“Wait– What? I’ll– I won’t stand for such cheap tricks you bitch!”
Captain Korabiskaya was long gone from the monitor before she could even be insulted.
Gertrude snapped her head up at the ship’s main displays and saw her predictors going out of control.
One by one her sonar operators threw their headsets off as quickly as they could.
“Yes ma’am. Leave this to your crew. We can fight off some cocky mercenaries.”
Dreschner needed only to take one look at her before realizing he needed to take command.
Gertrude sank in her chair.
She was partially shielded from the surrounding crew by her chair’s monitors, so she could raise her hands to her face and fight off tears into them, in some measure of privacy. Only Dreschner and Schicksal knew that she was in turmoil. Her heart was in tatters, her mind was faring little better. Furious, frustrated, helpless, everything around her swimming.
Who were these people? Why did they stand between her and Elena?
What compelled them to fight against these overwhelming odds?
And yet, she knew she had been had. Because the odds were unfavorable to her as well.
Sinking the Pandora’s Box was easy. Rescuing Elena, if the mercs fought back, if the mercs knew–
Dreschner looked over his shoulder at her with a stern expression.
She was practically cowering in her chair when he saw her there. She almost thought he would rebuke her weakness. For a Captain like Dreschner, serving under a whimpering girl like this must have been mortifying.
“Permission to deploy Divers to counterattack.” He asked instead.
“I– Of course.” She had expected him to strike her down. Maybe she expected this of everyone now.
Gertrude felt disgusted with herself. Torn and broken, a toy soldier in a garish uniform.
Her sword arm shaking, afraid to move, and afraid of being struck down.
“I trust your judgment, Dreschner. I always have.” She stammered out.
“May I have a word then? As Einschel Dreschner to Gertrude Lichtenberg.”
Dreschner’s expression softened.
Averting her eyes, Gertrude nodded her head at him. So permitted, Dreschner spoke.
“Recent events have been difficult and will get worse, for all of us. I made an oath to support you. Everyone else on this ship follows you, Gertrude Lichtenberg, because you lead them with determination. They see you have something to fight for when they themselves have nothing. So they fight for your cause. Among the tyrants of this coming era, you are their tyrant. I will always support you; do not give up. Show them your determination to keep fighting.”
The Inquisitor’s eyes drew wide. She felt her heart drumming with anxiety.
How could he say something like that when she was visibly in pieces before him?
Was it all just because of his promise? His promise to–
She raised her sleeve to her eyes and wiped her tears.
He was right. No need to question it.
Gertrude was a tyrant. A tyrant in this evil time. She had to be strong, ruthless.
All she had was a single goal, one thing she desired the most. One overwhelming focus.
There were more cards to play. She would make good on her threat to that Volgian bitch.
“Contact the brig, tell the guards I’ll be headed there. Keep things together for me here.”
Dreschner turned back around and resumed commanding the fleet’s counterattack.
Gertrude stood and walked out of the bridge.
Tears of injustice kept building in her eyes that she had to fight back again and again.
She was so close, so close–
Only for obstacle after obstacle to get in her way. Furious, but helpless– she wielded power that could have credibly erased those mercenaries from existence in an instant, and yet, that power was useless to her. She knew, she knew those mercenaries had Elena captive! So she could not fire on them, lest she gamble with Elena’s life. She would never forgive herself if she came this close only to kill Elena herself. She had hoped to force their surrender; that Captain Korabiskaya instead chose to fight meant the situation could easily spiral out of control and end in another tragedy.
Setback after setback after setback, straining her hope, driving her to madness.
But despite everything, Dreschner was right. She had no reason to fear or to stop.
All of her people followed her, became instruments of her power, because she was never lost for something to fight for. Because of her obsession, her fixation, the only thing she wanted. Because ever since she had begged and bled and gone through hell and back to attain the position she now had, her fury had a single-minded focus. There was only one thing her heart craved, and she was willing to do anything, destroy anyone, to achieve it.
Elena was on that ship. All Gertrude needed to do was stop that ship and bring her back.
Elena was hers. She would take her back.
Leaving the bridge with fire in her eyes and heart, Gertrude knew what she had to do.
Just off of the hall leading to the Bridge, was the door to the ship’s brig. Common criminals would be held in holding cells on the lower deck. The brig was for VIP criminals and mutineers. White walls, four cells before her, like standing on the doorway into heaven, stark and bright, inhumanly, brilliantly lit. Each cell was a solitary confinement space lit just as brightly. Gertrude ordered the guards out of the room to await further instruction, and closed the door.
She then opened the only occupied cell.
Soon as the door opened, the lights in the room dimmed, ceasing to unsettle the occupant.
Gertrude dropped to the ground and without thinking, suddenly prostrated herself.
“Milord, I throw myself at your mercy. You’re the only one who can help me.”
Her voice broke as she begged, and the begging finally led her to tears. She would do anything to have Elena back. She had no use for pride. No humiliation was too unbearable, no atrocity was too great. Whoever had to die; whoever she had to beg. Just as she had begged Norn the Praetorian for her support; just as she had schemed against and killed her own predecessor; just as she had secured Dreschner’s undying support and the Iron Lady’s matchless power.
Whatever she needed to save Elena, she would acquire. Any weapon, any person–
And if begging didn’t work then violence would.
Opposite her, sitting on the bench within the blaring white cell, was Sieglinde von Castille.
She could imagine those sad blue eyes gazing down at her.
In her mind the Baron was going to look down upon her, and when the woman shifted her weight, she almost expected a contemptuous foot to land upon her head. She expected haughty words to deny her, for the woman’s pride to refuse her. She expected to have to extract from the beautiful Baron with bayonet what her pathetic words would not. Her mind was a haze of fantasies, predicting and preparing for coming violence.
Instead, the Baron simply stood before her quietly, shifting her feet uncomfortably.
“I– I don’t want to see this! Stop this, please. Just tell me what you want from me.”
Her deep, rich voice was trembling and stammering.
