“Milord, we’ve received an acoustic message from Ajillo substation.”
One of Norn’s drones pushed the message out from her station to the monitor on her chair.
Norn’s brows drew up in casual surprise. She blinked, dimly confused at this occurrence.
“How did Ajillo know of our presence? Did we detect any active sonar from them?”
“Negative. Only sonar pulse was from the Sowilo.”
“Did we broadcast an IFF? Or check in with the strategic network at all?”
“No milord. We observing confidentiality until you order otherwise.”
“Strange. I can’t help but wonder how they knew it was us.”
No rest for the wicked; every day on the Antenora’s bridge, there was some kind of drama.
With the Jagdkaiser left in Potomac’s acceptable care, Norn and Adelheid had departed the hangar together to take their places on the Antenora’s bridge. As soon as they settled down there was a message from the nearest military substation, Ajillo. They had no intention of visiting, as there was nothing of value for them at Ajillo, the junkyard for Sverland’s crippled fleet. And it was standard procedure for the Antenora to remain partially off the grid after a dive from the photic zone, to avoid suspicions about their itinerary. However, the invitation to dock at Ajillo had come directly from the station commander, Rear Admiral Vespucio, and been addressed directly to Norn.
As written, it was an invitation resupply and discuss recent events. It sounded benign.
Adelheid read the message from Norn’s monitor and made a little noise as she pondered it.
“We weren’t being careful about sound, so Ajillo could have found out about the battle from the noise. They would have heard us kilometers away.” She said, raising an index finger and moving it from side to side. “But they would only be able to tell the relative sizes of the ships and the types of ordnance. Do you think Vespucio had a spy drone out? That’s the only way I can think of he would know specifically that the Antenora is in his waters.”
Certainly Adelheid didn’t wear that uniform just to look pretty. She had a good assessment of the situation.
Norn agreed with her. She turned from Adelheid to address one of the drones.
“Did we detect any mechanical objects beside the Volkisch?” She asked.
“Negative, but it’s possible that something snuck in and out during the battle.”
The Praetorian rested a hand on her fist, eyes wandering as she turned these events over in her head.
“In a noisy environment anything is possible, but all my sonar technicians have golden ears. If a stray mechanical object were moving in the battlefield, I would have known about it. He must have been in communication with the Volkisch during the incident. He acted upon the knowledge of my presence without considering the bigger picture.”
Adelheid giggled. “Quite an amateur mistake! We’re not dealing with a bright one here.”
Norn briefly grinned at her plaything’s sudden smugness. She lifted her own index finger as if to mimic Adelheid’s little gestures. “Information warfare is never so simple. Knowing only part of the facts can be as dangerous to you as knowing none of them. In his case, he just doesn’t understand the Antenora’s true nature. In his mind, even if he wasn’t immediately aware of our presence through his own information, and only learned from the Volkisch, we must have sent an IFF or used the network somewhere along our journey to Sverland. He assumed we traveled in the depths; he had no way of knowing how suspicious it would be for him to contact us when he did.”
“Why do I feel like I’m the one being scolded now?” Adelheid said, shrugging playfully.
Heedless of the play-acting going on behind them, one of the drones raised their voice.
“Ma’am, do we maintain heading, or divert to Ajillo?”
“Full ahead to Ajillo. Let’s not keep the Rear Admiral waiting.” Norn said.
At once, the Helmsman drone began to turn the ship in the appropriate direction. The Chief of Communications returned Ajillo’s message with a curt reply. On the main screen, a diagram of Sverland showed them turning away from their northwesterly heading and hooking south instead. While Norn’s objective in the region was to secure some defectors to Erich’s banner, and employ them as pilots to replenish her own losses, all the intrigue on their end had already been carried out. They could wait a bit longer for a pickup. This Ajillo situation was much more interesting.
“He’s obviously got some ulterior motive.” Norn said. “Can’t wait to make him explain what he’s up to.”
