Pursuers In The Deep [7.4]

This chapter contains scenes of graphic violence, gore and body horror.

Adelheid ducked against the doorway wall for cover from the bullets.

She flinched as she saw a few frangible rounds bounce off the wall and fall blunted on the ground.

In the next instant a series of gurgling screams issued from the adjoining hall and the gunfire momentarily abated. Adelheid peeked her head briefly through the doorway, her whole body trembling with the thought that a bullet could sail past and burst her head like a bubble any second she spent out of hiding–

Red and brown streaks on the walls–

Human flesh in its bits and pieces–

Hunter III reared up, two men crushed beneath her and two looking up at her in terror.

“Kill it! Kill it!” they shouted, guns blazing.

Firing from the hip, his training entirely forgotten, one of the men sprayed wildly in Hunter III’s direction, rounds bouncing into the walls and ceiling as a clawed hand the size of his torso swung with an audible weight that cut the stale air of the station and entered his flesh–

Rectangular, jet-black, steaming-hot claws like boxcutters trifurcated his torso.

An arm went flying; heart cauterized as it split in half on its last beat; where bullets had gone now blood flew and the iron smell of superheated fluid suffused; organs cooked inside–

Hunter III’s head, a long, sleek, crested yet still nearly featureless salamander protrusion with six eyes and a vertical slit mouth opened to reveal a ring of teeth that surrounded the remaining man in an instant; drawn by a tendril like tongue his body crunched as it folded in half to her throat;

Adelheid covered her mouth and hid again.

Even when she couldn’t see it, the smells, the sounds– the sounds!

Skin popping like blisters as her hot claws sliced;

Bones crunching with one sweeping butt from her head or blow from her tail;

Fluids dripping and streaking and sloshing and pooling, enough to reach Adelheid’s feet;

“What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?!”

More men screamed as they rushed the hallway and found the horror unfolding.

“A Leviathan? Is it a Leviathan? But how did one–?”

“Shoot it! Shoot it and kill it, fuck’s sake–!”

A cracking sound of skin peeling back–

Adelheid peered into the hall to see Hunter III’s tail rise, curling up over her shoulder.

From the tip of the tail all of the skin had pulled back in four pieces revealing a wet yellow cylinder. Pinched skin between the lobster-like plates spread like vents tentatively expelling visible gases.

A trail of light ran up from the base of the tail and shone through a series of vents.

There was for the briefest instant a fleshy bulge below the cylinder.

Until it began firing.

Twitching back rhythmically with each burst, the tail suddenly launched hundreds of bullets that flew like steaming hot fingers launching to pierce flesh. Her aim was poor but the volume was monumental, saturating the hall and the walls in a cone of death. Steaming through its vents and flashing from its stinger-like barrel, raining its heinous bullets through the doorway to the lounge and casting in stark red the fake wood varnish of the walls and floor as it perforated the guards who had come screaming in at the sound and smell and sight of Hunter III’s massacre.

Hunter III’s half of the hall was littered with parts of six bodies, and she had found now six more to decorate the other half; punching through their chests and heads and arms with black bullets of bone and blood and iron that burned with acid as they passed; causing the bodies to fall down as misshapen as the ones she had crushed or chewed or torn to pieces with her hands.

Huddling at the door the men who were not instantly killed barely retaliated with their submachine guns before they lost fingers and arms and eyes to the onslaught, no amount of bullet-proof vests or reinforced glass visors able to stop Hunter III’s bullets that sizzled in the air and cut past steel. With a twitch the barrel followed the men as they dove for cover, shooting through the walls they thought safe and punching thumb-size holes in the steel clean through to the lounge.

When Hunter III put her claws to the floor and began to move again she had no opposition.

Adelheid, stay behind me! Stay safe! I don’t wanna be fish food!

She heard a voice in her head like Hunter III’s whining and the deep guttural voice of the creature she had become superimposed onto each other. Norn had told her that psychic voices of telepathy “spoke” with the nearest “sounds” your own mind could furnish to make sense of them. She heard the heavy thud of Hunter III’s thick half-bent back legs as she kicked down on the ground and leaped through the hallway into the lounge, twisting its head and swinging its tail to cover the approaches. That macabre reptilian-insect creature looked every which way in the room.

Nothin’. Come on, Adelheid!

Adelheid knew if she spoke to Hunter III in this form her new body would have trouble with understanding it. It simply did not pick up sounds how a human did, did not interpret them the same. Only the mind, the recesses of the mind which were mystical and not biological, could properly translate between them. Trying to remember what Norn taught her, Adelheid focused on lighting her candle. Norn referred to her own power as “flicking a switch” in this same vein–

Eyes starting to feel warm– entering an almost trance-like place as if reaching for sleep–

With great difficult Adelheid managed to cast a thought out into Hunter III’s mind.

I’m coming. You’re disgustingOh! I didn’t mean to–

Whatever. I don’t care. You’re really bad at omenseein’, your brainpower sucks.

Adelheid prevented herself from projecting, “We don’t call it omen-seeing or brainpower.”

Instead, she stood, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and walked slowly across the sloppy wet floor of the hall which she knew but refused to acknowledge was full of the mangled bodies and viscera of a literal dozen men or more. That stench of bloody iron was inescapable and filled with other foul odors. She thought she would be sick, and by the time she made it through the doorway she wanted to throw up. Comparatively, the men killed in the lounge at least looked like they had only been shot, having suffered fewer bullets and therefore less extensive acid damage.

