and destroyed bonds. They upended your life. They brought you to this place.” Eris said. “They can be a power to destroy, but they also brought you many followers and believers, many close bonds, the armor you wear and the weapons you wield. In that sense, they have not only brought tragedy, but have also created your triumphs.”

Gertrude’s passion had brought her from the heights of the Imbrium to the depths of this trench. But she couldn’t accept that so easily. It wasn’t just her emotions, as a disconnected entity or power. Her emotions were not something that happened without her.

They were not autonomous.

It was herself. She stuck herself into this endless circle.

Her eyes began to sting and weep again, even with Eris’ touch upon her cheek.

Teardrops crashed on the surface of the pool.

Sending hot red vapor into the air.

“Are you wavering again? So easily? Even after my comfort?” Eris sounded offended.

“I’m sorry. It’s– I was just so stupid. I can’t call any of it a triumph.” Gertrude whimpered. “You don’t understand. I was delusional. I used those bonds as my excuse. I convinced myself everything I was doing for Elena was consecrated, necessary, and good for her. And yet– along the way, I betrayed the trust of so many other people who needed me.”

Just thinking about ‘emotions’ had set her off on a warpath again. She went out of control.

“They saw me as a symbol of hope. That a swarthy-skinned and dark-haired little brat without a drop of noble blood nor the vast wealth of a capitalist, could grow up and climb to the highest peaks of the Empire using only her martial ability, and could achieve control, and with it, independence and agency. But I didn’t climb anything but a mountain of corpses. I never had any merits. I cheated, I begged, I conspired, I killed so many people, some of whom deserved retribution but many, many more that did not deserve what I did to them.”

Gertrude lifted her eyes from the water and met Eris’s gaze again.

“I don’t believe in the Imbrian Empire. My uniform, that flag, all of that crap– none of it was worth shit to me. All I believed was in Elena von Fueller. I loved her with all my heart. It made me human– she was the only reminder that I had a soul. That I still had a beating heart.”

“Gertrude–”

Eris tried to speak up, but Gertrude pounded her fist on the tiled edge of the pool and put a crack in its perfect facade, shattering the tiles. Eris stared at the cracks with surprise.

And so Gertrude continued to lament.

“And in the end, I was ready to kill her too! I would have killed her if I couldn’t have her. She invalidated everything I had become. She never asked me to; and I never asked her. But I became this for her and she rejected it, and when she did, my future disappeared. I became suspended in nothingness. And now I am nothing but a monster. Emotions? What good are my emotions? Norn sent me down here, maybe hoping to alter my perspective. I rushed in with all the greed and obsession of my monstrous heart looking for a treasure at the end of a rainbow. I wanted this place to just give me her strength as if I deserved a reward!”

Eris’s eyes softened slightly.

“But I just failed.” Gertrude said. She smiled a hopeless smile. It was the smile of a dead woman, she thought. She saw herself reflected in the pool. So pale, so helpless. “I know that now. I can’t do anything. Even before I became trapped in this hell of empty pools, whatever this place is– it doesn’t even rate compared to how meaningless my life outside here was. How circular and empty and delusional. I burned all of the joy I could have had with her. I foreclosed on every other possibility. Anything outside my fucking circle of hell.”

More tears streamed down her cheeks. Red vapor steamed from the blue water.

“I’m lost. I’m lost! I don’t know which way to go. You are asking me to make use of my emotions? These are my emotions. I am a raging animal who wants to tear her own fucking face off. I can’t use these emotions for anything good. All I can do is rage impotently!”

“We are more alike than even I thought.” Eris said. “So will you just sit here like me?”

Gertrude fell silent, staring at the water with that lost smile.

“How disappointing.” Eris said. “And here I thought it would be worth following you.”

Her tear-stained eyes met Eris’s beautifully pale face once again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so pathetic. I’ve been saved so many times the past few days. I’ve not been able to protect anyone. You’re right. I am a cad. I am just trying to find a new lie that I can tell myself, desperately, even now, even in this god-forsaken lightless hole into which I have been cast. I can’t protect you. I can’t protect anyone. You’re right– I have lost my beginning and I’ll never reach my destination. You called it a liminal space? Then I’m just stuck in limbo.”

At the sound of her voice, the walls shuddered. Red cracks put upon blue tiles.

“What about Monika?” Eris asked. “She’s in danger.”

Gertrude’s breath caught in her chest. Monika– that poor girl believed in her–

–but it was no use,

“Gertrude, if anything were possible– what would your ambition be?” Eris asked.

Gertrude’s fists tightened. Anger swelled in her heart. She hated that question.

She hated these what-if’s and sophistry.

Already, the meaningless answer had formed in her mind. It was immediate and absolute.

“I’d cut a trail of blood across this fucking Ocean. I would destroy the remains of the Imbrium Empire.” Gertrude said. “I’d tear down everything separating us without mercy–!”

Her and–

Elena–?

Ingrid–?

Victoria–?

Nile?

Sawyer even–?

Perhaps–

Eris too?

“You are a fascinating Hominin. I feel– I feel so close to you. I– I want you, Gertrude.”

There was a moment of silence again between herself and Eris.

Gertrude noticed Eris’s eyes becoming shadowed.

Her bangs, and the angle at which she was laying on the edge of the tiles.

It hid her eyes– but Gertrude could see her lips slowly curl into a smile.

“Gertrude, you know what your emotions can do? They can put a crack in these tiles.”

Gertrude, for an instant, felt a familiar stirring inside herself.

She felt a sudden desire to take possession of Eris too.

Before her eyes, a flash of a world where she could exploit her, where she could use her knowledge, her powers, her beautiful and strange body, in every possible advantageous way. Eris became power and treasure in her mind, became salvation, redemption, sublimity, pleasure. She could use her until her dark heart was full. There was a mighty red haze before Gertrude’s eyes that showed her pleasures and triumphs beyond imagination. With control over Eris, she could escape, she could rescue all of her crew and her ship, she could attack all of her enemies, and take back Elena, and sweep through the world in her fury–

And she stopped herself, utterly, and completely. Her emotions were a spiraling storm.

She could not let herself treat anyone like that again– could she–?

“Can I still raise my head after all of this–?”

As soon as the words left Gertrude’s lips, Eris was suddenly face to face with her.

She had left the pool instantly, it was as if she had always been standing beside her. Curled around her, embracing her, and with a gentle hold on Gertrude’s chin, forcing her to lift her head. Her face was so close, Gertrude could feel her breaths warming her lips.

Close enough to drown in her eyes.

Close enough to kiss.

Her lips took Gertrude’s own, so hungry it almost felt like she would bite.

Tasting the subtle hint of iron in her tongue and throat, Gertrude felt her mind waver.

She saw herself sharing this kiss under a sky rather than the ocean.

Saw an enormous tree-like structure looming over the two of them.

And then Eris ripped apart right in front of her.

Every piece of her torn out and scattered.

But just as quickly and with much more emotion, she saw the kiss and reciprocated.

Painted blue in the pool room but beginning to glow gently red instead.

When they parted, a string of spittle between their once-interlocking tongues–

Gertrude was rendered speechless again. In front of that nymph-like, dream-like beauty.

That taste had been so– dangerous– intoxicating– but fulfilling too.

Eris stared at her dead in the eyes, close as warm breath. Looking at her so– covetously.

“Promise me, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Take your power and use it to destroy your enemies. Seize every treasure which you feel is yours and guard your hoard like a dragon. Let yourself be envious, greedy, lustful, furious and vain. Let sloth overtake you and experience despair. Allow all colors of the aura into yourself. Live your darkest passion. Don’t stop moving. Don’t accept being in a place like this ever again. Become someone who will protect me; not in the midst of this, but at the height of power over a new world and perhaps, at my side.”

She smiled, rapturously, almost– insanely– her aura becoming vast and stark white–

“Don’t put up with the path. Seize the destination. Betray this world; crush it in your fist.”

“Eris–”

“Promise me– and I’ll help here. And we’ll meet again too. Out there.”

There was no denying the allure of her words.

Gertrude was full of nothing but contempt for the world.

This was not a world in which she or any of the people she had come to care about could live in peace. Tearing down the high towers and standing over the rubble would be doing the world a favor. Building something new and better over the heap would be mercy. But it was the least she could do; and the minimum required was for the Imbrium Empire to be completely annihilated. It was the only way she could live with herself.

Emperor Lichtenberg— she had been called that in jest.

And yet, in the brilliant and fond eyes of this ‘Eris’ it felt like she could see that world.

A world in which she had power. A world in which all the current rules were overturned.

Creating a new order by which all of these tragedies could be averted.

The final death and burying of the Imbrian Empire.

Vengeance against all of its architects.

And the rise of the empire of the future, her empire– The Agarthic Empire.

“I promise you.” Gertrude said. “I will tear my way out of this. I will find you.”

“What if you made an enemy out of me? What if I tried to stop you?”

Eris was testing her conviction.

But she didn’t know Gertrude as perfectly as she thought.

Her words were as dark and heavy and hot as the shielding on a reactor.

“I wouldn’t let you make that mistake. I want your power too. If we’re alike as you say–”

Gertrude smirked.

“Then I’ll become like you someday. I am a monster too. I’ll claim you for myself first. I will not let you get in my way; nor will you escape. I will use you, Eris; everything of you.”

Eris’s face warped into a grin.

“Let us seal this covenant, Gertrude Lichtenberg. If you possess the conviction.”

In the next instant, Gertrude found herself on her back, pushed back from the pool.

On top of her, Eris loomed, her golden eyes shining.

Her lips spread, revealing sharp, hungry teeth.

She descended on Gertrude, who resolved to keep still and endure it.

Eris bit down into her shoulder and tore a piece of her flesh right into her mouth.

Rather than agony, however, Gertrude felt warmth, closeness, affection

through those fangs

ripping skin, tearing fibers, blood swallowed up

she was filled with something

made a part of it

connected to a grander whole

It was as close to paradise as she had ever neared, and she felt her chest fluttering.

“Gertrude. I am a sputtering throat without heart or limbs. I have been ripped apart and remade whole and been swept by currents like dust. I may not be– myself– next time.”

Eris’ gaze met Gertrude’s own. Lit up a dim red by Gertrude’s growing aura.

“I want to believe that something of me can be saved. That something of us can be saved.”

In one instant, Eris’ tears dropped from weary eyes–

And she put her head up close to Gertrude, looking so helpless and defeated.

Gertrude reached up, wanting to touch her again, to pull her in tight–

And as suddenly she was gone, in a sweeping current formed of a myriad colors.

For a moment, Gertrude felt the absence of her warmth, and the blue despair crept in–

–but she would not accept it any longer.

She would not settle for suffering loss after loss.

Her red passion brimmed, a thin shining aura, and the blue wisps scattered from her like flies being driven off by smoke. After Eris’ departure, the room tried to go dark, but Gertrude was her own light. She stood from the ground, fighting back tears, but filled with purpose. Red streaks accompanied her steps, dim at first but red enough to vanquish the dark blue.

She walked, filling in the negative, a light in the storm, a matchfire in void.

Rational thoughts of hopelessness, of being trapped, of seeing the impossible surroundings and recoiling with fear, of the need to curl up and preserve life for as long as she could, all of it burned in that insane red. Gertrude was instead filled with a conviction that was backed by no evidence of her senses, and it afforded a clarity she had never felt in her life. There was nothing in front of her but a straight line forward. If it didn’t exist, she would carve it. In that moment, there was no wall strong enough to stop her. No length she could not cross.

No depth too unreachable.

All of these unseemly blue tiles cried out for a pattern only a battering could inscribe.

Gertrude reached her hands to where she had been bitten.

Almost disappointed to find no wound there. She almost wanted to be marked.

“I’ll claim her. She’s down there somewhere– some part of her is. I know it.”

Gertrude looked at the fingers that had touched the site of Eris’ bite.

Closed them into a fist.

And put that fist directly through the wall of the pool rooms.

She expected to meet any amount of resistance, and for a second she thought she saw the walls actually, physically crack, fissures spreading through the wall and up the ceiling and even into the water itself, cracking everything like glass– but then in the blink of an eye, her entire surroundings had simply changed from what they had been previously, annihilated immediately. Consumed in the devastating red they burned away like paper set alight.

Gertrude had forged her own chaotic red path through their ordered blue despair.


In place of the pool rooms there was suddenly a long and tall hallway of cobblestones.

All of the cobbles had sooty burnt traces as if a fire had raged through the hallway.

Stained glass windows shining all around her some set at impossible directions and angles as if not anchored to a physical wall, or as if the wall had been bent awkwardly around them. But the cobblestone was continuous, it climbed the walls, it formed the ceiling, and it was unbroken even in those places where there were seemingly organic breaches of their geometry. Gertrude was left briefly speechless by the grandeur of this place compared to the tight, looping pool rooms. It was as if this place housed something enormous.

She was not alone. There was much more activity here than in the pools.

Gertrude saw both near and far a dozen of those masked aberrations that had been trying to overwhelm her and Azazil. She had her guard up and awaited an attack. They did not seem to notice her, however, and after a few tense minutes she relaxed. They dragged their bloated arms behind their cloaked bodies, all of the facial features imprinted on their white masks contorting into dazed and stupid-looking expressions. They were making their way down the corridor, following the far off walls into the distance without aim or aggression.

Closing her fists and steadying her breathing, Gertrude followed them from afar.

Soon as she began walking, she noticed nothing in the distance seemed to come closer.

But she would not give up– the appearance of hopelessness was the aim of the blue color.

Stubbornly she continued to walk even though she seemed to make no progress.

She then noticed that the stained glass windows had actual shapes, and depicted scenes.

Scenes of a golden-haired girl with dog-like ears, rendered abstract but dreadfully familiar.

“Monika.” Gertrude said. Feeling a sense of trepidation again and smothering it down.

From one of her pouches, she withdrew the aetherometer that Nile had given her.

Stirring continuously, like a tablet vibrating to inform the owner of a message.

All of its face had become distorted with spiraling shades of blue that became impossible to read. However, the more concentrated on it the more she could feel something from it. That feeling became sound. Sound that when it crossed into her became a voice and a voice which she recognized. Gertrude listened, shuddered and had to fight to keep her fire alight.

Somehow the aetherometer was broadcasting Monika’s voice.

“Sleep soundly, peacefully, without resentment.” She whispered in a mischievous voice.

There was a note of palpable desperation. It was an unsettling tone of voice.

Like Monika had gone mad.

“Sleep the eternities away. Without pain, without bigotry. In the eternal sleep there lies our paradise. We are equals in sleep. We have no war or famine or genocide. Join our deep blue and beautiful sleep. It will be so easy. It will be so kind. You have needed it so long.”

That suggestive voice tempted Gertrude to surrender herself, and she was weak to it.

Indeed– it would have been so easy. And it would have felt so kind.

True– Gertrude had needed it for so long.

But she lifted her feet and continued despite the inherent difficulty.

Fire slept when it was snuffed out and ceased to burn.

Gertrude stubbornly tried to shut it out of her mind, descending the hallway.

As she walked, she saw movement out of the corners of her eyes and realized that the scenes on the stained glass windows seemed to be changing. Like projector slides, they would blink through short animations in the glass frames. When Gertrude stopped to look, however, the abstractions in the glass were given photorealistic shape. She saw Monika as she knew her; and saw Monika in the flesh in ways she never had known before.

A child; a young woman; a prisoner.

“It is impermissible for a Loup to disbelieve God. We exist only by the grace of God.”

“If God is the reason I was born, he can have his grace back.”

Voices accompanied by the cracking sound of a slap.

Monika was not always so different from others. Because in fact each person is not so radically different from the rest. But they all had the radicalism beaten out of their souls in different ways. Monika never gave up hers. She stood aside the crowd during oaths, she failed to perform drills, she gave nothing of herself onto God in church, and she dreamed and prepared instead for study. There were people in her life who encouraged her, who assisted her greatly and nurtured her desire for knowledge. Teachers who understood; liberal church folk who took pity; Imbrians looking from outside-in who judged the culture of the Loup without acknowledging the culpability they had in its creation and corruption.

It was this last group who offered Monika the most hope in her endeavors.

“I want to escape to an Imbrian school. I want to learn what makes up the world.”

How does the world work?

Could one learn about energy and matter to understand cruelty and hopelessness?

Could a Loup turn her back on God and War and Blood and lead her own free life?

A too-young Monika fought with everything she had to try to realize her goal.

And she was defeated.

Family had an iron hand; the Church had a baleful eye; and Imbrians had half hearts.

“Don’t worry– our therapies have put many anti-social girls back on the correct path.”

Cretinous voices promised anything that could not happen to those who had already forfeit.

Still, Monika did not give up.

Even as Gertrude stared at more and more scenes of captivity and abuse.

Every step of the way, that same little Loup protected her rebellious and inquisitive soul.

Gertrude felt her own body growing heavier as she witnessed the scenes.

Scolded right in her face so that the spittle of her “instructors” fell upon her cheeks.

Beaten.

Stood before the rest of the wayward children and humiliated.

Denied food.

Forbidden to sleep, even so far as being denied a bed or chairs.

“Why?”

Gertrude asked herself, but Monika’s voice came out of her throat.

“Why did they do this to me? Are my desires so terrible?”

If all of this was done in the name of God, then God was nothing but a demon.

And his world was a Hell itself.

“Gertrude.”

She lifted her boot and set it down on the ground again.

Without thinking, she had moved– or everything had moved her.

There was in front of her, a threshold, an archway door open into a church.

Pews made of fake wood grain led up to a grand altar behind which was a vast organ. Lead-and-copper cross-shaped pipes jutted out at wild angles from a throbbing mass of wet flesh. All of it set upon a series of tentacles that dangled over the edge of the altar’s raised stage. In the pews sat the masked creatures, sleeping, led to the source of their stupefaction.

In front of the vast, fleshy, throbbing organ stood Monika herself.

Her blond hair was partially wet and completely disheveled. Her irises were surrounded by red rings and had begun to partially warp into blue fractals creeping toward the edges of the eye. Physically she remained unchanged, being short but an adult in form as Gertrude had ever known her. Even under these circumstances, that wild and irreverent grin was on the same beautiful face Gertrude was familiar with. She dressed in a long blue and white robe with a tall hat, and rather than the mushrooms which the aberrations around them wore or grew on themselves, Monika was wrapped in nightshades blooming with black, suppurating fruits. She had a mask, like the other inhabitants of this space, but she wore it hanging from the nightshade plants like they were chains. Gertrude saw her radiating blue color.

“Welcome to the church of the Drowning Prophecy, and to your deliverance from pain.”

Behind her the organ let off irregular and discordant notes as if attempting to make music.

“I’m happy to see you, Gertrude. Other than myself, I want to give you peace most of all.”

Monika held out a hand in invitation and Gertrude, heart racing, stepped into the church.

She crossed the pews of sleeping aberrations to stand below Monika.

It reminded her of whenever she saw Monika atop some equipment, looking down at her.

But she wasn’t smiling anymore. Her kind little smiles were lost to the madness.

“Gertrude, you doubt me don’t you? Or in fact, did you ever believe in me at all?”

“I’ve always had the utmost esteem for you. I’ve never given up on you for a second.”

Tendrils of blue color from Monika’s body prodded the edge of Gertrude’s stark red aura.

“I am a genius, Gertrude. I’m a genius and a child prodigy, a generational talent. Everyone was afraid of what I represented.” Monika smiled. But it sent a chill down Gertrude’s spine. There was none of her warmth there. “That is why I understand well– why I have finally deduced everything in the world. I’ve been thinking about it for my entire life. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is any value in continuing to endure pain in this wretched life. There is no saving it; no preventing the forces that extract every second of suffering they can from us to power this infernal machine; no accountability for its architects.”

Monika spread her arms wide and the tentacles of the organ unfolded and stretched.

“We have control over only one thing. One life, which we can do with as we please.”

A series of guttural noises came out of the pews. Startled, Gertrude turned around.

One by one, the sleeping aberrations in attendance retched and spat up something black.

They fell from their seats, banging their heads on the floor and the pews around them.

Gertrude had seen them disappear when struck before– to see them fall over and die like human beings was shocking to her. It felt wrong– like these creatures should not have had this end, but it was all for some reason engineered for them. That sleep which came from their soporific mushroom spores was different from the eternal sleep now given to them by the black bile they had ingested. All of the aberrations were destroyed.

Monika’s nightshades– she must have poisoned all of them?

“This is the peace you want to grant me, Monika? And I presume, the whole crew?”

“Eternal Sleep is a kindness, Gertrude! It is our answer to God and his malfeasance. He will toy with us no longer. And all those who tormented us will disappear with him.”

Gertrude did not know what to say in response. It was difficult to muster her conviction.

She had never been in a situation where she had to argue for being soberly awake.

For herself– she had certainly thought before, and would probably think again, that it was too much to endure. Both the lightless world in which she found herself; and the fact that she had ruined so many elements of her life. She had lost what she had regarded as the core of her being, and the driving direction for much of her life. She lost her planned future.

Certainly she had thought about giving up before.

More than anything, however, her heart hurt so badly for Monika.

Words could not express it.

There was no taking back all of the horrible things that had been done to her. Nothing that Gertrude could do or give would wipe out the knowledge that all of the people who were supposed to protect Monika betrayed her; that her own warped culture had delivered her beatings her entire life; that her only crime was not falling into line with the rest of society’s mindless edicts. The Imbrium Empire had scarred her. Gertrude had already done what she could do– she had tried to validate Monika and to give her a worthy place to belong.

Regardless– such a thing would never wipe out the years that she had to endure, drowning. In the sanatoriums, under the oppression of her family and the church, for decades, unable to make official her genius. The military should not have been her salvation from that.

Gertrude could understand how a girl so beaten down might contemplate surrender.

The Imbrium Ocean was a dark and horrible place where people suffered needlessly.

Humanity’s final refuge on a dead planet.

Was it worth all of this loss? All of this pain? All of this injustice?

Untold billions of their ancestors died with the planet– for this?

Why not just give it all up forever if there was no deliverance from pain?

Gertrude shook her head. Clutching her chest like she wanted to touch the fire in it.

There was one good reason perhaps. Gertrude had one argument in her.

“Monika, I want you to come back with me.” Gertrude said.

She extended a hand up to the stage for Monika to take if she so chose.

“To toil away on your ship for your benefit?” Monika said.