When Gertrude lifted her head from the cold white ground, she saw the Baron with her fists balled up at her sides and her eyes gently weeping as if she had been the one who had thrown herself to the ground. She had such a troubled expression; a face that looked almost as troubled as Gertrude herself felt. Had the lights in the room been that unsettling? Had only a few hours of solitary confinement gotten to her? Though Gertrude felt keenly that she was missing something about the Baron’s response, she had at least gotten through to her.
Sometimes, humility drew out what violence would not. Gertrude sighed with relief.
“Thank you most kindly, milord.”
She stood from the ground and mastered herself. Her choice of words would be key.
“Baron, I am in great distress, and can trust only in your discretion as a woman of peerage. Only you are able to support me in this dark hour.” She said. Sieglinde wiped her tearful eyes and turned a serious expression on her, saying no words to interrupt the conversation. Though she did not assent, Gertrude knew she could count on her discretion.
She was a true blue-blood after all.
Gertrude continued speaking.
“I am pursuing a group of mercenaries who stole Elena von Fueller from Vogelheim. Whoever is behind them has paid handsomely enough, or perhaps has enough power, that these mercenaries are refusing to surrender her. I seconded the Serrano patrolmen to form a fleet, hoping to intimidate the mercs into negotiating the Princess’ release. But now that the enemy has chosen to do battle, I do not trust the patrolmen to disable the ship without putting the Imperial Princess at risk. My troops are limited in their abilities and only know that they are going after a VIP. They do not understand the true significance of all this. It is for this reason that I must turn to you, milord.”
She studied the Baron’s expression as she delivered her explanation.
None of this was embellished. This was everything Gertrude knew and believed.
Sieglinde was a veteran of the Empire’s recent wars. More than that, she was a peerless soldier and pilot who was well respected. Gertrude recalled the legend of the Red Baron who downed a Union flagship at Cascabel and kept the Union’s revolution from spreading to Sverland. Ingrid and Clostermann could not measure to her degree of skill. If Sieglinde joined her side, it made no difference how much the Pandora’s Box thrashed at her.
They stood no chance against her legend.
Turning to her own prisoner for support was desperate.
But Gertrude had always been intending to make the offer to Sieglinde.
Even if this battle had gone her way from the outset, there was still the rest of the war.
So she studied the Baron’s conflicted countenance for several desperate, silent moments.
“You would turn me loose to capture this ship? What is your plan?” Sieglinde said at last.
“Among the Empire’s pilots, you are legendary.” Gertrude said. “I have a machine suitable to your abilities. Once you deploy, you’ll serve as my ultimatum to the crew of the Pandora’s Box. They might think I can’t shoot them with my guns, for good reason; but you are a much more precise and dangerous instrument than any gun, and unaccounted for. Once you have gotten through, once they see you in action, they will have no recourse but to surrender.”
“If they fought back, they must have a greater and more complicated plan to stop you.” Sieglinde said, averting her eyes. There was a muscle in her cheek that seemed to twitch with some deep seated anxiety. “Do you think merely giving me weapons will change this situation? Do you have that much faith in me?”
“Nothing in their arsenal could hope to match the Red Baron of Cascabel.” Gertrude said.
Gertrude saw the Baron grit her teeth for a brief moment before her countenance softened.
Her hand raised to her breast, and she took a deep breath.
Sieglinde then locked eyes with her.
“Don’t call me that again. I’ll follow your orders, but only for Elena’s sake.”
Gertrude barely heard the Baron’s request. She was far too elated to have secured her aid.
Her eyes drew so wide she felt they might pop out of her head.
She smiled so broadly it hurt.
To get to see the Red Baron of legend in glorious battle.
Such fitting theater for her grand rescue of her beloved, the culmination of her sufferings.
The Inquisitor’s spirit was soaring. All of these mercenaries would pay. They would pay.
“I can’t thank you enough, milord. I will deputize you as a Lieutenant immediately. Your armor awaits in the lower deck. Sortie and deal with the ship as you feel fitting. I will soon give that bastard mercenary a reason to fear me, and this time, I will negotiate from a position of absolute dominance. You’ve won me this day, milord.”
Sieglinde sighed openly in front of Gertrude, who was too inside herself to read the gesture.
Her expression went from sad to weary to finally stern, casting prying eyes at Gertrude.
“What is your objective, Inquisitor?”
Gertrude blinked suddenly. She felt a rush of electricity from the Baron.
Her words gained a force in that moment they had lacked through the whole discussion.
“I– I already explained, milord. We don’t have much time.”
“I don’t mean in this moment. I am referring to your custody over Elena von Fueller.”
“I’ll rescue her and keep her safe, of course. That is my duty to her.”
“Will you return her to the Fueller family? In this time of political chaos?”
Gertrude smiled vacantly, but she wanted to grit her teeth. What was this interrogation?
“Once she’s safe with me, she can decide for herself.”
“What if she doesn’t feel safe with you, Inquisitor–”
“Baron, I apologize, but we really must go. Our Imperial Highness is in danger.”
From that vacant smile, a forceful voice escaped.
Sieglinde’s expression darkened ever more.
She said something then that Gertrude heard but did not ponder.
Something Gertrude did not even think about answering. Those words scarcely penetrated the world which Gertrude had built for herself. Even the Baron’s powerful voice rang like a dull thud to the Inquisitor’s emotional armor. Whether or not Sieglinde expected a response, she received none when she said, simply:
“You don’t understand what it is like to have been made something without a choice.”
As soon as the words left Sieglinde’s lips, Gertrude was on her way back to the Bridge.
“We can’t tarry any longer milord. I will give you all the support you require to triumph.”
Whatever the Baron felt upon hearing those words, she did not make it known.
Following Gertrude’s direction, the guards escorted Sieglinde down to the lower deck.
“Clostermann and Järveläinen are retreating with damage!” Schicksal called out.
On the Bridge, Gertrude returned to an unfolding chaos. Every gas gunner was engaged in furious control of their stations, the torpedo and main gunners input targeting coordinates that were immediately denied by Dreschner. Spreading out before all of them was an absolutely massive display with all kinds of predictions, camera feeds and diagnostics, by itself the size of an entire wall of some luxurious manse. On this display, Gertrude quickly scanned the tattered state of the fleet. As she arrived, the Irmingard’s pilot section had already been defeated and put to flight.
