Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.4]

“Gamer, your risible thighs have once again violated the threshold of my station.”

“Then move your chair farther away! I have less legroom here than you do!”

“A pathetic conspiracy to surreptitiously touch me born of your involuntary celibacy!”

“You’re the one who made your entire identity from trashy novels for pathetic virgins!”

Zachikova could not help but stare at the farce playing out as she entered the bridge. She ignored late-shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa, who always found some stupid thing to argue about, and instead sat herself down at her station. She checked to make sure the drone was online and not in Geninov’s control– and unfortunately, it was locked in use by Geninov’s station.

Behind her the late shifters shouted themselves hoarse, then began talking in normal voices.

“Bah, so much for nights off! I can’t believe officers still have to work all the time. I want to go back to my room. I’ve almost got motion controls for Leviathan Fury II working in the room terminal.”

“Hmph! You’re welcome to retreat timidly from the darkness if it suits your nature, gamer. I for one, am a child of the night, and I thrive when the clock strikes midnight, and the shadows fall. It is within the curtain of the witching hour that I am able to weave my strongest of magicks.”

“Huh?”

Normal being a strongly relative term.

Despite previously calling each other ‘incels,’ and ‘fujoshis’ and other unendearing terms born of modern network culture, they seemed to have silently forgiven the obscenities, as if it was a ritual clearing of grievances between them. What kind of relationship did these two idiots even have? Zachikova would not even be thinking about this if she did not have to report to them. Even if they had not noticed her walking into the bridge, she ultimately needed Geninov’s station for her plan.

“Ahem.”

Zachikova stood up and loudly cleared her throat; not that it perturbed the night shifters.

“What are you reading tonight anyway? Is it still the Witchdeemer?”

“If you must know, it is indeed. Think you that I would abandon the SaGa partway?”

“Do Pythiria and Tritipha actually fuck in this one?”

“Such vulgar terms are always crossing your lips! Their relationship, I’ll have you know, is quickly approaching a thrilling apex of titillating hurt/comfort escalation in volume three.”

“Which one’s the top? It could go either way from what you told me.”

“Could you two shut up for even one millisecond of your lives?”

Zachikova shouted over them. Her volume surprised even herself.

Both Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa turned their heads and stared.

“Oh, Zachikova, didn’t see you there.” Geninov said. She raised an absentminded hand to the messy bundle of brown hair pinned to the back of her head and twirled a strand around her finger. At her side, Santapena-De La Rosa seemed to doing the same thing with a purple-streaked lock of her blond hair while leering Zachikova’s way. She truly hated to use a gaming metaphor when faced with Geninov’s presence but seeing them both enter the same fidgeting ‘animation’ immediately after being called to attention made Zachikova wonder if ‘the simulation had broken’ right in front of her.

Or maybe those two just spent too much time together.

“Geninov, I’m taking over drone recon from you. I have something I want to test with the drone’s software performance. You can go play games in your room if you want or whatever.” Zachikova said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to run tests in the morning, when we have sonar up?” Geninov said.

Why was this idiot trying to be responsible now?

“No, it’s better now when it’s not in anyone’s way.” Zachikova replied.

Geninov looked at Santapena-De La Rosa as if for an opinion; she shrugged back.

“Well, if you say so.” Geninov said. “I’ll keep an eye on sonar while you do.”

“You really don’t have to.” Zachikova snapped back.

“I don’t want the Captain to say I’ve been slacking off or being irresponsible.”

“It’s really unnecessary.”

Santapena-De La Rosa spoke up, arms crossed.

“Is it such an imposition upon you to allow the gamer to exercise her duties?”

Zachikova nearly threw her hands up. “Why are you backing her up? Ugh, whatever.”

She turned back around and sat at her station with her head in her hands.

Geninov flipped a switch to unlock software control and sent the drone over to Zachikova’s station. She then wandered over to the sonar station as if skirting around an angry animal who may have threatened to bite. She put al-Suhar’s earphones in her ears and stared at the displays on the sonar console, while Zachikova got the drone’s bearings and began preparing for her excursion.

“Geninov,” Zachikova said, trying to rein in her tone. “I’m going to transfer my mind to the drone. Don’t talk to me while I’m doing so. Send a text message to the drone if you must.”