How do you do this? Awful stuff– didn’t mean that–

Y’re sendin’ me a bunch of brainjunk again. How do I do what?

Acid. Bullets.

Oh, Norn fed me a block of bullet stuff so I could make a gun inside me, uhh she called it like compound DPA or somethin’, and a bunch of chemicals from Potomac’s lab. I’m almost out of all that junk now though. Ya should be grateful, I’ve had the worst tummyache of my life for hours now so I could help save your prissy little butt from that man and ya call me disgusting. I thought all of us were friends!

“I’m sorry.” Adelheid said aloud.

In the middle of the lounge, the Hunter III-thing turned its head to face her and tilted it.

What did ya say?

Adelheid was starting to feel a headache coming on. She was nearing her psionic limits.

I’m sorry, okay?

Ehh. I’m just givin’ ya a hard time don’t worry. Agarthic salt is kinda tasty.

Adelheid wrapped her arms around herself in a hug and shuddered.

When her eyes settled back on Hunter III she spotted a series of bloody spots in her gray-brown surface, along the shoulder, on one of her legs. Adelheid approached and ran her hand across the rubbery flesh, overcome with a sudden concern and sympathy for the beast whom she knew more as a skinny, pale girl who seemed like she would never get up if pushed over. Had that girl been injured from the bullets that had penetrated this monster so harmlessly?

Get your hands off, its tickly. We gotta get movin’!

“Are you hurt?” Adelheid asked. She raised her voice to see if Hunter III would understand.

It’s fine! It’s fine! Stop touchin’ and it’ll be even better!

Adelheid wondered if she had really been understood but backed off and said nothing.

She had to give her head a rest before she tried doing any psionics again.

“Which way do we even go?” Adelheid said. “Ugh I should’ve paid more attention–”

Oh! She’s comin’ in. She got serious. I can see her aura from across the sea like this.

Before Adelheid could muster the strength to send a “what” to Hunter III’s brain, one of the doors to the lounge flew off its hinges and crashed into the wall. A body flew out of the hall, dripping blood across the fake wood flooring. From the pallid look of the body and the dark look of the blood this man did not die from that throw.

Was someone throwing a corpse as a decoy?

In the next instant, Adelheid saw Norn peek out into the lounge with a pistol in hand.

Once she spotted Adelheid and Hunter III her eyes drew wide for the briefest period.

Like someone who had been lashing out wildly and finally entered a state of sense.

Recomposed, taking a deep breath, Norn stepped fully out onto the lounge.

“We need to get to the control room. What are the two of you doing?” Norn asked.

“I forgot your grand design in the middle of this unnecessary chaos.” Adelheid said.

Adelheid pouted and crossed her arms, feeling embittered at Norn’s entrance.

Beside her, Hunter III, stood up on her hind legs, her crested head and numerous eyes staring directly at Norn, raised one of her bloody claws and waved. Like a macabre character from a children’s video show, all rubber, and eyes, but with a body made up of simple shapes and solid colors, its vertical maw splitting ever so slightly into what in a nightmare might have been a smile. After a moment the tail began to wave as well.

Norn stared at the evil-looking creature quizzically.

You ate everything I told to you, correct? How are your materials?

Norn broadcast this to everyone, for Adelheid’s sake.

Uh, they’re almost gone.

Hunter III responded, bobbing her head from side to side.

We’re gonna have to feed you more next time.

My person body can’t hold that much! I ain’t eating a block of metal again unless its tasty.

What metals are tasty?

Hmm. Tungsten.

We can work with that.

“Hunter III will wreak havoc in the dock’s general direction. You follow me.”

Norn handed Adelheid the pistol she had taken.

Adelheid almost reflexively checked the magazine and safety before sliding it ready.

“Is this growth I’m sensing?” Adelheid said. “Trust in others to stand with you as peers?”

Norn grunted. “Go to hell. I won’t allow you to have reason to use that gun.”

So what am I supposed to do again?

Behind them the creature tilted its head in confusion once again.

“Right, she can’t hear.” Norn said.

Run to the docks to help guard the Antenora. Liquidate any opposition.

Simple and to the point! Gotcha, boss.

Norn waved for Hunter III to be off, and in an instant the creature turned and charged through the lounge door into the emergency ladder chute with such force that the steel door tumbled down into the chute with her, slamming into everything on the way down, each thud and crash followed by the sounds of Hunter III’s body bounding from wall to wall after it. She would be going a floor down, but Norn and Adelheid had to go a floor up. Once the rumbling from Hunter III’s descent felt distant, Norn began to make for the emergency ladder in order to begin their ascent.


Adelheid spoke up.

“What’s the plan? You still haven’t told me what you actually intend to do.”

Norn turned briefly. At first she looked a little surprised, but then put on a grin.

“You don’t trust me?”

“It’s not about trusting you or not. Do I even have a choice here?”

“I’ve always given you a choice.”

“You’re so frustrating. Fine, I’ll trust you. But the reason I even ask is that I’m worried. You’re right: having this gun doesn’t mean shit. Maybe you can just burst into a heavily guarded control room, but I know you’ll be a wreck after. What will you even do when you get there? You aren’t planning on using mind control are you?”