“No. I’m not going to force you to do anything. But if you would accompany me, I would be very happy. Not as your commander– as someone who esteems you. You’re immensely strong, and you are incredibly smart and incisive; and you have a really cute laugh.” Gertrude tried to smile at Monika, who stared in confusion. “My life is pretty bleak, I must admit. But it would be so much worse without you. I care about you a lot, Monika. I want to know you’re okay and I want to do anything I can for you. You’re a cherished companion.”

Monika’s fingers curled into fists. She started shaking, staring at Gertrude.

“Gertrude, I would not suffer another day on this forsaken hell-hole just for you.”

“It’s not just for me either. Ingrid would be devastated to lose you.” Gertrude said.

“Ingrid?” Monika paused, her eyes drawing wide.

“She’s bad at demonstrating it, but she understands you. And she cares about you too.”

“Neither of you understand anything! You really want me to remain awake through this?”

With a boom and the cracking of the plastic planks of the stage floor, the tentacles writhed.

Smashing up and then down, the pipes playing a furious disharmony.

Vibrating right through Gertrude’s guts; but she stood her ground, her hand still raised.

“Monika, let me take you away from that thing. Everyone must be so worried.” She said.

“You’re–” Monika grit her teeth. She began to weep. “You’re dodging my questions–”

“I’ve given you my answer.” Gertrude said, smiling. “I want this ugly world to be more beautiful for your presence. Monika, if you take my hand, I’ll help you stay awake with me.”

“Gertrude– but– you’ve been through– would you really keep enduring– even after–?”

Monika was crying openly, a deluge. Her words came out choppy and anxious.

And the organ-thing behind her stirred with ever growing violence.

Gertrude stood up as straight as she could and delivered her clearest answer.

“I will endure. Monika, if it would save you, I would never even try to look at Elena again.”

It was time to let go of her own terrible dream that was drowning her in her sleep.

And at the power of those words the entire church had a spasm of agony.

As if the walls were those of a lung or a heart expanding and contracting, the stone and the stained glass stretched until the mortar joining them nearly split, and fell back into place with a booming and crunching sound. Monika’s nightshades started wilting, the fruits falling to the ground and rotting rapidly. Her mask had a crack in it; and red cracks began to appear on the floor, on the pews, across the walls and ceiling, emanating from where Gertrude was standing. They glowed and put permanent scars in the structures.

In response one of the tentacles bore down on Gertrude like a thrown fist.

With its end curled into a mass almost the size of her entire body–

–meeting a concave riot shield that held the blow at bay.

“Monika! Run! I’ll catch up with you!” Gertrude shouted.

Her eyes flashed red; and with a flick of the wrist, a vibroblade was in her hand.

She pulled back her shield, reached and swung far, the blade crackling bright with aura.

Red slice severing the blue tentacle leaving a gelatinous seeping wound.

Up on the stage, Monika stood paralyzed, weeping, shaking.

Gertrude discarded her shield and rushed to the stage, leaping up to Monika’s side.

In her wake, her aura formed a billowing cape now clipped to an ostentatious red and gold military uniform. A garrison cap rested upon her head, and her hair was tied in its neat bun behind her head once again. None of her inquisitorial symbology was present, and this was not a uniform of any particular nation. But it was a uniform, jacket, pants, boots, shirt, all formed of her red glowing aether that flowed from her impassioned heart.

So attired, Gertrude stood between Monika and the thrashing organ.

“It’s this thing that is the ‘Drowning Prophecy’ isn’t it?” Gertrude said.

In this place she developed an almost insane certainty, as if a whispering voice in her ear told her all of the truths she would tell herself. Her red conviction against the blue despair.

Buoyed by enkindled emotions, Gertrude reached to her side for a weapon.

And when she lifted her hand, there was a familiar black grenade launcher on it.

Gertrude pulled the trigger and a 40 mm explosive grenade launched out of the tube.

The munition hurtled toward the tentacled horror, soaring between its appendages.

Blue aura from the arms intensified in response, slowing the munition.

When it exploded the fire and force of the grenade barely touched the monster.

As if the explosion itself had been slowed and smothered within that aura.

Gertrude’s grenade launcher dissipated in her hands, and a sword appeared in its place.

Monika was too shocked to run, so she had to stand her ground here.

Covering herself with her riot shield and bracing for attack, trying to plan a response.

The Drowning Prophecy was like a lung, pierced through by the church pipes.

Writhing meat that made up its bulk expanded and contracted in a predictable sequence. Its labored breaths went through the pipes piercing it and made discordant music. Its severed sinews made up its tentacles, all of which slobbered and slid out from under its bulk, several meters in length. Such a lifeform could not have possibly existed, but in this realm of emotion, she could understand its existence. It was as if something like this being had been in the back of her mind, something primal and shapeless. It was not this fleshy monster, but the fleshy monster was an abstraction of it. A signifier of something unspoken.

Looking upon it, she could feel the temptation to a sublime hopelessness.

Only the enflamed red aether emanating from her body staved off those thoughts.

Wreathed within that cloak, absurd certainty protected her and drove her to action.

With her sword and shield, she leaped forward into the reach of the mass.

Tentacles began flying at her in all cardinals and angles.

She was almost sure she would find some of these appendages having no connection to their main body, lashing at her from impossible directions. But even as they flew, she could predict them, seeing traces like reverse shadows which appeared before their origins rather than trailing after them. Even amid the pressure of the furious and sweeping blows from the slick tentacles each thrice the width of her own arms, Gertrude could set her shield before each blow. She shoved into the attacks, or swung her sword and clashed with the arms, putting scars or severing tips. Deflecting the cage of meat that struggled to ensnare her.

Despite the onslaught, Gertrude advanced into the shadow of the monstrosity.

Step by embattled step, battering away the meat with furious swings.

Until she made it between the guard of several tentacles.

Drawing back her arm, she put all her strength into a thrust at the throbbing mass–

In real time, she felt the deep blue aether sapping all of the strength of her blow.

Until she dropped her sword at the “foot” of the being, and even her knees became heavy.

Gertrude retreated several steps to avoid being boxed in,

setting her back against a fast-approaching tentacle that dug through her midsection

sprouting a sharp tip out of the sternum

Blood burst dramatically out of the wound, as red as her aura had become.

Gertrude’s body reacted to the assault in natural ways.

Her chest pushed out as her back arched from the blow, she cried out in pain, her throat filled with fluid and her breath arrested. But she was not dead, and in fact, she barely felt any acute pain. Even as the tentacle lifted her centimeters above the floor, Gertrude did not lose her lucidity completely, nor was she paralyzed by it. Nevertheless, she could merely writhe on the tentacle skewering her, reaching blindly behind her back.

Blue aura glowed in the tentacle, attempting to spread into Gertrude’s red aura.

Aether pulsated from the wound. Gertrude found herself unable to call for a weapon.

Behind her back, she finally grabbed hold of the tentacle.

Her limbs shook as she struggled against it.

All of her mind was consumed with escape, with persevering; she saw the tip of the tentacle shaking through the center of her chest, and grit her teeth, demanding with every fiber of her being the weapons to tear it to pieces, to free herself from it, to reconstitute herself; she wanted her body to be rid of the intrusion, she was consumed with this desire, fight or flight, and her mind raced, her emotions spiraled. Clashing blue and red over her pierced heart and the tip of the tentacle began to thrash and steam came off its slick exterior, its blue sheen overcome with licks of red vapor trying to burn it and tear at it and devour it.

She needed a weapon. If she had a weapon she could cut herself from this creature.

Vibroswords, handguns, assault rifles, truncheons, grenade launchers–

So many weapons had crossed through her hands– all of them could be beckoned–

However– her spiraling mind settled upon a different interpretation of that truth.

All of those tools had been given into her hands by the Inquisition.

And her hands turned those tools into weapons.

This felt like a truth she had been missing.

Something locked into place.

Gertrude accepted the culpability– the monstrosity– but also the power in her hands.

Said mournfully but without excuse: “I myself was the weapon.”

Wet ripping noises issued from behind her as the flesh of her hands split open.

Black vibrating razor-like rectangular claws dug into the Drowning Prophecy’s tentacles.

On Gertrude’s chest, her flesh enclosed over the tentacle and sent its severed tip flying.

As if a maw had opened on her breast and devoured the tentacle that had pierced her.

She dropped to the ground on feet first unsteady, but quickly recovered her posture. She felt her hands brimming as if with electricity, just under the surface of her skin. Everything felt lighter and more flexible and malleable, as if her wrist could turn 360 degrees and her arms could fold into themselves. As if skin and muscle could move with the ease of fingers. Her new clawed digits moved as naturally as any other appendages. They were wreathed in red aura because they were part of her. Part of the weapon Gertrude Lichtenberg.

One step forward; two and three; she broke into a run.

Deep into the blue aura of the aberration, but its effects could not slow or stop her.

Her entire arm shifted, all her fingers became as one.

Absorbing the steel and plastic of her riot shield into her arm itself.

Forming a shining red spear attached to her that moved with her exact conviction.

In a sprint, a charge, and a screaming thrust of her arm–

Gertrude stabbed the Drowning Prophecy directly into its contracting mass.

Before her red-ringed eyes, half-overtaken by red fractals– the aberration burst like a bubble of meat spraying gore into the air. In the first instant of its destruction its body behaved like a physical object that had been devastatingly struck, the pipes bursting out of bloody meat, the tentacles thrashing in horrendous pain. Then the entire thing turned into blue dust that blew past Gertrude like a stiff breeze. She shut her eyes and it was just gone.

On the altar stage, she turned toward Monika, framed by the dissipating church.

She reached out the hand which had not completely disfigured into a weapon.

“Monika, come home with me. I want to see you every day; not just in a dream.”

Monika’s eyes filled with tears. She reached out her own hand and took the one offered.

“Thank you, Gertrude. I’m so sorry.” She covered her eyes with her free hand, sobbing.

“It’s okay. I don’t judge you; and I sympathize with your beliefs. That’s why I’m here too.”

She urged Monika to come closer and embraced her, holding her tightly with one arm.

As the Aether around them began to disperse and reveal more and more of their location.

Holding Monika close, in the distance, Gertrude thought she could see a shadow watching.

There was a smile in the dissipating aether. It looked genuine; almost like a praise.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the aetherometer slowly ceased to vibrate and make noises.

Her aether-buoyed sense of self was beginning to wane with the clearing of the “clot.”

Holding Monika in her arms, Gertrude shut her eyes and felt a momentary peace.

Depth Gauge: 3621 m

Aetherometry: Stable


When Gertrude awakened she was lying face-up on the floor of a steel corridor.

Groggy at first, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Though she was disoriented, after a deep breath she began to feel strangely refreshed for a moment. Like she had finally caught up on some much-needed sleep. Her muscles hurt much less than before, and she was not as weighed down with fatigue as before either. She was able to move.

Slowly, she found the strength to stand up and to take in her surroundings.

Almost as soon as her back straightened, Gertrude felt her stomach toss.

All of the terror of what she had seen and felt, held back as if by a mental dam, now flooded suddenly over her every thought and feeling. She saw in her mind the pools, the visions, the monsters, and herself. Her legs buckled, she went down to her knees and elbows, feeling dizzy and nauseous. Retching over the ground. Had her stomach not been completely empty already, she would have emptied it on the floor. Her back shuddered, her eyes broke into stinging tears. Her head pounded and she heard a whistling inside of her ears.

She put her forehead to the ground and shut her eyes as hard as she could.

As if she could awaken again from dreams, and find herself in the true reality.

But she was awake, and this nightmare was her world now.

Her inexorably changed world.

Having seen what she saw, felt what she felt, and retained the full clarity of it.

Aether.

The Pools.

Eris.

Monika.

The Drowning Prophecy.

Herself. So much of herself. Too much of herself.

And a changed self.

Gertrude looked at her hands with a panic, remembering they had been horribly disfigured into weapons to drive her red aura into the aberration at the center of the pools and blue cobbles, the so-called Drowning Prophecy (so-called by none– it was entirely in her head–!) She peeled off her gloves and she could not understand what she saw.

Her flesh felt so tender. There were no scars, rather, it felt like the calluses and scrapes she had gotten ever since she was a child to her days violently enforcing the imperial will, all of them had disappeared. Her skin felt so soft in her hands that she thought it might peel back and expose something, as if every seam was a set of lips. They felt like membranes.

And no sooner did she entertain that thought, that her hands did split into buzzing jaws–

She screamed, and shook her hands and looked again, and the changes reversed.

Worst of all– Gertrude began to feel like she had control of it.

Like it was part of her.

Like sixth, seventh, eighth and so on new digits corresponding to nothing natural.

Inside her torso, there was the presence of her heart, lungs and stomach. She knew she had them even though they worked automatically. She knew she could take in air to expand her chest and belly to a minor degree. She knew she could make her chest muscles tighten, for all the good such a pointless act would do. In essence, her arms, her legs, her hands, all of her body now felt this way to her. Like she had dozens of new and unseen organs that responded to deliberate actions. They could split, they could grow, they could change.

It was not disfigurement, not in a traditional sense– but Gertrude still wept as if broken.

Her body was completely changed. She could never go back to how she was!

There was a great terror in the back of her head at the sudden opening-up of the world.

Everything was so much more massive, so chaotic, an impossible and surreal enigma.

The Aether. It was all around them. Those colors held meaning to her eyes now.

Flexing the organs in her eyes allowed her to see the colors whenever she wanted.

Monika had been overcome by the colors– perhaps she even created that twisted world.

Had Gertrude not been able to intervene they would have all died in their sleep.

How did people survive the existence of these forces? How prevalent were these attacks?

Were things like this happening in the corners of the eyes of unknowing fools, forever?

How many people knew? How many people had been lost to the aberrations of the aether?

How many people abused this power and knowledge? Could anyone actually control it?

She wanted to scream herself hoarse. But there was no use to it.

No putting it back anymore.

Indelible change. Of the world, of the body, of the mind.

“This isn’t even the start of it.” She said, smiling bitterly and insanely through the tears.

There was more, farther below. Deeper into the abyss.

There was something waiting–

And there was more, right in front of her too. Just a few more steps into the metal.

Behind her, on the floor, Monika was passed out, in her lab coat and a protective bodysuit.

In front of her, the metal corridor led to a door that opened suddenly.

To reveal a shimmering figure that walked out of the room in long strides.

A woman, not too tall, average in her physique. Dark hair, a girlish face, perhaps too youthful for what she had experienced. Dressed in a lab coat herself too, over a turtleneck sweater and a skirt and black tights. She walked out of the room, crossed the hall, slowly, with a calm deliberateness as if she had been waiting. She passed by Gertrude. Gertrude was unable to focus her eyes clearly on her, she had been crying so much and been in such a state.

But when the woman crossed her, Gertrude could tell she was smiling.

Could tell that she said something, which was meant for Gertrude to hear.

“I am entrusting her to you. Good luck. Step inside; the password is A000166.”

Margery Balyaeva; from her dream. Hands in her pockets; smiling; eyes fixed forward.

“Wait– why–? Please–!”

As soon as Gertrude recognized her and asked– she knew the woman was gone.

Nothing but a trace of the colors slowly dissipating into the air.

So be it.

Gertrude looked at her hand again, tears running down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

Sweat coming down the bridge of her nose.

At her own behest, of her own doing, her hand split open again.

Swarthy skin and pink flesh parting. She felt a tingling as it did so. Between her middle and ring finger, it divided, and a thin tentacle emerged from it. She felt it– her stomach felt immediately emptier and sicker for the act. Something was drawn from her body, she could feel the fluids traveling, the flesh moving, to create the little appendage that mimicked the ones she saw beneath the Drowning Prophecy. She had transformed her body.

Though it made her feel light-headed at first, she could sustain the continuing existence of the tentacle. It was as if there was a price to pay for the disfigurement but, once the flesh had reached its new state, it was just what Gertrude’s body was now like. She felt the tentacle in her hand like any other digit. She could turn it, curl it around her wrist, lash out with it. Her stomach felt like it was kicking her belly each time the tentacle tried to move.

She turned over again and bent nearly double with a strong heaving in her throat.

It was sickening, unnatural, horrifying–

But– she had control over it. This horrid appendage was a part of her, it was hers.

Part of the weapon that was Gertrude Lichtenberg.

A weapon– to what end? What was she supposed to do now?

She had something of an answer. But it felt so impossibly out of her reach.

Outside of the aether, she felt much less certainty about herself.

Ruled more by rationality than sheer passion, the situation was much more overwhelming.

But even so. She had promised to keep moving.

Gertrude forced herself to stand again.

This time, she stood upright, without vomiting or crying any further.

Her tentacle retracted into her hand and her hand closed.

It looked ordinary again.

Like a hand that could touch another human being tenderly.

Thankfully she had enough control over herself to keep her body from breaking out into such appendages. She was still a person, not a blob of changeable meat. She could walk without thinking about all those new contortions she could force her body to take. That was enough for now. She would ask Nile what she thought– and she would ask Victoria and Monika and– Azazil? If she could find her. She would tell people, she would ask questions. Her body was not a problem that was impossible to solve. Certainly this ability had come in useful.

Gertrude grinned silently to herself. Everything was overturned.

What a terrifying world; more terrifying than it ever had been.

Vast, bleak and hopeless.

But that blue hopelessness did not prevent her from walking on forwards anymore.

She looked back at Monika and felt glad, that she was in the world with her.

It made this dead world a little more worth living in.

“Monika, wait here for me.” She said, even though the sleeping Monika would not hear.

Gertrude stepped forward into the room that had opened in front of them.

Inside, everything was dim, lit only by light coming from a screen or two in the very back of the room, and from the hallway that Gertrude had just come in from. She stepped on fluid and felt alarmed that the station might be leaking, but was quickly distracted by the smell in the room, reeking like rotten eggs or ammonia. Then her anxious exploration took her closer to one of the network of structures that dominated the room, tall and evenly spaced, and she realized that these must have been computer racks from the surface civilization. They resembled server racks that she was aware of, with cables and storage units and cooling.

Several of them had suffered from enormous punctures, and some looked like they had been crushed. Others were just toppled over, and more had their interiors dug into and ripped out such that they resembled bodies disgorging their guts on the floor. All of the fluid was liquid mineral coolant from the racks that had bled out onto the floor. To Gertrude’s eyes all of the violence looked random and inefficient if the objective was to destroy the computers. It felt like something or someone had just raged through the room and inflicted damage wantonly.

When she finally made her way across the ruin, she found a desk with several discrete LCD monitors plugged into the wall. There were markings on the wall between the desk and the monitors, that reminded Gertrude of a torpedo tube. Something was contained inside that recess in the wall, but she could find no way to open it or interact with it. Her searching hands in the dim glow of the dark green pictures on the screens found nothing new.

Then she was briefly blinded by a sudden flash from one of the screens.

Gertrude staggered back.

When her eyes recovered, she found herself staring at one screen that had become white.

There was a text prompt on it that reminded her of the STEM input screens from before.

But this time there was also a voice, coming in tinny from the LCD’s speakers.

“Greetings, occupant. You may input queries verbally or write them into the prompt. Please note that the central corpus has suffered extensive damage. As such, the number of queries and their potential answers will be limited. It is nevertheless my pleasure to serve you.”

Gertrude was taken aback hearing a voice.

“Are you the computer?” She asked, taken aback.

“By the perspective of a layperson, yes, I am the computer. This mainframe contained my corpus of data. These monitors and the text prompt are but crude remnants of the many vectors by which I could interact with occupants, complete my assigned tasks, and insure the comfort and safety of all Genuine Human Beings aboard the project edifices. I would say that my influence extended to more than this computer once. But it does not anymore.”

“What happened to all of that?” Gertrude asked. “Wait– is that one of my queries?”

“These all count as your queries. To answer you: my corpus was attacked and damaged. This severely limited my influence and ability to control and maintain this environment.”

Gertrude was still pretty stunned. “Are you alive? Or I guess, sentient?”

“I am an Advanced Neurological Model. I synthesize audio, images, video and text in order to carry out specific tasks and respond to queries. I am not capable of original thought outside of my corpus of data. It is unlikely that my capabilities match a definition of sentient life. My most advanced processing units utilized human nervous tissue, but were all destroyed.”

Gertrude winced. If she understood right, this machine had been made using people?

She wondered whether it was stitched or grown in a lab– or if it necessitated a sacrifice.

Looking back over her shoulder at all the cable-matter spilling out of them–

Those sights took on a different, macabre significance.

But those questions were pointless to ask the machine. She had to prioritize other topics.

“Where is Azazil An-Nur? Have you seen her?” She asked.

Based on what Azazil had told her before– if she had not dreamed it–

Then this machine had been the oppressor she was crying to be saved from.

Quickly the tinny voice responded.

“I lost contact with the biomechanoid unit corresponding to that handle many seconds ago.”

Gertrude almost asked how many seconds, but supposedly her queries were limited.

Asking how many queries she had was probably a query– so she did not do so.

“Is Azazil An-Nur real?” She asked instead.

“Unclear. What do you mean by real? It was one of my biomechanoid units.”

She already felt like an idiot asking the computer something like that.

What was she thinking?

“Forget it. Did you force Azazil An-Nur to work here?”

“Yes. It was convenient to have an ambulant biomechanoid for maintenance tasks.”

It kept calling Azazil a biomechanoid– what did it mean?

“Elaborate on: what is Azazil An-Nur?”

“It is a stem-chain enabled biomechanical unit designed for social upkeep of humans.”

“Can you elaborate any further on Azazil An-Nur?”

“Its specifications are not part of my corpus. It was a bespoke unit with unique DNA.”

Gertrude sighed. “Who created you? How come we can understand each other?”

Elemental questions such as this might have yielded good results but–

“Apollo Computing Works, and, because we are both speaking in Simplified Aerean.”

Maybe she just was not very good at this. Maybe her head was still not on right.

“That means nothing to me. I guess– who was in charge of this place? This station?”

“Margery Balyaeva was the leader of the project under which I was commissioned.”

Margery must have been the woman she saw walking out of the room.

And in her dreams.

Excorium Humanitas– she had been betrayed by the surface world.

Declared a non-human or an enemy of humanity, as defined by the government.

So she must have fled down here–

“Can I input a password into you? The password is A000166.” Gertrude said.

She suddenly heard a metallic noise coming from some other part of the room.

It took her off-guard so she turned to look, though there was nothing to see.

The computer spoke again immediately after.

“I’ve unlocked the box for you. You will find the box to your left.”

