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Whispers of the Kraken (Epilogue: Revelations of the Kraken)


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Chapter 38: By Dawn's Early Light

Dawn broke, casting a deep ruddy glow across the few clouds still lingering about the horizon, and staining the snow-covered landscape the color of blood. Slowly, the sun clawed its way into the morning sky, shifting the colors from crimson, to red, to brilliant scarlet, before fading away to unblemished, sparkling white. Snow. Perhaps a shy meter of it had fallen in the night. Little more than a dusting, really, and not a flake of it had been plowed yet. 

Valentina sat watching, perched high on the roof of the VAB. The light morning breeze pulled long clouds of breath from her lips and numbed her face against the loose lock of hair blowing across it, but she didn't mind, the cold never bothered her anyway. This... this was her favorite time of all, the morning after the first snowfall. It always seemed like the world had been soothed and refreshed: stains covered over, harsh edges softened, all bathed in muted silence. Before her, all was pure, flowing white as far as she could see, like creation born anew. She knew it wouldn't last, it never did, but it was here, now. And it was beautiful. 

Not even footprints broke smooth white sheet below. She thought everyone on the facility must still be sleeping off the consequences of last night's festivities. Or were simply buried under the snow. Either way, it gave her a welcome moment of peace on this perfect morning to think. 

Last night's events had yet to fully sink in. It still didn't seem real. After the ceremony, there was, of course, the bureaucracy. Forms had to be signed, documents initialed, photographs taken, and new docket of paper to be checked, please. Then the interviews, the photographs, the hand-shaking. It had all seemed distant and dream-like. Her parents had been pardoned of all wrongdoing, but she still hadn't the slightest idea what they'd actually done, and no one could... or would, tell her. There had been a thinly veiled tension in the air. The Empress's decree seemed to have surprised everyone. More politics. 

Bah, she hated politics!

And, Valentina suspected, the politics of the Ussari Union were the least of her worries. The voice had continued to twitter and hiss in her mind all night long, but distantly, as if afraid to come near. It had quieted down to nothing in the last few minutes, too. She let out a long breath of cloud, and leaned back against... well, whatever it was she was sitting on up here. 

Thoughts came random and disjointed, and Valentina let her mind meander through them. She'd been to space for the last time again, she realized that. She was lucky to have the gained the short time she did. She also realized with a wince, that was a horrid way to think about it, yet there it was. Up there, despite the gravity of the situation, everything seemed to make sense. Of course, it was easy to look back on it now and think that. They would never let her go near a rocket again, she suspected. But some part of her wanted to stay up there forever. 

Valentina gazed out over the perfect, white, unbroken snow. Somewhere under all that, was a shadow. It moved, unseen and unnoticed, like  subterranean beetles that gnawed on tree roots, and in doing so toppled even the mightiest of them. It was scheming, stalking, corrupting to its own pattern, but... Staring at nothing, her eyes widened just slightly, then narrowed. If it has to work by schemes and shadows, if it cannot simply take what it wants, then somehow, it is still weak. It can be fought. 

But how? Blood oaths by Münlight were all well and good, but she needed answers, some place to begin. It wouldn't simply fall into her lap--

Something fell into her lap. 

"I thought I might find you up here," Dibella said, pulling herself up onto the equipment box and plopping down next to Valentina in a flurry of snowflakes. 

Valentina lifted the small, white box, "what is this?"

Dibella looked at her, a touch of color rising in her cheeks, "with all that happened, I never got a chance to thank you properly... for saving my life..."

"Oh no," Valentina tried to hand the box back, "you do not have to do that."

Dibella didn't take it, "yes. Yes, I do. Go on, open it."

Valentina did so reluctantly, then gasped. She lifted the object reverently from the box and turned it over in her bare hands. It a brilliant red disc-like jewel, with a clasp and chain of thick, iridescent metal. 

"It is beautiful..."

"The setting is new, I had it made. It's pure titanium, even you can't break it," Dibella said with a wry grin. Valentina shot her a look. 

"...but the stone has been in my family for generations. The original setting is lost to time, but according to family legend, there used to be an inscription, too. It always changed depending on which uncle I asked and how pickled he was that evening, but usually something about 'courage' and 'heart' and 'rare.' I thought it fit you."

Valentina stared into the deep crimson disc, mesmerized. In the low morning sunlight, it seemed to be glowing from within.

"What on Kerbin is it?"

"It's a Münstone. No, not from the actual Mün, of course, but they are quite rare. They often pop up in old fairy tales and mythology as sources of great mystical power. Quite understandable, given how they sparkle in the light like that."

"Thank you," Valentina said, slipping the chain over neck and feeling just a bit awkward, "I will treasure it always."

Dibella smiled at her, "you left the party early last night. That's not easy to do in Ussari, it often comes looking for you."

Valentina smirked and rolled her bulging eyes, "I needed some time to think."

"Indeed," Dibella nodded, "not much thinking going on by that point. But you missed all the announcements."

Valentina raised an eye... bulge. 

"Everything is changing again. The entire space program is being restructured after all the... anomalies. Restructured, and expanded."

With the question plain on Valentina's face, Dibella continued, "everything is being centralized under a single national space agency. Flight planning, production, mission direction, more like the Foreigners. They're calling it USKOSMOS. And Sergei Kermanev is to be the new director."

"Sergei?!" Valentina shook her head in confusion, "but what about the Academy? The Kommissar?"

"The everyone will report to the Kommissar, even the Academy. They're going to build two new launchpads and train nine new Kerbonauts. There was talk of long-term space flights, and probes to Eve and Jool. Launches every couple of weeks even."

Valentina put her head back. A new nine. So that was it, then. But wait, how...

"How are they going to maintain such a high launch rate? The factory in Kernobyl is already straining to keep up."

"That's where it gets interesting. There was a representative from this 'Layland Heavy Industries' there. Some Gytepi technology firm as well. They gave a rather thrilling speech," Dibella rolled her eyes, "lots of nonsense words like 'synergy' and 'actualize' and 'authoritatively reintermediate premier initiatives.' They're going to build a new factory near the Cosmodrome."

Valentina opened her mouth, then closed it again, and clicked her tongue, "I suppose I should not be surprised. Foreigners running a factory in the Union. They have their hand in everything these days."

"Indeed. Some sort of partnership with this 'USKOSMOS.'

She sighed, shaking her head, "I do not understand politics."

"They seemed to have worked in your favor this time, Comrade Kermanova," said Dibella with a wink. 

"I do not really understand that either. It seemed quite... " she shrugged, "sudden."

"Sudden, yes. I cannot see the motive beyond the obvious, but it was a very shrewd maneuver on her part."

Valentina looked over at the other Kerbal, "how do you mean?"

"Well, obviously, you are a hero deserving of honors for your great service to the State, but..." Dibella stared thoughtfully out over the world clad in white, "she is very cunning. She has so little power beyond mere ceremony. Only the Imperium can bestow the Medal, but it is a loose tradition for the Throne to grant an honorific at the same time, in remarkable cases."

Valentina nodded her on.

"Now, when an honorific is granted for a great act of service, it's also traditional for the Throne to grant indulgences, only usually they're not binding since it's not by Imperious decree, but with your sudden celebrity," she raised an eye... bulge at Valentina, "everyone was there. The Imperium, the Kommissariat heads, regional governors, council leads. Anyone who has any sort of influence used it to get a seat in the Winter Palace."

"I still do not follow you."

A wry grin crossed Dibella's face, "it may not have been official, but it still qualifies as 'in Union assembled' under the Fifth Revision of the Agreement. And under Article 19, a proclamation from the Throne delivered in Union assembled is legally binding."

Valentina crinkled her brow more, her eyes darting back and forth in thought, "but... it is the Imperium. Can they not simply undo it if they choose?"

"They're the Imperium, they can do whatever they want. Revoking honors granted so publicly to a national hero, by such a well-liked Empress, though... they would lose face. And that might be worse for them. The significance of the Empress's ploy may  have been symbolic, but nevertheless, as the Foreigners say, she put one over on them," she gave a little wink, "their grip on power is perhaps not quite so strong as they would like us to think, yes?"

Valentina's eyes darted about, lingering on the squat grey rectangle across the roof that marked the Kommissar's office, "you should not say such things."

"What are they going to do, arrest me? Days after giving me the Order of Kermin? They are not such fools. Loosing face, remember?" Dibella did, however, rub her heavily-mittened hands together nervously. 

"Bah, I will never understand politics," said Valentina, trying futility to blow the errant lock of hair out of her face. 

"I pray you never do," Dibella said, not unkindly. 

The two friends sat in silence for a few moments, gazing out by dawn's early light at the brilliant, frosted landscape. They both went to speak at once, then shared an awkward giggle. 

"Valentina," Dibella avoided the other's eyes, "do you ever feel like something is... wrong?"

"How... do you mean?" The response was cautious, Valentina's ears piqued by the use of her full name.

"With everything. Something is... not right."

Valentina kept her face blank. Could Dibella know about... well, it?

She continued, finding a particularly interesting spot on her mitten to examine as she spoke, "when I was at university, political doctrine was a required path, of course. I read everything Vladimir Kermin ever wrote, even beyond the requirements. I always considered myself a good and loyal Comrade of the Imperium. But, in the old histories, I found things that were... troubling. The professors always had a rationale, of course, made it sound quite reasonable. Yet..."

Dibella slowly shook her head, "everything is changing so quickly now. I sometimes wonder if the Imperium really is controlling it all, or if they're just being dragged along like the rest of us. I wonder if, perhaps, there's a better way."

Valentina stared at her, aghast, "you really should not say such things. Those are dangerous thoughts!"

"Indeed," Dibella agreed, rubbing her hands again, "perhaps, that is the problem."

Confused, and scrambling for a response, Valentina's mind groped at distraction, "your hands... do they still hurt?"

"What? Oh, no. Not anymore, really," she held her mittens up before her, "the doctors all say my fingertips will grow back eventually. We're a resilient kind, like that."

Then she turned, with a fragile smile, "besides, I'm Ussari. It takes more than a little frostbite to cow me!"

For a moment, Valentina returned the smile, then Dibella's eyes slowly dropped. 

"There's another reason I came up here..."

"What?"

"I wanted you to be the first to know. I'm leaving the Kerbonaut Corps."

"What?! No, no you cannot! You said yourself, your hands will heal--"

"It's not because of that, in spite of it, really," Dibella gave a reassuring smile, "I'm not leaving the Program, just the Corps.I was never really cut out for spaceflight. With all the changes, they wanted a permanent flight director. I guess they figured actual experience might be beneficial to that."

Valentina had come up here to clear her thoughts, but now her head was practically swimming, "but... I do not... are you sure?"

