“Ship detected on passive sonar. Profile is Kühne class light transport.”
“That should be them.”
Norn rested her head on her fist while watching the main screen.
Algorithmic prediction drew an ETA for seeing the ship visually of about twenty minutes. It was moving at combat speed, which for a transport ship meant escape speed. This was not what they had planned when they initially coordinated the pickup, but a lot of things had happened since then to all of them.
Oddly enough they had detected no other vessels pursuing, but they still had to be cautious.
Selene had some kind of attack and was resting in the med-bay, and Norn refused to let Adelheid start the Jagdkaiser, so their choices for defending themselves in case of an attack would be limited. Hunter III did not have enough biomass available to take on an ocean-going form of any use. Worse came to worse, Norn would have to go out there herself in the Jagdkaiser, something she was not necessarily against, but–
It shouldn’t have mattered! She gave clear instructions through her agents.
This was not the plan.
“I don’t get it. What are they doing? Keep your eyes and ears peeled.”
Unless the defectors turned on them, there shouldn’t be a problem.
But why were they going so fast? This contravened everything they had planned.
“This is the problem with bringing outside help, when you’re used to excellence.”
Norn heard the bridge door open and glanced out of the sides of her eyes at it.
Through the door, a red-head in a pristine grey uniform walked in. Her hair was loose but neatly brushed so it had a tidy look; beneath her coat, skirt, and white-button down shirt she was clearly wearing a very covering black bodysuit from the tall black boots on her feet, all the way up to the neck. Her cheeks were rosey with makeup, and she flashed a bright lacquered-red smile.
“Awaiting our guests?” Adelheid asked, her tone quite cheerful.
Norn smiled back. “Less awaiting them, more trying to puzzle out their erratic behavior.”
“No plan survives your subordinates huh? Anyway: I went to check on Selene. She’s awake, but I told her to rest up more.” Adelheid said. Her smile faded a bit. “Livia says she had a mental breakdown. She’s on anti-psychotic medication. I’m worried that Livia is just prescribing stuff to get it out of the vault.”
“You can trust her. She has good bedside manner. If she sneaks a few pills, it’s nothing major.”
“Regardless, since we have a situation, and with Selene down; what will we do if it turns into another fight? Potomac is an awful pilot. Hunter III doesn’t have a lot of monster left in her. And I’m an ace but you won’t let me pilot at all.” Adelheid shrugged. “How do we know that transport isn’t a trap and won’t try to attack us?”
“We’ll let the 150 mm guns do the talking.” Norn said. “Relax. Trust me on this one.”
“You’re so stubborn. Fine then. If the ship goes down, you better wed me before we die.”
“I promise on the honor of the Fueller family, I’ll have vows ready in that case.”
Norn put on a mischievous grin. Adelheid scoffed and turned her cheek.
“Hmph! You’re not being serious at all. Swearing on the Fueller family, you bastard.”
“Y’two ought to get married now cuz all ya do is be noisy to each other.”
From the back of the bridge sounded the sleepy voice of Hunter III of the Third Sphere.
A pale spindly girl in a black robe, her eyes closed with a smug little expression.
“You’re not required to be here. We’re in the aphotic zone now.” Norn said.
Leaning back against the wall, Hunter III crossed the overlarge sleeves of her robe.
“Well, I wanna be here, so.” She said lazily, through a long, deep yawn.
Norn signaled for Adelheid to sit next to her, which the adjutant did.
“We’ll be ‘engaging’ in a few minutes.” Norn said.
Imperial ship guns were usually non-retractable, unlike Union ship guns. They had nothing to hide and no need to conserve space in their station docks, which were massive and could be expanded more if needed. Those 150 mm guns Norn described were therefore always bristling like fangs atop the elegant hull of the Antenora, and it took little work to get them ready to fire at a moment’s notice. As the transport ship approached, the guns were sealed, drained, loaded, and made ready to fire in the immediate instant that Norn gave the order.
Soon that blip on the main screen began to get closer and closer.
“Send them an acoustic message to request a laser connection.” Norn asked.
One of her drones dutifully obliged.
On the main screen, the prediction, which was essentially points on a topographical chart, updated to a full visual prediction on the main screen, superimposing the predicted elements over the sharply photorealistic three-dimensional picture of the ocean around them. Now they were able to “see” impossibly far as a ship approached, five hundred meters away in a surprisingly clear ocean, instead of within a cloud of murky biomass.
“Ma’am, they responded that their laser communicator was damaged in an incident.”
“What?” Norn crossed her arms and stomped her feet, utterly perplexed. They had agreed on everything that needed to be done! “That’s the oldest fucking excuse– do they think I’m stupid? It’s like they want it to look like it’s an obvious trap! Tell those idiots to connect to laser right now or we’ll blast them out of the ocean! This instant!”
“Maybe it did break?” Adelheid shrugged.
Before Norn could scold Adelheid, the communications drone responded.
“Ma’am, they say that fighting broke out among themselves and very few survived. There was damage to internal systems. They have the ship on auto-pilot at the moment and are requesting clemency and a chance to transfer.”
Norn stared at the communications drone and back at the main screen.
“What a mess!” She cried out. “Fine, tell them to dock with us. But watch them closely.”
On the approach, Norn waited on the bridge until the Kühne class was well past the range where they could have pulled some kind of trick, like deploying Divers from the cargo hold or unloading a torpedo out of a utility tube, or even setting themselves up to ram. Hundreds of grueling meters passed as the ship simply lumbered close, efficient as autopilot could be. Ranged by every weapon on the Antenora and surveilled by every sensor, the Kühne class dutifully submitted to the Cruiser’s jet anchors allowed itself to come attached to a sidepod docking chute.
From a chest on the side of the Captain’s chair, Norn withdrew a six-shot revolver.