“Um. Got it. I guess.”

She seemed to try to avoid eye contact with Zachikova after that.

Good. Zachikova didn’t need her for anything anymore now.

That pair of milk chocolate and vanilla flavored idiots could go about their business.

She had a mission she needed to complete.

Having failed to contact the Dancer earlier that day, she felt a strong need to try again.

To do that, she would have to control the drone again.

Her antennae adjusted their angle, which was more a physical ritual than anything actually necessary for her work. She felt like it helped her “toggle” the “interface” in her brain that connected her to digital devices. Everything that needed to be done was done with her mind. Within the Brigand, she could connect wirelessly to the ship’s network and from the network access any device in the ship.

Connecting was a difficult action to describe physically. There were people she had met with imaginations vivid enough to generate imagery which they could “see” in their own heads, with their eyes closed or even open. ‘Playing a movie in your mind’ or ‘listening to a song in your mind’ were close metaphors to what Zachikova did. Except in her case, she was executing the logic that allowed one digital device to connect to another, in her mind, and parsing the results.

In laymen’s terms, she could control computers with her brain.

On the Union intranet, anyone in their station room could pull up the news or even watch state television via the network. Zachikova could do the same in her own head. Her brain sent a digital call to the host computer, and it could receive the news page or the government broadcast and interpret that data, using the correct codec to “play” any audio or video, the correct “fonts” to display text, she could parse the stylesheet. A computer had been grafted to her brain, and it did all that computers could do from the comfort of her skull and all of it senses. Zachikova was special in that way.

Kids who got the surgeries and recovered couldn’t just go and do this.

Their instinct would be to remain tethered to their physical bodies. The Union fostered in Hartz sufferers a proclivity toward software and engineering work and would install the digital interfaces on every person who recovered. Even then, most would treat machines as machines, and even if they could connect to them wirelessly, they would operate them from the center of their human body. They would not play movies in their head, they would play them on a screen. Their head just pushed the button. Zachikova’s ability to “become” a machine wasn’t unique, but it was hard-won in practice.

Her skills were not common, and her implants were heavily regulated.

Brain implant surgery had an extravagant mortality rate and required specific parts. 

Zachikova was special — she conceived of herself as a “robot,” a sapient machine.

And she was candid with anyone who asked how it felt to use her “powers” to their utmost.

Dissociating was the first step. Feeling, for a moment, like she was seeing her body in a third person perspective, like she was no longer in it, like she was something apart from it. It was that ability to become separable which took the most practice, because it was not something which her interfaces did for themselves. Her mind wasn’t a machine, her perspective wasn’t inherently mechanical. Having the interface did not allow, by itself, displacement of the senses from the center.

She had to teach herself, psychologically, to detach, to discard her flesh and blood body.

Once she dissociated, there was a sense that she “pushed” away the senses of her body. That “movie” which played in her head of the drone’s cameras, the “sounds” she heard in her mind’s ear of the drone’s hydrophone and sensors, these became primary. No longer confined to the back of the mind but fully dominating the neural pathways that fed stimulus to the brain.

In a sense, it was her physical body that became a dreamlike decoration in her mind palace.

Her mind adjusted to the rules and limitations of a new body fairly quickly. There were a few seconds where she felt quite like she was confined in a box, so heavy and so cold and so stiff, but these moments passed quickly and without panic. Her mind came to understand the “weight” as she input commands for the drone to deploy, the hydrojets to start, the fins to adjust. She felt keenly the feedback from her new limbs and the time it took to manipulate them to motion.

When she set out into the water she felt the pressure around her hull, tight, cold.

There was something pleasurable about it, however, something freeing.

Having a new body with a new set of skills and a new environment. It was exciting!

She cut through the water with alacrity, exploring a world her flesh and blood body could never have. She was not so vulnerable, not confined by the physical constitution she dealt with on a daily basis. Her senses were keener, she was faster, her stride more confident. She was untroubled by breathing and the inelegant sliding of muscles and joints. She was a fusiform machine without a floor and with hardly a ceiling to her activities, and before her lay only the truly limitless horizon of the sea.