Adelheid crossed her arms and turned her cheek on Norn with a pout.

Norn shook her head but continued to grin at the younger woman.

“I see. I’ll have to attain even greater power, so you won’t have to worry or ask questions.”

That was such a surprise to hear that Adelheid had to drop her guard and stare at her again.

Without answering the core of her question, Norn turned back around to the stairwell.

“You’ll worry whether or not I tell you what I intend, so just follow and do your best.”

“I’ll be doing my best not to get my outfit splashed with your blood.”

Adelheid sighed, flicked the safety off on the gun and followed Norn up the ladder.

“There’s really just nothing out there huh?”

Selene Anahid stared at the ocean around her with eyelids heavy. In putting Ajillo to the Jagdkaiser’s back she could suspend herself in complete isolation, her sight left with nothing in the vicinity but dancing particulate matter in her flashlights. There wasn’t even a blip on her sonar array, it simply wasn’t powerful enough to pick up the distant sounds of men and machines working. Or perhaps, the men and machines simply weren’t working much anymore.

Perhaps she was even too tired to make out any such sounds.

“Hey, sonar zombie, are the repair guys still running around?”

She contacted the Antenora’s bridge, addressing the detection array operators.

“There appears to be a lull in station activity.” Replied an indistinct, emotionless voice.

“Huh. Any word from Norn–? I guess she wouldn’t be able to send anything.”

Her antennae twitched slightly. She had a gut feeling the waters would get hot soon.

Whenever she had a “gut feeling” about something she actually felt it in her antennae first.

Absentmindedly her hand lifted from the mechanical controls and caressed one of them.

They were somewhat see-through and silky-smooth but had a rainbow gradient color.

She kind of hated them– only “kind of.” She tied them down, usually.

Having these weird rabbit ears drew unwanted attention. They made her feel– not normal.

Selene as far as she knew was not a Pelagis.

Born from a vat, yes, but her genetic material was not tampered with to the extreme degree that the Katarrans did to all their children. She had a human mother and father out there, somewhere– and no part of her was a fish or a crustacean. Again, as far as she knew. Her antennae were actually cybernetic implants, but they were organic implants. They had been grown, they were vascular, attached to her on a truly biological level.

Euphrates had told her the composition of them, one time, but Selene utterly forgot.

She was not as much of an egghead as the Sunlight Foundation’s immortals were.

That was one reason she really valued Norn. Like her, Norn didn’t waste time on theory.

And Norn, like her, was also something that someone made in a vat.

Unlike her, it didn’t really bother Norn. But Selene couldn’t help but think about it.

“Ah, fuck it, who cares.”

In a fit of self-loathing she pinched her antenna, sending a tiny spike of pain into her head.

“Just have to wait and do what Norn says. In the meantime, head empty. It’s just a fun job.”

As far as thrills went, nothing could surpass piloting a Diver in a time of brewing war.

“Hey, communications zombie, I’m going to buzz the labor mechs for fun.”

“We will do our best to support you.”

An inexpressive voice responded that Selene hardly paid any attention to.

The Jagdkaiser, previously drifting, its cockpit vaguely diagonal to the ocean floor, righted itself, engaged its jets, and turned back around to Ajillo. Selene was about 200 meters away, far enough to see practically nothing of the station, but she quickly closed to visual distance. There were repair bays along the sides of the station superstructure each one tier tall composed of two long, open planes of steel supports to which the ships were anchored and separator walls between each wet berth that contained space to mount or store equipment and power generation for the tools. She thought of diving in between one of the busted Frigates and a separator wall and scaring the crap out of the workers, but quickly found that there was no one around to witness the stunt.

She swooped down in a pirouette under one of the berths, around another, up to a third–

Not a single man was out working on these. She could have sworn she saw laborers before.

Selene briefly considered calling in to the Antenora but because it was docked within the station it was out of laser range and it was surrounded by metal which made transmitting an acoustic message to it more difficult as well. She instead thought of calling the Ajillo control tower, which every vessel in the water had a right to do, and to complain and pester them instead.

At that point, she noticed bright red lights beginning to flash at the top of one of the berths.

Quickly diving down to the next berth, she saw the same lights.

Every berth was flashing a bright red alarm light.

“What the–”

A violent waveform shot through her sonar display.

She heard a sound like buckling metal and realized too late the entry to the dock had shut.

The Antenora had been trapped in the station.

Despite a brief jolt in her chest, Selene’s lips began to spread into a broad grin.

There was a brief pulse of color from her antennae as she saw in her mind an image.

“Alright then vermin! Come on out to play!”

While piloting the Jagdkaiser, Selene always wore a special helmet. It had a glass visor mask over her eyes, and a half open structure that curled over her ears and around the back of her head supporting a plug going to her brain, to which several sinewy cables were attached. It allowed her hair to flow and her antennae to stand when she didn’t pin them down. Those cables connected to a dome-like structure on the roof of the cockpit that housed a latticework of unique electronics.

When she flipped the mask down and activated the system it glowed with a rainbow effect.

On the head of the Jagdkaiser the unit’s “horns” then stuck out and began to glow as well.

Something flowed through Selene that made the finest hairs on her body stand up.

