Whenever she marched up this dusty grey carpet to meet him, the grim throne room of their souls was not actually at Heitzing where it should logically be but was instead displaced to the summer palace at Schwerin Island.
She could see through the stark white pillars out to vast fields encircling the palace, fields of her favorite flower, purple Lilies. Schwerin was the terminal point of a wound that began to be cut into the emperor’s upper torso at Vogelheim. But it was at Schwerin Island where the knife fully disemboweled him and cut everything from him.
His guts, his groin; his sins spilled pathetically on this holy ground.
And so he remained surrounded on all sides by the perfectly preserved memory of his lusts.
“What vice! What tragedy! But Konstantin, I am happy you still choose to watch over me!”
It was a vision of a soul being made to dream. It was a place only the most powerful saw.
For some it could be blissful and innocent, but this Aether reflected the self in this man.
Stark white pillars caging him in a throne far from the vast colorful fields of his regret.
Upon the throne was a wasting, sickly man clad heavily in coat and cape, a marshal of vast forces long dispersed, whose gaunt countenance retained only his severity and grim expression. Any hint of his soft handsomeness was faded, replaced by the haunted, far-away gaze with which he ordered wars, enslavement, genocide, and the death of his beloved. He retained some of his vanities, such as his head of long black hair untouched atop his head as if the last remnants of life upon his body. A corpse wearing the suit of prestige, any beauty also merely part of a disguise.
Standing opposite this man was also the true self of his only remaining companion.
A blond woman, hair tied up in a functional ponytail, with a deceptively soft expression just barely touched by makeup and just barely restraining laughter. Her stark red eyes contrasted the blue and green coat of the House of the Fueller, that she wore over a sleek black camisole blouse and white pants. She looked much younger than she was, for she and the skeletal man before her were only separated by a few years. Because of her power and charisma, her beauty remained unmarred both in the Aether and in the real world. She was proud of the body she exhibited to him.
“You could have simply let it go! But now your ego has trapped you here forever!”
He could say nothing back.
“I’m beyond thrilled! You think you will get some satisfaction from this? Then keep watching me! Bear witness while everything that represented you rusts and turns to dust! Gaze upon the bountiful rewards I enjoy while you suffer! Haunt me with all your remaining strength!”
She spat on the ground before the throne and then made an act of sorting out her coat. She had come to like wearing the coat and what it represented, the climbing up of the intelligent and feared machinists of the Fuellers to the ladder of power after suffering a grievous disrespect, the first revolution this stagnant society ever saw. She admired them, collectively. But not this man.
Soon, however, the walls began to waver, turning into many-colored smoke and fading–
“–Descending through the Upper Scattering Layer in five minutes.”
A cold and inexpressive voice rose above the sounds of mechanical keys and the whirr of the individual station computers on the gloomy bridge of the Imperial cruiser Antenora. Unlike the flamboyant bridge designs common to many other Imperial ships, this one was spartan, with bare metal walls and the ship’s commander seated amid a tight square of her supporting station officers.
It was on this bridge that Lady Norn von Fueller awakened from a dream already dim and forgotten.
Though she could turn her gaze in any direction and see right over the shoulders of her subordinates, she mainly stared at the main screen with an almost bored expression. Her officers reported to her efficiently throughout the course of the descent, but she had questions of her own the whole time, which received answers just as efficient. Nothing more than what was necessary.
“286 meters and descending.”
“Sonar shows all clear?”
“All clear, milord.”
Moving quickly on from one subordinate to the next.
“How’s the red biomass in this sector?”
“1 parts per million at concentration 2 on the Schechter scale.”
Her station officers did not even turn their heads to speak to her, nor did she demand it.
“Are we detecting any imaging attempts against the Upper Scattering Layer?”
“Negative, milord. No signs of radiation or human acoustic patterns.”
“Of course they would not. And yet, for every concept under the sun, there is a someday.”
Among her bridge, it was only Norn who had spare words to say.