To her human eyes, the world around her would be cut off by the wall formed by the water itself and the biomass called “marine snow.” She would have been barely able to see a few dozen meters ahead of her own nose. With the supercomputer’s predictive ability, using sound, laser, and thermal data, her vision was instead a near-perfect picture of the surroundings. Below her, rising and falling, was the topography of the ocean floor. Above and around, the water column, dark and deep blue and green.

Small details like scuttling crabs, bubbling geysers, ghostly skeleton coral that thrived near vents far away from the sun, benthic creatures playing about a massive carcass. Perfect mechanical senses helped her navigate and experience the beauty of the ocean in a way her human body never could have.

Her tether to the brigand was kilometers worth of fiber optic cable, her lifeline.

So stretching this umbilical cord, she dashed behind the Brigand, farther and farther.

Searching with all of her senses for a familiar biological noise pattern.

Until she found the noise. Her unique song across the featureless depths of Sverland.

I have to try to communicate with her.

Zachikova had some ideas. Light patterns, sounds, movements; mimicking its behaviors.

When she had gotten close to the Dancer she had noticed colors around it. Feeling that this was perhaps some kind of bioluminescent display, she wrote a program to create a light pattern using various tools available to the drone, like the floodlights, UV and bluelight effectors, status LEDs, flares, and beacons. She also extracted the sounds the creature made during her encounters with it and mapped them to another program, creating a series of “calls” she could perform.

I don’t know if she’ll understand– or even the content of what I’m saying to her.

But I have to try. I think coupled with my peaceful approach, she’ll respond to it.

At least, hopefully, she would understand it as an attempt to broach peaceful contact.

An attempt to expiate for the “wrong thing” she felt she had done to scare it.

(Perhaps an attempt to receive a touch for which she had grown desperate.)

Zachikova descended as close to the seafloor as she could, decelerating to reduce noise and weaving slowly between the rocks as the pulse of the Dancer came closer and closer. When she was about a hundred meters away, the prediction algorithm finally showed her the figure of the Dancer swimming cheerfully overhead, freely weaving lines of bubbles through the liquid sky.

Please work.

With the same degree of effort as “thinking” to breathe or “thinking” to move a muscle Zachikova ran the script she had written and loaded into her station. Through the drone’s audio equipment, normally used for sonar pings or alarm noises, the melodious call of the Dancer played, once audible only through the sonar station hydrophone. Zachikova could not describe the sound in naturalistic or humanistic terms, but the gentle slope of the waveform it generated gave her a strange comfort.

Please respond!

There was no noticeable difference in the movement of the Dancer, so Zachikova lifted off from behind the rocks and rose gently, as slowly as she could move and still exceed the creature’s own pace. In addition to playing the call, she ran the software she had coded to control the light display. In front of the drone there were UV and bluelight effectors, like flashlights for scientific purposes, and along the spine of the drone there were LEDs which began to glow in patterns. There were floodlights on the rear and on the front, but Zachikova only lit the rear floodlights, and angled them such that the drone appeared to be leaving brilliant light in its triumphant wake as it climbed the water table.

Please listen to me! Please look at me!

Why was she feeling so strongly? But she couldn’t help it! Her heart was breaking!

I’m sorry! Please don’t hate me!

I don’t hate you!

Barely a dozen meters separated Zachikova from the soft, pale form of the Dancer, wrapped as if in a gorgeous shawl and skirt of shimmering, trailing color, predominantly bright blue as the sky that had been denied to humanity. With a burst of speed, the creature dove toward Zachikova, and touched the front of her body to the front of the drone, nose to nose, a soft, playful little hit.

Zachikova was rendered speechless. She felt a tingling all across herself.

That sensation of touch, so warm, so soft– it was fleshy, but she didn’t hate it. In fact that affection made her think something she never thought she would. It felt like for the first time ever, a flesh and blood body, with its pliability, softness, smoothness, attracted Zachikova the most. She wished, as she tried to return the Dancer’s physical affection, that her body, the flesh, and blood body she now recognized as hers, could be out in the water with the creature, could touch it.

That touch was perfect– it made her body feel like it was perfect.

I wish I could tell her to follow me.

I will follow you.