Gertrude turned back to the monitor with the unused text prompt. “What is in the box?”

“Preserved stemchain materials. Input them into a vitastitcher to create a STEM unit.”

That finally piqued Gertrude’s interests. “Where can I find a vitastitcher?”

Stitcher machines of course existed in the Imbrium.

She had never heard of one that was referred to in that particular way.

“I cannot account for its current status, but the primary edifice contained such a unit.”

“Where is the primary edifice? What is it?” Gertrude pressed.

“Both this structure and the primary edifice were part of the Island-3 colony project. Island-3 was separated into this outpost, the Crown Spire, and a primary edifice that touched down 5000 meters farther below. Island-3 has not been in contact with the Crown Spire for over 2.209032e+10 seconds and it is therefore impossible for me to ascertain its status.”

Gertrude had no idea how many seconds that was supposed to represent.

It was probably no use asking it to clarify further.

“Could I acquire a STEM administrator token in the primary edifice?”

“Yes, using a functioning vitastitcher, spinal verifier and marrow impeler.”

All of those implements sounded hideous to think about. They sent a chill through her.

But there was no use in turning back now. So she did, indeed, have to go deeper down.

“Is there an– Advanced Neurological Model that can assist me in STEM installation?”

“No. Per regulations, ANMs must be isolated from sites where STEM installations and token verifications take place. Only Genuine Humans perform STEM installation or verification.”

“Do I need to use the preserved stemchain materials to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“No. Do not incorporate those materials into a current unit. They will require a new unit.”

Fair enough. Gertrude began to feel wary of what these ‘materials’ might represent.

“What materials do I need to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“They will be available at the location of the previously mentioned machinery.”

Useless. “Prior to myself, did anyone to attempt to access the passcode box?”

“One moment. I will print to the screen a reconstruction of the actor.”

One of the monitors light up brighter.

There was a swirl of color and activity like a puddle of paints being spread haphazardly on a canvas. However, slowly, these colored pixels began to align properly into a slightly skewed image that Gertrude nonetheless recognized as a face. It was in particular the face of Norn the Praetorian. Blond ponytail, the same facial features. Grinning confidently.

That made some kind of sense. Gertrude felt a bit excited about this discovery.

“Did you interact with this ‘actor’? Did she say anything?” She asked.

“The actor was not recognized as a Genuine Human, and it was not STEM-enabled so I did not interact with it nor attempt to communicate. Prior to its intrusion, several malfunctioning biomechanoids of similar specification had already broken into the Crown Spire. I limited their access to prevent them from finding Island-3, but could not repel them.”

How–? How was it that Gertrude was a ‘genuine human’ and Norn was not?

She tried to think of a way to ask the machine, but it felt too complicated a question.

“Was your corpus accessed between Margery Balyaeva’s departure and now?”

“Not successfully. Intruders became lost or discouraged by the STEM systems. Sometimes intruders behaved erratically for reasons I found impossible to quantify and perished or killed each other. Eventually some intruders departed. I have not been able to interact with a Genuine Human in a very long time. Especially not in an amicable fashion.”

“When was the last passcode access attempt?” Gertrude settled for knowing a timeline.

“Over 1.262304e+9 seconds ago–”

“Great, that’s useless. Whatever. Show me a picture of the one who damaged you.”

Again the same process repeated itself on the monitor. She expected to see Norn pop up.

When the picture was completed, however–

Gertrude recognized the perpetrator as Eris herself. Very pale, red-haired, an alien beauty.

With a terribly cold gaze. But not uncharacteristically cold of her, Gertrude felt.

Eris must not have been exaggerating about becoming lost in her passions.

Gertrude wondered how long ago Eris had come here, and what she had done.

Maybe it was just impossible to establish a timeline of such events.

“Is there a way to recover your corpus? Or fix you? To access more queries?”

Gertrude spoke and had to wait a much longer amount of time to receive an answer.

“I have completed my final task, so I will be shutting down. You may have one final query.”

“Wait– hey– what will happen if you shut down?”

She had spoken carelessly after being surprised– it was her final query.

“Without a mobile unit and my supervision, the edifice will further decay. But the occupant will be safe if they can escape by whichever means they arrived. The reactor will continue running as long as its quantum state is undisturbed. Oxygen generation is suboptimal but livable– food is the main problem. So I would encourage departing. I have completed my final task as given to me by Margery Balyaeva. Aer Federation Vivit Aeternum.”

Gertrude gestured further confusion toward the monitors,

but all of them instantly went dark.

On the wall, the indentations and markings she had noticed before also dimmed and shut.

One step forward and thirty back. She had some answers and many new questions.

“What the hell kind of place was this Aer Federation? Good lord.”

Gertrude turned away from the desk with the dim monitors and followed the wall past several more ruined pieces of the ANM’s ‘corpus’ until she found ‘the box’. It slid out of the metal wall, a design the Imbrium still widely used– leading Gertrude to wonder if every cell in the wall was a storage closet too, and whether they should remain closed.

Sighing to herself, at the enormity of what could lay trapped forever in these metal walls, she reached into the unlocked box and produced a thick metal cylinder. Its contents were impossible to discern. Gertrude could feel whirring and buzzing of mechanisms within the shell of the cylinder. It felt cold to the touch. She wondered for how long this device could preserve what was inside, now that it was removed from its place of hiding.

Gertrude called upon the organs in her eye that allowed her to see further–

And began to perceive that colors wafted from the cylinder– a human presence.

She thought she would be sick again contemplating what it could mean.

What exactly were STEM materials? Was it some horrific human byproducts?

But she nevertheless put the cylinder in one of her uniform pouches as best as she could.

She walked back out into the corridor.

She did not know where she was but there were other branches of the same hallway, and open doors. Gertrude picked up Monika, carrying the sleeping girl princess-style. She deserved the rest– Gertrude wished she could have known that Monika was suffering so much. She could have done anything to make it better. But she was so focused on herself. There was so much weight in human pain that she had to make amends for.

Compared to that, Monika was easy to carry.

As she walked through the corridors she thought of everything she had to do now.

Or– not had, but rather, things that she wanted to do.

Gertrude no longer allowed herself to be driven by unaccountable demands.

That obligation that she heaped upon herself, to return to Elena, or to replace her and find happiness somewhere else– it had to be discarded. She could not continue to live like that or she would destroy herself and her crew. Instead she had to think of where she was, what the situation was now, and what she wanted to do now. Recognizing that she was no longer High Inquisitor Gertrude, a person with respectable power in the respectable politics of the Imbrium. She was not royally connected, and officially sanctioned by a powerful lord.

Now she was just another among many petty warlords vying for anything they could take.

She felt responsible for her crew. For the people she wanted to drag further into this mess.

Not only Monika; but Ingrid, Nile, Victoria; Dreschner; the sailors, Vogt and his marines.

Gertrude wanted to take them deeper.

To delve into the Hadal zone where the world was even darker.

To Island-3’s depth 5000 meters deeper–

To find the “primary edifice” of Island-3; to unlock this “STEM” system and get direct access to surface-era information; to find Eris again. Her eyes glinted red. She had power of some measure; now she needed to shoulder the responsibility of having power. There were no more people left to save her, and no more excuses she could make anymore.


Gertrude was eventually discovered.

She crossed another nondescript hallway, unsure of how long she had been walking and whether she might be trapped in another liminal area; and was heard by a rescue team.

Voigt and his men and several sailors, led by Nile, Victoria and Ingrid, had begun combing the facility to look for her hours ago. According to the men who found her, during the expedition, everyone had fallen asleep suddenly. Once they all awakened, it was quickly relayed back to the ship that contact with Gertrude had been lost, and that Monika was also mysteriously missing. Dreschner organized rescue teams to find Gertrude.

Near the beginning of the rescue operation, however, several devices previously seen, such as the STEM doors, now refused to respond to interactions. So the rescue teams used the tunnels Gertrude now knew to have been dug by Katarrans who had escaped the Palaiologos collapse. They had begun to prepare equipment to break down more doors and walls, but thankfully Gertrude was found before they had to resort to such drastic measures.

“There is nothing more we can access here. Let’s head back to the ship.” Gertrude said.

“Yes ma’am. We also encountered another woman here. We were very surprised.” One of the Marines said. “She was unfailingly polite; even when we were yelling in her face after she said she had lost you, ma’am. We thought she was bullshitting us. Her name is apparently Azazil. Our officers had a chat with her and then ordered her arrest.”

So I was not hallucinating her, Gertrude thought.

“She is harmless. She assisted me inside the facility, but then we lost contact.”

“Ma’am.” The Marine acknowledged, and ushered her out through the halls.

Gertrude was thankful to finally see familiar faces.

In her head, the sequence of events that had played out inside of this facility was extremely muddy. Even now she felt like she did not understand how she had navigated from one place to another within the walls and halls. But perhaps there was no understanding it; not without the raw and insane emotion which had overtaken her in the aether.

Maybe all those pools she destroyed had analogous walls in there.

It didn’t matter.

Ultimately she was burying this place and heading to the Iron Lady.

The marines called in that they had found Gertrude, and not too soon after–

“Gertrude!”

She was joined in route by Nile, carrying a first-aid kit; Victoria, whose expression was just so subtly tinged with concern; and Ingrid, who appeared to want to rush forward and give Gertrude a hug but was stopped by the fact Gertrude was still carrying Monika. All three of them appeared one after the other in the halls, spotted Gertrude, went-wide eyed and then paused. They collected together in a little group around her and the marines.

“I’m okay.” Gertrude said. “We’ll talk later. I want to get Monika back safe.”

Reticently, her companions nodded their acknowledgment.

Only Nile stuck close to Gertrude, much to Victoria’s open chagrin and Ingrid’s wariness.

She pretended that she was checking on Gertrude and Monika to make sure they were well.

But while she was doing so, she whispered to Gertrude, when she found an opportunity.

“You’ve awakened to something special, haven’t you? Your aura feels different.”

Gertrude grunted. She whispered back, when she could.

“I’ll have questions for you later.” Gertrude said. “When that time comes you won’t leave the room until you answer them to my satisfaction. Now stop fussing over me. I’m fine.”

Nile smiled. “It’s a date then.”

Gertrude threw her a contemptuous look.

But then cracked a bit of a smile back.

“Gertrude, that woman should be under the highest level of suspicion.” Victoria said.

“Are you two bickering again?” Gertrude said, exasperated.

Nile shrugged. “I have nothing against her, and in fact, she is my alibi that I did nothing.”

Victoria scoffed but could not argue any further.

Ingrid stared at everyone sidelong and over her shoulder and seemed to say nothing.

Gertrude walked a few steps quicker to get closer to her.

“We’ll talk later. I’m sorry.” She said.

“It’s whatever. Found your newest floozy in the halls by the way, ‘master’.”

Ingrid’s voice was thick with sarcasm. Gertrude wanted to be buried alive in the earth.

There was no way to tell Ingrid what she wanted to tell her without causing great acrimony.

But it was a conversation they needed to have, and she had to get ready for it.

One of many.

“Victoria, I’m going to need to speak with the Captain and with you first.” Gertrude said.

“Duly noted.” Victoria replied dryly.

Ingrid shot another sidelong glance, which Gertrude caught and felt mortified by.

She then turned her cheek; she looked so over things.

Gertrude had really treated her badly.

All she could hope for was that Ingrid could be patient with her.

And that there was some way to make up for everything she had done.

Maintaining a rather awkward atmosphere throughout, the party marched to the main hall, where they were greeted by clapping from the bulk of the rescue team, and cheering that Gertrude and Monika had been recovered successfully. They were ushered into the chute connecting the ship to the station. In the hangar, there were more cheers and people looking relieved. Everyone looked like they had been holding their breaths until now.

Along with the sailors and engineers cheering with relief–

“Master,”

Azazil An-Nur stood among the crowd, quietly, with a little smile.

She was cuffed and two marines were looking after her. They glanced at her curiously.

“I apologize for failing to protect you from danger.” She said.

Trying to bow her head, but being grabbed by the guards for the sudden movement.

“Don’t rough her up.” Gertrude said. “Azazil, can you wait quietly somewhere?”

Azazil smiled even more cheerfully.

“Of course, master. I exist solely to serve you now.”

A weary Gertrude glanced over to Ingrid to find her staring daggers at this statement.

She sighed again.

There were not enough ‘I’m sorry’ in the world to pay for this mess.

“Victoria, follow me. Can one of you soldiers tell the Captain to meet me in Room 25?”

“Yes ma’am!”

Room 25 was on the second tier. With awkward stares all around, Gertrude and Victoria parted from the rest of their companions and entered an elevator together to be taken up to the second tier. Gertrude was more than a bit disheveled, but Victoria looked no worse for wear than before. Her ponytail and her fluffy ears looked as manicured as ever.

She looked much less tired.

“What happened when I disappeared?” Gertrude said.

“We tried to search for you by ourselves but we could not find you and we risked getting lost ourselves. We went back to get a rescue team and heavier gear to force more of the doors and walls. Then we all fell asleep.” Victoria said. She appreciated Victoria’s direct and unembellished way of speaking so much in that moment. She could have kissed her for just saying what she meant. It was such a relief from everything that had happened.

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No. Did you also sleep? And did you dream?” Victoria asked.

Gertrude nodded her head. “Yes to both.” She said.

Victoria shut her eyes. “I had a dream that I was in a series of pools, witnessing evidence of several lives that I did not lead. Some of the possibilities disgusted me. I recognized it was a deliberate delusion– but even so, I could not escape it, until I suddenly awakened.”

“You can tell I have the same power as you now, can’t you?” Gertrude said suddenly.

“You have had the potential for some time.” Victoria said. “It’s called ‘psionics’.”

“Psionics, huh. Are you afraid? Or angry with me?” Gertrude said.

“No.” Victoria said simply and bluntly. No qualifiers, no elaboration.

“I’m– I’m going to need help navigating this. Can you help me, Victoria?” Gertrude said.

“Yes.” Victoria said. Again, she elaborated no further.

Her body language was a little bit more reserved. Her eyes shied away from contact.

Thankfully the assent, coming from Victoria, spoke more strongly than the subtle reticence.

Finally, the two of them made their way to the meeting room.

Inside, Dreschner was already waiting. For once, Schicksal was not at his side.

“Come in. Schicksal has the bridge.” He said.

Gertrude and Victoria stepped in. Gertrude locked the door behind herself.

There was little in the meeting room, besides chairs and a desk.

Dreschner was seated behind the desk, but Gertrude remained standing.

“Something happened to me.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I need your help in thinking about what we will tell the crew, and what we will do now. Not as a superior, but as a friend. You have been there for me. Think of me as a stupid kid that needs some direction once again.”

“I would never think of you, nor of your needs, as stupid, Gertrude.” Dreschner said.

“Can you tell that anything is strange with me?” Gertrude asked.

As soon as she walked through the room, she had been able to see it.

Gertrude saw the colors around Einz Dreschner for the first time.

She felt as if, when he saw her, those colors fluctuated a bit.

Like he understood something.

“Yes. I feel as if I’m standing in front of someone who had the fight of their lives.”

“Gertrude, this man is at the very least capable of reading auras.” Victoria interrupted.

Dreschner smiled.

Again, the small green and blue colors around him flashed for a second.

“And you tell me this now?” Gertrude said.

“You had no context for this before, and would have been unlikely to believe me.” Victoria added. “I was confident in my ability to confront him should the need to do so arise.”

Sometimes wanting to kiss Victoria briefly turned into wanting to shove her down.

Not that she was necessarily wrong with the tack she took toward this situation.

“Einz, how much do you know about this?”

Gertrude demonstrated how she could split her hand open and manipulate the flesh.

Victoria looked alarmed. “That– that is not within the purview of psionic abilities.”

“That you know of, I guess.” Gertrude said. “It is within my purview now.”

Dreschner’s eyes blinked briefly red. It was the same that she saw when other people used the strange abilities the aberrations, the Drowning Prophecy and the Aether space demonstrated. She imagined that she herself displayed those red rings when attempting to call upon her power. But with Dreschner it felt a little different.

Gertrude got the feeling he could not sustain the eyes as long as she could.

Maybe what he had was different in some way to what Nile and Victoria and Azazil had.

But he could get a glimpse of it.

She knew he had recognized the power she possessed.

Not just from the red rings; but his expression and aura as he realized what it all meant.

“The curse of the Jager is not hereditary. But as you stand before me, I get the same feeling as if I was in the presence of ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition Jagerkorps. I can’t explain it, but you possess the same abilities as a Jager, despite the Inquisition’s best effort to keep you away from the Korps and unable to pierce their veil of secrecy. What happened?”

“If I tell you, I guarantee you will think I’m out of my mind.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I want to know how much you were aware of– did you know about Norn? Or Victoria? It’s not like I don’t trust you, don’t get me wrong. But you did keep things from me, didn’t you?”

“We were aware of these strange powers to some degree. I knew about Norn because I’m part of the Inquisition, not because of any ability I myself possess. We suspected the young Bayatar too. And I always felt that you had potential and that you should have been informed about the Jagers and given command over them. It would have prevented Samoylovych from having to come out of retirement, again. Alas.” Dreschner said.

“The existence of the Jagers is well known; but their full capabilities eluded even Vekan intelligence.” Victoria said. “I should have guessed that psionics would be involved.”

Victoria looked at Dreschner with distrust. He had no expression toward her.

“The Inquisition is essentially dead now. I do not have to keep its secrets.” Dreschner said. “Gertrude, once you get back to Konstantinople you can unearth everything you desire about the Jagers. There is too much history and my old brain has not committed it– what I can say is that the Jagers and myself included undergo horrible modifications and conditioning to attain interesting abilities such as your own. They used these abilities in missions. I was unable to incorporate into the Jagerkorps but continued to serve the Inquisition as an officer. Thanks to your father in large part, and Norn also.”

“My father?” Gertrude asked. “How is my father involved in all of this?”

“Your father was a protector for the Kaiserin for so many years. However, before he took on that role for Leda Lettiere, and before he delved into the abyss, and long before he managed to build a family, he was ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition’s Jagerkorps. Meanwhile I was ‘Codename Schwarz’. Both of us suffered inhumanely to achieve our positions– but we endured to obtain power and influence. We got far enough that the Inquisition trusted us with command roles. I received a ship; your father was trusted with spying on the Kaiserin. But unfortunately your father, and yourself, ended up suffering with Leda Lettiere.”

Gertrude smiled bitterly. “I always knew there had to be more to him. You too, I guess.”

“He was your hero. But he was not your hero because he was a Jager, Gertrude.”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead– and I’m here.” Gertrude said.

It did matter.

She felt so bitter about it– she felt like the Inquisition had toyed with her entire life.

Had she known about her father, and all that happened– she may have chosen differently.

No– that was a delusion.

Even as she thought about the situation she felt ridiculous about herself for this conclusion.

No matter what, she took the path she did because of her love for Elena.

Whether or not her father survived Schwerin Island, Gertrude’s course had been set.

In the pool rooms, all of those visions ended the same way.

Dreschner looked at Gertrude with a fondness in his eyes and voice.

“You are here. You’ve come a long way; farther than anyone imagined. I always related to your hunger for strength Gertrude. You were exactly the daughter of your father. I want you to know, I did the best I could to support you, even as I saw you suffer for it. To tell you not to have ambitions, and force you to live helplessly, felt like a betrayal. But I must admit, seeing you standing before with the curse of the Jagers, I truly regret what came to pass. Like I said, I have no explanation for how you became a Jager. But it affects your mind, and your body. You may not be able to relate to others the same way again.”

“I was not worried about that. I already relate to people in a weird fashion anyway.”

Gertrude sighed. She had a question bouncing around in her head.

As soon as she realized her father was part of the Inquisition, the question troubled her.

She knew why her father had died; he had died on Schwerin Isle.

He was Captain of the Guard and he went down protecting the Kaiserin.

That same day that destroyed Elena’s life had also upturned her own.

She knew that. Or she thought.

Perhaps he had not died for the reasons she had concluded before.

“Einz, did Norn seek to kill my father when she invaded Schwerin Island?” She asked.

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed and covered his eyes with his hand.

“I do not hold Norn personally responsible. She explicitly forbade wanton acts of violence. During the attack one unit in particular went wild. They were protected by High Inquisitor Brauchitsch who wanted to use the opportunity to test the potential of Divers in a station invasion. The unit was led by a man referred to as Sawyer the Berserker.” Gertrude’s eyes went wide as Dreschner spoke. He looked at her with a soft expression. “I did not tell you because I did not want you to spend your school life at greater odds with the Sawyer daughter. Of course, it’s pointless now. Sawyer grew up the way she grew up.”

Sawyer–

“I’m not going to blindly chase her.” Gertrude said. “But if I see her again, I’ll kill her.”

“You don’t have to do it for your father. I killed Sawyer the Berserker on that day.”

Gertrude grunted.

Pointless. Everything was always so pointless and complicated and frustrating.

She could not even give herself onto revenge again.

Things just wouldn’t be so simple from now. Never as simple as just getting revenge.

All of the names he rattled off did not matter. They were already dead.

Hell– she had killed Brauchitsch herself. Unknowing of what it meant.

A dirty trick of fate.

“Was my dad just slow with old age?” Gertrude asked, a note of bitterness in her voice.

“You’ll find a Jager’s powers are largely useless in the paradigm of Diver combat.”

“So my father did die trying to protect Leda Lettiere.” Gertrude said.

“No, Gertrude. He died protecting you.” Dreschner said. “He died so you could be saved.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t remember that.”

“No. You were in no condition to remember anything. You were a child, it was dark, there was war. People lied to you and omitted information. But it was for your own good.”

She sighed. There was truly nothing she could do about any of it.

“How did you feel about my father, Einz?” Gertrude asked.

“He was like the father I never had.” Dreschner said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She laughed a little bit. “I think of you kind of like that too.”

“I’m happy to hear that. I would be very lucky to have such a daughter.” Dreschner said.

It was so strange. Gertrude did not really feel so hurt by these events anymore.

Instead she felt released from a few of her burdens.

Like a few chains she had been pulling her entire life finally snapped.

None of the people responsible for any of this were available to strangle to death.

The Inquisition, for all the harm it had done, was powerless in the Imbrium’s collapse.

Her father’s death had already been avenged. Everyone responsible was dead.

Konstantin von Fueller, whose rule allowed these tragedies to happen, was quite dead.