As far as most of the public, and even the most of the military knew, the Upper Scattering Layer was the boundary of the human world. An absolutely massive ecosystem that stretched ocean-wide containing almost all life that survived the calamity which befell Aer. When sonar and laser imaging was turned surfaceward from the deeper civilization of humankind, there was a “false roof” to their endeavors formed by fish, leviathans, and other ocean creatures.
The Upper Scattering Layer separated the Aphotic zone of humanity from the Photic zone, the ocean nearest to the surface and which received direct sunlight, even through the cover of the corruption clouds. Nothing could be built by humans in the Photic zone that wouldn’t be destroyed by its alien temperament. Navigation was nearly impossible due to the erratic currents and the touch of the surface’s most corrupted areas and their eldritch weather influencing the waters. If a ship did not get blown off-course or wrecked by a sudden turn in the waters, it could antagonize the many aggressive lifeforms that grew out of humankind’s calamity and get devoured.
Outside of the geographic locations known as Reaches, areas where the surface was miraculously tamer and humanity could therefore enter its shallows, the Upper Scattering Layer at between 300 to 500 meters depth, represented the wall between the world of light and the shadow of humanity. It was this wall through which the Imperial Cruiser Antenora now descended through, from above. Back to the dark to rejoin the rest of humanity after a brief sojourn in the holy land.
This was but one of many powers commanded by the woman known as “the Praetorian.”
“Hunter III, you’ve been keeping mum. Anything interesting in that head of yours?”
In a corner of the bridge, a pallid woman lifted her head up as if waking from a trance.
Eyes glowing with intermittent red rings as she stared into space, called by her Lord.
“I mean whatcha wanna know anyway?” She said. Her tone was confrontational.
“How about the currents? What’s the weather looking like?”
“Currents are fine. We’ll dive through without problems.”
Her Lord, nothing but the back of a chair from her vantage, rapped fingers on metal.
“Couple’a big ones. 5 klicks out. Fightin’ each other. Won’t follow us.”
“You sure? I’ll hurl you out there to be bait if you’re wrong.” Her tone shifted suddenly.
“I can’t be unsure, I’m seein’ it. Quit givin’ me grief. You’re always treatin’ me like trash when I’m the only reason any of ya are alive. Give me more meat if ya want me to be more accurate. Otherwise all y’all getting is my half-dead ramblings, you greedy evil witch.”
Laughter erupted from the chair. A black-gloved hand slammed the armrest with joy.
“How dramatic! Woe is you! Eating sausage and luncheon meat like us humans do!”
At the Lord’s response, the pallid, sharp-toothed woman grumbled openly.
“When are ya gonna give me real meat again?” She moaned. “Y’just starvin’ me for fun?”
“Quit acting like a dog I don’t feed. You eat every day. You’ll get something special soon.”
“Soon huh? The days’ been creepin’ and soon ain’t ever closer for Hunter III, it seems.”
None of the other bridge crew had any comment about the repartee behind them.
At the back, Hunter III pulled her hood up over her stark grey-and-white hair and sulked.
“Work hard and pray for trouble!” Norn cheered. “Then I’ll have use for you again!”
There was a crooked grin on Norn’s face as she berated Hunter III that she wore at no other time on that bridge. Everyone else was an automaton; but there was real value, and real fun, in a person whom you could not control. Particularly someone with the myriad uses Hunter III had.
“We’ve crossed the Upper Scattering Layer,” droned one of the officers.
The Antenora descended through a vast cloud of fish that parted and then closed in its wake as if shutting the door to the forbidden world behind them. Around the ship the color of water formed a slowly darkening gradient, from the brilliant light blue and green water kissed by the light of the sun to the deep blue and ultimately near-black waters of the aphotic zone. Visibility grew worse, until the ship’s cameras turned their floodlights on to achieve the familiar 50-75 meters of vision. At 700 meters, they could claim to have returned fully to the human world.
