Surviving An Evil Time [10.3]

That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.

Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.

Once her vision settled, she could make it out.

There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.

It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.

Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.

Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.

It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.

Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.

When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.

With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.

First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.

“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”

His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.

She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.

Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.

Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.

It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.

“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.

That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.

“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”

Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.

Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.

For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.

Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?

“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.

Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–

Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.

She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.

“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”

No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?

With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.

It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.

Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.

“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”

Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.

Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.

Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.

Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.

Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.

“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”

She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.

Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.

She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.

That could very well be her soon–

In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.

“Imani?”

Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.

Another black heart from Imani. No other text.

“This woman–! Ugh–!”

While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.

All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.

Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…

Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.

“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”

While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?

Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–

“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”

Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.

On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.

And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.

From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.

Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.

There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.

Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.

No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.

So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.

On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.

She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?

From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.

There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.

Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.

“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”

As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.

“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”

When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–

–how long their tongue was,

and forked. And how–

how sharp their teeth were–

“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”

Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.

Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–

“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.

Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.

For this person not to do so was pretty strange.

“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”

Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.

“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”

At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.

This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.

There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.

But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.

They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.

“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.

Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.

“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.

Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.

She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.

Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.

Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?

“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.

Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.

“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”

She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.

Homa had enough of this.

“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”

They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.

“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”

They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.

“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.

Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”

The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.

“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”

“What–?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”

Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.

Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.

All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?

When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.

“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”

Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.

“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.

As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.

“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”

Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.

“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”

For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?

She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.

Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.

So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.

From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.

The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.

He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.

Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.

Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?

Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.

She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.

Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.

“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”

Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.

Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.

Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.

Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.

It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.

For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.

Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.


Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.

When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.

There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.

Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.

When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.

The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.

Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.

This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.

Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.

“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.

Homa looked around the room.

Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.

She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.

Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.

Homa picked up.

“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.

“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”

Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”

From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.

When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–

That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–

Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.

She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.

Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.

She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.

“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.

“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.

Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”

Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.

She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.

After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.

While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.

Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.

Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”

“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.

And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.

“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”

That question came as a shock, for no good reason.

Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–

“Um, yeah, about that–“

“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.

“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“

“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.

“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.

Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“

“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.

“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“

Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?

It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!

“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“

“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”

Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.

She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.

“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.

The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.

“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”

Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.

“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”

It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!

Lesbians?!?!

“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”

“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.

She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.

And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!

There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!

Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.

(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)

“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”

Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”

“That sounds a lot more doable.”

Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.

Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.

She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.

Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.

Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.

Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.

Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.

“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”

“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.

Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”

For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.

“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”

“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”

Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.

At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.

“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”

Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”

She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.

“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”

“Uh huh.”

When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.

The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.

“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“

Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.

“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”

Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.

Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.

Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.

Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.

“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”

Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.

This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.

“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”

Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.

It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.

She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–

–she really did look like just some girl.

Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.

Imani looked happy to see it.

After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.

“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.

“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.

“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”

“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”

Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.

“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.

Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.

Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.

After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?

“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t it?”

Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.

“Well–”

Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.

“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.

“Say it–?”

“I dressed up like this for you.”

“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.

Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!

“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”

In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.

She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.

“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.

“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”

Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.

One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.

To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.

It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.

Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.

“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”

“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”

“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”

“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”

“Uh huh.”

“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”

“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”

She put on a little grin.

Homa shuddered at the thought of it.

“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”

Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.

Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.

“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.

Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.

“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”

“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.

“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”

Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.

According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.

There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.

“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”

“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.

“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”

All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.

Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.

There was something about it that was a little painful, however.

Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?

Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?

“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”

Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.

“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”

“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.

“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”

“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”

Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.

And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.

In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.

“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.

“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”

“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”

Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.

Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.

Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.

“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”

Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”

“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”

Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.

At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.

Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.

Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–

She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!

Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”

As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.

Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.

Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.

A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.

Imani giggled as she swiped through them.

“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”

By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.

So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.

“Let’s take a few more!”

After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.

Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.

Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.

Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.

“It’s so cute!”

When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.

She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.

“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”

Homa nodded silently.

Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.

Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.

“Fancy.” Imani said.

She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.

After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.

Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.

Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.

Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.

“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”

Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.

Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.

“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.

Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.

Imani Hadžić.

They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–

In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–

Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–

Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.

“Imani, why–?”

“Hmm?”

Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.

With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.

“Um–”

Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.

Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.

“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.

There was an obvious tremble in her voice.

She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.

Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–

“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”

Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.

Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.

“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.

“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”

Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.

“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.

Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.

It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.

“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”

She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.

Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.

An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.

Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.

In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.

“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.

Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.

In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.

“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.

“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”

When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.

“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”

Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.

As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.

There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.

With that in the background, the music became frenetic.

“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”

She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.

Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–

–vicious.

“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–

“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”

Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.

Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?

“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“

She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.

Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.

Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–

“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”

Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–

–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.

With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.

About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.

And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?

But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.

After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.

Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.

And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.

“Ho~ma~“

For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.

Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.

Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.

Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.

“Ho~ma~“

When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.

Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.

Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.

Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.

But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.

Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.

“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”

Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.

The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.

Over several festive hours,

she had been nurturing affection,

for the girl Imani wished she could be.

It hurt.

“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.

Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.

“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”

Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.

If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.

Then at that moment–

Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.

Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–

–who saved the witch from her demons.


After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.

Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.

It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.

After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.

White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.

“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.

Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.

Then the dinner plates came in.

Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.

This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.

It really was like beefy butter.

Madame Arabie never stood a chance.

“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.

“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”

From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.

“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.

Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.

But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.

Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.

She had to move on.

“Thank you, Imani.”

“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”

She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.

Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.

After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.

That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.

As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.

Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.

Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.

A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.

That most brief glance–

–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.

Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.

Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.

Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.

Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.

That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?

Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.

Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.

Imani–

“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”

It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.

Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?

Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?

She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.

“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”


In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.

“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“

“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“

Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.

“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.

They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.

“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.

“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”

“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.

They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.

Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.

“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”

This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.

“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“

For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.

Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.

“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”

Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.

At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.

Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”

Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.

Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.

And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.

What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


Previous ~ Next

Arc 2 Intermissions [II.4]

The Occupation of Serrano

Fleet Admiral Maya Kolokotronis walked through a concrete hall flanked by sliding metal doors with a reinforced glass slot in each to peer inside the sparse, cramped all-white rooms. Each had enough space only for a bed and a toilet. She was accompanied by her retinue of power-armored Katarran bodyguards and her Commissar, Georgia Dukas, in full uniform, with greatcoat, peaked caps, short dark green capes.

“This is the standard security cell block.” Georgia said, consulting information on a handheld terminal. “And yet every cell here can be made into a solitary confinement cell with a few clicks. I gotta wonder what their supermax looks like. We can probably keep the Serrano bourgeoisie down there to teach them a good lesson, depending on how bad it is.” She put on a cheerful smile contemplating this possibility.

Maya maintained a stony expression as she surveyed the facilities.

“Once we’ve extracted anything useful from them they’re all going to be target practice dummies.” She turned to Georgia as they walked. “What’s the status on processing the existing prisoners? Any news?”

“Maya, there are a lot of people imprisoned here. We’re doing what we can. We have a lot less people working on this than up above, there’s so many hungry and needy folks. This is like fifth priority.”

This was Serrano prison. It had been taken over by the Union military as part of the occupation. They were presently going over the offenses of the prisoners there with the idea that they may have been sentenced unfairly. Any deemed “political prisoners” of the Empire would be released, while those who committed violent acts would receive a round of appeal with a Commissar. Those who committed violent acts against the state, bourgeoisie, or police or military targets, could apply for release. Some truly heinous offenders would not be exonerated. The Empire punished certain heinous and dehumanizing crimes with life in prison, and used these criminals in work gangs — the Union simply shot them. This policy came about because the Union didn’t want to spend resources to indefinitely house prisoners guilty of “abominable crimes,” rare but not yet completely eliminated. The Union was, after all, still “building” communism.

For those people, for now, they would remain in prison with the local magnates, large landlords, and the Serrano political class. Eventually they would be tried under Union law, and possibly then executed.

At the end of the first block, the group took an elevator down to the next level. This level contained very similar cells. This prison was very high capacity, and it was built under the sea floor beneath the station. Because it was only accessible through defensible elevators fed by narrow halls, escape was unthinkable. At the end of the second level down from the first cell block, the group took the elevator down one more tier, and did finally find themselves at the first supermax block. At the sight of the structures before them, the Katarran guards whistled. There were some bleak jokes and remarks made about it. Some were amused, some disbelieving. Maya was old enough to remember service on a Katarran mercenary ship.

And even that level of abuse, was not as bad as what she was seeing in front of her.

Supermax block was a true panopticon, a circular cell block with a central spire that watched every cell around it. However, the cells were so much more cramped– the people inside them were basically forced to stand, and could not stretch their arms. Their faces were always visible through the glass slot in their doors so they could see the central spire and its search lights. They could also be targeted by the automatic 37-mm gun on a remote controlled turret, which could move on a rail to target any cell with a red laser dot to denote its current fixation. It could certainly penetrate the glass, and therefore the prisoners had to be aware at all times that the turret could shoot them right in the head with precision.

“They probably moved the gun around every so often just to scare people in the cells.” Georgia said.

“Jeez.”

“Ma’am, I don’t even know that the Serrano fat cats deserve this kinda shit.” one of the bodyguards said.

Maya shook her head. “Only because I don’t want to waste time before liquidating them.”

This structure was a stark contrast to the punitive measures the Union took, which were not always themselves humane, but were at least efficient. In the Union, they had prisons, and prisons were separative. People were removed from society, but also from the objects of their crimes, so that they could be analyzed, and better understood, and maybe even reformed if it was felt possible. Union prisons were not beautiful, but they were fairer than this. Rather than a prison, this was a large scale torture device. In Maya’s mind anyone evil enough to deserve such treatment should have just been expunged. And more than likely, the majority of the people in these cells were undeserving of this treatment.

“Get a team to release these people and keep them somewhere else.” Maya ordered. “Even if we’re still waiting to check their files. It’s insane that nobody thought to move them before I did, has nobody gone down here? We can’t slack or take it easy when it comes to this job. I want this place taken care of within the day, make sure the functionaries know it. Marceau will hand out sanctions in my place if they don’t.”

Georgia’s skin briefly flashed white and then flushed red. Her chromatophores registered her surprise.

“Yes Admiral. I don’t disagree, but it’s a bigger job than we imagined, and there’s other concerns.”

“I don’t care if the people whose concern this prison is have to put in quadruple overtime. Get it done.”

Georgia smiled, looking amused at Maya’s seriousness. “Indeed, it will be done, Admiral.”

And so, the Union’s culture shock with Serrano’s various systems continued at overtime rates.

One point of contention was the handling of the local police and military prisoners.

For the police, Maya had advised that the officer class be purged while the lower rung investigators simply disarmed and disbanded, and then tracked for some time to insure compliance and transition to productive work lives. A Union-style Public Safety Volunteers corps could then be raised in its place. For the local military, they would tried according to existing POW processes; not so for the Volkisch troops, who would be given no chance of appeal as they were considered too ideologically suspect.

Meanwhile, it was well understood to all levels of the occupation that the bourgeoisie and political class of Serrano was on the outs. Serrano had an elected local government with both a lower tier community council and an upper tier state council, but even the liberal politicians were folding over to accept Volkisch control, so the Union trusted nobody above the levels of clerks and keyboardists with data entry jobs. While there were a few people loyal to the previous administration, writ large, most of the workers at the various ministries and offices and the public services just wanted the storm to blow over.

Because it was such an extraordinary situation, the Union did not have literature and training material prepared ahead of time to train the people of Serrano on Union law and commerce. Such training began to be administered ad hoc by the fleet, and requests for such materials were forwarded back to the Union, where resources began to muster for the task. In the meantime, friction and confusion and ad hoc solutions to problems would have to be accepted by the people and the incoming occupation authority.

Maya Kolokotronis would not be around to see every step of the process, so she felt a sense of urgency.

While she was around, nobody would slack off– but she was not scheduled to remain.

She was recalled to the Union to be paraded as a war hero– a state of affairs she did not begrudge.

Propaganda was powerful, and the Union’s military was heavily political.

More than anything though, she missed her fiance and the Union’s humble cafeterias.

With her recall, Maya’s last action was to choose a military governor in her own place.

From the outset, she already had someone in mind.

Until then, however, if everyone had to work overtime, they would do so, and so would she.


“It’s such a big office! It’s ridiculously big! Even my office back in Naval HQ is not this big!”

“It’s fine, you hardly sit in that office anyway and you’ll hardly sit in this one. You’re always up and about.”

In the middle of the lower tier of Serrano, an enormous central pillar rose up into the sky. A load-bearing monument of concrete and steel beams, it also housed several government offices, and a path to the upper tiers of the station. Thirty stories up, there was a furnished but unused office for the Mayor of the lower tier. South-facing, the office had an enormous reinforced glass window that provided an unfolding view of the sprawl, all the way out to the dark blue glass bubbles sealing off the ships in the port. There was a certain atmosphere provided by the dark steel buildings, winding grey roads and dim yellow light, and the view of the ocean as the true horizon, that inspired an ominous feeling in the occupants.

Admiral Champeaux-Challigne whistled, staring at the port berths in the distance. All that dark water outside, it was like a television screen displaying a yawning void. “It makes me think like, if there was an explosive decompression event, and I was staring right here, I’d see the water pour in, at least for a moment. Right? This office wouldn’t be the first place to be destroyed. For a few seconds–“

“Quit being so morbid. And don’t let your imagination run this wild in front of anyone else. They’ll think you’re not taking this seriously. Serrano is not going to flood yet, so get used to the responsibility.”

“I’m not goofing off! I’m just thinking, you know? We don’t have stations like this in the Union.”

Accompanying the dog-eared Loup Marceau Laverne De Champeaux-Challigne was the cat-eared Shimii admiral Nadia Al-Oraibi. She was shorter, and less statuesque and cut as the Loup beside her, with dark brown skin and messy black hair down to the shoulder, a contrast to Marceau’s olive skin and blond hair. Her ears and tail were light brown and fluffy, while Marceau’s were stiff, tall and dark, her tail bristly. Their green uniforms were same, however, and even resplendent with the same freshly unpacked medals. They had been awarded the People’s Valorous Commendation and the Meritorious Service Award, the first steps in the chain of awards that culminated with the prestigious “Hero of the Socialist Union.”

After the operation, the only admiral awarded “Hero of the Socialist Union” was Kolokotronis.

“Nadia, as the new Military Governor of Serrano, I’m appointing you to lead the regional defense.”

“How selfish.”

“What? You’re just the best person for the job! I demand you accept, I absolutely demand it.”

Nadia threw Marceau a skeptical look as they walked around the office.

“I’m not sure you have the authority you think you do.”

“You’re the one who is misinformed. I confirmed everything with the Premier personally over video call.”

“So you are allowed to appoint personnel in Serrano?”

“I am! So what do you say? I’ll help you: say yes! We can work closely together.”

Marceau gave Nadia a big warm smile. In turn, the cat avoided her gaze and acted aloof.

Upon further inspection they found that the office was not just south-facing, it wrapped around the entire building column with glass doors leading to different sections. There was a room with a desk, a room with couches, a room with a long table with several seats, computers in each room, and a labeled break room which was locked down. Everything was separated by glass dividers with sliding doors except the break room, which had solid walls around the door. Marceau and Nadia stared at it quizzically.

“I don’t see a keycard reader. Do you?” Marceau asked.

“No. This one is locked with a traditional key. There must be something good behind it.” Nadia mused.

Marceau stepped forward, slid her hand into the recessed well for the door latch and tugged on it.

It did not budge an inch.

There was indeed a keyhole in the well, for a physical key to operate the circular lock.

“We have master keys, but obviously for digital card reader locks. Not something like this.”

Nadia stepped forward and peered into the hole.

“Oh well.”

“Not ‘oh well’. I won’t give up so easily while these Imperial bastards hoard things. Stand back from it.”

“Marceau, it’s a steel door–“

Nadia did step aside, and just in time for Marceau to throw a brutal front kick at the door.

Her boot crashed into the center of the door, and the plasterboard wall adjacent to the door, into which it had set, fractured catastrophically, and the entire apparatus of the door collapsed inward. With an enormous crash, the slider and the well into which the door slid, all of it toppled with the wall spilling into the room. Nadia stared at this, speechless. A door was only as secure as the walls around it, she supposed.

“Are you really a Loup? Are you sure you’re not actually a Katarran?”

“Hah! Don’t underestimate the physical feats a determined Loup woman can achieve.”

Neither of them wanted to examine whether anything else in this office was held up by cheap plasterboard. They peered through the devastation that Marceau had caused, and found what appeared to be a well-stocked private breakroom. Some furniture had been destroyed by the collapsing door, but critically, the liquor cabinet at the back was untouched. There were wine glasses, and some accoutrements like citrus juices and sugar syrup for mixing cocktails. Marceau stepped over the door with great relish.

“Look at this! We’ve got grape wine, we’ve got corn whiskey, we’ve got sugar beet rum!”

Marceau loudly went through the available liquor. She set down the rum and two glasses, and poured.

“Mighty presumptuous of you.” Nadia mumbled.

“Aww, c’mon. It’s not haram if it’s rum, right? I purposely didn’t pick the wine even though it’s nicer.”

Nadia finally exposed the slightest little smile. Without a word, she walked forward and took her glass.

“A toast, to the socialist heroes!”

Marceau lead the toast, and the two of them gently tapped their glasses together and drank.

Nadia took a sip, while Marceau downed the entire glass.

“Ahh! C’est magnifique! That asshole mayor doesn’t know what he missed out on here!”

In actuality, the previous mayor operated out of his house in the upper tier of Serrano and there was no record that he had ever been in his office here. This office was symbolic, a place to look down upon the rabble if he so chose, or a place where the rabble could look up and perhaps, imagine to themselves that he was there watching. Like him, but for different reasons, Marceau was not so sure she should use it.

She did not like the metaphorical optics of it and she was not sure she liked the physical optics either.

“Perhaps I will govern out of a boat instead. My Broceliande will be in port, after all.” Marceau said.

“Then why did you drag me out here with you to inspect it?” Nadia protested.

In the next moment, Marceau’s arm struck the wall next to her, and the Loup leaned forward, such that she was looming over Nadia and had her pinned to the wall. Her knee moved between the Shimii’s legs. Marceau licked her lips, and her tail wagged incessantly in the air. Nadia met her fiery gaze and did not once waver, as Marceau’s face neared hers, and the Loup began to nuzzle her neck and hold her tight.

“So we could be alone for a while, of course.” Marceau whispered, her voice tantalizingly low and deep.

“Perhaps I will stay a while then.” Nadia said, releasing a warm breath over Marceau’s hungry lips.

Marceau grinned violently and lifted Nadia to the wall by her leg with one hand, as the other began exploring. Kissing her so hungrily it muffled the few moaning protests, biting her neck and shoulder, her fingers tracing Nadia’s belly and beginning to undo her pants– Marceau made of her Shimii companion what she would. With nothing to cover the sight of them, but no one to see or hear the devouring.

A few hours later, Nadia returned to her docked flagship, wearing a bodysuit with her uniform that covered up to the neck, down to the wrists– more than usual, several gossips quickly took notice.

Marceau stayed the night in the building, drinking, relaxing, and basking fully naked by the wall-wide window in the main office. She decided to keep the office after all, even if the view was a bit eerie.

Nadia Al-Oraibi would be meeting with her frequently now, as the admiral in command of the Defense Forces of the Serrano Military District, which would be headed by Marceau Laverne De Champeaux Challigne as military governor. Though Nadia acted aloof toward the post, several staffers close to her did notice that she began going about her task with a greater spring in her step than the preceding days.

That office would become something special for them in the coming weeks.

A little place where they could escape the flood of bleak stories coming from everywhere in Serrano.

Even if only for a few hours on a few nights.

A little slice of heaven, of their own making, within the hell they struggled to set right.


“Everyone has to do a little social service sometimes! Even a big hero like you, Klob.”

“Okay, but is this really the kind of work I should be doing? Maybe I should be out on patrol instead.”

In the middle of Parrilla Park in the eastern end of Serrano’s lower tier, with the steel sky and sunlamps overhead, surrounded by tall, gloomy buildings, a group of pilots that had fought against the Volkisch with the Union’s Fleet Combat Group C were now unloading crates from the back of an electric truck. They had meal packs drawn from Navy stocks that consisted of wrapped square biscuits, vegetable and soy bullion for soup, peanut butter in foil packs and chewable vitamins. In addition, they would be taking down the names of people who needed accommodations or services, or whose buildings had faulty water or temperature systems, which they promised to fix once they knew the scope of the problems.

Around the edge of the park there was a small group of civilians watching them set up the goods. Slowly they began to feel more comfortable wandering onto the park grass, where the pilots were setting up.

“Please wait until we’ve fully unloaded! Then we’ll begin distribution in an orderly fashion! Thank you!”

Among those pilots was a girl widely considered the Ace of FCG-C during Operation Tenable, the katarran Klob Hondros. A round-faced girl with mottled golden-brown skin and dark beige hair cut to the shoulder and collected into two short tails in the back of her head. Her ears were shaped like the fins of a lionfish, with a pair of black slightly curling horns poking out from under her hair on the sides of her head. With her pleasantly round belly and thick legs and soft arms, she was a pretty, young girl, a true ‘maiden.’

This maiden, however, had destroyed 8 Volkers in Thassal, and an additional 6 and 2 Jagd recently.

Dressed in her combat suit with a uniform greatcoat worn loosely over it, the people of Serrano did not know her accolades at all, and so to them, she was like anyone else who could be distributing aid in the city. They did not know she was a big deal likely about to receive her “Hero of the Socialist Union” medal.

Meanwhile the young woman at the head of the pilots was Klob’s superior officer, Lieutenant Zvesda Petrovich, who had a bright expression, her curly blond hair bobbing about as she floated between the steadily forming crowd of civilians and the pilots unloading the crates, checking and marking things off on a portable terminal and assuring everyone that nobody would leave without their food pack.

Klob stared at her with a gloomy expression while bringing down crates from the truck and setting them down wherever she felt like. All of Klob’s crates were visibly set to the sides or even nowhere near the pile that everyone was building. Rather than being annoyed with her, everyone seemed amused with her visibly petulant behavior, and continued to humor her doing everything wrong throughout the unloading.

“I thought Katarrans were supposed to be super strong?” one of the other pilots teased her.

In response, Klob picked up a 10 kg crate of ration packs with one hand and lifted it over her shoulder.

She puffed her cheeks up in frustration. “It’s not about being strong! I shouldn’t be doing this job!”

Zvesda walked up behind Klob and patted her on the back. “We all have to do our part. I know it’s not in our job description, but it’s important for soldiers to show the people that we’re here to help them.”

Klob was well aware that she was being unreasonable, but she didn’t want to be out here.

She wanted to be back on the ship, sleeping and reading comic books until it was time to fight again.

“I don’t want to lift crates. Let me do security or something.”

“You’re not with security, Klob. If you want a different job, you’ll help me with handing out packs.”

“No! That’s even worse!”

Her petulance was thus punished — Klob would get to sit by the side of the truck during the unloading but she would have to personally hand out ration packs with that annoying ball of sunshine Zvesda. And so the situation developed that standing next to the orderly pile of aid goods, there was on one side a bright, smiling and cheerful Volgian girl and the other a gloomy Katarran with a friendless look to her.

People lined up for the food aid– all kinds of people. There were people whom Klob would have referred to as exceedingly normal, wearing ordinary work clothes and casual clothes in various styles. They did not look like they were experiencing hardship, but that was not for Klob to decide. They had a database that tracked who received food, and everyone was entitled to the same amount. As such, Klob silently handed a pack to a man in a suit, and then handed one to a woman in a vinyl hoodie and sweatpants, and also handed food to bowed, shabby-looking folks with old or dirty clothes, no shoes, shaking hands.

Among the latter group, one particular pair, a woman and her little son, caught Klob’s attention.

When they stepped forward, she picked out two packs from the stack and handed them over.

Her eyes lingered for a moment.

“What do you say to the lady?” The mother admonished her child.

“Thank you ma’am!” Said the child. “We haven’t eaten this good in days! Solceanos bless all of you!”

“Indeed, thank you.”

That clearly tired woman offered the tiniest smile, and Klob felt like, it was the most smiling she could do.

Klob had never seen anything like this.

She had not grown up on a Katarran ship, so she was a pure Union kid.

Intellectually, she was aware that there was hardship like this but–

It was hard to parse– surreal to witness.

“It’s okay. I’m glad you’re getting to eat.” Klob said back in a small, bashful voice.

After Klob handed her the food, Zvesda noticed her and the child and called them over.

“Ma’am, are you houseless? Let’s put your name down here, and write down somewhere that we can find you regularly. We’re trying to get everyone roomed somewhere as soon as possible.” She said.

In this way, they handed out food and took down a couple dozen names of houseless people.

Throughout, Klob felt something eerie. It was a feeling like–

–like she felt when she killed people.

A surreal sense that things shouldn’t be this way. A tiny piece of her heart and soul breaking.

Mute yearning for a better world that wouldn’t be– not just from killing a few enemy pilots.

And maybe, not even from just handing ration packs to a few people.

But both– both were duties that had to be taken. Little steps forward. She had to tell herself that.

After a few hours, the truck was empty and Zvesda’s terminal was full of names and pictures.

They would be driving the truck back to port, and coordinating with the intelligence personnel from Marceau Laverne De Champeaux Challigne’s flagship Broceliande and Nadia Al Oraibi’s flagship, the Shamshir. Both of these docked Cruisers had been tapped into the station’s CCTV and other data and people tracking gear in order to coordinate relief efforts. After reporting back the pilots would be told where else they were needed. They might unload goods at the port itself using their Divers, or they might set up a first aid station, or directly distribute aid, or go on patrol in electric bikes around the city– they weren’t needed for active blue water warfighting, so they were doing odd jobs all day instead.

“Klob, you’re looking a bit spacey. Is everything ok? It wasn’t so bad, was it?” Zvesda asked.

Klob had been standing with her arms crossed, her back against the side of the truck, sighing.

“I just don’t get it.”

“Hmm? What’s wrong?”

Klob shot Zvesda a serious look.