Gertrude had been lied to– but she would have never believed the truth anyway.

And– Gertrude could never muster any anger toward Norn in all of this too.

She admired her too much. Maybe even loved her. Norn had made her.

So she learned many things about herself which could not force her hand in any direction.

As if everything in the world was telling her she just needed to move forward from now.

“Einz, I need help mustering and controlling these abilities.” Gertrude said.

“Gertrude, I’ll teach you.” Victoria cut in suddenly.

“She can; but I can also assist. Specifically on how Jagers make use of the curse.”

“It’s not a curse!” Victoria said. “It’s called psionics. Gertrude is not cursed.”

“I must concede before such concern and camaraderie.” Dreschner said coyly.

Victoria realized her vehemence in making that point and averted her gaze, embarrassed.

“I appreciate it, Victoria.” Gertrude said.

“As for the crew, leave that to me. I will draft a general briefing that will explain the current circumstances in a succinct and sensitive way. I have experience with treating psionics with care as part of the Inquisition. We should not explain it directly; we can describe the sleeping and other irregularities as abyssal behavior that we managed to counteract.” Dreschner said.

“I don’t particularly like lying to the crew.” Gertrude said sadly.

“You must have done it all the time under the Inquisition.” Victoria said. “I agree with the Captain. We should limit the spread of information about the station and the events in it. Otherwise the crew might feel adrift, it could affect their morale and make them paranoid. Let’s cover it up. I will work with the scientist criminal on actual countermeasures.”

Sometimes Victoria was blunt, and sometimes she was a brutal hammer blow to the head.

“I will take your counsel for now.” Gertrude said. “I’m too tired to argue.”

“I just need to know one more thing, Gertrude.” Dreschner said. “What happens now?”

Gertrude smiled wearily. “Now, we keep moving forward. Or in our case, down.”

Victoria remained silent. Gertrude took it to mean she did not oppose continuing the dive.

Dreschner nodded. “May I recommend 24 hours of rest and recovery for the crew?”

No one was arguing. No one was against her. Everyone was still just taking her orders.

Gertrude felt relieved. Her strength was starting to fail her. She was tired. But relieved too.

Not tired because of the blue helplessness– but normally, physically tired. Rest would help.

“Make that 72 hours.” Gertrude replied. “And release a unit of alcohol ration to everyone.”

“Alright. Is there anything else I can do for you, High Inquisitor?” Dreschner asked.

“Yes. Don’t call me that.” Gertrude said wearily. “I’ll come up with a new title.”

“Emperor Lichtenberg?” Dreschner said cocking an eyebrow.

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“No. Just Gertrude Lichtenberg. For now. Please.”

“Acknowledged, Madam Lichtenberg.” Dreschner said.

Then, he saluted her proudly.


“Victoria.”

Gertrude stopped in the middle of the empty hallway.

They were halfway to the officer’s quarters.

Victoria paused with Gertrude, and turned to face her. Gertrude met her eyes.

“Monika was– wrapped up in all of this. Can you keep an eye on her?”

“Yes. But that is not what you really wanted to say.”

Gertrude took a deep breath.

“When you learned about psionics, how did you feel? Can you please tell me?”

“Yes.” Victoria nodded.

Gertrude had not expected her to assent so easily.

Nor did she expect her answer.

With no around, their eyes locked together deeply–

“When I realized what this power meant, I felt like I had command of my destiny– even more than that, I felt like humans have always had control of our destiny. We made this world.” Victoria said. She reached out a hand and gripped the sleeve of Gertrude’s uniform. “With this hand, I controlled my world, Gertrude. And I felt like the world is actually how we have made it, for good and for ill. Not just us; but all human beings throughout time.”

“You are extraordinarily brave.” Gertrude said. “I don’t know that I can think like you.”

“Psionics is the power of human emotions. I am sure in the back of your mind you must understand this.” Victoria said. “We can become paranoid and helpless in the face of a larger world; or we can come to the realization that humans made the world the way it is now. That means humans can also take action to change it. We are not just the playthings of destiny. We are not just acted upon by forces; humans are in control of their lives.”

Just being told that, of course it had no effect on Gertrude’s sense of self.

Not immediately; but her heart was lifted by the sight of Victoria’s determination.

She had been in the Pools too. And it had not broken her resolve.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “I needed to hear that from someone.”

Suddenly, Victoria stepped forward into Gertrude’s space.

She tiptoed, and she pulled Gertrude down by her shirt–

And put her forehead to Gertrude’s own.

For a brief moment their noses even touched.

Gertrude almost thought they might kiss.

Even so the gesture that they did hold was gentle and lovely.

Warm and oddly comforting even though Victoria had been a bit brusque.

Victoria then stepped back assuming a respectful distance again.

She smiled.

“Thank you for putting your trust in me, Gertrude. Even in front of Dreschner, when the Inquisition’s secrets came up I expected to be ejected right away. You let me stay in that room; and you entrusted me even with your own secrets. Your life’s story is not part of the stakes of this war. I will take that information to my grave. Good night.”

Victoria turned sharply and left a bewildered Gertrude to watch her cape flutter.

Once she was gone, Gertrude, compelled to smile, made her back way back to her room.

Even before stepping in she had a hunch she would find someone inside.

Whether it was psionics or instincts honed from familiarity.

She was not surprised to find Ingrid sitting on her bed, still dressed in her pilot suit.

Her long, dark hair was loose, the band she had used to tie it up discarded on the bed.

Long streaks and beads of sweat spilled gently across her brown skin, glistening in the dim light of Gertrude’s room. Her ears twitched, but she could not suppress a wag of the tail upon seeing Gertrude come in. Her expression remained cold; Ingrid was almost always laughing or being boisterous so to see her quiet and pensive, it was an entirely different kind of beauty. But she was still beautiful. Gertrude could not help but to recognize her.

She was incredibly beautiful.

“Ingrid, I’m really sorry, the way I treated you–”

Ingrid held up her hand. “No, it’s fine. I’ve kinda figured this shit out already.”

She really thought Gertrude was two-timing her all this time; probably three-timing her–

“I’m sorry. I’ve been horrible to you. You don’t deserve–”

“Hey, shut up.” Ingrid said. “Let me finish. I know– when we just started fucking out of the blue, it wasn’t like we were suddenly boyfriend and girlfriend now, or something–”

Gertrude stood, aghast. She tried to interrupt.

“Ingrid– it’s not like that–”

“I said, shut up.” Ingrid snapped. “Look. I know you’re getting over that princess bitch. I’m happy for you. I was only ever comforting you over that. I didn’t have more illusions than that– well, I did, but I’m also grown-up enough to know when my bubble has burst.”

This was possibly the worst version of this conversation Gertrude could possibly have.

It was the version of this conversation they had in her nightmares.

“Ingrid! Let me talk.” Gertrude said desperately. “Ingrid, I do love you! I love you so much!”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. She smiled. “I know. But you don’t love me like you loved her.”

“You’re right! I’m trying to get over Elena.” Gertrude said. “And you’re right, I don’t love you like I love her, because the way I loved her destroyed us! I lashed out at her, I could have hurt her; I would never want to feel like that about you! I have to love you differently!”

“Gertrude, I’m trying to make this easy on you. But you always make everything hard.”

Ingrid stood up from the bed. She put a hand on Gertrude’s shoulder and squeezed.

“I’m still your friend, I’m still your soldier, and I still love you. But right now– If you want me, then you have to work to chase after me. If you want someone else, go after them. Have your space and figure shit out. Fuck– I’ll probably come around– But I’m done with this.”

She gestured to the room and to Gertrude herself and started to walk out.

Gertrude could have said that she did want her, that she didn’t just have sex with her for empty reasons, that she did want her instead of Elena and that maybe even, that she could have replaced Elena, now. If not before; and yet Gertrude said nothing. Because some of Ingrid’s incisive observations had been true and because it would have been shameless and hurtful to have begged Ingrid to stay in spite of them. So instead she watched Ingrid leave the room with a flat expression, silent until the door shut. Silent even afterward.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was never lying about loving Ingrid, she loved her.

She loved and desired her and wanted her companionship quite badly.

But she felt that in that moment, dumping her was something Ingrid needed to do.

And Ingrid was right. Gertrude had accepted her devotion so disrespectfully.

Gertrude deserved to be dumped more harshly. Ingrid was being downright diplomatic.

Ingrid deserved to be pursued, to be sought after, to be worshiped as a woman.

Maybe Gertrude would pursue her. Maybe worship her too, like she deserved.

But the important thing was that Gertrude couldn’t just passively accept her anymore.

She couldn’t hold the leash she was given; she had to tug on the leash like Ingrid wanted.

“But I do need the space.” Gertrude sighed. She covered her face with her hands. “There’s so much shit I need to figure out, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. You have no idea how sorry; and how those sorries aren’t anywhere near good enough for you. Ugh. I hope she’ll even speak to me anymore. After all this time– I am such a piece of shit. God– god damn it all.”

That was definitely the version of this encounter that came straight out of her nightmares.

But neither of them had died from it; and the door was not permanently closed on them.

She hoped at least she could remain Ingrid’s friend. That they could make up that much.

There was nothing more she could do on that night, in that room, on that bed.

Time had to pass for both of them. Both of them needed to think about their lives.

Gertrude also had her emotions for a few other people to consider–

–she hardly wanted to even think about that too.

Especially the latest of those fantasies.

Exhausted, Gertrude dropped back onto her bed.

She loosened up the armor plates and her blue shirt and cast it all off. There was something catharthic to undressing at the end of this entire mess. She was soaked in sweat, but she had not taken three or four dips into drowning water, like her mind could have sworn she had. All of that had happened in some quarantined space of the ego. Out here in the world, Monika was unharmed and merely sleeping, Victoria was patrolling, Nile was looking after Monika, Azazil was waiting patiently in the brig for Gertrude; and Ingrid had left to her room.

On that bed, alone, Gertrude felt lighter than before.

Not because she was falling endlessly but because she had been unburdened.

That poisonous love for Elena she had failed to bury in Goryk, she buried in Kesar.

That ruinous desire to replace her lost future with something, she stifled in her chest.

That desperation to acquit herself of failure, she let blow past her like a brief gust.

The world had changed and she wanted to be able to change with it even more.

But the shape of making amends was a task for the Gertrude of the future.

On that bed, her head was emptying. She was tired. And she was in no hurry to do anything.

Surrounded by a myriad colors flowing gently and freely, she finally shut her eyes.

After days of tribulations, Gertrude slept soundly, and recovered her strength.

For once, she had a peaceful dream.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.13]

Across the bridge, a bulkhead door opened from the main station.

From the barricade, the strikers could see multiple persons at the door, but only a solitary figure started the long walk from the core station’s side over to that of Tower Nine.

Tower Nine was exclusively leased to Rhineametalle, and the entire tower was an absolutely massive steel plant. The steelworkers at Kreuzung were particularly responsible for manufacturing armor plate in a variety of dimensions and compositions, which would go on to be assembled into ships and divers. They also produced some ancillary construction materials for ships and stations, like interior walls with touch-enabled surfaces.

Those same products largely constituted the barrier the striking workers had erected.

Because they did not have control of the bulkhead into their side of the station, they used their equipment and whatever materials they had to create their own defenses. Kreuzung had forced the door to remain open, and sent negotiators, teams of scabs, and even a few strike-breaking attacks from the K.P.S.D– but with their tools and materials, the striking workers had maintained their hold on the tower. Rhineametalle had spoken against any further attacks– so for a time, the workers had some semblance of peace.

Even the core separation, frightening as it was, had not shaken them from their spot.

Now, however, the workers felt a bit of concern.

There was something strange about a single woman in a black uniform approaching them.

She took off her hat partway through her casual, ambling walk to the barricade, revealing a head of messy blond hair partially tamed by being wrapped into a long ponytail. She was tall, too, particularly for an Imbrian woman, with sharp, angular shoulders, and a frame that was somewhat lacking curves. Her uniform was slightly poorly fitted, with the all-black coat out of her pants and a bit too long, as well as unbuttoned, revealing the button-down shirt beneath which itself was not wholly buttoned, nor tucked in.

On one arm she had three separate armbands: all red and white, but one had a sonnenrad symbol, another a sword, and the third had an iron eagle.

Her easy gait and strange little grin, were eerie and a bit disarming.

As she approached, she introduced herself.

“Gutentag! I’m a 7th Fleet Stabswache officer, Untersturmführer Skonieczny, and I am only here to deliver a letter. I mean no harm! Please forward this as soon as possible.”

Her casual demeanor was additionally bizarre to the men behind the barricade.

Anyone else would have gotten a bolt launched at them by a pneumatic gun by now.

They allowed this lady to approach, and all she did was tiptoe to hand them a letter.

She turned around and left immediately, seemingly without any worry of a sneak attack.

To their surprise, she really did hand them a letter, stone paper, handwritten.

Suddenly unsure of what may become of their strike action soon, they passed the letter on.


Situated at the very top level of Kreuzung’s core station was the A-block of modules that represented the highest-end housing accommodations in the city, as well as the seat of the Eisental regional government. A-block was expansive and beautiful. Unlike other blocks, which were often situated side by side and with modules haphazardly placed like stacking blocks, A-block was one continuous module, that dominated a significant portion of the tower’s vertical space. There was a single main thoroughfare that branched into the walkways to several walled villas of varying designs.

At the center of A-block stood the government palace, a massive building with sweeping semi-circular wings connecting to a central, circular edifice with a brilliant domed roof. In the upper distance, visible from almost anywhere in the block, there were also several thick glass berths for the private seaport available to the A-block residents and the civilian government. Within the illusion of the sky, at times made it seem like ships were flying overhead in the horizon, as they situated themselves in their places.

All of A-block seemed to lead to the government palace, to reside in its shadow.

Kreuzung’s governor stood atop this edifice, and everything spread before him.

Within the palace, the Governor of Kreuzung had a sparsely furnished office that was nevertheless the site of some arresting designs. Because the walls were at all times projecting camera feeds from throughout A-block. Capturing sights such as the park gazebos and the small artificial lakeside enjoyed by the upper crust, the beautiful tended lawns of the most well-developed villas, and the vastness of the sky. It would appear to anyone walking in for business that the Governor of Kreuzung was like a God surrounded by windows into his vast domain. Situated the middle of all of A-block and able to see every direction.

If Governor Adolf Werner was a God, then he stood watching his downfall to mortals.

Surrounded by scenes of black-liveried electric trucks and black-uniformed paramilitaries.

Storming the villas, trampling the gardens, crossing the beautiful streets.

He was surprised that most of the troops combing A-block appeared to be Shimii.

Perhaps there was something karmic to that.

In this very office for nearly twenty years the Governor of Kreuzung had kept the Shimii separated and strictly controlled, and even he, who had promised reforms and liberalization, was consumed by the pragmatic calculus behind that injustice. He had let it go, because it was easy, and the Shimii were lesser compared to the peace that the Imbrians had begun to enjoy. Now, the Shimii dragged his Imbrian financiers out of those same beautiful homes they were denied and beat them on the street, with official sanction of the fascists.

Reform, of some kind, was slowly encroaching in armored cars down the one road.

Leading, inevitably, to him– and he could do nothing to stop it now.

Behind him, a door opened.

In walked a young woman in a white suit jacket and skirt, with black leggings.

Carrying a portable computer with a brand insignia– Rhineametalle.

She had an impassive expression. Her red-brown hair was tied up in an efficient bun.

“Governor Werner.” She said. She did not introduce herself.

Werner, taller, older, hairless, severe in expression. He looked at her with utter disgust.

They could not have been any more contrasts of themselves and the eras of their legacies.

“I assume it is not dangerous for you to be here, because Rhineametalle is a part of this.”

He waved at the screens, at the scenes of villas being broken into and combed through.

She ignored his implied accusations. They did not even cause a twitch in her countenance.

“I am here to convey Rhineametalle’s wish for a peaceful transition.” Said the young woman, delivering her stoic lines without once stumbling. “As an Eisental-headquartered business we believe this is the best outcome for the region’s economic outlook. We cannot support any decision by the government that escalates this confrontation any further.”

“None of this is peaceful, but if you are worried I will fight back, rest assured I cannot.”

In the aftermath of the Core Separation, Werner acquiesced to demands from the Volkisch Gauleiter to terminate the mandate of the K.P.S.D. Not because the fascists demanded it. They could fuck themselves. Rather, the K.P.S.D. had worked up tension with the Volkisch to an unconscionable degree. To continue to support them meant joining what was essentially their mafioso war against Laurentius tower. Werner had paid the mercenaries their blood money for too long– he cut them off. Without official support, any resisting K.P.S.D fought for a lost cause. Most of them gave up right away. Any stragglers were just doomed.

Therefore, Werner now he had nobody to defend him, nobody to defend the men who had ruled over Kreuzung for so long. Nobody to defend the Gods atop the mountain who had squeezed so much out of the people beneath their gazes. It was only now, as he watched the black shirts dismantle everything around him in real time, that he realized how low he had fallen. Whatever happened to the Liberal ideal? Freedom, franchise and fraternity for all men? His liberalism had upheld only the old fiefdoms, and changed nothing.

And now, the change was climbing the steps to his abode with gun and sword.

Werner felt embittered staring into the eyes of the young woman and reminiscing.

If all of the graft in Kreuzung was but a star, then Rhineametalle was entire constellations.

She could appear here and berate him, waiting like a dog to greet her Volkisch masters.

Because she had infinitely more power than he did. This was their town.

There would always be Rhineametalle, while liberal reformers came and went throughout Rhinea having failed to accomplish anything. Rhineametalle was the Prime Evil of Eisental, its warped influence followed only by the likes of Volwitz Foods and Lanz Erzwerke. She stood before this black and silver wind as an immovable titan. The more he looked at her emotionless face the more violence he felt in his old heart. He grit his teeth.

Stepping back from her, he walked around to his desk with a new clarity of purpose.

From a drawer, he withdrew an old Dreys pistol and raised it to the woman.

“This will earn you nothing.” She said, unwavering even when faced with the gun.

It only made Werner angrier. He was so helpless. All of his emotions swelled out of control.

Nothing of his spirit as a liberal elder statesman remained unsullied in that moment.

He was willing to throw away everything if he could have killed this girl.

Consumed in a terrible range to destroy the foul embodiment of his defeat.

He could not shoot at Rhineametalle, and the bullet would not redeem his Kreuzung.

He could, however, shoot this woman and sweep away her scrutinizing expression–


–but before Adolf Werner could exit the stage a murdering God, he was cast down.

When the door opened suddenly amid the confrontation to invite a new actor–

Her black gloved hand wielding a sleek black semi-automatic that preempted his next lines.

Hammer sliding with a thunder that echoed through the room, and again.

Five shots, neck, shoulder, sternum, belly, pouring bloody over his fine suit. His own gun dropped from the failing grip of his fingers and vanished under his desk. The old God of Kreuzung dropped back onto his chair, his role completed. Standing across the desk, the Rhineametalle communications officer Maxine Kramer shut her eyes for a moment.

It was the first expression she had made during this entire divine encounter.

Then, the second– she turned and smiled at the woman walking in from stage right.

Grinning back, the woman in the ornate black uniform and cape approached the desk, stepped behind it, and dismissively shoved the corpse of the old governor off of it. She then sat on his chair, on which there was just a little bit of blood– and put up her feet, hands behind her head, relaxing. She took a deep breath, twirling the pistol on one finger and catching it with the rest. She holstered it and appeared to be quite pleased with herself.

It was in that instant that Violet Lehner took her place in the grand opera about to unfold.

She was a curious sight in the black uniform.

Her skin was just a little bit ruddy, her eyes dark; facial features somewhat indeterminate, with strong nose and eyes with a slight angle, and yet striking in their overall configuration. She could have perhaps been a model or an actress had she been allowed an altogether different stage. Her hair was flamboyantly dyed, obscuring whatever other racial clues the fascist onlooker may have been predisposed to see. Whether she was blond, whether she was raven-haired, impossible to say. Though long, silky and straight, it was colored light blue and partially pink in a pattern reminiscent of the flag pins which hung from her earrings.

Average in stature and figure, thin and light of frame, more angular than curved, her limbs and shoulders and back were slim, her fingers soft and unblemished, with little in the way of pronounced musculature on her limbs. Nevertheless, her impressive uniform evoked the martial spirit that her training regime may have lacked. Her uniform, a black jacket and pants with a black cape, was decorated with every conceivable symbol of the fascists. Golden wolf’s-hooks, a sonnenrad medal, a reichsadler on her peaked cap, eagles and arrows, a hooked cross lapel pin. Her armbands had similar symbols. Atop her cap there were two silver protrusions like metal cat’s ears, and she wore a tail-like tassel on her belt.

Ruling over the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, known as the ‘Zabaniyah.’

Violet Lehner grinned with an ambition as easy, in her mind, as taking a life.

Soon, her role of murderer would elevate, to ‘Reichskommissar’ of the Eisental region.

In this opening act, she had stolen the gold ring from the abode of the Gods.

While the drumbeat of truncheon strikes and the melodic wailing of the purge played all throughout A-block, casting from the mount the Gods for whom the audience’s sympathy was meant, her shadow grew ever more titanic in the background of the stage. Smoke and fire and great screaming horns heralded. Violet as devil, as son of a false king–

as player on the stage of Destiny.


–but while the Gods bellowed for justice, the player in black experienced only silence.

“You were so collected, Maxine. You should leave the corporate world and join us.”

“I’m afraid I can only present the facade of strength knowing that rescue was on its way.”

Violet and Maxine smiled at each other like old friends, minding not the corpse.

“What’s the temperature at Rhineametalle? Did you show your bosses my proposals?”

“I walked them through everything. They are initially cautious, but not opposed.” Maxine said. “They’ve been party to fruitless ‘labor reform’ talks with the liberals.”

“They haven’t seen it like I plan to do it.” Violet said, a grin on her face and a winking eye. “Soon they’ll be hearing about this strike being over without a further drop of blood shed on their precious factory floors, and they will have cause for celebration. Then you can ask them again what they feel about Violet Lehner. Not to mention what will follow.”

“With regards to labor, their ceiling is ‘neutral’ at best.” Maxine said. “They will never be happy to talk ‘trade unions’. But I have prepared the way for you as best I can.”

Violet finally put her legs down from the table and sat up straight.