All manner of learned men dreamed of making this transition and found a depth of tragedy and poetry to this gradient in the water and light. Norn found nothing poetic about it. In her mind, there was no irony to humans’ remnants having been reduced to living in the shadows of the aphotic zone. She avoided such sophistry as to say, “we are shadows of our former selves.”
After all, she was living proof that humanity’s best was yet to come.
Her most common emotion sitting on this bridge was a sense of sheer boredom.
A blankness of the mind that only cleared once she was back in the dark world of humans.
“Depth?” She asked, back to an inexpressive, business-like tone of voice.
“Ah, home sweet home. We are in Sverland, correct?”
“Correct. Nearest station is Ajillo.”
“Ignore biologics again and inform me immediately of any mechanical profiles.”
Norn did not thank her bridge “drones” for their efficiency and attention.
In this role, she was as much of a drone as they were.
Soon, however, she would have cause to come alive again.
Now that she was back in the human world, her own vision started moving to other matters.
“Hunter III, feel free to nod off. I’ll wake you if I need you. Send Adelheid up.”
“It’s not sleep I’m cravin’, but as ya wish, milady.”
Behind Norn’s seat, Hunter III stood up and stormed out of the room.
Norn grinned to herself. She was back in Sverland, in the final act of Konstantin’s play.
It was not the surface world in which anything was transpiring, the poets and clergy be damned.
Movement existed only where humans could view it. That she could rise out of the world of humanity and travel through the waters above only made her anticipate her return to the dark more eagerly.
This was a time of great chaos and emotion in the world of humans, after all!
“Milord, we’ve detected a sonar pulse coming from a pair of Frigates.”
Without another word, the officer put the data she was referencing on the main screen. While a sonar pulse was a good way to be absolutely sure of everything that was around a ship, it also lit the ship up underwater like a stage spotlight. The Antenora was quickly aware of the ship that sent the pulse and their relative position. Soon, predictive imaging data came in as well.
“Milord, what is our posture?”
Norn smiled to herself, leaning back and resting her cheek on one of her fists.
“Combat. Let’s clean this up quickly, and then we can pick up our reinforcements.”
A few kilometers out were two Frigates, one of which was a missile Frigate with six bays, the other a reconnaissance ship outfitted with several domes filled with imaging and detection equipment more powerful than standard. It must have been this ship that sent out the pulse, but for what? Were they so reasonably sure that nobody meant them ill in this sector? One supposed they could not have known a ship would be descending from the photic zone.
Nobody planned for that.
“Nobody sends those missile Frigates out as part of a recon unit except the Volkisch.” Norn said. “That second Frigate has no missiles, it’s probably packed with Divers. Heidelinde Sawyer came up with that trick and now every one of those goosestepping clowns thinks they can do it.”
“To whom should we delegate combat command?”
A different drone spoke up than the one handling detection, but it didn’t matter who did.
“I’ll command.” Norn said. “But there won’t be much to do. Ping them over acoustics and tell them to stop, turn their cannons away, show their flanks to us, and prepare for inspection. All I want to know from the reply is whether they’re identifying as Volkisch or not, ignore the content. They won’t comply anyway, so just tell Potomac to get Selene and the machine ready to launch.”
Norn toyed with a long lock of blonde hair from the side of her head, briefly admiring its sheen. Adelheid was simply unmatched when it came to making Norn look beautiful. On the main screen, the Volkisch Frigates turned to meet her advance as soon as the acoustic message went out, putting them on a collision course. Norn glanced at it, gently kicking her feet while she waited.
“Fleet identified as ‘Aufklärungsgruppe Sowilo’ from the Rhinean navy.”
“Ah, fun! It’s the Volkisch. Stick to counterfire only.” Norn said. “Let Selene handle it.”
She rubbed her hands together and then spread them in a spontaneous cheer.
A grin appeared on her face from ear to ear and she could barely contain her excitement.
A grin that only broadened when she finally got the message she wanted to hear from the hangar.
“Jagdkaiser Testbed, pilot Selene Anahid, cleared for deployment.” An officer said.