"My education is more appropriate to administration anyway. This way, I can help make sure we have the best space program we can. And maybe, keep anyone else from having to go through, well, what we went through."

Valentina put a hand to her temples. She could feel a nasty empty-belly headache lurking in there too. At least the PЦTIЙSКI voice had finally shut up for a while. 

Dibella put a comforting hand on her shoulder, gingerly, "it will all work out for the best. It will be all right, you'll see."

Further discussion was interrupted by a cracking, discordant voice that drifted up from far away. What it lacked in any sort of talent, it more than made up for in sheer volume. And a chilling resemblance to a dentist's drill.

"...shakeable faith in our heroic cause! OOOOOOOOh, SIIIIIIING to our glo-ri-ous YOUUUU-NION! MaAAAaaay she ever proOOOOOOOsper!"

Clapping their hands to their heads, the two moved the edge of the roof and looked down. Far below, a small figure stumbled through the snow, spinning around occasionally and waving a tiny red flag in an upraised hand. And of course, making that hideous noise. 

"Built on the shoulders of our workers stronK!"

Part of Valentina was genuinely impressed with the figure's ability to project its voice with such power at a distance. The other part was urgently looking around for something sharp to stick in her ears. 

"Ooooohhhhh, HAaaaAAAaaaaaaAAAaaAAaaaaaAaAIiIiIiIiIiIiIiIiIiIiIiL---!" The figure flopped forward in a snowbank, its tiny red flag still sticking up defiantly. 

Valentina slapped the side of her head, trying to equalize the pressure, "wow. They must have been running high test last night."

"Indeed," agreed Dibella, moving her jaw around, "ethanol-75. Quite the surplus now that all the Stolitsa rockets have all been retired."

Far below, the figure gave the flag a little wave. 

"Is... is that poor Vladimir?" Valentina mused as she looked closer. 

Dibella squinted, then sighed, "yes, I believe it is. I suppose we'd best go dig him out. I think a nice, hot breakfast will be in order, after that."

"Indeed," said Valentina, still rubbing at the sides of her head and extremely glad she had no external ears. 

***

Some time later, with Comrade Vladimir safely tucked away in a warm and easily hosed down corner of the VAB, Valentina and Dibella made their way back through the empty, snow-covered paths of the Cosmodrome to the Kerbonaut dormitory. They passed through rows of empty tables and stacks of empty chairs in the darkened, unused cafeteria toward their little kitchen.  Valentina mused, as she opened the door and reached for the light switches, it would no longer hold all of them. Nine new Kerbonauts. Likely more to follow. They will have to--

"PЦTIИS ЬЗДЯD turn the GФЯЬДCHЗVIИG light off!"

Dibella screamed at the pungent, misshapen form occupying one of the chairs at the humble table. 

Valentina quickly flicked one of the switches off, "Tercella? What happened to you?"

Tercella could only groan in response, her narrow, bloodshot eyes straining to focus, a dried rivulet of drool caking one cheek, then finally managed, "and stop yelling. My head..."

She was wearing a set of dirty coveralls. Valentina noted that the name tag said 'Dmitri.' Wherever poor Dmitri was, he must be waking up with a splitting headache himself, for an entirely different reason. Any hopes for a nice hot breakfast had quickly evaporated, too. Valentina wrinkled her... face. Having an open flame around Tercella might not be wise right now.

"Oh, dear. Dear, dear, dear," Dibella said, wiping the drool from Tercella's face with a rag, "let's get you some coffee."

Tercella moaned assent, then moved to drop her face in her hands, but missed and hit the table instead, with a solid thud, "ow."

The other two concerned Kerbals stepped to the... thing on the wall where the imported coffee pot had once been. A gleaming maze of pipes, tubes, precisely soldered fittings and assorted greebles stood before them. 

"Hmm," Dibella put a hand to her chin, "she's changed it again." Valentina could make no sense of the mass of plumbing. There was something vaguely familiar about it...

"Push the button," Tercella croaked without looking up, "push the red button."

Valentina scanned over the chaos until she found it. She looked at Dibella, who shrugged. Valentina shrugged herself, then pressed the button. And immediately wished she hadn't. 

The entire room began to rumble with the thunder of a rocket engine. The machine rattled and shook, ominous jets of vapor spewing out of unseen places. Great rushing sounds filled the air, something deep inside the nest of lines glowed red, metal creaked and groaned, something fell of a shelf and shattered on the floor, and then, just as Valentina was certain the monstrosity really would lift off and punch right through the ceiling, it stopped. 

With a loud fwooooosh, a cloud of steam rose above the machine and three streams of inky black liquid flowed into three waiting cups near the base. A moment later, with a softer whooosh, three streams of steaming white liquid followed. Finally, with a simple pfft, three dollops of fluffy white foam followed that. 

Dibella and Valentina each hesitantly took a cup, looked at each other, shrugged again, and raised them to their lips. 

"Hey... this is... good," Valentina exclaimed. 

"It is," agreed Dibella, "no more burnt smell or industrial aftertaste, or crunchy bits. I do believe she's done it!"

"Yes, but..." Valentina trailed off. The perfectly warm beverage was quite good, but there was something subtle... "...how?"

"Steam," Tercella still didn't look up, "force the water through the grounds under high pressure with steam. That is the secret."

"Interesting," Dibella opined, "how did you manage that?" The two took long sips...

"Steam generator from an old HTP engine I found."

...And promptly spayed them all over each other. 

Choking and gagging, Valentina coughed, "peroxide?!"

Tercella finally looked up, with a wounded expression, "I cleaned it first!"

Valentina put a hand to her face, then took a cold pastry from the plate on the counter and sat down with her cup of steaming peroxide. Dibella set the other cup before Tercella. 

"Here, drink. It would not do to have the Kommissar see you like this."

Tercella took a bite of  Valentina's pastry, "the KommisSAR, the KommisSAR..." she rolled her head this way and that. 

"The same Kommissar who is always conveniently absent, even during important launches and moments of crisis? That Kommissar?" She said around a mouthful of pastry. 

"Hush, you should not say such things," Dibella snapped. 

"Bah," a dismissive wave of the pastry, "I am beginning to wonder if he even exists."

Right on cue, the opposite door swung open, and Igor entered, eyes wide, skin ashen. 

"Valentina," he boomed, raising a finger, "you..."

Tercella nearly choked on her mouthful, "he looks like he has seen a ghost." Valentina stopped glaring at her and looked at Igor.

He paused to run a tongue like sandpaper over his dry lips.

"You... must see Kommissar."

PЦTIЙ

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Chapter 39: Der Kommissar


Boris Kermanskiovitch
Kommissar

Shoulders still heaving, Valentina stared at the stenciled writing on the drab metal door. It looked not unlike many other doors in the VAB, except that this one was at the top of a long, steep staircase that came up from the third sub basement. No one seemed to know if there was an elevator, even Igor. She was already regretting changing into her heavy winter uniform, but this sounded official. She stared at the door a moment longer, letting her breathing settle, then tucked her hat under her arm and knocked. It made a tinny, thin sound. 

Nothing. 

She frowned. Maybe no one was there and she could go back? No, no getting away that easy. Valentina sighed, and rapped again. 

Still nothing. 

The knob, perhaps? She tried it, and found that it turned, but the door opened only a fraction of a centimeter, then stuck. 

Could... something be wrong? An accident?

Feeling anxiety rise in her throat, Valentina gave the door a shove. It didn't move. She tried a little harder. Solid. Bumped her shoulder against it. No good. Bumped a little harder, and the door budged perhaps a millimeter. She bumped it just a bit harder...

...the door flew open, Valentina went with it and nearly went sprawling onto the floor. She stumbled three or four loud, clopping steps into the room, blinded by the glare of the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. 

She hung there for a moment, arms waving, legs apart, just trying to keep her balance, and noting she must look completely ridiculous. After a moment, her eyes began to adjust and balance gradually returned. She was in a long, concrete block room, the walls painted industrial gray, the floor bare concrete. Large portraits of the Imperium hung from the otherwise featureless walls. At the far end was a Kerbal seated at a metal desk, slowly pecking away at a typewriter with a single finger. Behind... him? Her? ...was another door. 

Gathering herself, Valentina took three confident strides, her heels echoing loudly in the enclosed space, then stopped dead. Color rose in her cheeks. She turned, clopped to the far corner where her hat had landed, sheepishly bent over to pick it up, and tucked it under her arm. Now feeling very out of sorts, she strode up to the desk and saluted. 

"Maj--"

A single finger shot up, at the end of a long arm. The other one kept picking away at the typewriter, their owner not looking up. Or otherwise moving at all. With a twist and a flourish, the finger pointed to a chair against the wall, the arm held unmoving in space. Letting out just a bit of a huff, Valentina clopped to the chair and sat. 

She shifted. 

No, that was--

She shifted the other way. 

Ugh, that was even--

She shifted again. 

PЦTIЙ!

It... it had looked like just an ordinary, institutional, hard plastic chair but... no matter how she... lumps in the seat homed in on her bones, pressure points bit at her nerves making her squirm back and forth seeking relief. Stuffy in here too. The chair was just slightly too short. She couldn't tuck her feet under it, a metal bar was in the way. She shifted again. Lounging with her feet sticking out in front, well, that just was not a dignified way for an officer to sit!

Huffing, Valentina tried leaning back. Augh! The seatback was, well it was just bizarre! The angle pushed her forward, the top edge catching her right across the shoulder blades. She had to stifle a yelp as a nerve was pinched between bone and chair. The Kerbal at the desk didn't seem to notice, just kept clacking away with that it irritating arhythmic typing. So stuffy in here. And those buzzing lights! She squeezed her eyes shut, a tear mingling with a drop of sweat making its way down from her temple. 

Shifting. Shifting and blinking. 

A clock on the wall loudly ticked away the time with a steady, slow percussion. Had... had it been there a minute ago? Valentina looked around the room, trying to distract herself from this awful shifting and blinking and ticking seat. The paintings on the walls, they looked so real... and she had the distinct impression they were staring at her. Were... were the eyes looking this way when she came in?

Shifting and blinking and ticking and staring.

ЬЯЗZHЙЭVS SHФЗ it was stuffy in here! Valentina ran a finger around her collar, thought of loosening her tie. Were there even any air vents? She looked up at the ceiling and felt a wave of vertigo wash over her. Those lights... the glare... that incessant buzzing. It was starting to blend with the ticking clock and clacking typewriter. She could feel a storm of headache building behind her eyes. Her left foot had gone numb, too. 

Buzzing and clacking and sweating and glaring. 

I should stand up, Valentina thought, that would be better. Anything would be better than this! But no sooner had the thought formed than the finger shot up and pointed emphatically to the seat. She pursed her lips and felt a split open up. Mouth so dry. She could feel a knot growing in her lower back. If she moved just so it would burst into a cramp.