Her eyes shot open, and she grit her teeth.

There was the briefest instant of feeling something pierce her head through her serial port.

Then there was an airy sensation, light-headedness, a sense of submersion–

Like electricity but it brimmed not under her skin, but rather–

Under the skin of a phantom limb. Under the skin of her mind’s understanding of her limb.

Under the skin of a phantom body.

Before Selene’s eyes the world became a vast swathe of colors and shapes. Things were muddled for a brief instant but began to take a concrete form soon after. In her mind Selene rationalized it like her eyes were becoming predictive computers. After a brief calibration she felt that she could see farther out and with more clarity than any other human being under the ocean.

Around her, the murky, dark expanse began to fill with rough shapes and moving objects.

She saw Ajillo and all of its hard angles and flat plates;

The Antenora within its dock, as if Ajillo’s walls had become a transparent wireframe;

A squadron of five Volker emerging from a hatch to the lower dock beneath the sea floor.

Because they had access to the station’s sonar they easily knew her position in the water.

With a clear target they charged straight up from under her, their rifles ready and aiming.

Selene knew this. She knew it from beyond visual range, with no support from a full sonar array of her own.

The Volkers could not have imagined the degree of information she was getting.

Selene knew their position; she also knew about their intentions, in advance.

In fact, in real time, they were just leaving the hatch–


“Hah! Your minds are open books to me!”

From hundreds of meters above the Jagdkaiser shot toward the sea floor.

Selene hurtled in between the group of Volkers before they expected her to be there.

As she dropped to their level she immediately swung her claw at the chest of one of the Volkers coming at her. Taken by surprise it practically jumped into her awaiting hands. Bubbles and red froth burst from the openings as the heated, vibrating, bladed digits punctured the Volker’s chestplate causing the holes to extrude the pilot into the ocean. The Jagdkaiser quickly withdrew its claw, and the Volker began to sink to the ocean floor shrouded in blood while the other units separated and scattered. Clouds of yellow, green, and black colors danced around the mecha.

Before they even opened fire, Selene read the shadow of their intentions in those clouds.

She thrust straight up and out of their formation again, separating the Option as she rose.

Gunfire flew in the empty water between the Volkers, but they quickly retrained their aim and began to follow Selene, climbing after her at full speed with triggers held down. Selene saw hundreds of rounds of 37 mm ammunition flying past the Jagdkaiser in her mind’s eye. Moving with her premonition and with the practiced ease of someone who had experienced the result already, she manipulated the controls to throw the Jagdkaiser out of the way of the gunfire when and wherever it materialized. Spiraling up the side of the station, weaving fluidly around fierce lines of gunfire that detonated in terrifying sequences of vaporized water and circles of explosive force.

The enemy pilots grew more fearful and their intentions grew more violent as they realized her skill.

Selene saw them reach for their grenades and coordinate trapping her among the blasts.

And as if she had eyes out in the seafloor, she also saw them moving from below.

In the back of her mind, Selene issued a command. Her eyes glowed red.

Below the Volkers, the Option opened fire.

Selene had caught them in a vice, between the Jagdkaiser they were pursuing and the roving weapon that had taken their backs. At first they did not even notice the opening salvo, too busy peppering Selene with gunfire from their rifles. But the Option needed only one short ranging burst, like a limb extending and opening and closing its fingers to test how its hand felt. After that, Selene began to unleash punishingly accurate fire, her all-seeing and flawless eye affixed to the weapon and aiming perfectly at the stunned and desperate Volkers. A withering rate of fire, planting dozens of rounds into the cockpit and backpack, twitching the chain gun barrels ever so slightly toward the next target, firing, repeating.

While the Option pressed the enemy, Selene, moving her body with a sensation of struggle like she was moving through water inside of her own pressurized cockpit, pushed her sticks and took her machine down.

Coordinating between the Option and her own body as if controlling two with the same muscles, Selene corralled the Volkers into the Jagdkaiser’s grasp. While the Option slashed across the water, taking out half the Volkers by itself and stranding a fourth by knocking out its backpack, Selene reached out and plucked the one remaining Volker attempting to escape the hail of metal. She closed the claw, and in turn her own physical hand, crushing the top half of the weaker, smaller mecha and tearing off the top, exposing a cloud of blood and meat from inside.

Somehow her own fingers, her physical fingers, distinctly felt it. Tearing through the metal like plastic wrap on a snack, sending the rush of pressure through the orifices, feeling the soft texture of the flesh–

Her free hand left her controls and flipped up her visor in a sudden panic.

On the Jagdkaiser, the horns folded back against the head to mirror Selene’s own drooping antennae, no longer glowing, and no longer passing any eldritch signals from the aether to her brain and body. As her senses became exclusively her own again, Selene realized she was soaked in sweat beneath her pilot suit.

Her breathing was irregular, and she felt warm, flowing blood trickling down her right nostril.

“Fuck. I have to get stronger than this.” She moaned, her vision swimming.

For a moment, the Option moved erratically in her lower camera, like a lizard’s tail that had been cut off and jerked around sans input from its body. Moments later, without any further input from Selene the weapon corrected itself and took a simple path back to the Jagdkaiser until it returned to the shoulder mount and attached.

Selene hovered amid the cloud of enemy debris. Her head was pounding.

Something tapped her on the shoulder.