Without hesitation she handed it to Adelheid, who took it into hand easily but with a passing glance at Norn. Had any of the crew been the chatty or gossipy kind, this would have been an important gesture.
On most ships, doctrine was that only the security team carried weapons openly. The ship’s captain had a six-shot revolver in their bridge for emergencies, but it was frowned upon for them to openly carry a weapon unless they were members of the Inquisition or another special body. There were all kinds of rules of propriety and noblesse for ship commanders– for the captain to hand her revolver to another was seen as an act of deep and abiding trust.
Norn did not care about such things. She was an Apostle; she was her own gun already.
However, she did know Adelheid would appreciate the gesture in a tense moment.
Adelheid pulled out the cylinder to check the loaded rounds and then flipped it back.
She had a little contented smile on her face. Just what Norn wanted to see.
“Hunter III, you too– both of you follow me. We’re the greeting party.”
Norn stood up and started walking, expecting to be followed without hesitation.
She was correct. Adelheid and Hunter III trailed only a scant few steps behind her.
Behind the hangar was a small module that acted as the docking bay, and it was here that the mechanisms for the docking chute were kept. Pressure was equalized on the chute to match both ships, so that when the doors opened on the opposing vessel there would not be an immediate blowup and flooding. Norn watched on a small monitor in the arrival area linked to a grainy camera in the chute, allowing them to look past the thick bulkhead door. She saw a pair of figures step into the deployment chute and approach their own door. They looked unarmed and harmless.
“I’m opening the bulkhead.” Norn said, gesturing over her shoulder.
Hunter III and Adelheid backed off a step, Adelheid with her hands on her sidearm, Hunter III with her arms hanging at her side and beginning to form hot black digits like razor fingers hidden in her sleeves, trailing thin vapors. Both of them could act much less explosively than Norn, so she would prefer they handle any problems with the arrivals. With her backup ready, Norn activated the clunky bulkhead mechanisms and watched the door cacophonously unlock.
Once the bulkhead had fully opened, Norn found herself greeted by a pair of Loup women.
At the head of the pair and wearing a smile too broad for Norn’s level of tolerance was a tall, handsome Loup woman in a white and purple suit. She was well pampered, olive skin lightly touched up, her lustrous black hair falling to the shoulder in gentle waves around and behind stiff ears, wolf-like and sharp but with the fur perfectly manicured. Bright green eyes, deep and narrow, glanced casually from Norn to Adelheid before settling back. Her coat and pants looked expensive and refined, with gold cufflinks and a ceremonial braid across the chest to denote rank — but her attire was marred in places by brown stains. Her long, slender, tapered tail wagged incessantly.
As she stepped forward, this woman spread her arms open as if in invitation.
“You can stay right there for now.” Norn said, declining whatever the Loup offered.
“Of course, of course. I would not dare impose on the great Praetorian.” She said.
“You certainly know how to sweet talk, at least.” Norn responded.
Beside her, with a big smile and a certain nervous energy to her movements, was a young woman several centimeters shorter, her short, blunt blond hair quite tidy. Folded dog ears and a skinny but flexible and fluffy tail defined this girl’s Loup features. Lightly bronzed skin, with wide open, friendly brown eyes, she seemed the stark opposite of her compatriot. While the taller woman carried herself in a way that seemed rather playfully lascivious, the shorter girl looked almost innocent, calm, and glowing with a youthful vivaciousness. Her clothes were far more standard, being the grey coat and uniform pants of an ordinary soldier of the Empire, but pressed perfectly neat.
“Allow me to introduce myself, Lord von Fueller.” Said the taller woman. Her red painted lips curled into a confident grin, her wolf-like tail batting rapidly as she bowed with an arm over her breast, cutting a dashing figure with sabre on hip. “Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, Gallic-educated Polkovnyk in the South Kashak Host. I am here hoping to serve as a Fueller retainer– oh, and this is Petra Chornyi Sunnysea. She’s just happy to be around.”
“Hello!” Petra said. She began to speak very rapidly. “I joined the master so she would not have to flee alone! When the master was accused of various romantic improprieties I thought to myself, ‘this cannot be right, master is very moral, otherwise she would not have such an esteemed rank as Polkovnyk’ and I decided that–”
“Be quiet now, Petra.” Yurii said, putting a heavy hand down on Petra’s head.
“Yes master! Of course!” Petra said happily.
Crossing her arms and staring critically, Norn noticed blood on the sabre also.
“Polkovnyk is indeed a high rank within the Loup hosts. I see why you would be dressed so lavishly and boast of a classic education. But I am curious how such a refined woman allowed so much staining on her coat.”
Norn pointed at the brown on Yurii’s coat. Petra followed her finger to it and gasped.
“Master, I can clean that for you–”
“No, Petra it’s stained.” Yurii sighed. “Milord, we had unfortunate incident on the way.”
“Unfortunate how? Explain.” Norn demanded.
Yurii reached her hand up to her forehead, with a wan expression, as if she was suddenly struck by a migraine. Not exactly the gravity Norn expected from someone who had apparently survived the deaths of potentially dozens of other people on that transport. When Yurii finally spoke up after various gesticulations, her “woe is me” tone of voice quite grated on the ears. It was hard to tell whether she was taking it that seriously.
“Oh milord, it was truly a trial for me! The Vekans fabricated a scandal to try to remove me from my position, so I was forced to hire a mercenary crew to ferry me and a few companions likewise persecuted away from the Vekan state. Unbeknownst to me, those same companions had been plotting all along to make for the Royal Alliance instead. Of course, I already had agreements with Fueller family agents, and I was not about to ignore such a prized position. Unfortunately, we could not reconcile our differences save through a bloody coup of the ship.”
Upon hearing her master’s sufferings retold, Petra’s eyes teared up and she covered them.
“Poor Master! Everyone cornered her! I felt so bad, she had to send them all to God–”
“That’s quite enough Petra, thank you, wipe your tears.” Yurii grumbled.