Shifting and blinking and ticking and staring.

Buzzing and clacking and sweating and glaring. 

A drop of sweat rolled into her left eye, burning like fire. She squirmed, and bone and chair found nerve again, electric tendrils of pain shooting down her right leg until it, too, went numb. 

Shifting and blinking and ticking and staring. 
Buzzing and clacking and sweating and glaring.

Valentina gasped for air, her lungs filled but felt like all the oxium was gone. The knot in her back became a thrumming proto-spasm. The clock ticked, the typewriter clacked, the lights buzzed. 

Shifting and blinking and ticking and staring and buzzing and clacking and sweating and glaring and stinging and squirming and shooting and aching and gasping and squinting and pinching and breaking and knotting and thrumming and hurting and brawling and stabbing and falling and punching and crawling!

Then, at the moment, and the very moment Valentina was certain she was about to scream and go mad, the finger shot up. It pointed at her, then twisted around at an eye-watering angle towards the door. She flew from the curséd seat, cried out, and nearly went sprawling again. Her legs felt like they didn't exist, it was only every muscle in her body cramping at once that kept her from collapsing. She stumbled stiffly to the wall by the door, fell hard against it. The knot in her back exploded into a wrenching, vibrating flurry of spasms. Sensation returned to her legs, only to be supplanted by thousands of red-hot needles jabbing to her nerve endings. 

She forced her way to the door by sheer will, and glanced back toward the fool at the desk. The sweat coating her instantly turned cold as she saw the paper in the noisy machine. It was completely blank. 

Fighting against her rebelling body, she found the door knob, turned it, and disappeared into darkness. 

Again she staggered to a halt, arms and legs outstretched, just trying to remain upright. And probably looking ridiculous. After the brightness of the other room, it was dark as midnight in here, but mercifully cool. There was no sense trying to bumble about blind, she sensed she was not alone, nothing to do for it but stand here and let her eyes adjust. 

This room could not be more different than the other. She felt thick carpet under her feet, smelled the acrid stink of rattail smoke. Slowly, details began to resolve themselves. Walls appeared, covered in warm wood paneling. It was old and weathered, obviously much older than the building its self. There was a single shelf on one wall, it held a glass display case. Inside was a rather common-looking knife that seemed to be missing its point. A pair of brass floor lamps gave off a pleasing glow, placed beside a massive wooden desk in the middle of the room. Comfortable-looking chairs faced it from either side. Ledgers and folders covered the scarred desktop, all meticulously placed and aligned just so. A wide-brimmed hat sat atop one stack, also carefully placed, the emblem of a Kommissar gleaming in the muted lamplight. An ashtray sat near it, a still-smoldering rattail set in the notch. It had burned down, unsmoked, to nearly a nub, leaving a trail of ash and tiny blackened bones. Along the far wall above a large tinted picture window were the expected portraits of the Imperium, and below those...

He was enormous. Valentina thought he must be bigger than Igor, even. A dense mat of deep black hair covered his head above his uniform collar. He stood, unmoving, hands folded behind him, staring out the window, blocking the morning light. Valentina gathered herself once more, and strode smartly up to the desk. 

She snapped to attention and saluted, "maj--!"

"I know who you are." Though soft, the Kommissar's voice cut through her own like a knife. She could only stand there, holding her salute. Time dragged out for a moment, then he turned and...

His eyes.

Valentina staggered back a step in spite of herself. 

His eyes.

They bored into her like drills, she could feel them digging, searching, dissecting her. In an instant, Valentina felt like every fiber of her being had been deconstructed, cataloged, and filed, and then again and again. Those eyes... the Imperium had been cold but this... this was like looking into some distant edge of the universe where warmth had never reached at all. She thought, they made him a Kommissar for a reason. 

His arms remained folded behind him, "sit."

Valentina swiftly obeyed, the breach of protocol dissipating like breath in the wind. With one hand, the Kommissar opened the ledger in the center of the desk and followed the lines with a finger, never looking down. 

"Valentina Kermanova, offspring of Vladimir Kerman, Captain, Imperial Army, penal registration number 24601; and Elena Kerman, professor, Kermangrad Imperial University, penal registration number 24897, both sentenced for counterrevolutionary activities and other crimes against the State, records since... expunged."

Her breath caught. If she hadn't already been sitting she surely would have collapsed. 

"Remanded to care of Pyotr Kerman, no profession recorded. Residence transfer to Kerberia Oblast. Found living in squalor by truancy inspector some time after Pyotr Kerman's death."

Squalor. Valentina was still so deep in shock the lie didn't register. 

"Remanded to care of the State, transferred between half a dozen different State homes due to... behavioral difficulties. Upon reaching working age, tested into Crimson Air Force, then tested... impressively... into officer candidate school and flight school. Volunteered for test pilot corps where you enjoyed a career of... some note."

Still those warmthless eyes dug into her. She held their gaze, shock working to dull her fear. Sense slowly began to return, too. The Kommissar spoke Ussari with a heavy accent, his diction perfect but with an odd cadence, his mouth hidden behind a large mustache as thick and dark as his hair. 

"Chosen for preliminary Kerbonaut selection. Due to your inherited... political situation, assigned nablyudatel Igor, no last name recorded, registry number 451-101. Chosen for primary Kerbonaut selection. Chosen for final Kerbonaut selection. Chosen for First Kebonaut Corps where you have also enjoyed a career of... some note."

He placed his other hand on the desk and leaned on them, looming over Valentina like a mountain. 

"Yes, Major Kermanova. I know, who you are."

Despite herself, she swallowed hard. 

The Kommissar sat slowly, retrieved a half-finished pack of rattails from a desk drawer, and offered it.

"Smoke."

"Uh, no, uh, thank you. Sir. I do not smoke. Sir."

"Good," he thundered, taking one from the pack and lighting it from the burning one, "it is a filthy habit, gives you an abnormal brain." He blew a cloud of oily black smoke towards the ceiling.

He sat back, rested his elbows on the chair's arms, and stared into her over steepled fingers, the foul thing still dangling from his mouth, "tell me, what do you think of our recent... openness, with the Foreigners?"

Valentina blinked. That was an odd question. She opened her mouth to speak.

"I warn you," the intensity in the Kommissar's frigid eyes flared higher, "it is a rare thing that I ask... for someone's opinion. Do choose your words... carefully."

She closed her mouth. His accent, it sounded almost like... no, but that was impossible, not a Kommissar, certainly. She thought for a moment, then pulled her own eyes away. 

"When I saw Sir Kerman rocket into space, I thought, how dare they. How dare they outshine our Star," Valentina paused for a breath, "and then I saw Edmund Kerman fall out of the sky. I thought, perhaps... they are not so different from us, then. We are all so focused on being the first, when perhaps, we should be focused on being the best.

"If we must always be first, then..." she stared very hard at nothing on his desk, "sooner or later, mistakes will be made. And they will be all the more bitter, because they were made in haste.

"I think... they are very strange people. I do not know if we can really work together. I have no understanding of such politics, but... perhaps, some sort of..." Valentina's distant eyes searched the desktop for an answer, and finding none, returned to the Kommissar's with difficulty, "...understanding... with this KSA might be beneficial."

Those eyes delved into her even deeper, measuring, seeking. Probably had not been a wise thing to say, but she thought lying to this Kerb was probably impossible. And dangerous. 

At length, he spoke, "I am pleased to hear you say that, because you are going there."

"I-- WHAT?" Valentina nearly screamed, then clapped a hand to her mouth. The Kommissar's stony face never changed. 

"If you had spouted some overly patriotic УДКPЦTIЙ about duty and honor I might have had you shot. I have no tolerance for such nonsense. The Grand Imperium has decreed that the Kerbonaut Exchange Program is to be reinstated. Your application has been approved. Congratulations."

"But, I did not--" 

His face didn't change, but the room suddenly grew colder. Valentina held her tongue. 

"You will fly to the Kerbal Space Center in Kleptogart, and remain there for not less than one month, as ambassador and observer. You are particularly to observe anything that involves details of a new KSA spacecraft."

Valentina felt her skin tighten, "you want me to... spy on them."

The Kommissar leaned forward and seemed to swell in size. Valentina thought for a moment she could see her own breath. There must be frost on her eyelashes by now. She tried to disappear into her chair. 

"You are to be a gracious and respectful guest, and you will do absolutely nothing that might compromise the integrity of the Ussari Union. But you will see. And you will hear. And you will remember what it is you have seen and heard. You will keep no written record," he sat back, and steepled his fingers again, "then you will report back here to me... and only me... at the conclusion of your stay. When this has been done satisfactorily, you will be returned to the active flight roster and given priority on the next available mission."

Valentina's mouth fell open. Her body was still screaming at her, and now her head was, too. The Kommissar took one last long drag on his rattail, then crushed it out in the ashtray, a thin tendril of vaguely organic-smelling smoke rising and contorting.

"Due to your continued political... situation, your nablyudatel will accompany you on your flight, but no further. Our laws have no meaning in that place."

The room began to shift and wobble. Valentina gripped the arms of the chair with weak fingers, afraid she might fall out. 

The Kommissar leaned in, continuing to twist the snubbed rattail with an awful crunching sound, "but do not think for a moment that he is no longer watching."

Valentina tried desperately to rally and gather her thoughts. So, so many questions. Why...? How...? Still those eyes pierced into her, like they were reading her soul. 

"You have questions?" He crushed the butt in his fingers until it disintegrated into powder and bones falling into the ashtray. 

"I... Well..."

"Do not think on such things too hard. You may not like what it is you find."

The Kommissar rose, and again loomed over her, "am I understood?"

"Yes...sir..." Valentina squeaked, still reeling.

"Good," he thundered, then slowly turned back towards the window, blocking the light again and folding his hands.

"I suggest you begin brushing up on your Kerblish," he turned his head slightly back, "it is a silly language."

He turned away, "you are dismissed."

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Whew!

I'm not sure that the Ussari state really goes for the 'iron fist in a velvet glove' metaphor but if it does, that chapter removed the glove, used it to stub out a rattail and then unceremoniously discarded it leaving nothing but bare steel behind. Thank goodness for the bit of trademark CatastrophicFailure humour at the end.

The Kommissar - does he collect jokes about himself by any chance? He seems like the type.

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9 hours ago, KSK said:

 

The Kommissar - does he collect jokes about himself by any chance? He seems like the type.

He probably collects people who make jokes about himself. Keeps them in a jar in the lower drawer. 