Zachikova must have been imagining things. She thought that she kept hearing a voice speaking back to her, but it was speaking back to her in the voice associated with her flesh and blood body, and of course regardless of its provenance, the Dancer had no way to generate voice, no understanding of speech. It must have been something with the connection, or even just stress.

She had been so stressed, but now, she felt an unbridled joy, a sense of euphoria.

It was such an odd feeling, but she did not resist it.

For half her life, she had simply accepted her lot. She was sick, broken, in her mind, not truly human. She was going to die. And when she survived, having already given up on living, she treated herself like the machine she felt she had become. She sought challenges, occupations, to be fully used, to be fully utilized, maximized and challenged. Those moments amused her, engaged her mind.

Amusement, engagement; but perhaps not joy. Perhaps not actual fulfillment.

In the middle of this desolate ocean, alone with this beautiful creature– She felt captivated, her soul felt healed. She felt like she was seeing life as she never had. A creature so beautiful and so free, without obligations, danced before her eyes, danced only for her, returned to her willingly.

Touch; was it really so sublime? When was the last time her body felt so warm, so loved?

Zachikova’s world of metal corridors had become full of colors.

Colors that captivated her mind. Colors challenging her understanding like never before.

Giving herself onto an insane thought–

What is she? Is she really just a leviathan?

Hmm. Maybe.

No, they could not possibly be speaking.

Zachikova wanted to sigh deeply.

She started to feel a little ridiculous, but she truly, really was so happy to see the Dancer again and to know that she was okay, that she was playing with the drone and didn’t run away. She was still curious and still affectionate toward the false metal fish that Zachikova wore as a body. Zachikova didn’t want to hate herself for those feelings. Having settled her anxieties, she let herself enjoy the moment for a while, but ultimately felt she needed to try to rein in the hysterics of the past few days.

Before they brought her embarrassment in front of her crew.

So she began following the fiber-optic cable back to the Brigand.

And trying not to be too surprised or too assured by the fact that the Dancer was following.

Following the drone with joyous, acrobatic maneuvers, all the way, to Goryk’s Gorge.


Next morning.

“Umm. Huh. Well. That’s interesting.”

Standing in front of the captain’s chair, Braya Zachikova held up a portable terminal that was playing a video for Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to watch. A large fish-like Leviathan, its body mainly white but beautifully streaked with red, like a large koi fish, pirouetted around the drone capturing the video, before suddenly unhinging its jaw to enormous degrees. Seamlessly, it stopped being cute and began to clumsily filter-feed with its enormous maw through the marine snow, as if it had utterly forgotten what it was previously doing. While it fed, its otherworldly lilac eyes assumed what Ulyana anthropomorphized as “a very stupid-looking expression,” though she did not say this thought aloud.

“It’s a brilliant display of animal evolution, isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

Standing next to Zachikova, Karuniya Maharapratham was part of the demonstration as well. Seated close on the captain’s right was Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, her cat-like tail swaying gently as she watched the video with her usual look of stern focus on her face. Together they were reviewing footage of the creature, which had some of the crew unnerved as it began following the ship.

“Zachikova and I discovered it while calibrating the drone.” Karuniya said. “We saw it was harmless and made it a subject of study so nobody here would shoot it down. Honestly, I know it’s big enough to show up in the bearing monitors, so it has people worried, but it’s really docile. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s my duty as a scientist to get as much data on it as possible.”

Zachikova repeatedly pointed her finger on the display as if to say, “look at it, isn’t it neat?”

Ulyana was looking. It did seem harmless, but while feeding, not terribly majestic.

“Fine, I’ve got more important things to worry about. Just keep an eye on it, Zachikova.”

“Will do!” Zachikova said. Did she sound excited? Was Ulyana just imagining things?

“It might even come in handy.” Aaliyah said. “You can pass the spy drone off as a biological being more easily if there’s another, louder biological being there to hump it and draw attention away from enemy sonars. If it’s playing with the drone while you patrol, I say just let it do so.”

“Colorful imagery there.” Ulyana said. She sighed.

“If anyone has any questions, you can refer them to me.” Karuniya said.

Waving a hand, she quickly took her leave. She wasn’t usually a fixture in the Bridge.

