The Day [4.4]

Supper was a relaxed and refreshing affair that evening.

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

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

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

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

Elena made narrow, evil eyes at Bethany.

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

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

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

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

Bethany looked confused and concerned by the response.

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

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

Elena threw her an accusatory glare.

Bethany withered under that royal gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was exasperated with this scheme already.

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

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

“I can dress myself you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena’s impish grin instantly faded away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’d be an honor, Princess.”

Bethany’s past could wait until morning.

Gertrude’s visit to the party could not.

Her maid had dressed her before, many times.

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

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

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

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

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

At Bethany’s command, Elena sat.

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

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

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

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

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

“There. Look in the mirror, princess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena almost got a motherly sense out of that expression.

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

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

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

Gertrude would be brought to her.

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

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

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

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

Bethany shut the door to the side-room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She expected Bethany, and readied to hurl some invective.

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

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

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

She was quite stricken.

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

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

“Y-Yes. Of course.”

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

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

“Shall we?”

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

“Of course, ‘Trude.”

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

Without responding verbally, Gertrude simply smiled.

Yes; this was her Gertrude.

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

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

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

Bethany was not around.

She must have had more important duties to attend to.

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

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

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

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

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

Elena could feel everyone in the room scrutinizing them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena wondered if she should say some words.

It was her special occasion, wasn’t it?

It was also true she had never wanted this party.

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany; her maid, Bethany–

Gertrude responded with a gentle laugh.

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

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

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

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

Gertrude did not need to be told twice.

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

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

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

They said nothing to one another.

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude gently lifted her back up.

She then acknowledged the gawkers with a smug bow.

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

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

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

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

She did not go alone, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Bethany advised, Elena endured the night.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.2]

A bell rang from the kitchen, and the maids returned.

Soon the table was piled high with delights.

There were several plates on the table itself, and two extensions brought in and attached to the table to hold more plates. Lunch was the largest meal of the day in Imperial culture, but Elena had never seen a lunch quite like this. Bethany smiled proudly while introducing the spread.

Even Gertrude looked mesmerized by the amount and variety of foods available.

At the center of the table there were plates of meat.

First was Elena’s favorite, fatty salmon belly, lightly pan-fried, topped with a drizzle of lemon butter and sliced thinly on the plate. There was also a plate of crispy pork belly cut into cubes and rubbed with cinnamon and dried fruits; as well as a rare ribeye steak served au jus.

Arrayed around the meats were a variety of vegetable dishes.

There was fresh potato salad with vinegar and oil, pickled baby onions with dill, tiny potato dumplings, creamed cabbage in three different colors, and roast beet slices with oil and handpicked herbs. A loaf of freshly sliced black bread rounded out the table, along with three different drinks served in small pitchers on the side of the table: berry milk, hops soda and a noticeably light beer.

Once every dish was set in its proper place, Bethany led the maids in a synchronized bow before their guests, and the group departed, leaving Gertrude and Elena alone with the mountain of food. Gertrude stared at the dishes with eyes so wide, as if she were not sure of her senses.

“This is so far removed from how we eat on the ship. I barely know where to start.”

“Then, let me guide you.”

Elena forked a piece of salmon belly and leaned lightly over the table, reaching her arms across. Gertrude played along and leaned forward, opening her mouth for the princess to feed her.

“How is it?” Elena asked, ever so slightly embarrassed to be playfully feeding her friend.

Gertrude’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s incredible. I had no idea fish could be so soft.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it? It almost melts in your mouth doesn’t it? Fatty and sliced thin.”

Elena took a bite of salmon belly herself and felt a thrill. For a moment, she felt a sharp sensation on her lower jaw, as if it were overwhelmed by the oily, rich flavor of the salmon belly. It was the first bite of real food she had in the day, and there was nothing else she would have rather put in her mouth. Bethany and the lasses had outdone themselves with this serving.

Gertrude finally took initiative and speared a juicy slice of steak.

She brought it up to her lips, surprised that it was dripping all the way to her mouth.

“You really start to forget the taste of real meat after a long voyage.” Gertrude said.

Elena tipped her head. “Hmm? Then what is lunch like on the Iron Lady?”

“We have some freeze-dried chicken or thawed beef grounds, usually in stews or in dumplings, but most of our day-to-day meat consumption is sausages. And most of the sausage is half buckwheat, blood and lard, and half ground pork. Steak like this is unfathomable there.”

“I see.”

Eating her salmon belly, from fish caught as fresh as possible in the Empire, dressed in creamy butter and real lemon juice; Elena felt suddenly ashamed when she heard of what a soldier ate in its place. She had never done anything for this country other than to be born to its ruler. Gertrude ate slaw, hardtack and sausages on long voyages through the Imbrium to protect her from possible danger. Every day Elena had proper tea, delicious food, and precious peace and silence. She had greater privileges.

Gertrude, with the open, innocent wonder she exhibited at the food on the table, had been deprived of those things. For her sake– for Elena’s sake– for the sake of the Imperial Princess. She took those lonesome voyages, suffered injuries, ate terrible food that just barely kept her alive. For her sake.

 Elena shook her head.

She had said to herself to focus on the positive.

“You know, someday, when I run this place, I’ll make sure every soldier gets a good steak whenever possible. We can probably dry age them for the long trip, or something like that!”

Elena was relieved when Gertrude beamed happily at her suggestion.

“Fulfill that promise and the men will worship you as a goddess.”

Gertrude reached out for the pitcher of beer and poured herself a tall glass.

She took one sip and seemed to want to laugh as she drank it.

“This is so weak! We have hard liquor on the ships at least. I guess the maids want you to be just a little adventurous. Just a teeny tiny bit.” Gertrude downed almost half the glass she poured in an instant. Elena was left briefly speechless at this very stereotypically soldier-like behavior.

“Have you ever drunk before, actually?” Gertrude asked.

“Why I– Of course I have!” Elena said. She had wine every so often.

“Cheers then. To the Princess’ 25th Birthday!”

Gertrude held aloft her half-empty glass of beer.

Elena quickly poured herself some and gently struck Gertrude’s glass with her own.

She took what she considered an ambitious sip. Gertrude emptied her own glass.

For a light beer, it was still bitter and unpleasant. Elena was unprepared for the flavor.

It went down her throat harder than she had envisioned, and she had a light cough.

Gertrude had a small laugh at her expense. “We should have started with apple cider then!”

Under the circumstances, Elena couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little also.

Being able to play around with Gertrude again was just that much of a blessing.

They sampled a little bit of everything, and then filled their plates with their favorites. Elena staked a claim on the salmon and filled her plate, while Gertrude made herself an exemplary plate with all kinds of vegetables and a modest amount of the pork belly. When she had her food organized, she ate quickly, but in an orderly fashion. Elena liked to savor every bite.

“You should have some vegetables. I wouldn’t want you to die of undernourishment.”

Gertrude picked up a plate of the creamed cabbage and slid a big glob of leaves and sauce onto the side of Elena’s place. The princess gave it a dismal stare and turned the same stare over to her erstwhile protector. Gertrude then picked up a few baby onions and dropped them in as well.

In open disdain of her friend’s selections, Elena reached across the table and speared a single roasted beet from the serving plate with her fork. She brought it back, avoiding her plate, and started to munch on it instead, while the cabbage looked ever sadder in its white sauce.

“I’m eating my vegetables.” Elena grumbled.

“That’s a good girl.” Gertrude said.

“Quit teasing me; as you can see, I keep an exemplary figure. I’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Indeed. I could never overlook it, and I’ve certainly gotten an eyeful of you since I arrived. But you can be the perfect beauty on the outside and have bones full of holes on the inside.”

“Shut up.” Elena responded to the teasing by turning almost as red as beet she was eating.

There was so much food that it was not possible for two young women to eat it all. Elena wondered whether the maids cooked as much as they did, with the knowledge that there would be quite a few of these beautiful plates left for themselves. Whatever their intentions, once Elena and Gertrude slowed down and eventually ceased to pick at their food, Bethany arrived with a proud smile, and ushered in the rest of the maids to take the empty and partially empty plates away.

“We’ll serve a light supper and some sweets later in the afternoon, milady.” She said.

“Enjoy the steaks.” Elena said, staring at her.

“Why I never– at any rate, may I ask what the two of you plan to do now?”

Elena began to admonish the maid. “None of your–”

Gertrude raised her hand amicably. “I’d like to take a look around. I haven’t been around real trees and flowers in so long. Is it alright if I escort the Princess around Vogelheim?”

Her tone resembled that of a boy asking a girl’s parents if they could go out, more than it resembled that of a veteran officer at the highest ranks of the Imperial Security Service.

Bethany reached into the pockets of her apron and withdrew a single, weathered key.

She handed the little key to Gertrude.

“I’ll do you one better. The stables are out back. You can take the horses out for a ride.”

Gertrude was momentarily speechless. Elena watched her with a confused expression.

“Horses?” She finally blurted out. “Real horses? You have real horses here?”

“We sure do! Such a steed befits your knightly stature, milady. Have fun!”

Bethany lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy and took her leave of the two.

Elena shot her a suspicious glare as she left, and then turned back to Gertrude, who was still captivated with the old key and the concept of a terrestrial mammal meant for riding upon.

“Gertrude, are you sure you can ride a horse? You’re still recovering from an injury.”

“Milady, I have never been more ready for anything! Worry not; I’m built quite sturdy.”

Her friend’s smile convinced her; Elena took Gertrude by the hand and led her down from the deck, along a gated-off series of steps down into the gardens. They climbed down into the flowers, careful not to stomp, and then they ran hand in hand past the beds of red and yellow.

Around the side of the villa, past the massive flower garden and hidden behind tall hedges, there was a tiny wooden stable where four horses stood in separate, locked enclosures, with hay and grains, a water basin for each, and a closet for tools used by the maids to keep them clean.

To Elena, the horses were enormous animals, but she understood that as far as horses historically had been these were below average in size. It was tough to grow a full-size horse, even for them.

Gertrude was delighted with them nonetheless. She must have thought they were huge too.

“Elena, they are beautiful! So gallant, so charismatic! Look at their manes! Their muscles!”

“Gross, why are you looking at their weird veiny necks? Just pick one and let’s ride it.”

“Ride it? You want us to ride together?”

Gertrude gave Elena a dumbfounded, almost childish look, pointing at herself.

It reminded Elena of when they used to play together as kids.