Been looking forward to in tofu tooting him for a while now, he will certainly get... interesting. :0.0:

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 40: The End of the Beginning

"Papers, please. Yes, yes, good, good, ah, your cholesterol is down I see, excellent! As expected, all is in order. Now here is your authorization to travel, exit visa, entry visa, crew visa, transit visa, courtesy visa, diplomatic visa, and Visa gold."

Valentina blinked at him.

"Do keep the receipts."

She stuffed the overflowing folder of papers into her travel bag, and turned back to the Political Officer. 

He clapped her warmly on the shoulders, "it is a Glorious, Glorious journey you begin! You bring our noble ideas to those poor backward Foreigners! Gird yourself, for the experience will no doubt be trying. They are strange people, with stranger ideas! I hear--"

He leaned in close, raising a conspiratorial hand to his mouth, "I hear they eat their young. It is also said, there are many Parties there, and they..."

The affable Kerbal paled, his eyes widening a touch more, "...they always find you."

In an instant, it was gone, and he was upright and saluting again, "but, I am sure you will do fine! And remember..."

Valentina returned the salute. 

"...Glory to Arstotzka!"

And with that, once more, he was gone, leaving Valentina feeling quite bewildered. The day had dawned bright and sunny, if frigid, after more than a week of constant, light snow. Great white piles of it could be found on the lee of most buildings, and today the plows were taking advantage of the clear morning to try to get ahead of it. 

In a cleared spot, some distance away from the aircraft hanger, sat a Converter. It had been freshly painted in vivid reds and golds and whites, the paint shining brilliantly in the sunlight. For the umpteenth time, Valentina looked at it and frowned. They could have chosen something just a little more... diplomatic... as a diplomatic transport, really. This old thing would surely send the Foreigners running with their ears covered. 

Before she got that far, however, there was a veritable gauntlet of well-wishers patiently waiting. A long line of handshakes and salutes, udachi Comrade's and the drivers are crazy's, and the ever popular bring me back something foreign! Through it all, Valentina kept a polite smile, and somehow resisted the urge to walk down the line with a palm to her face. As if there weren't half a dozen stores just in Kermangrad that sold nothing but something foreign now. 

But this was the new normal now, she supposed. Probably best not to think on it too much, such is just life in the Great Ussari Union... right? And besides, she thought, releasing the hand of a particularly well-built young Kerb with an intoxicating smile, this new-found attention wasn't all bad.

Finally she made her way through the crowd, finding Dibella and Tercella near the waiting aircraft. 

Tercella quickly wrapped her in a bear hug, "be careful over there. Do not do anything I would not do."

Valentina smirked back, "that would surely get me arrested either way. But I will miss you."

"I will miss you too."

"You will not miss me," Valentina waved her hand dismissively, still smirking, "you will be too busy with training."

"Who would have thought, yes? Assigned to Flight Engineer on Zarya 2 so soon."

"Who better to put into practice the idea of training for EVA underwater than the one who came up with it?"

Tercella shrugged, "I still say we should use gelatin instead. Combine EVA training with muscle training. Make us all strong like bool, no?"

Valentina laughed, and clapped the other Kerbal on the shoulders, "never change."

"I had to, the coffee machine exploded on me. It still needs some adjustments."

Valentina blinked for a moment, then just hugged her. 

"Do take care of yourself," Tercella said more soberly, "and watch what you eat. I hear they have something called a 'hot dog' that is even more horrid than it sounds."

"You will do fine. And it's no worse than a snail," Dibella broke in. 

She gave Valentina a comforting look, "they are just people. Not so different. But watch out for the mosquitoes, I hear they eat you alive."

Valentina laughed again, "I think I can handle a few mosquitoes!"

"See? Now that's the spirit!" 

But... was that a flash of worry on Dibella's face? Bah! Just more nerves. 

Dibella then wrapped her in a hug that would make any bear proud, "I will miss you as well, Tia. But you are doing a great thing. It will be worth it."

"DФ SVIDДЙIУД, Dibella. Tercella. I will miss you both. And everyone. But I think it will all be.. all right."

Valentina gave her friends one last hug, then a wave and salute to the small crowd. A quick sigh, then she slung her travel bag over her shoulder, and turned towards the plane. She ran her fingers along the flank as she did, feeling the smooth, slightly soft paint beneath them. It would feel good to fly again. It must have been months ago, now, the last time had climbed into a seat of something only moderately likely to explode. 

Igor was waiting by the open hull door. He looked... he looked...

Valentina dropped her bag, "ЬЯЗZHЙЭVS SHФЗ, you are afraid to fly?!"

Igor studied the stained concrete pavement, it seemed to retreat from his gaze. 

"Language," he said weakly. 

She put a finger to his chin, lifted his face and looked into his massive, slightly bloodshot eyes. He had been looking rather out-of-sorts ever since the announcement, but over this? She sighed, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Which wasn't easy. 

"Get on the airplane," she said, perhaps a bit sharper than she intended. Igor, looking crestfallen, did as she said. The large craft listed sideways and its structure creaked as he pulled himself up into the doorway. Then, from inside, Valentina heard a yelp.

She deftly swung her small frame through the opening, what could that--?

Igor had regained his composure, and was staring broadswords at a wide-eyed young Kerbal in a flight suit trying very hard to hide behind the pilot's seat.  

"Who are you, now?" She asked, confused. 

"J-J-J-Junior Lieutenant Kerman, ma'am," he gave her a trembling salute, "I'll... I'll be your pilot today please don't eat me."

Valentina's mouth fell open, and her own glare quickly out-bladed Igor's, "pilot?! Since when?"

The terrified Kerbal's eyes darted back and forth between Valentina and Igor, still holding his salute, "j-j-just got my orders this morning! I promise I don't taste very good..."

"Orders?! They did not tell me... ugh!" She put a hand to her face, then turned it into a sloppy salute, "as you were, I suppose." Valentina folded down a jump seat from the wall and plopped into it roughly, crossing her arms. 

"If it's any consolation, Major, I don't even want to go to the Foreign lands! They're all a bunch of mindless automatons! I hear..." he glanced around and lowered his voice, "I hear their leader thinks he's a jelly donut." He nodded solemnly. 

Valentina just rolled her eyes. 

Igor then approached and glowered over him, "you can fly this?"

Trying even harder to disappear into the floor, a squeak came out, "I-I-I'm fully type-rated and have a whole five hundred hours--"

"You crash, I squish head like grape."

"L...like grape?"

Igor bared his teeth, then made a squishing sound deep in the back of his throat. 

Junior Lieutenant Kerman swallowed hard.  

"Igor," he swung his huge head toward Valentina, "do not eat him, please." Igor grunted, then stalked over to the wall opposite her and sank into a pair of jump seats, his glare never leaving the trembling pilot. 

Valentina leaned her head back against the hull with a thump, trying in vain to blow away the errant lock of hair that had worked its way loose again. Wonderful, several hours in the back of a noisy aircraft with a kerbling-faced rookie and grumpy behemoth afraid of flying. At least scowling at the newcomer seemed to have distracted Igor for the moment. 

She let her eyes wander around the inside of the hull while the pilot hesitantly went through his checks. The Ki-24 Converter was a spartan, basic utility craft. Its stubby rectangular hull and enormous tandem wings allowed it carry an impressive load a very long way, as long that load didn't care much about comfort. Or could be ordered not to. A bizarre design even by Ussari standards, perhaps its most notable feature was the strange setup of its nose. It looked more like the hull of a boat than aircraft, with only a handful of windows and port holes looking up. Looking down, however, was a huge expanse of braced plexiglass. The single pilot's seat was suspended in the center of this, giving him a nearly unimpeded view of the ground. Which, as it turns out, was an eminently practical thing to have on an aircraft that took off and landed vertically. It was said, however, that the Converter couldn't actually fly, it was just so loud and obnoxious that the ground repelled it. 

Something overhead suddenly began making a loud ticking noise. 

"What that?" Igor's head snapped around to it. 

"It is just the secondary fuel pump," Valentina said flatly. 

An alarm began blaring loudly. 

"What that?!"

"Master alarm test, perfectly normal."

The entire aircraft then shuddered, swaying back and forth. 

"What that?!" Igor nearly squealed. Which, coming from him, was a truly disturbing sound. 

"Just the landing struts unkneeling!"

STДLIЙS STДCHЗ, this was going to be a nightmare! Valentina squeezed her eyes shut. There'd been no mention of a pilot in her briefings, although, she supposed, someone did need to fly the Converter back. And Igor. But still, she'd been greatly looking forward to flying again. Nothing to do for it now, after all orders were orders and--

Her left eye snapped open. 

Her right eye followed suit, then her face cracked open into a truly wicked grin as her eyelids came down again. 

"Oh, looooootennant...." she sang. 

He squirmed around, "ma'am?"

With effort, the grin became her best winning smile. 

"Out of the seat, please," Valentina said brightly.

"M-Major?"

The smile devolved into a wry smirk. 

"That is right," she said, fingering the golden leaf insignia on her collar, "Major."

After all, orders were orders. 

The Lieutenant's mouth fell open. Igor rose and frowned at him again.  His eyes darted rapidly back and forth between the smirk and frown for a moment, then he wisely decided this was one pair he was not about to bet against, and quickly extricated himself from the pilot's seat. 

Valentina leapt into it like a beggar at a banquet. Her liquid hands flowed over the myriad knobs, buttons, and switches. In only moments, the engines rumbled, then began their slow, shrill spool from 'piercing' to 'obnoxious' to 'painful' to 'for the love of all that's decent please make it stop!' before finally settling in to their infamous, nearly ultrasonic whine. With a look, and a gesture, Valentina relieved the good Junior Lieutenant of his kneeboard and paperwork and quickly scanned over the relevant clearances and course.  She put her flight helmet on, plugged in the audio cord, then motioned Igor to do the same until she realized the silliness of the idea. The way he was gripping the fuselage longerons behind him, and bending them, he seemed fairly secure, anyway. 

"Cosmodrome tower, avtomat four-seven at pad 1-D, requesting take off," she radioed, adjusting the mic boom just so.

"Avtomat four-seven," the controller responded, stifling a yawn, "you are cleared for take off, fly heading one-nine-five."

"Copy, cleared for take off."

She laid a hand on the throttles, flexed it, then advanced them a touch, the engines responding in kind. She slid down her tinted sun visor, a pilot's grin of pure joy now spreading across her face as she nudged the engines slowly on. The ungainly craft wobbled for only a moment as its tires left the concrete. A kiss to the left rudder pedal, and it slowly swung about on its axis. The gathered crowd now came into view through the expansive nose glazing, hands pressed firmly to ears. The look on the Political Officer's face was really quite priceless. She didn't let the view linger, but kicked the left rudder pedal again, then just a touch on the right as the nose came to the proper heading. Throttles to full, engine nozzles forward 25 degrees, then the ground began drifting away. She pulled back on the flight yoke that looked more like the wheel of a ship, held it for just a moment, slid the engine nozzles full ahead. 