Ulyana looked away from her and at Zachikova specifically, causing her antennae to raise.

“I feel I’ve been working you too hard since we escaped the Iron Lady. You deserve a break, Zachikova. You’ve been out on that drone so often, I can decisively say we’re not being followed right now.” the captain finally said. Zachikova seemed to go from visibly tense to softening and slacking, the expression on her face never once changing but her anxiety visible in her grip on the portable. Ulyana wondered briefly about her body language but decided not to comment on it. “No more night shifts until further notice. We’ll find someone else to cover for Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa.”

“Umm. Thank you ma’am.” Zachikova said. Her voice betrayed absolutely no emotion.

“Ma’am, the topography shifts drastically up ahead. I’m getting imaging up; we’re here.”

Fatima al-Suhar spoke up from the sonar section and pointed a finger forwards. 

Ulyana turned to face the bridge main monitor and practically gasped.

Soon the landscape of Goryk’s Gorge appeared in its vast, overwhelming magnitude.

The Brigand had been traveling about 100 meters above the seafloor, which had put them between 900 and 1000 meters deep. Now they were practically flying, as the ground descended dramatically, a steep slope about 500 meters down that evened out into a semi-circular clearing that then dropped even farther and more dramatically down the jagged, rocky edge of a canyon.

Goryk’s Gorge itself was a vast fissure in the rocky seafloor, stretched long as the eyes could see and perhaps one kilometer wide and thousands deep, as enormous as the vast Khaybar mountain range that it had cut from the rest of Sverland. The Gorge was a yawning abyss, thick with biomass that the predictive algorithm detected and rendered as essentially a roiling cloud behind which it was impossible to “see,” blocking the soundwaves, LADAR, thermals and other data sources for their imagers.

At the very edge of this precipitous hell-maw there was a small, squat station, a disc-shaped circular habitat standing on many thick legs for support. This was the smallest possible kind of station design, which was neither rested atop nor built around a Core Pylon. Without this uniquely powerful kind of reactor, the station was instead likely run with a ship’s reactor core, or a few depending on the grade of the engines. Beneath the habitat there was probably a wet berth for one or two large ships at a time, at most. Serrano supported a million lives and was commensurately vast enough to hold an entire city; a station like this could support only hundreds of lives in much tighter confines.

Nobody lived on stations like this. They were always built for a specific task.

“Our maps completely undersold this place.” Aaliyah said, sounding as shocked as Ulyana.

“Any mechanical activity detected?” Ulyana asked suddenly.

“Negative. I’m only getting biologics.” Fatima replied. “If there’s anything docked down there, it’s fairly dormant, or it has sound stealth decades ahead of ours. I think it’s safe for now.”

Ulyana sighed. “I don’t feel safe. Semyonova, what is the status of the Diver team?”

“We have Khadija al-Shajara and Valya Lebedova awaiting orders.” Semyonova replied.

The Captain could hardly believe what she heard. “Really? Only those two?”

Semyonova nodded, briefly glancing at her console for incoming details. “Sameera Al-Shahouh and Murati Nakara have doctor’s orders not to pilot; Sameera for a week and Murati for potentially several. Murati claims she heals fast, but still– anyway, Sonya Shalikova was made the squad leader and was assigned the Cheka, but it had a surprise battery issue, so she isn’t ready. Dominika Rybolovskaya is in the medbay right now, I’m not sure why. Only Khadija and Valya are ready to deploy.”

“If Rybolovskaya isn’t injured have her sort herself out quickly.” Ulyana said. She turned to the right side of the Bridge. “Geninov, load a torpedo just in case, and Santapena-De La Rosa, prime the guns. We need everyone on alert for a potential ambush, I want rapid responses here.”

Ulyana was cautious for a reason. She had been born in the Empire, so she knew.

She assumed from Maryam’s story that this outpost was set up by Katarran mercenaries. This “Foundation” she was talking about was likely a Katarran warband. Maryam had good reason not to say that up front, but it could be inferred. Katarrans in the Empire didn’t have a lot of choices.

And growing up in the Empire, Ulyana knew all kinds of stories about Katarrans.