For her to see such an expression from a woman fully dressed in military gear was comical.

Elena giggled. “I’m no good at riding. You need to be my knight and escort me.”

Gertrude’s eyes lit up, with understanding and perhaps anticipation.

“Your Knight–? I mean– Yes of course. Of course, milady!”

Gertrude approached the stables, clearly still flustered by the idea but definitely trying harder to seem gentlemanly. She grabbed a head collar that was hung up near the entrance to a horse’s enclosure and grabbed a slightly old carrot from a basket of horse treats propped up near the enclosure. She made friends with her chosen horse quickly, a brown beast with a perfectly trimmed black mane. It accepted the carrot, and happily munched away while Gertrude leashed it.

Gently, she led the horse out of the enclosure, and fitted it with its designated saddle.

All throughout, the horse was perfectly well behaved, and seemed quite friendly.

Elena watched from afar, the practiced care with which Gertrude equipped the animal.

“It should be ready. I think its name is Glanz, judging by the enclosure.”

At the sound of its name, the horse bent its head toward Gertrude and nuzzled her hat.

“Ah! He’s an affectionate guy. Steady Glanz! You’ll be carrying a princess today.”

Elena laughed. She wondered what her subordinates would think, watching Gertrude playing around with horses like a giddy teen at an aristocratic school. Come to think of it, she did not really know what Gertrude’s reputation was as a soldier. She knew what Inquisitors did, which was to keep the peace within the country. But was Gertrude dark, brooding and severe to her men? With her outfit and appearance, she certainly looked like a woman who could be mean to you.

To the princess, however, she had never been anything but her sweet, chivalrous knight.

Gertrude climbed atop the horse, behind the saddle, and reached her hand out to Elena.

“I’ll help you up.”

Elena took her hand and started to climb on the saddle. She found herself feeling strangely comforted as Gertrude helped her up, first with one hand and then with her other arm, pulling her up and onto the saddle, and then nestling behind her. Her grip was strong; Elena settled against Gertrude’s chest, close enough for warmth to transfer between them. It was comforting. Elena almost felt like she could sleep in Gertrude’s bosom. She almost wanted to ask if Gertrude could just swing her arms around her waist and hold her tightly. But horseback was not the place for that.

“Are you comfortable?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s marvelous.” Elena said. “I hope you are feeling well yourself.”

“I’m splendid, milady. But the saddle is a bit ratty. I’m glad you’re not put off by it.”

“Let’s just head out. How about we go to the forest first, and then ride into town?”

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude led the horse into a gentle trot out of the stables and down the side of the hill.

Elena sighed. “I’m not a child! You can speed up!”

“It’s not about you being a child. Inexperienced riders can hurt themselves; you know?”

At Elena’s request, Gertrude loosened her grip on the reins and kicked her legs gently on the sides of the horse. Glanz worked itself up from its polite trot to a quicker, but still manageable gait. Not exactly the wild, blazing gallop that Elena envisioned, but perhaps more practical for their circumstances. Fully off the grounds of the villa, the pair rode over the rolling fields.

“Still doing ok?” Gertrude asked.

Elena looked up and over her shoulder at her.

“I’ll let you know if I’m unwell; just keep quiet and look cool in the meantime, deal?”

She reached behind herself and stroked her knight’s cheek.

Gertrude laughed.

“As you command, milady.”

True to her word, Gertrude rode with her, looking handsome, saying no more.

Just trusting her, and letting the princess experience the moment.

Elena felt slowly overcome with emotion as they rode.

Far overhead, the sun occupied the center of the sky. A cooling breeze blew through the fields, causing the tall grasses and the flowers to sway. Elena felt the wind caressing her cheeks and hair. Felt the sunlight warming her face. She could see it, touch it, feel it. As far as the eyes could see, the beautiful green field, the forest of tall, clustered oak trees near a little brook, the port town and the sea it straddled, and the farms that supplied the villa with fresh produce and meat.

They were nearing the forest. It was maybe a few kilometers away from the villa.

Those few kilometers that the horse easily put behind them, encompassed Elena’s universe.

Everything she knew; so much of her life. All of it was flying past her on horseback.

Vogelheim was her home. It was beautiful and comfortable. She had spent all of the past seven years in Vogelheim and knew from the moment she grew cognizant of the ways of living, that beside school and any official journeys she had to undertake, Vogelheim would be her four walls and ceiling. She was not unhappy about this, not always. There were always things that surprised her. She had never really ridden horses. She had barely gone out into the waters of the town. Elena was a homebody, a reader, a technology enthusiast, and fawned over by nosy maids.

Elena was not naïve. She knew that everything in the landscape around her was fake.

Everything was organic. Those trees grew; the flowers bloomed; the birds were alive.

But this world was only possible as a feat of the Imbrium Empire’s engineering.

She knew that Vogelheim was a pillar of metal and glass situated 1100 meters beneath the Imbrium Ocean. Outside, everything was dark. There was no sun, there was no sky, there was no wind. There were no beautiful grasses. There was nowhere that horses could live and roam. There was no place where humans could exist without the protection of inventions such as this.

Elena knew all of this. In that moment, she chose to immerse herself in this fantasy. She and her promised protector riding through the fields for a blissful, storybook afternoon.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.1]

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

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

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

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

“That’s the moon, Elena.”

She was in a woman’s arms.

That woman pointed her toward that infinite sky.

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

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

Elena smiled and laughed.

Her mother looked down at the ground around them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ugghhhh.”

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

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

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

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

“Was I really sweating this much?”

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

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

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

“They’re probably about father.”

She sighed deeply.

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

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

Her culture and station mandated a period of mourning.

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

She brought her hands up to her eyes.

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

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

“Milady!”

There was a sudden, startling knock on the door.

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

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

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

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

She leaped out of bed with newfound energy.

Her gallant knight was coming!

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

There was a deep sigh from the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite her protests, the data continued to churn.

Elena sighed and returned to her business.

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

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

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

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

At that point Elena was no longer listening to it.

She had a single destination in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena hurried to the center of the clearing.

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

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

And something was coming up the elevator.

Excited, Elana dismissed the screen and stepped back.

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

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

She could not contain her smile.

Nor could she contain the spring in her step.

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

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

In return, the visitor returned Elena’s embrace.

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

Her voice was deep and rich.

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

Elana hugged her even tighter.

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

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

Gertrude flinched slightly.

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

Elena disagreed strongly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saw combat?”

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

She was being playful, dragging Gertrude around.

Had she seen Gertrude flinch at that time?

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

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

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

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

“Oh no, Gertrude! What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena eyed the teacup suspiciously.

Gertrude let out another laugh.

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.3]

“If this is what married life might look like, sign me up right now!”

Karuniya leaned back until her head came to rest on Murati’s lap.

“We are trying to sign up. It takes a while.”

“Oh, shut up. You know what I mean!”

She looked up with those precious emerald eyes, full of warmth. Setting aside her mini-computer, Murati caressed Karuniya’s hair, returning the wide, beaming smile that her girlfriend gave her. She put her back against the wall adjacent her bed and sighed contentedly. She did know exactly what Karuniya meant. Their feelings were entwined more than ever.

Something about surviving certain death cast new light on what was profoundly important.

One part of their resolution from the battle at Thassal was that they had to spend more time together. Once Murati got out of the hospital, they immediately put their date back on the calendar. Both of them had committed to the Reserve due to the intense fighting they saw in Thassal, and due to the arrival of more experienced troops from Solstice. So they had nothing but free time.

For this date, they agreed to take it a little easier than they had during their last rendezvous.

They gathered everything they could want for a lazy afternoon.

Rented mini-computers, and the proper cables for a direct LAN connection; beet-sugar sodas; and a big bowl of toasted corn and peanuts, drizzled with a little bit of oil and yeast flakes. They could eat snacks, watch and listen to different media, maybe even play some video games.

There was also another pressing bit of business the computers would allow them to tackle.

Once they were ready, the two of them convened in Murati’s room with fluttering hearts.

They booted the computers they had taken out. They felt the anticipation in their fingertips.

Sitting together on the bed, holding hands, they locked eyes, with serious expressions.

“Let’s make it official then.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! Official, above-board girlfriends!” Karuniya replied.

This determination led them to the Union government’s intranet portal for Thassal.

Together, they filled out the computer form and applied for permanent cohabitation.

For now, they were registered as authorized administrators of each other’s rooms.

Eventually, they hoped to apply for a double-wide apartment and free up their singles.

All it took was a few taps on the screen. Technology had really come quite far.

It had been so easy and instantaneous that the dramatic tension they both felt had dissipated.

At that point, they collapsed against one another and played around on the computers.

Murati was seated, holding her minicomputer up, and Karuniya had her head on her lap.

“Murati, let me show this BBS I found! It’s so full of haughty students.”

She gave Murati the numbered address of the BBS and Murati navigated directly to it. While the design of the page was very sparse, it had all they needed for a spirited conversation on Union civics. Columned text posts, the perpetrators of them, and all of the associated metadata.

Some posts had photographs attached of the posters. Others had symbols or identifying marks. Any wall camera could take a picture for you and upload it to your room or a minicomputer as was convenient for you, but some folks got creative. There was a poster named ‘Agora’ who had as their avatar a picture of a barter table. Another, ‘Baerotrauma69’ had a more avant-garde style, known only to them. Murati had been in the Academy when intranet forums usage began to rise sharply. Originally intended for educational discussion, they had become an outlet for a very room-bound population to make friends and accost their enemies, as more and more computers were built and made accessible to the public through the government lending libraries.

Murati and Karuniya had a mutual fascination with ‘the net’.

Neither of them felt like using it for educational purposes.

Smirking, Karuniya began to type. “Judging by your avatar you must be a Camposist, as it is evident you’ve been on quite a conquest for bread.” Her fingers hovered over the keys waiting for Murati’s approval. Her loving partner cuddled up beside her and read the message.

“That’s so mean. Send it. Let me look at his picture– ok, yeah, send it.”

A tiny ‘hehehe’ accompanied Karuniya striking the “send” key on the contextual keyboard.

“The debate room is too easy.” Murati said. “Here’s where the real artisanal grief can be stricken. They’ve got a BBS for video games. Those kinds of posters can’t help themselves.”

Murati raised her eyes to the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then began to thumb-type. “I found a secret in the 8th level ‘Climbing Comrades’. Walk off the ledge just before the castle exit!”