Norn scoffed. “You roped a crew in with bribes who turned on you at the first opportunity because they were carrying a wanted criminal who was taking them on a practical suicide mission. Then when the winds turned foul you killed everybody. You should’ve just come alone. I don’t understand why you needed an entire transport for this.”
“Praetorian, I beg you to understand! For our entire history from the surface to the sea, it has been a grave dishonor for any Kashak to leave behind her sword, shield, armor and horse. It simply would not do!”
Yurii puffed out her chest with indignant pride. Norn supposed she meant her Diver.
That was a pretty unbelievable excuse from this dandy. She just wanted to be waited on.
Norn shook her head. “So I guess if I look in there now I’ll just find a charnel house?”
“So confrontational! I am the victim here you know, not all those of turncoats and thugs.”
Yurii shrugged her shoulders. Throughout, she really seemed more annoyed than anything.
Norn could see an aura around her that was untroubled, with the slightest hint of violence. Red and blue with a gradation to purple. No green, no yellow, she had no fear to her, no turbulence, no regrets. A thin black stripe suggested she was thinking of death, however. Red was usually outward violence; black was more of an inward feeling toward one’s own mortality and pain. That pattern allowed Norn to guess at her inner nature.
Yurii’s aura was colored by feelings of violence and an acceptance of violence to herself.
That kind of thinking suggested– a completely deranged individual.
Norn grinned almost as broadly as Yurii had been grinning at her.
This could be fun. It might even ultimately be useful.
“At any rate,” Norn said, “you promised us intelligence on the Vekans when we agreed to come all the way out here to rescue you. If you’re showing your face in front of me, then I assume you are able to uphold your end of the bargain. Otherwise, we will not be speaking for much longer and I’ll sink that ship with your corpse in it.”
Yurii was unfazed by the threat.
“Of course milord! In fact, this was part of the ruckus. So I couldn’t keep it on my person.”
Petra’s face lit up. “Ah yes, I kept this very safe for Master–”
Without warning and without even allowing the young girl to say anything more, Yurii then indiscreetly reached across to Petra’s chest and pulled something out of her coat, leaving her yelping and bewildered. Her long fingers produced a thin, black object with a connection port visible between halves of the plastic chassis.
“Everything I exfiltrated is in this memory stick. I can decrypt it for you.” Yurii said.
“Decrypt it huh? You’ve really covered your bases, Ms. Samoylovych.”
Norn smiled ever more broadly, feeling a rush of excitement toward this unruly cur.
Behind her Adelheid seemed to roll her eyes. Perhaps sensing Norn’s brimming sadism.
Then it was Norn’s turn to spread her arms out dramatically and speak effusively.
“Welcome aboard the Antenora! We’ll take care of the formalities soon. Just know that you serve the Fueller family now, with me at its head. Should you fail me or step out of line, I won’t hesitate to twist your head off like a doll I don’t want to play with anymore. Here we don’t care about your name or pedigree or criminal record. We only follow the law of Norn von Fueller: you do as I say, or I’ll make you hurt a hundred bodies’ worth of pain before you die.”
Yurii stared silently. Petra tipped her head to one side in a cutesy, spacey-eyed gesture.
Adelheid blinked hard and crossed her arms. Hunter III seemed to mimic Petra.
At Norn’s brazen declaration, the black stripe in Yurii’s aura expanded and flared just a little bit, having brought her feelings of death and pain further into focus in her emotional space. Her body language remained untroubled. In fact judging by the cheerful, amused smile that appeared on Yurii’s face, she may have been titillated rather than terrified by the notion that Norn could kill her easily. Norn was quite interested in that reaction.
This is someone I could get along with. She thought.
Yurii bowed with her hand across her chest in a way that again, almost made her seem handsome and mannered.
“Well met! Such terms are not uncommon to a Loup from the great eastern Hosts.”
At her side, Petra, who still looked vaguely emotional about everything, also quickly bowed in a similar fashion, her smile a bit vacant. Her aura was far simpler. It had turned almost completely green after Yurii had told her melodramatic account of why she killed her crew, and with a bit of blue when Yurii grabbed her suddenly.
Petra wore her emotions quite obviously.
“At any rate, we’ll get your equipment out of the Kühne so we can continue on our journey. I believe it would be for the best if we sank that awful transport so you could forget this miserable chapter of your life, wouldn’t you agree, Samoylovych?” Norn said, stepping aside as if to allow Yurii and Petra to pass the bulkhead.
Yurii looked thrilled at the prospect.
“Oh, absolutely. I should’ve known the Praetorian would understand the situation so well.”
Adelheid sighed openly. “I’ll go get the crew started on that then. Welcome or whatever.”
She turned around and stormed off with heavy footsteps toward the hangar.
Norn wondered idly what that attention-grabbing display was about–
–probably just starting to rile her up again for next time. It was starting to work, too.
Yurii watched her go out of sight with keen interest.
“Ah, unfortunate, I didn’t get to be introduced to that bright and beautiful young lady.”
Norn’s eyes locked to hers immediately with a force that seemed to make Yurii step back.
“Adelheid van Mueller. She is my esteemed, long-time, personal adjutant.”
Yurii silently nodded her understanding. Good dog. Her hungry eyes drifted over to Hunter III.
“And this cutey? I can’t help but wonder about her unique attire. Is she the chaplain? I could use a private religious consultation you know.” Yurii brought her thumb up to her lips, curled in a fanged grin.
Hunter III stared directly at her with narrowed eyes and then openly licked her lips.
“Boss, I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna be eating this girl soon ain’t I?” She declared.
Norn grinned and shrugged as if it didn’t concern her.
Yurii stared at Hunter III with a perhaps even more lascivious expression.
“Don’t worry over her, Ms. Samoylovych. I’ll explain later.” Norn said.
Despite all the of the mysteries and insinuations, Yurii remained steadfastly upbeat.