“I’m authorizing one cartridge, Selene. Anything goes otherwise. Have fun!” Norn said.
She then sat back to watch she show, hoping only that Adelheid might join them soon.
From the deployment chutes at the bottom of the Antenora a single machine was released.
Imaging predictors could not distinguish it from a Jagd and labeled it as such.
As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching.
To meet this threat the missile Frigate’s bays opened to reveal six modified Volkers. These Sturmvolkers used the smaller cockpit module of a Jagd rather than the bathyspheric torso of an older Volker, but retained the arms, legs, shoulders, and other parts of the classic imperial mecha to design a rugged but lighter footsoldier worthy of the frontline stormtroops. It was this stripping down that allowed the Sturmvolker to fit into the modified missile bays and launch from them.
As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching, and they had ambushed it.
Six Sturmvolkers with MP-443 20 mm submachine guns charged the enemy in formation.
Withering volleys of light gunfire cut across the ocean between the opposing forces.
Bullets soared into the dark, open water and detonated around an enemy no longer there.
An instant before they had begun to fire, the enemy Jagd veered left–
And a pair of foreign objects separated from it and veered right.
Several of the Volkisch troops opened fire on the objects believing them to be missiles. Dozens of rounds of submachine gun fire met the objects on the right flank. Much to the confusion and disbelief of the soldiers, these missiles dove, and banked, and circled around the gunfire, moving with a speed, reaction and efficacy that seemed unreal as they sped past the formation.
Taking the Volkisch’s backs, the missiles suddenly opened fire themselves.
Not just from behind, but from above as well.
Coordinating fire from two separate directions, the weapons laid down a hailstorm of frighteningly accurate 37 mm bullets while they circled over and around the Volkisch group, too fast for the bewildered soldiers to effectively respond. Two of the Volkers had their backpacks and helmets blasted apart immediately, and the rest began to panic and flee in every direction– they broke completely at the unusual weapons attacking them and without cohesion could do nothing.
Though the remaining Volkers dispersed in seemingly every direction, the strange mobile weapons simply adjusted the angle of fire and widened their strafing movements to expand the circle in which they kept the Volkisch trapped. Three more Volkers were sunk, but a single one dove down and to the left at just the right time as everyone else rose, narrowly avoiding the attack.
He lifted his submachine gun skyward and opened fire, blasting apart one of the missiles.
A shadow swept upon him as quickly as he remembered it. A massive claw ripped through the back of his armor and tore out the suit’s mechanical guts in a swift motion. With them was a red smear made unhuman by sudden decompression. Slowly the once survivor sank out of sight, arms limp, trailing ribbons of oil and gore like the machine that killed him trailed water and power.
As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd had torn through their forces like a storm.
Atop the Frigates, 76 mm light guns began to pound the immediate area around the machine but to no greater effect. Before it was fired upon the machine was already moving, accelerating faster, and maneuvering more swiftly than the cannon crew anticipated. Gas gun emplacements on the Frigates whipped up an intimidating fusillade of flak, but even through this, the enemy charged, unharmed, its cruel claw extending hungrily toward the Frigates as it closed in, 100 meters, 75, 50.
“You have one cartridge. Make it count.”
Within moments, the Jagd was upon the reconnaissance Frigate, face to face with the prow.
Having danced around every bullet as if it could see them before they flew out the barrels.
Dwarfed as it was by the vessel before it, the Jagd still reared back its claw to tear at it.
From within the seams in its arm’s armor plating a dim purple glow briefly escaped.
Vapor vented from several ports on the claw.
Razor-sharp digits parted to reveal an opening like a cannon barrel in the palm.
Stabilizers on each digit affixed to the central port as it snapped open.
A burst of water vapor punched forward from the opening encasing an indigo light.