“How come that kid didn’t have any food? I mean– that’s just a kid. It’s not like he can work for food. Kids just get food, or– I thought they did. It doesn’t make sense to me for a kid to go hungry. And the mom, I don’t get it either. She’s old and I thought she might be sick, even if she didn’t want to say. So why–?”

“We grew up like that, but it was different here.” Zvesda replied. “They didn’t just give food away here.”

“But you need it to live. You need to eat or you can’t even work. What did they expect them to do?”

Zvesda smiled at her. “You have a really big heart Klob. Channel it into doing what you can to help.”

Klob puffed up her cheeks. “Bah. You’re just making fun of me. But I’m seriously concerned.”

Zvesda patted her on the back for comfort. There was no good answer she could give.

From that point, until she was recalled to the Union for an award ceremony, Klob did start putting in even more time than anyone else helping distribute aid and helping people get housed. There was no notable change in her gloomy demeanor or her distaste for dealing with crowds or with jobs she wasn’t meant to do– but it seemed like she had decided one day that helping in Serrano was something meant for her.

This would be cited in her commendation ceremony– but Klob didn’t think it was anything laudable.

Much like her piloting, it was the little bit that she could do to make a fragment of the world she wanted.


“Congratulations on your great success, Premier. We are now embroiled in a war.”

“Perhaps, but our territory has expanded by an almost an additional third.”

“Wastelands, a station that’s one giant slush fund, and an extremely contaminated Abyss.”

“And a good few million more people to welcome to the communist fold. Don’t forget it, Nagavanshi.”

In the Premier’s office at Mount Raja, Parvati Nagavanshi had entered through the automatic door and with a blank expression and monotone voice, began clapping slowly as she walked the carpet toward the desk of Bhavani Jayasankar, who watched her approach with an equally stony expression. Bhavani pushed aside the monitor near her face completely off to the side of her desk, and flipped a switch to raise a chair from the floor for Nagavanshi to sit on. Nagavanshi walked up beside the chair and stood the entire time.

“You know I prefer to stand.” Nagavanshi said.

“One of these days I’m going to make you sit down.” Bhavani said threateningly.

“I’m looking forward to it, Premier.”

They gave each other a smoldering gaze before transitioning neatly to their business.

“There is thankfully less of a fog of war than we thought.” Nagavanshi began. “We managed to reestablish communication with all involved fleet combat groups pretty quickly, and Serrano and Ajillo stations are now connected to our laser relay. There’s a bit of a bandwidth choke at Cascabel because the equipment there is in disrepair. But we are working on that, and it should not be a problem in the near future.”

“What are our losses looking like?” Bhavani asked.

Nagavanshi was stoic.

“Minimal. In the realm of small pockets of grief, rather than statistics. Don’t concern yourself.” She said.

“Are any units still actively involved in combat?”

“Not that I am aware of. Admiral Nadia Al-Oraibi is engaged in laying down a minefield between Serrano and the Yucatan as well as the approaches to Rhinea. Our defenses should be completed in a week, and the unit is in a combat posture until then, but we don’t expect a Volkisch retaliation. Everything they could spare from their frontline with the Royal Alliance was already in place in Serrano.” Nagavanshi said.

“I would not underestimate the fascist drive to glorious self-destruction.” Bhavani said. “Reinforce the fleet laying down our defenses. It’s not like anything will come from the Khaybar or the Vekan directions. We also can’t appear too certain of ourselves, or it will become evident to the Volkisch we have a direct line to their plans. They should see us acting a little paranoid for now to sell the uncertainty.”

“As you wish, Premier. I will relay the orders to Naval HQ.” Nagavanshi replied.

“How is the humanitarian situation?” Bhavani asked.

Nagavanshi’s countenance darkened a little. “Worse than we imagined, but not impossible to deal with.”

Upon the completion of the main combat objectives of Operation Tenable, Serrano underwent a political purge. Elected officials, wealthy businessmen, all previous security and police forces, and the heads of ministries and important departments were detained indefinitely. Union commissars, logistics personnel and various functionaries who had been accompanying the combat fleets arrived at the station, along with three troopships carrying 5000 Marines and their supplies to begin occupation duties.

While the work began to set up a Union-aligned government, the occupiers cooperated with existing lower level public workers in Serrano wherever possible, and only replaced them if they were completely unreliable politically. The occupation had the immediate task of collecting vital data on the station, such as demographics and economic data, in order to plug them into the Union’s supply chain as soon as possible. It was a monumental task that went much smoother with Serrano’s own experts aboard.

In the process, the Union occupation began to piece together recent events for Serrano Station.

Since the occupation of the Yucatan Gulf by the Royal Alliance, Serrano station had gone from having access to a functional industrial base including three major mining stations, a handful of civilian stations with productive industry in textiles and other consumer goods, a shipyard and steelworks for heavy industry, and four agri-spheres– to having access to a single local agri-sphere, Ancho, and the local production in Serrano. This shock caused a spiraling economic catastrophe for the station.

Serrano attempted to deal with the Royal Alliance for the purchase of needed goods, but the Royal Alliance needed nothing material from Serrano, so they could make extortionary financial demands. All Serrano really had was money, as the financial and political hub of Sverland, and money was all that the Royal Alliance wanted, as they had been raising morale among their troops and mercenaries with lavish bonuses. Rather than meet these demands Serrano chose to deal with the Volkisch instead.

In the meantime, capitalism ground on. Prices went up, and the market shock was particularly used by landlords to raise rents. Motivations ranged variously from anticipation of market hardships due to rising prices in other goods, to simply wanting to be rid of undesirable Serrano tenants in the hopes they might house richer Rhinean residents if a deal with the Volkisch came through. Houselessness in Serrano rose steadily for the past few weeks to a whopping 20%. Then, when the masses of the poor on the streets became unsightly, Serrano engaged in beating them out of the business districts with police violence.

In the lead up to the arrival of the Volkisch there were a few small incidences of “looting,” as defined by the former government, but once brutal Volkisch-backed patrols began to publically attack people in Serrano resistance became increasingly quiet. Most of the public violence that had ensued during the recent events was caused by the Volkisch and their collaborators within the station, as well as by local and state level police forces. When the Volkisch were put to flight by the Union there were renewed, relatively brief incidences of rioting, looting and revenge killings among civilians, but for the most part, the station’s population tried to keep their heads down, ignore the violence and privation around them, and simply get to their homes, if they had any, as fast as possible. Union troops instituted curfews for a few days, but once aid began rolling out to the public, the incidences of violence disappeared almost entirely.

For those who could afford increasingly irrational prices for housing, the supply of goods, particularly food and medicine, became their pain point. Serrano had a very modest manufacturing capacity, and most of it focused on luxury finished goods, particularly food products and high end textiles. Most people worked in service and gratuity sectors. Meanwhile Ancho station, the Union occupiers discovered, supplied exclusively fresh food with a 20% post-harvest loss rate. Their auxiliary technology focused on packaging and shipping such foods as quickly and as a fresh as possible to Rhinea and the Palatine. Even so, they also often accepted as much as a 15% loss of product at point of sale and distribution as well.

They had remarkably few canneries, very little in the way of drying equipment and curing supplies, they had no facilities for making use of byproducts. In short they had completely pivoted to selling expensive fresh food while accepting every bit of the wastage that came from this– for the Union, which had a strict 0% harvest loss policy, this was an outrageous state of affairs. Preservation supplies and gear were rapidly requested from the Union, hoping to beat the next harvest cycle which was coming in weeks. In the meantime, the Union confiscated and saved whatever food goods they could. In some cases, large quantities of vegetables about to go bad on the vine were picked by Union soldiers and cooked with improvised methods, such as blasting makeshift racks with the heat exhaust from Divers in dry air.

In the Union, agri-spheres were home to a lifestyle in itself. Access to more food, immediately, the ability to cook one’s own food, and being able to live among nature to a certain degree, were marketed as perks of the job, and people were paid more in accommodation, rationing, and other social benefits, than what their stagnant Union credit wage really suggested. In Serrano, however, Agri-Sphere work was low paid work for desperate people who had access to nothing else. The living conditions were miserable, and they had no benefits whatsoever. There were few hands in Ancho, and they were not happy with their working conditions. With the folding of the Serrano government, they wanted to be anywhere but Ancho, which represented additional headaches for the Union occupation authority. For the immediate moment the occupation authority abolished rents and debts, which brought a lot of relief to the farm workers.

Lovers of fresh foods in Serrano were in for a rude awakening. The Union would simply not accept the large scale waste which fresh food export would entail, and the market pressures that governed it. They had no profit incentive to make such niche goods for the markup they entailed in the Imbrian market. Ancho station would have to be geared toward growing high-yield Union GMO crops for large-scale distribution and preservation. It would be a laborious undertaking, but not an impossible one.

In Serrano itself, under orders from Admiral Kolokotronis and later Admiral Champeaux-Challigne, a rationing system was implemented. There was an immediate freeze on cash transactions. All storefronts were inspected and commandeered, supplies were tallied and earmarked. People were encouraged to visit their same shops as before for their food and goods, but they would receive a certain amount of items, and there would be no buying and selling. All fresh food which would’ve gone bad was cooked and handed out in whatever way made sense, often in an ad hoc fashion. All food which was scheduled to be thrown out was reevaluated and disbursed immediately where possible or eaten by occupation soldiers, for whom stale bread and slightly browning fruit was nothing new or particularly unappealing.

Needs began to be identified, and particular attention was placed to what would need to be brought in from the Union. Serrano’s biggest import need was in medicine, particularly medicines for chronic conditions, which were under-produced and highly marked up in the local economy. Even as the Union began to set up the occupation authority, people were dying of relapsing chronic diseases for lack of medicines. Fluids, oxygen and blood for hospitals were in chronically short supply, particularly due to recent spikes in violence and illness, and the Fleet could only donate so much from their own stocks.

Bhavani listened to the unfolding explanation with a variety of facial expressions, while Nagavanshi frequently handed her a portable terminal with numbers and graphics on the screen depicting all the findings of the Union functionaries. Capitalist economy in Serrano had essentially collapsed, which was a boon to the Union because there was less of it for them to visibly destroy by their own hand, allowing the station to more easily accept communist integration in the future– or so the planners hoped.

But materially, Serrano would be a charity case for the Union for some time, which would bite deep into the surplus stocks of food and goods that the Union was building up, as well as its ambitions to build a deeper and broader reserve against famine. This would be compounded if the decision was made to halt construction on a new agri-sphere and its attendant bulk haulers in order to develop more warships.

“Who was put in charge?” Bhavani asked. Nagavanshi showed her a picture on her portable.

A light-haired, dog-eared woman, tail furiously wagging, delivering a big speech in a Serrano park.

“Admiral Marceau Laverne De Champeaux-Challigne. Fleet Admiral Kolokotronis is scheduled to return to the Union soon for the big victory lap, and the fleet wanted an ethnic minority to be visibly in charge, as a counterpoint to the Volkisch sympathies exhibited by the previous station authorities.” Nagavanshi said.

“Yes, that woman is one ethnic minority who will be incredible visible. Incredibly loud, too.” Bhavani said.

She said this with a bit of fondness in her voice and a knowing tone.

Nagavanshi put on a little smile. “She’ll do a fantastic job. She has empathy and irrepressible drive, which is what we need from the political leadership. Everything else is being handled by a legion of analysts.”

Having gone over the whole story, and after a brief discussion of the numbers in greater detail, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar could do nothing but heave a long sigh at the situation they got themselves into.

“This is pretty grim, but we knew from the get-go that it was going to be bad.” Bhavani said.

Nagavanshi nodded. “It makes us look magnanimous, however. Just think of it– the capitalists abandoned this place, but the gentle hand of communism will save them from starvation and take them from living in gutters to having rooms and clean clothes. It’ll make for good domestic propaganda.”

“Speaking of which, what are we doing about the press?” Bhavani asked.

“All state media has been given the appropriate level of information and access.” Nagavanshi said.

“We’re not being too hamfisted about it, are we?” Bhavani asked.

“They’re not being told what to say. They are simply being given a treasure trove of heavily on-message information which they can sort through and make stories about in their own voices. I think that should be acceptable? If it were up to me alone, they would only be reporting approved talking points.”

“If it were up to you we wouldn’t have a press. But it’s a valuable asset, if you know how to manage it.”

“Look at you, giving the people a bit of democracy and free press as a yummy little treat.”

“Don’t be such a brat unless you’re looking to get disciplined, Parvati.”

“At any rate. We have also approved a few specific media figures to travel to Serrano to report on the conditions there. We are not using war messaging, but calling the prior events a special operation.”

“Good. Calling it a war would needlessly raise the hackles of all the old codgers in the Councils.”

“Speaking of those codgers, we are collating reactions and developing lists with regards to the Councils.”

“Good girl. We are about to transition to the homefront phase of the special operation.”

Bhavani winked at Nagavanshi, who, her expression still entirely deadpan, winked back.

“My vote to retain is coming up. But I don’t fancy being voted on in some joke election.” Bhavani said.

Nagavanshi raised her brows. “You don’t like your numbers? It’s not like there are any strong contenders.”

“I’ve floated the idea by you before, why are you surprised? How does Grand Marshal Jayasankar sound?”

“You needn’t scan my expression so suspiciously. Of course I am always going to support you.”

Bhavani smiled. “Everything is going to get ugly and complicated. Are you really so sure?”

Nagavanshi fixed her eyes directly on her Premier. “I told you before. We’ll burn in hell together.”

“I appreciate the devotion, but I wish you’d be so optimistic as to say we’re deserving of heaven.”

The Commissar-General’s cloak billowed a little as she took a few quick steps to the Premier’s desk.

She leaned over it, looking her even closer in the eyes. No on else had ever seen Nagavanshi so close.

“To the class that got to define heaven, people like us can only belong in hell.” She said.

Without word, Bhavani took hold of the back of her head and drew her in, kissing her long and deep.


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.4]

This chapter contains a reference to suicidal ideation.

“All of us trust Murati Nakara. So let me show her the truth.”

Murati stood at her edge of the table, speechless, as Euphrates reached out her hand.

Colors floated off her, at first like wisps of vapor from the end of a vaporizer pipe. They spread and grew, and it was difficult to understand the dimensions of them, the breadth and depth, even the composition. Sometimes they felt like lights, an aura, or a rainbow that if touched would have no interaction with the skin, but at other times, viewed in different angles, it seemed like the gas of a nebula from images of outer space passed down through time by the remains of surface scientific discoveries. There were other feelings associated with the colors that did not even relate to Murati’s visual recollection.

When she focused on them for too long, she felt–

Sounds (soft and whiny like a tinnitus)

Textures (impeccably smooth like cellophane)

Tastes (chalky, salty, like putting sand in the mouth)

— there was no way to square these with the fact that she was still, only, looking.

Murati briefly licked her lips; she closed and opened her hands. She was not scared, but enthralled. Those sensations came and went with the intensity of the colors. Sometimes in focus, in sharp relief; sometimes gone as if they had never been there; but her mind wanted to chase them. She felt like a child staring at the world for the first time, wanting to see, longing to understand, boundlessly curious.

“What are you seeing, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Is she surrounded by colors?”

“You can see it too?” Murati said, turning to face the captain, to see her response.

Ulyana nodded. Aaliyah closed her orange eyes, rubbed her fingers over them.

“I’m seeing something too.” Aaliyah replied. “La Hawla Wala.” She whimpered after.

Murati did not understand the Shimii speech, but the sentiment was clear to her.

Everyone in the room was seeing something. It wasn’t just her– she wasn’t going insane.

“Fantastic. Colors are what you should be seeing.” Euphrates said with a smile.

“We know those colors as Aether.” Tigris explained. “For us jaded old hags, it’s really difficult to describe these feelings to someone– it’s easier if you can come to grips with it, Murati, and tell everyone else how it feels to you. That’s what Euphrates is getting at. She’ll teach you all about it– and Omenseeing will make a bit more sense to you. But what we do isn’t Omenseeing, so take it with a grain of salt.”

“If it’s not Omenseeing, what is it?” Murati asked.

“What Omenseers call ‘Omenseeing’ we refer to as psionics.” Euphrates said.

“Psionics? Like mind reading and clairvoyance? That’s all fantasy!” Ulyana shouted.

“She just moved an object in front of you without moving a muscle!” Tigris objected.

“That’s–”

Ulyana could hardly formulate a reply to that. She was just lashing out emotionally.

“You’ll see that it isn’t fantasy– if Murati Nakara accepts my proposal.” Euphrates said. “You can say all you want about us and what we are doing. You can claim that it’s all tricks, that we have gotten co-conspirators on-board to rig the room, or that we have prepared special devices– I’ve heard all kinds of explanations in the past from people who won’t accept the truth. But if Murati accepts, I can show her immediately how to access the same power. Would you believe Murati is faking it?”

“What if this is some kind of wild escape plan?” Aaliyah joined Ulyana in shouting.

“They couldn’t escape– they’d be in the photic zone without Arbitrator I’s protection.”

Murati’s was the calmest voice in the room. Though it was she they were all addressing and putting under pressure, there was something in the back of her mind that prevented panic. It was an almost nostalgic feeling. As if these sights and sensations weren’t entirely unfamiliar. She tried to recall– had she seen the colors before? Had she felt the presence of psionics, like she now felt from Euphrates?

Was that sensation of synesthesia she got from the colors truly alien to her?

There were no concrete recollections– but there was a feeling. A feeling kept her steady.

“Correct. Psionics isn’t exactly like Omenseeing. I’m not trying to escape.” Euphrates said.

“We can’t even put a toe out of place right now anyway.” Tigris said.

She vaguely gestured behind herself.

Illya and Valeriya had the two of them in the sights of their assault rifles.

“By any chance can you call off the hounds? I’m worried about accidents here.”

“It’s our duty to keep this crew safe. Be a good girl or I’ll shoot.” Illya said.

“I told the two of you to stand down. I wasn’t just shouting at the wall.” Aaliyah said.

“We’re all tense here, but we’re not shooting each other tense just yet.” Ulyana added.

“Okay.” A sad little monotone voice.

Valeriya stepped back, raised her rifle, and reached out a hand to pat Illya on the chest armor.

Begrudingly, Illya did the same a moment later, withdrawing from the confrontation.

Valeriya then lifted a mask over her face and averted her gaze to the door nearby.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad at you, so don’t worry.” Illya said to her.

“We’re going to have to talk about you two getting some problem-solving skills that don’t involve killing people, if you’re going to play a bigger role in this security team.” Ulyana said. She sighed, exasperated, almost grunted. “Murati this situation is insane, but I want to hear from you.”

Now everyone in the room was staring Murati’s way rather than Euphrates’ way.

She was not unused to this sensation either. After all, she delivered so many petitions.

In all of those petitions, she had to get up in front of a crowd, and then explain something which was deeply emotional to her in very rational terms. She had to make her aspiration to heroic military deeds and her belief in radical military action toward the Empire sound reasoned and cost-effective, and not just like the inner workings of a grandiose, self-indulgent fantasy. It was not so different here.

Murati was calmer than she thought she might be and thought she could explain.

“Captain, Commissar; I think I trust Euphrates. She came to visit me in the medbay to talk about my parents. She knew them– she also knew Daksha Kansal. I’d never heard anyone talk about Kansal the way that she did– she even compared me to her a few times, which I found very touching. I don’t know a lot about my parents, but I’d like to believe if Daksha Kansal is a name that comes out of a person’s lips with such affection, rather than scorn or slander, then that person is probably worth listening to.”

“Murati, Euphrates wants to do something to you, who knows what.” Aaliyah said. “You want to trust her because she spoke glowingly about one of your role models? Don’t you agree that’s a bit facile?”

“I’m glad that all of you are worried, but if it’s my choice, then I will talk to Euphrates.”

Murati turned to face Euphrates. She felt her heart stir, but she was determined.

When she first fired a gun, when she first learned to pilot, when she first killed–

In each of those situations Murati was also unlocking powers of the mind and emotion.

There was a frightening sense, each time, that the world would be very different afterward.

She felt shivers when she first touched a gun, first entered a Strelok’s cockpit.

When she took aim and put out a human life, it was an earthquake of horrific feeling.

But at no point, did she cease to be Murati Nakara. Each time, she did what she found just.

After each of these things, she could weep, she could laugh, she could live and love.

And her goals, passions, the duties she accepted and people she loved, did not disappear.

“Euphrates, you say I can access psionics immediately with your help?” She asked.

“All I need to do is touch your forehead for a minute.” Euphrates replied.

“Explain the mechanism by which this will work.” Murati calmly said.

“Of course. Those colors that you see around you, the Aether, are imprints of human emotional and mental activity, left upon the world by our existence.” Euphrates began to explain. Nobody interrupted her. “Aether will resonate more strongly with people who are psionic. We leave our aether not just in places we go to, but even in objects we have an attachment to, and even in people who care about us. Eventually, those people’s minds will develop their own psionics and begin to see our aether, whether fleetingly or in full, via a process we call Aether Baptism. I can accelerate that process.”

“Wait a moment.” Ulyana said. “Can we see your aether, then, because of Arbitrator I?”

Murati knew that what she was actually asking was–

–when did we change? Are we fundamentally different than normal people, and if so–

–when was the crew of the Brigand baptized by Aether if Euphrates is speaking the truth?

Euphrates in turn looked almost excited to be sharing this information.

Her tone was animated, friendly, calm. Even despite the evident tension in her ‘students’.

“It takes a long time for baptism by environmental aether to awaken a person’s psionics. What I’m about to say is pure speculation, but there are a few possibilities: very traumatic and sweeping emotional events, like the Union’s revolution, could have awakened tiny kernels of the power. The Sunlight Foundation has observed that Shimii and Katarrans, who suffered massive ethnic hardships, have more psionic potential. So it is possible that Union folk are also ‘more psionic’ than others. Maybe you also had parents or colleagues with powerful psionics. Contact with Murati would certainly do something— I didn’t choose her solely for emotional reasons. Korabiskaya and Bashara would be more difficult to baptize. Korabiskaya, you, particularly– I can tell you have a near-impenetrable will. Even Norn couldn’t overcome it.”

Ulyana blinked, with Aaliyah staring at her momentarily.

“A near-impenetrable will, huh?”

“Norn was psionic too then?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah looked like pieces of something were falling into place for them.

“We should evaluate the narrative here only after we have a concrete demonstration.”

Zachikova spoke up, uncharacteristically interjecting in the course of events.

It was a rational enough point. Euphrates had set a condition by which ‘psionics would be proven to be definitely true’ — clearly Aaliyah and Ulyana wanted to believe it was true, more than they wanted to be skeptical. But in terms of the scenario, they needed to confirm things before devolving into wild speculation. Not only that, but Murati would have been able to prove that ‘psionics work exactly as Euphrates said’ by having access to psionics herself. In that case, there was only one solution.

“Does everyone trust me and trust my decision?” Murati said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other and spoke up at almost the same time:

“I thought that was self-evident.”

“Of course we trust you Murati.”

The two of them looked at each other, smiled, sighed, and acquiesced visibly.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Then I accept the terms as discussed. Once I have been given access to psionics, I’ll try to explain what I felt and demonstrate its use, and depending on what happens, we’ll decide whether we believe all or part of Euphrates and Tigris have been saying.”

She didn’t really know why– but she still felt that burgeoning confidence in this task.

Just like learning to pilot, learning to shoot, learning history, learning military tactics–

–and an even more salient example, learning about communism and capitalism.

All of these things fundamentally altered Murati’s perspectives and abilities.

She was not afraid that Euphrates would change how she viewed the world.

In fact, there was a part of her that was excited. A part of her that realized before the rest of her faculties that she might become part of uncovering a great, hidden truth about the world. Communism became a clearer and clear example in her mind of a paradigm as magic as this. She imagined Mordecai in his study, when he first drafted a history of productive relations that had been physically present in the world but never named, never truly observed in an analytical way, and explained to people.

Murati thought he must have felt the same way as her.

Trepidation about the world that would follow; and a determination to change it anyway.

In a world before Mordecai, capitalism might as well have been a force of nature.

Things that simply existed; things that were simply done. As invisible as magic was.

When that hidden power was finally exposed and surgically understood–

It created a paroxysm of revolutionary grief at the injustice of it all, lasting to this day.

Understanding communism as an alternative to capitalism could change someone’s world.

And perhaps that knowledge could drive the person a little insane.

But to build a better world, the truth had to be exposed, understood, analyzed.

Murati had to peel back layer of reality– she would not back away from this truth now.

It might even expose something that could help achieve her ambitions.

“It’s the duty of a communist not to shy away from reality. Euphrates, I am ready.”

Murati stepped forward, closer to Euphrates.

With the consent of the room, Euphrates stood, and raised her hand to Murati’s head.

Putting her palm on Murati’s forehead, the fingers gently brushing her hair aside.

“Whether your eyes are open or closed, you’ll see and feel things. Let them come and go.”

For an instant, Murati saw Euphrates’ eyes flash with red rings around the irises.

She felt something push against her, for long enough for her body to record feeling but too quickly to contemplate it. For that infinitesimally small instant of sensation, she felt hot and cold, wet, and dry, and in the next instant, her vision was clouded. She was overwhelmed by color and could not see Euphrates, or the room around her anymore. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, and tight bands of black and white at the far edges, sweeping toward her like a tidal wave so tall that Murati could see nothing but the body of those great bands of color, near and far, rapid, and slow. She was submerged in them.

Then — she did not know when, could have been minutes, hours — she was drawn back.

Rather than a tidal wave, now the colors appeared as a great vortex in a black, empty space.

As her vision focused on it, and she realized the length and breadth of the phenomenon and the notion of the space around it, she began to see trails far above that fed into the vortex, like the clouds that were known to science but impossible to see from humanity’s new home. These trails fed into the whirling body of the vortex. And the more she focused, the more Murati could see thousands, millions, billions of trails all individual, each its own color. It was not an object, but a mass– made up of innumerable lines.

Murati felt a great shame that she had not known it was so complicated at first.

Now she felt a desire to see, not just each individual line, but how they all connected.

They were a mass, a community, a language, in contact and interaction, communicating.