Gertrude arrived at the side of the Captain and his adjutant like a wraith.
Schicksal was almost startled by the sudden appearance.
With a grim but determined expression, Gertrude directed the adjutant.
“Put them through to me. Have the hangar ready to accept them.”
Gertrude’s almost voice caught in her throat for a moment.
Ingrid was a star pilot herself and her machinery was new and well-equipped.
Clostermann may have gotten caught up in the enemy’s tactics, but Ingrid?
It was almost enough to give her pause. Almost. She just could not afford to show it.
“Welcome back, Lady Inquisitor.” Dreschner said. “It’s been a surprising turn of events.”
Gertrude sat on the ornate, throne-like seat reserved for her in the center of the Bridge.
“I see those patrolmen wound up being no use at all.” She said.
Dreschner shook his head.
“Regrettably so. Our enemies deployed several Divers. They are well-armed.” He said.
Gertrude turned quickly to connect a call through to her pilots. They would know more.
On the screen attached to her grand command station, the faces of Ingrid and Clostermann appeared, both sweating and bedraggled. Their mecha had taken a pounding and were in the process of being recovered through the chutes on the aft-side of the ship’s keel. Clostermann barely made a noise, but the moment Gertrude’s face appeared on her camera, Ingrid bowed her head and grunted. Mercenaries owning Divers was not unheard of.
Particularly those vicious and dreadful Katarrans.
For them to defeat Ingrid, however–
“Järveläinen, what happened out there?”
“I’m sorry, Lady Inquisitor.” She said. In the presence of the rest of the crew she knew to be as formal as she could muster. “I underestimated these bastards. One of them was a Loup and I got a little careless with her. I want a chance to redeem myself. Do we have any other suits? If you let me back out, I’ll murder ‘em, Inquisitor.”
Of course, leave it to Ingrid to get carried away trying to bully some random pup.
Not that Gertrude could blame her. They were used to having the upper hand.
And this bunch was clearly a strange assortment.
“You’re not going back out.” Gertrude said. “The Grenadier as now spoken for. We’ve got a Volker left in the hangar, but if you could not succeed in your Jagd I’m not having you die in a worse suit. I’ve got an ace in the hole, don’t worry. Come back in here and get yourself checked into medical. You’ve done more than enough.”
Ingrid looked ashamed of herself, but she understood the undertone of that response.
Gertrude loved her and was not going to put her in further danger.
“If you say so, boss.” Ingrid said. She cut her camera feed, perhaps feeling too disgraced.
At that point, Clostermann finally spoke up.
“Lady Inquisitor, these are not ordinary thugs. I admit they caught me off-guard; in the moment, I thought they could be Katarrans because of their skill. But Katarrans are individualistic. They are powerful fighters, but you never see them helping each other. These pilots are fighting as fireteams using real unit tactics, and they are equipped with high spec Union gear. It’s not my place to make assumptions, but something is wrong here ma’am.”
Gertrude paused for a moment.
It was not unheard of for illegal forces to gain access to Union weapons. Sometimes they went on to the black market as a result of Katarrans or other forces making deals with Union smugglers. But these were a trickle of suits and hard to get a hold of. It would be much easier for Mercenaries to modify labor units or to acquire Volker hardware through clandestine means. For an entire squadron of Union Divers to appear, after she spoke to that Volgian bitch?
“You’re right, it’s not your place to make assumptions. Get to medical ASAP.”
This time it was her who cut the feed to the pilot. She sat back and sighed to herself.
What was she getting into here? Could these really be Union soldiers?
There was no reason for Union soldiers to be taking Elena von Fueller to the northwest.
Something was wrong. Union involvement was not something she accounted for.
Then on the main screen, a confirmation from the hangar appeared of a Diver going out.
“RKD-X06 ‘Grenadier’, Sieglinde von Castille, deploying now.”
At that point, it once again ceased to matter to Gertrude what motivation these fools had.
Ultimately what mattered is that they had swam near the shark, and now came the teeth.
“Captain, have Sieglinde clear out any remaining vermin with our flak support.”
“Understood.” Dreschner said. He gave her a slightly wry smile as he did so.
Gertrude smiled back. She had an ironclad vision for how this was going to unfold.
“Ready the main guns. We’ll be sending a message to one Captain Korabiskaya, shortly.”
Elena would be back in her arms soon. And this nightmare would retreat into memory.
“Predicting direct hit by heavy ordnance on Frigate marked L1!”
On the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand, the loudest voice belonged to Fatima al-Suhar, Chief Petty Officer in charge of sonar detection and related systems. Because her station received raw acoustic prediction data and she saw everything imaged in real time, before it was output to the main screen for the rest of the crew, she could act as a commentator to the events. For a Cruiser-size ship, the Brigand had a relatively small and lean bridge, with only an officer per station.
Thankfully, Fatima was keeping up well, and had yet to give a single piece of bad news.
Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sighed with relief. Her body tensed whenever Fatima raised her voice. Would this be the time she would hear the name of someone they would have to bury in effigy when they got back home? If they got back home– a lot of dangerous thoughts burdened her whenever the sonar officer spoke.
However, the content of her words quickly calmed Ulyana.
“Frigate marked L1 is sinking! Sameera must have deployed a bomb!”
“That’s one of Murati’s bombs. So we have two left.” Aaliyah sighed.
Ulyana crossed her arms.
While the 114th was dominating the enemy’s escorts, no one had put a scratch on the Irmingard flagship yet. There was a sense to which any celebration of their victories was premature. In any other battle, knocking down three Cutters and a Frigate would be worthy of decoration. In this one, it meant nothing as long as that gunmetal grey tyrant still floated. They could knock out escorts all day long. If that dreadnought was still chasing, there was no victory.
“It was always going to be the case that they would need to use these to get close.”
“I know. I’m just trying to keep track.” Aaliyah replied.