Selene cast a tired glance, having felt the eerie touch.

There was a red drop on her shoulder, clearly visible against her pilot suit.

She raised her head to stare the ceiling, her eyes wide and her skin shuddering.

On the Homunculus dome array. There was a trickle of blood from between the plates.

Selene stared at it briefly, uncomprehending.

Was that– was that the phantom body–?

A droplet of blood landed on her cheek, drawing a line down her jaw.

Briefly, a warning flashed on one of her screens.

Subject psychological integrity deteriorating–

Was the subject herself or– whatever was bleeding in the array–?

Then Selene felt a sudden flash of insight that shot through every nerve in her body.

Knock out a berth.

Norn’s voice– across metal and water, through spirits and light, into flesh and neurons–

That voice–

It stilled everything that was becoming chaos inside her. She had unalienable direction.

Selene brought her hands back down to the controls with purpose.

She slammed the button beside her left joystick to load a cartridge through the claw arm.

Swinging the Jagdkaiser around she faced the opening in the claw toward a nearby berth.

Two Frigates, relatively closest to the ocean floor, clamped together in the structure.

Light and heat crisscrossed the steel of the claw digits, eldritch lightning crackling. Vapor hissing from vents, plates shifting, unknown mechanisms struggling, the glow seeping in through the plates–

Hexagonal royal purple arcs of some alien power vaporizing water and bouncing across steel plates leaving honeycomb trails of devoured material, digging, slashing, and climbing bound to bound through the concrete supports and turning the armor on the frigates to chalky dust in its wake. As the hungry agarthicite pulse struck the surface of the berth and spread in a storm-like wave there was a great shearing roar and the rushing of displaced water as the enormous berth crumbled under its own weight and took the ships down.

Selene’s eyes dilated, her head swam, as she watched the rumbling collapse she wrought.

In the shell of the Jagdkaiser, her mind wavered almost to sleep.

Down a pristine steel hall a sliding door went flying from its threshold.

Out of the squadron of guards defending the hall, two had their legs smashed and bowled over as the door slid across the steel sheen floors at dozens of kilometers per hour, nearly killing them in one stroke. The remaining men lifted their bulletproof shields in front of them and formed a wall with weapons aimed through firing ports. They waited for anything moving through the emergency escape ladder into the hall.

Shaken, wondering how the door could’ve gone flying, their minds rationalizing–

Was it a bomb–? Some kind of device–?

Something twitched up the stairwell chute and several of the men started shooting.

Burst fire bounded off the metal walls and sent sparks flying that briefly lit the stairwell.

There was a sound like glass shattering and pieces of what looked like a bottle littered the floor on the edge of the stairwell. Water splashed in midair from the shattered bottle. Uncomprehending, the men held their position, shields up, rifles aimed through the door, about 15 meters distance, nothing could possibly come up over the ladder that they would not notice, nothing could get through that door without a hundred new holes–

Then in the middle of the air right in front of the door threshold the water solidified.

One bottle’s worth of water formed a projectile the shape of an armor piercing round.

In an instant the projectile hurtled toward the men as if shot out of a cannon.

It impacted the center shield of the wall with such force it shattered to powder and pushed the man back, knocking him over and sending the remainder of the shield wall stepping back in fear and disarray. Before they could react, the powdered water reformed into the shape of a rod and swing itself once more at the wall of shields pounding, reforming, pounding, driving two men back out of sheer confusion, though the blows were not powerful enough to knock them out. Cohesion was completely lost in the midst of this inexplicable event.

From down the emergency stairwell, Norn hopped up over the top of the ladder.

She landed in the hall and instantly swept her hands in front of herself. It was a dramatic gesture that helped concentrate the invisible limbs with which her mind grasped the world around herself.

Between the guards spotting her and being able to react, all of them were overcome.

An intense discomfort, growing all across their bodies. Needles; pinpricks and needles.

On the men’s faces sweat not only solidified but dug sharp into their skin like razors.

Within their suits any moisture froze hard against their skin and peeled when they moved.

Not just the pain but the sheer impossibility, the eldritch sight of what seemed like literal magic drove them to panic, they began to bat at their limbs and chests as if trying to get off invisible bugs, they swiped at their faces as if they could rip the ice from them, and when blood drew from their wounds it too froze and tore into them–

–all the while Norn set her violent red eyes upon them.

They struggled in panic and pain against their invisible enemy until moments later they had bled and sweated and lost all strength and their whole bodies froze over like statues, trapped forever in a rictus of their final moments of pain. Death claimed them the instant their will faltered as their fluids became playthings for the Apostle of Ice.

“Come on up! I hear more coming!” Norn shouted.

Around the corner a man rushed into the scene and stood transfixed for a split second.

His legs shaking, his eyes drawing wide at the sight of the woman surrounded by corpses.

Norn waved her hand and pushed, and sent him flying into a wall as fast as the sliding door had flown.

She shot a quick glance behind her to see Adelheid finally climbing up.

Adelheid lifted her pistol and fired a round past Norn.

From behind the corner a body fell to the floor.

“I got to use it!” Adelheid declared with a triumphant expression.

Norn grumbled, but her hard heart warmed knowing Adelheid was safe.

She took a deep breath, suddenly and perhaps impulsively.

Temporal control.