As lightly loaded as it was, the Converter was soon speeding over the landscape, speckled with white and brown, light and darkness, barreling into the brilliant blue sky. Valentina's course would take her south toward Kermangrad and its navigational beacon, then east across the Arm of Nusad, southeast through the Bylian gap, out across the Yaltik sea, then beyond, into kerba incognita.

Below her, a train cut through the slumbering, snow-covered fields, black smoke oozing away like blood from the gash of the track. Car after car of shrink wrapped rocket cores followed along behind it, seeming to stretch for kilometers. 

How much things have changed, she thought, has it really only been a few months? Not even a year, since those pungent yak pastures ringed by towering mountains. Everything has been so secretive then, so protected, and now, here she was, flying over a train of Foreign rocket parts while bound for the KSC herself.  She continued to watch it, as it wound through through the harlequined landscape like a worm. Worms destroyed, they undermined the roots of even the mightiest trees and sent them toppling to the ground. And yet, worms also renewed, consuming and recycling that which was already dead, often preserving the living. 

As the aircraft climbed higher and the air thinned, thoughts flowed and patterns teased. Someone, or something, killed poor Director Kermanev, Valentina was sure of that now. It killed Sergei Kermanski. It tried to kill Dibella. It moved in the shadows, always hiding, always scheming. And it wanted Valentina, spent so much effort trying to gain her, but why? Was she really that remarkable?

Beneath her flightsuit, Dibella's Münstone suddenly went cold against her skin, caught by an errant breeze in the drafty cabin. It did that often, she noticed. The titanium must be a wonderful heat conductor.

She turned to find Igor looking at her intently, slightly panicky. She nodded, and gestured to the oxygen mask hanging overhead. He secured it with little difficulty, Junior Lieutenant Kerman doing the same. She turned back and fastened her own, feeling the familiar cool, dry breath. There were no luxuries like pressurization on a Converter. 

The voice had been silent for some time now, at least that was something. If... it had ever been there at all. Voices in her head, shadowy conspiracies, even the Dead Girl who still occasionally haunted her dreams... it all seemed so distant now, here among the fluffy scattered clouds. 

The mind is an incredible thing... it can show you what you cannot see, and hide what you can.

But... which was this? Was she seeing what was really there? Or was what was really there far, far worse?

Valentina shuddered, a chill rolling down her spine as the Münstone caught a draft again. 

Questions, so many questions.

You have questions? The Kommissar thudded in her mind, do not think on such things too hard. You may not like what it is you find.

Another chill raced down her spine, having nothing to do with the cold. 

Do what is expected of you, do not ask questions, accept what you are told. That was the Imperious way, was it not? Do not question, or what you find will surely be much, much worse. Papers, please. Glory to the Union. 

Her deda had told her to see what was really there, but even he... never spoke of her parents. Barely acknowledged they existed. Such things, we do not speak of. Counterrevolutionary activities. Valentina knew that could mean anything. Or... nothing. But it still didn't tell her why

You have questions?

And the Kommissar himself. His accent, his face, his hair. He looked like a... but no, that was impossible. Not a Kommissar, surely! And besides, they were all--

She shivered yet again. It was such an ugly word to apply to people, but her teachers were always specific. 

They were all... extinct. 

Yes, she had questions, reaching out from the dark recesses of her mind like desperate prisoners. But was asking them worth the price?

The price must be paid.

A sudden metallic rattling drew Valentina's attention. Her eyes flew over her instruments, wondering if a fuel pump has gone out. Then she looked around, and saw that Igor's longeron had torn loose and was now vibrating against the airframe. His wide eyes stared at her from over his mask. The good Junior Lieutenant had resigned himself to cowering under his seat in a ball. 

Valentina sighed. It was going to be a long flight. Off to the right, Kermangrad was now passing by, that ridiculous dome easily visible even at this distance. She pushed the questions out of her mind, at least for now. That was for another time, she would have enough troubles in the land of Parties and presidential pastries as it was. 

The needle on her directional gyro twitched, then began swinging towards its center. Dipping her left wing, turning away from the Old City and its silly dome, Valentina Kermanova headed east, and onward into the new day. 

 

End of Act I

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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3 hours ago, SpaceplaneAddict said:

Act 1?! Woah.

 

 

Also,  PAPERS, PLEASE! Amazing reference!

GLORY to ARSTOTZKA!

Yep, that was my first thought. Closely followed by YAY MOAR! 

Fantastic way to round out Act 1. Bring on the jelly donuts! :)

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It's only about 1/3rd of the way thru ;), tho I expect Act II to be a bit shorter, and a bit lighter. Might be a few familiar faces(?) too. Can't wait to introduce D. N. Kerman. :cool:

At 58,000 words at this point & still going I think I'm firmly into novel territory too. :0.0:

Next goal while I write the Interlude is to finish un-derping the early chapters from the latest forum shenanigans and put together a proper chapter list. 

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5 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

It's only about 1/3rd of the way thru ;), tho I expect Act II to be a bit shorter, and a bit lighter. Might be a few familiar faces(?) too. Can't wait to introduce D. N. Kerman. :cool:

At 58,000 words at this point & still going I think I'm firmly into novel territory too. :0.0:

Next goal while I write the Interlude is to finish un-derping the early chapters from the latest forum shenanigans and put together a proper chapter list. 

Are you going to underp Shadows as well?

Also, might as well give my thoughts now that part I(!) is over: I had a hard time getting into it, and when the story got to its darkest in the middle, I was a bit worried about the course you were taking, but my faith has been restored in full after the part with Zarya. It's looking great!

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2 hours ago, billbobjebkirk said:

Are you going to underp Shadows as well?

It's on the list, for sure, but a bit of a low priority ATM. Copy editing is just SO much fun. :P

2 hours ago, billbobjebkirk said:

I had a hard time getting into it, and when the story got to its darkest in the middle, I was a bit worried about the course you were taking,

Might I get you to expound on this a bit?

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Interlude: Heavy is the Head

Time is a funny thing. It is not a creation of the Cosmos, which has no need of such frivolity, but rather of certain sapient beings, who have no more than but a handful of senses with which to contemplate the Infinite. Time ebbs and flows, pulling its creators along, dominating their existence, and, like creatures born in a cave who have no comprehension of darkness because they have never known light, ultimately blinds them. They are bound by it, unable to the relate to the reality around them without its crutch, and because they cannot see past it, assume there is nothing past it to see. Thus they wallow in a prison of their own creation, chained to walls that exist only of their own will, all the while proclaiming their own enlightenment; and while they sit blind and dumb and do not see the reality around them, it, most certainly, sees them. 

There are other things, out there in the wilderness beyond Time, free of such shackles. They do not know physical need, but nevertheless, are very, very hungry. 

In an unremarkable corner of Time, a pale blue dot sat suspended in a sunbeam. It was called Kerbin by some. It had been called many other things. It might be called many others yet. In the northern hemisphere, now clad in white, a nation dominated the vast continent. It was called Ussari by some. It had been called many other things. It might be called many others yet. Perched on the southern border, next to a river, was a sprawling city. It was called Kermangrad by some. It had been called many other things. It might be called many others yet. In the middle of this city, stood a fortress. It was simply called the Fortress. It had never been called much else. It might be called other things yet, but other things yet watched it from the wilderness.

And they were, indeed, very, very hungry. 

There was a palace, within the towering, crenelated walls of this fortress, and for all its grandeur, it still cowered in the shadow of an enormous concrete dome. In a wide tower rising from that palace was a window, and in that window, staring out past the walls at the bustling city beyond, stood a Lady. Her Imperial Majesty Alexandra II, Regent of the Union, First of Ussari and Nihacima, Lady High Vizier of the City of Kerman, and Doge of Erakonia. She, too, had been called many other things, some of them quite impolite, especially of late. There were no bars on the window. There was no need, the Empress thought, raising a hand to crimson Münstone on the golden choker around her neck. Everyone in this... peculiar arrangement knew their place. 

The shadow of a smile crept across her serene face. Still... she had certainly put one over on those old goats this time. The punishment had been severe, of course, yet through it all she had just laughed. The damage had already been done. Besides, what were they going to do, kill her? They had surely learned from history by now. The first time, it had quite literally blown up in their faces. They had turned it to their advantage in the end, or so they thought, squeezing their grip into an iron fist. They never knew what had slipped through their fingers. The second time, well... They still had not rebuilt the West Tower. She could just see its charred, crumbling skeleton from her own window. 

No, she thought, turning away, her family was not so easily disposed of. The old goats would not make the same mistake thrice. Her eyes then fell on the long-empty bassinet in the corner of her bedchamber. No, they would not.   

The Empress sighed, very unimperially, once more silently cursing what her beloved country had become. Then again... she ran her fingers up one of the solid gold bedposts holding up a silken canopy... the fate of the Empire had not been undeserved. 

A century ago, the old Ussari Empire had finally mined the last fleck of gold from the Duchy of Erakonia, leaving the once-prosperous nation a devastated husk, its vassals destitute, its people starving. What had finally happened there while the Troubles raged across the rest of the nascent Union had been inevitable. The rebels had fought like wolverines. It was easy to fight like that, when you had nothing left to loose. They raged with such ferocity that to this day no one would go within ten kilometers of the border that emerged, winning themselves a fragile but lasting peace, and their own little spit of land. 

She walked on, her eyes passing over the extravagant trappings of just this room. Rich hardwood paneling that had once been an old-growth forest in Nusad, jade mined from beneath a village in Bylia, a marble statue from a sacred temple in Kerbistan, a tapestry that was all that remained of a country now beneath a lake in Athiland. Trespasses repeated time and time again, going back a thousand years. 

By the time of her Grandfather's reign, these things were all just memories, their perpetrators and observers long departed, but they were powerful memories, they fused with and fed the grievances of the day. The fate of the Empire had been an inevitability, then. She knew her Grandfather had been a good Kerb, but what the Empire needed then was a great one. 

There had been... other concerns, as well.

Feeling the familiar tingle in the back of her head, the Empress smoothed her face, and stepped out into her sitting room. She took her place before the immense door to her apartments, folded her hands, and waited. A moment later there were three loud knocks, and the heavy door swung open. A guard appeared and ran his suspicious eyes over every surface of the room, looking for any sign of attack... or escape. They lingered on the Empress for a moment, then he stepped aside, and a wizened old Kerbal waddled in. 

The grizzled fellow had no hair on his scalp, but the wild mop on his chin gave the impression that it had all simply migrated south. He stepped smartly up to her, or as smartly as he could at his age, and bowed. The guard's eyes narrowed. 