“Zachikova,” Ulyana spoke up, raising her voice from the volume she used to address her Commissar in relative privacy, to the strong voice with which she called on her crew. “Can you get a laser relay drone out to them, and tap into their communications? We’ve got predictions of damage on Sameera and Dominika from both the acoustics and the laser imagers and I need someone to report something to me verbally about what’s going on. Do you have capacity?”
“Negative. I’m working my brain raw here trying to program controls for those dummied out boosters.”
Zachikova was feverishly going over text at her station. Ulyana turned to Semyonova.
“Semyonova, if I hand you drone control, can you get it out there and route the comms?”
Semyonova ran a hand through her blond hair and for a moment, looked nervous.
“It’ll be tough ma’am. I’m still handling comms between us and the hangar, and the Iron Lady has been sending comms requests I’ve been having to filter out too. I can do it if you need.” She flashed a brilliant little smile.
Leave it to Semyonova to explain why she couldn’t do something and then volunteer to do it.
“No, you’re right. There is someone more fitting for this anyway.”
Ulyana turned to the right-hand side of the Bridge. “Geninov! Fly a laser relay drone out!”
“Don’t I get to refuse huh?” Alex Geninov shouted back. “Why is it only an order for me!”
“You’re not doing anything presently, Geninov.” Aaliyah raised her own voice too.
“Oh great, mom and dad are shouting now?”
“Watch your tongue with me!” Aaliyah shouted.
“Sorry! Ok! I’m sorry! I’m more jittery than normal! It’s a tough sitch we’re in!”
Ulyana ran her hand down her face with frustration.
“You piloted relay drones before, when Zachikova was unavailable.” She said sternly.
“I mean, duh, I can pilot it that’s whatever.” Alex said. “But what I want is to shoot that damn flagship with a torpedo! I’ve got an 80 mm torpedo locked, cocked and ready to rock! I don’t understand why you aren’t letting me, and this witch over here, riddle that thing with explosives already!”
Alex pointed indignantly at fellow late-shifter and gunnery officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa.
“Let it be proclaimed that I refuse to become party to this fool’s schemes.” She said.
“Such solidarity for your comrade in the shooting section, you black-hearted–”
“Stop shouting already.” Ulyana said. “Tell me this: in your current state, can you shoot a torpedo out of the front of the Brigand and swing it around behind us with a 100% guarantee you will not hit any part of our vessel, any stray objects, any of our Divers, and inflict significant damage on the flagship? I will authorize you to shoot if you will take complete responsibility for this. And if anything happens to compromise the mission–”
With the Captain talking so fast, Alex merely turned back around to her station, defeated.
Visibly she switched the torpedo interface to the controls for a laser relay drone.
“Drone going out now.” Alex mumbled.
Ulyana and Aaliyah both sighed at the exact same time.
Alex glared out the side of her eyes.
“Maybe if someone had gotten that top-mounted launcher ready in time–”
Zachikova detected Alex’s snide remark and instantly responded.
“Maybe if someone here had learned to code in secondary school instead of playing video games, she could assist me in writing military grade software on the fly in a hostile working environment day in and day out.”
Alex bowed her head and defeated again, said nothing while deploying the drone.
“Wait, hold on, what do you mean that this is a hostile working environment?” Semyonova said, snapping her head up from her station for a moment. “Zachikova, has anyone harassed you?”
“I mean we could be killed literally any second. Like right now.” Zachikova said.
“Oh. I thought you meant like, someone grabbed at your–”
Deadpan, Zachikova turned away from her. “Please leave me alone, I really need to work.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah both raised their hands to their faces at the same time.
Somehow everything was functioning despite being short-handed and having these hands.
When the door to the bridge next opened, Ulyana expected Akulantova with updates on the crew morale and any incidents that may have transpired amid the sailors. She did not expect, however, for Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse to appear escorting Marina McKennedy into the bridge. The security girls were wearing bashful expressions, while Marina looked annoyed. They had been deployed as Bridge security while Akulantova held the lower deck.
“She really insisted on coming in ma’am, but far as I can tell, she has no clearance.” Zhu Lian said.
“We know she got picked up in Serrano though. So we thought we’d ask.” Van Der Smidse added.
“There hasn’t been time for formal clearances.” Ulyana said. “Let her through, she’s fine.”
Guardsmen Zhu and Van Der Smidse bowed their heads and stepped back outside.
Marina stepped up to the Captain’s and Commissar’s station and stood in orbit of them.
Hands crossed, facing the monitor, watching predictions slowly and haphazardly update.
“It’s pandemonium out there. So this is a real battle, huh?” Marina said.
“Never been in a fleet action before?” Aaliyah asked.
“Not in this capacity.” Marina said. “What do our chances look like? That’s a big-ass ship.”
“I believe in our pilots and crew. The situation is fluid, but we’re in control.” Ulyana said.
Ulyana was not saying that purely for the sake of the foul-mouthed G.I.A. agent.
She needed to truly believe it herself. And watching the battle unfold, she felt it.
They were in control. Everything was in flux, everything was dicey, but they had initiative.
As powerful as that Irmingard flagship was alone, it was caught flatfooted, its escorts appeared to be far lower quality than expected, and it was hobbled by its mission parameters. Of all the missions a ship crew could be given, trying to board or capture a ship that was resisting was the most difficult. And on top of that, securing the safety of a VIP within that ship, which made it impossible to shoot at the ship and cripple it– All of the advantages lay with the Brigand.
“I’ve heard the name of that flagship before.” Marina said. “Gertrude Lichtenberg, right?”
“That’s who I talked to.” Ulyana said. She grew curious. “What do you know about her?”
“Youngest Grand Inquisitor in history. She rose to her position off the fall of a previous Inquisitor, so she’s got some cunning and a lot of connections. Some say she is personal friend of the ruling Fueller family.”
Marina’s expression darkened. She gritted her teeth a little bit and tightened her fists.
“It would honestly make things a lot simpler if she just dropped dead.” Marina said.
At that point, another intruder ran through Zhu and Van Der Smidse, and into the Bridge.
When Elena pushed through the guards and into the bridge she practically doubled over.
Gasping for breath, her eyes stinging and burning with tears and her own sweat.