On the Frigate’s prow a pulse shook the metal. Purple streaks crackled across the surface slashing up and down the prow to the keel and deck, to the port and starboard. Hexagonal bits of material peeled off the surface wherever the arcing energies danced leaving gaps momentarily smoking in place, before a second later the entire prow sunk in and burst, ejecting great plumes of bubbles and vapor as the interior decompressed. Roughly half of the ship lost structural integrity and collapsed, sinking inward or bursting open, and it toppled to the ocean floor a heap of metal.
Across the Jagd’s claw, hexagonal burnt marks were left around the weapon’s opening and all of the stabilizers had been eaten away. Dim crackling purple energy still played about the digits leaving tiny hex-shaped scars wherever they went. Parts of the armor plate on the arm had been peeled entirely off the machine revealing complex, silvery metalwork, and various electronics.
As the machine capsized a ship with one swing of its arm, its remaining weapon swiftly strafed across the deck of the missile Frigate, overflying the missile bays with its barrel pointing down and shooting directly into the openings as it went, punching holes directly to the interior of the ship. Nonchalantly, the weapon overflew the conning tower as the Frigate began to list, taking in water and expelling atmosphere. It returned to the machine and docked to the shoulder.
Minutes had passed since the launch of this machine.
Suspended amid clouds of debris and the wailing remains of hundreds of lives so easily erased, the machine was cast in a demonic gloom. Water billowing off its rear jets like wings, its blue coloration rendered black in the darkness of human waters, the horns on its head emitting strange lights. It was a demon released to haunt the oceans.
A demon called the Jagdkaiser.
Water dribbled down the armor of the recovered Jagdkaiser as it was lifted to the hangar by cranes, collecting on the orange steel floor of the Antenora’s lower deck. Soon as it arrived at the deployment chute, the pilot followed instructions to power down the machine. It was delicate and should not be made to move out of the water under its own power until set into its own gantry.
As Norn stepped out of the elevator to the hangar floor, she saw a welcome face gawking.
“Fancy looking, isn’t it?” Norn called out.
“I can’t stand it, honestly. Too many sharp edges.”
“Your skin too fine for it? Scared of getting a cut?”
“Hmph. My fashion sense is too fine for it.”
Standing apart from the sailors and engineers tending to the machine was Norn’s adjutant and first officer, a young woman named Adelheid van Mueller. Unlike Norn, who dressed however she wanted and essentially just wore her nicest shirts and pants beneath Fueller regalia, Adelheid had the grey and silver uniform of the Grand Western Fleet, a strapping coat that flattered her shapely figure, paired with a short skirt, black tights, and heeled shoes. Her glossy, deep red hair and the pastel-soft features of her face could have graced a classic portrait. She not only looked every bit the perfect noblewoman, but her every movement exuded an almost exotic grace–
–even as she blew off Norn’s high-tech prototype mecha with a bratty turn of the cheek.
“I’ve decided I quite dislike it.” She said. Her green eyes were unreadable, but her soft pink lips pouted just a little as she looked at the machine with vague disinterest, or perhaps disdain.
Norn shrugged, approaching the young woman, and standing at her side near the machine.
“You’ll have to get out of its sight, princess, because it’s not going anywhere.”
“Perhaps I will. Maybe I’ll take off and you’ll never see me again.” Adelheid laughed.
“Hunter III told you to go up to meet me.” Norn said nonchalantly.
“Hunter III ran straight to the commissary to beg for meat and told me nothing.”
“Wow. I can’t rely on her to do anything. Anyway, you know you’re not going anywhere.”
Norn briefly fixed a sharp gaze on Adelheid before setting her sights back on the mecha.
Possessed of the sleek, angular profile of the second-generation Jagd, the Jagdkaiser had a pointed face from which two steeply angled “horns” protruded, glowing with LED lights. One of its 20 mm shoulder guns was removed. That shoulder was thickened and mounted its semi-autonomous “Options” weapon system.
Rather than a backpack, the propulsion consisted of self-contained hydrojet thrusters set on exterior movable mounts. Two large ones extended from the hips, another pair on the legs, and pair behind the shoulders that, when engaged, cast a wake behind machine as if it had wings or a shimmering cape. One of its arms was equipped with a large claw, almost out of proportion to the body, sleeved in angular armor enclosing complex machinery.