She wanted to understand– she wanted to know–

if the system was just, if it was worth maintaining and if it needed to change,

if there was someone to help, if there was a battle that needed fighting,

if there was a pain, and if there could be healing, if there was need, that she could fill,

It was difficult to think, to keep her thoughts from drifting, but–

Euphrates had said to let them come and so she did.

Her soul screamed for understanding, justice, and redress.

Suddenly the vortex flashed as if in response to her desires, overwhelming white.

In the blink of an eye, Murati saw out of her eyes not a void but a world.

White walls, white lights, but steel enclosures, LCD screens, beakers, fluids, artificial light. Machines and the logic by which they were operated. She saw humans; she saw, primarily, a man in a coat, shirt, red tie, shiny brown shoes. He approached an enclosure where there was someone trapped, a woman. Her skin was mottled with red rashes and yellow pustules. She was starkly naked and reclining against the back of the enclosure. There was scarring across much of her face, but her mouth could still open, and she had one eye and half a head of pristinely blue hair which was strikingly beautiful.

“Good morning, doctor.” She said. Murati understood the language.

But she also understood it was not her own. There was a strange texture to the words.

Her soul knew what they were saying– not her ears.

Outside the enclosure, sickly green and yellow colors surrounded the man.

While the woman was clad in pristine, euphoric white despite her physical condition.

“Good morning, Euphie.” He said.

That unmarred half of the woman’s face stretched, with visible effort, into a smile.

“It’s dire outside, isn’t it? Your troubles follow you in. I can see them.”

“Everything is dire, Euphie. But you’re doing good. You’re our little miracle.”

His aura writhed as he said those words. Clear, painful lies filled with regret.

There was an increasingly black band filling the edges.

“You’ll cure it soon. You cured the last two. We’ll save the world, doctor.” She said.

She heaved a tired little sigh and closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I can’t keep fighting it. Death. I’ll talk again soon. Once I’ve recovered.”

Murati stood uncomprehendingly as she saw, for a brief second, what she thought were lashing tentacles or worms bursting from the pustules on the woman’s body and striking the enclosure. Blood and fluid splashed on the glass of the enclosure and the woman’s body grew limp inside. Then, she vanished in a cloud of white gas released inside the airtight chamber that had become her grave. There was still something writhing inside– but before Murati could truly understand the horror of it, she, too, vanished.

Disappeared in a white flash and ferried somewhere else.

Above her, there was suddenly a ring of blue sky.

In the distance, seething fog that pulsed bright purple with frayed red edges.

There was a mass of people. Screaming, crying, fighting against a line of armored men.

On the edge of the sky, and the edge of the ocean, there were great, enormous structures, metallic struts and scaffolds of vast size, imprinted with symbols of patriotism that Murati did not understand, flags and insignias. There was an unbroken line of people moving shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, into the great machines. There were colors everywhere, vaporous, and furious, red, and yellow and black, deep and broad black auras, everyone was certain of death, and everyone was afraid of death.

Amid that crowd, a woman with blue hair stood out from the masses.

Wrapped up in a thick coat and fedora, gazing over her shoulder mournfully.

She forced herself to look forward, shook her head, and kept walking to the machines.

“I have to keep moving forward. That’s my curse in this world.”

And she knew, and now Murati knew as well– it would be her curse in the next world too.

For all that she suffered fighting for humanity.

She would be spared the bliss of death.

Murati’s world shifted again, the sight before her eyes–

–dimming

–darkening

She smelled oil and smoke, soot, and concrete dust in the air. Yellow air that dried the mouth.

Amid the ruins of some place, a habitation of some kind, roofs and walls, shattered streets.

Overhead the sky was grey and below the earth was muddy and strangely yellowed.

“We killed more of the civilians than anything. This is a god damned mess.”

Two men in black uniforms with masks over their faces trudged through the mud.

Red armbands on their sleeves contained a strange symbol like a lightning bolt.

“How much gas will it take to kill two million Ayvartan troops?”

“How many did this take out? A battalion? We’re fucked. I’m not even reporting this.”

“We have to say something. Lowball it. Say it was a squadron or something pathetic.”

“That won’t work. They’re dead set on this. They’ll say even that much is progress.”

“Fuck me. We can’t possibly keep doing this shit, can we?”

“Wait–”

The two men paused for a moment. It was impossible to see their faces under the masks.

However, their emotions were not inscrutable. Murati could see the colors wisp from them.

They were surprised and shocked– and there was a brief flash of death in their eyes.

“Is that a kid?”

They walked forward, into a dilapidated house. Murati could see inside it.

“This is– she looks clean as a newborn baby. How the fuck did she survive this?”

There was a girl. Svelte, maybe malnourished. Her little dress was in tatters.

Skin pale as pearl, untouched, not a nick on her. Breathing gently, as if asleep.

Her hair a shocking, pristine blue, long, and loose, lightly curled.

“I– I don’t know. But we can’t just leave her here. Help me with her, quick.”

“Messiah defend, there’s not a scratch on her. She’s breathing. And what’s with her hair?”

“Forget her hair. Look. Her feet have blisters, from the poison in the mud. The rest of her is fine. There’s corpses everywhere. Everyone else around her died. How did she survive the shelling?”

“How would I know? Let’s take her to the medics, we’ve got bigger problems.”

In the distance, Murati heard a whirring noise, and she saw the clouds parting–

Numerous machines, flying high in the air, explosions following in their wake–

As she vanished into a white light with the surroundings she knew Euphrates survived this.

In the next instant–

Metal walls. Vanishing colors.

No texture, except the smoothness of her uniform when she touched it.

Just to feel something– something familiar.

Smell– treated air, circulated by machines. Vaguely sweet, inoffensive.

Surrounded by people and silence.

And the comparatively low pressure of 300 meters of water above them, threatening to crush them any second, with the only comfort being that the ship was used to surmounting over a thousand meters more and could survive close to 8000 meters deep in total. She was back on the UNX-001 Brigand. She was Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara; she was alive. She was back in her own world.

On the shoulders of Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara, she noticed wispy bands of green color with a little band of green and yellow. Aaliyah had just a little bit of red at the edges. These things communicated to Murati’s mind, she understood them as if they were facial expressions or body language. They were waiting, afraid that something had happened to Murati. Aaliyah was trying to restrain her anger that this situation had taken this turn, struggling to take control of it back.

She realized that her eyes felt warm. She knew that there were red rings around the irises.

Though she couldn’t see them she knew that this was the case.

Murati turned around from them and quietly faced the woman in front of her again.

Euphrates retreated back a step, having withdrawn her hand.

“How do you feel?” She said gently.

Looking down at her–

There was a flash in Murati’s mind. Visions of a blue haired girl, lonely and in pain. Tortured endlessly. Places whose forms sat just on the edge of her memory, speech in a language she barely understood, some events in motion like a grainy film with frames missing, her mind had the texture of these things, but the complete form was just out of reach. There was an outpouring of them in her mind’s eye.

Murati’s warm auburn eyes began to weep uncontrollably. Her lip trembled. Her body shook.

She bowed slightly and grabbed hold of Euphrates suddenly, embracing her tightly.

Weeping profusely on her shoulder, stroking her hair, wanting her to feel any comfort.

“I’m sorry!” She shouted. “I’m so sorry! What they did to you– I’m– I–” Murati wailed with an agony she did not understand even in part. Words cascaded out of her lips that sounded less connected to anything concrete with each passing second, channeling the formless pain of another body, as the things she saw and felt in the aether moved farther and farther from the mind but remained in the heart.

Euphrates, smiling, weeping gently herself, silently returned the embrace.


“I apologize. I acted too familiar.”

“That’s quite alright. It just tells me you have a very big heart, Murati.”

Murati sat back down on the table, raising a hand to her chest to feel her pounding heart.

She was red in the face and feeling a little nervous after everything that happened.

“How are your faculties, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Anything feeling off?”

“I had a strange experience. I went to places and saw things– but I can’t really tell you all of the substance of it. I had visions– I think I saw bits and pieces of Euphrates’ life, maybe.” Murati said, stumbling over words just a bit. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what I can recall unless she allows it. However, I think I am actually ready to try to move an object without touching it.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. That red portion of her colors got just a little bit wider.

Murati turned to Euphrates, who walked over to Murati and bent close to her, looking over her shoulder. She took Murati’s hand and guided her to stretch her arm out toward another, intact pen which also sat in the middle of the table. It was out of Murati’s reach and away from the other pen which Euphrates had allegedly collapsed into a sphere of carbon, still sitting at the far edge of the table.

“Alright, Murati, focus on the object you want to move. You’ve seen the Aether auras, the colors, around other people now, right? Did you focus your eyes on them to make them sharper?”

“I think so. I think I can do that.” Murati said. She had done so with Aaliyah, she thought.

At first the “auras” were just colors and a vague understanding.

If she focused on them, she could appraise them better. She realized this now.

It was like the trigger of a gun. She could pull it with her mind to set off the effects.

“Now, try to focus on this object, using the same method. Compel it to move away from you. Trace a line to where you want it to go. It’ll get easier, but for the very first time you attempt this you will really need to focus. Create from nothing a reality where this object is moving.” Euphrates said.

She stepped back from Murati and took seat next to Tigris again.

“By the way, if you want to relay anything you saw in the Aether to the Captain and Commissar, you are free to do so. Those memories are irrelevant to the world of today, and I do not let them govern how I live my life in the here and now. But thank you for the hug. It was very warm.” Euphrates added.

Murati nodded her head. She breathed in deep and then reached out her hand to the pen.

She tried to focus on the pen. She spent a few seconds staring at it.

Move. Move. Move.

She felt like when she was assigned to a psychologist at school, after her biggest protests.

Ink blots and mental exercises– stuff that felt too abstract for her to get a hold of.

It felt silly, talking in her own head like she was talking to the pen.

As the seconds passed, she began to fear she had created a reality where the pen had not moved, and one in which she did not know what would happen next. After all this anticipation, they would be going back to grilling Euphrates about this, trying to prize from her what was real and false about her, about her intentions, her narrative. Murati really wanted to spare her any more pain.

She could not remember in exact terms what she had seen in those visions.

But she knew that Euphrates was extremely old, ancient despite her pretty face, and her long life was filled with such pain that Murati couldn’t even imagine feeling. She felt compelled by her own humanity, even if this feeling was not fully substantiated, to try to do what she could to help Euphrates, to absolve her of other’s doubts and suspicions. Murati’s skepticism told her that it was possible Euphrates was now deceiving her. It just didn’t make sense though– the medbay visit, the HELIOS, all of this.

Meeting her was perhaps serendipitous. One of the greatest coincidences of her life.

Murati had the feeling, however, that Euphrates was not a malicious person.

Even had they never met, even though they disagreed philosophically about certain things.

Euphrates was following her convictions and doing what she believed was right.

Move, damn you!

In the next instant, the pen did not just move at Murati’s command.

It sailed to the opposite wall like a projectile and shattered upon striking it.

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at it, speechless for a moment.

“Oh. I think I have the hang of this a bit.”

Murati shifted her gaze to the sphere that Euphrates had crushed the other pen into.

She reached out her hand and compelled to move toward her instead.

A microsecond later, an instant of thought, and the little ball shot toward Murati.

Striking her in the chest, and then dropping on the table with a series of little thuds.

Murati grabbed hold of her chest, wincing with pain. Gunther turned to check on her.

“Agh! Damn it!” She cried out.

She had just told her doctor her ribs were okay, and now her sternum hurt like hell.

It did not feel like anything was broken, but she nearly doubled over from the pain.

That would almost certainly bruise.

“Be careful!” Euphrates said cheerfully at the unfolding theater. “You don’t know your own strength. But you’re a very fast learner. You applied the concept of moving the object away to pull the object toward you! Not everyone figures that out within seconds of their first telekinetic thrust. You’ll be learning about vectors in no time with that level of conceptualization– I knew you’d be impressive, Murati.”

“Hmph. I learned it pretty quickly too, you know.” Tigris butted in.

“Yes, and I praised you for it in the moment– many, many, MANY years ago.”

Euphrates laughed and Tigris scowled at her and turned her back once more.

“Hmph!”

Murati could hardly see the humor in the situation because her sternum was still hurting.

“Murati, do you need to go to the medbay?” Ulyana asked.

She glanced toward her officers, trying to appraise their current emotions.

All of the red and yellow had melted from both the captain’s and commissar’s auras.

In their place, thin bands of purple and white appeared to compliment the blue and green.

Pride, Murati thought. Pride and awe or euphoria.

They were both anxious, but they also were starting to realize, perhaps–

–that their worlds had changed a bit too now.

Murati shook her head, in response to the medbay comment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah almost at the same time brought their hands up to their faces.

“What is this even going to look like in a report?” Ulyana lamented.

“It’s not.” Aaliyah said. “I am not going to report any of this. What would I even say?”

“How is this possible? I want to wake up from this.” Ulyana continued to lament.

Zachikova had her arms crossed, deep in thought. Gunther looked quietly shocked.

Euphrates sat back, clearly less tense now that she appeared to be getting her way.

“You are free to disclose any information I’ve given you to your authorities. However, I won’t be able to provide physical evidence of anything at this moment, so I recommend to withhold your reports for now. I do have a condition I must set for myself and Tigris’ continued support, however.”

“Hey, don’t assume I’ll just do anything you want. I’m pretty pissed at you.” Tigris said.

“I would be heartbroken if my irreplaceable partner left me.” Euphrates said.

Tigris’ shoulders tensed. “Ugh. Shut up. Fine. I’m in for whatever, then.”

Ulyana ran her hands over her face, through her long blond locks. She tossed her hair.

Resetting herself. Letting off a bit of steam.

After heaving a sigh, she responded, clearly frustrated. “What do you want, Euphrates?”

“I want to hire all of you. I promise I won’t interfere with your ‘mission profile’.”

“Hire us? Like the original agreement we had with Solarflare LLC?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates reached out a hand across the table, symbolically.

“Exactly. Take me to Rhinea and help me investigate Yangtze’s actions. I need to confirm her true intentions. All of us need more information to determine our next moves. Yangtze has ties to the Imperial factions, so ultimately, if you help me, you’ll gain a lot of juicy information on some very bad people. While we are there, you can continue your own activities. I’ll support you as a consultant, and this lady here will help maintain the HELIOS, and help out around the ship. She’s handier than she looks.”

“You’re the one who looks, and is, useless!” Tigris cried out. “They know I’m helpful.”

“Both of us can teach Murati Nakara more about psionics,” Euphrates continued speaking, ignoring Tigris, “then you’ll be able to determine whether it is safe or useful based on her progress. You don’t trust us completely, but Murati is someone you know for sure that you can trust, right?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged a look. Both of them stood up as if to speak definitively.

“Murati has nearly died for this crew multiple times. Of course I trust her.” Ulyana said. “To be clear– you’re quite right. I don’t trust you anymore, Euphrates, but not because of your actions. I still want to be able to trust and cooperate with you. However, too many unknowns have been introduced.” She paused briefly to gather her breath. “So I’ll tentatively agree to your terms because I don’t have much choice. However, if you step out of line, I am quite ready to shred the paper and do something about you.”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail stood up, tense; but her eyes smoldered with determination.

“I agree with the Captain. This whole situation has gotten out of hand. We’ll have to think carefully about what this means. Psionics, Aether, Omenseers and the Sunlight Foundation– all these capital letter terms hint at a world we were not prepared to tackle with our own resources. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how much of this I’m even prepared to believe. I’m ready to wake up at any moment. But in the material reality of the here and now, we have few choices. However, there’s one whale in the room here.”

Ulyana glanced over to Aaliyah, looking a little bit surprised.

“I think I understand what you’re going to ask. Go ahead.” Euphrates said.

Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to breathe deep and sigh.

“You must have known all along, Euphrates, but we are soldiers beholden to the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. We are on a Union mission. Your Sunlight Foundation has stayed hidden all this time, but now you are sharing all this knowledge with us. It seems to me that you are desperate for shelter from your organization, so you need us. In that case, I have conditions of my own. Everything you have told us will have to be formally told to the Union government. All these secrets have to be confirmed and reported.”

Murati scanned Euphrates’ face for any sign of concern. There were none.

She was calm as she ever had been, and her aura was as soft and pristine as before.

“Of course. I understand. Here’s my response: help me find Daksha Kansal. I trust her and I want to talk to her about the Union. Depending what she and I decide, we can make formal disclosures to the Union.”

Euphrates truly had a gift for saying things that rendered the floor speechless.

Ulyana raised a hand to her own lips and grinned to herself, laughing a little at the prospect.

Finding Daksha Kansal, the first Premier and legendary hero of the Revolution–

“Daksha Kansal left the Union to foment revolution in the Imperial territories, many years ago. If she’s still alive– well, it could actually be very useful to our mission as well to find her and see what she has been up to all these years. However, none of us have any idea where she could be right now.”

“We all want to believe she’s alive, but we can’t guarantee that.” Aaliyah said in support of Ulyana.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find her. Let’s just tack that on the agenda as an item, then.”

Euphrates stood from her chair, reaching out her hand for a shake, still smiling affably.

“Do we have a deal then? Make Rhinea our next destination, and I promise you with your military power and my knowledge and resources, we can absolutely find Daksha Kansal, investigate and overturn Yangtze’s ambitions, and tackle the next phase of your own mission, whatever that might be.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged another glance, but both of them smiled. Hearing the name Daksha Kansal, and perhaps having the thought of finding her again, clearly lifted their spirits. It was insane, but it was perhaps the least insane of all the things they had talked about today. It was insanely hopeful.

“You better not dare to betray us after all of your theater, Euphrates.” Aaliyah said.

“Bah, if she steps out of line after all this, I’ll be the first one in line to kill her.” Tigris said.

Euphrates laughed.

“I feel excited about this partnership. I think we will do fantastic work together.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked around the table and shook hands with Euphrates and Tigris.

They had sealed a deal of absolutely monumental proportions, brought together by fate.

A casual handshake between the material and supernatural worlds.

Murati could hardly fathom where this would lead them all. Those colors eluded her.

Looking down at the little ball, spinning rapidly atop her palm, at her mental command.

Everything felt terribly ominous– but she couldn’t turn her back from it.

Just like when she first understood communism, imperialism, and the war for the heart of the world.

If the world was bigger; then there was more of it to fight for, more of it to liberate.

If there were more enemies; then she would still take them all on as they came.

Her ambition was to set things right. Short of achieving her justice, she knew she would not stop.

“We need to get you a room, then. Maybe move Fernanda and Alex together.” Ulyana said.

“Whatever you decide is fine. Oh, and whenever you’re ready, Captain, we can go over the data from the HELIOS too. First, though, I want to check up on our little empath over here and see how she’s doing.”

Euphrates left the captain’s side for a moment, and given freedom to move, went to Murati’s side.

“Are you asking yourself right now, ‘why me’?” Euphrates said, smiling, patting Murati on the shoulder.

Murati looked up at her, wearily. She saw the colors around Euphrates, calm and unmoving.

She shook her head, smiling a bit herself. “I’m just asking myself what happens now.”


While the Brigand at large put another eerily quiet day in the photic zone behind them, the Captain and Commissar completed their inquiries about the previous run of events, to what was a satisfactory conclusion for the two of them. Both of them agreed to the following immediate terms:

Marina McKennedy’s final G.I.A. rank of Ensign would be respected, and she would hold a position on the Brigand as an intelligence analyst with the rights of any other officer. She agreed to support the Brigand’s endeavors until the formal end of the Brigand’s mission or until they could secure passage for Marina and for Elena Lettiere into the Union. She would work in the conference room next to the bridge, and she would have main screen access from there, to prevent the bridge from becoming too crowded.

Arbitrator I was inducted into the Brigand’s crew as Petty Officer Arabella Oikonomou, a Katarran surname as her appearance could be easily explained that way. As far as the sailors were concerned, she was rescued in Goryk’s Gorge, and anything else about her was classified. She would consult on navigation. While she was also initially meant to work in the conference room with Marina, she demanded to sit down on the floor near Braya Zachikova’s station. This would block one of the four-step staircases up from the gas gunner’s tier below the main bridge floor, but her cheerful insistence wore the officers down.

“I don’t mind it. If a fire breaks out, I’ll throw her in it to open the stairs.” Braya Zachikova said.

“Don’t.” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied.

Zachikova grumbled. “It was a joke.”

“She’s so funny.” Arbitrator I smiled. “Braya! We’ll get to work together every day!”

Euphrates and Tigris were each given the rank of Specialist. Euphrates was placed under Karuniya Maharapratham, formally as a laboratory assistant. Karuniya, who was not privy to the interrogation, stared quizzically at her new charge, instantly recognizing her– but quickly grew fond of the idea of having what she described as a “minion.” She vowed to make Euphrates work hard and earn her keep.

Tigris was subordinated to Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova, who was happy to have her.

“Ah, fantastic! She was a real workhorse during the repairs.”

Tigris puffed herself up with pride. “Good to be back ma’am. What’s there to fix?”

Unbeknownst to Ulyana, the two of them had really hit it off.

They chatted away like old friends about all the menial maintenance work there was to do.

In this way, their new acquaintances would be able to quietly integrate into ship life.

However, as part of the terms, both of them were also asked to reveal their “actual” names.

“We’re not going to use Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday. Tell us your real names.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah clearly still felt somewhat slighted about being lied to by them.

“We’ve gone by our codenames for so long it really doesn’t matter. But sure, for you.”

Euphrates was actually Euphemia Levi, while Tigris was Agni Pradesh.

“Levi? That’s an Eloist surname, isn’t it? Pradesh sounds North Bosporan.” Ulyana asked.

“Pradesh is just the High Bosporan word for ‘region’, I didn’t have parents.” Tigris said.

“Eloim is how they are known now.” Euphrates said. “But that surname is as old as I am, so it is as irrelevant as its origin. Humor me, Captain: does the word ‘jew’ mean anything to you?”

“Fine. I get your point. But I’m putting both these down on the roster, end of story.”

“How old is this lady supposed to be, anyway?” Aaliyah mumbled to herself.

“It’s a new world out there, Captain, Commissar! Free of the contrivances of the old and replete with its own. Let’s agree to focus on the things that matter in this world.” Euphrates winked at them.

Aaliyah and Ulyana shared annoyed looks with each other and agreed not to ask her to elaborate.

Xenia Laskaris, meanwhile, was fired by Euphrates and Tigris, which didn’t surprise her.

Ulyana and Aaliyah promised to let her go in Rhinea with enough supplies to tide her over.

Shrugging, the Katarran mercenary simply went back to reading what looked like old issues of fashion magazines. She talked back while her eyes were peeled on pictures of trends from years past.

“I won’t say no to free food, but don’t worry about me. I wouldn’t have cut it as a merc if I didn’t plan for this type of sitch. It was worth it to take this job to see Illya and Valeriya again, even if I didn’t get paid much. Besides, I get a free ride to Rhinea– I hear there’s a Katarran warlord stuck there on a business trip who’s supposed to be a big deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you– but I’ll get another job soon.”

She winked. Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes at her casual behavior.

Clearly, she wanted to be dropped off at a specific place, then.

With that smart mouth of hers, it was a wonder she ever got any work.

“How do you know Illya and Valeriya, exactly?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s classified. Ask Parvati Nagavanshi– or better yet, don’t.”

Xenia smirked at them. Both Captain and Commissar dropped the subject, for their mental health.

There was one final, unrelated task the two of them had to take on that day.

It was a discussion where there wouldn’t be a committee.

Ulyana and Aaliyah made their way to the brig. Because of the soundproof cells it was always quiet even when there were multiple people being kept captive. However, with almost all the occupants released, the brig felt emptier and more disused than it had been when the two of them last visited. There was one last prisoner whom they had to speak to that day: this one they left for last because it was one to whom they had no connection, and they had to be delicate with her. She had not made deals with them, fought alongside them, or saved them from a major catastrophe. Quite the opposite in fact.

They did not know, for example, how some of the more gung-ho communists among them might react to her presence on the ship. Or even worse– how Khadija al-Shajara might have reacted to her based on their tragic history. It was their duty nonetheless to evaluate whether Sieglinde von Castille was a serious defector, and what her agenda was. There were processes surrounding defectors to the Union, but these were drafted for the border forces to induct refugees, or for surrendering vessels. A single aristocrat who turned in the middle of the battlefield fell largely to the discretion of Captain and Commissar.

Complicating things further was the fact that this escapee was the famous “Red Baron.”

At the door, Ulyana and Aaliyah met with Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian. Since the crises of the past few days, the two amicable security girls had been kitted out for combat on a daily basis, wearing armored suits consisting of neoprene bodystockings with interlocking, flexible Kevlar and ceramic plates over the chest, arms, shoulders, and legs. They had been armed with shotshell shotguns, which they wielded with deadly seriousness, fingers off trigger, held at an angle away from people when idle.

Only Illya and Valeriya were formally trained and licensed for safe handling of AK-pattern assault rifles inside ships, so in a situation where the security team was allowed lethal force, but could not risk damaging ship infrastructure, the junior security girls were given shotguns armed with lethal shot. On a Union ship, it was seen as an extraordinary circumstance for security officers to bear lethal arms. It was not viewed the same as arming marines or sailors to secure a station landing.

But after all, they had been guarding a lot of strange individuals– like an imperial ace pilot.

These measures were not overkill when it came to such an unknown situation.

And especially now that Ulyana and Aaliyah had to worry about psychic powers too.

They were both ultimately glad that they decided to open the armory to these girls.

Even if nothing had happened–yet.

“Stay here, we’ll call out of anything happens.” Ulyana said.

She patted Zhu Lian in the shoulder, and the security girls nodded their acknowledgment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked into the brig, to the first door. They undid the sound-proofing both ways and opened one of the sliding plates on the door, allowing Ulyana to see inside. The Red Baron sat on the bed, her long blond hair flowing down her back. Her pristine uniform coat she had folded and set down as an additional pillow, exposing her skin-tight, long-sleeved under-shirt. She was a very tall woman, fair skinned, blond, with strikingly pretty face. Ulyana thought she had the build of a fencer, tall with lean, strong, long, and flexible limbs, but her features were like an idealized Imbrian princess.