Had she heard what she thought she did? She thought– she thought she heard Marina–
Her choked voice escaped from her lips, her hair hanging over her face.
Staring at the Bridge floor, dressed in nothing but a bodysuit with a blanket around her.
“Please– you can’t do this–”
“Marina, is she ok? She’s not even wearing–”
The Captain, Korabiskaya, spoke up with a kindly, concerned tone of voice.
When Marina McKennedy raised her own voice, it bore an unfamiliar venom.
“I’ll handle this, Captain.”
Elena raised her head and felt a powerful grip taking her by the shoulder and arm.
She felt lighter than a leaf on Vogelheim’s wind, as Marina forced her out of the Bridge.
That icy, ironclad grip from her caretaker’s fingers digged into her flesh. The dainty princess felt a spike of pain through her skin that drew fresh tears. It was enough to send her into a sudden panic. She struggled against Marina, struggled to stay on the Bridge, struggled to speak for herself. She was being hurt! Marina was hurting her!
Elena was so unused to being treated so roughly that she wanted to let out a mortal scream.
Only the wide-eyed, terrifying glare from Marina kept her silent.
For a brief instant Elena caught sight of the blond Captain staring at her with disbelief.
Then the door to the Bridge closed, separating them.
Those two girls guarding the door stood dumbfounded, staring at her and Marina.
“Um, can we help at all–”
When the blond one with the braided tails started to speak, Marina quickly snapped back.
“Nothing– It’s nothing– sorry–”
All the while forcing Elena around the corner, to one of the bulkhead wells connecting the pods.
There she leaned over Elena, putting her against the door, briefly out of sight of the hall.
They stood there, eye to eye. It was impossible for Elena not to feel tiny and cornered.
For a moment, Marina said nothing. She was angry. She was angrier than ever.
Elena could feel anger radiating. Red, but frayed on the edges with a sickly muddle of colors–
“Can you explain to me what the fuck you think you are doing?” Marina said.
Elena stammered, her words getting caught in her lips several times.
She was trapped, she was trapped in Marina’s grip, unable to think straight–
“You hurt me!” She cried out.
Marina shut her eyes and bowed her head. Her jaw twitched ever so slightly.
“You were acting like a lunatic.” Marina said. “Do you want to end up in the brig?”
“They’re– Marina they’re gonna–”
At that moment, her guardian’s head snapped up and they locked eyes again.
Elena could almost count the red veins on her eyes.
Her face was flushed, her breathing agitated. Her whole body was tense.
“They’re in the middle of a battle! Whatever you want to tell them they won’t listen.”
“Would they listen to you? Marina, can you talk to them?”
The Princess was almost ready to beg.
Had she had mastery of herself she would have been on the ground begging in front of Marina McKennedy. She would have done anything to call off this ridiculous, pointless, evil bloodshed. She was sure if she could speak to Gertrude they could avert this tragedy and maybe even work together. That’s all she wanted to beg from them.
Just a chance to speak to her! To speak again to the woman she loved!
“Gertrude– they’re going to kill Gertrude.” She mumbled.
Marina glanced over Elena’s shoulder. Perhaps making sure no one else was there.
“I was afraid this was going to be the case.” Marina ran a gloved hand down her own face in exasperation. “Elena, I’m sorry, but your friend is currently trying to kill us. I know it’s the most difficult and awful thing in the world to you right now, but unless you want us to be dead you are not going to walk out of here with your friend in hand. You had best accept that fucking reality right now. You’ll never see her again. Just put it through your head right now.”
“Please, Marina. Please talk to them. They’ll listen to you. Tell them I’ll–”
“You’ll what? You’ll tell the communists you’re an Imperial Princess? You’ll compel them with your Imperial Authority to let you talk to an Imperial Inquisitor currently in the process of trying to vaporize us from the fucking face of the planet? Are you out of your fucking mind? Have you given any kind of thought to any of this? Of course you fucking haven’t. Messiah defend! Think about your situation for a moment! You are being ridiculous!”
Her words came like punches at Elena’s ribcage, beating the air out of her again and again.
“Marina– Please– Please tell them–”
There was no room to move with Marina on top of her, but she wanted to kneel, to beg.
Her voice broke. Fresh tears were flowing from her eyes.
“All I’m going to say to the commies is that you need Propofol and a bed right now.”
In that instant Elena thought she felt something from Marina that infuriated her.
All of those colors she saw hovering over Marina in her distress began to calm. She realized that Marina was starting to resign herself; to reach a state of peace. Because she was going to get rid of Elena. She was going to have the communists take her away, and then she would be out of Marina’s hair for a while. That realization, that right now Marina saw her as a burden, saw her as a problem to be rid of, that Marina did not care how she felt.
Marina would never help her. She never wanted to. She never even listened to her.
How had she come to be so powerless? So helpless? Dragged around everywhere like this?
Elena saw herself holding Gertrude’s hand again. Remembering that feeling, the roughness and softness of them, the slightly swarthy color of her olive skin, her striking eyes. She was across such a vast gulf from her now, in a world that Elena seemed like she could never join her in. Elena thought of all that transpired and all the friends she left behind. All of the people she had already lost. Bethany was gone; everyone at Vogelheim who used to accommodate her, coddle her, all gone; Gertrude herself; even someone like Sawyer was involved in this despicable tragedy too.
And Victoria van Veka too–
The princess’ eyes drew wide. In her agitated state, a little smile crept up on her lips.
All this time she had been so caught up in herself.
Those moments in Vogelheim had been so stressful, beyond stressful, nothing but scenes of chaos. Chaos that Elena had not wanted to sort out. In that instant of insanity in which she felt her heart filling with hatred for Marina, where she wished with all her heart to dash her to pieces, to free herself of her evil grip and to stop whatever deeds she had become involved in– within that moment of anger and sadness and desperation Elena remembered Victoria van Veka.
Suddenly she raised her hand to Marina’s face and laid it on her forehead.
Touching her. Wanting nothing more than to hurt her. To hurt her until she submitted.
Elena was the Princess. Marina should listen to her. Marina had to listen to her.
“Elena! What the fuck are you–”
“Let me go. Let me go now. Do what I say and let me go. Let me go, you peon–”
She recalled what it was like to feel controlled by Victoria.