Around them the bubble of control expanded even beyond these walls.

There were visible lines, a gradient of the altered color of her bubble and the original colors.

She was worried that Adelheid could still get hurt. But she couldn’t completely stop time.

Instead, she had slowed it.

Psionics were the power of the mind over matter. This relationship bit both ways. If Norn herself was weak willed her powers would weaken or even work differently. Temporal Control was already unduly influenced by her state of mind. There was a reason she could not breathe within it. Using this power with a sense of anxiety made it even more stressful on her mind. Using the power so much while tired, while vulnerable, further stressing her–

Had she been completely calm and taking care of herself, she could have slung ice forever.

But she had not. She had been running herself down mentally, physically, psionically.

Not only that, she had something of an emotional handicap.

And yet, there was no helping Adelheid’s presence. Adelheid had to be here.

Norn had to be sure of where she was, of what was happening to her.

That was what she told herself. There was a tiny self loathing voice saying differently–

But now she was in this situation: Norn had to hurry before she risked serious feedback injury.

Norn rushed around the corner and found a group of five more guards in mid-run.

They were moving at fractions of a second per second Norn herself experienced.

She took a knife from the pocket of the first man and slashed across his throat.

His eyes began to widen with surprise as soon as Norn moved to the second man.

By the time she attacked the final man he had lifted his gun halfway to aim at her.

There was no way he could shoot her. She walked past him and buried the knife in his neck.

She finally breathed, nearly doubling over, and the bodies fell in a writhing heap behind her.

In front of her was a bulkhead door with a security touchpad.

She looked up at it from her half-bent position, hands on her knees, breathing heavily, feeling razors spinning in her brain. She struggled against it, but she felt the power sizzling behind her eyes, burning–

Behind her, she heard the clacking footsteps of Adelheid’s shoes.

“Are you already spent?” Adelheid scoffed. “There’ll be more men inside.”

Norn said nothing. Instead, she withdrew something from her coat.

Without speaking, she handed it to Adelheid. A sleek, white syringe of a fancy make and model.

Adelheid knew instantly what it meant, and that it was the crux of the plan.

Norn was exhausted. Her eyesight was wavering, her legs felt like jelly, and all she could do was try to smile weakly to reassure Adelheid. Her grip on the syringe felt weak, but Adelheid took it from her fingers, gentle and understanding.

She sighed bitterly as she looked it over.

“And you say I’m a brat. You’re so selfish too. I can’t believe you sometimes.”

Despite her words, Adelheid tenderly leaned into Norn’s back, caressed her hair and comforted her while moving the syringe over the center of Norn’s chest until she heard the beeping.

With the confirmation noise, Adelheld hit the button at the top.

A needle punched through Norn’s chest into her heart and injected the drug it contained.

Norn grit her teeth.

Adelheid’s touch was a small comfort. She felt like she was sending acid through her veins.

Her head grew hot, instant fever like she was baking her own brain–

Eyes forced open and glowing, not surrounded by red rings, but by a pattern in every color–

Electricity shuddering under her skin making power lines out of her sinews–

Heart pounding so fast it could have knocked her to the floor–

“Norn? Norn are you okay?”

Norn’s ordinary eyesight completely vanished.

Everything was aura, a raging storm of color and power that seethed unseen.

Aether– the aether–

Her beautiful Adelheid had disappeared, becoming a figure of colors–

The degree to which Norn despised the sight allowed her to finally steel her mind.

Something triggered in her that allowed her to take control, wrestling the shapes, and textures of the human world back into place, superimposing them with all her strength onto the insane aether. Adelheid returned as a beautiful red-headed vixen, glowing with an unmistakable aura but clearly human to a degree that comforted Norn.

She was not lost to the human world she both hated and loved.

Feeling herself coursing with power, she turned her gaze to the bulkhead.

Adelheid kneeled beside her, trying to look into her eyes. “Norn? Come on, are you ok?”

“Of course, I’m fine.” Norn grinned. “I’m feeling better than ever. Don’t worry about me.”

Without even moving her hands, Norn toppled the door over, startling Adelheid.

As soon as Norn caught sight of the men inside, their minds were already hers.

They were surrounded by computers, camera monitors, communications equipment. All of them stood still at the sight of her, their eyes glowing with the red rings. Captivated instantly; affected by a degree of psionics nearly unattainable by anyone but an Apostle, activated by Yangtze’s mind-expanding Psynadium drug, a trump card of the Foundation.

Imperious, her voice carrying an unearthly power, Norn walked over the fallen door into the control room.

“I want to broadcast to every man in Ajillo through both audio and video.”

“Yes, milord.”

There was no trembling, no fear, no fighting back. In their minds they wanted to obey. It was natural, it was good, it was the safest thing. They accepted her command instantly and utterly.

All of the men in the control room calmly resumed their posts, while the guards dropped their weapons gently on the floor and stood at attention, saluting Norn and Adelheid as they passed. A pair of men set up one of the cameras and pointed it at Norn. She briefly saw herself in the picture and for a moment felt a bit of disgust. Some of her second skin had peeled, revealing the gray beneath. Some of her hair had gone from golden blond to a dusty white.