She reminded Ulyana a bit of herself– not entirely by way of self-flattery.

However, Sieglinde von Castille was apparently Ulyana’s senior by two years.

“Baron, apologies for the delay. We would like to speak to you. We are opening the door.”

Sieglinde nodded her head, stood, and remained at the back of the cell.

Fully upright, she really was taller than Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Her countenance was so strikingly fair and regal, even as she avoided their gaze.

“Sieglinde von Castille, correct?” Ulyana asked.

“Correct.”

“During the battle, you retreated toward our side and broadcast that you were defecting.”

“I did.”

Her responses were quick, but more than enough to communicate her mournful tone.

She sounded on the verge of tears. Her voice was coming out of a ragged throat.

“I couldn’t bear serving that ravening beast Lichtenberg any longer. I felt disgusted with her.”

“And you are looking to replace servitude to her with what? Servitude to us?”

Sieglinde looked at Ulyana in the eyes and seemed to realize the trouble she was in.

“I won’t defend that dreadful Inquisitor; if it was up to me alone then I would be happy for you leaving that volatile tinpot tyrant behind and seeking brighter waters.” Ulyana continued, “However, the tricky thing about defectors is that our first and only impression of one is who they have betrayed. For the sake of my crew, I need to know more about your story and about what you are hoping to accomplish. We have a few people aboard who have good reasons to be wary of your presence, Red Baron.”

“Please don’t call me that.” Sieglinde whimpered.

“That is who you are. You are the Red Baron and you can’t avoid that.” Aaliyah said.

Her tone was rather more biting than Ulyana would have wanted in that situation.

Sieglinde’s gaze dropped to the floor.

“It’s– It’s not who I want to be. I swear to you. I would do anything to put it behind me.”

“And put behind you the lives that you took also?” Aaliyah said.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Ulyana said. “Not unwarranted but– harsh.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on Sieglinde.

“All I’m saying, is that she can’t just run away from the title of Red Baron. Sieglinde von Castille fought with the Empire as the Red Baron. She killed our comrades in the revolution, she served Norn and Lichtenberg, fought against us, and endangered our pilots. She has to be held accountable for those things. She can’t run away from that and pretend she can be righteous from today onward by looking the other way. I might be acting harsh, but that’d be a bit too easy for a murderer, don’t you think?”

Sieglinde remained quiet for a moment, avoiding Aaliyah’s gaze.

She raised her hands up to her face. Rubbing her palms over her eyes, digging her nails.

“She’s right.” Sieglinde said. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could be born again today free of this sin, but that will not happen. I want to change– but she’s right. I’m the Red Baron, and I’ll never be able to give back the lives I took. But I want to face justice for what I’ve done. I– I’ve thought about taking my own life.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana both drew their eyes wide open at that statement.

“Absolutely not!” Ulyana said. “That would not serve justice! Nobody here wants that!”

“I do not wish death on you!” Aaliyah added. “Forgive me– I really was being too harsh!”

She really meant it. Ulyana could actually hear the contrition in her voice all of a sudden.

“I– I want to tell you my story then. I’m not actually of noble stock.” Sieglinde said suddenly. She clutched the fabric of her bodysuit over her breast as if to feel her heart through her fist. “Please hear me out. I was an orphan, but I was blond, fair, and blue-eyed, so I was adopted by the Castille family. They were a rich military family with a heroic lineage, but they were recent Peers, and had been stricken by many tragedies and left without young heirs. But because my race could not be confirmed, they knew that the Imbrian aristocrats would be prejudice toward me unless I earned achievements equal to the Castille name.”

“Your parents pressured you to fight in the war. So the aristocracy would accept you.” Ulyana replied.

Sieglinde nodded her head solemnly. Ulyana could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“I was eighteen during the Colonial War. I was a Diver pilot, I became known as the Red Baron, one of the very first Imperial aces. But it wasn’t prestigious. They expected us to die at any time and treated us badly. Every time I sortied, I was terrified. I was killing people out of fear. I was doing everything I could to survive without a point to it all. I couldn’t turn back for fear of being killed by my superiors for cowardice or disowned by my parents for retreating. After the war, they glorified everything to save face.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze. Twenty years ago– she would have been seven years old, just a kitten.

Ulyana had fought in the Revolution herself. She had been sixteen years old back then, even younger than Sieglinde. She understood all too well what it was like; in the moment, there was no killing for righteous reasons, there was only killing. Ideology was ascribed to her battles before and after. In the lead-up to a battle, it was righteous, and after the battle, it was liberatory. In the middle of battle she was killing to survive. It was still very different from Sieglinde’s plight, however. The communists didn’t have a home to return to if they failed. Their meager homes in the colonies were the ones invaded by the Empire.

In her mind that did not diminish Sieglinde’s tragedy, however. Ulyana was sixteen, and this woman had been only eighteen. Both of them had been children, compared to their leadership. Sieglinde had been thrown into war, used as a tool by every authority in her life. She was told that treading upon slaves and peasants was righteous, that it would clad her in honor and make her worthy. And she had to wear that cloak of blood to be legitimate, or her life as she had been raised to know it would end.

“That war taught me that the aristocracy has no ‘nobility’. It was not justice. We were not protecting our families or homes, we were fighting for the greed of the imperial landlords. I hated myself for my participation in it; but I convinced myself there was no changing the path life had given me. I was the Red Baron. Eventually my parents died of illness, the pure blood aristocrats kept me at arm’s length, I fought even more wars that I did not believe in– and I told myself each step of the way that all I could do was conduct myself personally with honor, even as I was surrounded by injustices. I wasted years like this.”

Sieglinde started weeping again. She sank against the back wall of the cell.

One fist held up over her eyes. Her lips quivering with fresh sobs.

“I wasted twenty years. Lamenting, pitying myself, but doing nothing to absolve my sins. I even fought for people like Lichtenberg– I told myself I was doing it to save Elena, but the princess was right to turn away that demon of an Inquisitor. But these past few weeks have been my life in miniature. A servant of evil.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah remained quiet, allowing Sieglinde to continue speaking as she wept.

“I’m so sorry. I know this is pathetic. I know that it is too late. I know I can’t reverse the evil deeds I committed. But even if I’m never forgiven, even if I am always hated– I can’t continue to live in self-delusion, believing my self-justifications while fighting for such depraved agendas! I can’t go back!”

Sieglinde raised her voice and was finally overcome by her tears.

Sobbing too profusely to speak, she slouched her shoulders, covered her face in her hands.

It was difficult to watch this woman so visibly overcome with a lifetime of agony.

She had looked every bit as regal as a princess from a storybook before.

Mixed with a bit of the gallant knight that usually saved such princesses.

Her story showed the ugly reality of such pretty fables. It was now written on her suffering face.

In the Imbrian Empire, princely knights like Sieglinde fought and died for the avarice of callous overlords who would never accept them as equals. Honor and justice were concepts they used exclusively to fool girls like her into protecting the wealth and power of the rich. People only had as much use to them as what they could be used for, and Sieglinde had been used. All of her life, since she was a child, to the current day, made to murder innocent people. Justifying the lies she was told, to live with herself.

For Ulyana, who had been born into the Empire, it was certainly possible she could have ended up the same. If the Imbrian Empire had not purged masses of Volgians like herself, she, and many more people like her and Sieglinde would have been raised to support the Empire, to fight and to die for its values.

Had she not been repressed, Ulyana would have not learned of repression, and rebelled.

The Imbrian Empire had seared into her skin and eyes the will she needed to fight them.

That was the only thing that dictated their opposing sides in the Revolution.

Back then, she wasn’t a communist yet. She was a scared kid fighting for her only home.

Sieglinde wasn’t an imperialist. She was a teenager, in over her head, pressured to fight.

Now despite her privileged position, Sieglinde moved closer to understanding exploitation.

Ulyana did not want to deny her a chance to break free of the Empire’s control.

But it was not so easy. Sieglinde had done their country and people several injustices.

“We will let you recover for a moment, Sieglinde, and then return.” Ulyana said.

She did not want to call her Baron, or Red Baron, or von Castille– not after that story.

Aaliyah nodded her acquiescence and followed Ulyana out of the brig, to the adjacent hall.

Zhu Lian and Klara van Der Smidse entered the brig and stood guard over the cell.

“What do you think?” Ulyana said. “She’s in pieces. I feel really sorry for her right now.”

“We shouldn’t let an Imperial officer’s life’s story sway our decisions.” Aaliyah said.

“Aaliyah, she was just a kid. They raised her like this– and she still turned her back on it.”

“She’s more admirable than other Imperial officers, you’re correct.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I understand your hesitation. It might cause a stink. She’s not a civilian, not G.I.A, not innocent.”

“Everyone saw her come in here on an enemy Diver and get arrested. She’s the Red Baron.”

“Right. But Aaliyah, out there– there’s nothing but Imperials, you know? You said it yourself, before.”

When they were discussing the mission previously, their positions had been reversed. It was Aaliyah who was advocating for working pragmatically with Imperials, even the Volkisch, if it would enable them to diminish Imperial power and support the anti-Imperialist revolution. They did not have the luxury to hold their allies to perfection. Ulyana at the time thought that it was impossible to work with Imperials. She was a communist revolutionary and could not trust them. In the abstract it felt so difficult, such a bitter pill to swallow, to shake hands with an enemy. Now, Aaliyah was confronted by a ghost of the old war, and she was hesitant to accept such cooperation, while Ulyana finally put a face on those nebulous dissenters she was supposed to help nurture, and she felt an emotional connection to their plight.

“I know, Captain. But I wager very few Imperial dissidents actually fought in the Revolution.” She said.

“You don’t know that. We can’t be that picky either. Let’s think of it pragmatically: what matters now, is that she wants to work with us. She wants to take concrete steps to fight against the Empire. She feels duped, she has no path forward, she insinuated suicide— we should welcome her aboard, Aaliyah.”

“She could just be acting.” Aaliyah replied. Her argument sounded feebler than before.

Ulyana smiled at her. She held back the urge to laugh at her pouting Commissar.

“We’ve seen better actors, haven’t we? We’ve been lied to a lot lately.” Ulyana said.

“I can’t disagree with your logic Captain. But I also can’t deny my own anxieties here.”

Aaliyah’s orange eyes met Ulyana’s green eyes. She was ashamed, indecisive, struggling.

Commissars were a visible symbol of communist orthodoxy. They were supposed to be “the best of us.” Learned in theory, law, and philosophy, good at speaking, good with people. With their every step and their every breath, wherever they went, the spirit of Mordecai was supposed to follow them. Aaliyah was a bit of a party girl, and her relationship to her religion was probably a complicated factor in her upholding the secular mores of the Union’s Mordecism. Therefore– could she really work with an imperial soldier?

But above everything– she was a good person. With a kind heart and a clear head.

She wanted to be kind to Sieglinde von Castille. She just forced herself to be harsh.

Commissars locked up imperialists. Imperial soldiers were symbols of reaction, counterrevolution.

But Aaliyah was not just a Commissar. Ulyana understood what she needed to do.

“You don’t have to be responsible for her. I will clean up the broken plates, don’t worry.” Ulyana said.

“Captain– But– I–” She looked surprised at that declaration. She stumbled over her words.

“That’s why there’s two of us, right? Each of us can handle what the other one cannot.”

Aaliyah’s serious face ceded to a very small smile. “Well. I can’t exactly disagree with that.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her. You can hold me accountable for my bad judgment if she betrays us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand as if to shake in order to strike a deal with the Commissar.

“If anything happens you can pass judgment and you can decide the issue. But please– trust me.”

In response, Aaliyah suddenly reached out with both of her hands and squeezed Ulyana’s hand.

The Commissar smiled brightly at her. Her cat-like ears folded ever so slightly, her tail quivering gently.

Her voice was so placid. For a moment, Ulyana was taken aback by Aaliyah.

“Of course I trust you. Ulyana, you are better Captain– and person– than I ever gave you credit for.”

Her fingers squeezed Ulyana’s hand gently before retreating slowly back to her sides.

She was overcome with emotion. Allowing it to wash over her soft face.

Absolutely beautiful. It was impossible to turn her eyes away. Ulyana was stricken utterly.

“I will support your decision. You are right– I was being overly emotional.” She said.

Her tone of voice shifted, she was trying to sound less elated than she was before.

Perhaps she realized how absolutely cute she looked before. Ulyana could’ve kissed her.

But she would not– not right now. She was happy enough to have seen Aaliyah relax.

“Thank you. Commissar, let’s talk to Sieglinde again, and come up with a plan.”

“You take the lead then, Captain. I will be at your side as always.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah returned to the brig with renewed energy. Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse must have been wondering why they were returning to the brig with such big smiles on their faces given everything that was going on. With the officers coming in, the security girls moved to stand by the door again. The Captain and Commissar reentered Sieglinde’s cell, where she was seated back on her head. Her eyes and cheeks were very red from the violent fit of crying that had wrung through her.

She looked up at the two of them, silently pleading. Ulyana spoke first.

“Sieglinde, we apologize for the treatment so far. We want to welcome you aboard.”

Aaliyah quickly added context.

“There are conditions. We will be monitoring you, and you will work to earn our trust.”

Ulyana clapped her hands together with satisfaction. Another situation resolved!

“You will be formally debriefed at a later date. We’ll move some folks to give you a room.”

Sieglinde stared up at the two of them from the bed, initially speechless.

For a moment, there was silence between the cheerful officers and the awestruck captive.

Then Sieglinde’s eyes filled with tears again.

She threw herself to the floor and bowed, putting her head right to the ground.

It was stunning– at that moment, she was no longer an Imperial noble.

“Thank you. I am overcome by your mercy. I swear I will right my wrongs. I am oathbound to it.”

When Ulyana and Aaliyah were about to tell her to get up, Sieglinde lifted her head again.

Her tear-stained red eyes pleaded.

From the floor, her voice trembled. “I– I apologize but– I also have a request. To meet with someone.”


It happened that evening in the cafeteria.

Because it was time for the sailors to change shifts, there was a decent size crowd in the cafeteria. Nothing like the rush hours that sometimes overwhelmed the poor Chef Minardo, but at least two dozen people, enough to occupy a sizeable percentage of the cafeteria seats. These folks were eating, and making merry, happy that the ship seemed to be faring surprisingly well in the photic zone.

At the Captain’s suggestion, Minardo released some of the ship’s liquor to diners that night.

As such, Khadija al-Shajara found herself sitting on the edge of the cafeteria, turning over in her hands a small square can of corn wine. Shimii religious scholars had lively debates over the legitimacy of liquor-drinking. For hardliners, all alcoholic drinks were haram. However, there also were those more liberal mufti who believed that the prohibitions extended only to grape wine, not grain liquor. Grape wine was an indulgence of the devil, delicate and sensual, that tempted people to sin. Corn wine was just booze.

Khadija, a lively woman who enjoyed a good party, naturally sided with that camp, and popped the top of her can. She took a sip. It was sweet– possibly sweetened to hide the blandness of mass production.

However, it had a nice boozy bite to it, and it would certainly fuck her up.

And getting fucked up was all she wanted in that moment, inshallah.

“Um. Excuse me.”

That voice within the din of the crowd was not as familiar as it should have been.

Before she could chug the contents of the can and try to finagle any more out of Minardo, however, someone had appeared at the side of her table. Khadija looked up, but from her seat, it was tough for her gaze to make it up any higher than a sizable pair of breasts in a button-down synthetic shirt, without staring directly up at the LED banks on the ceiling. Trying to be polite, she stood up from her table, still holding her drink in her hands, and found herself closer to the face of her sudden guest.

Fair-skinned, long blond hair, bright eyes, a striking countenance. Tall, taller than her certainly.

Teal half-jacket, button-down white shirt, black pants, red tie. The Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Khadija’s teeth spontaneously grit together. Her hand squeezed the can she was holding.

She was standing in front of– that shameless bitch

Sieglinde von Castille. Lower lip quivering, shoulders unsteady, face flushed light red.

“Khadija al-Shajara, Lion of Cascabel– I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ll– I’ll do anything–”

She started to lower her head to bow–

In the next instant, Khadija’s hand cracked across the air like a whip.

Slapping Sieglinde across the face with such force it nearly knocked her over.

Leaving a red impression of her fingers on the woman’s pink-white cheek.

Without saying a word, Khadija stormed off, her own cheeks almost as red as Sieglinde’s had been left after the attack. Sieglinde watched her go with a dumbfounded expression, while everyone in the cafeteria and in the halls, literally everyone, stared directly at the two of them, held in suspense.

Standing opposite the cafeteria, Ulyana and Aaliyah covered their faces with their hands.


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.1]

For Ulyana Korabiskaya, her lowest point in life came when she awoke without warning within a chaotic, white-walled medbay in an adjacent substation to Mount Raja. Disoriented, with her hair cut off on one side rendering half her head more susceptible to the stale, chill air. She reached a hand to her head and ran her shaking fingers along heavy stitches. They hurt to touch, sending a jolt of pain into her skull.

Tears came to her eyes unbidden, teeth chattering.

Despite the pain she still felt trapped in a nightmare. Her vision had swam in and out of dreamscapes where her body floated amid suffociating steel rooms, water up to her chest. Ripped pipes vented gas and smoke, fires danced atop shreds of steel sewn with fiber-optic cables torn from the wall. There were people screaming, drowning, burning, dying. She tried to reach out to them, but she would vanish in one dreamscape, passed out, maybe killed– only to arrive at another with the same hopeless scene.

When her eyes adjusted to the light in that bright white room–

There were dozens, maybe a hundred people in the medbay with her. Alive, dead, dying.

Everything suffused by the din of the suffering, the hopeless whimper of human injury.

In adjacent beds were people with all manner of wounds, many maimed, some beyond recognition.

Burn victims patched from head to toe in bloody gauze. Moaning bodies with painful but not life threatening injuries who were last in time for medicine while nurses cried for more anesthetic and painkillers. A soldier assuring the medical staff that a shuttle from Mount Raja would restock them soon. Amputees, at least some of whom were, perhaps by virtue of their time of admittance, already having the remains of the limb prepared for a cybernetic implant to prevent them from being disabled permanently.

This involved bio- and ferro- stitching on the wound in cold blood. These were the loudest cries.

Ulyana did not understand at first. Everything had a very hazy, distant, surreal logic to it.

Had she not been in her bridge? Was she not– was she not the Captain of the Pravda

Through the door to the medbay, a figure dressed in black and red strode through.

She navigated the packed beds, the struggling nurses and doctors.

Her eyes did not once waver, she hardly took any of the scene around her.

Perfectly composed, she arrived at Ulyana’s bed and took off her hat.

“Yana. Are you awake? I’m so sorry. But you’re alive, for that we must be thankful.”

Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.

Ulyana’s eyes shut, filled with tears. She gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of her blankets.

“No, please, Parvati, please tell me it’s not– please tell me–” Ulyana begged.

“It’s not your fault.”

Nagavanshi reached out and took her hand for comfort.

Ulyana Korabiskaya broke down into sobbing, crying, and finally screaming.


As soon as she maneuvered her Strelok out of the deployment chute and onto the hangar proper, Khadija al-Shajara slammed the button to open the cockpit and practically leaped out of the machine before the doors even fully opened. She fell between a group of engineers. Cranes attached to the roof of the hangar were moved along rails, lowered to the chutes to help the more damaged machines up into the hangar to be secured on their gantries. Red, gaudy red– Khadija was looking for the Grenadier.

“I’ll leave it to you all to get my machine sorted. Where’s the Imperial?”

She saw the briefest hint of a red helmet and shoulders, steel lifting hooks around the hull.

Khadija ran through the mechanics and stopped at the edge of the chute.

Waiting for the machine to be lifted, and the upper hatch of the chute to close.

And then for the machine to be set down and its hatch to open.

The instant that the bottom half of the hatch lowered enough to be used as a handhold, Khadija practically leaped up into the cockpit, charged the seat and grabbed hold with both hands on Sieglinde von Castille’s collar. While the whole hangar seemed to watch, Khadija, eyes afire, fangs bared, teeth gritted, stared into the Baron’s eyes, and held her as if sustaining that gaze would kill her.

“So this is who you are.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde von Castille gazed back, eyes mournful, shoulders slouched, hands shaking.

She was almost a head taller than Khadija but looked so much smaller then.

“Red Baron.” Khadija cursed.

“Lion of Cascabel.” Sieglinde’s voice was almost a whimper.

They stared at each other for what seemed like breathless minutes, the hangar at a standstill.

Khadija clicked her tongue and shoved Sieglinde back into her cockpit.

She leaped down onto the floor of the hangar and walked away, hands balled into fists.

Chief of Security Evgenya Akulantova parted the crowd of mechanics and approached the machine, drawing her grenade launcher in one hand, though it was a two-handed weapon for most. With a rubber padded missile loaded into it, she aimed inside the cockpit and tipped her head to the side to motion for Sieglinde to come out of it. There was a gentle smile on the Chief’s soft grey face, bearing sharp teeth in an almost disarmingly amiable fashion. A gentle, maidenly giant with a brutal weapon.

“You are Sieglinde von Castille, is that correct? Until the Captain gets to talk to you in-depth, we are treating you as a prisoner rather than a defector. Peer titles don’t mean anything in here, but I hope you find the brig hospitable, nevertheless. I strongly suggest to step out of the cockpit with your hands up, and let my subordinates inspect you.” she nodded now towards Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian, who had arrived with similar grenade launchers on slings around their shoulders.

Silent, Sieglinde did as she was told and made no move to resist being pat down.

She was escorted to the brig, and the hangar resumed gawking and returned to its normal operation.

Out of the other tubes, the HELIOS of Murati Nakara and Karuniya Maharapratham was collected next, along with the remains of the SEAL of Marina McKennedy. Sameera’s Cossack was in almost perfect condition and hardly needed assistance lifting itself out of the water. Once all the Divers were collected, they were lined up abreast on gantries at each opposing wall so that they could be inspected. Chief Lebedova took one look at them and lifted her hand over her eyes, shaking her head vigorously.

“Some of these are in deplorable condition. We just got done reassembling that Cheka too.”

As had become usual, the Cheka’s electronics had nearly burnt out and several of the power cells distributed across the chassis as well as a few internal systems would need to be replaced. On one end of the hangar Sonya Shalikova and Murati Nakara (who was blamed as well despite being uninvolved this time) were both being lectured by Gunther Cohen about their repeated misuse of the machine.

Sameera’s, Khadija’s and Valya’s Streloks were all in decent condition.

The Strelkannon was already a maintenance-intensive machine so every sortie meant that a dozen people had to take care of it. That would not change here, and the Chief was already in her mind plotting out the service schedule for it. It had taken a few bumps, and specifically the torpedo launcher was damaged, and it would be a delicate operation to remove the remaining munitions and fix the pod.

Aiden Ahwalia’s Strelok was recovered from the seafloor. He himself was unharmed, but the machine was in pieces, only the cockpit was untouched. It was as if a monster had torn it apart with its bare hands. They could salvage some of the electrical parts and hydrojet components, but the chassis was basically nothing but food for the Ferricycler so they could ferrostitch simple metal parts from it.

They had no spare parts for the S.E.A.L. so that one was a complete write-off.

Sieglinde’s Grenadier was in the same category. They would probably disassemble it.

The HELIOS was in decent condition thanks to its sturdiness, but it was missing an arm which would have to be replaced by kitbashing a Strelok arm, since they, also, had no spare parts for that machine either. It had come out of the container that the Solarflare ladies had asked them to label as “spare parts.” Thankfully the most complicated part of the system, the drones that it launched, were in perfect condition. Those, Lebedova thought, would be impossible to replace if anything happened.

“We have to clone the software on this thing and get a look at the guts.” She noted.

As for the Brigand itself, there was damage practically everywhere.

No breaches, but plenty of electrical systems to replace, armor plates to sub out.

The Ferrostitcher and the Ferricycler would be running day and night.

“I’ll let the reactor engineer know just to be on the safe side.”

This time around there was no round of applause for the pilots.

Not for a lack of strong feelings, as everyone was grateful for their efforts. But because they were recovered in the middle of a continuing alert, where the sailors were still working all around the ship looking for leaks and electrical damage, or in the hangar assessing damage and beginning to put together tools and parts to begin repairs. Even with the pilots recovered, that alert was not rescinded. The Antenora was still being closely monitored as it began its retreat and the record-breaking levels of Katov mass in the water were a concern. Everyone was busy, and there was no time for heartfelt pleasantries.

It was at that point that the bridge informed the hangar of a new development.

They were so busy, and so incredulous, that at first, the danger barely registered.

But they understood implicitly — the danger was not yet over.


Sonya Shalikova stood outside the medbay doors for a moment.

Collecting the military greatcoat she was wearing over her pilot’s suit for warmth.

Clutching it to her chest, heart beating as if she had run a marathon.

The Cheka’s environment control system had broken down during the battle with Selene, so as a precaution, she was being sent to rest in the medbay for observation. However, she had a certain powerful desire pursue as well, having learned that Maryam Karahailos was also being kept in the medbay for observation. Something she had steeled herself about doing when she was out at sea.

“Ugh, is this stupid? I haven’t known her for that long.”

And yet, didn’t people go out on dates as perfect strangers? Didn’t they even have sex?

She probably knew a lot more about Maryam than most people did on their first date.

So then if she wanted to– then it made sense– it wasn’t anything weird–

“You only live once.”

It was a silly refrain but it encapsulated her current motives.

Fighting Selene pushed her to stand on the border to the afterlife and to interrogate herself. She could no longer punish herself and berate herself and live sternly in repentance for her sister’s passing. There was a vast ocean that was full of mysteries, and many people who depended on her. Shalikova had to move on from her past. She had to forgive herself as her sister would have forgiven her, and start to truly live.

And part of living was being honest with herself about what she treasured, what she desired.

This wasn’t some erratic feeling for a stranger. It was Maryam! It was different!

She could do it for Maryam!

Shalikova gathered her breath and strode through the medbay door.

Murati’s and Sameera’s beds were empty– they were both still in the hangar. She had gone ahead.