In fact her aura seemed to become ever brighter, while her smile was ever wider.
“I had heard rumors that the Antenora was a special vessel. Even the past few minutes have me intrigued. I will serve with distinction under your command, Praetorian. I am positive the Fueller family is the winning team to be on now. Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays only plays for the winning team — for a cut of the winnings.”
Yurii casually walked past the bulkhead and cast an apathetic glance behind herself.
“Petra you can stay with the Kühne and get sunk if you want.” Yurii said dismissively.
Upon being addressed, Petra snapped her slightly hanging jaw shut and stood in attention.
“Ah! Not at all Master! I was just spacing out. Of course I’m coming with you!”
Petra followed innocently and smilingly behind, as Norn led Yurii deeper into her new life.
Welcome to the Antenora! Norn thought to herself, laughing inside. Fresh meat!
In the middle of a private garden rotunda at Heitzing Officer Cadet School, a young woman prostrated herself, putting her head to the cold white tiles largely unlit by the false sun outside. Through the gaps in the enclosing pillars of the rotunda, thick rose bushes prevented visibility from outside the building. She was caged in, surrounded, the fence-door into the interior of the rotunda having closed ominously behind her. She was trapped.
For the sake of her beloved friend, Gertrude Lichtenberg prostrated herself.
Standing in front of her, looking down from above, was a slim blond woman wearing the ornate coat of the Fueller family over a casual button-down shirt, giving Gertrude an imperious gaze and wearing a wide grin. At her side was a disinterested redhead in grey uniform. Both were beautiful, powerful women of high society, while the girl begging them was a swarthy, lanky tomboy in a blue cadet’s uniform, weeping childishly.
“Norn the Praetorian, I put my head to the floor for you. Please grant me an audience.”
Her voice was cracking. Her heart slammed against the confines of her chest.
All of her skin brimmed with unease. This was Norn the Praetorian.
Word had it that she had killed people for lesser slights than being begged like this.
“Please. I am unworthy, but I beg most humbly. Please.”
Norn sighed openly.
“How did you find out I was here? I’ve never seen a kid so annoyingly resourceful.”
Gertrude hardly expected to hear her speak.
She almost thought she would simply die right there.
“I–,” Gertrude could not possibly say how. It was purely insane. “I overhead an officer give gossip, ma’am–”
Norn laughed. “Keep lying to me and see where it leads, you arrogant girl.”
Nevertheless, she silently gestured with her hand for Gertrude to stand up.
Was she being given an audience?
She stood from the floor, and saluted Norn with her eyes red and puffy with tears.
“You cut a dashing figure when you’re not on your knees.” Norn joked.
“She’s boring.” At her side, the redhead interjected. “She should grow out a ponytail.”
Norn’s hand seemed to mindlessly toy with a lock of hair from her own ponytail.
Gertrude stood speechlessly for a moment. “I– I’ll take your advice, milady.”
“Don’t mind her.” Norn said. “Talk to me, cadet. Who are you supposed to be?”
“Yes milord. I’m Gertrude Lichtenberg. I recently achieved the rank of Junior Petty Officer.”
“Petty Officer Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Norn repeated. “You have achieved your initial rank, so you are on your way out of this Cadet School. Why are you here begging? What opportunity do you seek?”
Gertrude swallowed hard before speaking.
It was tough to speak of. It was still hard to believe.
“Milord, I believe that I am being singled out for sanction by Inquisitor Brauchitsch.”
Norn eyes widened with surprise. She crossed her arms and watched Gertrude intently.
“Brauchitsch? How is he ‘sanctioning’ you? I don’t understand.”
“I– I don’t know why he would target me ma’am, since his arrival, several officers in his orbit have insulted, provoked and even endangered me. Lord, I– I have a very important friend, a Northern Loup, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. She was detained recently for false charges of assault– she was goaded ma’am, she was threatened and goaded into a fight with one of Brauchitsch’s supporters, to protect me. My contribution for her alibi was then stricken down!”
“I truly haven’t heard about any of this. Am I being kept in the dark? If there was an assault on an officer on campus during my stay and I wasn’t informed, I’ll definitely take it as Doenitz keeping me in the dark. I have to wonder what he and Brauchitsch are up to.” Norn said. She looked almost like she was speaking to herself or maybe to the girl at her side, staring at Gertrude’s shoes for a moment rather than her eyes, deep in thought.
“Maybe he thought it wasn’t important enough to bother the mighty Praetorian.”
Once more the red-head added a snippy-sounding comment and shrugged her shoulders.
Gertrude felt nervous again. She was being heard, but it was such an insane situation.
She felt insane saying this, but there had been so many situations recently–
Gertrude was being targeted and there was no way to escape Inquisitorial Sanction. She had some idea s to why– maybe it related to Elena– but she was helpless. Ingrid could be tortured to death for an indiscretion born of this injustice, and nobody could say anything. Gertrude herself could suffer more indignities or even be killed or have her career destroyed. She was not a noble, just a daughter of a family with good connections. She had nothing that she could do to defend herself, no way to escape the seemingly randomly cruelty that befell her.
“Milord, I need your aid and sponsorship. I need you to intervene on our behalf. Me and my friends have been the target of grave injustices, cruel, random, and violent and I believe it will only get worse. Since he stationed himself in the cadet school Inquisitor Brauchitsch has led some kind of campaign against me specifically. I do not understand why. But if I became the servant of someone more powerful than he, I could retaliate.”
Norn allowed Gertrude to complete her emotional spiel before responding.
“Honestly. You’ve got some nerve, you know that?”
She walked over to Gertrude and gave her a light smack on the cheek, firm but not too painful.
When they were close and she was standing, Norn could not look down at Gertrude.
She had to look her straight in the eyes and she did, fixing Gertrude with a powerful gaze.