“Does he have to be up to anything special? Every man inviting a woman somewhere has ulterior motives.” Adelheid said, doing an exaggerated little shrug again. “I’m more interested in the conspiracy in your head, Norn.”
Norn ignored her little flourishes. “For one thing, most people are terrified of me. I have never received an invitation to personally visit a commandery ever since I became a Fueller enforcer, much less now that I’m the head of the family. I’ve inspected plenty in Konstantin’s stead but that was coercive in nature, and I have a reputation for turning up something sanctionable every time. So in my mind, this is too bold out of Vespucio. And judging by the suspicious source of his information, it has to be some kind of trap. I bet he will try to sell me out to the Volkisch.”
“Maybe he just wants to get on your good side? Because everyone’s terrified of you?”
“It is possible he’s not working directly for the Volkisch just yet. I’d be curious to see if he tries to strike me down on his own initiative rather than something more predictable. Regardless, I’ll accept his offer and see what he’s up to firsthand; even if it’s nothing exciting in the end, at least we get the hospitality of an Admiral out of it.”
“Norn the Praetorian, who has anything she wants, mooching off an Admiral’s pantry?”
“It’s more his wine cellar I’m interested in. You never know who has good vintages.”
Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.
Adelheid crossed her arms and turned her cheek at such easy responses to her provocations.
Her pouting face was simply delicious— but turning her all red would have to wait.
All Norn allowed herself at the moment was to reach out and gently smack her in the cheek.
“What was that for?” Adelheid said, shrinking back slightly.
“To keep you on your toes.” Norn said smugly.
Knowing her, this would correct her attitude for maybe minutes.
But it did sate Norn’s own appetite for the moment.
On the Antenora’s bridge the two of them sat together, side by side. They were close enough that Adelheid could lean her head on Norn’s shoulder. Next to Norn’s chair was a slot on the floor from which Adelheid’s could pull up. Adelheid’s chair was more traditional, fitted with upholstery and designed for comfort. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, it did add a splash of red color to the otherwise grey room. Like Norn’s chair, and most commander’s chairs in the Empire, it had a variety of useful tools for the adjutant. From a slot on the side of this chair, Adelheid pulled up a computer monitor and began typing away on a touch keyboard for a moment.
Like Norn’s chair, Adelheid’s had access to the ship computer and network interfaces.
Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.
She was filling in a network address. Something was downloading to the device.
“Who gave you permission to use the public network?” Norn said.
“We identified ourselves to Ajillo, so that means we’re back on the grid, right?”
“No, it doesn’t, as a matter of fact. We’re not back on the grid until I say so.”
“It’s fine I’m using an encrypted requester, I’m not stupid.”
Norn glared at her.
“In the future, you will ask me for explicit permission. Understood?”
“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.
Norn loosened up and cracked a tiny grin. “Just remember. We’re in a new era and have to tread lightly. That said I’m a woman of unparalleled forgiveness. So then, tell me, what are you doing on that network?”
Adelheid rolled her eyes at the speech but answered the question. “Downloading stuff.”
“Over the acoustic network? Good luck with that.” Norn said.
Adelheid crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, sighing.
“Well, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be able to read my magazines.”
“You should just wait until we’re at Ajillo and connect over laser.”
“I’m bored now, so I’m doing something about it now.”
Norn laughed. She was quite savoring Adelheid’s childish consternation.
“We could go hit the gym if you want.” She said with a wink. “I’m not required to be here.”
Adelheid grumbled. “I would go to the gym by myself if I wanted, but I’m not in the mood.”
“Suit yourself then. Enjoy watching a bar moving kilobyte by kilobyte.”
Even without a laser connection to a hub, the Imperial public network was still accessible via wireless connections. Using the same technology by which acoustic messages were sent and received, encrypted, and decrypted, by ship communicators, a protocol for sending and receiving data at long distances underwater was ultimately devised. As far as Norn understood, the surface society had been far more networked than theirs. Many technologies fell by the wayside in the transition from air and land to the oceans, and civilian communications was one. The Imperial Public Network came about in Konstantin’s fifties; and wasn’t even very “Public” until recently.