Even with top tier military training and equipment, elite Union soldiers still had something to fear from warbands. Katarran bandits and mercenaries had something that a lot of armies in this world did not — a vast amount of realistic and practical combat experience. Palatinate and Vekan soldiers had infrequent battles with the Republic or the Empire of Hanwa to look back on, but Katarrans were always fighting, at home or abroad, every month, every year. Famous for their ferocity, it was their resourcefulness and adaptability that made Katarrans actually dangerous. Many mercenary warbands learned to thrive on irregular logistics for fuel, food, and ammunition, and with poor equipment repair.

A professional might see an outpost like this and think nothing of it, but Ulyana knew that Katarrans could make do with this and even use the fact you would overlook it against you.

Compared to a battle-hardened Katarran warband, the Brigand were rank amateurs.

Not only that, but Katarrans were known for the sort of warfare the Brigand was supposed to perform but had so far proven dismal at executing — asymmetrical guerilla fighting. Ambushes, hacking, mine warfare, stealth attacks, attrition, running warfare, Katarrans practically invented the book of dirty tricks from which they famously drew to use “every dirty trick in the book.” They could build hideouts from seemingly nothing and launch raids with fewer weapons and numbers that succeeded in catching larger forces off-guard, and then brought that legendary Katarran ferocity to bear in full.

Marina had blithely said she would always take dealing with Katarrans over Lichtenberg.

She didn’t know what the hell she was talking about!

“Captain!”

Almost soon as Semyonova had turned back to her station to contact Rybolovskaya, she turned over her shoulder again on her seat to address the Captain anew. Her soft face had an expression Ulyana had come to associate with something eventful, lips quivering, eyes wide. “C-C-Captain, we received an acoustic message all of a sudden. It’s a laser connection request!” She said. “It’s from that station below us! They apparently have a wired laser relay post, atop the slope we just passed.”

Overlaid on the visual of Goryk’s Gorge, Semyonova’s map showed the apparent location of the laser relay post; they had just passed it minutes ago. They had seen nothing. It simply was not rendered on the visual. It must have been hidden as a rock– fine details like that were tough to render and detect. They were limited in how much they could blast an area with sonar pulses without drawing too much attention. Setting up a hidden communications relay like this was quite ingenious.

“Zachikova, we’ll be accepting the request. Watch the network closely.” Ulyana said.

Returning to her station, Zachikova confidently nodded her acknowledgment.

“Semyonova, send them to my screen when they’re ready.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova saluted stiffly, clearly quite nervous. “Y-Yes Captain!”

At her side, Fatima gave Semyonova a pat on the shoulder to comfort her.

“Time to flex that silver tongue, Captain.” Aaliyah said, closely at Ulyana’s side.

Ulyana took a deep breath, readying herself for whoever would appear on the terminal screen attached to the captain’s chair. Semyonova exchanged a few acoustic messages with the mysterious contact before connecting them, and then sent the video to Ulyana’s screen. She expected a Katarran, maybe with blue skin, odd colored eyes and a few fins in their hair– and she was surprised not to find one.

“Are we connected? Greetings to the fine cargo vessel. I am quite fortunate to reach you.”

On the monitor, the crisp, clear image of a woman appeared on the screen. Perhaps it was the slimness of her shoulders and the softness of her facial features, but she seemed young to Ulyana, certainly younger than herself. Her eyes were her most prominent feature, they were quite extraordinary, crystal blue and gold. When the connection was most stable and video fidelity was at its best, for a few seconds Ulyana could see digits and tiny text scrolling over those incredible eyes which belied that they were cybernetic implants. She did not have the antennae, so it was not part of a Hartz treatment package. She must have either gotten those implants herself, or they were installed by her employer.

Her skin was fair, but her hair was light blue as the color of her eyes, wavy and cut short at the level of her jaw, but voluminous and a bit messy. One streak of white would have seemed like a sign of aging on an average person, but it was likely bleached, the same as the rest of the hair was likely dyed. Her facial expression was blank, even when speaking she seemed neither to smile nor hold any scorn, and her tone of voice was so even and controlled, perfectly pitched, it seemed rehearsed.

Not only that, but the texture of her white coat and shirt– were those biological materials?