Victoria had tried to do this to her. To stop her, to drag her towards her, to control her.
And she had tried to do it to Marina. Elena had felt what Marina had felt during that time too.
That feeling of thousands and thousands of hands crawling over her body.
Elena channeled that feeling. A feeling of being seized, of being pushed and pulled, of her skin and eyes and brain feeling an alien heat that wanted to seep in everywhere and fill her with itself, to forced her submission. Elena focused on this feeling, focused on using whatever Victoria saw inside her to push Marina, to pull Marina, to hurt Marina, to enter Marina in every pore of her being that was open to Elena’s will, to make Marina submit to her–
Intermittent red rings flashed on Marina’s eyes. She was not in, but she was close–
The G.I.A. agent’s jaw set, her arms shook, her brow sweated, her eyes teared up.
“Elena– Please– No–”
Elena could feel it, she could feel herself tearing Marina open–
Her physical sight of the world was submerged into the colors erupting from her victim.
Elena like a body drifting down the endlessness of the sea, falling, falling into the colors–
“Oh my. What an unladylike thing to be doing!”
There was a flash of light.
Sunlight. Artificial, likely, but the only kind of sun she had ever known.
Fluttering birds leaving their high perches in the dozens.
Fragrances of all sorts, flowers, and herbs, all carried on a buffeting, cool breeze.
Elena opened her eyes.
She was high up in a palatial garden, the peak of a castle overlooking lush plantation lands.
White stone banister and railing with gold ornamentation, tall green beds of various plants.
“Schwerin Island.” Elena said to herself. “My mother’s palace at Schwerin Island.”
Her breath caught in her chest. Her heart beat hard. She was alive, physical– right?
Why was she here? And she was not a child. She looked down at herself–
But she was not dressed as she should be. Back on that ship, she was basically naked.
Now she was wearing one of her ornate dresses. That dress she had worn on Vogelheim.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Too bad about everything that happened here.”
Elena was not alone. That voice that had called her ‘unladylike’ spoke up again.
At first, no matter where she looked, she could not see anything.
Then she appeared before Elena as if a ghost that had been hiding behind a gust of wind.
Blonde hair done half up, red eyes, a soft and pretty face with pale pink skin, youthful beyond its years, often twisted into a self-amused sneer. A slight woman, neither too tall nor too large, thin but well enough endowed, fit but not too apparently so. She was dressed how Elena last remembered seeing her. A red dress with a plunging, square neckline, white pants, wearing an open blue, red and gold jacket with the heraldry of the House of Fueller, the square, intricate semiconductor of fate and the machinery of the once-engineers, who became soldiers, who became the royal family.
Like a kid, Elena blurted out–
Standing before her as if she had traversed the length of the Oceans–
Norn the Praetorian.
Without word, Norn walked casually across Leda Lettiere’s garden to meet her daughter.
“Ah, my little elf, aren’t you sweet? Your mother was such a bohemian spirit, and yet she never accepted me as family, but you? You were always so warm. But I’m worried! If you remember this,” Norn gestured to the gardens around her as she walked, with a dramatic flourishing of her arms, “then surely, Elena, you remember the promise we made?”
Elena always found it hard to speak in front of the foremost retainer of the Fueller family.
Norn had a powerful presence. She spoke with unyielding confidence.
“I’m sorry Auntie– Lady Norn.” Elena corrected her etiquette quickly. Despite her own high status in the Fueller family, she almost felt beneath Norn, or at least, felt that Norn easily carried herself as one above even Elena herself.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I don’t recall.” Elena said, her chest fluttering with anxiety.
When her aunt responded, her voice was sickly sweet yet venomous at the same time.
“Oh, but Elena, it was a very important promise you made me. You can’t ever forget it!”
Norn stopped directly in front of Elena and stared directly into her eyes.
Red as Norn’s eyes were, in that instant, Elena saw even redder rings around them.
“Unfortunately, for us to meet here in the first place, means you broke the promise.”
The Praetorian’s fist struck fast as lightning. Elena had no time to react.
Like a film with a frame removed– one moment Norn had been standing still.
In the next, there was a fist embedded in Elena’s ribcage, pounding the air out of her.
Such was the force of that blow Elena nearly lifted off the floor.
Spit blew from Elena’s mouth, snot from her nose. She felt like her lungs went out of place.
So much pain, blinding, obliterating, all-consuming pain. More like a clubbing than a punch.
Elena dropped helplessly to her knees. Hugging herself, doubling over, retching.
“Not throwing any rocks? Or stirring up the dirt at me? Ahh. You’re still innocent.”
Norn kneeled down beside her and grabbed hold of Elena’s hair, snapping her head back.
“You promised to be a good girl for me. And it appears you still can be. It’s never too late to go back to being a powerless, pampered, cute little princess, Elena. So remain innocent; or Norn will be here to punish you.”
In the midst of her pain, images flashed in Elena’s mind. That smile– that sneering smile.
Huddled in a room in Schwerin, scared, alone, Leda Lettiere’s burning tower visible in the window.
Mother, Bethany– Marina–? No, they were gone. Only herself and this woman. Norn.
Norn kneeled next to her, just like this. Sweetly touching the head of the little scared child–
Staring deep into her with those red eyes until Elena started to lose her sense of place.
Flitting between the Norn of then and the Norn now as something appeared over her.
An icy white spike formed out of the air, instantly stabbing a deep, numbing cold into her brain.
Elena vanished from her mother’s garden and fell deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.
From the Captain’s chair came an exasperated sigh.
“Something’s wrong with those two. Can you go check on them quickly?”
Commissar Aaliyah Bashara stood up from her seat at Captain Korabiskaya’s request and stepped out into the hall outside the Bridge. She was skeptical of Marina McKennedy the moment she arrived — it was her job to be, after all. Now with the way she was treating that aide of hers, and the way that aide was behaving, Aaliyah was ever more suspicious of her motives. Between her two fluffy ears all kinds of ideas were percolating: maybe Marina had this girl captive and was drugging her; maybe this girl was being misled and Marina would dispose of her in secret–
Out in the hall, she found Maryam Karahailos, Klara Van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian out by the bulkheads. While Maryam was visibly panicking and looking around in confusion, Van Der Smidse and Zhu were both on the floor hovering over– people? Aaliyah hurried to the bulkhead well when she realized what was happening.