“Seriously? That’s kids’ stuff.” Karuniya said. “Try making a case for ‘Constant Attack II’ being a puzzle game. People will get way angrier if you just assert things like that without basis.”

“Oatmeal is a soup.” Murati said in direct voice, perfectly suppressing the urge to laugh.

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her. Murati laughed and continued her intranet journey.

“There’s a BBS for trading stuff. Want to look? There’s handmade goods, room mods–”

In response Karuniya rolled her head around on Murati’s lap, flailing her arms.

“We’re thinking about new a room this early huh?” She wailed. “Overwhelming.”

“Oh don’t be like that. We could get some nice things to make it feel cozy.”

“I just don’t want to think about difficult things. I’m done making choices for the day.”

“It’s not difficult at all!” Murati said. “Look, someone is trading a virtual aquarium. Hand-made pixel art wallpapers on diskette for room computers. An old cleaning drone that is programmed to whine and act like an animal to work as a cyber-pet. Isn’t that fun sounding?”

Karuniya scowled. “Should we get a crib for the baby?”

Murati instantly petrified. For a split second she went over the night they spent together. She vividly remembered a condom; how could she forget who put it on, and how? Then Karuniya started to laugh openly at her, before her imagination could get any further carried away.

“Hey, don’t joke about that.” Murati said, her tone of voice lower and more severe.

“I wouldn’t try to raise a kid if we had one anyway.” Karuniya mumbled.

“I really don’t want to think about anything like that, Karu.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“It’s entirely different! Orders of magnitude different! I’m asking you about wallpaper!”

“Yes, and I don’t want to think about it.”

Karuniya poked at Murati’s inner thigh with her finger while mumbling childishly.

Murati was exasperated at first.

She could not help but slowly devolve into sniffling laughter. What a ridiculous woman! She put a hand on Karuniya’s head and rubbed her hair all over, flooded with affection for her.

“Who is being a troublemaker now?” Murati said mockingly.

“Ah! Stop it! It’s your fault! You’re rubbing off on me!”

“You’re being so petty!”

“I love you!”

Karuniya sat up suddenly and planted a kiss on Murati’s cheek.

She whispered in a sultry voice in Murati’s ear.

“Shut up for a little bit and I’ll kiss somewhere else.”

When she dropped back onto her lap, Murati was dead silent, smiling down at her.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not actually in the mood.”

Murati reached down and started to tickle Karuniya’s stomach.

“Ah! No!”

This affectionate battle characterized their cohabitation for a few minutes.

Then peace returned to the apartment as the two of them settled back down.

“Oh, this is interesting.”

Sitting up, Karuniya showed Murati her own minicomputer. There was a board for sharing pictures of life on the station. One post had a photo attached which had been taken by an exterior berth camera. It showed the hundreds of ships saturating the waters of Thassal Station. Many of them had recognizable hulls for a pair of soldiers who had just fought a fleet action not long ago.

There was one ship in the photo that looked markedly different.

“Everyone’s talking about this one. Nobody can identify the class it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s gigantic. Must be at least cruiser sized. Maybe it’s an old hauler.” Murati said.

Murati got up close to the computer, taking in the picture. It was a remarkable ship.

“It looks so worn out.” Karuniya said. “I knew you’d love it. Why do you think it’s here?”

“Maybe it is bringing supplies. It looks a bit like an old hauler, but not any of our newer transporters. We could have brought it out of reserve to make up for a shortfall of cargo ships.”

“I hope that’s not the case. I’d hate to think we’re having logistical problems this early.”

This early — in the war they were both sure would be coming now.

In their little island of peace, with their thoughts for a romantic future.

All around there were hundreds of warships, and far beyond, lay thousands of enemy ships.

“I don’t want to think about it!”

Karuniya raised her arms in protest and pushed Murati to stand up off the bed.

Confused, Murati quietly acquiesced.

“Go fetch us some lunch. I want to use the bandwidth we have to download a film.”

“Karuniya, that will take hours. The LAN speed for non-government stuff is atrocious.”

“Which is why you can use the time to have a nice walk, and I can have a nice nap!”

Karuniya took up all of the bed, setting the computer aside to download several hundred megabytes worth of a movie file at 256 kbps. From the look of the file name and the particular FTP site she was getting it from it appeared to be a schlocky horror film. Murati heaved a sigh, but it truly seemed that Karuniya wanted to be lazy and nothing would convince her otherwise.

Murati knew how troubled she was, even though she tried to blow it off.

Before the battle for Thassal, her partner had not been saccharine about their relationship. That she sincerely wanted to live together and make big steps in their relationship meant she had been affected by everything that transpired. Murati felt blessed by this. Getting lunch for her was a simple task, and the reward of coming back into the room and seeing her there waiting was enough.

“I’ll be back!”

With a spring in her step, Murati headed over to the canteen at Bubble. There was a buzz of activity around the lower Block. Several new arrivals had to be housed, at least temporarily, so there were people in front of every door, being led to their new accommodations, shown the amenities and being read the Thassal housing charter. A few rooms looked like they would be crowded with three soldiers at a time. With a hundred more ships at the station than before, and no immediate mission, it meant thousands of off-duty soldiers mixed up with the familiar neighbors.

At the canteen, she chose one of each menu item. When there were two to feed, it didn’t make sense to pick two A menus or two B menus: they could share every item. It turned out to be a great haul this time. Pickled eggs, tomato relish, broth-soaked biscuits, eggplant; it was a king’s ransom. She wondered if they were being grandiose with the meals as a celebration of the battle. Soldiers returning to the station or being rotated out to the reserve could use the extra comfort.

When she was on her way back, Murati found someone waiting at the entrance to the block.

Her eyes first noticed the armband, with a stylized serpent.

Ashura.

That armband represented the communist party’s elite forces. They served in security and intelligence roles, as well as in arbitration of civil conflicts. And the person before her was not just any Ashura. Judging by the insignia on her uniform, four red and gold stars, she would have been an Admiral. There were no Admirals among the Ashura, however. They had different ranks.

Those stylized stars were instead meant to be read as “Commissar-General.”

When she fully realized this, Murati stopped in front of the woman with a wide-eyed stare.

“Murati Nakara, correct? I am Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.”

Murati shifted the way she was carrying her boxes so she could salute Nagavanshi.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “No need for formalities. You’re in the reserve. Is civilian life treating you and Maharapratham well? I heard you took the first step with her a few hours ago.”

The first step— it was a euphemism. Cohabitation was the first step to marriage. In the Union, marriage was chiefly tied to space. Couples that wanted to live together needed larger rooms, and they freed up smaller living spaces for others, like young adults who were leaving the school dorms. To be married, to live in a space befitting two people, was the next step.

For those who wanted to raise their own families, rather than put their children in government custody, there was another step beyond marriage, to acquiring a larger living space. Such faculties were rare. But that was the cultural touchstone Nagavanshi was alluding to. The steps two people took.

And it haunted Murati when she realized how much Nagavanshi knew about her. All of those records were public, but it meant Nagavanshi was searching for information about her. And she had been searching as recently as a few hours ago when Karuniya joined her to make the first request, for cohabitation. Perhaps she was still collecting data about her even as they spoke.

The intelligence services really were a force to be feared.

Now Murati was even more worried about the Commissar-General’s presence.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“I read about the battle of Thassalid Trench. You were recorded by Deshnov as one of the architects of that battle’s strategy. We won because of you; of course you would earn notoriety.”

“I know. I am being considered for a position at HQ in the Strategy department, by Rear Admiral Goswani. Until my review I was asked to remain in the Reserve.” Murati said.

“That is not what you want, right?”

Nagavanshi produced from her black and gold coat a document in a folder.

“You’ve made the most petitions out of anyone in your peer group. You don’t want to plot behind a desk at the HQ. You want to command; you want to be in the middle of the action.”

She opened the folder briefly. It was full of review documents for Murati’s petitions.

Murati’s words caught in her throat.

Maybe a week or two ago she would have responded with confidence. She would have said in the affirmative that she was destined to Captain a ship. She was born to fight the enemies of the Union. She would live to take the Union’s justice to the Empire that threatened to destroy them. All of these things she so staunchly believed where shaken now, however.

At the battle of Thassal she had killed many people and won victory.

It had shown her the suddenness, the terror, the surreal insanity of war.

Karuniya and her were starting to assemble a different kind of life.

“Commissar-General, at the moment I’m in the Navy reserve, so–”

She tried to deflect, but Nagavanshi was not letting her escape so easily.

“I’m assembling a crew. I’ve got a ship, and a revolutionary mission that cannot succeed without you.” Nagavanshi said. “I hope that you will join us because as a staunch mordecist you understand our historic conditions. We can assemble all the ships we want at Ferris. Our Navy is at best 1000 strong, which is maybe a fifth of active Imperial war power, not to mention reserves. We can hide away and build our strength and bide our time, but we will never build 4000 ships in a year or two. Our time is short. I want to take decisive action; to take the fight to the Empire within a week.”

What frightened Murati the most was this was not someone’s lunatic raving.

Nagavanshi was speaking unopposed, but she spoke with a casual confidence.

Everything she was saying, she had thought through with immense care.

And yet there was an underlying contradiction that made her sound insane.

“That isn’t possible.” Murati said. “You just said we don’t have enough fighting strength. Then you’re saying we need to confront the Empire. With one ship? I don’t understand ma’am.”

Nagavanshi did not waver. Her voice was steadied by a palpable conviction.

“All of the fighting power we need is mustering in the Empire as we speak. They are going to take advantage of their own historic conditions and take a gamble for their futures. They might fail without us. I’m not asking you to fight alone. I’m asking you to join my one ship so you can take up arms with all of the dispossessed in the Empire itself and help them follow our footsteps.”

 A revolution was brewing– in the Empire itself. How was this possible?

“Will you turn away from their revolution? When they need you?”

Nagavanshi was extremely dangerous.

She knew exactly how to pitch something to Murati that she could not resist.

All of this time, Murati had devoted herself to fighting in memory of her revolution.

A thousand generations lived inside her. That’s what the Union told its youth.

Was the Empire truly on the cusp of revolution? An event that all of her life had seemed outside the realm of possibility; something never spoken to her, never taught to her, something that was in no books she had ever read. The Empire’s poor and the Empire’s weak, the Empire’s young; would they too, spill the blood of an entire generation to overturn their oppression?

Murati’s fist shook with frustration.