Who was this character? How did they end up in this dismal place?

“Greetings.” Ulyana said. Trying not to betray any outward signs of her emotions to her counterpart. “I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, captain of this ship, the Pandora’s Box. We are hauling cargo for Treasure Box Transports. I’m going to need to get to know you a little better, ma’am, and quickly.”

Her counterpart nodded her head in acknowledgment. “I am Doctor Euphemia Röntgen. I work as a materials analyst for an engineering firm, ‘Solarflare LLC.’ We develop equipment for hazardous environment exploration. My team was running a trial in Goryk’s Gorge when we had a critical equipment failure and took refuge in this small station. We could use any help you can provide.”

The Brigand would have to get nearer to the station to confirm some of these details.

One thing was certain, this woman was not a Katarran. She could, perhaps, be a captive used by Katarrans for a ruse, but it seemed doubtful. She was too calm for a civilian who was in danger and if she harbored ill intentions, her acting was supernaturally good. Ulyana decided to play along for now. Her story of having run into equipment trouble near an abyssal gorge was not implausible.

As if she realized she needed proof of what she was saying, Doctor Röntgen held up an ID card.

It had her picture, in a blue shirt and waistcoat, and was a security card for Solarflare LLC.

They had quite an avant-garde looking logo of a sunburst, and the card itself was made of a reflective material that seemed to have a code imprinted on the foil. It would have been a lot of effort for a fake. So it did appear that this woman worked for Solarflare LLC — and that she understood her situation enough to try to dispel Ulyana’s concerns. Ulyana allowed herself to feel more comfortable.

“Thank you, Doctor. What’s your story? How many people do you have down there?”

“Three personnel counting me, uninjured.” Euphemia said.

That was shockingly low. Ulyana was immediately suspicious again.

For a lie, it was a pretty stupid one to tell.

“Doctor, I must have misheard you. Did you mean to say thirty? I’d expect you would need at least thirty personnel to sail to a place like this.” Ulyana said, scrutinizing the doctor’s response.

Even the smallest type of blue water naval vessel had around ten officers and twenty-five to forty sailors. At the minimum, a Cutter could run with five officers sharing the duties of ship communications, navigation, weapons, leadership and detection and electronic warfare, and about a dozen exhausted sailors, enough to run maintenance, tend to the reactor and electrical systems, respond to repair emergencies, and handle duties such as rations, cleaning, rearming the internal magazines of the torpedo and shell weapons, and so on. You would have several duties assigned to a single man, and it would be a nightmarish task to run like that for any given amount of time, but you could.

Larger crews could perform duties more efficiently in rotations, making sure there were always personnel assigned to any given duty at any given time of the day who were fresh, rested, aware and ready. Larger vessels needed crews of hundreds of people, however, not just for rotations but to be able to physically cover the large amount of machinery that needed to be inspected and maintained. This was reflected in the total crew numbers for blue water vessels, whether commercial or naval in scope.

Blue water being the key term. Vessels that had endurance at sea, far away from stations, needed these large complements of professional crew in order to sail. Personal vessels could be run much leaner, but they would have never made it this far from a major station. To explore a place like Goryk’s Gorge that was foul with biomass and far off the beaten path, you would absolutely needed at least a Cutter for the journey. You would need a real reactor for power, not a battery, and you would need enough space for supplies. You would need redundancy in personnel in case of emergencies.

Three people? It was not possible. It had to be a clumsy lie or a joke.

Doctor Röntgen looked like she meant every word, however.

That expression of hers had not changed. She was speaking with perfect confidence.

 “Three people, me, an engineer colleague and one security professional.”

“How did you pull off that miracle, doc?”

Despite Ulyana’s pressuring her, the good doctor continued speaking without affect. “We were testing a semi-automated ship called an L-CEV, the Lightly-Crewed Exploration Vessel. We wanted to explore the viability of studying abyssal zones with such a ship, to limit the personnel needed.”

Though it was a somewhat farfetched detail, it did fit with her description of what Solarflare LLC did. Certainly, more hostile environment exploration would be waged if less lives could be put on the line. Ulyana found that goal to be quite a fool’s errand, however. Even if you could run the systems that lean, to carry out any maintenance on a ship large enough to have a real reactor would have been impossible with only three human bodies. Physically, you would still need at least a dozen.