Her lips curled into a demonic grin. Gertrude felt her breath catch in her own throat.
This was a deal with the devil, and she knew it.
“Retaliation, eh? I like that word. So I can’t say I’m uninterested, however, I have no time for unambitious beggars. I’m not just going to rescue you. If you have concrete demands of me, then make them. What do you yearn for? What is your heart’s desire? Do not lie to me. If you dare lie to me, I will strike you with a hundred times the strength of that last slap I dealt you. So be honest: what would you do with my power, Gertrude Lichtenberg?”
Norn felt enormous, her presence took up all of Gertrude’s vision, all of the rotunda.
Choking, monstrous power the likes of which she hardly understood.
But she couldn’t– she couldn’t just tell her– Gertrude couldn’t simply–
“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Why did a woman of no name or note come to this place?”
“I–” Gertrude hesitated. Her voice quivered when she spoke. “I want the power to rectify the injustices happening in the Empire. This is why I left Luxembourg to join the military. I wouldn’t have the power to fight for what I believe in as just a girl– I needed to be a soldier. I’ll be a soldier that checks evil men like Brauchitsch.”
She delivered her speech with as much eloquence as she could muster.
Norn’s eyes narrowed with rage and in the next second Gertrude’s vision swam.
Her fist came lightning fast, as if time had stopped before the blow was delivered.
Gertrude stepped back and doubled over as Norn pounded her stomach with such force that she felt her feet had lifted off the floor for a moment. Staggering, choking, feeling the bile rising to her throat and the spreading of brutal pain across her core that seemed to shake all the muscle under her skin. Legs buckling, she fell to her knees for support, dry hacking and heaving into the white tiles. Mind foggy, reeling, uncomprehending.
One punch, just one punch from this woman and Gertrude nearly blacked out.
“How dare you? How fucking dare you? I warned you not to lie to me. You cannot lie to me. You will not lie to me, Lichtenberg!” Norn shouted. She was suddenly impassioned. “You have nowhere near the power to be able to lie to me. All you have is the disrespect and audacity. If you lie to me again, my next strike will hurt a thousand times more than this. Choose your words cautiously, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Lie again if you dare.”
On the floor, shaking, all of her willpower crumbling, Gertrude mumbled in pain.
What would she do with the overwhelming, brutal power of Norn von Fueller?
Having experienced that power, Gertrude could not possibly lie again.
She gathered all of her breath that she could and spoke up as loud as she was capable.
“Elena von Fueller.” She gritted her teeth and wept with shame. She wished she could dig her fingers through the tiles. “My goal is Elena von Fueller. We were classmates. I want– I need to see her again. Once she graduated from Luxembourg I would lose her forever. I want– I need a high rank to have her.” Tears overcame her.
She felt Norn’s hand on her hair and flinched, expecting another blow–
Instead Norn gently guided her eyes up to meet hers.
Norn was smiling. A warm, merciful, kind smile unlike any she had worn before.
“Finally. That is indeed the truth. A simple and carnal truth, my favorite kind. And it is this truth, then, which will lead to the destruction of Ludwig von Brauchitsch and the rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Isn’t it dramatic? Isn’t it worthy of an opera? I relish the chance to realize it. Such a simple, beautiful dream. A dream to destroy a world for.”
More than the pain, more than the shame, Gertrude felt an overwhelming terror.
An eye-opening fear of the monsters lurking in the darkest corners of Aer.
Gertrude had sold her soul to a demon and she knew it.
At that point in her life, there was no turning back from what she would become.
But that foggy scene of cold sweat, floral scents and overwhelming fear was interrupted by a loud noise which took the young officer cadet Gertrude Lichtenberg from Heitzig all the way back to where she truly was. In the cold and desolate wastes of Sverland. Her bed on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, the living proof of the promise of power which Norn von Fueller had granted to her. Saving her life; damning her life.
Gertrude bolted upright in bed, sweating bullets, awakened into a spiraling state.
In a panic she pulled up the soaked tanktop she was wearing and found her stomach intact.
With that moment of panic passing, Gertrude felt suddenly overwhelmed and ashamed.
Panting in bed, a message on the wall beckoning her to respond in real time, a real time she was not yet ready to face. Hours had passed, so many hours, she had practically slept a whole day. All of the events prior to her passing out in bed crawled over her, icy as the sweat down her back. She staggered at the enormity of things.
Elena– Sieglinde– Norn– Ingrid–
Gertrude stretched her hand over to the wall and accepted the message as audio only.
As she said this Gertrude cast eyes at a bundle on the bed beside her.
For an instant, she feared that in some fit of stupid, drunk emotion, she, and Ingrid–
“Ma’am! It’s Schicksal! We’ve contacted the Antenora, she’ll be docking soon.”
Ignoring Schicksal with a renewed panic, Gertrude swung the blankets off herself–
And she found no trace of that emotional Loup in her bed. Of course; of course.
It was just stray pillows and the way she had bundled herself in her blankets. Ingrid was gone. And in the maelstrom of emotions she was feeling, Gertrude did not know whether she wished they had really slept together. Unbidden her brain dowsed her in all kinds of shameful fantasies. What if she had fucked Ingrid’s brains out? What if she let herself get pulled into a reckless passion, damn the circumstances? Would that have satisfied her? Would it have been cathartic? She sighed, running her hands over her face. It was almost enough to make her cry.
Schicksal spoke up again. “Ma’am? I’m sorry, is this not a good time?”
“It’s fine.” Gertrude said bluntly, trying to collect herself. “What’s their ETA?”
“About twenty minutes at the Antenora’s current heading.”
“Tell–” She hesitated to say her name then managed to say a few choppy sentences in an almost normal tone of voice. “Ingrid and Baron von Castille. We’ll greet the guests together. Set up a private table. Staging room four. Set up food and drinks. Do I really need to say more?” Gertrude practically shouted at Schicksal.