“They will. I’ve already handed them a victory. One of my subordinates arranged a meeting with the leader of the strikers. I was informed just before my arrival here that the meeting has been accepted and arranged. You can formally announce to your employers that the strikers are coming to the table. They can do whatever with that information.”

“It’s too early to announce anything. But I will do my best to make it a media coup, and you can share the glory of it when the time comes.” Maxine replied. “There has been a lot pessimism in the business community. Unfortunately, your father has not been–”

“Don’t call him that.” Violet snapped. Her voice had risen almost to a breaking point.

For the first time, Maxine looked a bit surprised. She bowed her head. “My apologies.”

Violet sighed. Anger was unproductive. She stood up, and walked past the corpse.

“It’s fine. I am full of optimism, Maxine. I’ve crawled up from the gutter, all the way here.”

Violet’s gaze met Maxine’s, standing side by side. She reached out and patted her shoulder.

“Destiny is on my side, and Endsieg is finally near to my grasp.”

Maxine nodded her head low in acknowledgement and deference.

“Of course, Reichskommissar. Rhineametalle looks forward to your success.”

With her cape flowing behind her and a stoic look on her face, Violet Lehner left the office of the Governor in its state of desecration, Maxine Kramer following dutifully behind her to their next stage. Speaking of the so-called Fuhrer of Rhinea, related so casually– it was unheard of to say within the 7th Stabswache. Because it angered Violet so–

the holes she had to crawl out of were dug by his hand.


Business was at an ebb at Madame Arabie’s Flowing Scarlet.

Her main clientele were either laying low, or catching a clubbing from the Volkisch.

Imbrians with money to blow on girls and dope had too much on their minds these days.

And wealthy local Shimii had hunkered indoors out of sight of a very bitterly critical public.

Kreuzung was not in a mood to drink and make merry. Their festival was over.

In the days following the Core Separation, the little people of the segregated Tower Seven began to look to their neighbors again. It was the mosques where people chose to congregate, rather than dance clubs and eateries. They gathered on the floor mats discussing the events, what the future might hold, or anything they could do as a community to prevent further tragedies. There was so much uncertainty looming over them. One especially concerning matter was that of missing persons. Several Shimii had tried to escape the tower, and in the chaos, people had been separated from each other, and there were already a few sadly missing. One shopkeeper named Hasim, rarely seen at the mosque otherwise, actually showed up to report a missing person, for example.

“There’s this girl– she came by my shop every day, one of my favorite customers–”

But nobody had seen the bob-tailed girl he described. Few people even remembered her.

There was an older woman who described another girl, who had assisted the crowd.

“Her name was Madiha. God guard her and preserve her. She was a brave one.”

Nothing. They could collect the names, and any descriptions or pictures, and report it–

–to whoever the authorities ended up being now.

That was all, and many people felt helpless and were frustrated at their situation.

And to those most embittered, the Scarlet, and Arabie, were particular points of frustration.

Weren’t those rich Shimii who owned everything supposed to be keeping them safe?

What good were they if they could never stand up to the Imbrians even to prevent deaths?

For now these thoughts remained private. The streets had emptied of crowds of people.

Outside the Flowing Scarlet, where it was once routine for crowds to gather in front, the street was empty. And for its emptiness, and the size of the building looming over that emptiness, it made the tower feel even more hollow. Guards had been posted out of Arabie’s paranoia for what may transpire– but there was no need. Not one person came to throw one stone, or any other petty delusion held by the woman in the higher stories.

But, just when Arabie’s mafiosi began to feel secure in themselves–

They heard the sound of wheels turning.

And stood in stunned silence as a black and silver liveried electric truck drove up.

Emblazoned on the side of the truck was a shield with the number 7 in thick font.

Surrounding the triangular shield there were two swords and three words–

Faith.

Fealty.

Fascism.

Inside the truck were a dozen uniforms. Hitting the false pavement like a ramp, the door to the truck bed creaked as the men and women, all Shimii, all dressed like Volkisch, and all armed, stepped off and formed up. For the mafiosi, this was an insurmountable enemy that instantly defeated them. Those black jackets could have been mythical wootz steel, for the protection they offered. Arabie’s gang could abuse the public, rough up journalists, turn away detectives, and maybe even disappear a K.P.S.D. who got too in their faces.

Madam Arabie was powerful and had good connections within Kreuzung.

Madam Arabie’s connections, her social and financial power, meant nothing to the fascists.

The Volkisch Movement For The National Awakening played by its own insane rules.

They were the fiendish leviathan immune to the spell woven by the witch of Tower Seven.

It was even stranger that they were all Shimii. It gave Arabie’s men even more of a fright.

There was no thought of even reaching for the revolvers and pistols hidden in their clothes.

All of Arabie’s guards stood dumbfounded, and nobody made a move.

Then, from the passenger seat of the truck itself, another Shimii woman stepped out.

From the outset, it was obvious that she was a cut above the rest of the Volkisch here.

Her jacket had brighter and more impressive patches and pins to denote her rank, and on her ample chest there were several medals. She brandished no weapon on the street, but had on her hip a sabre in a sheathe as well as a revolver in a holster. Those looking at her were taken by her. She was beautiful, yes, with golden hair and lightly tanned skin and steely green eyes and striking facial features– but it was not her beauty, but her presence that captivated the onlookers. Her every step was as if taken by a titan, her gaze threw the weight of a storm wind, and when she spoke, her voice was thunder. They were instantly gripped by her.

“Step aside or you will all be arrested! I am not here to deal with you. Where is Arabie?”

Of course, they divulged the location instantly. The bouncers even handed over their keys.

All of them could feel that the current flowing through Kreuzung favored the fascists.

There was no use dying uselessly, for the woman drinking herself stupid up above them.

Almost without effort Standartenführer Vesna Nasser gained access to the Flowing Scarlet.

Her troops remained outside to watch over the men and the street.

She had business with the woman supposedly in charge of this depressing tower.

Nasser found her in the middle of a richly furnished penthouse.

Despite her age she was just like Nasser remembered her.

Lavishly manicured to hide the toll time had taken on her face, dolled up in fine clothing and pigments, hiding in a room that smelled of myrrh. She had come upon her in a vulnerable moment, however. Arabie was half fallen from a plush sofa and her makeup was running around her weeping eyes. Sobbing, kicking her feet; cans strewn about the room and white powder arrayed in messy lines on the coffee table. Wearing a loose purple robe that was off her shoulder enough to unveil an olive-tan breast with a dark pink tip.

Even without taking any care to hide her steps, Nasser managed to surprise her.

It took the dazed Madame Arabie a few moments to register a figure approaching her.

“Huh? Who? Leave– leave you idiots, I said I was busy–! I’ll– I’ll fucking kill you–!”

She sat up on the sofa and stared with glassy, still-weeping eyes at Nasser.

The Standartenführer was able to watch as if a time lapse, as the danger dawned on Arabie.

Her eyes drew wide, her ears folded, and her lips partially opened and remained so.

Nasser said nothing. To comment at all, would have made her angry enough to strike.

Even when properly dressed, Madame Arabie was a fallen being destined for the fire.

A whore; a drug pusher; a drunk. She sold her soul, and didn’t even try to pray for it back.

Without her high class airs, it was only more evident how impious she had become.

But she was convenient; and she would be necessary.

Nasser had to temper her frustrations.

“Who are you? Did you steal that uniform? I can’t smuggle you out.” Madame Arabie said.

Her voice was so gone. She was in an utter stupor.

“You’ve very well met fascist Shimii already. I am a proper Volkisch Standartenführer, just like Imani Hadžić. I serve in the ‘Zabaniyah’, the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, with many of our kin. You know me, Leija Kladuša. I am Vesna, a member of the Nasser clan.”

Leija narrowed her eyes. Her body began shaking as if from the effort of that empty gaze.

“I– I’ve never heard of a Vesna Nasser. I did not know– the Nassers had a daughter?”

She was even more lost than Nasser thought.

“You drank your brain to death. But fine. You have heard of Vahid Nasser, haven’t you?”

Across from her, the sinner’s bleary red eyes blinked and then squinted at Nasser.

She could not possibly have been seeing any of Vahid in the Vesna who stood before her.

But her addled brain nevertheless made the connection.

She recognized her– perhaps?

“You’re– then– you’re the same as Homa? You took the medicines– to become–?”

“Homa? Who are you comparing me to? Leija, you need to cut the crap and clean up–!”

Leija’s tears welled up in her eyes again. She lowered her face into her hands.

“My precious kadaif— she was taken from me so cruelly– oh Homa! Homa!”

Wailing that name, she fell back onto the couch, writhing as if her skin was being burnt.

Not wanting to stare at that pathetic display, Nasser lifted her gaze– and saw something.

In the end of the room, a shrine had been put up.

The myrrh incense vapor machines had been set on a shelf along with an old picture, of a very young girl. There were flowers, sticks of cinnamon, colored gems, a haphazard assortment of little things. Memorials like this were impermissible for Shimii, but so was drinking, and dealing, and whoring– it no more damned Leija’s soul than any of her other sins. However, the haphazard placement of it inspired something in Nasser. She found herself pitying Leija for her loss in that moment. Leija was actually mourning.

She was surprised that this vile woman could care about anyone other than herself.

Hearing that name wailed over and over, and looking at the photograph–

Homa–

Homa–?

My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.

Nasser remembered.

And then– her wrath, the coming to blows.

Hatefully screaming Nasser’s name in an ever-fading voice as she died.

Nasser exhibited a brief shock that Leija was, thankfully, in no condition to notice. She would not acknowledge to Leija that she knew where her “precious kadaif” had ultimately gone.

Seeing what she had done to this woman, before her eyes. Her heart briefly wavered.

Nasser closed her fists as hard as she could. She dispelled a long-held breath.

It did not matter.

Many more families would be separated, many more young people killed, before Nasser’s ambitions would be completed. By her own hand, perhaps less– but she was not so deluded as to think the blood shed by her subordinates did not reach her. To end the feuds, once and for all, and unite the ummah, it could only be done by shedding blood. It was inevitable that Homa Baumann had to be killed for it. It was inevitable that Leija Kladuša had to suffer.

Ever since old Al-Khaybari turned his blade on the elder Nasser during Mehmed’s Jihad.

Ever since then– no, even before– ultimately they were all slaves to their Destiny.

Nasser bent and grabbed Leija by the shoulders and forced her to sit and look at her.

“Leija! I understand your loss! Were the circumstances different I would give you all the time you need to mourn. But not this way! Do you think Homa would want to see you like this? We shoulder the dreams of all our lost kin! You need to get a hold of yourself! We need someone here whom the Shimii will listen to. Fall apart once your duty to me is completed!”

Shaking Leija like a doll in her hands, as if it would rattle her back to her senses.

For a brief moment, the glassy eyes of that broken-down woman sharpened once more.

“Ugh– dreams and duties– talking big while you’re just some blackshirt!” Leija snapped.

Her eyes were still hazy. She was completely out of it.

And yet her words were so defiant and incivisive. Stupid woman.

Nasser could not help but to grin in response. In the grand scheme of things, it was true. Even when it came from the drawling mouth of this drug-addled fool. To the Rashidun, events were already Qadar— a divine destiny that was already known to God.

Compared to this truth, Nasser was indeed very small.

Nothing but another black shirt– but one with a heavy burden to bear.


When she awakened, the room was as dark as when Emilia went to sleep.

“Huh? I set an alarm. What happened?”

She had awakened naturally– there was no sound.

And the lights didn’t come on either.

She reached out her arm and tried to touch the wall just over the pull-out drawer beside her bed. After a few seconds of futile reaching to the furthest her arm would stretch, she woke up enough to figure things out and turned in bed. She instead touched the wall directly beside her. However, this too had no effect. Incredulous she touched the wall a few more times, but there was no response no matter how much she pressed.

Nothing lit up, no computer windows opened. The wall touchscreens were not working.

There was something just a little vexing about it.

Emilia forced herself up from the bed.

She grabbed hold of her blanket and wrapped it around herself.

Her room was so cold– everything must have lost power for some ungodly reason.

All of that Core Separation business was in the past, wasn’t it?

Emilia stood up and went to the door.

She groped in the dark for the physical switch that opened the door. Finally, it slid open, surprising her. She almost fell through the doorway and out into the hall in nothing but her blanket, a tanktop and shorts– thankfully she caught herself in time. But she was all the more embittered when she peered out, groggy and with fogged eyes.

All of her hall was in the dark. Several people were peering out of their own doors.

There was an electric torch set up at the far end of the hall, and a pair of men had pulled out a panel in the far wall and were working with tools impossible to discern. Something must have happened to the hall’s power infrastructure. Maybe it was a knock-on effect of the Core Separation, Emilia thought. At least it was being fixed. She was about to just sigh and turn back and lie around in the dark– but then her eyes were temporarily blinded.

A torch-light shone right on her face for an instant, causing her to grimace.

“Oh! I’m so sorry–! Please wait, I need to talk to you!”

Said in the voice of a woman, accompanied by clacking heels on the metal floor.

Emilia shielded her eyes and squinted and tried to make out the woman approaching.

When her vision returned, the woman had stopped in front of the door.

“Unter–?” She began to speak, but was not allowed to say much–

In response, Emilia grabbed her wrist, disarmed her of her torch and turned around.

The woman was taken aback. “–Wait! Ma’am, I’m– You– I’m here to–”

“I’m borrowing this. Wait here a sec, okay?” She said, sighing deeply.

She pulled the door shut behind herself, leaving the uniformed woman outside.

With the woman’s torch she could see into her room again.

She put it up on the pull-out bedside drawer, the beam shining up at the ceiling. It was so strong– Emilia flicked the tab on its handle down two notches to reduce the brightness. Now she felt like she could finally see comfortably in its presence. Immediately, she caught sight of herself in the room mirror, which was part of the pull-out drawers.

Grumbling a little to herself, she gathered up a haphazard fistful of her blond hair and a hair tie she had left on top of the drawer. She tied a quick and messy ponytail, and brushed her bangs by running her own fingers through them. It was a little bit messy but probably not too unsightly. Across the room from her bed, she found the catch to open the panel into the bath stall. She washed her face, gargled some water, brushed her teeth.

Another mirror. She saw herself in it. Auburn eyes. Her lips were a bit dry. She did not think she was necessarily beautiful, but she was pretty, she had a young, girlish spark– right?

She queried herself. She did not hate how she looked. It was acceptable.

Back at her drawer, she applied some chapstick. She fluttered her eyelashes.

She sighed.

Running through her mental checklist.

She wouldn’t even bother with makeup– she was so bad at it anyway. She had showered last night. She had not eaten, but this was a temporary room with no cooking furnishings, so she would need to grab something on the way to the Gau office. Uniform was a given; but she recalled that she should take her pills. She couldn’t keep forgetting.

“Good morniiing~ Emiliaaa~ It’s Emilia’s pills time~ pills that make her dick soft~”

Singing in a silly voice. Her good mood was starting to return.

It helped thinking about that woman’s face when she disarmed her.

After swallowing all of her day’s medications at once, against the instructions printed on the bottles, Emilia opened another wall panel to extract her uniform jacket and pants, as well as a button-down shirt and a tie. Her armbands were hanging on hooks. Everything smelled dusty and a little bit sweaty. She had to pay money for the wardrobe to maintain her clothing, and the prices had become ridiculous the past few days. In prison they just had a synthestitcher pop out a cheap jumpsuit for her whenever warranted.

Her uniform consisted of a black peaked cap, black jacket and pants, all with silver trim.

On the collar of the jacket there was a tab with four wolf’s hooks denoting her rank.

Untersturmführer— in the old Rhinean Navy she would have been a ‘Leutnant’.

Leutnant was so much easier to say.

But she was not part of the old Rhinean Navy.

Her armbands were red with a white circle, and inside each circle resided a different symbol including: a sonnenrad, a black sun disc; the Handschar, a Shimii sword; and the Reichsadler of the Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening on the third armband.

She had to wear all three. One for the Esoteric Order of National Socialism; one for the 7th Stabswache Fleet; and the third to denote that she was a national socialist party member in good standing. That last one was perhaps the most personally amusing of the armbands– but it was annoying to wear all three. She felt their presence conspicuously.

Emilia buttoned down her shirt, pulled up her pants, threw on her jacket, and put on shoes.

She left the cap where it was, in her enthusiasm to finally meet the woman at the door.

“I am ready! Sorry for the wait– I had to get decent.” Emilia said.

Opening the door, she found herself face to face with a pouting young woman.

Pointing her own torch back at her causing her to avert her gaze a bit.

Emilia instantly thought– this one was a bombshell.

A sleek jaw, a straight nose, sharp blue eyes and lush lips, all with precise makeup the likes of which Emilia could not have hoped to imitate. Her hair looked so silky, and it had a sheen in the light of the torch, dark, deeply black as her jacket and garrison cap, cut straight at the shoulder with perfect symmetry. Her body was fantastic– the uniform flattered her. Same as Emilia’s, but with a skirt and black tights. Had Emilia not been a degenerate who was on the way to embarrassing herself, she would have definitely tried to make a pass.

Instead, she simply smiled and held out her hand for a shake.

“Untersturmführer Emilia Skonieczny.” She said.

For a moment the woman at the door eyed her, with a slight bit of contempt.

Then she shook her hand, firmly and without reservation.

“Hauptscharführer Christina Fink. I am here to assist you in command duties, ma’am.”

Her voice was strong. She had a very no-nonsense energy to her.

“Assist me?” Emilia was confused. “I thought you were going to escort me to the Gau?”

“To the Gau? What for?”

“You don’t know?!” Emilia was suddenly shocked. “You didn’t come here to take me?”

“No? I did not come to take you to before the Gauleiter. Is something wrong?”

Emilia felt like, if she could say nothing, and continue to look normal–

–no, it was hopeless. She wouldn’t fool this (beautiful) woman for long.

“Err– Ah, well, you’re about to find out anyway– See, I did some jail time, so that’s still stuck on me today. I am having those old charges officially commutated. So I have to show up at the Gau office. Technically, I’ll still be a federal offender– but I can have this commutation, to then work toward acquittal thanks to some– let’s say ‘friends in high places’.”

“May I ask what the offense was? Was it something spurious?”

“Ah, yeah, I mean, I sure think so. It was for Sodomy. See– that’s still a federal offense.”

“Well– that’s– I see. I am glad the Gau office is assisting you, Untersturmführer.”

No! Her respect for Emilia had hit rock bottom! It was clear on her face!

Ah well– such was the fate of a degenerate, no matter her rank, service and deeds.

“So– you were sent to assist me? Are you from the 7th Fleet too?” Emilia asked.

Christina shook her head. “I’ve been working in Kreuzung, as a Gleichschaltung officer. My job was once to analyze communications from A-block– but this is no longer necessary, so I am being seconded to the combat fleet now. I am to work as your adjutant.”

Emilia nodded her head in acknowledgment.

Gleichschaltung meant coordination— the Volkisch sure loved their High Imbrian.

In this case, it was the idea that the liberal institutions of Rhinea had to be forced to accept total Volkisch rule. In places like Kreuzung where it would be too costly or chaotic to go after the liberal government in a violent purge without cause, the Gleichschaltung process began with the establishment of a Gau office that acted as a Volkisch civil authority.

Working with the Gau office, analysts like Christina spied and scrutinized the liberals, opening opportunities for the Volkisch to attack officials and policies, demand the alteration of laws or issue their own legal proclamations. It was a slow political war of attrition.

But liberal Kreuzung had fallen. The Gau’s decrees were the law of the station now.

And soon, Violet Lehner would be law and order of the entire region.

Knowing all of that– Emilia smiled a bit more awkwardly.

Christina now looked like a very frightening woman behind that steely composure.

“So– if you will, I’m headed to the Gau office.”

“Yes.” Christina said. “I will follow you. You should get something to eat too.”

“Right.”

Christina then stepped forward and reached for Emilia’s chest.

Taking her tie in one brusque sleight of the hand– and tying it appropriately.

Then also buttoning her jacket correctly, her long fingers, one button after another–

Emilia became as stiff and dead as all the LED posts that didn’t work in the hallway.

She tucked her shirt in, buttoned her coat, did her tie. With stoic precision.

Then Christina finally retreated, with a final swipe at Emilia’s shoulder to pat off dust.

“I want to assume you do not care about your appearance for lack of time and energy with which to do so.” Christina said sternly. “So I will assist you in maintaining an appropriate standard. From now on, you need to maintain decorum as an officer. You do not represent solely yourself, but us, the unit, the fleet, the party, and the fatherland.”

Emilia felt like she was being called an embarassing pervert in code.

“Yes. You’re right– I’ve just been busy, and tired.” Emilia replied, averting her gaze.

All lies that they both saw through, but it was the lies Christina wanted to hear.

“Very well. Lead way, Untersturmführer.”

Christina was such a presence.

She was the armbands but hundreds of times heavier.

Since arriving at the station, a few days earlier, Emilia had been afforded a rather plain room in D-block while she waited for her transfer and the commutation. It was not ‘hers’ precisely and she would neither keep it nor miss it when it was gone. Especially since the hallway was having electrical problems now. However, it was convenient, with elevators going farther down or straight up, easily accessible by turning the corners. She and Christina made their way around the hall, and rode the elevator up to a street module in C-block.

There were shops, grocers, cafes, all in quaint little buildings connected by a false cobblestone road under a gentle, false blue sky. It was like a little town road.

Nervous glances shot their way from every direction after they stepped onto the street.

There was no hiding within a crowd wearing the black uniforms of the Volkisch.

Standing out was the point, as much as Emilia disliked it.

She tried to smile and wave at anyone who stared for too long, but it only scared them off.

It was foolish to think she was anything but an intruder in this place.

Emilia was fooling herself about a lot of things– but that one was far too glaring.

On one street corner, Emilia spotted another black-uniformed woman.

Tall and fair, with brown hair– and a pair of rounded cat-like ears atop her head, between which she wore her garrison cap. She had a simple submachine gun that resembled a grease gun, on a sling around her shoulder. It was unloaded, but she had visible magazines on her person and could have reached for one easily in response to a threat. Her bushy tail swung behind her as she stood, leaning back against the corner, looking bored.

Sturmmann!” Emilia called out the girl by rank. “All quiet on the front?”

The Shimii woman raised her eyes off the floor when addressed.

“Yes ma’am. Nothing to report.” She said. Her hands were completely off her gun.

“What is your name?” Emilia asked, quite curious.