It was the part of her Karuniya called “a troublemaker” preventing her from turning away.

A part of her that would always agitate for what was right, what was fair.

That would always stand with those who faced injustice.

That would always take the comfortable and the elite to task for their complacency.

And yet, she was so conflicted. Because she had become complacent herself.

“Commissar-General, I’m not convinced the Empire can have revolutionary potential. And even if it were to be developed I’m not convinced that it can be truly effective.” She was lying, she was practically lying to herself and to Nagavanshi, and it was evident in her face, eyes closed, her jaw trembling with anxiety. “I’m furthermore not convinced your idea of sending one ship out into the Empire to do who-knows-what, could possibly further that potential. So I’m afraid–”

“I’m disappointed, and unmoved.”

Nagavanshi produced from the other side of her coat a minicomputer.

It was smaller than most of its kind and emblazoned with her logo.

But the screen was bright and clear. And Karuniya’s face was on that screen.

“I’ve dispatched a message to your fiancé. She will not refuse my offer.”

Her golden eyes locked onto Murati’s own auburn eyes with imperious contempt.

“I had hoped you would join us out of your own intellect and moral development. Clearly I overestimated you. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to launch this mission, Lieutenant.”

Murati dropped her lunch boxes and grabbed hold of Nagavanshi by her coat.

By force, she practically lifted her opponent.

She was a head taller; the Commissar-General could not resist her.

Nagavanshi never tried to struggle. She was completely unfazed.

Those terrifying golden eyes remained steadily locked on Murati’s own.

“Everyone feels entitled to put their hands on me today.” Nagavanshi lamented.

Murati felt ridiculous and furious in equal proportion.

To do this was a flagrant, violent act that was wholly unwarranted.

And yet she wanted nothing more than to rip Nagavanshi’s head clean off.

“Leave Karuniya out of this.” Murati said through a stiff, fang-bearing grimace.

Nagavanshi made no expression in return.

“So you would leave without taking your fiancé? It had always been my intention for the two of you to go together. In fact I planned such a thing for your sake. I could have gotten any Oceanographer, but she is the best choice to make sure you are operating at maximum efficiency.”

“What?”

It had not even occurred to Murati that all of this would involve Karuniya.

Was she wrong to think so? She wanted to protect Karuniya.

To protect her– but they had sworn to be together now.

Nagavanshi saw the opportunity and interjected.

“I don’t mean to pry into private matters, but if you were intending to leave by yourself, it would void your cohabitation agreement, and probably also your partner’s affection and trust–”

Murati had enough.

She slammed Nagavanshi down to the ground.

The Commissar-General toppled over easily as if she had no physical strength to respond.

She looked the silliest that she had the entire conversation. Her cap went rolling. She fell into her own cape and looked more like a heap of clothes than a person for a few seconds. Her hair broke from its neat bun and fell down the front of her face. Her arm band nearly slid off her arm.

Slowly, the Commissar-General collected herself.

Murati was frozen in place.

Her head was spinning, drunk on a cocktail of impossible emotions and sensations.

She had never known herself to be this impulsive. She had struck a superior officer.

“Solceanos defend! Commissar, I’m so sorry–”

She genuinely meant it. And maybe Nagavanshi even knew that to be the case.

As before, the Ashura’s chief betrayed no emotion. When she stood back up, it was as if she had never been thrown, save for her wild hair and the slightest tremor in her hands.

“As a sign of goodwill, I will not press any charges or hold what you have done against you.” Nagavanshi said. “I will be expecting you in the Naval HQ for further debriefing tonight. You shall be pleased to know that commensurate with your new position as First Officer and Diver Leader of the UNX-001 Brigand, you will be promoted to Senior Lieutenant.”

Her black-gloved hand thrust something into Murati’s chest. A picture of the ship?

Then, without another word, she walked away. Murati almost wanted to describe it as “storming off” in her own reckoning. She felt that the Commissar-General was clearly aggravated in her body language despite her inexpressive face. Soon as she had appeared, she had vanished.

The entire discussion had felt like a flood swept over Murati. Had her lunch boxes not been on the ground, she might have wondered whether she was hallucinating in the middle of the hall.

At least the lunch boxes were clasped shut and sturdy.

She picked them up, took them under her arms and took off in a full sprint towards home.

As she ran, she almost wanted to cry.

Because they lived in the Union, there was truly no escaping war with the Empire.

To have even thought she could for an instant made Murati feel so foolish.

Nagavanshi had been right. She had been naïve to think she would just stay at the station.

Murati’s ideas had changed the battle at Thassal. She was inextricably linked to this war.

As she arrived at her room, she tried to compose herself before opening the door.

Inside, Karuniya was reading something. A message had appeared on the wall.

“Are you alright, Murati?” She asked. She did not look distressed.

Murati could not make out the wall message from the door. Because Karuniya had summoned it from her vantage on the bed, the text was big enough for her, but not for Murati. So she could not tell what kind of message Karuniya had received. She had a guess, however.

“I’m fine.”

She put on a smile and walked in with a lunchbox in each hand.

“There was some good stuff today.” Murati said. “I think you’ll love the eggplant–”

“Knock it off.”

Karuniya stopped her while she was going to put the lunches on the bed.

She looked up at Murati from the bed, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed.

“Murati, never do that again. Don’t hide things from me. You’re terrible at it.”

Karuniya reached out and took Murati’s hands into her own.

Feeling those soft hands, seeing Karuniya right in front of her.

It really was a blessing, even though everything else seemed to grow ever darker.

“I’ll be with you no matter what.” Karuniya said.

Murati threw her arms around her in embrace, holding her tight, in complete silence. On the wall behind them, the message from Nagavanshi updated with a picture of the ship.

“You’re going to do this?” Murati asked.

“She contacted you too?”

They parted briefly, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Murati, I don’t think we have a choice.”

Karuniya touched Murati’s cheek.

“Yes, she offered me a lab and all kinds of things so I would join whatever mission they are getting up to. But the instant I saw the messages I knew that what the Ashura really wanted was ‘The Genius of Thassal’ to join their ship. And being honest, I thought you would love to go.”

“I’m conflicted.”

Murati averted her gaze.

Karuniya gently guided Murati’s eyes back to her own. Slowly, she kissed Murati on the lips. They shared a moment that was brief, warm, and immeasurably kind. Murati nearly wept with emotion.

“Besides being a scientist, I’m a soldier. That’s how things are in the Union. And besides being citizens of the Union, we’re soldiers. Besides even that, we’re revolutionaries. And the Murati I fell in love would cause no end of trouble for her own rights and those of others.”

Murati sighed. She looked well and truly resigned.

“It’ll put you in danger.” She said, weakly.            

Karuniya embraced her. No more was discussed about this.

Both of them had made their decision together. They held each other in enduring silence as if to say ‘no, it will put us in danger.’ They accepted it.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.2]

This one she could not blame on drinking. This time it was all squarely on her.

“You did it again Yana. You have no self-control. You horrible– you evil–”

Her self-flagellation caught in her throat. She thought she would puke. She sobbed.

She drank last night. She drank a lot. And had that been all, she would not have wept.

What made her most upset was that she was not drunk. She was fully aware.

She remembered everything, but it was as if she had done it all with a devil on her shoulder.

In her head she reviewed everything she had done as if she had watched a stranger do it.

But it was not some stranger. It was herself. She did it, and she knew it, and hated the fact.

On the nightstand, an empty bottle. Apricot liquor. Fancy stuff; it was a big enough bottle that she hoped she had help with it. A headache, a sense of burning in her chest, and the cold sweat running down her face, down her back; she had drunk it. She had drunk a lot. However, the most mortifying thing is she never lost control. Everything she did was impulsive but deliberate.

Last night she had gone out to celebrate the end of the recent crisis. Drinking, dancing, at different venues across the station, at the plazas, co-ops, canteens, joining a throng of celebrants. She hit it off with a particular someone, and from there everything felt like magic. Lovely, witty conversation, fast, flirtatious dancing, great booze. They found a private nook, and after slipping the coat off her shoulders, she dove into that first hungry kiss in the neck. Then she went home, and not alone. She had lifted her up by her legs, dropped her onto the bed, devoured her.

Yana gagged, the burning in her chest rising to her throat.

No amount of being drunk justified it. She felt mortified. This was her own room and her own bed that she had woken up in. And the stranger sharing it with her was her responsibility.

A dark-haired, waifish young woman laid beside her, close enough to share her warmth. Young; clearly younger than Yana. Her chest rose and fell with gentle breathing, completely exposed with all the loving red marks which had been put on the tips of her breasts, her collarbones, between her thighs. Atop her head a pair of cat-like, neatly fluffy ears periodically twitched.

Every so often a tiny little moan would escape her lips. Her tail would curl up too.

Her sleep was untroubled. Maybe she had just not drank as much,

She covered the girl up with a sheet. Both for her comfort and dignity, and to hide her.

“How old is she, Yana,” She berated herself.

Her shaking fingers hit the wall, and the room computer put up the ID that had been logged.

The woman she had spent the night having sex with was 27 years old.

“Yana, you’re nine years older than her.”

She brought the same hand she had used to type into the wall, up to her face.

Her whole body was shaking with shame. She absolutely hated herself.

Among other things she was shaking with, was her continuing, heavy bout with nausea.

Bolting from the bed, she rushed her own cold, naked body to the bathroom, where she bent over the waste collection vents. Seemingly understanding of her plight, the bathroom spread a fine, sweet-smelling mist over her as it washed away the contents of her stomach. She felt the sting of the liquor coming back up her throat. She hated it; she hated herself so much for this.

“I’ll apologize when she wakes up.” She said, breathlessly, to herself. “I’ll ask if she wants anything from me and I’ll give it to her. If she wants me to appear before council, or marriage–”

She could hardly think back to the other times this had happened where no restitution was necessary, as she was caught in such a mire of self-loathing that everything seemed a grand crime and nothing about the other woman’s agency entered her head. She was in this state, watching her bathroom clean itself, for several minutes, before a notification appeared on the wall next to her.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I request to meet with you.”

Yana was speechless, staring with a wide, horror-stricken gaze at the ID of the visitor.

Parvati Nagavanshi.

While her bed was taken up by a woman in the afterglow, while she was naked, with her knees on the floor bent over a grate, and the apartment smelled of booze and sweat despite the best effort of the machines– the Commissar-General was at her door awaiting an audience.