Maryam noticed this and waved her over anxiously.
“These two just dropped right out from behind this wall!” She cried out.
“What were they doing around the bulkheads?”
Aaliyah arrived and saw Marina McKennedy and her aide on the floor.
Van Der Smidse and Zhu breathed heavily over them, looking pale and tired.
“We managed to resuscitate them.” Zhu said.
“They weren’t breathing?” Aaliyah asked. “Why were they back here?”
“I think they wanted privacy. We’re sorry ma’am, we didn’t realize it’d be a thing.”
Van Der Smidse lifted herself off of Marina’s sleeping body with a heavy sigh.
“We kept an eye on them from afar, but then they just dropped to the ground.” She said. “When we got to them, they weren’t breathing. We started CPR– we told this girl to run to the security office and fetch Syrah, but she just stood there like an idiot.” Van Der Smidse shot Maryam a glare, the latter devolving into a fresh round of fretting.
“Just when we thought it looked worse than we could handle, they started breathing again. We got circulation too, their hearts don’t even sound very excited. They got lucky, I guess.” Zhu said, shrugging.
Absolutely bizarre. For Marina to drop like this too– maybe she was also using drugs?
“Good work you two– Maryam, it’s okay, calm down. You’re a civilian with no training.”
Aaliyah laid a shoulder on the fretting, weeping Maryam to try to calm her down.
“Ma’am, it’s just– I feel the despair wafting from them–” Maryam sounded hysterical.
“You’re a really sensitive girl, aren’t you?” Aaliyah said. She didn’t understand, but wanted to comfort her.
Before Maryam could complain any further, the steel floor shifted beneath their feet.
Aaliyah found herself thrown to the ground with Maryam, Zhu and Van Der Smidse as a sudden shock tilted the Brigand. Even through the metal armor Aaliyah could hear the sound of the explosive blasts going off outside, a dull booming like percussion in another room. Their feet slid out from under them and they landed in a pile over Marina.
The Commissar’s ears twitched as they picked up the distant but much more audible sound of screeching metal.
One thought consumed Aaliyah in that instant of panic — she had to get to the Bridge!
Almost leaping off the wall, Aaliyah pushed herself back onto her feet, and ran across the unsteady hall, the Brigand briefly shaking from side to side as it struggled to regain its balance amid the powerful shockwaves it was subjected to. Sliding and stumbling, holding a chilling breath in her chest, Aaliyah made it to the Bridge door and nearly fell through the opening as the door admitted her inside. Everything was still shaking even seconds after the impacts.
“Captain!” Aaliyah shouted.
She found Ulyana hanging on to her chair, with a hand over her head.
Aaliyah briefly thought she saw blood–
It was her morbid imagination. Ulyana was shaken, but unhurt and alive.
“Aaliyah, are you ok?” She asked.
Aaliyah nodded her head vigorously and then turned sharply to face the Bridge crew.
“Status report! Now!” She shouted.
“Two rounds! Main guns!” Fatima shouted, holding her chest, breathing in fits and starts.
She was completely spent.
Working at night, the first to respond, and the one responsible for tracking the whole situation on the sonar. They would have to work on her stamina, but for now it was understandable that she would shaken up. Aaliyah almost thought of relieving her, but this was not a situation where they could be as kind as they wanted to their crew.
Unprompted, the remaining reports came quickly after.
“Bulkheads automatically sealed on block C-6!” Semyonova reported. She sounded shaken but not to the degree Fatima was. “I’ve sealed additional bulkheads one sector out just in case. Freezing agents partially deployed; flood mitigation wasn’t able to do much. Draining slowly; pressure loss was mitigated in time to prevent a total loss.”
“C-6 is just a maintenance corridor in the outer hull.” Ulyana sighed with relief.
“Zachikova, did we catch the attack on video? How are the electronics?” Aaliyah said.
“We have vids. Two rounds detonated off the port side near the prow. No way we could have intercepted it. No direct hits on the hull.” Zachikova shouted, her deadpan voice the most composed out of the responders. “There was a sizable breach but freezing agents and flood mitigation are preventing the whole C-6 from peeling off. Several cameras and imagers are offline. Up to my neck in electrical errors from that sector. Shutting down power to it now.”
Ulyana laid back in her chair and raised her eyes up to the ceiling, groaning.
Aaliyah joined her, finally feeling calm enough to take her side again.
“Helmsman! How’s the propulsion? Any damage?” Ulyana asked.
“Maintaining speed. They just missed the sidepod intakes. We got lucky.” Kamarik replied.
Lucky, relatively speaking.
No ship wanted to take damage. That hole in the port-side would compromise the ship’s hydrodynamics and even with the freezing agent and flood systems slowing the build-up of water and pressure at the affected site, it was not something they could ignore forever. They would have to repair the hull properly. When and where they would do so was another matter entirely– and on that there was no point in addressing, until they had escaped.
“Okay! Nobody panic. We’re still following the plan. Keep yourselves on task and we’ll get out of her alive.” Ulyana said. “We’ve all had the dust shaken off our coats by the nice Ms. Lichtenberg, and now we just have to pay back her kindness. Kamarik, keep an eye on our thrust, and Zachikova, keep working on the software. How are our Divers? We have a battle to win here, people. Semyonova, put me through to Lichtenberg, she’s calling, right?”
“Yes ma’am, she has been the whole time. I’ve kept refusing.” Semyonova said.
“She’s clearly desperate for my attention.” Ulyana said in jest. “So I’ll reward her.”
At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah looked up at the smiling blond keeping this Bridge together.
She felt almost like she was looking at an entirely different person than before.
To think this was that same woman who was clumsy with words and loose with drink.
Everyone was shaken and scared.