“N-Not at all ma’am!” Schicksal’s voice turned quickly nervous. “Of course! Right away!”
At once the audio message window disappeared from the wall.
Gertrude brought her hands up to her face and groaned loudly into them.
Of the twenty minutes she had, she must have spent at least five screaming.
Then she rushed to the bathroom, throwing off her tanktop and shorts along the way.
Opening the false wall panel into a 2 meter by 2 meter shower box, she stepped inside, set the temperature low and shocked herself with a blast of icy water. Her skin shivered violently from the back of her neck down her spinal cord. She gritted her teeth, put her head to the wall, and stared at the bare metal under the water for a solid minute while she shook out all the tension in her body. Her fear and trepidation, the pounding headache from having slept too long, the brimming panic beneath her skin, all of it was sent to oblivion by the sheer overwhelming force of the cold water. One thing she learned from Norn. Cold water was mighty. It could wash away anything.
Water had shaped the contours of the surface world, and now, the confines of all humans.
But it was still merciful if one understood the nature of its mercy. Just like Norn herself.
Despite everything, by the time an orderly came to collect her she was already well dressed in her ornate coat, cape, and tall hat, boots smart, hair in a tidy ponytail, projecting the dashing figure and confident, collected smile she wanted. No trace of ever having wept on the swarthy olive skin of her face. At the door, the orderly saluted her– farther down the hall, a tall blonde woman with a dispassionate expression and a shorter, grinning brunette with sharp dog-like ears and a wagging tail awaited Gertrude. She smiled and nodded, greeting both of them cordially.
Some part of her still feared a reaction from Ingrid–
“Good to see you up, you slept like a rock! I’m so happy for ya!” the Loup said jovially.
Ingrid was her best friend– of course she would not hold some kind of grudge.
“All thanks to you for the pick-me-up.” Gertrude replied.
“Hah! God don’t even mention it. Let’s just go meet this master of yours.”
Ingrid grinned brightly at her. She really was a lovely girl, a ray of sunshine.
Gertrude felt her wavering heart finally sit still for a moment.
They were fine; there was no hatred to fear between them.
Sieglinde responded to the greeting and two friends with a quiet, “Inquisitor.”
And a short nodding of her head to punctuate the greeting.
“Nice to see you too.” Gertrude said.
With that, the party was collected and took themselves down to the docking bay.
“Inquisitor Lichtenberg! I never imagined I would see my protégé in this barren sea!”
At the head of the party arriving through the Iron Lady’s docking chute, that unmistakable voice and grinning face could be none other than Norn von Fueller, fair faced, blond-haired, with a fit but unassuming physique. She had at her side her trusted adjutant Adelheid van Mueller as well as a dark-haired Loup in military garb. Upon their arrival, Norn took Gertrude’s hands into her own, looking her up and down in uniform with excitement.
“Amazing! You really do command the authority of office with that look.” Norn said.
“She even did her hair up in a ponytail. Has she grown taller?” Adelheid added.
They were doting on her like she was a kid. Gertrude sighed openly.
“It hasn’t been that long since we last met! And I was fully grown back then!” She said.
“It is the responsibility of the master to tease her foolish apprentice.” Norn said. “So, are you going to introduce me to your cohort? You’ve already met Adelheid van Mueller, who as always acts as my adjutant, while this lady is Yurii Annecy Samoylovych Darkestdays, once a Polkhovnyk in the Southern Kashak Host.”
Yurii bowed upon being introduced. “Pleasure to meet the esteemed Inquisitor.”
Her words were thickly lacquered with a tone perhaps sarcastic or disdainful.
Gertrude could tell right away this lady was a problem. She was Norn’s kind of crony.
Highly skilled, greatly troubled, probably horrifically violent in some way.
Norn did not allow just anyone to speak or act freely in her presence.
All of her crew received some kind of training so as to never speak a word out of turn or divulge any secrets. Once upon a time, Gertrude had thought it had to do with bribes or benefits. She found that Norn spent lavishly on the salaries she offered and even took care of the families of her people forever. But there was something else– even Gertrude had, at times, felt utterly overpowered by something in Norn’s speech and atmosphere that smothered any notion of dissent. There was no way to explain it but people simply obeyed Norn.
If only I could have that kind of power–
Gertrude proceeded with the pleasantries.
“Proud to make your acquaintance as well. I admit quite a fondness for the Loup people.”
Ingrid made a face and sighed.
“Let me introduce my people then. I don’t have a formal adjutant, because I don’t want to take this woman out of the pilot’s seat.” Gertrude gestured toward Ingrid, who still looked a bit taken aback by her former and current comments. “This is Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong. You may have briefly met?” Gertrude looked to Ingrid and finally saw her face and had to keep herself from making any comment or gesture. Ingrid sighed again.
“Nuh uh, first time seeing her.” She said. “She signed off on my release when I was getting thrown in a hole in Heitzing but I never met her. I gotta say, she looks like she could tear me in half, like the stories.”
Gertrude blanched but Norn took the comment in good humor.
“I wouldn’t do that to Gertrude’s most beloved friend.” Norn said.
Ingrid tried to keep a straight face, but she was clearly avoiding looking at anyone now.
Norn’s gaze turned to the tall, brooding blond woman on Gertrude’s other flank.
“And this is Sieglinde von Castille. I would recognize her anywhere.” Norn said.
“Good day, Lord von Fueller.” Sieglinde replied. She offered a short, perfunctory salute.
“We settled a matter on the Castille estate when her parents passed. We needed an agreement in place since she was a soldier and only heir.” Norn said, looking at Gertrude and explaining the familiarity. Norn was the Emperor’s right-hand woman on any serious matters concerning the aristocracy. “I don’t know how you ended up with the Red Baron in your retinue, but you should consider yourself quite lucky. She is a very wise and level-headed lady.”
Sieglinde joined Ingrid in casting eyes away from the party.