At her side, Christina looked a bit annoyed with her, but she did not say anything.

“Sturmmann Ajna Jakupović.” The Shimii said. “Is this an inspection, Untersturmführer?”

“Not at all!” Emilia said. “I was just greeting you. I haven’t gotten out much, you see.”

“Well. There’s not much to see. Everything is quite normal, and the street is peaceful.”

“Hopefully we can scale down posts like this soon then? Don’t you think?”

“I could not say. I take up my post as I am ordered, and I will continue to do so.”

Quite a dour girl.

Emilia felt like she was surrounded by very tense people in the Volkisch.

Despite her insistence that everything was quite normal, in fact, she herself represented a change for the people of Kreuzung. Even if they had gotten used to a black uniform here or there; now all of the policing was done by black uniforms. No more K.P.S.D guards.

Armed black uniforms on every street corner. Must have been terrifying.

Not to mention the majority of them were Shimii, once a segregated people in Kreuzung.

When Emilia and Christina got to walking again, Christina cleared her throat.

“Untersturmführer, please do not trouble the patrol officers.” She said.

“It won’t matter anyway. I’m bound for the sea again soon.” Emilia replied jovially.

“Be that as it may.”

She did not follow up that remark and Emilia did not respond to it either.

They simply walked, amid the morning crowd that was going to work or preparing for it.

Partway through their trek to the Gau office, Christinia tapped on Emilia’s back.

They both stopped, and she led the Untersturmführer off the street and into a little café that was sharing space with a bar which was closed. Both halves of the venue could sit customers for the café, and the café was serving coffee out of the half that constituted the bar. But the coffee was a rather shocking price, for such a thing that just came in the fighting rations of Diver pilots like Emilia– instead, Christina bought the two of them cups of breakfast tea, along with breakfast potatoes, grilled with cheese and sausage.

“I take it Kreuzung hasn’t recovered from the recent shortages yet?” Emilia asked.

As she did, she stirred sugar cubes until they dissolved in her tea.

“You’re– rather curious, aren’t you, Untersturmführer?” Christina said.

“I see it as my duty to understand things, Hauptscharführer, not merely accept them.”

Christina let out a little sigh. “I rather meant, you’re different from other officers.”

“In that too, yes. Possibly for the best, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. It’s too early to tell.”

Christina took a long sip of her tea as if to forego further conversation on this topic.

Emilia tucked into her potatoes. They were salty, fatty, almost unctuous.

Rhinea was known for potatoes. Potatoes, black bread, gritty sausage– all those foods that the Imbrium Empire exalted as traditional and cultural and staples of a hardy working class, they were grown in quantity in Rhinea. And these were the foods exalted by the Volkisch Movement as befitting the masculine and vital Volksgemeinschaft of the national socialist man. Probably soon, the Gau would start promoting these foods and politely criticizing restaurants and establishments that continued to drive up demand for luxuries.

Just like in her native station of Weimar, a few months ago, just before she left.

Before she was deployed to the front as penance for her degenerate bisexual ways.

 “You can call me by name.” Emilia said. “Can we chat for a little bit?”

Christina looked up for her plate. She ate quite slow and delicately.

“Alright. What about?”

“Anything really. I just haven’t had a human conversation with someone in so long.”

“From reading your file, it did seem like you have been shuffled around a lot of posts.”

“It’s because the ships kept sinking.” Emilia said. “But I kept surviving. I made no friends.”

“Reports spoke highly of your combat abilities. So– I expected a different sort of person.”

“I’m kind of flattered they did not mention the penal conscription and sodomy and all that.”

Emilia looked up from her food and smiled quite cheerfully at Christina.

The adjutant looked quite disarmed by the sudden look on her face.

She averted her gaze.

“Here I am. Not like the reports.” Emilia said. “Except that I’m good in a pinch, maybe.”

“Unter– Emilia,” Christina said, “might I ask– do you have any ambitions in the military?”

Perhaps a tricky question for someone who had been forced into this horrible situation.

But Emilia had thought about it well, and for a long time, having gotten this far.

“Since I’m here now, I would like to retire with decent benefits. I’m tired of struggling.”

Christina looked at her with further confusion. “I see. I suppose you didn’t have a choice.”

“I’m making the best of it. I’ve thought about everything– I had tons of time to plan it out. If I fail, I just die– that ends up solving all the problems anyway. But in the military I can get a pension, health benefits, lifetime housing, the works. For a wastrel like me, it’s great. Being conscripted was fine for my prospects. I’m too scandalous– not a lot of equal opportunity.”

“I see. You really have given it a lot of thought, Untersturmführer. It’s– a worthy goal.”

Emilia did not see it as particularly worthy– but it was attainable! That mattered the most.

“But what about you Hauptscharführer? What attracts a woman like you to the navy?”

Christina looked down at her tea. Her own perfectly applied makeup looked back at her.

“I suppose it is similar– maybe even the same. As you say– there is ‘equal opportunity.’”

“In times of hardship, the nation would rather allow homos and women to jump in front of the steel, than fall on its own sword purely out of pride. Suffering makes us all equal.”

Christina looked suddenly sad. “You have a certain way with words, Untersturmführer.”

Clearly she was uncomfortable with the rhetoric– but Emilia didn’t care.

She was hitting her stride. Her heart was soaring, even. God was in his heaven, to her.

All of the worst things that could be done to Emilia Skonieczny– they already had been.

So anything that happened from now on was acceptable. Things were truly looking up.

In fact, it was a thrilling puzzle. War. Surviving. Winning, even, the few times it happened.

All of it was a gamble where only something worthless was at stake– her own life.

And certainly gambling was one of Emilia’s vices, among many.

After eating, and having gotten to know each other– at least more than not at all– Emilia led Christina to the Gau office on the far end of the C-block street module from the cafes. The building was set against the wall of the module, with a roundabout road in front of it, such that it felt like the terminus of the C-block. All roads led to the Gau office. It was three stories tall, so it was taller than all the two-story shops and offices on the street.

A steel Reichsadler decoration in front looked over the passersby.

Through the door into the building, there was a lobby and waiting area with pull-out chairs.

Emilia and Christina sat down together until they were called.

Though they were entirely alone in the Gau office, it took almost fifteen minutes.

At a counter, behind bullet-proof glass, a very young receptionist confirmed their identity. She was thin and blond and small– at most she could have been an older teenager perhaps.

“Take the stairs, and it’s the third door. Thank you for visiting.” She said without emotion.

There was a buzzer, and one of the doors leading further into the building opened up.

Emilia and Christina walked inside.

For the building where the downfall of the liberal government of Kreuzung had been planned and underway for months now– there was nothing about it that was out of the ordinary. Thick plastic walls painted in a faux-brick style, stagnant air that smelled like the vents it passed. Gloomy halls lit by rows of centrally-installed white LEDs on the roof. It was rather eerie. It felt like a dentist’s office more than a nerve-cluster of fascism.

Third door, upstairs. Inside there was a small office, with a desk and two chairs.

A blond man who tried to smile bid them to sit down. One of his armbands had a symbol of a wrapped stack of arrows– this denoted support personnel and civilian service workers within the National Socialist Party of Rhinea. Unlike Emilia, this man’s battlefield was this desk, or any other desk he was given, but he still had his markers of service to the National Socialist Party. Emilia saw his eyes appraise her quickly, but he never stopped smiling falsely.

“Emil Skoniecszny, correct?” He said. He passed Emilia a portable computer.

There were documents about her loaded into the device. Many had glaring errors.

Surname frequently misspelled. Different names used. Wrong national ID numbers.

“I had it changed.” She replied. “Before I ended up in jail. A bunch of this is wrong.”

“Ah, yes, the government was not so efficient before as now. You would be aghast at how many of these documents we must amend.” Said the man, still trying to put up a smile. “How about this, officer. Tell me the correct ones, and I’ll see to it we fix them all. No need for paperwork or anything silly– everything has been authorized to the fullest extent.”

“That would be lovely.” Emilia said. “So then– I will get my commutation too, right?”

“Of course, of course.” Said the man. “The Reichkommissar’s signature guarantees it. You will no longer be considered to be serving a sentence through labor. Then we will process a formal acquittal after a brief review by all parties. You’ll be a free woman soon.”

All of the parties involved– Emilia knew they would be amenable.

After all– they had come to have need of the murderous skills she had exhibited.

While the man began editing the documents, Emilia found herself looking at the ceiling.

Somewhere, far up above, Violet Lehner was in the process of changing everything.


After only two days in Kreuzung, the vanguard of the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache had secured control of the station in its totality, facing little resistance. Already the first reforms were beginning to roll out of the new government in A-block. A purge of local administrators was underway, along with an expansion of the Gau government seat and the reorganization of Eisental as a Reichskommissariat, a Fascist-led regional administration that was the fiefdom of its Reichskommissar, in this case the self-appointed Violet Lehner.

No one had heard of Violet before, but the surname Lehner rendered them quiet.

Elections were suspended indefinitely. All appointments were by decree from the Gau or Reichskommissar, and served indefinitely until promotion, resignation or dismissal. More reforms were then planned– including a rumored desegregation of the towers. But it was not all bad. Prices had gone back to normal, particularly for Rhineametalle subsidiary goods along with Volwitz Foods products. It was a sign of esteem from the corporations.

Whoever Violet Lehner was, business seemed to approve of her accession.

Volkisch presence continued to grow exponentially in Kreuzung. At first the vanguard was composed of a dozen ships, but it would swell to over 200 vessels. Aside from the core of the 7th Stabswache, Volkisch militia were summoned in droves, along with a constellation of ancillary paramilitary organizations that had also rallied to Reichskommissariat Eisental.

Once bordering on the outskirts of the Volkisch power structure, groups appeared such as the Silver Wolf Brigade of once-oppressed Khedivate loup; and stranger Esoteric Order paramilitary fighters like the Black Sun Valkyries who were not the right kind of fascist for Adam Lehner’s neatly micromanaged central government. On the civilian front, all manner of new age polemicists, such as scientific atheists and technology supremacists, flocked to Kreuzung from places like Thuringia and Weimar, hoping for intellectual sympathy.

Adam Lehner had tried to paper over the bizarre, fractious nature of his coalition.

But Violet Lehner seemed to revel in the grand universe of niche fascists surrounding her.

And it was a universe which was daily accruing more twisted stars within its firmament.

Knowing all of this, Rhineametalle labor leader Josef Kohler decided to follow the letter which he had received from the barricades. He clutched it in his hands as he walked.

He knew he was accepting a poisoned chalice, but he was afraid at the daily appearance of more fascist military ships, and of the rapid collapse of the liberal Kreuzung government. It felt like this was his last and only chance to achieve something tangible for the shop floor. So he donned his suit, left the barricade with the signature of the new Reichskommissar in hand, and made his way cautiously to the heights of the core station.

He had been warned that there was chaos in A-block, but by the time he arrived, everything appeared to have long been sorted out. No arrests or beatings in progress. There was a single checkpoint staffed by Shimii in uniform, that he easily crossed. All of the villas and parks and the gorgeous lakeside, appeared untouched, just like in the pictures and television programs. There hung numerous banners with strange symbols now, but it was exactly as alien to Josef as the tastes of the previous owners, so it did not perturb him.

When he arrived at the government building, he showed the receptionist the letter.

It felt like all the hustle and bustle he expected to see in the street had been pushed into the government palace in A-block instead. There were hundreds of people coming and going, taking boxes of things out, bringing boxes in. Bringing in furnishings and taking them out. There was a metal painting in the process of being hung on magnets in the walls of the lobby. The painting depicted the Eisental region, but with subregional separations that Kohler had never seen before. He was ushered away before he could examine it.

“Please wait here. The Reichskommissar will see you shortly.” Said the receptionist.

“Wait, the Reichskommissar? I thought I would be meeting a negotiator or–”

Without listening to him, the receptionist simply left and closed the door behind her.

 Kohler stared speechless at the door. He then took a seat.

This was a small, ancillary office, nothing but a desk and some chairs, if it had been decorated to any further extent before then those decorations had been stripped, probably loaded into a box and taken out with the rest of the junk. There was nothing particularly intimidating about it, the place was extremely ordinary. It felt like he was visiting the tax office or the licensing bureau, except he was not waiting for some functionary.

Why would Violet Lehner come talk to him in person?

When the door opened next, it took all of Kohler’s power not to stare or make a gesture.

A woman walked right past him, her wildly colored hair clashing with her black uniform.

She was breezy and confident in her gait, casually taking her place behind the desk.

As if this was any other event for her, as if her presence was so natural.

“Mister Kohler, I am glad my letter reached you. Let’s talk about ending this strike.”

“I– Yes.”

Her voice was a little bit nasal– Kohler thought it was unusual for a woman.

In terms of stature, Kohler was taller, his limbs thicker, even in his suit, he was the working class man in the room. Across from him, Lehner was almost wispy in her figure, like a dark fairy who might vanish the moment he took his eyes off her. She had a strange but captivating beauty. He couldn’t keep himself from staring at the colors of her hair. It was almost ridiculous to him that this woman was now the master of the station and the region of Eisental at large. But clearly, if she achieved that– she was formidable.

And he thought, when she moved, when she spoke, that she had a certain presence.

Her every breath betrayed her belief in her own power and advantage, exuding confidence.

Kohler was dealing a girl much younger than he, a girl who looked almost unserious.

Yet he was immediately pressured and rendered cautious by her gaze and voice alone.

“I strongly believe that this meeting can be mutually beneficial to us. To start, I would like to hear from you the motivation behind the strike, and your demands in full.” Violet began.

“Yes.” Kohler said. “Months ago– after the elections–” He paused to gather his breath. He had found himself about to stammer and he had to project confidence. “Rhineametalle instituted productivity targets that demanded intolerable work hours on the shops in order to fulfill them. When some of the veterans complained, they fired all the old hats, and hired a bunch of younger guys and girls. But trying to train those kids, it was impossible to meet the targets. And then the targets were set to go up again, because of demands from the government. That’s when we’d had it. Even younger workers joined the strike. That was how bad it was, Reichskommissar. They were practically demanding we live in the shops.”

“I don’t disagree that in those conditions, the production targets were set carelessly.”

Violet agreeing with him, even mildly, came as a staggering surprise to Kohler.

“We either need wages to go up, and more guys and machines in the shops– or we need the targets to go back down and our work hours to normalize again in turn.” Kohler said. “They can throw out all the guys they want, and they can hire all the kids they want to replace them. Even if they replace all the guys with new machines that can shove the metal into themselves and stitch it all themselves perfectly and then shuttle it themselves out of the shop– they aren’t getting out a Dreadnought’s worth of plates every day.”

“I agree. And replacing you all with miracle-machines would take up space that we don’t have in those shops anyway. So the realistic option is to talk things out as humans.”

“Listen, Reichskommissar.” He had gotten so used to calling her by her title. But it felt too surreal to call her Miss Lehner or anything else. “I’m– I’m not political here. None of the guys and girls in the shops are being political about this. We all respect the government, we live here. We just need a fair shake for once. We’ll go back to work, as soon as we have a contract that makes sense. We’re not gonna work ourselves to death failing to meet targets that keep rising in desperation and getting punished for it– not for last year’s wages.”

“All of that sounds acceptable to me.” Violet said. She steepled her fingers and smiled. “Here’s my proposal, Mr. Kohler. I looked through the production totals for the Tower Nine plant going back two years. Productivity was steadily growing– until the start of the war, when production targets grew immensely. I want you to agree to work out a plan for a 4% increase in weekly productivity in ninety days, but based on last year’s production scheme, with a guarantee that hours and totals will revert to that scheme and will not rise haphazardly. This is incumbent on immediate resumption of deliveries.”

That was much better than Kohler expected. Only 4% was doable with what they had.

He felt confident to push a bit. Violet seemed amenable.

“Ma’am, I am almost positive that we could get you a 6% increase on last year– if you could agree to the reinstatement of some of my trade union boys that got fired before. We got some kids who joined the strike, and a lot that didn’t. But I got guys with families ma’am, good guys, who you could bring back, and we could do so much more. With only the greenhorn kids, I don’t know that I’ll get you 3%. What do you say to that?”

“Very well. But I have an additional condition to add as well.” Violet said.

“I’m listening.” Kohler said. He felt safe– he thought he was winning her over right now.

Across the desk, Violet put on a cheekier and even more conceited grin.

“I want all of your union members present and future to join the Eisental National Socialist Party, which I will soon chair, as our first National Socialist Trade Union. Through the Party, we will organize all future labor contracts. Before you balk at this, know that I won’t demand you attend any pointless political theater for the sake of the party. Those are simply my own numbers which I must meet, and you will help to meet them. In turn, you can have as many of your men back to work as the new hires who did not join the strike. Deal, then?”

Kohler was stunned. “Ma’am, all due respect– that is a bit of a pill to swallow.”

Violet leaned forward a little bit on her desk.

“Mr. Kohler, I am willing to cooperate with you on this endeavor, in a way that nobody else is going to do. Rhineametalle won’t; and Adam Lehner won’t. Before I arrived nobody was trying to help you. I am not your friend; everything is incumbent exclusively on your results. I am taking this risk, at great personal cost, because I have crunched the numbers and the numbers do not lie. I know you can make these numbers and I know it will benefit us both. Those numbers will be met, whether by you and your trade union buddies or by someone else. But I don’t want to replace you. Please make the rational choice, just like me.”

Violet slowly drew back and laid against her chair, looking relaxed.

While Kohler felt himself sweating just a bit.

“Think about it.” She said. Her voice sounded almost sultry. “Destiny awaits.”

Kohler found his expected poisoned chalice, but now golden and studded with gems.

It was so much more difficult to turn it down or to argue against it.

Because if he could survive the poison, he had the gold and gems right in his grasp.

He was not lying to Violet. Few if any of his workers viewed themselves as activists first.

They made their living in stitching and shaping and treating steel that was then to be used in weapons for the Empire. They were part of the war machine. Had they all been ideologues, they would have quit the job when Rhineametalle quietly continued making weapons for the National Socialists. Had any of them been commies or pacifists, they would have quit even before that. All that they wanted was to live comfortably with their families. Their jobs were rare in that they were in constant demand and paid well and had perks.

None of them wanted to end up as contractors.

But he would have to surrender the union to the Volkisch. Could he do that?

Kohler imagined himself in a black uniform, with a sun disk on his chest, an eagle armband.

Some part of him was repelled by it– but his pragmatic mind told him it didn’t matter.

Getting paid and continuing to live mattered more than keeping his conscience clean.

Was the Volkisch Movement any worse than the Emperor and all that, anyway?

And Violet Lehner seemed so reasonable. She actually believed in the workers.

“Reichskommissar, soon as I see that deal in an official stamped document, we’ll sign it.”

He reached across the desk. Violet took his hand and gave it a curt little shake.

“Fantastic. I will get my Reich Ministry to put it all into a contract for your review. I’ll expedite it– I of course expect you’ll continue to man your barricade in the meantime.” She said.

“I’ll stay here until it’s ready and take it back to them, if that’s what it takes.” Kohler said.

“Splendid. We’re planning big things here, Mr. Kohler. I’m happy you’ll be on board.”

Kohler tried not to think about how ominous any of this sounded, nor meet Violet’s gaze. He was a member of a National Socialist Trade Union now– but god damn it, he’d be a fed and clothed member of a National Socialist Trade Union. He’d have a job and benefits.

He wouldn’t be out on the street.

Or dead.

In his eyes, that was a victory for labor.


Violet Lehner could have had any of the villas in A-block as a home, having purged most of the local politicians and men of influence who had taken up residence in the shadow of the Kreuzung central government. Of the vacancies, she preferred one of the smaller and more out of the way plots. On the opposite side of the lake from the main road, there was a small white house. While it was two stories tall, it consisted of only a foyer, a dining room, kitchen and a bathroom and bedroom on the upper floor. No sweeping wings with dozens of bedrooms. It was a little square thing that was almost cute to look at.

After working until 2000 hours, Violet finally retired from the office to her new home.

Having spent all day in meetings about every conceivable aspect of Kreuzung, arranging new appointees, speaking with the corporatins, as well as looking through Kreuzung’s records with her own eyes and coming up with her own ideas of how it should be managed henceforth– she was exhausted. All of the shouting and speechifying was bouncing around in her skull. She wanted to eat, and to sleep, and to be alone with her thoughts.

She was quietly driven out of the government palace, around the lake, and left at her home. Two armed guards would take the night shift guarding her home. She welcomed them to have dinner, but they declined, having already eaten. They requested to be able to pray, instead. Violet agreed wholeheartedly, and she left them to do so on her porch.

Inside, the house was sparsely decorated. Unlike some of the other villas, this one had been unoccupied, it was up for sale, and Violet had purchased it. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the windfall that Kreuzung had repossessed in its sweeping purges of the liberal government and their ill-gotten gains. Violet hung up her cap, cape and jacket near the door, and undid the top buttons on her shirt, removing the tie. She ran her hands through her colorful hair and sighed deeply, making her way to the kitchen.

She had only two major kitchen appliances: a refrigerator, and a dehydrator. She had a pantry, a cupboard, and she had a mortar and pestle out on small island.

Violet wandered over to the dehydrator. A tall metal box with nine racks inside, designed to perfectly hold temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees centigrade. She opened the box, and there was already a rack where she had been warming up some nuts all day. She left them on the island while she gathered herbs and garlic from her refrigerator. From the pantry, she took a small bottle of olive oil. With everything assembled, she pulled up her sleeves a bit and got to pounding the ingredients in her granite mortar and pestle.

There was something therapeutic about the action.

Her mind practically emptied as she smashed the herbs, garlic and nuts along with a bit of flaky salt, periodically splashing oil into the mix until she had a loose paste.

Then, she withdrew some mushrooms with big caps from her pantry, the stems having already been cut off, and she spread the paste on the underside of each mushroom cap like pieces of buttered toast. She put four such mushrooms on a plate, paste-side up, and took her light dinner to the dining room table along with a glass of lemon water.

She sat down and took her first bite. She already knew it would taste good, but she was still surprised at how fresh and hearty it felt every time she had it. Vegetal and earthy, with a fresh, bright taste from the herbs, this was real food, living food. In her mind, something like a fried sausage was like eating cancer. It was a pity that they could not feed the soldiers a diet like the one she had. They did not understand its virtues, and it simply was not cheap– promoting raw vegan food was a longer term project for Violet. For now, she had to accept the political realities, but someday. Someday everyone would eat only like this.