“Instead of those awful stories, you should pick up the local news for me.” Norn said.
Adelheid raised her hands and gestured toward the slow-moving progress bars.
“Why should I? What can some journalist in this backwater know that you don’t?”
“I’m not omniscient. Besides, seeing local perspective is more valuable than you think.”
Staring at Norn with a mock aggrieved expression, Adelheid navigated a page back to the file distributor she had contacted, from which she was grabbing her comics and magazines. She made a very flamboyant show of touching a local newspaper’s link to download it, which brought her back to her download manager’s page, and then slowly sliding its progress bar far down below all of the other files she had queued up, such that at the rate the rest were going, it wouldn’t be downloaded for hours. Norn watched the entire process with a neutral but unamused expression.
“Happy now? Aren’t I such a dutiful adjutant for you?” Adelheid giggled.
Norn turned back to the main screen, mustering all of her will in saying nothing back.
Adelheid stared at her expectantly at her before balling her fists up and sinking back into her chair with a pout, after it was clear she would not get any satisfaction out of this for the moment.
All around the bridge crew was unbothered by the scenes of their superiors’ familiarity. A few of them stood from their stations to switch shifts, and of course, had nothing to say except to tell Norn when they were expected to return and who was expected to replace them for the shift. Norn’s crew was obedient and efficient, but they could not be driven down into the dirt like draft animals. They needed time to rest, to eat, to wash, to relax. Norn had devised a tight and balanced schedule which was kept to the second by every one of the drones. It helped sustain their sense that they led normal lives, and in turn, sustained Norn’s unnatural control over their activities.
Seeing everything in such a predictable and practice stated brought her stillness, peace.
Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–
For perhaps the first time in her entire life.
“What’s that look on your face? Anything on your mind?” Adelheid asked, staring at her.
Norn smiled placidly. “Nothing at all. Now I understand how you’re so peppy all the time.”
“Fuck you.” Adelheid said. But there was a pleasant little smile on her face too.
“We’re treating this as a combat operation. Maintain readiness and alertness at all times.”
As the Antenora neared Ajillo Substation, Norn organized several people in the hangar.
At the head of the “drones” was the Chief Security Officer, Reinhardt. Often, the security chief was selected for peak physical condition, such that he could be counted on to wrestle multiple men by himself. When choosing a Security team, the theory was that they needed to be both able to quell internal disorder and also serve as a boarding party or detached infantry force. This was not necessary in the Antenora. Instead, Reinhardt was a special forces veteran with several missions under his belt and an excellent array of combat and operational skills. His sleek build, which was flexible but strong, attested to the versatility with which he operated. He was not just muscle, but brains.
Around him there were other men and women of the Antenora’s security squadron: of similar backgrounds.
“We will uphold a zero-trust policy toward any personnel from Ajillo.” Norn said. “Do not allow them aboard, do not permit them to carouse. Treat even the most minor details about the Antenora with strict confidentiality. Refueling and resupply of the Antenora shall only be undertaken by Antenora personnel with a security escort. Act natural around Ajillo men but do not be sociable. You are here to do a job and nothing else. Bring up my name if necessary.”
“Yes milord.” Said the Security team in unison. They understood their orders instantly.
“Lieutenant van Mueller and I will meet with the base commander.”
Norn gestured toward Adelheid, standing next to her. Adelheid waved awkwardly.
This was all unnecessary, as all the drones were quite well aware of who she was.
However, Norn had only recently established her clique of drones, so she was still used to explaining her operational plans as if speaking to the average soldier who was stressed out and had an ephemeral memory for minutia. Even understanding this, she still felt compelled to convene tactical meetings. After all, part of the conditions of her control was that the drones believed their situation to be normal, and maintaining military routine, rather than dispensing with everything unneeded, helped the control to hold. So this meeting, and the way it was conducted, had a purpose.