"Majesty, I am told, she is away."

The Empress nodded in acknowledgement, "very well."

"Will there be anything else, Majesty?"

"That will be all, Roland. Thank you."

He bowed more deeply this time, the guard's glare now drawing out into a sneer, then pushed past the hapless ward as he waddled out, mumbling something under his breath. 

She thought it sounded something like "step aside, you feckless, beef-witted giglet," but wasn't quite sure. 

The guard turned his glare back to her, her face passive and serene as ever, before running his eyes over the room once more and slamming the door. There was a loud thunk, as the locking bolt slid home. The Empress raised a hand to her face in a futile attempt to hide the smile that blossomed across it. She did not think there was a Force or Power in this 'Verse or any other that could stop Roland from being Roland. 

Still... 

Her hand remained, but her smile faded. It seemed wrong to send that remarkable young girl off into the whumper's den like this, blind and dumb. It had taken every last bit of her finesse to arrange, but in the end... the smile returned... those old goats had thought it was their idea. Her hand dropped down to the golden links around her neck. After all, the chain pulled both ways. The hand fell away, and she turned, her slippered feet moving silently on the thick rugs. 

That girl... there was still a chance. 

Futile though it might be, maybe... just maybe... she could find the other. They would have an affinity for each other, she was sure of it. Well, nearly. If they could find each other... maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe... it could be stopped. 

But you know, a voice whispered in her head, there is another way...

The Empress now stopped, standing before an immense case that looked like glass but wasn't. Towering above it, larger than life, was the Imperial Portrait from her coronation years ago. Herself, the Orb and Scepter gleaming in gold paint, Alexei, the Imperial Consort, looking so strong, and in the same bassinet, little Tatiana. But what was ensconced in the case below far outshone the grand painting. Not merely a king's ransom, but the ransom of several kings, demanded over the centuries. Gold, jewels, priceless antiquities, and before all of them, the Crown Jewels themselves. The same regalia as the massive painting above. Like so many times before, her eyes fell on the gleaming Scepter. 

She raised a hand that still trembled, the Münstone around her neck turning to ice against her skin as her fingers touched glass that wasn't glass. Not the Scepter its self, that was only a few kilos of gold, worthless in comparison. But within it...

With that, she thought, I could change everything. Fix everything.

Even after all these years, the old goats still had no idea what was hiding right under their... beards. Yes, yes she could fix everything... but for how long? A decade? A generation? A century? It wouldn't matter, she knew what using it would awaken

A chill ran through her, despite the roaring fire in the hearth. 

Alexei had known. He had known all too well. In the end, the knowledge... the temptation... the perverse dilemma, it had driven him mad. What she had done then had been a mercy. 

That's what she still told herself. 

Another chill crawled up her spine. She took an old shawl from the rack and wrapped it around her shoulders against the imagined cold. She had lost her husband and companion, and her infant daughter. But there was always... a price. 

Even that can be undone, the voice pleaded, you know it to be true...

For an instant, the tear she had never let fall threatened once more, but the old familiar defiance welled up. 

No...

She set her jaw. 

NO.

She turned from the power, and walked back towards her window. Her face once again a mask of placid serenity, hands folded demurely before her, she regarded the thriving city outside. 

No. Let these people continue their blissful ignorance a few moments longer. 

This girl, this Valentina, she is this world's last hope. If she fails, and it rises from its prison, this world, this reality, will die. But the Empress knew, there were things beyond this reality, that were far, far, far worse, than even it.

She pulled the shawl tighter around herself. No matter what happens in Ussari, or the world beyond... 

...wherever it slumbers, the Crown of Worms must never be disturbed. 

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Oh wow. Now that is the way to do an interlude! It sure puts the Empress in a different... light too. Or perhaps that should be a different Light.

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1 hour ago, KSK said:

Oh wow. Now that is the way to do an interlude! It sure puts the Empress in a different... light too. Or perhaps that should be a different Light.

All things serve the Beam. :D

 

tho it never ceases to amaze me how characters take on lives of their own. 

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5 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

All things serve the Beam. :D

 

tho it never ceases to amaze me how characters take on lives of their own. 

Yeah, sometimes they just go all nineteen on you.

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What a long strange trip it's been.

I see now that I'm just about to pass the one year mark since I started working on Shadows,  and still going strong if I do say so myself. That continues to amaze me. Somewhere, out there, there's probably an end. I do have a couple ideas. But hopefully it takes its time in getting here. 

Also, your tax dollars at work:

Got another one of those "rewards" today where they pay me to sit on my duff for nine & a half hours and do nothing work related, but I can't just take the day off, either. If you've ever wondered why they spend $400 on a hammer, it has nothing to do with aliens. :rolleyes:

So that means once again, next chapter is ahead of schedule, if somewhat truncated, and should be going up shortly if my battery holds out. 

 

I expect a collective groan  by the end. :confused:

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Chapter 41: A Long, Strange Trip

Deep in the frigid ocean depths, in a place that has not known light since the planet its self was in its infancy, a tiny, conical space capsule sat half-submerged in silt so fine it blurred any distinction between solid and liquid. In places on its surface where the paint had finally flecked away, fragile, tree-like deep sea sponges had begun to grow, feeding on the macabre mana of decay that drifted down from the waters above. Inside, beyond the ragged, gaping hole in the capsule's flank, blind, spindly-legged crabs, white as porcelain, took shelter, feeding on the morsels too big for the sponges, thriving in this alien place of eternal darkness ever since their ancestors first wandered into it ten thousand eons ago. 

As one of the mindless denizens scuttled along its path, it dislodged an air bubble, that by some twist of fate had remained trapped all these many months. The bubble rose from the Plutonian abyss, passing trough a nightmare realm of bioluminescent creatures with freakish proportions and more teeth than any sane thing should have. Upwards it went, past the first weak tendrils of inky violet, ignored by the viperfish, frill sharks, and colossal squid that lurked these depths. The bubble expanded as it rose and the pressure decreased, such that when it entered the deep blue domain of towering shoals of gamefish and cruising manta rays, it roiled and churned and flailed like its self a thing alive. Upward, ever upward, rending its self apart into a thousand smaller bubbles, past bluefish and leatherbacks and great sea beasts until at last the bubbles burst through the foamy crest of a wave on the azure sea and became part of the air. 

Warmed by the burning equatorial sun overhead, tempered by the cool ocean currents below, the air began to swirl and move. It went west, toward an angular cape jutting out into the sea. Here it came on shore as a gentle tropical breeze, caressing a motley collection of buildings where there had once been only a swamp. It swirled and eddied between them, around sleek aircraft and over bulging metallic spheres, enticing more than one worker to pause in their duties and delight for a moment in its cool kiss upon their sweat-drenched faces. 

The breeze blew on, now gathering into a wind, pushed ever inland by the new breeze moving in off the sea. It blew over towering sand dunes, around sparse forests and over thriving fields of vegetables toward the foothills of the central mountains. The wind did not stop here, but was carried ever onward by the pressing mass of air behind it, racing over the verdant foothills then blasting up the rugged flanks of the mountains. Momentum carried it over the peaks, where it churned onward to the west, leaving long rows of lenticular clouds in its wake that mirrored the furrowed farmlands below. Here the wind slowed again, and calmed, playing high above the ocean, so that when it crossed paths with the odd little aircraft making the incredible racket, it was no more than a gentle breeze again. 

It passed by a small, terrified face staring out a round port hole, then found a tiny gap in the metal hull and was drawn inside. It blustered back and forth, rushing over an enormous lump snoring loudly in the thin air, until at last it brushed the cheek of Valentina Kermanova, who was nervously going over her entry clearances and radio procedures. 

Deciding she had absorbed as much as she was going to, Valentina keyed the mic, and spoke in the professional, calm, dignified tones of pilots. 

"Whiskey tango foxtrot, Yankee Doodle dandy, avtomat four-seven inbound at the marker with upchuck uniform."

She cringed. She thought she must be mistranslating something, it sounded like nonsense.

"Rubber knuckle underwear, jolly good avtomat four-seven, this is Omork Approach control at foxtrot zulu milkshake, you are cleared to enter UFPDKO airspace. Squawk sphincter niner ringworm and fly heading one-five-zero, vectors for KSC runway zero-niner."

Silently, Valentina put a hand to her face, then turned to the directed course. These people were strange.

The radio crackled in her ear again, "additionally, four-seven, an escort has been arranged for your convenience to Kleptogart airspace."

"Avtomat four-seven copies," an escort? So that's what the circling radar contact ahead of them was. 

Junior Lieutenant Kerman's trembling voice suddenly cut in, "fuhhhh...fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh..."

"Fighters, yes, I know!" She frowned, watching the unfamiliar aircraft pull even off her wing tips. Whirlwinds, she thought they were called. The Kerblish letters UFPROACG were stenciled prominently on the tails. She thought if they were going to bother with an acronym that long they might as well just write it out, really. 

This was an unexpected development. Granted, she didn't really know much about such things, but this hardly seemed a proper greeting for a diplomatic mission. She looked again at the smooth, streamlined warplanes flying next to hers. They did not appear to be armed, but still... you could never tell what a fighter pilot might do if spooked. Their egos were more dangerous than any munition. The one to her left was staring at her intently, impassively. With his helmet and oxygen mask he looked like some sort of bug-eyed alien. 

Although, she supposed, she was the alien now. The thought still didn't keep the hackles on the back of her neck from rising. Fighter pilots. She hated fighter pilots. Almost as much as politics. And now she had both. 

The flight continued on, turning east and paralleling the coast, then inland and more southerly, the other two jets sticking to Valentina's wings like parasites. The countryside below looked normal enough, she thought, except for the odd lack of snow. They did have winter in the tropics, right? The grasslands reminded her of the vast open plains of Nusad, and she could see huge herds of... somethings. They didn't have yaks here, she was fairly sure of that at least. 

The plains eventually gave way to rolling hills that proceeded to mountains towering in the distance. Moderately sized, widely spaced cities followed the contours of the hills, connected by a web of wide concrete roads. That looked normal enough too, even if it was a lot of roads. She was relieved to see the occasional train chugging along too, but none of them seemed to produce any smoke. 

At length the mountains were looming to her left. Jagged and sharp, they seemed to jut up at impossible angles, giving her the feeling they were somehow 'new.' The steep, rocky slopes were devoid of any hint of snow, which was very odd, and there looked to be no vegetation either. Finally the controller directed her eastward over a high pass. 

"Gutrot noodle floppy-disk, avtomat four-seven you are now leaving UFPDKO airspace, cleared into Kleptogart airspace at one-zero-delicatessen, contact KSC tower at one-one-three-point-niner, cheerio." 