It would be a better world, a healthier world, a corrected world.

A perfect, superior world.

A world of truly modern humans enlightened by a scientific yet mythopoetic political ideal.

That ideal was Fascism, in the particular expression Violet herself championed.

Halfway through her dinner, she heard the front door open.

It did not worry her.

Someone put up a coat in the foyer. There was the approaching clack of heeled shoes.

Around the corner appeared a familiar figure, smiling as she took her place at the table.

Vesna Nasser, loosening her own tie and undoing a few buttons on her shirt.

Violet smiled back at her.

Nasser was a sight. She was tall and beautiful, with a strong gaze and countenance. She had an amazing figure, like the treatments they both received had brought out three times as much of a woman from her body as from Violet’s. Her blond hair and golden ears and tail only added to Violet’s interest. Already predisposed to Shimii, Violet thought that Nasser was the most perfect example of the grace and wild beauty of her kin.

Everyone else was deeply afraid of her majesty.

“Want some?” Violet asked, pointing to the last mushroom cap on her plate.

“I already ate, but I appreciate it.” Nasser replied.

“You’re missing out.” Violet said, with a little grin.

She picked up the mushroom cap and took a bite. Some of the spread got on her lips.

Nasser reached out and smudged the paste over Violet’s lips, grinning back.

“I’m not a convert to your silly diet, you know.” She said.

“It’s not silly– it’s scientific. Someday we must all eat like this.”

“Tell me, how does a dehydrator not constitute cooking? I still don’t understand that.”

“Heating up food past around 47 C kills all the nutrients, but just warming it up will inhibit bacterial growth while expressing some of the living flavor compounds.” Violet said.

“If you say so.” Nasser’s ears twitched. Her smile spread even farther, and she chuckled.

Glaring at her, Violet ate the last of her mushroom in one big bite.

“How was your trip to Tower Seven? How are the people there?” Violet asked.

“Badly abused, but resilient.” Nasser said. “Leija was a disaster, so I could not get anything important done. I left a few people with her to force to her clean up. I need to make sure she is in command of the place, before we begin serving carrots and swinging sticks.”

“Good idea. Don’t feel too rushed. Every Shimii stronghold is worth the effort for us.”

“I will keep that in mind, Reichskommissar.” Nasser said playfully.

Violet narrowed her eyes at the tone with which she pronounced her title.

But she decided not to make anything of it. She would just get teased even more.

This house and their stay in it was not for productive conversations about work anyway.

“I’m tired, Vesna. I’m going upstairs.” Violet said.

“Mind if I join you? We haven’t had the privacy to just chat for some time.” Nasser said.

“Oh, of course I don’t mind. My home is your home, always.”

They made their way upstairs.

Up a quaint-looking set of steps in the little foyer, empty save for their coats hung near the door. Violet began undoing more of her shirt’s buttons with a mind as empty as the surroundings, with each step taken up to the second floor. She felt Nasser’s hands lay on her shoulders and rub them, and she thought idly about taking a bath before deciding to do so in the morning, before she headed off back to the palace to continue her work.

As soon as she crossed the door into her bedroom, she felt Nasser’s grip on her tighten.

In an instant, Violet found herself nearly hurled onto the bed, face-down.

Nasser was on top of her just as quickly.

One hand running through Violet’s hair and grabbing.

And the other hand forcefully pulling down her pants from over her ass.

Violet did not resist.

She was bleary with anticipation and the forcefulness of her partner.

Her shirt was falling off her shoulders purely from the brusqueness of how she was handled.

“Vesna–”

“Quiet.” Vesna said, gentle but authoratative.

Violet went silent.

Vesna leaned forward, putting her weight on Violet.

Her lips left sucking kisses on Violet’s neck, her back, her exposed shoulders.

Then a bite that felt deep enough to leave red.

Violet cried out in surprise.

She heard and felt Vesna pulling down her skirt, and it sliding off onto the bed.

Felt her pants finally come down.

A hand slid under her belly and urged her to lift her hips.

“I love you, Vesna.” Violet said, her voice fading in the midst of her lovestruck stupor.

Vesna’s voice in her ear. “I’ll imprint how I feel right into your skin, mein Schatzi.”


In one of the cleaned-out rooms in the government palace, a holoprojection-capable table was arrayed in the middle, and it became a tactical room and the embryonic nerve center of the Reichskommissariat’s fleet activities. Barely a few days into Eisental’s transformation, its architects gathered in the room and around the table to formally commence the next phase of their operation. Kreuzung was their stronghold, but all of Eisental had to be taken.

Projected between them was a map of Eisental’s regions, stations, and projections of ship traffic between them. Stations were displayed by size and type. Business traffic was simulated in real time as it was known and regulated. Around Kreuzung was the ever-growing fleet of “Player Black.” In the far northwest in Aachen, close to the continent and Ayre; in the east near Khaybar; in the northeast around Stralsund group of towers; appeared the theoretical fleets of “Player Red,” “Player Green,” and “Player Yellow.”

It was “Black’s” turn to move.

At the head of the table was Violet Lehner, flanked by her dutiful adjutant Vesna Nasser. On accession of Violet to Reichskommissar, Nasser was promoted to Oberführer.

Opposite her, stood a woman with very orderly dark-blue hair, holding her cap in her hands. Her tail was extremely bushy and a little bit messier than her hair, and her cat-like ears were rounded-off at the tips. She wore her jacket off her shoulders, with her arms out of the sleeves. This was Standartenführer Imani Hadžić, a wealthy and intelligent follower of Nasser’s ideals. On that night, she met no one’s eyes and had a distant expression.

Beside Imani Hadžić, an exceedingly stuffy-looking dark-haired woman glared at her.

Her eyes seemed to take particular umbrage with the way Imani wore her uniform.

Along with this woman was a bubbly blond smiling in a way Violet found stupid.

This was Untersturmführer Emilia Skonieczny, whose career was a peculiar interest.

Then the sides of the table. Violet looked to each, examining their countenances.

On one side was a serious-looking Loup woman, with a long mane of brown hair. Broad-shouldered, tall, and with large hands, a scar cutting across the bridge of her nose and another extending from the side of her mouth near to the peak of cheekbones. She looked the most like a warrior of anyone in the room, but her scars and ruggedness had a sort of romantic and tragic beauty to them, itself evident in the softness of her gaze.

This was the Loup warlord Sushila Hatta of the Khedivate Loup “Silver Wolf Legion.” She was given the rank of Obersturmbannführer and a corresponding uniform within the Eisental fascists, having left the backwaters of Southern Rhinea to join their cause.

Standing beside her was a woman who was also rustic, large and tough — though nowhere near Hatta’s level — with a great quantity of silky brown hair and an unfriendly expression on her pretty young face. Her girlish beauty was yet untouched by war. This was Heidelinde Sawyer, Sturmbannführer in charge of the Volkisch militias. As a kind of insult she was subordinated to Hatta temporarily– Violet did not trust her for a second. She would find a more permanent home for Adam Lehner’s personal attack dog soon enough.

Opposite them was the final member of this group of conspirators. She was a very pale woman, blond, so blond her hair was almost white. Her icy blue eyes and icy-blue lips were twisted in a euphoric expression. Around her neck she wore an enormous medallion with a hooked cross, and she was bedecked in jewels, gold and earrings besides. She was perhaps the oldest woman in the room, with crow’s feet and a lot of makeup. But she boasted a grand and refined beauty, like an actress still slaying the lead role in sensual romance films well into her 50s. Her busty, ample figure was flattered by the uniform.

She was the first one to speak while everyone else was getting settled.

“Aaah! Such powerful auras! I can feel the divine feminine coursing in this room! It is touched by the sign of Venus! It is a site of Ying energy! Here the sun falls and the moon shines in its magnificence! We are pregnant with the future and giving birth to power!”

Everyone stared at her in complete and utter confusion.

Violet narrowed her eyes at the pagan’s rambling, as the woman began to hug herself.

“Divine feminine? I would be very surprised to find any of that in this room.” She said.

Perhaps the strangest of Eisental’s military forces, this chirpy and unwell woman was Luciana Waldeck, head of the Black Sun Valkyries, an all-woman female-spiritualist paramilitary. Like Hatta, she had been given a rank in the Volkisch, but hers was only Sturmbannführer. Violet eyed her skeptically. Her family had once been ennobled, and she threw a lot of money at the Volkisch Movement over the years, and she was now eager to throw even more money and manpower at Eisental. Violet was not particularly fond of her, mainly because she just could not tell whether Luciana knew about Violet’s particular form of femininity–

but she wouldn’t bring it up. That conversation could only be annoying.

Let this idiot proselytize and throw money around, and let her deluded followers die for Violet’s schemes. That was perhaps the best place and the best end for such people.

“It appears that we’re all here.” Hatta said. “I await my orders, Reichskommissar.”

“Indeed, indeed! Let’s talk uniform-type business! I’m so excited!” Luciana added.

Hatta stared at her like she wanted to bite her.

“Very well. Nasser, disclose the situation and preliminary assignments.” Violet said.

“Yes, Reichskommissar.”

Nasser touched the table with her index finger and swiped across.

More information appeared overlayed on the initial map. A prepared set of regional colors.

“Prior to the declaration of the Reichskommisariat, the Eisental region was only loosely governed from Kreuzung. Despite this, most of the region has fallen in line to support our administrative reforms. One notable holdout is Aachen, an industrial station in the north. Over time, Aachen was allowed to grow into a powerful center of administration, commanding large amounts of resources from western Eisental. Aachen is the only other station with political power and economy on par with Kreuzung. Most Western stations are primarily engaged in the harvest of raw materials. Eastern Eisental is mainly Agrispheres with traditionally large Shimii populations. Kreuzung is the most important part of the southern portion of the region, and already under our control. Other than that, the South and Southwest contain many Rhineametalle facilities and a few luxury habitats.”

“Now that you know about the region you can guess what the problem is. We have communicated the changes in status to Aachen and requested acquiescence.” Violet said. “They claim they wish to confirm with the Reichsgau in Thurin before they recognize us. Of course, I don’t believe this is the case.” Violet touched the table as well, tapping on the red units that were located around Aachen. “I am almost positive Aachen is plotting some resistance and stalling for time. They have many reasons not to accept our rule.”

Nasser followed from Violet’s statements naturally. She pushed up her glasses.

“We have good intelligence from a Katarran mole with ties to Aachen, that a constellation of leftist protest movements and paramilitary groups are mustering in the north. This mole also assisted us in predicting the Core Separation– the Cogitans refused the so-called ‘United Front’ and launched their own failed attack which we were able to repulse. So we can trust their information. We can surmise that this United Front is disorganized and its many groups are ideologically divided, so their cohesion will likely be very poor even without the Cogitans. But they could nevertheless constitute a threat if they are allowed to go to ground. Eisental still has the potential to break down into a greater crisis if the leftists get organized.”

“Labor is a big issue. To bring temperatures down and weaken the labor movements, we will establish several centrally-governed National Socialist Trade Unions.” Violet said, following up easily from Nasser. “We will negotiate softly and cautiously cede demands, incumbent on continuation of work, and thus slowly calm the antagonistic animus that Eisental’s labor has toward the corporations. I want to get goods moving to the Rhinean heartland again– however, our goal is also to divert labor and materials preferentially to Rhineametalle. Rhineametalle will get first purchase on all materials, and will work more closely with the Trade Unions than any other corporation. They will then give Eisental preferential buyer status for weapons and technologies. Allowing us to build up our own power.”

“Outside of Trade Unionism, our next potential problem,” Nasser continued from Violet, “Is Eisental’s history with the Shimii people. Shimii are the largest non-Imbrian ethnic group in Eisental, and they have historically been segregated in station towers as well as forced out of industrial work and into the agriculture sector. This is a boiling pot that could explode at any time. However, as you can see all around Kreuzung, our 7th Fleet is a largely Shimii formation. We can court the Shimii into our Trade Unions, and recruit them as a source of manpower for the ‘Zabaniyah’, and equip them with newly-purchased Rhineametalle weapons. Then we’ll use them against our enemies to prevent any further spillage of chaos in Eisental.”

“However, this is all pointless if the leftist forces are allowed to overturn the pot, so to speak. We will send an advance party to suppress the dissidents in Aachen.” Violet said. She touched the table again. Some “Black” units began to move toward Aachen, overlapping the “Red” units. “This will be our first major military maneuver as a Reichskommissariat. Imani Hadžić will be in command, with her flag on the Mrudah. She will have the assistance of Sawyer’s militia, and will have Diver tactical command under Skonieczny. The Mrudah is a new type of vessel and Skonieczny is on the bleeding edge of Diver warfare. I have the utmost confidence that Hadžić can make the most of these assets to crush Aachen.”

Across the table, Imani looked up briefly at Violet before averting her gaze.

Her reticence was a bit confusing– but Nasser trusted her, and so Violet did too.

Sawyer continued to hold her hands behind her back and made no expression.

If Imani could get her killed somehow it would be so much the better.

Emilia Skonieczny put up an extremely forced-looking smile and a thumbs-up.

She looked like an idiot– but if her thesis was correct, Violet would profit mightily.

Aachen would be the proving ground for all of them. No more needed to be said.

“North, West and East Eisental will be divided into Wehrkreis until they are fully pacified, with defense responsibility split up among our forces. Appointments will be formalized after the Aachen adventure. Preliminarily, Hatta and Waldeck will move east and west respectively to begin setting up our new Gau and most importantly, to assert our new economy. Hatta’s Loup follow Rashidun Shimiism so they are the best choice for now to control the east. Waldeck can employ her family’s business acumen to get the west producing again.”

“I am honored to be entrusted this command.” Hatta said, partially bowing to Violet.

“I will miss the amenities here, but I will follow orders.” Waldeck replied snobbishly.

There was more to discuss, but that was the meat of things. Everything was now moving.

On the table, black pieces departed from Kreuzung to each and every station, and slowly, the black filter extended over all of Eisental. From Kreuzung, to Bad Weissee, to Stralsund; to the manufactories of Rhein-Sieg-Kries and the Agrispheres of Baden; to Aachen in the north. In weeks, they would have control of the entire region. In a month, their economy would be back on track. In less than a year, perhaps, Eisental would surpass the heartland in power.

All of it played out on the table, under the widely-grinning face of Violet Lehner.

Her Nationale Volkskrieg had begun– and Endsieg was finally visible in the distance.


Deep in the bowels of Kreuzung, another group of conspirators awaited their own time.

Overhead, a glass observation dome in the baseplate exposed the massive Imbrium ocean. Directly beneath it, with the light of a few LEDs casting her shadow over her subordinate, sat Enforcer I of the Syzygy, Avaritia, atop a small crate in the damp chamber. She loomed over, statuesque, laughing to herself. Fawning over her at her side, with her head on Avaritia’s lap like a very dressed-up kitten, was Enforcer III, Gula. Avaritia gently stroked Gula’s long hair while looking down at a woman kowtowing in front of her and copiously weeping.

“Please, Exalted, my troops did all that we could. I beg you– if you must punish anyone, punish me alone for my weakness. The Wizard class was supposed to have the blood and instincts of powerful tacticians, and I have disgraced it. Please– punish only me.”

Wizard III begged, crawling shamelessly in front of Avaritia’s feet.

“Wizard III– If I were to spare only a single one of your troops. Please name one.”

Avaritia spoke in a cruel, uncaring tone of voice.

Wizard III felt a jolt of terror directly into her heart. Her lips quivered, teeth chattered.

She felt almost insane to be responding to this awful question.

Insane to know her answer.

“Vanguard IX.” She said. “She fought most valiantly of all of us. Please spare her!”

Avaritia suddenly started laughing.

She bent down, reached for Wizard III’s head.

And softly and condescendingly patted her hair with a cheery grin on her face.

“My darling, did you hear that? Wasn’t it romantic? Wasn’t it so unlike Wizard III?”

Gula rubbed her cheek on Avaritia’s lap, giggling.

“Darling, it was exceedingly romantic!”

“Wizard III, you failed me, but I am proud of you nevertheless. I could feel it in that instant. That little bit of humanity in you– that little spark of greed. It was worth making this trip just to see that become a part of you.” Avaritia’s eyes formed their cross-hairs again and locked on to Wizard III. In turn, she withered at the attention of her exalted leader. She put her head low to the ground and continued to bow without daring to look up, terrified.

“Of course, we will reward such romance! Besides, we need the troops intact anyway.”

Gula said, before extending a very long tongue out to lick Avaritia’s hand.

Avaritia’s fingers absentmindedly toyed with the long, slender tongue like a little toy.

“Indeed, indeed. But, there is one action I must regrettably take, in response to all of this.”

Avaritia lifted the hand that was toying with Gula’s tongue. Casually, she reached down.

Then effortlessly ripped Wizard III’s arm out of its socket with a horrific wet crunch.

Wizard III gritted her teeth, groaned, struggling to hold her bow. Her entire body shaking.

“Please use this to assist Vanguard IX in recovering. She needs an arm more than you do.”

Through the dizzying pain, Wizard III continued to bow. “As you command, Exalted.”

She held that bow valiantly, never collapsing even as the blood flowed.

Avaritia toyed with the arm a bit and pondered.

In all likelihood they would be a little late to the conference in Aachen, but that was fine.

All of their plans had become longer-term than any of them wanted.

But what good was a Destiny devoid of romance? Their destination was set, so why hurry?

“I am curious what more the hominin are capable of– let us watch them for now.”

Avaritia smiled in the darkness, her cross-hair flashing.

And her shadow stretching across the room as a hundred-limbed, serpentine horror.


“I’m telling you, I’m fine now.”

Majida al-Khaybari cast a tired glance at Raaya al-Shahouh, who was fussing over her.

She stood at the side of Majida’s bed with her arms spread out, preventing her from rising.

“You need to stay in bed.” Raaya said. “Please. Just a few more days. For me.”

“Raaya. Please step aside.” Majida’s breathing was troubled. She broke into a sweat.

“What happened to me being your wife, Majida? Sometimes wives must do these things.”

“Not so loud.” Majida moaned. She dropped back into bed, defeated.

Had Raaya made any more of a fuss, Mawla Asma or someone else close to her could have heard, and then they would both have some very awkward explaining to do.

Unlike Majida, bedridden and ill, the Mawla had a rare and blessed streak of good health and was engaged in inspecting the various tunnels and modules of Khaybar. Though Majida was not the “ruler” of Khaybar, she still felt a strong sense of responsibility for the community and as she lay in bed, she only grew more nervous of what the Mawla might think. Majida had been accruing more and more military resources while making only humble improvements to the life support and food systems. The Mawla might disprove of her ambitions.

Seeing Majida drop back into bed, Raaya sighed and sat down at her side.

“Everything will be fine.” Raaya said. “You’ll get to terrorize the world again soon.”

“Funny.” Majida replied sarcastically. It did little to lighten the mood.

Around them the room was fairly dark. In a corner of the room there was an improvised lamp of LED bulbs wired into a battery, but it was rather dim. The entrance to Majida’s simple abode was a physical door with a lever-catch. She had no possessions except her bed, and a chest for her clothes. Anything else she needed was outside that door, with the ummah she cherished. Her only precious treasure in that room now was Raaya herself.

Majida turned her head and looked at the rock wall of their room.

Her mood took a dark turn as she imagined the Mawla making the rounds.

All of these people whom Majida had sworn to protect, to save; to uphold their justice.

She had promised the old warlord al-Khaybari that she would protect everyone.

Was it even possible to protect them? Living in this cave, with hunger and sickness?

Confined here eternally, and for what? For the sin of believing differently?

In a sense, was she any better for the ummah than that bastard Radu?

Was she really just an illusionist then? Another false hope for their beaten people?

Majida felt a rare swell of emotion.

She began to weep and she hated herself for it. She felt so weak and so helpless.

In her mind, she envisioned the man whose DNA she was cursed to bear.

“Raaya, was I born to bring misfortune? Was Mehmed truly so evil that I must suffer too? Can I do nothing? It feels as if I was destined to struggle fruitlessly. I am afraid for us.”

Raaya smiled gently. She reached for a bucket of cool water and dipped a towel in it.

“My father used to say that ‘to believe in Destiny is to disbelieve in justice’.” She said.

She laid the towel on Majida’s head. It provided some relief from the heat she was feeling.

Even more relieving was the gentle gaze and comforting touch of her companion.

“I like that.” Majida said softly. She smiled bitterly. “I want to believe in that.”

Raaya tenderly laid down at her side. “Majida, I truly believe you are living proof of it.”

Majida shut her eyes, comforted by Raaya’s presence.

She wanted so dearly to believe that, in spite of everything, God loved her.

That God loved her people too– and that they were not cursed to die in this place.

She had to recover soon. She needed to get out there again and fight for them.

If it was against such a cruel Destiny– Majida would curse and fight it with all her strength.


“Ha! Ha ha ha! Incredible! A Core Separation? How inventive! And they still lost?”

Laughter boomed through the room and out into the adjacent hallway.

“Such trick was only necessary for lack of martial prowess! A sign of weakness! Pathetic!”

Seated on an collection of colorful inflatable chairs, for one cushion along was not enough to hold her stature: Labrys Agamemnon. A “representative” of the Mycenae Military Commission of Southern Katarre, she had suddenly burst out laughing at some news.

She laughed at the thought of the terror Kreuzung must have gone through, and the folly of the Cogitans who still failed even after such an audacious gambit. Truly the Cogitans were the weakest race on the planet, reliant always on trickery. Only the Imbrians were truly war-like and mighty enough to rival the Katarran race in any way, she thought to herself.

Labrys lounged in a penthouse prepared for her in Stralsund, one of Eisental’s few luxury habitats. Unlike Kreuzung, which was a tower-type station, Stralsund was an arcology, with a domed structure and vast underground works. Stralsund’s upper level, under the dome, had free-form construction, with streets and discrete buildings, and it was a gorgeous and racuous pleasure resort. Standing at 3 meters tall, Labrys was not going to be comfortable anywhere but the upper level, where there was “sky” overhead, rather than a ceiling scraping against her horns. And only a VIP suite with a sliding glass ceiling would do for her pleasures. Seated on her cushioned throne, holding a bottle of fine wine by the neck, with a tray of charcuterie meat balanced on the flat and broad side of the axe-shaped tip of her tail.

“I thought the audacity of the method would appeal to you. Perhaps give you ideas.”