They were all tense, they could die any minute, and a massive shock just dealt real damage to their ship for the first time. Fatima and Alex looked like they would have respiratory attacks. Zachikova, no matter how much she hid it, was clearly struggling with the software. Despite the desperate situation they were in, Ulyana could still smile and joke, at least on the outside, and her voice had not lost the power it wielded before the blasts.
Firing the main gun should have changed the entire situation.
Ulyana was still in command of this Bridge, however.
And so they soldiered on with her.
“Captain, do we still think she’s bluffing?” Aaliyah said.
“Oh, she’s bluffing. I’ve got her grabbed by that little ponytail of hers now, don’t worry.”
Ulyana’s confidence never wavered even as she said these dangerous words.
If she was anything less than sure, she was condemning them all to sink.
Aaliyah knew she was right, however. With this attack, the Irmingard outed itself.
“Semyonova, hurry and put Lichtenberg through if she’s calling.” Ulyana said.
Semyonova nodded solemnly. Seconds later, the Inquisitor reappeared before the Captain.
Gertrude Lichtenberg was all smiles, looking quite pleased with herself on the video.
“Greetings Captain. I see it took a reminder of our relative positions to get you to respond to my calls. You’ve taught me a dangerous thing about how to deal with you, so you’d best try to accommodate me now. My main guns are loaded for another salvo, but I’d rather break this vicious cycle and parlay. So what do you say?”
“I say you’re being very selfish here. Each of those rounds must have cost a few hundred thousand marks. Seems like a waste to be dealing with a bunch of bottomfeeders like us in that way.” Ulyana shrugged comically.
“Given how much damage you’ve done it’s the only way I will deal with you.”
“I don’t want to brag; honestly, I just think you could do with better help.”
“I feel exactly the same, so I will cut to the chase here then.” Gertrude was already visibly annoyed by Ulyana once again. She clearly had skin as thin as a sheet of limestone paper. “You have a VIP aboard that I will be taking into custody. We don’t need to discuss the specifics. Don’t even pretend with euphemisms like ‘precious cargo’, I know you have her aboard. I will get her back, whether rescuing her from the wreckage or in a way that allows you to live. Give her up, and this dishonorable situation never transpired. You have my word you will go free. In fact, I may even have work for mercenaries of your caliber in the future. But I need her back right now.”
Now that was an intriguing response. She had spilled a lot of valuable information.
Off to the side of these exchanges, Aaliyah could not help but grin and find herself quite pleased with Ulyana’s performance. Thinking about what she said, Aaliyah felt that Gertrude must have been referring to Marina. By all accounts, Maryam had no trail, but Marina, if she had been captured by the Empire before, was a known fugitive. She had no idea how Marina’s presence aboard the Brigand came to be known to the authorities — but if there was anyone aboard the Brigand whom Gertrude’s words could be about, it had to be Marina. There was no doubt in her mind.
Ulyana quite accurately surmised that pushing back with her own euphemisms would work.
“Oh, but I know exactly who she is, Ms. Lichtenberg. I know who she is and how valuable she is, or I would not be resisting. I saw through her façade the instant she came aboard. However, she is still a prized client and does not wish to return to your custody. So I shall have to decline. She’s mine now, so you’d best move on from her.”
Ulyana smiled sweetly after speaking.
Gertrude’s jaw had a spasm.
“I will rip your little hauler in half and pick her out of a flooded pod if I have to.” Gertrude said.
“That’s a notion you really ought to move on from as well.” Ulyana said.
Gertrude grit her teeth.
“Who are you really working for? What will it take for you to surrender peacefully? To end this mean–”
“Are you going to say, ‘meaningless bloodshed’? Spare me the sophistry.”
“You have to be doing this for someone or something! What is it that you are after?”
“I see.” Ulyana said. She winked at Gertrude. “You’re really smitten with her, huh?”
This time it was Gertrude who cut off the video feed, flashing a furious grimace first.
Ulyana laid back in her chair, smiling to herself.
“She’s not going to shoot. Whoever she’s after, it’s personal.”
“Personal, huh?” Aaliyah said.
“I can tell. I’ve just seen a lot of girls her type. I know that kind of hysterical, horny energy.”
Aaliyah grumbled. “No kidding?”
“I’m only half-joking. But there’s more to it of course.” Ulyana laughed. “Marina said Lichtenberg got her position from a fallen predecessor, through playing politics. If I was a ruthless social climber who won herself a powerful position, why would I descend into convulsions over a single rescue mission? I would expect her to be methodical and emotionless. The Inquisition’s job is to repress people, not save them. I can only imagine this must be personal.”
“There’s another possibility.” Aaliyah said. “It’s about someone really big in the Empire.”
“True. I guess in the Empire there’s also Princes and Princesses and all that.”
“Yes, but that would be silly. Who do you think she’s really after?” Aaliyah said.
“Can’t be Maryam. Katarrans are the lowest of low in Imbrian society.” Ulyana said.
“I was thinking Marina. Maybe Marina knows something.” Aaliyah said.
“She definitely knows something.” Ulyana said. “But why go crazy about taking her alive?”
Aaliyah crossed her arms and nodded. “Thinking about it for a second. The Emperor died very recently. In his absence all kinds of backroom deals and schemes would occur. It could be that Marina has information Gertrude needs to solidify her position in the internecine political conflict. So it’s not about silencing her but getting her to talk.”
“You know, that adds up. I’m thinking it must be Marina then. We’ll need to talk to her.”
Ulyana slid the video display out of her way so she could address the crew unimpeded.
“I’m not hearing any explosions! Have we been able to contact our Divers yet?”
“Drone’s almost there.” Alex said in a choked voice, taking a deep breath.
On the main screen, the drone camera took focus amid the rest of the video feeds.
Through its eyes they approached the Irmingard dead on, flak flying in the distance.
Two fast-moving objects cut through the water over the Irmingard’s surface.
A laser call came in. Semyonova gasped, her hands grabbing hold of her own headset.
“We’ve heard a report from the Divers! Khadija’s engaging– we lost a bomb undetonated!”
Ulyana grit her teeth. Aaliyah bowed her head solemnly.
They were nothing but passengers at this point. Innocents caught up in a stream.