Farther down the aisle, however, a certain purple cuttlefish girl sat up in bed, humming.

Bobbing her head from side, shuffling her legs under the bedsheets, amusing herself.

She was– she was really cute– wasn’t she? Shalikova felt a fluttering in her chest.

It was as if over the past few days she had put on lenses that made her see Maryam differently.

“Oh! Sonya! Is it really you? I’m not having a medicine hallucination am I?”

Maryam put on a truly sunny smile upon seeing Shalikova enter the room.

Shalikova knew if she responded and started talking to her, that she would lose her guts.

So she strode quickly past all of the beds and up beside Maryam’s without saying a word.

Tracked unerringly by those w-shaped irises from the door all the way into her space.

“Sonya? Did I do something to make you mad–?”

At Maryam’s bedside, Shalikova bent at the waist and grabbed the sister’s shoulders.

Pulling Maryam into a clumsy kiss on the lips. Holding for a second and parting.

Looking deep into those magnificent Katarran eyes.

For Shalikova, savoring the experience of her very first kiss–

It barely felt like anything. In fact it was almost embarrassing how normal she felt about it.

Had she expected firecrackers to go off? Tongue? Her pale skin turned red as beets.

Maryam was also turning red, putting her hands up to her cheeks, swooning and giggling.

Those fins atop her head started to wiggle with delight.

“Sonya–!”

“I– I think I love you, Maryam.” Shalikova said and instantly wanted to kick herself for it.

While the two had their moment, the bearing monitors in the medbay blared a silent alarm.

Unbeknownst to the young lovers, the Brigand was dealing with a crisis yet again.


“Start moving away from it as fast as you can! Now! Right now!”

Ulyana Korabiskaya briefly stood up from her seat to punctuate the urgency of this order.

Helmsman Kamarik did not need to be told twice. The Brigand turned its prow away from Goryk’s Gorge and began to accelerate as much as it could with the damage it had previously sustained. On the main screen, amid a mass of red matter, the predictive imaging attempted to block out a “shape” for the “dreadnought” it had spotted and assigned mechanical explanations to the biological details it was seeing. Everyone on the bridge focused on their stations rather than look at the main screen.

From the electronic warfare station, Alex Geninov waved frantically at the Captain.

“Uh, ma’am, I started to clone the storage on that HELIOS thing like the hangar was asking for, and the HELIOS Information System seems to have data on that Leviathan. As soon as I started a connection to that Diver it started trying to image the Leviathan through the network. Take a look.”

“Feed it to the main screen. Let’s see what Solarflare LLC has dug up.”

Alex did just that, and after a moment to think, the predictive imager discarded the idea that the Leviathan rising out of Goryk was a known dreadnought model. Instead a fully biological classification appeared, and the picture became crystal clear as to the features of the gargantuan monster roaring to life right in front of their eyes. In the HELIOS Information System, this beast was described as a “Fortress-class” Leviathan with a unique name. It was known as “Dagon.” And there was more–

“Syzygy flagship Dagon– what the hell does that even mean? Flagship?” Ulyana said.

“Flagship implies its leading something.” Aaliyah said. “I can’t imagine this is correct.”

“I think the pictures are correct, I dunno about the description text.” Alex hesitantly added.

On the main screen the clarified image showed a creature with a long body that seemed covered in some kind of fur or fibers, black and brown. Upon its back were two sets of appendages that resembled more than anything the wings of a bird, folding on clawed joints. One pair of wings had a truly enormous span and a second, smaller pair guarded what appeared to be attached bio-hydrojets. A smaller set of these hydrojets rested on the creature’s tapering rear, where a massive dolphin-like tail stretched.

Toward the front of the creature was a small serpent-like head adorned with forward and side-facing horns, and a mouth that unhinged horribly to let out great, shrill bellows that Fatima al-Suhar described as sounding like the shrieking of a woman. She was clearly unnerved by them. As more data was fed in and more of the picture was clarified, bio-weapons could be seen, two large bio-cannons on the back and numerous remora-like “Sprayfish” class Leviathans burying into the monster’s skin like gas guns.

“It’s imitating a dreadnought?” Ulyana said. “Damn it, what on Aer is going on here?”

“Oh! Looks like my intuition was right. All of you really are still in horrible danger!”

There was an incongruously delighted voice coming from the door to the bridge.

Braya Zachikova arrived, quiet, with a sullen expression.

And she arrived with a guest.


In the middle of the near-lightless utility room, framed by the dim rays of the LEDs out in the hall, Braya Zachikova had found a woman where she had expected the corpse of a fish. Around her was a puddle of oily colorless flesh like raw leather or wet innards, sliding off her back and limbs like she was dropping a coat from her slender shoulders. That movement, the easy wet peeling of meat from off a human body, when Zachikova looked at it she felt her vision distorted, as if her brain was a predictive imager trying to make sense of something, framerate lagging, pixels out of place. An alien imitation of motion.

At first the smell of her was disgustingly fishy and salty, clinging to Zachikova’s nostrils like the flecks of oil in the puddle below, as if it would be impossible to clean the aroma out of herself. Then however it became sweet, almost floral, as the flesh further contracted and more of the creature’s new, human body appeared in its place. It stirred something inside Zachikova, something under her gut.

There was a quivering feeling, a sense of pressure or contraction in her.

Something new, never before felt.

Speechless, she took a step back, and the lights behind her shed on the woman instead.

The creature’s eyes shut for a brief moment and slowly reopened, as she adjusted to the light.

Seeing her, truly seeing her, Zachikova felt her heart stir as it had done for the dancer.

She was pale as porcelain, skin stark white except for the two thin, smooth, small, upright horns that grew from her forehead, parting her long, swept, red-streaked white bangs. Her eyes were no longer lilac but gold irises on black sclera, reflecting nothing, but striking Zachikova as containing a truly unfathomable intellect. Her hair, red and white, fell in waves of silk behind her back and over her shoulders.

Her pallid figure was slim, long limbed, slender, lithe, every adjective that could come to Zachikova’s mind as her eyes followed the smooth, gentle curve of her round shoulders, crested the hill of her breasts, followed her flat belly and the slight, firm roundness of her hips. From her hips, calves, and forearms, thin white and red fins grew sleek, diaphanous and moist. They resembled the koi fish-like profile that had so enamored Zachikova. Her slender, long fingers looked temptingly soft as the features of her face. Curled behind her was a white tail that could reach to the floor, parting at the end like a dolphin’s or whale’s.

For Zachikova, who had rarely felt physical attraction, looking at this woman sent jolts of titillating electricity into her core, over the tips of her own fingers and to the ends of her own breasts.

“Braya.”

She spoke her name, cooing it softly.

It felt as if there were flesh in her metal ears for that voice to caress.

“Braya. Do you like this form? I wanted to enter the next phase of our courtship.”

Zachikova couldn’t respond to that. She couldn’t master herself enough to speak.

When she had found something aesthetically pleasing in the past, it had often been a design, a machine, or a clever bit of software. She had felt a sense of titillation toward such things in the past on rare occasions, but she knew it was incongruous and ignored it. People had hardly ever interested her, and when she felt that she became taken with her Dancer she knew intellectually that physical affection from it, true skin to skin affection, was something impossible. But it was no more impossible to her than having sex with Semyonova, Geninov, Murati or any human person she had ever felt even the vaguest physical attraction towards. Physical and social permissibility were no different to a heart as closed shut as hers.

In short: to her she it was equally impossible to fuck machines, fish, or people.

So it never mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered. She had been happy to love her Dancer from afar.

To acknowledge her as a superlative design, and feel happy as a witness.

Knowing there was a gap in their species did not blunt her appreciation.

Now however it was as if hormones that had been repressed for decades flowed heedless.

Now– it was permissible. It was permissible to think– in physical terms–

Her imagination could scarcely handle the feelings flooding in.

She thought initially that it had to be the smell– it was enchanting her somehow.

Pheromones. Like an animal– it’s got pheromones– the sweat, the sebum, it attracts me–

“Braya~”

Zachikova stood frozen still as the body in the puddle stood clumsily on her sleek, human legs.

On her soft, delicate-looking feet, balancing herself by that long, graceful tail.

There was a brief red flash in her eyes, clearly visible amid the inky black of them.

Beneath their feet the puddle of flesh stirred one final time.

Gore and guts that had peeled from the woman began to coil around her arm as if alive again and beckoned by her. Glistening grey and brown flesh thinned, dried, and blood dribbled out from it as if wrung out, all while the mass snaked as if on the creature’s fingertips. When it finally settled, she took the mass and casually spread it, having formed a white robe parted down the middle, which she draped over her shoulders, wearing it in a way that her breasts and everything else was still exposed.

At her feet the puddle had turned dark red from all the blood and fluid drained from the robe.

Zachikova watched her, unblinking, as she approached to within a few steps of her.

“Braya. Braya, Braya, Braya– I love saying your name like this. Hearing it in my throat.”

She smiled, her cheeks spreading ever so softly on that smooth, immaculate face.

One hand laid upon Zachikova’s shoulder, and the second gripped her firmly on the hip.

Her touch was like pure ecstasy, being in her presence, held by her, a sweet warm feeling–

It wasn’t pheromones. Zachikova wanted this. Her heart pounded and not out of fear.

Everything that she thought it would feel like, to touch, to be held, to be enveloped in the flesh of another close enough to feel her heartbeat through the touch. This really was her– it really was the Leviathan who had enamored her with its graceful dance. Had she been human all along or had by some miracle a human form been given to her Leviathan, to meet Zachikova like this? Regardless, the press of physical intimacy destroyed all other thoughts in the officer’s mind. She was starving for touch.

Rather than her fantasies of swimming in the ocean together– Dancer had come to her.

That hand laid upon her shoulder glided across, to the back of her neck.

Skin to skin, for the first time. Like a wave that touch reverberated across Zachikova’s body.

As if touching not just the skin of her neck but touching every skin, even the deepest.

“Braya~”

Taller than Zachikova, the woman guided her head to tip slightly up for her access.

While her lips drew near and pressed, touching, at first, glancing.

Zachikova felt the hand behind her press on her flesh and the hand on her hip nearly lift her.

Despite the differences in size and strength Zachikova did not wait.

Reciprocating, she pushed back onto the creature with her own needy kiss.

With ardor they locked lips again and again, lingering breaches inviting brief mutual taste.

Parting less than a millimeter for less than a second before they joined again.

At first their opens eyes were fixed together as tightly as their lips, but as if one the two shut out the light, feeling only each other in the darkness. There was a trust built between their flesh, suspended in an all-encompassing embrace. Zachikova felt her mouth parted by the creature’s tongue and gave no resistance. She felt the weight of her bear slowly down. Compliant, wanting, needy, she let the creature sit her down and let her lay atop her, tongue crawling deep as throat, slender roaming fingers. Undoing Zachikova’s pants and sliding teasingly down her lower belly, across her quivering inner thigh–

Pause–

Zachikova opened her eyes with a start. The woman had turned her head to the wall, eyes glowing red.

Her distracted long tongue retreated leaving Zachikova gasping, shuddering between breaths–

Sloshing thick fluid spilled from her once invaded lips tasting salty-sweet–

Those fingers on her thighs slackening in their grip, ending the fantasy–

What had been pure physical instinct before gave way to the squeamishness of intellect. Realizing there was a woman on top of her of unknown provenance whose fingers were just about to go inside her, whose tongue she had tasted to her throat, Zachikova crawled out from under her in a sudden panic. Everything felt suddenly irrational, though not wholly unwanted– she could no longer lose herself to the longing flesh having been given time to think, and made herself deny the pleasure then.

She retreated back to the unemotional logic that governed her mind.

And away from the intoxicating taste of another body–

“Who are you? I’ll sound the alarm!” Zachikova said.

Pulling her pants up, she put her back to a wall and her hand over a red emergency button.

The creature’s fluids still trailed from Zachikova’s own lips. She had to brush it off.

Her flight triggered no chase. Her counterpart was serene in tone.

An unconcerned, gentle smile adorned the face of the creature as she stood back up.

“Of course you know who I am, Braya.”

“Quit being coy!”

Something distracted her again– the creature kept looking to the wall.

“Oh Braya. Well. I’m afraid that this vessel is not out of danger. We should sort that out first.”

“Do I need to either repeat what I said, or push this button?”

At this, the creature pouted. That expression– Zachikova’s loins stirred again.

She was so beautiful– so beautiful, with an alien eroticism to her every movement.

No, calm down– quit acting so stupid, Braya Zachikova!

“Oh dear, my little Braya– ah, well. I should have known you’d be a little closed minded at first. That’s fine then. We can start over from the beginning. You’re worth it to me.” The creature took the makeshift robe which she had put over her shoulders, and slipped her arms in the sleeves, fastening it around her hips, such that it split tantalizingly just above the knees. Zachikova tried not to stare at her.

“Give me a name or I’ll have security sort you out.” Zachikova threatened.

“You can call me Arbitrator One.” She said. “We write the number in the ancient tally.”

So it was actually written as Arbitrator I, but it was not pronounced that way.

“What kind of a name is that? It’s more like a made-up title isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

“No, it’s my name. But if you want, you and you alone can call me Arabella.”

“You’re Arbitrator I then.” Zachikova said. Trying to make herself be cold to her. To reject her.

It almost hurt. She– she wanted to treat this creature lovingly. It was irrational! She had to resist it.

Braya Zachikova was a machine. She couldn’t let herself act so foolish around this thing.

“Braya, I’m a bit disappointed.” Arbitrator I put her hands behind her back and leaned forward, her eyes narrowed, giving Zachikova a petty, hurt look. “I thought you of all people would understand me.”

“Are you the Dancer?” Zachikova said. Then she realized suddenly– would she even know that name? And before Arbitrator I could respond, clarified. “The Leviathan that– that died in the Gorge–”

“That was a part of me. I am as much exclusively it as you are only the last skin you shed.”

Her eyes lit up again and she started to look around the room again with a sudden urgency.

“It’s really surfaced.” She said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Braya, you’re all in danger. Please believe me.”

She kept repeating that. Was it true?

Then again–

At this point it hardly mattered. Zachikova felt a stab of anxiety. She had to report this– all of this.

The Captain would have to sort it out. Whether Arbitrator I was lying or not.

Zachikova lifted her hand from the emergency alarm, feeling dazed by everything that happened.

“Braya, you need to navigate this vessel away from here.” Arbitrator I insisted.

“Away to where?” Zachikova said, sighing as she humored her.

“Hmm. Preferably we’d go that way.” Arbitrator I pointed her hand straight up.


At this point, in this particular day, the bridge officers on the Brigand had seen enough people come in and make mysterious pronouncements that the moment Zachikova came through the door with her mystery guest, everyone had already made time in their busy schedules to stare at her. However, the last few people that had come in, like “Euphemia Rontgen” and “Elena” were ordinary-looking folks.

Even for a Katarran (they assumed) this new entrant was particular.

Bare-foot, wearing a tight white robe, overlong red and white hair– and those horns!

Those eyes— then again, Maryam Karahailos had strange eyes too.

However, the most salient thing for the officers was where this woman had come from.

Everyone had formally been told of the Solarflare LLC employees, and of Maryam and Marina.

“Zachikova, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Why is she on the bridge?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya was firm but not necessarily adamant.

A lot had happened that day. For the moment she was in a fey mood in which she believed she was ready for anything. Come what may! She was rolling with the punches. Her scientist guests lying about their names and what was in their crates? Fine. Marina had fooled them all into escorting the Imperial Princess this whole time? Sure. She had always expected Marina to be lying, though not with such grandiosity. An enormous Leviathan was bursting out of the Goryk Abyss? Why not, at this point. Bring it on.

She did not want to admit it, but this was a nascent panic beginning to snake through her brain.

“She came from– Um–” Zachikova paused. She raised a hand to her lips. Her face was a bit more expressive than usual, in that her brow was ever so slightly furrowed. She then proceeded to speak, after gathering her thoughts, unsmiling and with a neutral gaze. “She came from outside the ship.”

“From outside the ship? From the open ocean? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

Zachikova made no expression. Ulyana narrowed her eyes. The mystery woman smiled.

“Did the Antenora fire a boarding torpedo at us?” Ulyana said.

“We’d know if that had happened.” Aaliyah interjected, listening to the whole exchange.

“Was she a stowaway with Solarflare LLC’s cargo?” Ulyana asked Zachikova.

“No.” Zachikova said. Ulyana crossed her arms with exasperation.

“Then did she crawl through the vents? What the hell is going on?”

Aaliyah groaned and put her head against the computer terminal arm on her seat.

Ulyana’s brain had briefly pored over the realistic possibilities. None of it made sense.

Zachikova seemed unable to say anything but, “She really came from outside the ship.”

So Ulyana then turned to the mystery woman herself. “Okay, you, identify yourself now.”

“I am Arbitrator One, written with ‘I’. I come from the people known as the Omenseers.”

That woman crossed one arm over her chest and performed a short bow, smiling.

“I’ve been contending with liars all day, so forgive me, but– No, you’re not!” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I shrugged with her palms up. “Then you may call me Arabella then, I suppose.”

“Don’t call her that.” Zachikova said suddenly. “That’s– That’s clearly the fake one.”

“Aww. Little Braya is jealous– you’re right, that name is only for Braya.” Arbitrator I said.

Zachikova turned sharply to her. “Knock that shit off, they’ll misunderstand!”

Ulyana stared at Zachikova then at Arbitrator I in turn. One flustered, the other grinning.

In her mind she ran through the things she knew about Zachikova.

And the things she knew about the present situation.

Something was connecting, but she didn’t want it to connect.

Because it was too absurd. It was a desperate bit of pattern recognition and nothing more.

Last time she saw Zachikova she had run out after her pet Leviathan had sacrificed itself to save them. Ulyana had heard reports from the sailors of Zachikova running across the hangar to the utility chute near the rearmost part of the ship’s habitable pods. That was where she had recalled her drone to after the previous events. Ulyana, at the time, figured that Zachikova was in a vulnerable state and that she wanted to collect a final memento of the creature from the drone. Now she was on the bridge with–

Now–

Zachikova was here on the bridge– with a mysterious woman who–

–who looked a little bit like if someone was trying to cosplay that Leviathan,

and was saying weird things and had come out of nowhere

Oh no no no no no Absolutely no Absolutely no That is completely insane

“I’m–” Ulyana had an involuntary twitch. “I’m going to ask again and I want a rational answer.”

“Esteemed Captain,” Arbitrator I performed another little bow and raised her voice as if speaking to an audience. “This vessel is in grave danger, from which you may not be able to escape without my particular expertise. I implore you to defer the matter of my identity at least temporarily until such a time as Braya– and of course other hominins aboard– are safe from Dagon’s emergence out of Agartha.”

Ulyana only heard one word of that. “Did you say ‘Dagon’? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Indeed, that is the name of the creature.” Arbitrator I said.

“Then you’re with Solarflare LLC! Quit making up ridiculous–”

“Uhh, Captain! That big guy is doing something!” Alex Geninov shouted.

On the main screen, a Radiation warning suddenly appeared.

They had been scanned by LADAR, the sensors detected the lasers. This was shortly followed by the sensors detecting that a sonar pulse had bounced off the hull. And then another– Fatima al-Suhar withdrew from her ears her headphones, rubbing the sides of her head in pain. She must have heard the pulse, but she was too dazed– Ulyana realized that all the roaring may have been bio-sonar pulses.

That LADAR warning could not have come from the Antenora either.

Both ships had gone their own ways and the Antenora knew the Brigand’s position already.

“Fatima, are you alright?” Ulyana asked.

“That noise felt a knife cutting across my skull.” Fatima replied, nearly weeping.

Ulyana was speechless. She felt pure anxiety vibrating between her skin and flesh.

“Have you heard any technological noises since the Antenora fled?” She asked.

“It couldn’t have been technological.” Fatima said. “It had to be biological, Captain.”

There was no denying the terrible hypothesis in the back of her mind.

“Take a rest. You’ve done more than enough today.” Ulyana said.

“Thank you Captain. I’m very sorry. I should be stronger–”

“Don’t worry. Please just take care of yourself.”

Fatima nodded her head and leaned back on the padding of her chair, gently sobbing.

Ulyana trusted her. There really were no mechanical ships being caught on their sonar.

So that LADAR had to have come from the Leviathan. It really was an imitation battleship.

Leviathans were much faster than ships. This creature had seen them. Would it give chase?

And if it gave chase could they escape it? Could they fight it off in their current state?

On the main screen, the creature looked to still be extricating its bulk from the Gorge.

They still had some time to react, but how much? How vehemently would it attack?

Ulyana called on Semyonova, on the station adjacent to the despondent Fatima.

“Have Maharapratham called to the bridge right away. She needs to see this.” She said.

Semyonova nodded and began to work on her task when she was interrupted.

A pale white hand gently patted her shoulder as if to say that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Have you perhaps a clearer picture of the danger you are in?”

Arbitrator I chimed in again, reminding Ulyana and the officers of her presence once more.

“Captain, I can tell from your aura, you have acknowledged an idea of what I am. It disgusts you, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? For now, we can leave it at that– I am indeed the Leviathan that was outside. I am friendly– I want nothing more than to save this vessel. Right now, understanding the situation won’t save you. You will have to trust me and verify later.”

Those eyes of hers, yellow on black like a beast. Even Katarrans didn’t have eyes like that.

Meeting those eyes and the depth of their alien intellect, Ulyana felt her heart quaver.

Then as Ulyana’s own ordinary eyes locked deep with Arbitrator I’s exotic eyes–

The latter’s, in a blink, became ordinary green irises on white sclera just like her own.

She had changed them– right? She had transformed them. They weren’t like that before.

Was she seeing things now? Ulyana relented. She wasn’t equipped to tackle this now.

“Aaliyah, are you okay with adding this to the pile of interrogations we need to do?”

“At this point, I don’t think we have a choice.” Aaliyah replied.

On the main screen, there was a sudden gust of red biomass from the gorge.

As with a flap of its “wings” the massive Dagon finally emerged fully into open water.

They were uncomfortably close to the Gorge and therefore to the creature.

The Captain tried not to show it but her breathing was accelerating heavily.

She felt a pressure so powerful that it was crushing her against her seat.

Watching that lumbering creature begin to move, and begin to turn–

Was she going to lose this ship and the lives of everyone in it, like the Pravda?

Ulyana’s voice caught in her throat. Her chest heaved, her skin felt tense over her flesh.

Her head filled with hazy thoughts of flooding, electrical fires, gorey images of the injured swimming in and out of her vision. Reaching for them, unable to take their hands and save them. Surrounded by the bodies. Would it happen again? Was she destined to lose everything again? Her own life was meaningless to her in that instant. She thought of her crew– what would happen to them? The events of the past few weeks sped through her mind like a blur, could she have done anything, anything at all to forestall this?

Could she do anything now? She was practically choking.

“It’s unmistakable now! It’s bearing right toward us!” Semyonova shouted.

Ulyana felt a stone sinking down her throat and landing heavy in her stomach.

Despite their vaunted position there was nothing a Captain could do but give orders.

They weren’t the heroes– they sent people to their deaths. She was nothing without this crew. This magnificent crew had already done so much, proved themselves so extraordinary while against horrific odds and in less-than-ideal circumstances. Despite their eccentricities, despite their differences, they had survived to this point even as things always seemed to crumble around them.

Ulyana esteemed them dearly. She would give anything to protect them.

Now however she felt like any order she could give would be suicidal.

Where could they run? How could they fight? She had no directions to give.

Every choice available felt like it would lead to their deaths.

I couldn’t redeem myself Nagavanshi. I’m still useless. I’m still powerless.

Staring at that monster on the main screen, she felt like there was nothing she could do–

“Captain.”

She felt a hand caress her shoulder and pat on her back, coming from beside her.

Ulyana glanced at her Commissar, Aaliyah, her ears erect and tail swaying gently.

Her orange eyes fixed Ulyana’s own in a way that sent a tremor into her chest.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I haven’t seen you pull off miracle after miracle just to give up now.”

“Aaliyah–”

“We can talk later. Right now, they need the Captain to be decisive. Take a leap, however insane; I’ll follow you, no matter what it is. I trust you. You’ve more than won that trust. We can interrogate all that happened, and all that we did right or wrong, after the fact. You’re not alone; I won’t let you be.”

Ulyana looked into Aaliyah’s unwavering eyes feeling foolish for her lapse in strength.

For everyone’s sake couldn’t let this become like the Pravda. So she had no other choice.

She let go of her trepidation. When it came down to it, she only had one asset remaining.

“‘Arbitrator I’, you clearly are tied into this, so tell me how we can escape.” Ulyana said.

Arbitrator I stared at the main screen with those newly green eyes, smiling contentedly.

As if knowing that her time had come. She gestured her white hands to the main screen.

“Dagon is still immature. I believe its juvenile body will not allow it to rise without being damaged by the changes in water pressure. It needs the deep water to support itself.” She said matter-of-factly, with mysterious confidence. “Therefore, we can escape by going up, Captain.” With that same odd cheerfulness to her pallid expression, she pointed her index up at the ceiling.

Zachikova blinked incredulously at this.

“She mentioned this to me before, but I thought it was nonsense.” Zachikova said.

It was true that the body plans of deep sea fish meant that their flesh and organs could collapse in lower pressure water if they ascended to the photic zone, something that the Brigand as a pressurized steel vessel did not have to contend with. That would potentially prevent Dagon from pursuing if the Brigand performed a “rapid blowout” ascent. However, even if it was true that Dagon was not equipped to rise up the water table, there was nothing waiting for them in the sunlit ocean but more death.

Arbitrator I smiled as if she knew what Ulyana was worried about.

“I can keep the vessel safe from wild Leviathans. I can do nothing against Dagon.” She said.

There was no time. Ulyana had to be decisive. She had to trust this ‘Arbitrator I’ figure.

They only had one choice. They could not possibly stay and fight Dagon in their condition.

And so it was– like in the legends, like in fables told to scare and fascinate children.

To survive, they would have to make myth reality and ascend to the surface waters.