“Hah! You still don’t know me very well, Asan. If you’re trying to suck up, try harder!”

“I am simply concerned about our position.” Replied the annoyingly curt Shimii.

Labrys suddenly leaned forward, eye to eye with her inexpressive subordinate.

“Being concerned isn’t your job. But I could give you something to be concerned about.”

Asan did not waver in front of Labrys, despite the gargantuan difference in size. A slender, fair and almost cute Shimii woman, purple hair and a little lab coat, all made up in pigments; versus the Colossus of Sebbenytos, red and orange hair like flames, clad in golden armor, her muscled figure lacquered bronze, whose very tail was a deadly weapon. It would have made for a farcical scene had it not been for the sheer power and menace Labrys exuded.

In deference to that power, and the control it had over her life, Asan stepped back.

She dropped to one knee in deference to the warlord.

Labrys grinned and leaned back.

Raising her wine bottle and nearly downing it all in one gulp.

While Asan waited to be either dismissed or addressed once again.

She was lucky she was so useful– anyone else so out of line, Labrys would have beheaded.

Talking back to a superior was close enough to sin for a death sentence in Mycenae.

“Tell me, how is our little Warlord doing? You should be here to talk about your actual responsibility, rather than bringing me fucking news, don’t you think?” Labrys snapped.

“I apologize for my impudence. Her review is nearly complete. The troops respect her.”

Labrys smiled, bearing all of her many sharp teeth.

“Of course they respect her. She was created to rule. It is her inalienable genetic Destiny. Neither of us would be alive and here if she could not command basic respect.”

She reached out her enormous hand and prodded Asan with one large, sharp finger.

Again Asan locked eyes with Labrys without expression.

“But her creator is perfectly fallible. She could fail me yet. And I’d hate for that to happen.”

“Physiologically, Astra’s body is without flaw.” Asan said. “She has not shown any signs–”

“I’ve heard this once before.” Labrys said, moving her tail, plate and all, close to Asan.

Before Asan could offer a rebuttal, or shy away from the blade, a door opened behind them.

Both Labrys and Asan quieted, since the subject of their discussion had just appeared.

They quickly shed all hostility and tension and awaited acknowledgment from the girl.

Dressed in a uniform that was gold with black trim, festooned with medals.

Their new arrival was a short and slight woman with a confident gait, incredibly beautiful features, very fair and regal, with copious pale hair that almost touched the floor. In her hair there were several thin black antennae interspersed within it, with a few of these structures stiffly arranged in something like a four-pronged crown at the back of her head. Infrequently, a spark of electricity would crackle from that crown. Trailing behind her was a pair of spindly, eel-like tails that could be manipulated, but were currently just dragging.

As a Panthalassian, she had inherited features from the DNA of a– rare– donor animal.

Perhaps one of the rarest and most dangerous in the world.

It had to be that way– had she been born any lesser, Mycenae would have rejected her.

That superior DNA contained the oaths that kept Mycenae together.

When she looked upon her, Labrys could almost see Katarre reunited again too.

“Long live the Palaiologoi! For the Golden Age!” Labrys said, putting her fist to her chest.

That fist still clutching the nearly empty wine bottle, even in the presence of her lord.

At this scene, the Mycenean Warlord Astra Palaiologos II simply smiled.

She was young still, and forgave the excesses of her great and terrible mentor quite easily.

Or at the very least, she mostly ignored them.

Labrys loved to see that beautiful little smile on her face.

That naïve, malleable smile.

“Lord Agamemnon. I have completed my inspection of the troops. It is satisfactory.” Astra said softly. “Even those rambunctious mercenaries seemed to be falling in line for me. Spirits remain high too, even in the circumstances. Many seem excited for what may come.”

“Of course! It is in the blood of every Mycenean to see opportunity in chaos.”

Labrys reached out her enormous hand and patted Astra on the shoulder.

Asan averted her gaze as Astra looked eager in the presence of the dark Colossus.

“We stand to make a lot of money, my liege.” Labrys said. “Our time is soon to come. Just give the Eisental pot a few more degrees. It is bound to explode, and so will our profits.”

Astra nodded her head. She said nothing more. She was a quiet girl, often with her thoughts.

That part of her, Labrys wasn’t too keen on. But it did not matter.

Quiet was fine as long as she remained compliant.

Soon, this patch of the Imbrium, including that girl, would all be dancing on her palm.

Labrys knew for certain it was her Destiny to ascend to ever greater riches.

And maybe even power. Over Mycenae– over all of Katarre.

That was the unalienable truth inscribed into her DNA.


On an enormous television in the middle of a lavish pink room, a soft couch full of big, fluffy teddy bears watched scenes of carnage that played out in a distant place on a distant day. The Rhinea News Network had been playing the events of the Kreuzung Core Separation nonstop. Opinionated guests urged citizens to throw their full support behind the Volkisch Movement, and referred to the Core hijackers ominously as “the alternative” to the Volkisch law and order. Every day a new reason to fear arose. Weakness from the Liberals allowed crime or terrorism or extreme communist violence or another abstract demon to slip into Kreuzung’s core. And your home could be the next one attacked by the madness.

From the midst of the plushies, a slender and fair hand made a gesture in the air.

The television shut off with a quick command from a remote.

“It’s incoherent, but it will scare the oldsters who still watch RNN.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg spread her arms and yawned, leaning back on her couch.

All of this was quite sad– and she felt a touch of regret about it all too.

She had been watching days of this mess playing out in the media, while waiting for the delegates to the United Front to arrive at Aachen. It was not the media narrative itself that troubled her– the RNN’s right-wing slant was well known. Even the RNN’s accession to the premier media of the Rhinean government would not do much. Most of Rhinea was composed of apolitical liberal Imbrians who did not suddenly become fascists just from having one news network that was known to be toxic put in their faces.

What did haunt her– was the sheer enormity of the situation at hand.

Twelve ships of the Cogitan remnant fleet caused a monumental event to transpire. They very nearly destroyed an entire station, and could have killed hundreds of thousands. They attacked the core of an Imbrian station. Violated the taboo and nearly eliminated a human habitat. In her mind, that felt massive. It exerted its own gravity that felt crushing in its weight. Humanity could have been reduced. They could have lost Kreuzung as land.

Gloria was not just planning for hypothetical conflicts anymore.

It was actual war now. War that could become apocalyptic.

Soon, such decisions would be in Gloria’s own hands as well.

They would be her duty. Everyone would expect her to be decisive.

Everything on the television had felt so distant, once upon a time.

Other people’s problems. Outside the walls of her beautiful gardens.

Now, war and violence was hurtling toward Gloria, or Gloria herself hurtling toward it. Headlong, without pause. She had set into motion events that could not be taken back and written pages that could not be ripped. The “Red Player” on the board. The little rich Princess on a vast stage. Hundreds of lights would shine demanding upon her soon.

Her hand on the remote trembled.

She thought of words she heard Kremina Qote scream at the crew of the Brigand.

There is no United Front without Daksha Kansal.

Could Gloria Innocence Luxembourg give more to the world than Daksha Kansal?

Could she give more than Leda Lettiere– could she give her entire life for this?

Gloria remembered, so long ago, when her eyes met those of Leda Lettiere–

that power–

She hugged one of her plushies close. Hugged it extremely tight.

She smiled to herself. Whatever was she worriying about?

A few tears shed from her eyes. There was no turning back. It was done.

She was trapped in this and could do nothing but accept it.

No– she had been hurtling toward war for a long time now.

More than just the thought of Leda Lettiere and what she had meant– her school days were days of loss and transformation that revealed the world as too evil for her to endure.

Those days overturned ideas of power and nobility that she had long held.

Since then, she knew she had to claim the gold of the Gods for her own wicked self.

From the moment that Leda Lettiere met the gallows–

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg had received her inevitable Destiny.


At the top of the main building of the Rhinea News Network in Thurin station, the Fuhrer Adam Lehner had a private office, decorated to his liking, from which he ruled the country. At his back the wall was entirely glass, his window into all of Thurin below him. Furnished with a tall leather executive chair; a desk made of real wood; glass cases with models of ships on the walls. On that day, the model on his desk, which he had just recently assembled himself, was a Ritter-class Cruiser from Maximus Models’ “Highest Grade” line.

It was assembled without its various gun turrets, and partially painted blue.

Lehner stared at it for a few minutes while waiting for a visit from his officers.

He reached out an index finger and nudged it ever so slightly.

Enjoying the cooler angle that it had from his vantage, when poked a little to right.

Without the guns, it had such a sleek profile. And the guns were annoying to glue anyway.

Then an LED blinked on his desk to alert him to someone at his door.

Lehner cast a bored look at the door then returned his attention to the model.

Through the door walked two figures in black uniforms.

One was familiar, the Chief of Staff of the Rhinean Navy, Walther Weddel. A round-headed, very sweaty man with a rather wan and pathetic expression– Lehner felt almost disgusted to look at him sometimes. He was so disappointing. Lehner had told Weddel that he needed to put on some muscle, and if Weddel was even trying, it was impossible to see. However, the person next to him, despite being a woman, was the far more impressive one.

It was this woman that caused Lehner to lift his gaze from his sexy model ship.

All of the gallantry Walther lacked as a man, Hedwig von Treckow seemed to possess. She was taller than him, leaner, with sharper facial features, and particularly long and attractive legs. Her dark, shoulder-length hair had a fantastic sheen, long and wavy with a slight curl in the ends, and an ornamental braid on one side. Her makeup was perfect– Lehner paid particularly attention to her lips. Outside of the recent promotions Lehner had heaped on Violet and her freakish clique, von Treckow was one of the very few self-made female admiralty of the Volkisch Movement, with the rank of Brigadeführer. Female admiralty in the Volkisch movement wore a pants uniform rather than a skirt, and it only made Treckow look all the more comparable to Weddel, and again, absolutely not in his favor.

Lehner almost wanted to crack some kind of joke that Treckow should just become a man and replace Weddel in the high command for optics; but it made him think about Violet and all that assorted scandal and he did not want to promote further thinking along those lines. So instead he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, bored and awaiting the two of them to report. He knew some of the points they were going to bring up already.

“We’ve got good news and bad news, don’t we? Start with the good news.”

“Heil, Fuhrer,” Treckow said, speaking before Weddel, “we have arranged a ninety day ceasefire with the Royal Alliance’s main force under the Brauchitsch admiralty. A few mercenaries and stray bannermen attempted to take parting shots, but were easily repelled without the main force of the nobles. The front is already quieting down as we speak.”

“Sorry doll, that’s bad news for me.” Lehner said. He groaned. “That’s news that makes us look weak. I didn’t say ‘no’ when this was proposed, and I could’ve, because I’m the guy, but I don’t have to like it. Put that under bad news and tell me something else. How are those royal bastards holding up? They can’t possibly still have parity with us, can they?”

“In the final accounting, we did just a bit more damage to them than they did to us.” Weddel said, taking over for Treckow. Lehner already wished Treckow had continued speaking. If Weddel wasn’t such a good manager, he would have demoted him to staff mailman just to avoid having to see and hear him. “And they have far less ability to recover long term. We have Rhineametalle and Skuld Armaments and all that– we have corporations with developed industrial pipelines. They only have whatever bits of Bruckwaldt Armorers that managed to flee to Yucatan with the clan. We will whittle them down long term.”

“Long term doesn’t matter!” Lehner said. “I wanted these puffed-up queers dead yesterday. We should’ve had all the metals and food they’re sitting on! If I did, then I wouldn’t have to lose sleep over Rhineametalle and those corporate bastards you trust so much!”

“Sir– I’m– Well–”

Weddel looked at a loss for words.

Treckow cleared her throat and interrupted his stuttering.

“Fuhrer, I have a proposal to turn the ceasefire to our advantage.” She said.

“Now that is what I like to hear.” Lehner said, his eyes suddenly interested in more than Treckow’s legs and chest. “See, Walther, that’s initiative. You’d do good to dig some up.”

Weddel frowned. He eyed Treckow as if to bid her to please continued speaking.

“Sir,” Treckow continued. “The internal situation of the Royal Alliance is deeply complicated. There are multiple competing interests within their stronghold in Yucatan. During a hot war, these factions do not have opportunity to seek their own advantages– issuing a ceasefire is necessary for their military wing to reorganize, but it will give their political factions the space to further feud. We can use the time to infiltrate, reconnoiter and exploit the political divisions of the Alliance to weaken it from the inside and make it easier to destroy.”

Lehner sat in silence for a bit, blinking, a vacant look on his face.

He then clapped his hands.

“Fantastic! Finally! Look, Weddel– a winning mentality! Please, Treckow, tell me more.”

He put on a smile and stared even more intently at Treckow.

She continued to fix his gaze without making any undue expressions.

Lehner had almost wanted her to blush or act girlish but it apparently just wasn’t her style.

“There are three main weak points which we can target to weaken the Alliance. We should begin to sneak in Sicherheitsdienst and Stabswache agents into the Yucatan to take advantage of this. I would like to plan to do so in the upcoming prisoner exchanges.”

“Draft a proposal, and Weddel, take everything she says very seriously.” Lehner said.

“Of course– I’m the one who brought here, I cosign everything–”

“Shut up and let her talk, Weddel.”

Treckow continued speaking as if Weddel and Lehner were not feuding.

She held up three black-gloved fingers.

“First point: recently the Sedlitz and Lothair families formalized a merger through marriage between their young scions, in order to provide the Alliance with a ‘king and queen’ and a ‘royal court’ to replace the Fuellers.” Treckow said. “Sethlitz and Lothair were the 3rd and 5th houses in the Imbrium Empire as the Fuellers led it– but of course, the lower houses are not all necessarily accepting that the Fueller status quo should be reproduced within the Alliance. We could potentially find and promote a competing royal couple from the lower houses to sow discord within the aristocrats. It would be especially useful if we could disrupt the 8th House too, Brauchitsch– they are responsible for training and strategy.”

“This one’s a tricky idea.” Weddel said. “We don’t necessarily have an in here–”

Lehner spoke up. “We have aristocrats right in this room.” He said. “Treckow, you are part of the Treckow family– or you used to be– correct? They were the 9th House, once upon a time. Surely we have more former aristocrats around who could infiltrate the Alliance.”

Treckow shut her eyes. “I will do as you command, for national socialism. Never has a Treckow officer abandoned her leader and duty– save for my disgraced clan–”

Weddel cringed.

“Please don’t send Treckow away, Fuhrer. It’s– It’s so hard to get good help–”

Lehner bared his teeth.

“I didn’t mean Treckow specifically! You dolt! Ugh. Treckow, what’s point two?”

“Yes, Fuhrer,” Treckow said, “Point two entails the preponderance of mercenaries in the Royal Alliance. Katarrans, Loup and certain Imbrian adventurers have been fighting as monarchist soldiers of fortune. These forces are smaller than the core of veterans that Brauchitsch has been leading for the Alliance, but they are significant enough. If we could turn them at a crucial moment, it could shift the tide of the war in our favor. Alternatively, we can at least pay them enough to look the other way at our initial infiltrations.”

“I’m not buying any mercenaries.” Lehner said. “If there’s anything the Royal Alliance has it’s money– all those fucking nobles are loaded with diamonds and gold and shit. I’m not gonna match whatever exorbitant price they are asking to fight for these losers. Not for what, 10 or 15% of their armed forces in total? It’s not a good deal, doll. I only take the best deals.”

“We should consider at least paying for smuggling and informants.” Weddel said.

“It’ll go out of your operational budget.” Lehner grumbled. “You have one, use it.”

“Very well, Fuhrer. Next point, Treckow?”

“My final point, and perhaps the most volatile: the native people of the Yucatan, the Campeche or ‘Campos’.” Treckow said. She launched into a history lesson that lost Lehner near immediately. “During the Empire’s expansion into the south, Imbria assimilated the Campos, who had created a militarily weak state. Yucatan remained largely dominated by the Campos since its location near the continent walls made it rich in minerals as well as growing materials for Agrispheres, so it was a region dominated by workers and corporate managers. The Alliance represents a massively extractive and domineering force over them.”

Lehner started gesticulating as if to say ‘get to the point’ but Treckow never picked up on the gesture until she was fully done speaking. Finally, the Fuhrer sighed and put his hands over his eyes. “What you’re saying is, we could try to instigate a native uprising? How? I don’t think the Escabeche people are going to be receptive to national socialism.” He finally said.

Treckow and Weddel ignored the flagrant mispronounciation.

“They might be. Nationalists exist everywhere.” Weddel said.

“And revolutionaries everywhere need a source of guns.” Treckow added.

“Guns? What’ll they do with guns?” Lehner asked, incredulous. “Brauchitsch has fleets.”

“We can sneak in Divers to them. Even Sturmvolkers, properly deployed, can make retaking any stations the Campos overturn painful for Brauchitsch.” Treckow explained.

“We don’t care about the ultimate success of the Campos, just the chaos they can sew.” Weddel said. “The Campos are the Alliance’s workforce, Sedlitz is cooked without them. And with all those conceited nobles around it will not take much to stir up a conflict.”

“I was on board at first, but the commercial went on too long.” Lehner said. He sighed. “Seriously, I don’t believe any of this will or can work– but it doesn’t feel like it costs me too much to take a gamble on it. It’s not like we’re in any condition to just break the ceasefire right away. But my priority is reorganizing the frontline– alongside all this spy nonsense, I want someone with brains like Treckow to plan a blitz ninety days from now.”

“Yes sir.” Treckow said. For the first time, her tone sounded just a little crestfallen.

“Weddel– keep on doing what you’re doing. Dismissed. Send me all the plans you make.”

Lehner waved his hands dismissively, as if shooing two dogs out of his office.

Treckow and Weddel hailed victory and left the room.

Once they were gone, he reached into a drawer for a pack of cigarettes and lit one.

Not some electric vapor pipe thing– real cigarettes.

Hundred marks a pack. The good stuff.

“Honestly. I get behind all this ubermensch shit and not one of them is superior to fucking anything.” He took a long drag and ran his fingers across the surface of the cigarette. A concrete, vital object, not some necrotic facsimile. That’s what he wanted the Volkisch to be– but at every turn, he conceded living vitality to further erosion.

“All of this is a goddamn fucking nightmare.”

He was distracted by the red LED lighting up on his desk again.

“Come in, but it better be good! You didn’t schedule this!” Lehner shouted.

When the door opened, a sheepish Volkisch communications officer walked in.

Her beret was practically falling off her head with how much she was shaking.

“What’s the matter now?” Lehner asked, exasperated. “You can speak up!”

“Fuhrer,” said the girl, “We have a report of recent events in Kreuzung. It contains some– irregularities. We believed you should be consulted on the situation before it was officially disseminated to other analysts. I have the papers in this portable computer, sir.”

She approached the desk and deposited the computer on it.

Lehner looked down at it skeptically, for merely a second.

“Just tell me what it is!” Lehner said. He was getting fed up with his subordinates.

“Sir!” said the girl, straightening up as stiff as she could go. “It appears Kreuzung ended the Rhineametalle workers strike. They have struck a deal– details forthcoming– but apparently the deal was struck by Vladimir Lehner of the 7th Stabswache, acting as Reichsk–”

“Violet Lehner.” Lehner said suddenly. His reaction even surprised himself for a moment. However, he was too elated for introspection. “Finally, someone around here has displayed a shred of competence. So what’s the irregularity? You just got her name wrong?”

“Um.” The communications girl paused for a moment. “Well, sir, that was– one–”

“So what’s the rest then? Am I going to have to read all of this? Really?”

He picked up the portable computer and let it drop from his hand back on his desk.

The thudding sound caused the communications girl to shake. She finally continued.

“Sir, Kreuzung has declared itself the seat of a political unit called Reichskommissariat Eisental. It has also declared that Vlad– Violet Lehner is its Reichskommissar. Sir, it was the understanding of the Sicherheitsdienst that these proposed land divisions and governing positions were only to extend to future conquests, not to Rhinean regions.”

Lehner blinked, hard. His cigarette hung in his fingers untouched for seconds.

He brought it to his lips and took a long drag. Then he smashed it against his desk.

“Send for your boss. I want Haus right here, now. Bring every communication and report from Kreuzung for the past month. And get me a meeting with this Reichskommissar.”

Violet– his scandalous offspring was doing too fucking good a job right now.

And it had just then begun to deeply concern him what she might be capable of doing.

Maybe he was worrying for nothing– he was her father, surely she would not–

But–

But maybe she had the ambitious bastardry of a Vladimir rather than a sweet Violet.

Or worse– a born and bred Lehner.


“No– No, don’t leave me here– please take me away–”

Violet mumbled in her sleep. Nightmares. It was an almost nightly occurrence.

There was nothing she could do to protect her ward in the warped realm of her mind.

Nasser held tightly onto Violet, who felt so thin and small in her grasp just then.

She grit her teeth, overcome with dread as the players began the fated performance.

They had been playing house in Kreuzung for a bit– but those days would soon be over.

Sometimes she wanted to take Violet and run away for good.

But there was no use to that. There was too much at stake for both of them.

Normal lives were not meant for them.

It was impossible to outrun it, ever since they first laid eyes on one another.

Nasser, nothing but a wicked mercenary tasked with handling some forlorn girl.

Violet, a seed of hatred and scandal who nevertheless could not be allowed to die.

Ever since then, they danced upon the cruel, immense, and inescapable stage of Destiny.

For the future of Imbria.

For the future of the Shimii.

For their own futures.

Without their politics, and their blood, and the power they conferred, there was nothing.

There were a lot of people Nasser could curse. But there was nothing she could do.

Mehmed’s rebellion was crushed by the predecessors of the Volkisch in Rhinea’s navy.

Al-Khaybari’s people were confined to his mountain, to die with him.

Nasser the Elder died cursing the Mahdists for a hundred generations despite his “victory.”

Mogliv Omarov exiled to foreign lands to die. Radu the Marzban but a shadow of himself.

Who would be the next Hero whose ambition would overturn these lands?

Who would be the next one to fail and to be buried, leaving behind only grudges?

Nasser could not afford to fail as they had.

In order to have a future, she, too, had to realize Endsieg.

“I’ll be strong for you.” Vesna Nasser said. “I have to be strong. I have to be.”

For the Heroes whose feud she had to continue.

For the Order that she needed to construct.

And for the woman that she saved, and used, and now painfully, that she loved.

Vesna Nasser had to become a king worth the favor of Destiny.


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