Upon seeing the design, Prince Erich dubbed it Jagdkaiser. It was a marvel of engineering, the most stunning armor beneath the waves. The stagnant conflict between the Republic and Empire, which neither had the will to conclude, could have never produced such an apex predator. It could only emerge from a grand upheaval of the current order. Regardless of Adelheid’s silly attitude, even she had to have realized the significance.
“Is Selene unplugged yet?”
Norn turned to one of the technicians near the machine.
He was looking at a diagnostic computer that had a real-time image that looked like a brain-scan, showing different regions of the pilot’s neurological system in different colors. Everything was blue and green, calm. Norn could see similar colors when she focused on the aura around the machine itself. Selene was in good health.
“Separation is almost complete, milord.”
“Did it take this long last time?”
“Average separation time is 5.45 minutes.”
Like the rest of the crew the technician did not turn to face her, it wasn’t necessary.
When Norn stepped forward to look at the computer herself, she briefly saw the hard red rings around his eyes. He continued to be under her influence. There was no possibility that he was lying or trying to sabotage anything. After all, he himself would not want to do so. He himself had no understanding that he was controlled, and he was not wanting for food, rest or luxuries. He was simply working his job efficiently and enjoying it.
That being said, there was always a tiny thrill of paranoia about it, in the back of Norn’s brain.
Adelheid look over Norn’s shoulder with a curious expression.
“Norn, this time’s definitely taking longer.” Adelheid said.
“We’re well within the average time based on our tests.” The technician said calmly.
“He can backtalk me?” Adelheid pouted.
Norn grinned. “He can state the facts plainly and clear misconceptions. It’s his job.”
Taking Adelheid by the shoulder, Norn led her away from the computers and drones.
They stepped in front of the Jagdkaiser and waited until they finally heard a mechanical hissing. An efficient two part hatch slid into the bodywork, opening to reveal a young, skinny girl emerging from what looked eerily like a conglomeration of sinews attached to her head. Extricating herself from the various cables and sensors in her cockpit, the lithe girl in a black pilot suit climbed down, withdrew a visored mask from her pearl-skinned face.
She pulled a clip from the back of her head to release her long, purple-colored hair.
Two long, rainbow-colored, shimmering locks remained pinned down to the rest, however.
“I was having too much of a blast and busted one of the things. It’s whatever, right?”
Selene Anahid pointed at the Jagdkaiser’s shoulder with an easygoing smile on her face.
“Ordnance gets shot down. It’s fine. Logistics worries about that.” Norn said, shrugging.
“Hah! I knew you wouldn’t care. You’re the coolest commander I’ve had.” Selene said.
Grinning widely, Selene walked up to Norn and gave her a lighthearted little punch.
Norn refrained from roughhousing back and simply crossed her arms and smiled back.
At their side, Adelheid rolled her eyes and scoffed, loudly, performatively.
“It’s not a long list.” She said. “And I bet you’ll hate it the first time she scolds you.”
“Whatever.” Selene blew off the comment. “As long as I get what I want, I’ll be happy.”
“What you want huh? Killing people?” Adelheid said, with mock sweetness.
“That’s just a hobby. Anyway I’m bored. I’m gonna get some dinner and go to bed.”
Selene looked at Norn both expectantly but also with a great disinterest in her response. It was the kind of look only a self-absorbed kid could give. Norn couldn’t help but laugh. Such quick, almost schizophrenic swings; what a lively girl! Truly the only appropriate pilot for this test.
“Of course. If you see Hunter III over there, tell her to come down.” Norn said.
“She won’t listen to me, but ok.”
Selene waved disinterestedly and walked away with her arms behind her head, yawning.