Was this it? The day that her absurd life would be put to an end?

“Ulyana Korabiskaya, your room says it is occupied. It is past 1100 hours and you should be awake. I am willing to leave a message, but this discourtesy is highly irregular, and I resent it.”

It was past 1100 hours.

Yana raised her hand up to her face and pulled down in distress.

“Just a moment!” She shouted. “One minute and I’ll be there!”

From her bed she heard a low murmur, and a purring noise.

Yana froze in place.

“I will wait.” Nagavanshi said.

Her heart was stuck in her chest. She could not breathe or move.

There was silence for just enough to convince Yana that the girl had not woken up.

Carefully, she rose to her feet, and pulled a nearly see-through casual robe from her closet.

Throwing this on, her hair slightly wet, she appeared to have stepped out of the shower.

In this attire, she opened the door a crack, and smiled at the Commissar-General.

“Good morning, Nagavanshi!” She said cheerfully. “My, it has been so long hasn’t it?”

“It’s good to see you again. Get dressed. We need to speak at length.”

Nagavanshi’s expression was humorless as usual. Always pristinely uniformed, no matter where she went; she was a walking office, exercising her duty every hour of the day. She was a woman of slight stature, professional and groomed, with her hair tied up under her peaked cap, her dark skin completely unadorned with makeup or accessories of any kind. Her gaze was the most intense part of her, unwavering even with her eyes shaded by her cap and framed by tidy bangs.  

Yana laughed. She sounded audibly uncomfortable and she could not hide it.

“I had a bit of a rough night.” Yana said.

“I can tell. What you need is to eat something and get some plaza air. Come on.”

For a brief moment Nagavanshi turned her head to try to see around Yana.

“Okay! Give me a few minutes!”

Yana slammed the door shut.

She put her back to it, breathing ragged, staring at the placidly sleeping girl in her bed.

Their clothes were on the floor. In one corner she found her dress, and the one-piece wet suit she had worn last night. So the tiny, filmy, erotic black dress must have belonged to the woman in her bed. Her lover’s suit was shaded mesh that was almost see-through, and the dress itself had plenty of gaps for skin to show. It was an incredibly bold design, at the cutting edge of fashion — and maybe modesty. Yana loved it; it was the kind of clothes she would have loved to wear, if she did not feel a persisting shame in the pit of her stomach for being a party girl at age 36.

Yana tapped on the wall again and brought the woman’s ID one more time.

Her name was Aaliyah Bashara.

“I’ll make it up to you.” She clapped her hands together and bowed her head as if begging. “Please forgive me!” Trying not to drop dead from the overwhelming, mortifying sense of shame she felt with herself, Yana donned a casual one-piece swimsuit, along with a jacket and a pair of pants. Her long, wavy blond hair she quickly tied up behind the back of her head with a big, sturdy hair claw. There was no time to fix her makeup. She just washed her face and dabbed it off.

Aaliyah was not stirring throughout. She was out like a light.

Yana pinned a wall computer window on one of the walls, leaving it open with a note.

“Ulyana–”

  “I’m coming!”

I have to go, but I will make it up to you. — Yana K.

There was no more time to agonize over what she could say or do for Aaliyah Bashara that would be enough to assuage her own guilt and shame, let alone any feelings Aaliyah Bashara actually had about the night they had spent. With little consideration for the young woman and a head full of completely self-centered thoughts, Yana finally left the apartment to meet Nagavanshi outside. The Commissar, for her part, had not changed in demeanor for the better or the worse.

“You look in total disarray.” Nagavanshi said. “Let’s get you some food.”

Yana sighed. She walked behind the Commissar; her steps unsteady, her head pounding.

Owing to her distinguished service, Yana lived in a slightly nicer apartment in one of the slightly nicer habitats in the Block on Thassal station. Her habitat was on the opposite side of the Thassal mound from a certain Lieutenant’s. While all accommodations were supposed to be equal, and at least in size they were, it was a fact that older habitats built or refurbished after the Revolution were the lesser kin of newer habitats. These had more consistent power, and slightly better access to water and climate control owing to their newer desalinators, recycler systems and air treatment. They also had wider halls and more accessible plazas and shopping strips.

Room assignment was “decided by machine.” Computers did not make any decisions by themselves, of course, they had no capability to do so. What this meant was that a program would be run to randomly assign housing, making sure people of all kinds were represented among all blocks of housing stock. But Union leadership also used housing as a reward mechanism in certain cases. Yana was not the only medal-earning military veteran to have a room in a nicer habitat.

It was one of many things she did not feel she deserved.

However, it was impossible for her to turn down machine-awarded accolades.

From Yana’s habitat they made their way to the services district, which had an open space for trading or bartering as well as a canteen serving hot food and a government shop with clothes and other necessities. Contained within a glass and steel structure, the space was designed so the inhabitants could see out into the flooded cave deep in the center of Thassal Station’s stone mound. All manner of odd deep dwelling creatures passed by the glass for curious onlookers to see.

There were a few tables filled with various things to be traded or bartered with. Some of the objects were accompanied by their owners, who were looking to negotiate. Others were left with a note of encouragement from the former owner. By far the most common items were clothes. Many people traded clothing to acquire new fashions, since fancy, innovative clothing was mostly the handiwork of hobbyists and not government-backed industry. There were also books, and even a few diskettes of someone’s homemade video game, free for anyone interested.

Nagavanshi did not acknowledge the presence of the table. Her gaze was fixed forward.

She always struck Yana as someone who already had everything she needed for her life.

If Nagavanshi wanted anything, it must have been intangible. Influence; power; love?

As depressing as it sounded, Yana did not believe Nagavanshi capable of the latter.

At the seating area specifically for the canteen they found a small table for two. Soon a boy in overalls stopped at their table, flashed them a chipper smile and asked to take their orders. He could not have been older than fourteen. He was fulfilling his community work credit for school.

“What will it be ladies? Item A or Item B?”

Canteens served two different meals during the day, and another two different meals at night. The menu was based on what they could prepare to feed potentially thousands of people with the resources they had on hand. It was rude to ask exactly what was being served, but suggestions and alterations based on mood, availability, or dietary needs, could be made right at the table.

In her case, Yana had a simple question. “Which one’s the fattiest?”

Her father had always told her that a fatty meal and a bottomless glass of seltzer water was the only real cure for drunkenness. Nagavanshi glared at her, likely misunderstanding her intent.

“You’ll be wanting ‘B’; I’ll tell big sis to give you some extra margarine.”

He turned a big smile on Nagavanshi. She gave him back the tiniest little smirk.

“I’ll take ‘A’.” Nagavanshi said.

“Coming right up!”

From the table, the boy darted cheerfully back to the canteen counter, and conferred with the woman doing the cooking for the day. Soon, the boy returned with two plastic cases worth of food, which included their own plastic cutlery. Each of the menus had a drink. Yana’s came with a clear soda flavored only with a bit of syrup. Nagavanshi had a yellow drink from a citrus powder.

There had been an upward trend in their meals recently, and had the circumstances been different Yana would have found this lunch to be a highlight of the day. A triangular slice of cornbread, resting on a pool of margarine and pickled chicken’s eggs, made up half the plate. The real treasure was slices of battered, fried eggplant rounds. She almost believed they were fresh.

On Nagavanshi’s plate, there was a big biscuit that had been soaked in broth and took on a honey-brown color and turned soft. This biscuit was then set on a puddle of broth that had been scooped into the case. On top of the biscuit there was tomato and corn relish, yeast shavings and pickled egg. Yana guessed that pickled egg was the protein of the day for Thassal station.

“Is it ok if I dig in? I have one hell of a ‘morning-after’ headache.” Yana asked.

Without answer, Nagavanshi dipped her spoon into her biscuit and took a bite.

Yana nodded, and tucked into her own plate. Eggplant was nice and salty, well-breaded.

Nagavanshi barely nipped at her food. She gave Yana time eat before she talked again.

“You didn’t participate in the battle for Thassalid trench. Why did you refuse to?”

A direct assault right after lunch! Yana was ill prepared to be questioned like this.

She almost choked on the last bite of her food. She took a long gulp of soda water.

“It is your right not to do so, but I don’t understand. You could have been a valuable asset. You have much more experience on a large ship than some of the people who received ships there.”

Nagavanshi continued to calmly interrogate her, ignoring Yana’s clear distress.

Once her throat was finally clear, Yana could finally take audible offense to this inquiry.

“I exercised my rights! You’re correct, they’re my rights, I have a right not to go to war if I choose to do so. I served my time. Let the eager young people have a chance at those battles!”

“You refuse the battle, but it appears that you don’t refuse the party afterwards.”

The Commissar-General had a weary expression on her face. A tired, concerned gaze.

Though it was hard to tell with her, perhaps it even signified worry.

And Yana hated it. She hated it almost as much as she hated herself.

This was not a battle of words between one of the highest authorities in the nation and a pathetic, drunk, womanizing has-been Captain. Yana realized that she was speaking to Parvati, a woman who had once served under her. A woman who had been educated alongside her. A woman who, perhaps with some personal ambiguities, could be considered a friend, or at least a peer.

They were acting as equals in this discussion. Painful as it was, Yana recognized that.

And how dare she? How dare she come back like this after being distant for so long?

“Why did you come to Thassal Station, Nagavanshi? Surely it wasn’t for this?”

Nagavanshi looked upset. “I came to laugh at you. Is that what you want to hear?”

There was only one way that Yana could think to reply to that. “Fuck you!”

“You imagined from the outset that I was here to make you the victim you want to be.”

Yana stood up suddenly and put both fists against the table, rocking the lunch boxes.

“Parvati, you’re still nothing but the little rulebook-citing twerp who kept the bridge crew in line with me. I’ll put your head through this table right now. Don’t test me with your bullshit.”

“Listen to me Yana.” Nagavanshi was always so calm, and Yana hated that even more. “I have a proposal for you. You can beat me up afterwards if you want. In the end, it won’t matter either way. If you do what I want, I’ll be beaten down by the bravest hero the Union has ever seen. And if you refuse me, I’ll be beaten up by a pathetic nobody who has amounted to nothing.”

Yana stopped in her tracks. Her eyes watered, her rage quickly dissolving. All her emotions were starting to divert elsewhere. She had gone from seeing red, to seeing nothing but her tears. She barely heard Nagavanshi, but she understood enough to realize there was a lot more happening than just her politically ascendant old shipmate coming to patronize her old failure of a Captain.