She knew her artifice was already fading, and yet she did not expect it to have gone so suddenly. And beside the fading hair dye and false skin, the drug had really made her psychic abilities go wild which further altered her appearance. Rather than the red rings of the power her eyes were now lined by a distorted snowflake fractal pattern glowing like a rainbow, while trails of icy white aura billowing from her empowered body gave her an appearance of horns and a tail that billowed like white candlefire. A form rarely seen even by an Apostle.

Adelheid looked at her with wide, admiring eyes, clearly taken back by the form.

Norn thought her body looked like that of a monster– but it had to be that way.

“After I’m done, delete all the footage and audio.” She said to the enthralled men.

“Yes milord.”

Norn stood in front of the camera and audio equipment, cast as a monster and as a monster, she spoke.

“All Ajillo personnel will heed and live by these words until their objective is fulfilled. You will forget and not desire to recall these words once your objective is fulfilled. You will desist fighting the crew of the Antenora, and Norn von Fueller and all her supporters, and you will cooperate with the crew of the Antenora such that the Antenora can be provisioned, and that the Antenora and its crew are then able to leave Ajillo. You will strip all officers of rank, and all officers will be subordinated to the soldiers. All officers will cooperate or be detained. You will disburse equally between the soldiers all the remaining provisions of the station, and you will take the ships in the most operable conditions and render inoperable the rest, as well as the station mainframe. All personnel will then depart the station, and for your own safety, avoid combat and dangerous actions. Take the fastest, safest route to the South. You will want to carry out this mission to deliver yourself to safety. You will heed no orders to return to Ajillo.”

Like a hand passing through water, and going from dry to wet, Norn felt the effects.

She felt their minds, the collective minds of hundreds, thousands of men, surrendering.

She had plucked their will from out of the water and it barely shuddered in her hand.

Monstrous as she felt, she grinned to herself with delight. She had triumphed today.

From the outset of Vespucio’s invitation she had told herself that she would destroy him.

But not only him: what he stood for, what he protected, the purpose he gave himself.

To Vespucio it may have seemed like an act of God, random, purposeless violence.

Men like him rationalized the violence of their existence so thoroughly to themselves that the actions of others always felt random and animalistic. But chaos and upheaval had its purpose, and that was their greatest fear.

At the very least, she learned quite a bit from this expedition. She had tested her people and powers.

And so with a mind to fully rid herself of this place and continue her journey, Norn issued the men their objective.

“Your objective will be to defect to the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.”

She could not help it — she laughed. Adelheid herself cracked a knowing grin too.

With Adelheid fondly at her side and her soul set ablaze, Norn laughed uproariously.

She had taken and discarded Ajillo overnight, and Sverland’s little chaos would only get more interesting.

Norn was powerful, brutally powerful, and furthermore: for the first time, she was fully in control of destiny.

“Are we absolutely sure we can trust the Vekans on this?”

“We have an information sharing agreement. They shared information with us.”

“It’s pretty convenient for them if we get further involved in this mess, isn’t it?”

“Well, whether we want to or not, involvement in this mess is coming to us.”

On the edge of the Union’s recently expanded border, near the abandoned Cascabel station, a small fleet moved into position based on reports given by their new ally, the Great Vekan Empire. While these reports were partially corroborated with readings from spy drones and buoys set by Union scout ships, there was still unease at even the slightest participation from the Vekans. There were all kinds of conspiracy theories in the minds of the admiralty. While the Premier sold the alliance as simple and limited in scope, the High Command of the Navy was still wary of it.

One thing was clear: there were ships approaching from the border to Sverland.

For the Union, the intention of any large gathering of ships at their border had to be violent.

However, in deference to the era, and with their allies the Vekans in mind, the flotilla at Cascabel took a wait-and-see approach. There were ten ships meeting the fifteen-to-twenty that the Vekans had warned them about. Spy drones caught a glimpse of a single sword-shaped Cruiser, and buoys detected the acoustic signatures of a blob of Frigates, so it was hard to say how many were coming. Union spy and detection equipment was optimized for endurance and early warning, not for the quality of the information acquired. And it had indeed served to warn them early.

The Union fleet had a unique composition.

Two Destroyers and six Frigates protected a pair of enormous ships, one a cruiser hull and the other a dreadnought hull. Union ships were on the utilitarian side, thick, boxy, and geometric with rough edges like a brutalist pillar. They wore their guns in plain angled mounts, putting raw hydrodynamics behind increased survivability. But the two flagships for this interception fleet had no big guns to display, not even the dreadnought.

In the middle of the formation was the flagship, U.N.V Daksha Kansal.

Inside the bridge was Rear Admiral Chaya Goswani.

A tall, curly-haired older woman with dark olive skin, arms crossed, tapping her feet, waiting with a serious expression that sometimes looked as if she was biting her lip. She was nervous. And as a member of the headquarters staff who was suddenly thrust with frontline command expectations, she felt she had every right to be.

And yet, there was a tiny beating confidence in her heart–

“Do you think this will work?”

On her screen was a fuzzy-looking picture of Admiral Yervik Deshnov.

They had been communicating through the newly-expanded military laser network.

“Since she was sent away, I feel it is my duty to advocate for her theories.” Goswani replied.

Deshnov shook his head, sighing. “All of us owe the Nakaras so much. Even the little one.”

Goswani sighed.

She had not intended for her words to be understood from that direction.