“There may well be a situation in which either Lieutenant van Mueller or I may become imperiled on this mission. I believe strongly that Vespucio has some kind of plot in mind, and he may try to isolate or capture one or both of us. I am quite convinced of Lieutenant van Mueller’s combat skills as well as my own, and do not need any personnel to come to our rescue. However, we will need a way to suppress any unwanted response from the Station’s combat unit.”
Norn turned to face Selene, who was standing in her pilot suit next to the Security force.
It had been hours since her battle with the Volkisch. Norn assumed that Selene had gotten some rest, but she was clearly groggy and bedraggled, nevertheless. Her face was pale, her silvery-purple hair a bit messy, and her rainbow-colored antennae were even sticking up unclipped, a rare sight from her. Despite this, she seemed to do her best to remain at attention during the meeting, standing up straight and keeping her gaze moving.
“Ajillo is a ship graveyard, but they have Divers and other weapons available to them. Because of this potential threat, we will be releasing the Jagdkaiser into the water under the guise of trim testing so that we can respond quickly to any moves by the station staff.” Norn continued. “The Jagdkaiser will be armed with a single cartridge. I’ll send a signal, Selene — you’ll know if you can use it. Blow up a ship and cause a ruckus. Do not hit the Station.”
With the way Norn looked at Selene, the girl understood the signal would be psionic in nature.
She could see the red rings around Norn’s eyes as she briefly invoked the power when their eyes met.
“Okay. Got it.” Selene said. “So I’m just trying to scare them? What if they fight back?”
“Even these second-rate troops wouldn’t be so stupid. After they see the cartridge go off, they’ll certainly break completely. But, if anyone tries to be brave, just swat them down with your remaining weapons.”
“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.
Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.
“They are extremely lame. You’d slaughter them in a fight.”
“Sure, okay then, no complaints from me. What do I do while I’m waiting?”
“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”
Selene yawned. “Got it. I’ll just take a nap in the cockpit then.”
From Selene, Norn turned back to the Security personnel and to a final group comprising the NCOs in charge of the sailors. They would organize groups to carry out any repairs and to lug around whatever supplies Colonel Vespucio offered them. While the Antenora had not taken any damage, there was wear and tear that could only be maintained properly while the ship was not moving, and the ship had been moving for a while. This was a good opportunity to catch up. Much like the Security staff, the NCOs and all the sailors were under Norn’s influence. In Norn’s view, this was mainly so they would not divulge anything out of the ordinary they saw on the ship.
As far as their work efficiency, it could not be faulted, even before they became drones.
Norn had handpicked the best of the best, after all.
“You already know what work needs to be done on the ship, so just go do it. Work smart, not hard. We aren’t in any rush. One important thing to note: Hunter III of the Third Sphere will be providing special support in the Station. If you see Hunter III in your area of operations, ignore her and act unsurprised. Don’t give away her position even if she starts acting openly near you. I will meet with Hunter III separately about her orders.”
Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.
“You’re all dismissed. We should be docking in about an hour.” Norn turned from the departing NCOs and Security staff to her sole pilot. “Selene, go start the immersion process, and just take a nap in the cockpit if you want after that. We can always inject something to wake you up if your attention is required.”
“I’d rather you inject something to put me to sleep.” Selene stretched her arms with a heavy sigh.
Norn grinned broadly at her. “We’ve got all kinds of things to inject here! Just say the word!”
Selene cringed in response. She silently made her way to the Jagdkaiser and its technicians instead.
This left Norn and Adelheid once again alone in the middle of the hangar.
“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.
Adelheid shrugged. “She hasn’t come down. She’s probably sulking in some dark corner.”
“I’ll go find her. Go mom on Selene a bit. She doesn’t like you much.” Norn said.
“What? She doesn’t?” Adelheid put her hands on her hips and leaned forward.
“She hates your guts actually. So go make nice, okay?”
Norn turned around abruptly, waving one hand dismissively and laughing as she went.