The two of them watched her go, until the young woman had disappeared into the elevator. Norn and Adelheid looked at the interior of the Jagdkaiser and at the missing slot in the “Options” mount of the shoulder, just briefly enough to realize it was indeed a problem, before wandering away from the gantries. They would have to talk to Chief Engineer Potomac to see about fixing it.
Side by side, with Adelheid matching Norn’s contemplative pace, they marched to the ship’s workshop. There was clear and growing agitation in the First Officer’s stride, however.
“Norn, about Selene? She’s a vat kid, right? How old is she?” Adelheid asked.
“Supposed to be twenty, but who knows?” Norn asked. “And what’s with ‘vat kid’? I’m also a ‘vat kid’ I’ll have you know; I don’t want that phrase coming up in my ship again, okay?”
“Okay, fine. But you have to tell me what you promised her!” Adelheid demanded.
“What’s this mood you’re in suddenly? Are you feeling jealous? You colicky child?”
Adelheid turned her cheek. “And what if I am? I know I’m nowhere near as important–”
Norn interrupted decisively. “I’ll see to you soon. Hold on to your skirt until then.”
Her voice took a turn that seemed to put some kind of order back in Adelheid’s brains.
She started keeping pace with Norn again and her expression was slightly livelier.
“Fine, but what did you promise her? I want to know. I have to help take care of her too.”
In the face of Adelheid’s endearing determination, Norn finally relented.
“I promised her information about her past. I know who her main genetic donor is.”
“‘Main Genetic Donor’? Like, what, her father?”
“So in your mind, the principal actor behind a child’s creation is the father?”
“I mean. I guess? I wasn’t really getting philosophical with this.”
“I was just surprised by your reaction, given we’ve been through.” Norn shrugged. “Well, in her case, if I explained all the circumstances regarding her father-slash-mother, it might confuse your apparently narrow minded ideas of the world around you. So put that pretty head to good use thinking about less complicated matters, like our logistics, and onboarding our reinforcements, and let me worry about Selene.”
Adelheid took the insult to her intelligence in stride and put on a mischievous little grin.
“You’re the boss. But now I’m curious. What about your own donors? What kind of genetic powerhouses are behind the impeccable, almighty Astra Palaiologos whose company I cherish?”
Norn glanced sideways at Adelheid with a sudden fierceness.
Adelheid both saw, and felt the force of, that particular gaze, and it put her in her place.
Her flighty officer put her hands behind her back and kept quiet as they crossed the hangar.
Norn made only the tip of the iceberg of her displeasure known to her in that moment.
This particular turn in her plaything’s mood was starting to get a little annoying.
Adelheid knew everything she needed to know about Norn. More than any Imbrian knew.
Her curiosity toward boring, long-gone days was getting on Norn’s nerves.
Next time she taught Adelheid a lesson she’d make those feelings quite clear to her.
Almost assuredly what she wanted to happen.
When the pair arrived at the workshop space, a drone had just pulled in through one of the utility chutes and disgorged from its pod a heap of twisted metal and seawater collected from the battlefield. This was what remained of the “Option” that had been destroyed in the battle with the Volkisch, or so Norn presumed. There was no one paying it attention in that precise moment.
“Ugh, I wish they’d sent Tigris or Hudson instead. Potomac! Get over here and make yourself useful!”
Hunched over a table, prodding with an electrode at something wet and plastic colored encased in a metal shell to which far too many strange cables were attached, was the Antenora’s current Chief Engineer, named only “Potomac.” She was on loan from a certain distasteful group.
Potomac had turned the workshop into a circle of tables each playing host to mounds of tools and parts. Fluids of various sorts, random indiscernible pieces of machinery, worn or broken tools, and rolling hills of cabling and silicon dies littered the area. She was drowning in materials.
Clearly, she was not paying much attention to her surroundings whatsoever.
“In a minute.” She mumbled dismissively.
“Right now.” Norn hissed.