“Helmsman, blow all the ballast water! Angle fins for rapid ascent!” Ulyana declared.

Everyone on the bridge, even the gas gunners two tiers below the Captain, turned their heads over to stare at her as if they couldn’t understand. In response, Ulyana stood from her seat aiming a hand at the main screen with a flourish. “Quit tarrying! Prepare to ascend the photic zone!” For most people, heading surfaceward was an insane endeavor– but on the main screen, there was an even more insane sight, the hulking Dagon looming nearer and nearer, and appearing large and larger than their ship.

Helmsman Kamarik looked back at Ulyana from his station, first surprised then unnerved.

“Captain I– I gotta confess, I’ve never even simulated a rapid ascent.” He said.

“I’ve read about the process.” Ulyana said. She struggled not to stutter or get tongue-tied.

“Well. Okay. You’re the boss. I guess I’ll get the ballast going then.” Kamarik said.

He spoke almost as if in the form of a question but began the process.

As part of their mobility options, ships, whether Imperial or Union, had a suite of control surfaces on the exterior, particularly the main fins and the mast/conning tower fins, and internally, they had ballast tanks to control mass and density at different parts of the ship. Ballast tanks were filled with water that could be pumped into and out of the water system. The amount of water ballast could be reduced by filling them with air from vents to make the ship float more, or increased for negative buoyancy.

Truly expert helmsmen used all of these elements to their advantage for combat maneuvering.

Ascent was normal for ships — naval combat was three dimensional.

Those same mechanisms that could be used to move up and down in a controlled fashion within the aphotic waters could be used for an extreme ascent into the photic zone, the forbidden realm of sunlit ocean beyond the upper scattering layer. Nothing physically prevented them from doing so. There was less pressure in the photic zone, so it was even mechanically safer to operate there. However, the presence of corrupted weather and Leviathans made it a fool’s errand. Only a scant few rapid ascents had ever been performed by Union ships, and it was something that was useless to teach to new crews.

“Helmsman, the only tricky part will be stopping our ascent short of the surface.”

Once the ballast was blown and the ship started climbing rapidly, the water system would be strained.

In order to stop themselves quickly to prevent breaching the surface and exposing the ship to the full extent of the Corruption, they would have to dump water back into the ballast tanks and level out.

Cutters and most civilian vessels did not have internal water systems strong enough to refill the tanks in the middle of an ascension, so they never blew their tanks. Anything Frigate size or larger could do it provided there was water in the system ready to route into the tanks. Ulyana knew, theoretically, that even if water collection was compromised during the ascent, there was always enough water in one place: the reactor cooling. It could be routed into ballast temporarily, leaving the reactor to run hot for a time.

“At 150 depth, we should be able to level out if we pump heavy water into the tanks.” Ulyana said.

Helmsman Kamarik whistled admiringly. “Ma’am, this is fuckin’ crazy. But here it goes.”

“Semyonova, relay to the hangar!” Aaliyah said. “Tell everyone to secure tools, now.”

“Um, yes!”

Semyonova quickly broadcast to the ship– but she had maybe twenty or thirty seconds.

Not nearly enough time to warn everyone–

“Alright, here goes nothing!” Kamarik said. “Blowing the ballast and angling up!”

At first there was a periodic vibration, that traveled from the ship into the bodies within.

As the ballast water blasted out of its hatches and the ship tilted it became a quake.

Rumbling that presaged the beginning of a mythical flight.

Parvati Nagavanshi had been right. Ulyana could either become the greatest Captain the Union had ever seen, or a washed up nobody, reaper of ships, a death-omen if she even survived the madness she had been thrust into. She thought she had come to terms with the last crazy task she had to confront and then there would suddenly be a new, even more startling development to test her resolve.

This time, it wouldn’t be like the Pravda. They couldn’t be any more different.

She watched the main screen as the monster called Dagon left their sight.

Grabbing hold of her chair as the ship angled almost 40 degrees toward the firmament.

Shooting up faster and faster, rattling and shaking, the main computer blaring statuses.

Turbines and pumps and air vents in the water system struggled and cried out for aid.

Already damaged electrical systems reported sporadic failures with lights, circulators, network boards.

Every officer grabbed hold as best they could as the ship climbed.

Arbitrator I seized Zachikova into an embrace and held on to the post of Semyonova’s chair with her tail. Geninov, Fatima, and the rest grabbed on to their chairs which were bolted to the ground. Helmsman Kamarik struggled between holding on for life and limb and continuing to operate his station. As the Brigand tilted to an ever more violent angle and picked up speed, anything freestanding on the officer’s stations like half-empty cups of coffee or broth or cans of protein stew went flying to the back of the bridge, spilling and rattling. Every human body threatened to fly to the back as well.

It was a spectacular insanity. Nobody was prepared for this. Nobody could prepare for it.

Ulyana went from being almost sick with nerves to grinning at the sheer chaos of it.

She felt as if the judgment of God was being cast upon her. Her sins weighed like the ballast.

And despite everything, she had blown them out to begin her climb to paradise.

Having surmounted so much danger, staring the sky in the face, it led Ulyana to finally realize: the Pravda had not been her own fault. She had made no decisions as the Captain of the Pravda, she had no agency in the midst of the disaster. She was a victim. She was in command of a test voyage and the ship’s guts failed that test. It was not like the decision to fight back against the Iron Lady, to charge into Norn’s claws, to trust Elena Lettiere, or now, the decision to follow Arbitrator I, a being who had appeared and spoken mere sentences before suggesting that they ascend the heavens to escape their fate.

Those were pivotal moments where she had affected the lives of her crew.

As Captain of the Brigand, Ulyana had made several choices, pored over, and reasoned to the best of her ability, with all the information at her disposal at the time she made those choices. She gave orders, oversaw plans and organization. People, and the ship, moved as she commanded. On the Brigand, she had been responsible for the lives of many. It was not so when the Pravda met its demise.

That had been a tragedy, a wound in history which she was truly helpless to forestall.

And by contrast, on the Brigand, Ulyana was not helpless or hopeless. She had agency.

She was exercising the power and judgment she had to the best of her ability.

As the ship became free of its water weight and rose, Ulyana shed her own burdens.

No regrets. At every turn, I’ve done the best I could. Thank you, Aaliyah.

With one hand holding onto her chair, Ulyana stretched out the other.

Around Aaliyah Bashara’s shoulder, as the commissar struggled to hold on as well.

“Are you ready to follow me into hell, Commissar?” She cried out, over the rumbling and rattling.

“Always, Captain!” Aaliyah shouted as well.

On the cameras, the red waters were quickly left behind.

Katov biomass readings plummeted, and the water turned from red to black to blue.

Dagon had vanished, and the sight in front of them was a thick cloud of organisms.

“Crossing the upper scattering layer!” Kamarik shouted. “Hold on, baby, hold on!”

Sensing the advance of the ship the teeming mass of pelagic fish and the ordinary predators that thrived on them spread open suddenly as if forming among them a door. A biological gate to the heaven that was barred to humanity, and there were less than seconds of recognition of this grand feat and what it signified as the Brigand hurtled through the 100 meter strata of marine life at immense speed.

“400 depth– and climbing!” Geninov cried out in mixed awe and terror.

On their cameras the surroundings were beautiful and alien.

Blue water all around them. They could see— the water was streaked with light.

Directly above was God, white disk adorned with grand rays. 400 meters, 300 meters–

Beams of light shooting eerily into the water. It was the corrupted surface directly above.

Mere hundreds of meters away. Closing in. Humanity’s forbidden, fallen holy land.

Sinners who had been cast from heaven now leaped toward the firmament.

“Pump the reactor cooling water into the tanks! Level us out now! Right now!”

Against the force of the water the Brigand’s fins returned to their horizontal, level plane.

Through a herculean effort of every available mechanism the reactor cooling pods drained heavy water into the ballast tanks at maximum pump. Red alerts screeched as various components strained under the pressure, turbines grinding, pumps screaming. There was compounding damage everywhere–

“She’ll make it! She’ll make it!” Kamarik yelled.

Ulyana held on to hope as the ship struggled, shaking itself apart.

At her side, Aaliyah threw her own arm around the Captain, clinging tight to her.

With her at my side– we won’t fail.

Judged–

–and found worthy.

Directly below the sun disk, body of God, the Brigand leveled out, avoiding the surface.

A mere 50 meters below the edge of their world.

On the bridge, the officers nearly stumbled out of their chairs, having been leaning to keep themselves level while the ship had been tilted and now finding themselves in obscene angles with the ship righted. All the cans and cups rattled one more time. One final quake spread through the ship that rumbled right into Ulyana’s chest as they stabilized. On the main screen there was bright, blue ocean all around them.

Final labored breaths shook the terror out of their chests. They were– they were safe?

“Damage report.” Ulyana said, exhibiting a slight trepidation.

“We might have some leaky pipes and a few pumps to replace.” Kamarik said.

“We have electrical damage basically everywhere. Core’s heating up.” Geninov added.

“The hangar’s a mess. Tools everywhere.” Semyonova moaned. “A few injuries. No deaths.”

Subhaan Allah.” Fatima said, holding a hand against her breast and breathing deep.

Ulyana laid a hand over her face. What a mess. “At least we’re alive. Kamarik, get us down to 200 or 300 depth again. Take it slow and start phasing out the heavy water from the system and refilling with sea water. Prioritize refilling the core, even if we have to move at one knot or stay still. Semyonova, tell everyone not to use the faucets or anything right now, it’s going to be full of agarthic salt if they do. God, what a mess. Everyone run checks on your own systems. Are all the sensors still up? We need to plan repairs too. Get Lebedova on it if she isn’t. If she needs additional manpower the pilots can help.”

It was a lot easier to resume the act of being Captain than to take in what had happened.

At his station, however, Kamarik was smiling placidly, leaning back on his chair.

“Something wrong?” Ulyana asked, near breathless from everything that had transpired.

Kamarik shook his head. “No, just taking this whole shit in. We’re naval legends now, Captain.”

He ran his hand over his station screen like he was comforting it. “This dame really did it.”

“We’re gonna be dead legends soon!” Geninov shouted from Zachikova’s station.

Dozens of red flashes appeared on the main screen, target boxes around incoming objects.

Leviathans. Sprayfish class, Barding class, Greathorn class– leviathans of all sizes.

Great maws, long bodies, numerous jets, bio-cannons. All kinds of body plans.

They had detected the Brigand and were approaching, cautiously, curiously, in numbers.

“We traded a big one for every fucking little one in a ten kilometer radius!” Geninov cried.

Ulyana shut her eyes and drew in a breath. She tried not to panic. It was another moment.

One of many that would characterize their journey from here. All she could do was face it.

“You said you would handle this? Show me you aren’t a fraud then– or die with us.”

She turned a glare on Arbitrator I, who seemed perfectly calm with the situation.

Letting go of Zachikova, whom she had been tenderly embracing during the ascent.

She walked forward, between all the stations on the middle tier, just below the Captain.

“Of course. Please observe. I am who I say I am. And with this, I seal an oath to this vessel.”

On the main screen the pack of Leviathans approached, circling, spiraling, hurtling forth–

Arbitrator I raised her hand to the main screen, eyes glowing with red rings.

“Raise not your arms against the master of Lemuria and chosen of Shalash. Omensight.”

Ulyana felt something stir. Something that made the tiniest hairs on her skin stand on end.

In front of her Arbitrator I glowed for a split second with a myriad of colors.

It could’ve been the lights, or it could’ve been Ulyana’s own exhaustion.

These brief explanations could encompass none of what happening, however.

At her command (at her command?), the Leviathans drawing visibly nearer to the Brigand were given sudden pause, those with fish-like bodies hovering briefly in place before turning away, those with serpentine bodies directing their snaking masses in directions away from the Brigand and coiling at a distance. Those with whale-like bodies that could not easily turn their bulk dove deep to swim beneath the Brigand, unable to swim over due to the proximity to the surface. That teeming mass of life which they had attracted crossed past them and dispersed. Ahead of them the ocean became clear again.

Clear of the Leviathans, but in their place, the sunlit world was still filled with life.

With the danger passed, the main screen filled with the beauty of paradise.

White rays of sunlight penetrated the water’s surface and illuminated schools of small fish swimming in their thousands. Jellyfish with surfaces cycling through the colors of natural rainbows rose and fell in their natural diligence. Larger fish preyed on the small as if nothing had disturbed their hidden world. Those Leviathans went from being threats to rejoining nature, navigating with their own majesty amid the ordinary creatures. In contact with the light, and separated from the benthic world of humanity, nature flourished in the photic zone. Ulyana watched this serene landscape, with quiet reverence, as if still counting the seconds of life that she had left in the face of a danger now, finally, abated.

A collective sigh reverberated across the bridge. They were finally safe.

They had survived.

Exhausted officers put their heads on their station desks, deflating after the danger washed over them. Geninov was loudly sobbing. Fatima and Semyonova openly crying. Kamarik repeatedly tapped his fist on the wall near him. Fernanda stood up from her station and bowed her head over it, shifting her feet as if to keep from kicking. Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah’s ears and tail drooped so low they might have fallen off.

In place of the adrenaline and the blood boiling stalwartly in her veins, Ulyana felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of her forehead. She hardly felt a migraine like this since she stopped drinking herself drunk. Life had stopped moving second by labored second, but she still felt the inertia brimming inside her. All of it was over, finally over. No enemies on their sensors. Just them, alone, and the open sea.

Her crew could rest. A Captain’s work was never done, however.

“Hey,”

Leaning back for comfort, calmly breathing, Ulyana fixed her attention back on Arbitrator I.

“What was all that shit you just said? Explain what the hell just happened. Right now.”

She jabbed an accusing finger at the pale woman below.

Arbitrator I beamed, bobbing her head from side to side with her hands behind her back.

“It was just the incantation to my magic spell!” She declared cheerfully.

Beside the Captain’s chair, Zachikova raised both of her hands to her face, groaning.

Ulyana felt a familiar gentle pat on the shoulder.

“We’ll save it for the interrogation, Captain.”

At her side, Aaliyah Bashare smiled, relieved and cheerful, while comforting Ulyana.

Her face might as well have glowed for how beautiful it looked at that moment.

“To hell and back again, Captain. Or I couldn’t call myself your Commissar.” She said.

Ulyana returned the smile gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me, Aaliyah.”

While the ship slowly got underway again, the two of them fixed gentle eyes on one another.

So it went.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Brigand was free from external, violent threats.

It would take time for Ulyana to feel safe about everything she had learned today, however.

Their horizon was filled with fog and smoke. But they could do nothing but go forth through it.

For the next leg of their journey, the Brigand’s path would be lit by the sun itself.

An even grander journey awaited them. At least Ulyana would not have to command it alone.


Within the roiling red cloud that had burst from Goryk’s Abyss lumbered a great tyrant of the seas.

Rising out of a wound in the earth, roaring its entrance into the world of “human civilization.”

Avoiding its strength, the humans which had borne witness to its rise fled in every direction.

Its name was Dagon. With six eyes on its head and several across its body, the monster watched the machine it had sought to pursue shoot skyward at a bewildering pace. In itself, the beast scarcely understood what it was seeing or what had happened– but deep within the pressurized cavities of the monster there were symbiotic intelligences that understood what had transpired. They guided the creature to resume its flight within the shadowed wilderness of what was known as “Sverland.”

These intelligences did not answer to the beast, however, nor did the beast truly answer to them.

Both Dagon and its navigators bowed before the authority of the being Dagon was born to protect.

“We were tracking a ship, weren’t we? How come nobody’s updated me on it?”

Her voice reverberated across the interior of Dagon’s cerebral pod, stirring semi-transparent teal-blue organelles on the surrounding walls, like sinewy boils in which humanoid bodies could be seen to float, suspended in a film of dimly glowing gel, and affixed by their slender, pale necks to great bundles of nerves and arteries. Moisture glistened on the leather-pink surfaces which hardened black at the edges of the organelles. They shuddered with understanding of her requests and spoke silently to her.

Numbers and coordinates and data filtered into her mind from the minds surrounding her.

“Huh? You all let it get away? Why? There was no reason to engage it? Putting those vile excuses for homo sapiens in their place is good enough for me. It would have taken us no effort to crush them utterly, no? What do you mean? What do you mean it would have been dangerous?”

She developed an angry twitch as she conversed verbally with beings speaking mentally.

“Autarch, the vessel rose to the surface. It was a powerful vessel. We did not engage in pursuit.”

“I know. Navigation told me. But thank you for appearing, Enforcer II, to take the blame.”

In the middle of the womb-like cavity rose a black, crab-legged armored throne upon which sat the exalted Autarch of the Omenseers, known as Arbitrator II. Her current body was still immature, a slender pale figure with red hair longer than herself and a single curled horn on the side of her head. Dressed in a white robe bedecked with biologically luminescent cuticles, a tail twice her size curling around her throne.

At her feet, a pale woman with wavy brown hair kneeled. She had arrived from a sphincter leading down into the lower womb, within which prepared combat bodies were maintained. Her white and black dress had a trim of brown fibers and colored algae and flattered her mature figure. If at present the Autarch appeared like an older teen or younger adult, the creature before her was a middle aged woman.

“Autarch,” Enforcer II began, “Forgive me for the miscalculation, but I’m afraid Dagon is not yet mature enough to rise any further. It was grown in the Agartha, and its body is still soft. It must adapt to the waters of the homo sapiens and must then adapt to the waters farther above. It will take time.”

Arbitrator II rolled her eyes. “Okay but why didn’t we fire at the ship? How mature are the weapons?”

“I’m afraid the bio-cannons have only reached 40% maturity. Missiles are at 50%. Forgive me, milord.”

The Autarch’s voice became slower, deeper, evident of her displeasure. “Hold out your arm. Right now.”

Enforcer II quietly and dutifully outstretched her arm. Arbitrator II did not even move in her seat.

In a split second arm fell from elbow with a violent, bloody discharge as if sliced off.

Blood sprayed in a streak over Enforcer II’s beautiful features. She grimaced, enduring the pain.

On the ground, the severed arm rolled down the pod before the floor itself opened to consume it.

Absorbing the flesh into the surroundings such that it could not be recovered.

“While you reflect upon your gross miscalculations you can restore your arm bit by bit. Dismissed.”

Enforcer II mustered a pained smile and bowed to Arbitrator II, arm still bleeding.

Arbitrator II laid back, sighing. “Oh well. No matter. For now, I’ll just savor the journey.”

Gazing around the kingdom in miniature from which she would survey the “human” world.

Grinning with self-satisfaction. Soon, she knew. Soon, the time of the Syzygy would be upon them.

Dagon glided over the ocean surface, beginning its path through the fringes of human existence.

A great shadow of once-dormant secrets now probing out from within the depths of Aer.

Arbitrator II drummed fingers on her cheek. Idly recalling visions of her previous selves.

She had airy glimpses, passing feelings, of a great history to which she was a crucial part.

“Why hurry, after all? Let’s toy with them a bit. The Titan of Aether has an uncheangeable destiny.”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.14]

Sitting in a corner of a room she never left.

Alone.

Everything was dim. Her stomach was rumbling. She hardly understood why.

She hadn’t the words, at first, to ask why she was trapped here.

Trapped in a hole in the rock in a pit that led straight to hell.

“Princess.”

They called her that– a word meant to evoke the legacy she had been bequeathed.

Those who called themselves her servants waited on her and bowed their respect.

But she was small, grey, skinny, and hungry. Her tail was the biggest part of her.

Spending her days huddled in the dark in pain, waiting miserably for food or drink.

When she ate, it was bony fish, vent worms.

Things that had no taste to her but staved off the pain of hunger.

Until one day, a traveler fed her bread.

Then the fish, the worms– they disgusted her. Even eating became painful.

“You can call me Ganges. I come from very far away. I wanted to see you.”

She came and she left hardly remembered– and the world was dimmer for it.

Astra–

Her name when she wasn’t “Princess” was Astra Palaiologos.

And every time the outside world intruded on the prison in which she was kept, it brought with it nothing but pain. Because it was so grand, so vast, everything in it so magnificent in scale that it made the dim, deep hole into which she was cast, 3000 meters below, the surface, all the darker, all the more meagre. She wished she had never tasted bread, never learned of the world outside the abyss, never learned of outsiders and the Empire from which they hailed, never learned of the Kingdom of Katarre that should have been hers, but which was taken. Never learned that all her useless retainers had failed to save her parents and brought her here to hide until she died. Never learned about duty, fealty, responsibility.

Never learned that, perhaps, she was created in a way where she might not ever die. That perhaps, this experience of life would last forever.

She wished she had never learned–

“You’re a very special girl. I hope that you can live in peace, Astra.” Ganges had said.

Astra looked up at her with dim eyes that saw only enough light not to go totally blind.

She reached her hands out to touch, desperate, weak, addled by malnutrition–

What she really wished was that Ganges would’ve never existed. That she was dead.

In a sudden fog of color that old, painful memory gave way to a new one.

A room, broad and vast, high-ceilinged, blue and green carpet streaked red.

Light had been shut out of it save for a few emergency LED flashers.

Standing at the end with a line of corpses behind her.

Before a throne, before which, a man groveled before her bloodsoaked body.

She was not Astra– she had buried that name with the rock that these men destroyed.

She loomed over Him. Blond, clean-shaved, in the prime of his life, silk-dressed, eyes wide and red with tears, on his hands the blood of a guard that had been smeared nearby and could not protect him. Upon Him the colors of his dynasty, blue and green, and the semiconductor of fate that calculated all outcomes and became the heart of industrial society. Konstantin von Fueller– Emperor of Imbria.

“Please, I beg you–”

“Be quiet.”

“A being of such miraculous power as you, surely, you have mercy in you?”

“Not for you.”

She raised a hand, and in an instant, the blood, the sweat, from all around her, congealed and crystalized in her grip as a great, jagged red and clear spear. She hefted the weapon and put the sharp end close to Konstantin’s forehead as if gauging the distance for a thrust. He stared at her, unwaveringly. He was in tears, shaking, but he looked at her, locked eyes with her, unmoving. She didn’t know whether it was a challenge, “kill me while you stare me in the eyes,” or simply a show of witless panic.

He began to speak, his voice cracking, spitting through strong sobs– and she allowed it.

“Had I the power you command, I promise you, I swear upon god and family, I would have done everything I could to prevent whatever befell you and brought you before me. I wish every day that I was a stronger man and could end the atrocities happening all around me. I know not how much you have suffered, only that we all have– but I beg you, please, allow me even a single day of life with which to right all of these wrongs. If you kill me, I can do nothing for anyone. Please, have mercy. Please.”

She scratched across his forehead with the sharp tip of the spear, drawing blood.

Blood which incorporated into the blade making its edge glint with a mirror sheen.

“You have no idea– I have already given you so many more days of life. So many.”

Her power had stopped the powerful Shimii tyrant Mehmed from annihilating Imbria.

And to what end? Killing him hadn’t ended the wars and slaughter. It had saved nobody.

All it did was liberate Mehmed’s enemies– and subject Mehmed himself to atrocity.

Those people she supposedly saved were oppressed, fearful and dying every day.

Despite the supposed authority and protection of the so-called Emperor they served.

“Then I apologize deeply; I knew not that I should reward your heroism.” Konstantin said.

He was so pathetic. A weak, helpless man trapped in this dim corner of the ocean.

Waited on hand and foot and dubbed king of a country tearing itself apart in front of him.

“Fueller,” she practically spat out the name, “why should Imbria live even one more day?”

Konstantin stared up at her. He slowly rose from his groveling and sat before her.

Legs crossed, head bowed, hands clapped as if in prayer– still begging.

“Because its people don’t deserve this era of chaos. And we can end it– we can reform it.”

“‘We’? That is a lot of people, Fueller.”

Her grip on the spear wavered just a little. Had she struck in the heat of the moment, before thinking, she would have just killed him. But now, she was thinking– would killing this man solve anything? Was it as easy as finding the right man to kill? If not Mehmed, then him? If not him then who?

Could she really revenge herself fully on this man she had never met nor seen before?

Without the violence affording her momentum– what would she do?

She had abandoned her home, her name, and the companions she had made.

“When Emperor Nocht slew my father unjustly, I acted rashly to avenge him.” Konstantin said. “I was foolish, I didn’t understand the scope of the violence I was setting in motion. I didn’t understand the truth of the challenge I issued when I killed that man. I didn’t realize that killing that man wasn’t the end of my suffering or the start of a revolution by itself. I didn’t know what it meant to revitalize this state or reform its foundations. I still don’t– but I can’t escape it now. I’ve set a great violence into motion.”

He reached out to grab the edge of the spear. It bled his palm. He held it to his head.

“If you kill me– you won’t be able to escape the pull of this vortex either.”

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated– frustrated with herself. Hopeless, without vision.

“If you let me live– if you join me. We can set things right. End the bloodshed. Build up the nation. Protect the people. I called my movement the Fueller Reformation for a reason. We have to stop the violence, along racial, religious lines, nations, castes. We have to reform the state. What is your name?”

She didn’t have a name.

“Norn.”

It was an old story told by someone she had hoped to forget.

Konstantin’s face lit up with a smile.

“Norn, the weaver of fate. Of course. Of course you are. Norn– we can do this together.”

Upon that scene which she was watching over as if peering from her own shoulder–

A voice intruded, a voice belonging to neither of them.

“Why did you believe him?”

“Because I wanted to. Because I had nothing else I wanted to believe in, over him.”

“My darkest shame is that I believe you should have become Emperor in his place.”

“Your darkest shame should be dragging me out here after Ganges told you to leave well enough alone.”

“You were the only one who could keep the world from ruin. Then, and maybe now, Norn.”

“You are always pushing others to take responsibilities that you refuse, Euphrates.”

Norn von Fueller moved away from the throne.

As her cheek turned on the scene unfolding behind her everything melted into color.

Euphrates stood before her in the void of the aether as if barring her way.

“You taught me too well, and I made the same mistake that you made with Yangtze.”

Norn locked eyes with Euphrates.