The Nakaras helped found the Union, fought and died for it, left them words and ideas that catalyzed the people to have a vision of the world beyond either slavery to the Imperial hegemony or bleak, hopeless warfighting for survival. Goswani felt there was a sense of tragedy to the fact that Murati Nakara had now lent them a similarly explosive vision for using their strengths to fight a different war than their enemies. And now, just like her parents, she was gone, with no expectation that she would or could return, leaving them with only a vision.

Sometimes she wondered if Jayasankar and Nagavanshi had sent her out to die.

But that was Deshnov’s influence talking. And Goswani was not Deshnov.

It was not pity or historical tragedy or a sense of duty to the Nakaras that moved her.

In her mind, Murati was simply right.

And if Murati was right about Divers, right about their capabilities, about how they could be used, then the Union had a chance to punch at the same weight class as the Empire. But they needed more data, more experiences, more evidence to move the rest of the high command and the industrial unions to commit to the idea that what they needed was thousands of Divers, not hundreds of big guns. To this end, Goswani had left to Cascabel.

Without big guns, without huge missiles. U.N.V. Daksha Kansal carried only Divers.

All together she had 40 Strelok crammed among the fleet. Many of them were fresh, with new pilots.

“Murati had also never seen real combat against the Empire. Few of us had.”

Goswani told herself that.

There was very little difference between the Admirals and the rookies in these Streloks. She knew more history and theory. But she was quaking in her boots at the thought of fighting an Imperial fleet.

Just like the kids waiting in the hangar below, probably.

“Your flagship was made out of a heavy agri-transport, wasn’t it?” Deshnov said.

“It was the only dreadnought hull with enough module space.” Goswani said. “We armored it up, put in military grade thrust, added deployment chutes. We’re using the cargo holds as hangars. The Premier gave up any resistance surprisingly quickly even though she had intended for this plan year to focus on agriculture, and we can’t do that without more heavy transports; and we turned it around in record time. Everyone at Thassal was wildly motivated about it. It’s not really officially commissioned yet. I just named it Daksha Kansal and volunteered to come here.”

“I see, so it’s nothing but command, habitation, thrust and a huge hangar.”

“Yes sir. It doesn’t even have advanced detection; I’m relying on the fleet escort for eyes.”

“So it’s just an oversize hauler for Divers. How far we came just to circle back to this.”

“Thassal was pretty revelatory; but it is ironic we swung back to converting haulers.”

“Murati was revelatory; after all, she was a Nakara and her family’s spirit lives in her.”

Goswani really wanted to tell Deshnov off about his endless self-pity–

But just then the main screen of the Kansal’s bridge lit up.

A Shimii woman appeared on the big screen next to a video generated by a predictive computer.

“Rear Admiral, ma’am, this is Chief Petty Officer al-Badawi from the Ostrogoth. We’ve detected incoming ships that we believe are the Imperial fleet. Attached is the predictive model for their time of arrival. We’re ready for battle at your command ma’am. I’ll turn the feed back over to fleet communications.”

Al-Badawi saluted and vanished from the screen.

On the predictive image there were 17 ships, comprising a motley assortment of various classes of Imperial Frigate, two Cruisers, a lone Cutter and what looked like two supply ships. They had no destroyers, and the lone Cutter was bizarre. This was not a usual Imperial battle formation. Perhaps there was some method to the madness that Goswani did not understand.

Looking at this fleet she cocked a little grin for the first time.

Her hands squeezed the armrest of her chair. She liked her chances.

With a fleet like this, they could potentially kill them all.

“All ships target the enemy fleet but hold fire until I give the word.” Goswani said, her sensibility winning out over her bloodlust. “Deploy the 118th and 119th Diver squadrons, hold 120th and 121st in reserve but ready to move the instant I command it. 118th will move to the left wing of the fleet and await orders before engaging. 119th’s Strelkannons will dive to the seafloor and take up attack positions on the ridge. All are to hold fire until given explicit firing solutions.”

Goswani prepared her fleet for battle as the enemy approached.

At around five to ten kilometers of distance, unguided torpedoes could have come flying.

They never did.

At around the one kilometer mark, gunfire could start blazing.

It did not.

Despite the chill Goswani felt as the enemy moved closer, there was no initial violence.

At around 500 meters distance between the two fleets, a laser request came through.

On the main screen, Goswani saw a crisp video feed of young, blond Imbrian boy with very lightly tanned skin, in soldier’s clothes, not an officer, no decorations in sight. He saluted her and began to speak words which she never thought she would hear in a million years. Words that made her fall back to her chair in stunned silence, all of the adrenaline of the moment washing over her quite suddenly. Words that brought both relief and despair.

“Esteemed Union admiral, my name is Daniel Mendoza. I am a common soldier hoping to speak as a common soldier. My comrades and I have arrived from Ajillo station preferring to be detained by the Union than be forced to fight for Imperial usurpers any longer. We have no intentions to fire and surrender ourselves to your mercy.”

There would not be a huge, decisive battle at Cascabel for now.

Goswani’s combat mission became a liaison, but it was not for nothing that she brought her diver carrier out to Cascabel. Moreso than the mere presence of these defectors, it was Goswani’s own little wave in intercepting them that would echo in history, even as her vaunted Divers did nothing but inspect and detain the Imperial fleet.

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