“No matter what happens, I’ll wipe the blood out of my lips. I’ve already won.”

Nagavashi procured a picture from her uniform coat and laid it on the table.

It was a photograph of a ship. A rather odd ship. Long, two-tiered, boxy.

“What is this?” Yana asked. She settled back into her seat. All of her ravaneous energy was gone. That terrifying instant of power and violence had passed her by, and she felt twice her age. Tired, overwhelmed. She took the picture in her hands. “Is this a hauler? Do you want me to haul?”

“She’s special.” Nagavanshi said. “I want you to take her on a journey.”

“No.” Yana shook her head weakly. Her voice was losing all conviction. “I can’t.”

“You’re an incredible Captain. You command respect, discipline, sympathy. Your instincts are sharp; you’re a survivor; you’re a polyglot. You are good with people, situations, and gear. Nobody else can handle this. Anyone else in our peer group would fail; they will fail as people to their own crew, or fail militarily, or fail diplomatically, when the pressure really builds up.”

 Yana brought her hands up to her face to hide her tears. “Parvati I really cannot.”

“I do not expect you to comply immediately. But you belong in a ship again, Yana.”

“Parvati, I really cannot do this right now.”

“You still blame yourself for the Pravda, don’t you?”

Nagavanshi’s tone was as neutral as always. Yana could tell, however, that she was being soft. As soft as she could be, with as much empathy as her strict, materialist self could muster.

It was too much to bear. It made her head pound harder. Yana just couldn’t take it.

“How can I not?” She murmured.

“Because you had nothing to do with it. You were exonerated near immediately. It was the result of negligence and all those responsible paid their dues for it.”

Yana forced herself to make eye contact with Nagavanshi.

Her face was full of bitterness. Her eyes reddened with tears, wide open with resentment.

“I’m supposed to feel better because you found people to kill other than me?”

“You’re supposed to feel better because you were not to blame.”

“Forgive me, but I don’t see how that erases all the deaths I was helpless to stop.”

“You were a hero. Honestly, I can’t stand to see you choose to–”

“I didn’t choose anything!” Yana slammed the table again. From behind them, the canteen crew finally noticed the altercation and seemed hesitant. They would have known who Nagavanshi was. Yana didn’t care. “I didn’t even get to go down with my ship. That was also decided for me!”

This time however, Nagavanshi finally fell to her level and raised her voice.

“What would that have changed? You die and then what?”

Yana looked up at her with confusion. She was surprised to hear her finally emote.

Nagavanshi’s eyes returned a look to her that was just as bitter and resentful as her.

“If you ask me, it’s too convenient when soldiers just drop dead. There are so many stories that just end with a dead soldier and no more questions raised. Soldiers that don’t get to live don’t have to think about how to live after what they experienced. They don’t get healing; they don’t get redemption. I can’t offer you the former, but if you’re after the latter, then redeem yourself.”

She pushed the picture up to Yana, almost shoving it against the woman’s chest.

“This ship, the Brigand, is going to leave us for hundreds of days on a crucial mission. No other Captain will be able to shepherd a crew through such a long voyage. It has never been done. I believe that you can do it, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You can do it, precisely because you’ve faced hardship, and despite everything that has happened to you, no matter what, you continued living. You continued living because you inspired amazing men and women to give their all for you.”

Yana looked down at the picture of the ship, her eyes overflowing with tears.

She could not remember the terror of the Pravda except as scattered images, lights and sounds, screams and the hissing of gas, the feeling of fire kissing her back. That frustrating sense of ephemerality, that made her question whether anything truly happened at all, whether she was actually there to see it, brought tears to her eyes. She could not stop weeping over the table.

Through a heavy sob, she pushed the picture back toward Nagavanshi.

“Can I have a moment?” She asked. “To think about things.”

“You can cry all you want. I’ll wait.”

Yana sank against the table, sobbing heavily, unable to withstand the thundering of her former comrades’ words as they reverberated within her brain. To think that all those people died so that she would live, and all the misguided praise that the Commissar was heaping upon her. It felt so surreal. To be given a ship again after all she had been through, all she had failed to do.

A hand came to rest upon her hair.

It was gentle. Slender fingers stroked through her blonde locks without judgment.

“Cry all you need to before you come to the HQ tonight.”

Years’ worth of tears that had been caught inside the most cold, guarded recesses of Yana Korabiskaya came pouring out then. She did cry as if for two people, freely and without aim. Overwhelmed with shame and guilt, adrift in old injuries that she knew, no matter how much she tried, she would not be able to heal. Despite this: she wanted to take the offer now.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.1]

“Ferris, the iron wall of the Union. Oh how you sacrifice for us, to this very day.”

Looking out of a false window in her shuttle, an LCD with a feed of their surroundings, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar mused on the region farthest from her direct influence. A rocky, mountainous, grey place, hundreds of meters beneath the Ocean and any sign of surface light. While the political center of the Union lay in Solstice, its military heart was the border of Ferris.

This austere place was where their truest warriors were born and lived.

Soldiers from all around the Union mustered at Ferris to defend the border.

Amid this mobilization, the Premier herself was also summoned.

Beyond just speeches and reassurances, she wanted to see Ferris for herself. She would give nobody the excuse of saying she hid in Solstice while the border turned hot. Three days had passed since the battle, and she had made the journey as soon as she could. Her trip was public knowledge and there were a lot of appearances she planned to make with military and civilians.

There were also a few private matters she needed to take care of.

“Nagavanshi always gets out ahead of me somehow.” She said to herself.

Her reflection in the glass began to wane.

In the distance, the center of human life in Ferris took her place in the murky picture.

Thassal Station stood like a deformed pillar rising high above rolling hills of pockmarked stone and stripped out ore quarries. Reinforced titanium modules and the occasional glass hexagon made up the habitats, berths and weapons stations that stuck out all around the central rock formation, at once grafted upon the surface but also upholding it. In the center of the mound, a Core Pylon served as a foundation, shouldering the lives built up over the rock, tethering everything, and hiding the Agarthicite reactors. It was their purple glow that made this life possible.

“And there’s my first destination.”

Sitting on the rock next to Thassal Station was a massive structure. Like a bubble of glass and metal, resting atop a massive base laden with berths, to which dozens of ships were docked. Premier Jayasankar recalled the glowing report she gave at the start of the year about the expansion of agriculture in Lyser, and how this structure represented it. Now it was going to be used for war.

It was in this Agri-Sphere that she would decide the Union’s next military actions.

Dragged in from Lyser, this sphere now served as “Hammer-1,” temporary base of the expanded Ferris fleet. Thousands of personnel had arrived at Hammer-1 to organize logistics and supply, to run maintenance and to build stockpiles. As it was originally intended for agriculture, both hydroponic and with treated soil mediums, Hammer-1 was divided into flat, broad stories with rows of adjustable space and a lot of lamps. All of it was now taken up by cranes, Divers, shipping containers and makeshift warehousing. People were hard at work to make it war worthy.

Amid this build-up, Premier Jayasankar’s shuttle arrived at Hammer-1.

Alone, without bodyguards or attendants, she headed into the depths of the structure.

As far as anyone knew, she was much too early for her first public appearance.

She was right on time for Nagavanshi’s secretive little meeting.

A meeting that could decide the fate of the Union, she had said.

Arriving in a dark room, she became part of a troika of powerful interests in the Union. Gathered around a large table equipped with a touchscreen surface, they were there to discuss the direction of the Union in the face of imminent war with the Empire. At Nagavanshi’s behalf, they would examine all of the intelligence they had on the Empire’s direction and formulate a plan.

Vain as it was, Bhavani believed herself foremost among the attendants. She was a vision of self-control and professionalism, casually confident in expression, her face only lightly weathered with experience despite her years. Tall and athletic, with her hair in a bun and wearing a black synthetic suit with dark tinted glasses, she resembled her own bodyguard more than she did a desk worker. She was the people’s Premier. She walked among them easily and casually.

Her reflection on the table was magnificent, and she felt in command of everything.

“Commissar-General, and Grand Admiral” Jayasankar bowed her head lightly toward her two counterparts. “We last met to discuss what a good year it had been for shipbuilding. I can’t help but wonder if we are all being punished for the barest hint of complacency at the moment. Our shipbuilding is far too slow for our predicament, and now our agricultural plans are also on hold. Nevertheless, I want it to be clear that I believe in us. Let’s not be too doom and gloom.”

Grand Admiral Sorokin Klasnikov was the only man in attendance. He was a tall, bronzed gentleman with a full beard, pristinely in uniform. His beard was quite long and flowed with a greater breadth even than the hair on his head. He kept his hands behind his back and stood firmly.

“Premier, it is good to see you in cheerful spirits, despite everything,” began the Admiral, soft spoken, “I don’t believe Eloah is so merciless as to fault us for merely being optimistic.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi meanwhile looked the youngest in the room. She had suggested they hold this meeting but hid her feelings about it behind a careful, neutral expression.

“Well, Admiral, I don’t believe in any Gods, as this Union is beyond such mysticism.”

Nagavanshi had a talent for sounding both polite and openly contemptuous.

Her face lacked even the subtle crow’s feet evident around Jayasankar’s eyes and lips, and she was very obviously of a nearer vintage than the pockmarked old Klasnikov. Her hair flowed freely from under her peaked cap, adorned with a golden serpent, and her rich brown skin had an even sheen as if it had been laid over body uniformly, unmarred by light or touch.

Her golden eyes seemed bottomless, like they might devour what they viewed.

“Everything that is happening is a result of material forces that are well understood.”

She spoke quite casually, and Klasnikov looked ready to snap at her.

“Now, now,”

Premier Jayasankar interrupted before anyone could continue that particular topic.

“Religion is something best not discussed among friends.”

She swiped her fingers over the computer screen set into the middle of the table.

A map of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans appeared on the screen. The Premier touched closer to the north Imbrium sea, where the Occultis continental line separated the North Imbrium, ruled mostly by the Empire, with the northwestern end of the Cognitum Ocean: waters that the mighty Republic shared with a few other states. The Great Ayre Reach, an expanse of calm water, with simple geography at shockingly low depth, separated the Empire and the Republic.