That blue-haired, fair-skinned girl in her lab coat, vest, and pants–

Shuddered in place. Shaken. That impenetrable armor of her ethicality began tearing.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Norn smiled. “No. It’s the whole truth Euphrates. It’s why I wanted you to see him. Konstantin turned into a brother to me. I did once, truly believe, that I could entrust the world to him. Not because he himself was so convincing or capable. But because I didn’t want responsibility for the world.”

She approached Euphrates, descending on her, jabbing her index finger like a knife on the shoulder between emphasized words, words raining like blows of the icy spear she once turned on Konstantin. “Euphrates, I wanted the world to rest solely on his shoulders. I wanted to congratulate him if the world was saved, and I wanted to excoriate him if it was destroyed. In the exact, same, manner in which you gave up your precious Sunlight Foundation to Yangtze, whom you can no longer face up to. You wanted to laud her achievements and to curse her deviations, but most of all, you wanted to remain a third party to the colossal responsibility you laid on her shoulders. You crowned her like I crowned Konstantin.”

Her grinning face within inches of Euphrates’ pale, sweating, choked expression.

“You are not here to save anybody. You are not here to stop me. Because those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility. You are here, Euphrates, to defray responsibility. Onto me, or onto Tigris, or onto whomever can confront the situation while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting. This is the perfect power for you to wield. A power you can turn on someone to prevent you from acting.”

Her final poke of the finger shattered Euphrates’ shoulder as if she was made of glass.

A reflection of her soul. Breaking apart, speechless, demoralized, mentally defeated.

Norn had finally figured out her trap. And all around her, the void in the aether collapsed.


“–ordnance penetrated to the social module. No casualties, nobody was there.”

“I can still feel it shaking. Was it mitigated properly?” Adelheid said.

“Exterior breach sealant and flood mitigation was unsuccessful. Isolation was successful on the social pod, it is sealed, and flooding did not spread. Shield is down over that area. It will need immediate maintenance. For safety reasons, I recommend sealing off the officer’s habitat.”

Adelheid and one of the drones were assessing the situation. The Pandora’s Box had struck them.

Despite Hudson’s supposedly impenetrable shield– that cat always oversold everything.

Norn herself was bound up in a thought for a moment.

Unbidden thoughts of Konstantin von Fueller.

Her bridge crew was speaking up, but their voices felt distant to Norn for a moment.

She felt the return of her aethereal form to her material body like she was rid of a migraine that she had been enduring. It was a lightening, liberating feeling, like a plastic sheet that once restricted her movements was peeled off her skin. She had bested Euphrates in a mental contest– if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just an extension of herself, she would have thanked her aethereal self for her help.

“Norn, your eyes aren’t glowing red anymore. Are you alright?” Adelheid asked.

Norn shook her head and ran her hand down the bridge of her nose.

“As alright as I can be.”

While this was a positive development, the situation was still grim.

They had underestimated the mercenaries.

Norn had entered the battle with an overabundance of confidence. Her troops would lack in cohesion from never working with each other, but they had the right gear and decent skills. She believed them capable enough to hold off or sink a bunch of bandits in laundered Union gear. Now, however, she was sure her enemy were not such lowly peons– these were likely Union soldiers in diguise. Though they lacked cohesion too, they had experience and innovative tactics when cornered. Norn had been focusing mainly on Selene. That girl was outmaneuvered utterly and about to make an enormous mistake.

Her enemy must have unlocked their own psionics, to have stood a chance.

Perhaps Euphrates had trained all of these people– though that was not like her at all.

Nevertheless, Norn had to cut her losses now. Fighting to the death was pointless. But she also had to prevent a rout of her forces. De-escalation and an orderly retreat could still be in the cards.

“Selene, stand down. You are not authorized to fire a cartridge.”

On the main screen, the Jagdkaiser’s forward camera feed broadcast back to the Antenora via an intermediary relay buoy. Norn saw the machine’s arm, extended and ready to fire. Between Selene and her enemy stood one of the mercenaries, along with the Grenadier of Sieglinde von Castille. They were trying to dissuade Selene from firing. And the girl hesitated just enough for Norn to intervene.

In the next instant, Selene’s face appeared on the Antenora’s main screen. Sweat-soaked, red eyed. On the part of her neck visible over her suit, the sinews glowed with a rainbow gradient over the main artery. Her outer irises glowed with the same colors, and had developed a fractal pattern to their outer edges.

Tell-tale signs of overdosing on Yangtze’s psynadium drug to boost her psionic tolerance in combat.

“Norn, I have her.” Selene whimpered, near breathless. “I have them! I can kill them all!”

“You are not authorized to fire a cartridge. Your chassis is unstable. You would die too.”

“I don’t believe you! I can survive it! And if– I don’t care if I die! I’ll wipe them all out!”

Adelheid averted her gaze. This was a low, painful moment for Selene.

Norn shook her head at the girl on the screen.

“You’re not the only one who has lost face here. We are going to retreat; this entire situation was ill-advised, and I will have restitution for it. Selene, live to make them taste a future defeat. All corpses are the same in death. It is only in life that you can distinguish yourself. Thrash, gnaw and bite for every second of life you can to spite your enemies. Trading life for glory is for fools.”

Selene visibly gritted her teeth. Her eyes were overflowing with tears.

Hunched over her control sticks, ready to annihilate the enemy and herself in an instant.

Norn feared the worst for a moment; but Selene fell back on her seat, gaze averted.

Her pride as someone who viewed herself superhuman had been wounded.

Thankfully, she was not so far gone as to fully forego reason for violence.

“I have no doubt about your abilities.” Norn said. “Pull back. We’ll talk later.”

At that moment, Sieglinde von Castille also appeared on the main feed.

“Milord, you must retreat from this foolish endeavor while you have the chance.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at the defeated ‘Red Baron’ and scoffed.

“Don’t lecture me. Go talk to your intrepid leader about retreat if she’s still alive.”

“I’m not unaware of the responsibility we bear for this. I swear I will stop her.”

In that moment Sieglinde’s face disappeared from the main feed.

And shortly thereafter appeared another face, the video initially garbled–

Adelheid gasped; even the drones looked at it with a muted disbelief.

“Something is connecting to us. Unknown protocol, but we can try to next-nearest decode.”

“Interesting.” Norn grinned, leaning her chin up on one fist. “Monitor, don’t block.”

It was definitely the Pandora’s Box– because Norn knew the silhouette trying to broadcast.

When the communication was accepted, and the picture clarified completely–

Long purple hair, a slight frame in a chaste blue and green dress, bright indigo eyes that looked just a bit older than before, but cheeks still just a bit baby-soft. Princess Elena von Fueller.


Elena quietly panicked in her room as the bearing monitor displayed a familiar Ritter-class.

The Antenora was the flagship of the Fueller family. Of course she had seen it before. She had even ridden inside it once or twice. The physical ship was different now, it used to be a Prinz class and the flag was moved to the new Ritter– regardless. Her head was going at a hundred kilometers per hour trying to make sense of it. Was that really Norn von Fueller after her? What did this mean for their journey?

In her mind it could only, possibly, mean one thing.

Gertrude had survived their last battle; she was sure of that already.

Tragically, this had to mean Gertrude was back a second time.

And the Union soldiers would kill her.

Around her the ship shook. Ordnance detonated around the Brigand, an almost per-minute quaking that at times was violent enough to nearly knock Elena out of her bed. Lights flickered, her stomach churned. Surely, the Brigand was giving as good as it was getting. In her dim little metal room, she rubbed her hands together, wept, her voice caught in her throat. What could she possibly do about this?

How could she stop it?

She gritted her teeth, hating herself fiercely.

“I’m so stupid! Powerless; useless! I can’t– I can’t do anything but sit here and cry! Everything I love, everyone I care about, are all going to be killed because of me. Is it really true that all I can do is sit here? Sit here crying and suffer this over and over? Whether I die or Gertrude kills me– I can’t imagine the suffering this useless battle is going to cause. I have to do something– I have to. I have to!”

Gertrude would keep coming after her. Nothing would deter her.

There was nothing in the world Gertrude loved more than her.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was hers. Her companion, her friend, her knight, her hope, her love.

It was Gertrude who was supposed to save her from everything, right?

But–

“That’s why I’m so useless! That’s why all of this is happening!”

Elena had always been powerless. She always needed someone to rescue her.

And those people put themselves in danger again and again.

Not just Gertrude; but Marina, and even Victoria, and–

Bethany.

Her weeping and sobbing intensified as she remembered her lively nag of a maid.

Bethany had died, she had died and was gone and would never come back.

Because Elena was powerless to do anything.

Powerless to see the danger looming around her. Powerless to take precautions or defend herself. Powerless to get herself out of danger when it came. She was a burden on so many people who gave everything they had for her sake. Like a poisoned chalice, passed around the hands of anyone unfortunate enough to know her. Now it was the crew of the Brigand who was unfortunate enough to be passed the cup. But out there, everyone was taking a long drought of the poison now regardless.

Gertrude would fight no matter what; and the Brigands would unknowingly defend Elena.

Until everyone died, each one to protect her from the other.

It was too cruel. It was too evil a fate to allow to pass.

Elena stepped up from her bed–

In time for another explosion to knock her to the floor.

Falling on her face, groaning, lifting herself up on her hands.

Teeth clenched. Her arms and legs hurting, feeling like she would heave up her lunch.

She could have stayed on that floor and moped, but she slowly lifted herself up.

Running on an anxious strength drawn from nowhere and everywhere.

Amid the rumbling, she searched under her bed.

Marina had few possessions, but she did have a few things of use–

Cosmetics, and clothes. She always had a lot of clothes around to disguise herself.

Marina was taller and broader-shouldered than Elena, but she found a dress that was a lot closer to her own size among the cocktail clothes, blue and green, long-sleeved, and modest, like formalwear for a family outing. The colors reminded Elena of the Fueller family regalia. She also found a product to remove the black hair dye. As quickly as she could, she washed her hair, dressed up and set about her course.

Walking out of her room moments later, she was no longer “Elen” the analyst.

She told herself: Elena von Fueller was formally stepping into the UNX-001 Brigand.

Out in the hall, a group of sailors took a lingering look at her but said nothing. They were running down the halls checking for damage, testing the electronics, crawling into the walls to check for leaks. Farther down the hall Elena could see activity near the bridge. There were a few people together, moving someone on a carried stretcher. By the time she arrived, there was only Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse guarding the door to the bridge. They waved at her as she arrived but were still staring.

“Uh, hey!” Klara said, “Nice dye job! Purple looks good on you!”

Zhu smiled briefly at Klara’s remark, but then put on a more official face.

“Sorry Elen, the bridge is kind of in chaos right now. You shouldn’t bother them.”

Elena took in a deep breath and made herself speak.

“I know this will be a hard pill to swallow, but I think I can stop everyone from fighting.”

She had not come up with a better excuse than that.

Elena was not a grand orator– all she could do was be honest and try to keep calm.

Klara and Zhu glanced at each other briefly. More concerned than angry or suspicious.

“Elen, it’s a boulder sized pill to swallow. It’s the hardest to swallow pill ever.” Klara said.

“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but you were acting erratic in the last battle too.” Zhu said. “So tell us what you’re thinking, but we can’t let you be disruptive in the bridge for no reason. I’d like to think we’re all friendly, and we like you, but Klara and I need to do our jobs properly.”

“I understand but–”

“She’s the princess of the Imbrian Empire, Elena von Fueller.”

Behind Elena, a girl approached from the direction of the brig, where the party from earlier had gone. She must have been with them. Dressed in a nun’s habit, with w-shaped eyes, dark-pink skin, and long purple hair, some of which was wriggling at the side of her head. Diaphanous purple and blue fins wiggled atop her head. She waved and smiled and confessed to Elena’s secret without any prompting.

Everyone, Elena included, stood speechless for a moment.

“They wouldn’t know!” Maryam Karahailos said, bubbly and cheerful. Two long, thick pieces of her hair that ended in little paddle-shapes, pointed at Klara and Zhu independent of the sister’s hands. “Because they are new to the Empire, but I recognized you the moment I saw you! I’m glad you survived!”

“Maryam, this chick got some hair dye and contacts. She’s not a princess.” Klara said.

“Why don’t you let her on the bridge so the Captain can decide.” Maryam said.

Elena did not know why Maryam was suddenly helping, but she felt her heart lift.

She had one ally in here at least! Elena tried to press the security girls alongside Maryam.

“Klara, Lian, please, please let me talk to the Captain! I can explain everything!” She pleaded.

Zhu Lian grunted brusquely. “I am doubly not letting you on the bridge for this.”

Molecular Control.

Had Elena heard Maryam say something? She thought she had, but–

Klara and Lian’s eyes flashed briefly red– was Elena seeing things now too?

Was she really losing her wits? When she most needed to keep it together?

It reminded her of Vogelheim, of Victoria, but the energy she felt was so brief.

And so vastly powerful.

Then, suddenly, Klara and Lian both sighed heavily, and visibly dropped their guard.

Maryam really hadn’t moved a muscle. She was just smiling at them the whole time.

Was she really–?

“Fine, but if the captain tells you to leave, you damn well better.” Zhu Lian finally relented.

Elena could hardly believe what she was seeing. But she thought she knew what it was.

They started to move from the way, and in her desperation, Elena simply accepted the boon.

“Whoa! Hey, the sister, she’s–”

Klara pointed at Maryam with a sudden shock on her face.

“Oh, this? It just happens sometimes.”

Maryam’s nose had started bleeding heavily. Dark, inky blood trailed down her lips as she spoke.

Her words slurred slightly. Her legs clearly began to turn to jelly.

Zhu Lian stepped forward and held her steady. Maryam’s once sharp gaze started to trail off.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s nothin’– It’s nothin’–“

“No it’s always something around here.” Lian said, taking Maryam’s arm over her shoulder and helping her walk, even at Maryam’s increasingly slurred protests. “I’ll take her to medical, I think she might’ve taken a knock when she was helping Valeriya and Illya carry that Euphemia lady away. There’s been a lot of quakes and she looks like she’s made of jelly, she could have a concussion. Klara, keep an eye on Elena. Let her on the bridge but if nobody cares about her story, you gotta get her out, understand?”

“Duh. Don’t treat me like a bimbo Lian, just go.”

Klara smiled and shushed Zhu Lian away.

Gently, Zhu Lian urged Maryam to take small steps back down the hall with her.

Elena turned to Klara, with a sense of disbelief surrounding everything that had just happened.

However, she finally had an opportunity. Maryam– she would have to talk to her later.

Right now, she was closer than ever to a threshold that had felt impossible to cross moments before.

“Okay, the stage is yours, Princess.”

Klara took a deep breath, opened the bridge door, and stepped in.

Walking in behind her, Elena saw all kinds of inscrutable data and maps and video on the vast main screen, officers hard at work on the three tiers of stations in the descending bridge. At the top, just off of the door, was the Captain’s and Commissar’s chairs. They had been whispering to each other. Ulyana Korabiskaya, the gallant blond Captain, turned to her with gentle confusion.

She looked her up and down, clearly surprised by her attire and hair color.

“Elen? Is that Elen the analyst?” Ulyana said.

Elena was briefly reminded of Bethany. Maybe every pretty older woman did.

There was something comforting there. She wanted to believe the Captain would understand.

“Sorry, Captain, this lady’s got something to say to you.” Klara said.

For a moment, the bridge shook as another shell exploded somewhere near the Brigand.

Ulyana Korabiskaya turned to the main screen, gripping her chair tightly.

“God damn it, they just don’t quit. Keep shooting! We have them on the run!” She said, before turning back to Elena. “We’ve got a bit of a situation here analyst. What do you need me for? I applaud your new look, but this is a very critical moment. If you’re inquiring about McKennedy, she is alive.”

“No ma’am– I’m here to turn myself in.” Elena said suddenly. “I’m– I’m the one that they want, Captain.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah Bashara both were now staring fixated at her and then at Klara.

Nervous, Elena performed a curtsy. “I’m Elena von Fueller. The Inquisitor and the Praetorian are after me.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah turned to each other, blinking mutely. They turned back to Elena.

For a moment they just stared. Their lips moved very slightly, but the words aborted every time.

“You can ask Marina McKennedy to confirm, ma’am.” Elena said. An awkward smile, shrinking a step back.

At the same time as each other the Commissar and Captain brought hands up to their faces in despair.

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah mysteriously cried out, lapsing into some Shimii saying out of consternation.

The Captain then shouted a strange archaic curse: “When it rains it fucking pours!”


“It really is a small ocean, isn’t it?”

On the Brigand, the brig was not very spacious, as there was not much thought given to the capture of prisoners given the mission they have been given. There was one larger containment area behind bars which could hold about five or six people humanely, or up to twenty in very inhuman conditions; and four personal containment cells each for one person, each of which could be made lightless, soundless, padded, and individually temperature controlled. There were no illusions as to their ultimate purpose.

Illya and Valeriya had moved “Euphrates” to one of the individual cells and laid her on the fold-out bed, which could be locked to the wall if they were intent on being really cruel to whoever was inside. There was no better place to put her for now, as she was stable, unconscious and under suspicion. “Tigris” joined her soon after in an adjacent cell. She had agreed to this and did not resist arrest.

But Valeriya and Illya had a secondary concern while they went about this task.

And that secondary concern was clearly concerned about them too.

Xenia Laskaris eagerly awaited them on their way out of the brig. Submachine gun slung around her shoulders, a magazine held between her gloved fingers. Her antennae flicked with recognition.  

“Don’t worry,” she said immediately, “They aren’t paying me enough to do anything about this situation. I wouldn’t risk my neck for those two. I was honestly far more interested in getting to see you two again.”

She held out a hand. Smiling, Illya shook, and then Valeriya gave her a brief shake too.

“It’s been a while. How have you been carrying on?” She asked.

“Living with things, and without them. We were also thinking about you during this mess.” Illya said.

“Oh?” Xenia said. Her tail twisted behind her back. “Were you worried for me?”

“Worried for you, and worried about what you could get up to.” Illya said.

“Like I said, they’re not paying me enough to become a problem for you.” Xenia said.

“Good. We know how big a problem you can be, and our officers really don’t.” Illya said.

“She won’t be.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head with a neutral expression.

“You think so?”

“I trust her.”

“Do you?”

“She owes us.”

Valeriya put on a tiny smile.

Xenia smiled back, stretching her arms up behind her head and leaning back.

“See? And you know your lady friend isn’t easy to get along with.” She said.

“Right.” Illya smiled. “Well, if Valeriya says so, then I really have to trust you.”

“Charming!” Xenia laughed. “So, you want something from me right?”

“Of course. You know how it is.”

For both Katarran mercenaries and special operations personnel, the world was defined near entirely by transactions, and people were what they could do, what they knew, what they promised and what they owed. Exceptions were few and had to be cherished. That was why Illya held Valeriya close.

Unbeknownst to most of the Brigand, Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg were no ordinary security guards. They had to support the mission of the Brigand, and it was a mission they believed in and which made sense to them. However, their identities gave them a separate sensibility from the rest of the crew.

Between them and Xenia, friendly as they were, what mattered most was how they could be valuable to each other, and help each other survive the violent underworlds in which they lived and moved. Illya believed in communism, but there was no economy and no charity for people like them, tasked with smoothing out the sharp, jutting edges of the world so that the peaceful folk only saw curves there. For special forces to exist at all, they had to be exceptions, in ways that were not fully understood by civilians. Not only could they kill others; but their lives were also forfeit the care and kindness given to others.

In training and thought both, Illya and Valeriya were not just security guards, they were beasts.

BEAST– short for “Benthic, Abyss and Station.” Parvati Nagavanshi’s concealed weapons.

It was a sacrifice that they chose naively but lived with wholeheartedly.

For the sake of another old friend; and the naive, fragile world she gave her life to protect.

Illya fixed the grinning Xenia with a calm, but resolute expression.

“We need information. I found this Solarflare LLC business fishy from the start. It reminded me of what we saw a few years ago, with the Ahwalias. So from one operator to another. I need to know how big a problem are those two going to be, and if they are involved in anything larger than corporate R&D.”

She motioned with her head toward the cells where the unconscious Euphrates and the irate but compliant Tigris had been locked up. For the moment, they were playing along, but surely they wouldn’t stay there. Those two were more than they let on. Their names, which were taken from old world mythology, laid a pattern for Illya and Valeriya. That was something they only realized when Tigris divulged her real name. But Illya had been wanting to grill Xenia about them ever since she realized her Katarran acquaintance from their sordid past was aboard– their responsibilities just got in the way.

Xenia knew the score. She had owed them something, and now she could square it away.

“From one operator to another. Because you two are honorary Katarrans to me. I can tell you a little something about a certain Foundation.” Xenia began. “As much as they’ll let the help know.”


Clouds of gas and bubbles dissipated from the waters around Goryk’s Gorge.

An eerie, tense calm settled over the former battlefield.

The Brigand’s laser network between Zachikova’s drone and those of the HELIOS had grown suddenly capable of delivering much higher fidelity communications across the entire area of combat as long as they routed everything through the HELIOS itself. Murati Nakara informed the Brigand as such, and this helped them concoct a plan to bring about a parley. Though a long shot, it proved initially successful.

Elena von Fueller’s pleas for the fighting to cease broadcast to every unit in the vicinity and to the Antenora itself. Despite the fierce fighting, no one on either side had been killed, but everyone had damage, and every Diver was running low on battery and vernier fuel. The Antenora also had a breach that was much more serious and debilitating than the damage inflicted on the Brigand, but the Brigand was much more vulnerable. In the final calculus, this made the decision to stand down far easier.

Without fighting, the momentary peace could not have been achieved.

Nevertheless, token forces on either side remained, as tension and distrust remained high. They met between the two ships in order to respond rapidly if their counterparts took any suspicious action.

On the Antenora’s side, Gertrude, Selene and Sieglinde.

On the Brigand’s side, the HELIOS’ two pilots Karuniya and Murati, Khadija, and Marina McKennedy.

Though the Union had other Divers in much better repair, they chose their forces to show some good will toward the Antenora. Out of all of them, Khadija still had the Diver in the best shape, giving the Union an advantage nonetheless. But as Shalikova pointed out to her Captain, Selene’s unit was still capable of rapid movement and possessed a strange, additional weapon that it had threatened to use on her.

So perhaps the Union advantage was not so great after all.

Nevertheless, the focus wasn’t on fighting anymore but on the awkward parley.

All of these parties which were deploy outside crowded the main screens of the Brigand and Antenora in a massive video call. Norn von Fueller and Ulyana Korabiskaya represented their ships, and Elena von Fueller was in the center, hands behind her back, pouting slightly on camera. To the side of her, in one of the video squares, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s eyes drew wide, clearly stunned. She started to weep.

“Elena. It really is you.” Her voice took a reverent tone. “You’re here. You’re alive.”

She lifted a gloved hand to her cover her mouth, clearly sobbing.

“It’s– It’s lovely to see you Gertrude.” Elena said. Shrinking a bit from the attention and the tone with which it was given. “I wish it didn’t have to be under these awful circumstances.”

“H-How are you?” Gertrude looked mildly hesitant to ask. “You’re not hurt are you?”

Elena smiled a little. “I am unhurt. They’ve been treating me fine, I promise.”

“They had better been–“

“They were perfectly gentlemanly.” Elena said. “They are actually kind people, Gertrude.”

“Right. I’ll trust you. It’s just– I’m really relieved to see you.”

“I was afraid we would never meet again.” Elena looked embarrassed to relay that fear.

“I’ll always be at your service Elena, no matter what.”

“Thank you, Gertrude.”

Both of them looked like they had so much more to say, but were awkwardly brief.

Were it possible for the two of them to be alone, they could have been much more candid.

However, in the current setting, it was impossible for the two close companions to truly bond again.

With all of the eyes watching, they could not be as intimate as they each desired to be.

Elena was just embarrassed, with a girlish flush; but the Inquisitor was clearly afflicted by her desires.

“Come back with me.” Gertrude said suddenly. “Elena, come back. Let’s talk things over tea.”

She reached out to the screen, her eyes wide, speaking breathlessly, succumbing to her emotions–

“Out of the FUCKING question, Lichtenberg.” Marina shouted suddenly, interrupting the Inquisitor. “I’m not letting you endanger her for whatever sick scheme Norn von Fueller and the Inquisition are plotting! You Imperials want her back, you’re gonna have to take her, you’re gonna have to take her from a veritable fucking army we got here! An army that has already proven they can kick all of your asses–”

“Korabiskaya, shut this embarrassing woman up or we have no parley.” Norn demanded.

Marina flew into an even more frothing rage. “FUCK you Norn! You and I have unfinished–”

“Don’t act like you have the authority to order me around, Norn.” Ulyana replied.

Nevertheless, Ulyana silently agreed with Norn and had completely muted Marina’s irate audio.

Murati Nakara, Karuniya Maharapratham, and various unrelated persons made awkward faces on the video call but otherwise remained mum. The discussion naturally came to involve only a few of the people watching: Gertrude Lichtenberg, Elena herself, Ulyana Korabiskaya as a moderator, and Norn as an interested party, and the one who seemed most likely to resume combat. Elena and Gertrude lost their moment to catch up as friends. Rather, the conversation became a tense, business-like affair.

“I don’t think we will get anywhere without first establishing what exactly is going on here. Elena, would you care to enlighten us on the situation?” Norn said. “Your disappearing act, and your subsequent actions, have led to a lot of suffering that I must now insist you take full responsibility for.”

Gertrude looked upset with Norn’s tone. “She’s the victim, Norn! What matters–”

“Shut up, Gertrude. And it’s master Norn to you.”

In response, Elena performed a deep, repentant bow on camera.

“Of course, aunt Norn. I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything.”

Watching this, everyone must have wondered what kind of person the princess of the Imbrian Empire must have been to make such a vulnerable gesture as bowing before someone– and not only that, but the lordly character of the person she was bowing to, Norn von Fueller. Nevertheless, Norn settled and allowed the princess to speak. With her voice just a bit stuttering and stressed, Elena began to recount her tale, saying what she could say and admitting to what she could admit, but with many gaps that she was unable to fill. She spoke matter-of-factly, outlining the events with as little emotion as she could.