She left Adelheid standing there with no recourse but to hover over to the Jagdkaiser’s orbit after a brief bout of loud but aimless grumbling. Norn looked at her briefly as she departed. It was all well and good; Norn did not really want Adelheid to be present for her conversation with Hunter III anyway. Not because she did not trust her with the information, but because Adelheid had a weaker gut than Norn around Hunter III.
For a moment she focused on the aura of Hunter III and saw trails of color she could follow.
There was a warm feeling behind her eyes; onlookers with power would have seen it.
Often the use of Psionic power came to her as easily as breathing or moving her limbs.
She had mastered this ability from a very young age. It was not just raw power she had acquired but understanding. It was understanding that allowed her to control everyone on this ship. Her crew was founded and sustained by an intricate web of conditions and deceptions with the end result that they would never fear the things they saw on the ship, reveal her secrets or utter a word of disloyalty, and never shirk their duties.
It was rare that Norn had to think about Psionics, had to actually exert effort.
She could sustain her control over the Antenora near indefinitely with very little pain.
But it was not something she could do to the people at Ajillo. Not on short notice.
For them, if it came to it, she would need brute strength. She did not have time for tricks.
Thankfully, she had brute strength to spare. She had acquired very many powerful people.
Norn made her way up to the upper deck and traversed the Antenora’s sparse hallways, following her sixth sense. As a Cruiser, the Antenora was quite spacious and mostly comfortable compared to other warships, but Norn felt that unnecessary decorations were an assault on her senses. She already saw too much color floating around as it was, and did not need a gaudy paint job, wall ornaments and other tacky manor-style adornments in her halls. So unlike most flagships, it felt very little like a home, and far less like a manse or a palace than the Irmingard.
At least, that would be the response from typical, garish Imperial sensibilities.
As far as Norn was concerned, she had lived in far worse places and called them “home.”
To her, the Antenora was her palace, her fortress. She felt safe; she felt cared for here.
Following Hunter III’s trail led Norn to a wall with a panel which had been pulled off.
When Norn kneeled, she found within the gloomy niche an interior panel also pulled out. It was a maintenance entry into the guts of the ship, mainly for workers to access the water circulation and electrical systems, as well as some room electronics. Within the little space, she caught a trail of familiar colors, gaseous tongues, and sparks, swirling colors faded from their source, hovering like the nebulas from old pictures of the space outside Aer’s tainted surface.
“Hunter III! Come out of there. I don’t want to crawl around for you.”
Just as she suspected and sensed; a familiar whiny voice echoed in the little metal room.
“Come out this instant.” Norn said. “Or you’ll miss out on a big reward.”
“Is it meat?”
“It’s better than meat.”
Curiosity got the better of her. Soon Norn saw a slender shadow come crawling out.
Her name as she had given it to Norn was Hunter III of the Third Sphere.
Norn had an inkling of what this name meant: she was the third Hunter type unit of a specific numbered group within her people, the Third Sphere. Whether the ‘Spheres’ were military in nature or domestic units, Norn herself did not fully know, nor was it something high on her list of priorities to learn about the young woman.
There were other, far more curious features of this woman to be probed.
Hunter III was a slim, lithe, pale individual, so pale that when her wrists or neck were bared the major arteries were quite noticeable running just under the surface. Her face had an eerie beauty to it, with its red eyes and cold complexion, dark shadows around her eyes giving her the look of someone stressed or hardly sleeping. Her shoulder length hair was as white as her skin with a single streak of blue running through it. In terms of height, she was a fairly small woman, but quite clearly an adult in figure and strength. For clothes, she had a too-long, too-large hood, going down to her knees with sleeves longer than her arms. Norn knew this to be the only garment she had on.
When she wanted to, Hunter III could have a comically expressive face.
As she crawled out of her tunnel cubby, her face bore only a passive, tired expression.
“I’m waitin’ for this thing that’s better than meat that y’got.”
“It’s all yours, but first, I want to know: can you smell it?”
“S’it in your coat?”
Hunter III drew closer to Norn and leaned forward, catching a whiff of Norn’s scent.
Her eyes drew wide open.