Gertrude felt suddenly that the mood was turning absolutely rancid.
“Let’s depart, we shouldn’t stand around talking in the docking bay. I’ve prepared a table.”
With that declaration, Gertrude led a change of scenery. From the docking bay, the party traveled to a small planning room, all white walls with little adornment. They were seated around a square table for six, its farthest ends folded so it comfortably and intimately seated only as many people as needed. There were slots for computer terminals to affix, but these had been removed as the room had a much less technical significance on that day.
In their place, there were plates of food for the guests.
Gertrude had expected some light snacks, but the kitchen went all out within the confines of all the ingredients a military vessel would have on hand. There was a panzanella salad, made with black bread and salted canned tomatoes. Even sized chunks of dry bread grew moist with a quick dressing made from the tomatoes’ own juices along with oil, mustard, and sugar. There were two types of sausages on the ship, a softer pork, fat, and buckwheat sausage and a harder, dryer, smoked beef sausage, and both were used to great textural contrast in a main dish of sausage and peppers in a beer sauce. This was accompanied by boiled potatoes, smoked cheese, and sauerkraut.
No beer was served for drinking; they had glasses of a sweet, non-alcoholic malt drink.
“Quite a spread! I had no idea that we would be dining so lavishly.” Norn said.
Gertrude stared at the table and shrugged happily. “To be honest, I didn’t either.”
Everyone began to serve themselves from the plates– though with some resistance from Adelheid van Mueller who at first wished to be served by an orderly or by Norn. Norn of course refused instantly to serve her anything and demanded in return that she serve herself. After raising her voice to her adjutant, the argument was Norn’s victory and Adelheid demurely served herself. Yurii and Ingrid seemed to want to monopolize all of the meat toward their own plates. Gertrude was not too hungry, and Norn seemed equally disinterested in her food. Sieglinde topped her plate mainly with side dishes, seeming particularly fond of the plain boiled potatoes with cheese.
“Ms. Järveläinen, you’re a Northern Loup correct?”
Across from Ingrid, Yurii hailed her in the middle of the meal, a glint in her bright eyes.
Ingrid put down a piece of beef sausage she was about to chew on.
“Uh huh, you can tell from the name can’t you? And you said you’re a Samoylovych, right? Samoylovych Darkestdays. So that means you’re a Southern Host Loup from Veka or thereabouts, that right?”
“Indeed. I’m curious– I never caught your rank, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.”
Ingrid narrowed her eyes. “I’m just a Sotnyk, nothing that should catch your attention.”
“Just a Sotnyk? But aren’t you a daughter of the famed Arvokas Järveläinen?”
“Grand-daughter. He wasn’t that fertile to be having kids in his nineties.”
Ingrid fixed a serious look at Yurii, and Yurii’s face darkened just a bit.
Gertrude’s gaze was finally drawn to the two. Norn, also, started watching with interest.
“Are you trying to declare a blood feud at this table, Yurii Samoylovych?” Ingrid asked.
“I’m just curious. Did you have many friends among your kin growing up? Over sixty years ago you Northern Host sided with the Fueller Reformation. Arvokas Järveläinen was king among the kinslayers of that dark time– did your family motto not become ‘hunters of wolves’ after they slaughtered mine? So tell me, did you make many Loup friends? I would’ve been so afraid of sitting next to a ruthless kin-killer in the making who doesn’t even remember–”
Ingrid reached across the table and grabbed hold of Yurii’s collar.
This act of violence was not enough to wipe the smirk off Yuri’s face.
“Ingrid, stop.” Gertrude said. She turned to Norn. “Samoylovych is clearly provoking her!”
In that instant Gertrude felt helpless. Yurii was one of Norn’s people.
Could Gertrude even say anything?
Norn grinned to herself. “Samoylovych is telling the historical truth. It’s unfortunate they had to meet in such circumstances, but is it really up to us to intervene in this simmering ethnic pain of theirs?”
Despite Gertrude’s best efforts and racing heart the situation was not so easily defused.
Ingrid had a look of pure hatred for Yurii and the fingers on that collar shifted to the neck.
“No offense to your boss Gertrude, but if this fucking bitch doesn’t shut up right now–”
“Aww, first name basis? Does she have your leash too? Cute; so loyal for a Järveläinen.”
Yurii grabbed hold of Ingrid’s hand by the wrist and slowly pulled her fingers off her neck.
Ingrid gritted her teeth and fought back, grabbing hold of Yurii’s hand.
She could not overcome. Ingrid’s prodigious strength was not enough.
“Samoylovych is not normal.” Norn said. “So this is a mercy for you. Yurii: down, boy.”
Yurii laid Ingrid’s hands down on the table and retracted her own, smiling all the while.
Gertrude fixed Ingrid with a look that said this situation had to be over, now.
For her part, Ingrid was furious but obedient, retracting her hands.
Rubbing her wrist surreptitiously where Yurii had grabbed her.
“This bitch Katarran or what?” She was mumbling. Thankfully everyone ignored it.
Norn finally cleared her throat loudly to get everyone’s attention and quiet the room.
“Gertrude Lichtenberg, while I have I enjoyed the food,” this she said with her plate nearly untouched, “and your hospitality, I did not come here for pleasantries, and you know it. Given that our subordinates have been making trouble, we should speed this along. You are clearly in a difficult situation. How did an Irmingard class, with its vast weaponry and defenses, suffer such a brutal and crippling attack? What is your mission in Sverland; why do you need reinforcements? It goes without saying that I’ll be upset if you hide anything from me.”
Gertrude knew she would have to explain to Norn what had happened in truth and in full.
However, the atmosphere of tension in the room was exactly what she wanted to avoid.
Mortified, Gertrude began with the most obviously difficult part of the scenario.
“I’ve been chasing a group of mercenaries who have abducted Elena von Fueller.”