Next to the Converter, off to Valentina's left, the fighter pilot stared at her a moment longer, then snapped a quick salute and banked away. 

She checked over the paperwork once more, huffed, and switched frequencies, "flapjack paddywhack trombone, avtomat four-seven inbound for runway zero-niner."

"Pyrex pickle blowfish, KSC tower has you on scope, avtomat four-seven, uh, confirm you want a helicopter approach?"

"DД... yes... request helicopter approach for runway zero-niner," PЦTIЙ, this language was frustrating! 

"If you say so, four-seven. You are cleared to land runway zero-niner at taxiway bravo."

"Four-seven, cleared to land, at bravo. Um... rinky-dink chipshot potato."

Never mind strange, these people were clearly mad.

Passing the mountains, she reduced the throttles and let the nose drop, beginning a long, gradual descent. She could just see the space center now, sprawled out on a wide cape jutting out into the ocean beyond. A quick glance behind her confirmed that Igor was still out for the moment. Good. Turning off the oxium to his mask had worked like a charm, they hadn't been flying that high after all. By the looks of it, the good Junior Lieutenant was panicked enough for the both of them. 

The plane cruised down over more rolling hills, passing farms and odd little groves of trees. The cities seemed more sparse, here, but the roads! So many roads! Blackish-gray tracks winding every which way, without a single railroad to be seen. How did these people get around without trains? They surely didn't drive everywhere, that would just be silly. 

The hills soon gave way to meandering sand dunes as the space center grew to fill Valentina's vision. It looked like quite an impressive facility, and familiar. Oddly familiar. Yet... every space that was not building or roadway seemed to be packed with lots full of... kars. Further consideration would have to wait, however. She began the delicate process of rotating the engine nozzles and gradually transferring the aircraft's weight from its wings to the four shrieking engines as it slowed. She crossed over the runway threshold exactly where she wanted to, the ungainly craft held rock steady in her hands. A nudge here, a prod there, and the Converter gently settled to a perfect four-point landing the moment the last of its forward speed bled away, just before the turnoff to the second taxiway of the long runway. 

A smirk curled Valentina's left lip. She was certain she was going to completely embarrass herself at some point on this bizarre excursion, but borking the landing would not be it! Of course, that had been the easy part, too. 

She followed the further instructions from the tower and ground control, traveling along the taxiway through a layout that seemed ever more familiar. Behind an enormous hanger, a grimacing crewman directed her with a set of marshaling paddles in the strangest shade of yellow towards a fairly small group of Kerbals with their hands pressed firmly to their heads. He scurried away as soon as she was stopped, clutching his own head. 

Valentina went mechanically through the shut down procedures, feeling the uncomfortable little ball of nerves begin to grow in the back of her head. They were just people after, all, right? Surely, they couldn't be that different. Memories of the concert in Crimson Square the past summer bubbled up from somewhere. 

Yes, yes they could. 

Valentina worked her way carefully past the drooling Igor and shivering Junior Lieutenant. With nothing else to do for it, she turned the latch, and slid the side door open.
 
Something slammed into her like a fist and wrenched the breath from her lungs. She had a firm grip on the handrail, else she might have tumbled from the doorway. She had to fight for each breath with straining lungs, the sweat suddenly running down her face amplifying the feeling that she was trying to breathe liquid. The humidity! It was beyond words! It felt so thick she could cut it with a knife. And the heat! It must be forty degrees out here! How could these people live like this?!

PЦTIЙ, they're coming this way now. With sheer force of will against the onslaught, Valentina composed herself, and tried to smile. Another smiling Kerbal stepped up to her. He wore a headset, which was odd, and a very dapper white vest, which was not. 

"Major Kermanova, I presume?" The fellow's smile widened, "I'm Gene Kerman, the Flight Director here."

He paused for just a moment to clear his throat, and took a slip of paper from his pocket, "on behalf of the Kerbal Space Administration, its member states, and partners, in hopes of greater understanding and cooperation among all Kerbals, welcome, to... the.... Kerbal..... Space....... Cen........"

His mouth dropped open. Valentina blinked at him for a moment, then realized he was looking behind her. And above. The rest of the small crowd, too. She turned to follow their collective gaze, and saw that Igor had appeared in the doorway, and was staring new and ever sharper stabbing implements back at them. 

She raised her hands, hoping her smile didn't look as forced as it felt, "is... uh... is just Igor... um... is not staying... he... he is.... ah...." PЦTIЙS ЗДЯS what was the word? A dozen of them raced through her head, none of them right.

"Nablyudatel," a new voice said, in confident, if strongly accented Ussari. It then continued in Kerblish, also strongly accented, "ah'm afraid the word doesn't really translate all the well into Kerblish, Gene. This tall feller is is something of a body guard... and a monitor."

It took only a moment for Valentina to realize why Igor's glare had no effect on this newcomer. He was so slimy it just slid right off. He was quite tall himself, dressed in a crisp, black suit with thin pinstripes. She had little knowledge of fashion, but could tell it must be expensive. The enormous elliptical belt buckle clad in silver and gold reinforced that. He had what looked like another belt buckle around his neck, also gold and silver, with a big pale blue stone in the center and a pair of decorated leather strings hanging from it. On his head was a truly enormous black hat, in the same style that was now so popular in Kermangrad, which he now tipped towards her.

"Pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma'am. Name's John Ross, John Ross Kerman, junior. But, uh, everyone 'round here just calls me J.R." He replaced his hat, and offered his hand. Valentina took it gingerly. It was soft, smooth, gripped with just the right pressure. A hand that had shaken many others. She released it, and had to consciously resist the urge to count her fingers. Despite all the black in this STДLIЙ SMДCКIЙG heat, he wasn't even sweating. 

"Is pleasure to, uh, meet you, Mr. Kerman," Kerman? They didn't look like brothers...

"J.R., please, ma'am, Mister Kerman was mah daddy, and a bit too fond of his own name, y'see," he smiled broadly, "Ah am the corporate lie-ay-zon to the KSA from Layland Heavy Industies. Ah understand y'all over yonder have been doing some truly incredible things with our products, and Ah do hope to discuss the matter with y'all some more."

Valentina kept the smile plastered to her face, hoping he would go away, which he did, nudging Gene as he stepped back, who was still staring at Igor.

"Huh? Oh, right, I'm terribly sorry for any confusion, Mizz Kermanova, we weren't expecting an, um, entourage, but we'll work with that. Where was I? Oh..." He offered his own hand. Behind him were perhaps a dozen bright, grinning, slightly sweaty faces, one group standing a bit apart from the others. 

"Welcome, to the Kerbal Space Center."

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Chapter 42: Diplomacy

 

"This is a bit new for all of us, ma'am," Gene Kerman continued, smiling nervously, "the Board of Directors didn't give us much notice once they officially restarted the exchange program. We're still scrambling a bit, you see. I thought a small welcoming party like this might be less intimidating than a big public affair."

They have many parties...

Valentina hoped her smile didn't look as fragile as it felt. Say something! Say something, you fool! She'd had a speech... Spent half the fight memorizing it, struggling with the unfamiliar language, but she'd thought she'd had it down. Now it seemed to have vanished like her breath in this heat. She stared at Gene, trying to will her uncooperative mouth into motion. Gene stared at her. Igor stared at everyone. They stared back at him. Then her. Then him again. Some of the faces were scowling now. She thought she heard a cricket somewhere. But she didn't see--

Gene sighed, "ok... if our two agencies are going to work together, someone's going to have to start the ol' trust train, so let it be me. While you're here, you're going to have the same respect and privileges as my Kerbonauts here. You'll be staying with them in the Kerbonaut Center and have the full run of the facility. We'll get you a proper tour once you've had some time to settle in after your trip. There's a few places that are off limits for safety reasons, even for them, but let me know and--"

Suddenly the ground was shaken by a distant explosion, and a faint cry of "wooHOO!" Igor was instantly in front of Valentina. 

"Heads up!" Someone in the bunch yelled. All heads did so.

"Incoming!" Shouted someone else.

"Drifting left!" Called a third. 

Something metallic clanged to the ground and bounced for a moment. It looked like some sort of piping. 

"All clear!" In unison, the heads snapped back to Valentina, who was gaping in horror from behind Igor. 

Gene slapped a hand to his face, "that would be our R&D center. Best if you keep your distance. They can be a bit..."

A secondary explosion rumbled the concrete, followed by a soft, "eureka!"

"...boisterous."

Another Kerbal with a pencil-thin mustache and thick-rimmed glasses stepped up and put a placating hand on Gene's shoulder.

"I vill talk vith zem again, Gene," then he turned to Valentina and offered a hand, "guten Tag, I am Dr. Wernher von Kerman, ze head of research and development here at ze KSC, willkommen."

Valentina stepped from behind Igor with only slight resistance. This one's accent... might he...? This whole thing was quickly turning into a disaster, she was struggling to keep up with the all the Kerblish, time to take a risk. 

"Guten Tag, Herr Doktor," Valentina said hesitantly, "sprechen Sie Krünisch?"

Wernher blinked twice, then his entire face lit up, "ja voll! Du sprichst Krünisch auch?"

Valentina wavered her hand, "etwas, um, sehr schlecht."

"Wunderbar!" he nearly squealed, then nodded to the others, "diese Dummköpfe nur Kerblish sprechen. Ach, das wird so schön!"

Igor rumbled up next to her, "what he say? What you say?"

"I asked if he spoke Krünish, he said yes. Apparently they do not," she answered in Ussari.

Wernher glanced at him, then shrugged, "fahrvergnügen?"

She smiled, "funkengrüven!"

"Now what he say?" Igor frowned.

"He invited me to lunch, I said yes."

"Fantastisch!," Wernher beamed, "neunundneunzig Luftballons, du hast mich gefragt und ich hab nichts gesagt, Feuer frei."

Valentina stopped and blinked for a moment. 

Igor's eyes flicked back and forth, "now what he say?"

"Er, he said he and the other engineers have a potluck every Münday, and please come, but... stay away from the casserole it... causes indigestion? I think I am mistranslating something..."

Igor glowered until Wernher backed away.

"Uh, Wernher here is the one who got all this going, after the early false starts," Gene waved an arm toward the Space Center, trying not to look at Igor, "and these are the guys who really trust him. Meet our Kerbonaut corps!"

A face now approached that Valentina most certainly recognized. He offered his left hand somewhat awkwardly, the right one still hanging in a simple sling. 

"Edmund Kerman, ma'am, it's a true honor to finally meet you."

"Captain Kerman, , yes, honor is all mine, surely," she took his hand after just a bit of fumbling, smiling broadly.

"Just Edmund, ma'am, there's no military affiliation here. We hold no rank outside of our missions." He smiled beneath a mustache that had not grown quite enough to cover the red, puffy scar on his upper lip.