Elena told Norn and everyone watching, a brief story of the events of her birthday; Gertrude’s visit, her brother Erich’s no-show to her party; the attack on Vogelheim; her escape with Marina McKennedy; the subsequent destruction of Vogelheim which she saw from outside only, as the station cylinder split and collapsed. She told them about Serrano. Though she knew the truth of the Brigands, she was kind and clever enough to speak only in the terms which everyone else was using, calling the ship the “Pandora’s Box” and referring to the group as “mercenaries.” In this narrative, Marina had employed them.

However–

“They have served excellently. I would prefer you cease your hostility toward them.”

Elena stuck up for them. Then of course was the part of the story everyone present knew.

Gertrude’s attacks, Goryk substation and ultimately, Norn’s pursuit, and the recent battle.

Throughout the story, Gertrude looked terribly affected. Shutting her eyes, grimacing.

As if she felt the pain Elena had at each moment and it moved her nearly to tears.

“It’s all my fault.” Gertrude said. “If I had stayed behind, I could have protected you.”

“Gertrude, of course not.” Elena said. She averted her gaze. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t want anyone to blame themselves, least of all you. You’ve always been so good to me. I am doing all this right now because I don’t want anyone to blame you or hurt you. So let me be the only one that needs to efface myself here right now. You can’t take all of my problems on your shoulders again.”

“I can’t accept that.” Gertrude said. “Elena, the only who has been hurt here is you.”

Elena looked somewhat frustrated with that response.

She ignored Gertrude for that moment and turned her attention back to the Praetorian.

“Aunt Norn, I understand that these events have caused you material and personal grief. However, at the moment, I don’t know who I can trust in the Empire. Vogelheim was supposed to be safe. The Volkisch came and shattered my world and all the little lies that supported it for me. I can’t just forget that.”

“You suspect your brother was involved.” Norn replied casually.

Elena was visibly disarmed by her tone. “I– I didn’t say that–”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I suspect as much. Who else would it have been?”

“I mean– Marina got a hold of the information too–”

“You don’t have to cover for him in your mind. Distrust him too.” Norn said.

Elena blinked. “I just don’t understand. You serve brother Erich, don’t you?”

Norn cracked a grin. “You and I take ‘serve’ to mean very different things. To you servitude toward the Empire is a recognition of its heavenly virtues and thus becomes a dignified duty. But I have no great respect toward the lordly qualities of individual men. Elena, right now, my position is convenient. Nothing more. My beloved nephew gets only as much as he gives to me. The Fueller Family is a useful bit of structure in my life. I am not blind to your brother’s more devilish qualities. But I will neither help you nor him in your squabbles. In fact, I’d love it if you wanted revenge on him. Then I could use you too.”

For a moment, Elena blanched. “You’re also laying claim to the throne then, aren’t you?”

“Nobody fighting right now believes that throne is worth anything. Except maybe you.”

Laying back on her chair, grinning widely, resting her cheek on one fist.

Norn von Fueller looked greatly amused by the naïve responses of her “niece.”

“All I care about is power. The throne of Imbria is a powerless fixture. You can have it.”

“Princess, it appears your aunt has made her character quite clear. She’s playing all sides.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya entered the fray with a cool-headed, motherly-sounding remark.

She turned narrowed eyes on Norn von Fueller. “However, despite my disgust, I don’t believe this is the time or place to have involved philosophical or ethical discussions. For Treasure Box Transports, the only question left unanswered in this discussion is ‘what happens from now’. And the most pertinent choice to make is whether you remain with us or join Norn instead. I have no opinion on the subject.”

Elena nodded. She took a deep breath and let out a gentle, weary sigh.

“I have been giving that some thought–” Elena said, barely squeaking out the words–

“What is there to think about?” Gertrude interrupted. “Elena, you can’t possibly be thinking about remaining with these mercenaries. How can you even consider that? I understand you did what you had to when Vogelheim was attacked, and that Marina woman and this Volgian gave you a way out. But I’m here now– you don’t need to keep paying for these mercenaries! That’s wholly unacceptable! I’ll protect you! No matter how you feel about master Norn! I’m here, and that’s all that matters isn’t it?”

Elena averted her gaze from Gertrude, unable to respond to that outpouring of passion.

“My demands remain the same.” Norn added. “I see no reason to leave Elena here.”

“Princess, they are capable soldiers with more resources than we have.” Ulyana said.

On the video, Elena fidgeted, bowing her head such that her hair hid her eyes.

“But do you trust them as much as you trust us? Or well– can you trust them?”

There were a few surprised faces as Ulyana Korabiskaya said this.

She had on a self-satisfied little smile. Norn cocked an eyebrow.

“Korabiskaya, fleecing this naive girl for more money should be beneath you.” Norn said.

“You can read into it however you want, Norn. This isn’t about you.” Ulyana said.

Norn grinned again. “I should remind you, Ulyana Korabiskaya; I didn’t sortie in a Diver during our previous confrontation. You are aware only of a fraction of the nightmares I can create for you, so don’t test me. You have no reason to be getting confident or to be pushing Elena in this conversation. All of you are breathing right now because I am limiting my involvement in this charade, nothing more.”

“Right now, I am only looking out for my employer’s best interests and nothing more.” Ulyana said.

She was not shaken at all, despite Norn’s very clear and direct threats.

Gertrude interrupted then. Raising her voice, sounding openly irritated.

“Elena, that volgian bitch is clearly trying to manipulate you!” Gertrude said. “You are too trusting, to a fault, but you don’t have to second guess yourself. I’m here. You know me. We’ve sworn oaths to each other, and I would never allow you to come to harm. I love you with all my heart! If you can’t trust master Norn, you can trust me. I will take you to the Iron Lady and you will assuredly be safe there.”

“That same Iron Lady that we bested before?” Ulyana said mockingly.

“Shut the FUCK up right now Korabiskaya!” Gertrude said. “Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t bear to endanger Elena, whom you held HOSTAGE in your dirty little can of a ship, I would have sunk all of you in seconds flat! You wouldn’t have stood a god damn chance! I’ll boil your entire crew alive in that–

“Gertrude, you’re being awful scary!” Elena interrupted. “Please calm down! Let me speak!”

“I’m– Elena, this is ridiculous. This is completely ridiculous. You can’t–” Gertrude struggled–

“I haven’t even gotten a chance to speak and you’re already saying it’s ridiculous?” Elena shouted.

“Elena– I– I mean–” Gertrude was tongue tied. Elena shut her eyes, frustrated with her friend.

“I believe it would be helpful to clear the airwaves and let Elena speak for herself.”

Ulyana spoke up again, smiling gently. She gestured for the hesitant princess to speak.

Elena looked over her own shoulder at the captain behind her on the bridge.

Ulyana nodded encouragingly in response, visible on the video.

Again, the princess took a deep breath, with a hand clutching her dress.

She turned back toward the camera.

When she held her head high once more, she recomposed herself. She looked determined.

“Gertrude, I love you very much, and you know this. I love you in a truly unique way out of anyone I love. You’ve always been there for me, even against my wishes. I used to think it was charming. But out of the love that we have, I need you to respect my wishes now. I’m not a child; and I may not be worldly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own desires. I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and recent events. There is nothing that I can do if I join you Gertrude– and yes, I confess, I am afraid that Norn might use me as part of some plot for the Fueller family. As the Imperial Princess, I am just an object.”

Gertrude began to speak up, but she had been muted– Ulyana had muted her as moderator.

She noticed what had happened and became clearly irate– but Elena could keep speaking.

“Gertrude, please just stop and listen to me. I, Elena, as an individual and person. I want to continue to travel the Imbrium. I’ve already seen and learned so much. I’ve met new people and I’ve had my naïve ideas challenged. But it’s not enough to just be a passenger here– that’s why I’m coming forward. I’m tired of being powerless. I can’t take people sacrificing themselves for me any longer. I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I don’t want to dress up pretty and receive news of more deaths in my name. I know if I go with you, Gertrude, or with aunt Norn, I will remain powerless. People will keep fighting over me as imperial Princess or using me for what that title once symbolized. So I am abdicating the position of Imperial Princess. I’ll find my own strength and my own purpose, as my own person.”

Elena fixed her gaze on Gertrude, who, unable to broadcast her voice, simply stared.

Her eyes dead and wide as if she had the air punched out of her gut.

“Gertrude, if you truly love me, then I know we’ll find our way back together. But for now–” Elena clutched her chest. Tears drew from her eyes as if the words were painful to say. But they were clearly words which she had thought for very long, painfully long. “Gertrude, bury your love for Princess von Fueller here in Goryk’s Gorge. Start over with me by loving the person I want to become instead.”

Gertrude raised a hand to cover her weeping eyes.

Elena could not bear to look, and averted her own, breaking down into sobs.

There were a few silent reactions from the participants. Of these, Sieglinde von Castille, who had been staring impassively, now looked moved herself, and raised a hand to her own lips. Khadija al-Shahara nodded her head as if excited for the girl’s determination. Selene Anahid appeared utterly dazed.

Norn grunted loudly. Her grin had turned a little smaller than before.

“That’s a lovely little speech. But Elena, whether you like it or not, because of your birth, nobody will care that you have abdicated your titles or not. You have value as an object. People will still chase you, covet you and use you. You won’t be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter what you decide as an individual.”

“Aunt Norn, I realize that you were quite right, when you said the throne of Imbria is powerless.”

Elena’s gaze turned from Gertrude to Norn. In turn Norn fixed her own gaze back on the girl.

Despite those imperious eyes clashing with her, Elena never once wavered.

Wounded by the words she had to say to her lover and friend, and visibly shaken by the monumental declarations she had to make, Elena, eyes still tear-stained, shoulders quivering, small and weak in the face of Norn’s confident power. And yet, her eyes once fixed on Norn’s did not once shrink away. She looked at her as if to say, that whatever spear of rhetoric Norn would launch next, she had to launch unblinking at the girl opposite her, for Elena von Fueller would not blink in response to it.

“I’ve decided that I no longer want to hold on to something powerless.” Elena said. “I will find my own power and have my own achievements. You are right, you speak more sense than you know, Aunt Norn. I realized– I had always asked myself why my father’s Reformation failed. Why, after he declared an era of change, was the Empire still so cruel and petty, so randomly, pointlessly wicked? I think– it’s because the throne of Imbria has never had any power to change anything. The Empire can’t be reformed by it.”

Her words now hardly stuttered, a confident little grin on her eyes, those shining eyes.

Even Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to recognize the change that had gripped her.

Elena von Fueller spoke, for the first time, with a passion wholly her own.

“Elena Lettiere. From now on, I am Elena Lettiere. And I will fight to change this world.”

“Incredible. Your eyes looked just like his, when he spoke the same sort of utter foolishness.”

Norn sighed. She played it off– but there was a change in her.

Her gaze looked upon Elena not disdainfully but with a strange fondness to them.

“I believe you will suffer for your pitiful little dreams just as your father did, when he swore an oath like that with those exact deluded eyes you are making.” She said. Elena did not waver, despite this pointed criticism. Norn continued, smiling. “Elena Lettiere, I will reassess your value as a captive and your position as friend or foe when next we meet. Until then, pray you don’t see the Antenora ever again.”

Elena let out a long-held breath in relief. She looked like she would cry.

“To clarify, you’re retreating?” Ulyana asked, raising her hand as if a student in a classroom.

“We’re retreating. Go on your merry way Korabiskaya. I will also reevaluate you if we meet again. Maybe someday I’ll throw some coin at your people myself. You’ve proven– interesting.” Norn said.

Ulyana scoffed.

“Yeah? Well, I’m going to try my damn best never to see you again, so don’t bother.”

Elena spoke up with an awkward smile. “Captain, can you allow Gertrude to speak again?”

“Since we seem to have reached a productive agreement, sure.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude was unmuted. Elena looked back at the screen expectantly.

On her face was an expression that seemed both melancholy and sweet.

“Gertrude– I still love you, but I hope you understand my feelings. Let’s just–”

In response, Gertrude’s own expression was not soft and sad but furious.

With clear anger and disdain in her eyes and a tense expression on her face.

“Elena, you are mine. I haven’t come here to just let you go.”

“Gertrude–”

“I absolutely refuse this. I won’t allow this. Selene! Fire cartridge at will!”

On the main screen of the Brigand the Jagdkaiser came into focus–

Lifting its arm, the claw separating, the magnetic field brimming around the bore–

“What?” Norn shouted. “Selene, you are not authorized! That woman can’t–”

Suddenly, there was once again chaos that gripped everyone present.

Perhaps, all along, Gertrude had noticed something where nobody else had.

That Selene had been completely gone during the call, eyes glassy and dead.

That she was perhaps susceptible–

To that final desire to succeed over her inferiors.

Having heard the words she wanted to, a demented, violent grin appeared on her lips.

And with her eyes lined by a glowing rainbow fractal, she obeyed the order she desired.

Irrespective of Norn’s cries, the Jagdkaiser armed a cartridge and readied to fire.

Steam vented from the weapon-arm, a brief purple glow–

“Despicable! Absolutely despicable Lichtenberg! I won’t endure your villainy any longer!”

At the Jadgkaiser’s side a one-armed mecha appeared instantly, brandishing a sword.

With one swift slash of her vibroblade, Sieglinde von Castille chopped off the Jagdkaiser’s remaining arm just below the shoulder, the Grenadier’s vibroblade coming out the other end of the superheated launch tube a partially molten, dull stick with a sharp point. That arm which had been raised to the Brigand thrummed as if taking on a foul afterlife, steam spouting from the severed end of the launch tube.

Sieglinde was too late, to the horror of the helpless participants watching these events transpire.

Even cut off, the firing end of the claw glowed purple and red for a split second.

Before sending an erratic bolt of consuming purple lightning snaking toward the Brigand.

Even at a velocity far slower than any conventional munition, it would soon inexorably reach its target like a ravenous serpent. Agarthic energy which annihilated matter instantly, making it disappear as if it was removed from material existence altogether. There was no way the Brigand could escape it.

Everyone watched for seconds of mute horror, unable to tear their eyes from the glow.

Until two objects threw themselves in its way.

Zachikova’s drone, too slow to transpose itself in time.

And a beautiful, graceful red and white fish that had been following it–

Launching itself headfirst between the bolt of diabolical energy and the Brigand.

For an instant, the surface of the Leviathan’s body glowed with its own purple energy, hexagonal delineations visible over its skin as if it too had a shield like the Antenora’s. When the bolt crashed into the beast, it appeared that it could surmount the assault, the projectile losing much of its coherence, breaking into multiple streams of energy like water falling over a rock, dancing and flickering around the surface of its body. Then dozens of thin streams of vapor rose from all over the skin of the great creature, and these became fissures from which red, thick blood erupted from all over its body.

Despite its resistance, enough of the obliterating bolts pierced its body to kill it.

“Lichtenberg! You have befouled everything you ever claimed to stand for!”

Having subdued the Jagdkaiser, the Sieglinde charged at the Magellan.

There was no response from the Inquisitor who had begun this disastrous attack.

Overcome by the sense of what she had done, and that it had failed, Gertrude choked.

She cried out, covered her face with her hands, pathetically awaiting her end–

The Grenadier drove its broken sword through the Magellan’s head, spearing the main camera and down into the chassis, forcing the Magellan back– but there was not enough blade left there to kill the pilot deeper inside. That vibrating tip stopped just short of piercing the cockpit and killing Gertrude. There was no mistaking the intent, however. And Gertrude visibly paled at the sudden, vicious attack.

All vessels cut off their video feeds, leaving the Inquisitor alone and adrift with what she had done.

Her assassination failed, Sieglinde von Castille suddenly fled to the Brigand’s lines.

The Antenora approached to recover Selene; the Brigrand and its forces fled with the surrendering Baron.

Everyone feared a resumption of hostilities–

At that moment, however, an even greater distraction overcame this scene of chaos.


I’ll protect them, Braya. I’ll protect you.

No!

Your body is in there– I’ll protect you.

Don’t do it. Please!

Her drone had been mere meters off from the bolt–

All of her cameras filled with the light,

and the sight of her beautiful dancer struggling, succumbing, bleeding–

no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO

Zachikova watched, screaming inside of her own metal brain helplessly.

Within a cloud of blood that majestic form she had– she had fallen in love with

Ruined, broken, almost deflated, her softness and grace shattered utterly–

Please no, please–

One of the drone’s cameras caught the slightest twitch of movement.

Of one beautiful eye turning on her with what was clearly the last of its living strength.

No, don’t leave, please–

I’m sorry, Braya–

In the background, a great geyser of brownish-red miasma erupted from Goryk’s Gorge.

Even the ships and Divers began to stir from the currents created by the rising biomass.

Zachikova’s instruments recorded truly insane levels of Katov pollution–

However, Zachikova was completely fixed on the drifting body of her dancer.

She couldn’t let her fall to the bottom of the sea and be set upon by abyssal bottomfeeders.

There was no use– no use for the body of a dead creature– but still–

Mind racing, Zachikova could not bear to part, it would be too horrible to consider.

Extending her drone’s arms, she embraced the rapidly dying body of the beautiful dancer.

Then she issued a command to the drone to return to the utility chute with the body.

We’ll meet again– Braya– I love–

And simultaneously, Zachikova ripped herself from the body of the drone.

Awakening with a start in the bridge of the Brigand.

Her head hurt as if she had torn a piece of her own skin off, having pulled her own biomechanical plug. Reeling from the ungentle separation, sweating, eyes afire, heavy breathing. Her head pounding, tears flowing from her eyes as rivers. Unbidden thoughts and emotions flooded her brain, years of emotion she had repressed and weeks of feelings she barely wanted to admit. She thought she was going crazy.

But she couldn’t let go. She had to see her again. She had to.

On legs that nearly bent out from under her–

Zachikova took off running from the bridge, offering no explanation and heeding none of the words spoken to her. She took off down the hall as fast as she could, barely seeing where she was going, past the sailors, past Klara Van Der Smidse whom she nearly shoved down. To the elevator, mashing the buttons all the way down to the first tier, cursing every second of the ride, pounding the panel.

When the doors opened she charged across the hangar, past the deployment chutes with the returning Divers, past the shuttle bay, shoving sailors away, heedless of the shouting around her. She hurried through a side door in the rear that led to a pod adjacent the lower end of the reactor room. Down a dark maintenace corridor to the dimly lit bulkhead into the drone chute and maintenance room.

Her whole body screamed with pain, her lungs tearing themselves apart in her chest.

Wiping rivulets of sweat and tears from over her eyes with her clenched fist.

Stopping, only briefly, in front of the bulkhead door.

Glancing at the monitor on the wall. Her drone returned, and the chute had been drained, sealed, and pressurized. She feverishly ordered the drone be lifted by automatic crane from the chute into the utility room with its contents, and heard the mechanisms go off. Then she paused, a sense of trepidation.

Crossing the bulkhead in front of her she would be face to face with– the remains–

Vomit rose to her throat. She grabbed hold of her mouth, fought the urge.

Even if it disgusted her– even if it scarred her– she had to see her again.

“It’s my fault she died. It’s my fault. I have to– I have to see her.”

Teeth grit hard, body tight, dizzy with nerves, hugging herself, she shoved against the door.

Sensing her, the bulkhead opened automatically into the room.

“Gahh!”

Overwhelmed by the smell of salt, brine and a horrid, fishy smell that felt like it turned to oil in her nostrils. Zachikova gagged, but a cry sounded that was not her own. Something squirmed in the dark, the only light the dim LEDs outside the door from the hall leading to the utility room. There was a puddle in the room, jelly-like melted– her head swam, senses failed eyes clearly glitched a waking dream–

Flesh. She saw flesh sloughing off — a figure cloaked in personhood lithe, draped– with–

Hair? She has hair? She has a face? Eyes, skin, limbs, breasts, horns–?

Zachikova stared, weeping, sweating, clothes clinging, skin blanched, throat burning with rising bile–

In front of her, a woman– a woman– tore something from her head and bled onto the floor.

Pale, slender, long red-and-white hair falling over her shoulders, down her back–

To the floor, where red gore pooled like the entrails of something rapidly decaying. Long-limbed long fingers grasped a curled bone-like horn, thick as a tusk, soaked bloody. Cast aside dismissively, making a clanking noise as it struck the wall. Eyes opened once shut, filled with an intellect that glinted bright in the shadow and acknowledged the terror-frozen girl at the door. She smiled. That body smiled.

“Braya.” A cooing voice came out of the woman-body. “Is it a pleasure to see this form?”


Clouds of red and brown biomass erupted out of Goryk’s Gorge like the breath of a foul titan corrupting the waters around the gorge to an unprecedented degree. A stormwind-like current blew. Visibility even with floodlights was quickly reduced to below a dozen meters, and all around them the seething mass of dancing microorganisms in the marine fog seemed to take on a new diabolical character. Dim red as though the creatures were giving the surroundings an eldritch bioluminescence, the rushing biological tide turned the surrounding sea into a vision reminiscent of hell, save for the presence of fires.

“Biomass concentration approaching 400 Katov and continuing to climb.”

“Unknown biologics on sonar. They are increasing in number and intensity.”

“Successfully recovered Jagdkaiser and Magellan, bringing in–”

Norn cut off the drones, bolting up from her seat, fists clenched, furious.

“Order the security forces to detain Lichtenberg! I am going to rip her fucking head off!”

“Begin separation for Selene!” Adelheid added. “Norn, I’ll go get the doctor.”

“Right.” Norn said, clenching her jaw too. “Be careful, she could act out at you.”

“I can take Hunter III. She should be able to stop Selene if she gets– dangerous.”

Adelheid’s voice trailed off, stifling a tiny sob. Her features had a gentle, melancholy expression of concern, brows lightly furrowed, eyes wandering. Her hands were shaking. Norn herself had a noticeable vibration in her temples, a twitch in the cheek that indicated her concern. She was neither meeting the eyes of her adjutant nor staring directly at the main screen. Both of them were shaken.

They had all been too careless, and the Antenora had been defeated.

However–

“Norn, you don’t need to project that aura of infallibility. I’m here for you.”

Adelheid tugged on Norn’s shirt gently like a red-headed cat nipping her owner’s heel.

For the first time in what felt like hours, Norn turned a smile full of love on her.

“I appreciate it, Adelheid. But I shouldn’t have been so weak from the start–”

“She’s comin’! She’s comin’!”

Norn and Adelheid turned around. There was a mad shout coming from behind them.

Backed against a corner as if something was approaching her, crawling on the ground.

Squirming, mouth hanging in horror and the red rings of psionic power around her eyes.

“Boss, I can’t stop it! She’s comin’! The Autarch! We gotta run boss!”

Hunter III raised a shaking hand at the main screen, tears rising as steam from her eyes.

On the predictive image appeared a distant, enormous shadow read by the computer as a dreadnought.


“Hey uh, I’m not used to running this, but we’re hitting like 400 Katov out there.”

Alexandra Geninov tapped on the LCD screen at the Electronic Warfare station in disbelief.

Part of what Zachikova had been doing was monitoring part of the sensor package to free up Fatima to focus on detection and early warning. However, after the failed attack by the one-armed machine from Norn’s forces, the electronic warfare officer had run out in a panic. Respecting her feelings, the Captain allowed her time alone and ordered that nobody fetch her for a few hours unless there were problems.

Alexandra Geninov had temporarily taken her place as the most computer-savvy of the officers. The fighting had completely halted and the Brigand was poised to retreat, having recovered their divers along with one unexpected addition. As the hangar assessed that situation and detained Sieglinde von Castille, the ship began to head in the direction of the Gorge, away from the Antenora and toward Rhinea.

And closer to the heart of a seething red tide the likes of which Ulyana had never seen.

Despite the rising, thickening, furious biomass all around them, the bridge was quiet.

Eerie as it was, there was an even more eerie sight which had shaken them all.

“Zachikova was clearly affected by the death of that creature.” Ulyana said gravely.

“I’m honestly affected too.” At her side, Aaliyah patted her shoulder, briefly but gentle.

They had all seen it on the main screen. It still felt like it couldn’t have been real.

At Lichtenberg’s command, a strange projectile was fired at the Brigand. That glowing purple bolt would have punched right through their armor, in one way and out the other. It was clearly some kind of agarthicite weapon, a design so evil it was unconscionable it existed. Agarthicite was the life blood of their society, but when disturbed, it could vaporize almost any kind of matter in an instant. Without ultra-dense Osmium or a miracle, that purple projectile would have bifurcated them like a hand tearing paper.

They owed their lives to that creature Zachikova had discovered, and its curious, tragic humanity.

There was no way they could have prompted it, commanded it to do such a thing.

Whatever anyone had to say about animal intelligence– it chose to sacrifice itself.

“It saved us. It really gave its life for us. What animal would do that?” Aaliyah said.

“Leviathans are pretty mysterious.” Ulyana said. She sighed. “To think that’s what it took to survive.”

“It was a miracle.” Aaliyah said. “Don’t blame yourself. We did what we could.”

“It wasn’t enough.” Ulyana raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a coming headache.

At that moment, the cat-like ears of sonar operator Fatima al-Suhar visibly perked up.

She stood up from her station, an incredulous look on her face. Ulyana took notice.

“What’s wrong now?” Ulyana asked wearily. When it rained, it truly fucking poured.

Fatima took a moment to respond. “Biologics. All kinds of biologics. Strange ones.”

As she spoke, there was a red warning flash on the main screen.

Their predictive computer drew a box around an area of the Gorge off of the side cameras.

There, it struggled pixel by pixel to render what seemed like a gigantic shadow within the red and brown cloud. Though the computer tried to label this a “dreadnought” none of the officers watching the main screen with deep held breaths could possibly believe that, seeing what looked like a distant unfurling of enormous wings, the stretching of a pointed, horned head at the end of a neck on a massive body.

From its mouth a roar unleashed that left no doubt about its provenance.

This was a Leviathan– a Leviathan larger than the Iron Lady, rising from Goryk Gorge.

And the predictive imager, able to count on only its sonar, marked dozens of target boxes around it.

These subordinates mustering around the massive Leviathan it labeled as Divers.


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