At first, she recoiled, but then she drew closer again, sniffing again and again.
Her strong, slim hands grabbed hold of Norn’s coat and brought it up to her nose.
This unwanted touch bothered Norn, but only slightly. “Did I say you could do that?”
Hunter III looked up. Her eyes looked cloudy, perhaps even more tired than before.
She tugged gently on the coat, putting her head to Norn’s chest.
“Give it– Please give it here– Please I need it–”
Her entire demeanor had completely changed. She was so immediately vulnerable.
“So you can smell them. Good to know if we ever want to go find more ourselves.”
Norn produced from her coat a sliver of something. To her, it was odorless, small, and in its appearance, abhorrent. It was like finger’s-width of meat wrapped in clammy silverskin. When she peeled the silvery wrapping off it like a web, she unveiled a glob of yellow fat affixed with a pellicle-like spine to a warm, soft, pink mass. Sinews ran through the object that held color as if alive. Hunter III snapped up from Norn’s chest and stared, transfixed, at this object in her hands, her mouth drawing open, her body shaking. Her little protests grew a bit more animated.
“That’s mine–” Her voice faltered; her eyes wide open, moist. “Give it– give it here–”
Hunter III had eaten these before. But back then, the fruits had been plentiful.
This was a discovery. Norn now felt she better understood the importance of the fruit.
“That’s right. It is indeed yours.” Norn dangled it in front of Hunter III for a moment. “A sliver of fruit from a Garden of Marrow; these are important to Omenseers, aren’t they? The Sunlight Foundation destroyed a nest recently and Hudson’s machines collected this for me in the aftermath. You’ve been treating me like I’m such a slavedriver, and yet, I do so much for you. I’ll give you this taste. And there will be more if you’re a good girl.”
Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.
Grinning to herself, Norn deposited the piece into Hunter III’s open, awaiting maw. And she watched with fascination as the woman before her savored the bite thoroughly, as if with her entire body. Skin brimming with new color, her chest shaking, holding herself with irrepressible pleasure and excitement in the act of eating this slimy thing. Her knees buckling, a tremor under her skin, her breathing heavy as she swallowed the tiny morsel.
Licking her lips as if lustfully trying to savor every last bit of the taste that she could.
“Don’t be too greedy.” Norn said. “And you’ll be rewarded with more.”
Hunter III pulled back from Norn as if suddenly snapping back to her senses.
Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.
“I won’t be! But ya know if ya want me to go out there, I’ll need– a whole fruit!”
Her voice trembled as if even the thought of more of this food made her knees weak.
There had been a time when the Antenora had more of these in her possession.
One of the Omenseers’ ritual practices was that they did not leave ships or go into battle in person without having eaten one of these fruits. Norn surmised that it was not just superstition, and in fact most of Hunter III’s unique biology was locked away until she ate this disgusting little morsel. Hunter III had her own supply, once upon a time, but little by little, as she participated in Norn’s campaigns out of her greed for the luxuries of humans–
“I should be keepin’ it.” Hunter III said. “I promise I won’t just nibble on it willy-nilly.”
Norn scoffed. “You were a poor steward of your own wealth. If you want a cut of the treasure of this ship you will follow military logistics like the rest of us. So let’s come to the following agreement: I’ll be keeping an eye on any fruits I find or that the Sunlight Foundation bequeaths to me. If you discover a Garden of Marrow yourself then by all means you can do whatever you want with those fruits. But if I acquired the fruit, it’s mine to dispense.”
“But they ain’t yours!” Hunter III protested. “They don’t belong to you no matter what, they’re ours.”
“Are you going to rat me out to Arbitrator II for hoarding Omenseer relics?”
Hunter III snorted. “What’s she got to do with this? I hate her guts more than you.”
“Good. Then we’re agreed?” Norn grinned, leaning forward to the smaller woman.
“Fine. We’re agreed.” Hunter III grumbled.
From her other coat pocket Norn produced a second sliver of the fruit.
Hunter III, perhaps because she was sated, was not as desperate for this one.