Norn’s eyes drew wide. Even Adelheid, bored of everything else, looked up from her food.
“I knew it had to be something like that, with you– yet I’m still in disbelief. Elena perished, Gertrude, she is dead. Nobody evacuated from Vogelheim, it was a massacre. And you say you are chasing her?” Norn said.
Hearing those words drove a hook right through Gertrude’s chest drawing out fresh hurt.
“I know this sounds crazy, but I saw her. I saw her being loaded into a ship.” She said.
Her voice felt distant, like she wasn’t the speaker. Her head was filling with anxious fog.
“Master Norn, I’ve known Elena since we were small children. We have so much history. My father was part of the Imperial Guard in the summer palace at Schwerin Isle, he gave his life to protect that family! I played with Elena when she was a little girl for years, and I went to Luxembourg School For Girls with her for years, seeing her every day, even sleeping in the same bunk. Ma’am, I would know Elena anywhere, no matter what happened.”
Norn smiled warmly. She reached her hand out to the clearly suffering Gertrude.
Closing her fingers around Gertrude’s own in a show of solidarity.
The Inquisitor was speechless, gazing at Norn with a strange fluttering comfort.
Even Ingrid and Yurii were staring, now on the same side in their bewilderment.
“You’ve learned how to speak to me. You are telling the unvarnished truth.” Norn said.
Gertrude nodded her head. She felt her heart finally holding firm with determination.
“I saw her be taken. And I need your assistance to hunt down the forces responsible.”
Norn lifted her hand from Gertrude’s and sat back in her chair.
Her lips had curled back to that broad, malicious grin she always seemed to wear.
“Of course, as the head of the Fueller Family, I can’t overlook this. It behooves me to at least pay these mercenaries a visit and confirm the truth. How Elena got out to the Nectaris Ocean and how she survived Vogelheim– if she survived, of course. Those are questions that need answering. But Gertrude, you need to learn more about the exercise of power. I am disappointed in you. You failed despite everything at your disposal and command.”
“With all due respect ma’am, I had to be cautious to protect Elena. These mercenaries are extremely dangerous. They have military-grade Union equipment and top class pilot training.” Gertrude quickly responded. She felt defensive at Norn calling her out. “We had them outnumbered and outgunned with the help of Sverland’s patrolmen, but they still folded an entire patrol fleet with just their Divers. I am asking for help for a reason, Master.”
“Then I’ll help you crush them, but you have to agree that I am in command of this operation, and we will do things my way. Furthermore, we will leave now, on the Antenora. Your mercs have a head start on us.”
Norn gazed directly into her eyes.
She had considered the time, but the repairs on the Iron Lady were going well.
Going on the Antenora had not exactly been part of her plans.
Then again she never considered the Antenora would have been the one to answer her calls.
“Of course, Master.” She said. “I have no objections nor would my crew.”
Ingrid crossed her arms and withdrew her gaze. Sieglinde had no expression on her face.
“Marvelous. Then we should prepare and go on the hunt as soon as possible. I’ll take you aboard the Antenora, and I have room for exactly one additional Diver and pilot. Choose your best.” Norn said.
Those words felt like a hammer to Gertrude’s chest.
Norn had her own squadron. The Antenora was a Cruiser, it was not so roomy.
So Gertrude could only take one of her pilots with her. Choose your best.
Gertrude was briefly speechless. She glanced at Sieglinde and cast a long look at Ingrid.
Her heart turned so heavy. Her voice ripped out of her throat like shattered glass.
There was only one choice. And she hated that it was so.
“I’ll take Baron von Castille.” Gertrude said, voice shaking after a period of trepidation.
At her left side, Ingrid’s gaze immediately dropped to the floor. Her shoulders slouched.
If she only had one choice– Sieglinde was clearly the better pilot. She was legendary.
It hurt like hell to leave Ingrid behind. And certainly, it must have hurt Ingrid too.
“Ingrid, you’ll hold the fort here, okay? As soon as the repairs complete, I need you to rush in after us. I’m trusting you to keep everyone safe and in line, and then bring the Iron Lady in to cut off the mercs.”
Gertrude tried to soften it, like she really had something important for Ingrid to do. Like her staying behind was not a sign of Gertrude’s hasty abandoning of her best friend whenever it was convenient but was something calculated and grand and necessary that only Ingrid could do. Like it was a special little mission worthy of the trust and intimacy that they shared. Her voice could communicate none of this grandeur. And Ingrid’s wavering posture told the truth of it all.
Ingrid finally faced Gertrude after being spoken to. She raised her head up feigning pride.
She had a smile on her face. A wan, forced little smile more painful than her silence.
It almost broke Gertrude’s heart to see it.
“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure these louts work themselves to the bone so we can catch up.”
Ingrid gave her a little salute with a very slightly shaking hand.
Sieglinde for the first time seemed to have a conflicted expression on her face.
Gertrude almost didn’t know what to say.
They were exchanging what must have been the most pained expressions of their lives.
All the while hiding behind false smiles.
Ingrid would not let herself be a nuisance here. She accepted everything immediately.
For Gertrude’s sake, she was always accepting such awful things.
I’m a god damned bastard. Gertrude thought. I’m the lowest of the fucking low.
But for she had to save Elena– everything she was doing was for Elena–
“Very well! I look forward to watching the esteemed Red Baron at work.” Norn said.
She nodded her head to Sieglinde, who had no reaction to the gesture.
There was little else to discuss.
And so, with little fanfare, Gertrude left Ingrid behind to depart for darker seas.
It’s for Elena’s sake. I’m doing this for Elena. Once I get Elena back I’ll–
I’ll make it up to Ingrid– right?
Even Gertrude was having trouble believing this anymore.
In reality– she really was doing far too much for herself—
Far too little for others–
Nothing for Ingrid–
And if Norn ever asked the right question, Gertrude would not be able to lie about it.