"Edmund, then. Uh, Valentina, please," she realized she was still clutching his hand and quickly let it go, "you have been inspiration."

"I... have?"

"DД, yes... You have, how you say? Got back on horse, after such awful injury... is very brave."

"Well, that's very kind of you, ma'--uh, Valentina," Edmund said, abashedly scratching at the back of his neck, "just too stubborn for my own good, I suppose."

He gestured to the Kerbal next to him, "I believe you've met my comrade, here, after a fashion."

Comrade?

The other fellow stepped forward and spoke in horribly broken Ussari, "greetings! Am person Jorrigh Kerman. Am welcomings of yuo to Space Kerbal Middle."

Valentina blinked. 

Person Jorrigh Kerman's smile faltered, then his shoulders fell. 

"It's that bad, isn't it?" He said in Kerblish. 

"Is... is getting better," Valentina offered cheerfully. 

Behind her, Igor boomed, "why he talk like cliché? Sound like bad joke. Is insult to language!"

Valentina tensed her face and smiled as hard as she could to keep from laughing. 

"I'm supposed to go to Ussari for the next phase of the exchange program," Jorrigh said sullenly, "but I just can't anywhere with the language!"

Valentina held her smile while she mentally scrambled for a response. What would Dibella do? She was the diplomatic one! Why didn't they send her?! She grabbed the first thing that wandered into her head. 

"Perhaps... we speak together over tea, yes? What is word, chitchat, yes?" Then winced. 

Jorrigh's eyes brightened, "really? Yeah that would be swell mizz Valentina! Thanks!" He grabbed her hand and shook it very thoroughly, along with the rest of her. 

Well, that wasn't so bad, she thought between convulsions, this is looking up a bit. Valentina finally extracted a rather sore hand from the bright-eyed Kerbal, and turned to the next face. Which was scowling at her. 

"Hmm, so you're the bigshot Ooski, eh?" He leered over folded arms, "bit short for a pilot, aren't you?"

Before Valentina could fully register the slight, another faced popped in... which looked exactly like the scowling one, minus the scowl. 

"You'll have to excuse my brother here, he can be a bit... abrasive, until he warms up to you," the newcomer thrust a hand out, "pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name."

"I... what?"

The friendlier face chuckled, "sorry, that's a bad joke. I'm Dr. Jerdous Kerman, the grumpy one here is Burdous, we're the token science concession to the initial Kerbonaut rotation." He smiled broadly. 

"Traitor," grumbled the one called Burdous. 

"Oh... you are Kerbonaut doctor?" Valentina asked. This one seemed decent, at least. He had a very honest face. 

"Oops, no I'm not a medical doctor. I'm an anthropologist by trade."

She ran the long word over in her head, "so you... you study dead people, yes?"

Jerdous put a hand to his chin, "well that's one way of putting it, I suppose. An odd specialty for a Kerbonaut, I know. Burdous here is a talented engineer, but they wanted an interdisciplinary scientist to round out the mission profiles, so I got picked."

Then he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "personally, I think they just wanted to study the effects of long duration spaceflight on twins."

"That is... fascinating. Is pleasure to meet you, Dr. Kerman."

"Oh, it's just Jerdous," he waved it away, "you'll find we're not much for formality around here."

"Valentina, please," she smiled.

He gave a little bow, "the pleasure is all mine, Valentina."

"The twins will round out our final two flights," Gene broke in, "as I'm sure you can attest, ma'am, a single-pilot craft with only solid retros limits the piloting experience one can get. We'll be on to bigger and better things ourselves, shortly."

New KSA spacecraft...

Here we go!

"Yes, what do--" a raised voice from the other group cut Valentina off.

"Now, you wanna be careful what you call piloting, Gene. Wouldn't want our new friend here to get mixed up with the wrong crowd."

Standing dramatically lit by the late afternoon sun was a group of Kerbals all with matching flight suits, mirrored sunglasses, and smirks. The one who had spoken was also wearing a long white scarf, which was strange in this heat, and was even shorter than Valentina, which was strange anywhere. 

Gene grumbled under his breath, and began, "these fine fellows are--"

"The future," the scarfed one cut in, "these rockets are just a fad, a pacifier for a teething baby. The future is in spaceplanes, and that's our specialty. After all, we are..."

As if on cue, the breeze picked up to flutter his white scarf, the others took up a... pose, and he smiled a gorgeous dimpled smile with brilliantly white teeth.

"The right stuff." Somehow, the sun picked that moment to glint off his perfect teeth. 

Valentina raised an eye... bulge. Gene mumbled something else under his breath. 

"We are the KSA Spaceplane Corps," the flawless smile said, then gestured to the others, "this is Tin Turkey, Yeti, Ivylog, Garter Snake, and Waterfowl."

"And I," he tugged his collar up and flashed another glinty smile, "am Captain D.N. Kerman., you've probably heard of me. I'm a bit of a maverick."

Beside Valentina, Gene put a hand to his face and sighed, "there's no rank here, Dean, we're not military."

Valentina stifled a groan. Diplomatic, be diplomatic! 

Smiling, she held out a hand, "Dean, is it?" It hung awkwardly in the air. 

"That's D.N. Kerman to you. Captain D.N. Kerman."

Another Kerman? Was everyone here named Kerman? And these strange letter-names...

Diplomacy...

With effort, Valentina held her smile, "what does D.N. mean?"

Burdous cupped his hands to his mouth, "it means d-ouch my shin!

He suddenly dropped to a knee and rapidly rubbed his lower leg. A small rock went clicking away across the concrete, unnoticed. 

"Well that's on a need-to-know basis," D.N. smiled with that horrible, beautiful smile. 

"Dean was the first Kerbal to fly into space!" Blurted one of the pack behind him. Tin Turkey, was it?

Wait, what?

"Sixth Kerbal in space," Burdous spat, still rubbing his shin, "he always leaves that part out."

D.N.'s dimples never faltered, "I was the first Kerbal to fly into space. Fly, by my own hand, not riding along while some gizmo or mechanical jeb does it for me. And I'll be the first Kerbal to fly into orbit, too, followed by my crew here. Spaceplanes are the way forward, in a few years no one will even remember that bunch of... cargo over there."

He leaned around Valentina, "hi, Edmund. How's the arm? They make you an honorary chicken yet? Buhgok!"

"Doing just fine, Dean," Edmund grinned, "there's an open booster seat waiting when you want to take up that arm wrestling challenge."

Dean's smile only faded for a moment before he turned back to Valentina, "look, I hear you've got some skills, so I'll give you this one chance to hang with us and learn some more.

"I told you," Burdous yelled, "he's a colossal d-ouch my other shin!" Another rock went clicking down the pavement. 

"Owwwwwwwwwowowowowowowowowowowowowow!" He squealed as he rolled back and forth on the ground, gripping below his knees. 

Valentina stared at D.N. He smiled at her. That flawless, disarming, dimpled smile.

Diplomatic.... be diplomatic... remember what's at stake here...

The corners of Valentina's mouth turned up, "y... yes I believe I have heard you."

D.N. Raised an eye... bulge, grinning furiously.

"Yes, you are... what is word?" She bared a hint of teeth, "buckaroo?"

His smile vanished.  

Her eyes passed over the rest of them, "you are all bunch of cowboys, yes? Yee-hah?"

D.N.'s face twisted into a snarl, and he poked a finger at her, "you just watch yourself, Ooski, we don't need your kind around here!"

He spun around, popping his collar again, "come on, boys, let's jet. I feel the need..."

"The need for speed?" Waterfowl offered helpfully. 

D.N. stopped and looked at him, "no, you twit, for a drink! Let's go."

The group turned and walked off into the sunset. Quite dramatically. 

Gene sighed heavily, his face an intriguing mix of different shades of green, "I'm really sorry about that, Mizz Kermanova, I thought he'd behave himself today. Dean's an excellent pilot but that's also the only thing he respects, or understands. I'll see about getting you some flight time with him, maybe bridge the gap." 

"Valentina, please, um, Gene," she smiled, "it would seem some things are quite... universal."

They were the same all over the globe, she imagined. Fighter pilots. She hated fighter pilots!

"Well, that's mighty decent of you, m-- Valentina."

"But... I have not seen Sir Kerman here, he is well, no?"

"Sir Kerman?" Gene pinched his brow, "oh, you mean Chadvey! Um, don't call him sir, he hates that. He, uh, sends his regrets that he couldn't be here to welcome you in person, he's a bit tied up at the moment. Should be back in a couple of days."

Presently, a small bus clad in brilliantly polished aluminum and the emblem of the KSA pulled to a stop nearby. Gene gestured towards it. 

"Here, I'll help you with your things. We've got a room for you in the Kerbonaut center near everyone else. We've just finished a major expansion so it's a bit empty at the moment. There's a very informal dinner waiting if you'd like, um, I think the chef made something called 'borscht.' Tonight, you can get settled in and relax, no expectation. Bit of a busy day tomorrow, I'm afraid, that's the official welcoming ceremony, and a public open house to showcase our expansions."

He seemed to catch something in Valentina's expression, "I know, I'm not much for politics either, but, bare with me and we'll make this work somehow. I'll give you the official tour after that, and there's Burdous's launch on Münday, and if you'd like..."

Valentina allowed herself to be led back towards the Converter for her bag, suddenly realizing how tired she was. This was going to be an ordeal, all right. This 'Dean' person was a raging STДLIЙSКIУ. Even if he did have dimples. Incredible dimples. The others seemed amicable enough, mostly, but she was disappointed about Sir Kerman, she'd been looking forward to talking with him again. Edmund... he had a quick wit, there was more to him than on the surface, she suspected. Speaking with Jorrigh would help her practice her Kerblish without looking like a complete fool, and this Jerdous... His brother was a PЦTIЙSКI, but Jerdous had a very honest face.

She liked him right away.

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
Italics & spelling fix
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:)  Honest face huh? Nothing going to go wrong there then. No sirree. Probably got a firm handshake too, unlike that sparkly J.R. PЦTIЙSКI.

Nice work with the Top Gun riffs, even if you did have waaaay more fun than is technically healthy with call signs and other linguistic mayhem. :D

 

 

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12 hours ago, KSK said:

:)  Honest face huh? Nothing going to go wrong there then. No sirree. Probably got a firm handshake too, unlike that sparkly J.R. PЦTIЙSКI.

Nice work with the Top Gun riffs, even if you did have waaaay more fun than is technically healthy with call signs and other linguistic mayhem. :D

 

 

Absolutely did not watch Hot Shots that day!

18 minutes ago, billbobjebkirk said:

Jerdous... Wait a second, does that name mean something?

Hmm I wonder...

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