Norn caught a brief glimpse of her honey-brown face as she looked over her shoulder. Where she came from, it was no obstacle to look however you wanted. Her lab coat, turtleneck and long skirt were all made of organic materials, worth thousands of marks by themselves. To the average onlooker she would have she would have been quite eyecatching, with a curvaceous figure, wide hipped, round-shouldered, an ample chest and a firm, round belly, thick legs. Her face had a soft-featured, small-nosed, gentle beauty to it that felt quite cozy, and long, lustrous black hair.
“I just need to get a few more reactions out of this neuropod. It’ll just take a second.”
Sparks flew as she jabbed the strange object in front of her with an electric prod.
Adelheid turned her cheek with a look of vague disgust.
Norn held out her hand, and in an instant, Potomac’s experiment was sent flying.
It struck the opposite wall of the workshop, a blue and white smear left in the case.
Potomac stared at it with barely any reaction. Her eyes teared up just a little.
“I– I don’t even know how to respond to that. I worked on that for hours.”
“If you value the integrity of the rest of your experiments, you will follow my commands immediately when I tell you.” Norn said. “Not one minute, not one second later. Right now.”
The engineer heaved a long sigh and turned to face them with a wan look to her face.
Her movements were very stiff, as if she were dragging herself through every motion.
Potomac could choose to look however she wanted. Therefore, to some degree, perhaps the dark bags under her forced-open eyes, the uncared for look of her hair that was haphazardly collected and restrained with a clip behind her head, the shabbiness that had befallen her coat, the dirtiness of her glasses, were all symbolic of what she chose to do with the resources she had.
“Glad we understand each other.” Norn said. “I have something you need to fix.”
“I’m not one of your sailors, you know.” Potomac complained. “I’m not here to keep your ship’s ovens running or whatever. I’m only supposed to be working on important stuff.”
Norn crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Like poking at slime in a jar?”
“It’s not slime! It’s so much more than slime, bah! It’s the future of computing!”
“I don’t care. One of the Jagdkaiser’s Options was damaged in the battle. Go fix it.”
“Uh huh? Well, that is worthy of my talents.”
Potomac looked suddenly interested and began to look around the workshop.
“Did you bring it back? Where is it?”
Norn pointed over her shoulder. “It’s over there.”
“Over there? I don’t– Are you sure? Huh. I don’t see it. This might be tricky.”
“Are you blind? Over there. What do you need to fix it?” Norn asked.
She gestured to the drone as if unveiling the heap of metal they collected from the water.
Potomac blanched at it, her face sagging with growing displeasure.
“What is that? Is that really one of the Options?”
“Yes. Don’t act stupid. I’m sure you can tell from looking at it, you made it.”
“When I made it, it didn’t look like that.” Potomac bent down to stare closely at the gnarled slag that became of her invention. She shook her head, while still bent stiffly over it. “I did not expect to ever see an Option in such a state.” She stood back upright as stiffly as she bent.
“You eggheads never disappoint me with your naivety.” Norn said.
Potomac curled her hands into fists at her side.
“Look, I am an engineer advancing humanity’s digital evolution! My brain is constantly beset with world-spanning dilemmas that need cutting-edge, innovative solutions. I spare any expense to achieve my results no matter how high. I am not one of your small-minded logistics people counting beans in a bag. I will need to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”
Norn rolled her eyes at that histrionic spiel. “Problem solved then.”
“No! There is a new problem. I do not want to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”
Potomac stared dead on at Norn with those wide open eyes and that stiff posture.
For a moment, the room was dead silent. Norn grit her teeth.
“How about I stomp on your ribs until they come out of your mouth instead?”
Red rings briefly flashed in Norn’s eyes.
Potomac turned stiffly around and started an exaggerated march toward a comm booth.
“I will go have a chat with Yangtze about the parts.” She said, waving her hand.
She removed herself with more grace and alacrity than she had ever exhibited.
Throughout this exchange, Adelheid kept blissfully quiet, playing with a lock of red hair.
“You sound so heated lately.” She finally said. “Looks like someone could use a massage.”
“Now that you’re offering, I will be expecting it.” Norn said, sighing deeply.