Ayre could have been a powerful economic asset for the Republic, but instead it had been the stage of the Republic’s righteous aggression against the Empire for what seemed like hundreds of years. Every few decades there was a terrifying campaign over the Great Ayre Reach that ended in crushing Republic defeats, allowing the Empire to occupy the Reach and block the Republic’s access to the Imbrium Ocean, until the next time the mighty foes exchanged it. A communist scholar, Mordecai, once believed that the Empire and the Republic did battle over the Reach in order to destroy surplus production of goods and stymie political and social progress.

That was neither here nor there, but it was on Jayasankar’s mind as she surveyed the map.

“Anyone have the early score from the latest Empire vs. Republic game?” She asked.

Nagavanshi glanced over to Klasnikov, with a bored look on her face.

Klasnikov gave her a critical look back. He cleared his throat loudly.

“Our intelligence indicates that the Republic brought 800 ships divided into five fleets to the Ayre Reach. The Empire brought the Grand Western Fleet. The latest estimated strength for that formation was 1000 ships divided in seven fleets. It is our understanding the Empire won.”

“Of course they did.” Nagavanshi said.

“We should not act as if this was all foretold.” Klasnikov said. “It was not merely numbers that sealed the fate of the Ayre Reach. From information we gathered over the past few days, the Republic made major strategic missteps. They feared being too outnumbered, so they adopted a wide formation to try to cover Imperial flanking attacks. This allowed the Imperials to use their numbers in a different way. Instead of matching the breadth of the Republic deployment, they concentrated their attack and crushed the Republic center, isolating the wings of the formation.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “At that point, the Republic should have swung a trap around them.”

“We can say what we want from the comfort of this chamber.” Klasnikov said. He seemed almost to pity the Republic forces. “Perhaps if they had fought on, they could have used the wings of the formation to inflict bitter damage on the Imperials. But that would have been asking troops to sacrifice their lives when they had come prepared to fight on even terms. You can’t pretend you were laying bait for the enemy just because it becomes convenient; preparing bait means that the bait was prepared for its role. For the Republic forces, they saw hundreds of their ships and thousands of their comrades killed in front of them. I can’t fault them for escaping at that point.”

“I can.” Nagavanshi said. “Because the ones picking up the pieces could soon be us. Some allies the Republic have turned out to be! Don’t give that look Klasnikov — I read the same acoustic messages you did. I don’t need explanations.” She raised an accusatory finger at the Admiral. “The Republic had a center of 200 ships and wings of 300 ships a piece. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fleeing instead of pressing into Fueller’s flank and crushing him.”

“As far as the Republic’s politics are concerned, they don’t win from just killing the Prince if they have to sacrifice 800 ships to do so.” Klasnikov said. “They aren’t like you, Nagavanshi. You can isolate and kill an individual with your spies and thugs, but you can’t do it with a fleet.”

Nagavanshi narrowed her eyes at Klasnikov.

Jayasankar then raised her hand like a student in a classroom, smiling.

“Everyone is getting so spirited but let us move beyond the hypotheticals. The Republic has suffered another defeat and the Empire will again occupy the breadth of the Ayre Reach. They would still need to cross the North Occultis canal to advance, so the Republic will be fine. In fact they probably won’t even try to move farther than Ayre Reach. My concern is that if this battle did not hurt the Empire too, too much, we will be the next target. Am I correct in my assumption?”

“You very well could be.” Klasnikov said.

“No, you are absolutely wrong.”

Nagavanshi procured a series of documents and slid them across the table.

This was a symbolic gesture more than anything, because the table itself scanned the documents as they crossed and was able to project all of their data on tabbed windows close to the other meeting participants. By the time the papers’ momentum stopped just short of Jayasankar she was already reading what had been scanned. She brought her hand up to her hair to fidget.

Should the information in those papers prove correct then yes, Jayasankar’s assumption might be very wrong. It was not in her character to get giddy over every piece of idle speculation that came her way, however. So after reading the information, she turned her gaze on the head of the Ashura security and intelligence forces, Nagavanashi, who clearly knew more than she let on.

It had been her all along who suggested this meeting, after all.

Klasnikov, meanwhile, was reaching for the papers themselves as if he could not trust the scanner to have gotten the information correct. He flipped through all the papers, brow furrowing.

“Parvati, your most prominent source is this girl from the wreck of the Strasser. I assume you corroborated this news with other survivors from the Imperial fleet, and you’ve got your own tricks for finding information far afield. I want to know what other sources you have that you aren’t writing about on the record, and what information you’ve learned beyond this one event.”

Despite Jayasankar’s tact in describing it, this event was no small matter.

Nagavanshi did not convene meetings unless her information was explosive.

According to the documents, rescue teams found a survivor from the Imperial Fleet, who had connections among the nobility and military. In exchange for her life, not knowing that the Union intended to imprison rather than execute her, she attested to the Emperor having fallen with a terminal illness and being pronounced all but officially dead. The Grand Duchies, the major states that made up the Empire’s territory, were eager to back their own claimants to the throne. All of this, while Prince Erich von Fueller, the heir apparent, was off in the Great Ayre Reach fighting the Republic. According to the source, the reason for the Southern Border Fleet’s attack on the Union was the ambition of Admiral Gottwald to form his own faction in the coming strife.

For as little as the Premier made it seem in her casual speech, this was earthshaking news. Upon the eve of his coup, Konstantin von Fueller had dared the aristocracy to move against him. For fifty years they slumbered under his control. Now he was dead: and now, they would awaken.

“Mere imperial troops would not have had access to that kind of information. That would have only been known to Admirals and their associates, as they freely cavort with the aristocracy in a way that none below their rank are truly able to. So there was no need to interrogate the lower ranking survivors. Simply put, I trust the girl’s information. I believe we should act on it. By the time more overt signs of its veracity manifest themselves we may be too late to take advantage.”

Nagavanshi was prepared for the questioning. After all, she did not get to her own position without being meticulously confident in her words. As necessary as intelligence agents and internal security were for the Union, the power invested in them meant that not just anybody could be given the position. Her predecessors had each been politically purged after a year in office.

Jayasankar grinned. “Good answer. But I know that there is more being left unsaid.”

Nagavanshi said nothing. Her expression was purely neutral. She was hiding something.

“You used the ELF, didn’t you? I know you contacted someone with it.”

No response from the Commissar-General. In her place the Admiral was confounded.

“ELF is only for emergencies.” Klasnikov said. “And it can only contact ships.”

“Absolutely.” Jayasankar turned her gaze from the Admiral and back to the Commissar-General, putting her hands on her hips, still smiling. “Nagavanshi communicated with a ship.”

Klasnikov blinked. “Which one of our ships is going into Imperial waters?”

“Before we tightened our shipbuilding program, we supplied militarized civilian ships to Campos Mountain that were equipped with our ELF.” Nagavanashi finally said. Klasnikov stared at her in confusion. “I acquired such a ship and transferred it to an important asset. Satisfied?”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, grinning. She’d gotten her; of course she did.

The Premier had already won this exchange before they even entered the room.

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” She asked.

“I had ultimate oversight over Extremely Low Frequency comms.” Nagavanshi said.

“You’re not the only one with agents everywhere, Parvati.”

Fiddling around with her pocket, Jayasankar produced a vaporizer and nonchalantly took a sweet drag from it that smelled of strawberries. She had hoped to see Nagavanshi wither in the silence, but unfortunately, the Commissar-General was simply too strong, too well-kept together.

“Your predecessors were purged for this sort of behavior, you know?”

She pointed the vaporizer at the Commissar-General.

Nagavanshi did not stir. Though she was caught out, she was never cornered.

“I was acting for the greater good of this nation. I came prepared today to divulge a lot of information and make the case for my methods. Foreign intelligence is an absolute necessity for modern warfare. Without the assets I have put into place, we will become increasingly blind to events in the Empire. I shall accept whatever decision our esteemed Premier makes, of course.”

Her voice was sweet as honey. She had really turned up the charm for that declaration.

Despite how much of a fucking bitch she was, Jayasankar admired Nagavanshi’s drive.

Being stricken from the communist party was not something that would bother her.

She was a purely material person who did not care one bit about appearances.

It was certain that if she were shut out of official power she would find power elsewhere.

At least she’s my little tyrant, Jayasankar told herself.

Those other Commissar-Generals served under other Premiers anyway.

“You can contact your agent via ELF. How did you get information back?”

Jayasankar stabbed her little vaporizer into the air for dramatic effect as her interrogation continued. Nagavanshi continued to betray no emotion over being put on the spot in this way.

“That’s true,” Klasnikov realized. “You can’t open laser or acoustic contact with the Empire.”

“And she’s had nowhere near enough time for an agent to physically travel back here.”

Come on, Parvati, fess up, the Premier was certain that Nagavanshi had more to unveil.

Nagavanshi withdrew something from her pocket and connected it to a serial port in the table computer. After the table had read the contents of the diskette and found it to contain nothing dangerous, it gave the attendants access to the contents. The Commissar-General drew everyone’s attention to one specific item, which was displayed on the table as a floating holographic diagram of what looked like a coilgun shell, albeit a very strange one. No warhead; only a transmitter.

Once the diagram was available, Nagavanshi explained its significance.

“I’ve been putting serious research consideration into our operational capacity behind enemy lines. We’re too sentimental about ‘revolutionary warfare’, but guerilla war is a viable path for us if we consider communications and logistics. This transmitter shell allows us to fire a radio out to the surface, where we can use waves through the air transmit information. We’ve installed a buoy in the calm water over Lyser. While the surface corruption over most of the Imbrium will damage the transmitter, it will be active long enough to send a message to our buoy.”

She swiped from the diagram of the transmitter to a diagram of the buoy.

“Information from the buoy is transmitted back to us in the aphotic zone via cable. Due to animal activity, and the surface’s corruption, even in the calm waters at Lyser it is likely that the buoy will be severed or destroyed, but we can replace it if needed. At any rate: I contacted my agent via ELF to tell her to deploy a radio-flare with the most up to date information she had.”

“Did you come prepared to divulge this information?” the Premier asked her.

“It was going to be part of my overall proposal.”

Klasnikov had been staring at her with eyes wide open.

“So, to summarize. You gave a ship, and experimental technology, to somebody out in the Empire and they have confirmed to you, via these circumspect methods, that the Emperor is dead?”

“They’ve confirmed a lot more than that, but yes.” Nagavanshi said.

“Premier, this is rather outrageous, wouldn’t you say?” Klasnikov said.

Jayasankar ignored that remark. “How trustworthy is your source?”