But her eyes did follow it calmly all the way from the pocket to the air.
And stared almost incredulously as Norn deposited the object in her waiting hands.
“You can save it or eat it now. It’s all up to you.”
“I’m gonna be fightin’ soon I guess, or you wouldn’t give me none.”
Hunter III excitedly put the object into her mouth, silverskin and all.
Once again, her body seemed to go weak at the taste of it. She shivered, turned her hips.
“Does it taste that good?” Norn asked. Of course, she received no answer.
Though she had not been as enthusiastic for the morsel the second time, her weakness to its taste was precisely the same. It seemed to overtake her entire body, and only after swallowing did she return to her senses, albeit smacking her lips and clicking her tongue as if still chasing some measure of what the fruit made her feel. Her face brightened, and Norn did notice that some color had returned to her skin, which was now very slightly flushed.
She smiled, baring her fangs. More like the Hunter III that Norn remembered.
“So boss, who are we killin’?” She asked, a new enthusiasm creeping into her voice.
“My, you’re lively. I should feed you this stuff more often.” Norn teased.
“Y’ought to, cuz all that fruit belongs to me anyway.” Hunter III replied.
She put her fists on her hips and tried to puff her chest up in a way to seem larger and more confident. Her mood did not dampen despite Norn’s continued refusal to give up custody of the fruits to her. There was a large smile on her face, through which her sharp teeth could be seen. While Hunter III could be quite whiny, she could muster an attitude that lived up to her moniker. As long as it was meat, she would eat anything.
Norn smiled back at her. “You look like you’re ready enough. Here, but don’t eat it now.”
Reaching into the coat itself, Norn procured the final gift she had for Hunter III.
One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.
Wrapped in silverskin and a thin layer of soft white fat, flecked with deposits of sea salt within its pellicle-like outer ridges, it was not the uniform shape of a fruit from an ordinary fruiting tree, but a lopsided pink blob. Like an organ drawn from an animal, small enough to hold in the open palm of Norn’s hands, completely still and yet pulsating as if it had life. Concentrating her gaze on the object revealed the faintest trace of placid aural colors, as if it were a thing dreaming or even perhaps yearning, a potential close to life and yet unrealized. Perhaps like an egg.
This was not an object whose mystery Norn could crack alone.
So Norn entrusted the object into Hunter III’s hands and watched closely.
Hunter III stared at her master with eyes drawn wide open and unbelieving.
She looked down at the object in her hands and back up at Norn, her lips drawing apart as if to form words that caught in her throat every time. Through a few cycles of this Norn stood and watched the woman in front of her fumble, before she mustered the willpower to put the fruit into the pouch of her hood. Her face grew warm with a soft and tenuous delight. As if she did not know how she should feel about the gift.
“I guess ya really ain’t that bad huh?” Hunter III. “Or y’re sending me to my death.”
Norn smiled. She laid a hand on Hunter III’s hair and brushed it gently.
Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.
“We’re going to a station that may be full of enemies. I am giving you this because I am entrusting you with Adelheid. Any smart enemy would use my adjutant to gain information about me or coerce me. I want you to be ready to kill to protect her. She has seen combat in the past, but not so much as you or I. So I want to be certain of her safety. If you can keep her safe, I can defeat any enemy we meet there and unravel any scheme we find.”
“So, ya do care about her this much, huh?” Hunter III said.
Those simple words caused Norn to falter for just a brief moment.
I would die without her.
She could never say such a thing.
It felt like admitting a certain weakness to say something like that in front of Hunter III.
“Her path and mine are intertwined, and where one ends, so will the other.” Norn said.
“Talkin’ like an born an’ blue-blooded Apostle now aren’t ya? Like y’ve got some kinda big destiny with her or somethin’. Hah! Y’re just down bad after all!” Hunter III joked, hugging her own belly, and giggling to herself. “But whatever! Gettin’ to eat red fruit and humans today? Really? I’m so spoilt right now! So of course I can’t say no to ya! Just gimme a peek at the station layout if ya can. They won’t know what hit ‘em!”