“She is a hero to this country. She is prepared to give her life for me, and I for her.”

Both Jayasankar and Klasnikov were stunned.

That was highly uncharacteristic of how the Commissar-General ever spoke.

And as far as Jayasankar knew, it was the sort of thing Nagavanshi didn’t believe in.

There was no denying the expression on her face, however. Gone was the peerless calm.

It looked almost as if Nagavanshi herself could not believe what she had said.

She had the face of someone who knew they had committed a youthful indiscretion.

And done so amid her venerated, powerful elders.

Jayasankar sighed heavily. For her, the expert political operator who had come prepared and plotted everything meticulously, this was the first truly unpredictable event of the day. She almost wanted to ask if Nagavanshi and her agent had ever fucked. It was an open question now in her mind. And what kind of powers did it take to chisel through the rock to Nagavanshi’s heart?

Nagavanshi knew precisely that the only way forward was for her to bare some of her soul.

And for that, Jayasankar could only think she was an even more manipulative piece of shit than she had previously imagined. To have honesty and vulnerability become your trump cards–

“You’re horrible, Nagavanshi, but I am impressed. I think at this point, you should just tell us what you convened us for and lay out your plans. This gathering has become too messy.”

Nagavanshi let out a breath with visible relief.

Klasnikov shook his head solemnly. “Let us move forward with honesty.”

He sounded as if he himself could not hope for such a rosey outcome.

“I will be blunt then. I propose we launch an operation to infiltrate the Empire. Then we will make contact with dissident forces in the eastern end of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans.”

At Nagavanshi’s behest, the diagrams of the buoys and radio-flares disappeared.

In their place there was a diagram of a ship.

Then, in the next moment, that diagram became a camera feed of the actual ship.

It was, at that very second, docked in a VIP berth in Thassal.

“You probably find this ship’s exterior unimpressive. We used old hauler hulls to make it seem civilian. However, inside, it is a radical new design. This ship is intended to carry and support Divers in battle. It can hold up to 18 Divers. Its name is the Brigand, and I have classified it as an Assault Carrier. It will carry out a long-term mission to contact and organize Imperial dissidents.”

The Brigand was a two-tiered ship with a rectangular silhouette, almost diamond shaped due to the angles that made up the top deck and keel, with rounded flanks and fins, and bearing a thick, pointed prow. It was not impressive: it did look like a hauler, down to the rusty color. Its shape was not quite hydrodynamic and it looked heavy. The conning tower was thick and square with an additional triangular surface atop. There appeared to be no weapons along its surface.

“The Ashura put this together?” Jayasankar asked. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. They were a military force. It was still impressive that they kept it so close to the chest.

“We had help from the shipbuilder’s union at Central Yard.” Nagavanshi said.

That would explain it. The Yard was the strongest labor union in Solstice.

“And your intention,” Klasnikov interrupted, “is for this ship to sail into the Empire and make contact with dissident groups? What will it do when it reaches them? If by Eloah’s mercy it manages to reach any group, without being destroyed or captured by the Empire along the way?”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Soon the Empire will be plunged into civil war. Its defenses will be porous. The Brigand is a state-of-the-art vessel, like I told you, don’t judge it by its appearances. It is fast, survivable, and has systems in place for stealth or escape. Not only that, in addition to its Diver capacity it also has a cargo hull that we will fill with more weapons and goods for our foreign comrades. It is my intention that we will supply weaponry to insurgent groups. However, our true objective is to advance one major resistance movement and prime the Empire for a revolution.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms. Nagavanshi’s true motives were unexpected.

It was true that the Union was in a difficult situation. Militarily, their combat power was maybe 1/5th of the total Imperial power. Divided across its Grand Duchies, the Empire had thousands of ships, while the Union’s total Navy was just over 1000. The Republic slammed 800 ships into the Empire, barely made a dent and lost. Conventional warfare would eventually see the Union being overwhelmed and destroyed. However, if indeed the Grand Duchies turned against the central government at Rhinea, and there was a power struggle between Prince Fueller and several other factions, that gave the Union a board with entirely different rules to play with.

Jayasankar ran the options as she saw them in her own head.

One potential reaction would be to launch a Union invasion of the Southern Empire. Such an open attack, however, could potentially unite multiple Duchies into a mutual defense pact which would lead to the Union being overwhelmed or outflanked, and which would distract the Imperial nobles from Erich Fueller, who might gain the upper hand while this Noble Alliance is distracted.

They could attempt to contact and ally with Erich Fueller, to parlay support for time or legitimacy. However, Erich was in the best position of anyone, with the strongest and most loyal military forces and civilian subjects. He was pragmatic, inheriting none of his father’s eccentricity. He was born under the uncertainty of his father’s coup. He was always ready to fight for the throne.

Allying with any one Grand Duchy was impossible ideologically. All of the Imperial boyars shared a great hatred of the Union, and the Union was held together in part by its fear and hatred of the Empire. For the Union to “upset the game,” it would need to build and deploy power entirely differently than the Empire. It could not count on traditional measures against them.

By tapping into its own history of armed, worker-led revolution; that was Nagavanshi’s idea for the Union response. While Jayasankar could definitely complain about the instruments carrying out the Commissar’s will, it was an ambitious plot. There was a lot of discontent among the lower and middle classes of the Empire, and due to its size the Empire had difficulty policing thoroughly its various territories. That the Union existed at all was a testament to the power of imperial dissident movements. The Union’s states were initially settled as penal colonies.

“Ultimately, your idea is to gather a dissident army in one place and spark a rebellion. So what movements can you contact, and in which territories?” Jayasankar asked Nagavanshi.

“We have a list.” Nagavanshi said. “And as circumstances permit we want the Brigand to meet all of them. However, our major ally in the region will be the National Front of Buren.”

“Not Bosporus?” Jayasankar asked.

Bosporus was supposed to be special, Jayasankar thought.

Historians could easily say the Union was born in Bosporus.

Even after the revolution, the two states shared a connection that was greater than merely one of historical population movements. Goods, people, currency and secrets flowed out of the far north, crossing the poles and arriving in the southern oceans of the Union. In return, Union influence spread into the Empire through the underbelly of Bosporus. Dissidents from the Empire always sought asylum within the mordecist experiment of the Union. Bosporus would be the Premier’s choice, if she had to make a decision as to where to grow Imperial dissidence.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “It is true that Bosporus is the most ideologically developed of the Imperial states in its intellectual dissidence, and the secessionists there have a leftist character that I did take into account. But Bosporus is a hotbed for communalist ideology. It would create another place like Campos Mountain, and be an ineffective partner for us. The Bureni nationalists have vanguardist organization, militancy, a leader, and mordecist leanings.”

“I don’t like this.” Klasnikov said. “This is a suicide mission, Bhavani.”

“With our current naval power, can we win militarily against the Empire?”

Jayasankar asked Klasnikov this. The Admiral was reticent to answer.

“Not now, but we can build toward the future if we don’t send this prototype ship out to die in Imperial waters. I believe we should keep it here and augment our frontline power with it.”

Jayasankar smiled. She was sympathetic to that.

But more and more she realized it was not their reality.

“Hope springs eternal.” She said cryptically. Klasnikov furrowed his brows.

“The Brigand is useless in a defensive war! Its characteristics are purposely designed for guerilla warfare. It has less direct combat weapons than any cruiser its size and it was designed purely for endurance. I refuse to assign it to meaningless fleet tasks.” Nagavanshi replied.

“Right now, Sorokin, if we keep waiting, I feel the situation will only worsen for us.”

Jayasankar stared the Admiral in the eye, calling him by his name.

“Bhavani, I know you trust this woman, but I don’t, and I can’t agree to this.”

Klasnikov stared back. Nagavanshi held her peace in the middle, between the two.

“She has already violated our trust several times.”

His eyes were almost pleading. Jayasankar was not moved.

She did not get to her own position by being fully honest with everybody.

Even in the Union, a state that was a mother to its people, politics was still played.

“Sorokin, Parvati is correct here. At the moment, if we wait and engage in conventional tactics we will lose everything. But we can take a gamble; and though we may sacrifice a few souls in so doing, we stand to fundamentally alter the world.” Jayasankar said. “You know why it has to be the Duchy of Buren. If Buren has a revolution, it will cripple Imperial Agarthicite production.”

“I understand that perfectly. However this counterveils every hard-fought lesson we know about war. How will the Brigand be supplied? How will it remain in contact? How would we even know that it is alive or dead in the waters at any given moment? After we launch it, we’ve lost control of the situation, and furthermore, have no way to aid it inside of Imperial territory.”

Nagavanshi brought up a map on the table computer.

It was a map of the broader Empire, with the Nectaris and Imbrium both represented. There were several spots on the map, tracing a potential route. She pointed at three different spots where the route brought the Brigand back to Nectaris. At other times, it was deep in the Imperial core.

“We can have it take a circuitous route that brings it close to the borders of Campos Mountain and Solstice at certain points. That will allow us to check back in with it. As for the rest, they will rely on their wits. I’m putting together a crew of people with many different skills. And in addition, if we clue in the Republic, they will use their own networks to help us also.”

“Just a few minutes ago you were attacking the Republic as a weak ally.” Klasnikov said.

“Weak, but useful and willing. If there’s anything good about them it’s their intelligence.”

“Will we see a crew roster?” Jayasankar said.

“I’ll share one when it is ready.” Nagavanshi replied.

“You really are a terrible girl. You think you can do anything you want.”

Jayasankar scolded her, but it was almost more motherly than authoritarian.

“It’s time to move quickly.” Nagavanshi said. “Do you accept my proposal?”

On the table, dozens of windows appeared with additional information.

All of it was at first shaded, but with a quick swipe of her hand, Nagavanshi dramatically decrypted every document. Names and faces, vast sheets of logistics math, numerous tables. The work of years of secretive planning, thousands of communications, all of it laid bare. Again the Admiral and the Premier were left speechless at the apparatus that Nagavanshi had constructed. Her Ashura, the serpents tasked with keeping order, had built a ship, and plotted a revolution.

“I’ve laid out everything I’ve planned, and everything that is available to me. There are no more secrets, only work that lies ahead of us. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make sure nothing compromises our purpose. Without taking revolutionary action, our revolution will be destroyed.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, smiling. She took a long drag of her vaporizer. “Well, we can’t very well just dump all this effort in the sea, can we?” She finally said.


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