Norn could not be angry when faced with that unrelenting enthusiasm.
Even if she was saying things about her that she found uncouth.
“You’ll have all the information and any tools you need down in the hangar.” Norn calmly said.
“Only thing I need to get the killin’ started is this.” Hunter III said, gesturing to her pouch, where the fruit was securely stored. “What I wanna know is, how are ya plannin’ to take out a whole station by y’rself too? I can kill a lot of guys, but we’re gonna need more of a plan than that for hundreds of guys. If you get surrounded or somethin’, and you gotta rely on brainpower, you might just keel over from how much blastin’ you’ll be doin’!”
For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.
Norn’s whole body could suffer greatly for any irresponsible use of her great gift.
While there were mitigating factors, the basic formula was that the complexity and relative weight of the feat would determine the size of the feedback and injury. Psionics was like a muscle. Even for a practiced body, great effort over prolonged periods of time engendered pain. A power-lifter could fight brilliantly against enormous weights that would break an ordinary man’s arms, but not just any weight, and not indefinitely. And in Norn’s case the muscle she was pushing to its limits was not a sturdy, purpose-built tool like the arms and legs that could be diligently trained, but a vulnerable piece of human xenobiology that felt more miracle than material. In her case, the limits were not something physical that could be easily measured. They had to be felt; and that feeling could be dangerous.
Such ephemera was true even for an Apostle: someone who was born uniquely gifted.
It was also true even for those who trained the eldritch muscle in their own minds to its fullest.
For Norn, who trained among the Sunlight Foundation, Psionics was still not limitless magic.
And yet, in this modern era, there was always an alternative. A power-lifter could imbue his arms with new power through drugs, cybernetics, gene editing, or even being born with a selection of traits that afforded him greater strength, like the Katarran process that Norn herself was quite familiar with. Norn also had access to ways to enhance her own mighty abilities even further. Ways she had already employed to survive to see this day.
She had a simple answer for Hunter III: “I’ve already prepared for that eventuality.”
From Norn’s other inner coat pocket, she produced a long, thin object with a thick cap.
Visible through an opening along its length was a green, blue, and red spiral of fluid.
Embossed on the complex injector was a highly stylized sun emblem.
Hunter III sniffed it briefly. “Huh. Somethin’ funny from the old engineers. You trust it?”
“Your concern is becoming less endearing and more insulting. With this formula I bested Mehmed the Tyrant, who was a powerful Apostle. So don’t worry about me and focus on protecting Adelheid.”
Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?
“Sure, boss. I guess I better go get ready.” Hunter III said, barely acknowledging the response.
Norn nodded. She felt something solemn take over her then.
Staring at the creature in front of her, so human, so alien, so in between worlds.
Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.
It brought up bad memories.
Memories Norn had no use recalling.
“One last thing.”
Hunter III gave her a toothy smile. “What’s up, boss?”
“If you do feel Arbitrator II’s presence, you must let me know.”
“Huh? Well– I gotta be careful with that–“
“I will free you from her.”
Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.
She was confused why that name had come up.
“Sure thing, boss.“
She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.
Maybe to some degree, she could not listen to a request like that.
Norn laid a hand on her head, feeling the silky hair on the Omenseer like the fur on a fondly loved dog.
“You will be free to help me terrorize the world, to your heart’s content.”
Those words that crossed her lips scarcely acknowledged the actual truth.
And she was so powerful in her self deception that not for a second did she allow herself to acknowledge why she was even speaking names like Mehmed and Arbitrator II so casually to Hunter III, for whom they could not hope to be memories as long, lasting and harshly lived as they were for Norn. Memories of lofty goals, foolish naivety, and half-understood truths about the deep, dark world they journeyed in. Memories that she had become adept at referencing sans their context, to never again follow to their source. Mehmed was just a name.
And Arbitrator II would soon be just another name in the recesses of her mind.
But first, she had to attend the stultifying tasks that lay ahead in Konstantin’s little farce.