And to run that much maintenance you would need bodies, not simply computer routines.

Companies in the Empire spent money far too loosely.

This L-CEV must have been an incredible ship indeed to fulfill this insane purpose.

“So what happened to this engineering marvel you described to me?” Ulyana said.

Doctor Röntgen treated this request with the same stoic professionalism as before. “We had a water system failure due to the red biomass concentrations in the Goryk Abyss. Thankfully, this station was in good enough condition to host us and we got our ailing ship into port here. We transferred supplies from the damaged ship to this station and then destroyed the ship to protect Solarflare’s intellectual property. If you would dock below the station, you’ll be able to find the wreck in plain sight.”

A poor invitation; even a drunk Ulyana wouldn’t accept that as pretext to be taken home.

Let alone lead her entire crew down there without further information.

“No offense Doctor, but we didn’t even know this station would be here. And I have no idea how you could have stumbled upon it — seems like too much serendipity. I have no plans to go near you until we have definitively sorted out what this station is for and what your situation really is.”

Ulyana wanted to test what her reaction would be.

For the first time in the conversation, Doctor Röntgen put on a small smile.

She began to explain in a calm, matter-of-fact voice– almost like a teacher.

“Very well, I’ll assuage your fears. This outpost has a colorful history. It was set up by Katarran mercenaries, that’s how our contractor knew of its existence, but even Katarrans can’t operate so freely without a certain degree of consent from the authorities. It’s like any criminal organization, Captain. From the way you speak, I know you are a learned woman, to whom I can speak to as a peer. Once upon a time, this outpost was used by a certain Admiral Gottwald to run supplies and weapons that were skimmed off the allotments for the Southern Border Fleet. They moved to passing Katarran vessels, or even to the pirates at Khaybar. This station was a link in a long chain of traded favors and ill-gotten gains of all sorts, that enriched corrupt Imbrian men and kept their hired guns afloat and killing.”

Admiral Gottwald was the Commander of the Southern Border Fleet.

He had been killed in Thassal but– that didn’t really matter.

Doctor Röntgen was being candid and Ulyana felt she was telling the actual truth of things.

If she knew so much mercenary history, the tone of her request began to make more sense.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to take you where you need to go.” Ulyana said.

“I understand completely.” Doctor Röntgen said. “You said ‘Treasure Box Transports’ correct? I can assure you nobody is going to intercept this transmission. We can be honest here, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are a mercenary company and I’m not unfamiliar with hiring mercenaries. My lips will be sealed as to everything I learn about your operation, if you’ll ferry me to wherever your cargo is going. Any station will do. I’ll find my way from there. Of course, Solarflare LLC will pay handsomely.”

“I’m flattered that you found me so eloquent, but I never said we were mercenaries.”

“Hmm, did I misread the situation? ‘Transport company’ is a common euphemism.”

Ulyana felt somewhat mortified and tried to hide her surprise. Hadn’t this come up once before?

Gertrude Lichtenberg’s voice reverberated in Ulyana’s head at that moment.

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company.” Lichtenberg had said this when confronting Ulyana.

In that instant Ulyana wished she could clap her hands over her face and never let go.

To someone from the Union, the phrase ‘transport company’ made all the sense in the world!

And yet in this twisted polity, ‘transport company’ was code for mercenaries?

That was what all their carefully falsified documents said, and they couldn’t change it all now.

Every station they docked in, they would be doing so under a euphemism.

Sighing inside, Ulyana put on her best mercenary voice, because they were mercenaries!

“I will consider working for you if Solarflare LLC can pay in-kind.” She said. “Services and supplies. We can discuss the specifics; but in this new era, I can’t feed my people Mark bills, Doctor. Is that acceptable? I truly don’t want to leave you down there, but I have to look out for my crew.”

We have enough troublesome passengers.

That was her first thought. Imperial money was also pretty useless to her in the long run.

However, allies were an important part of their mission.

And the key to everything would be logistics. They had to be able to resupply in the hardest possible times. If this L-CEV ship of Röntgen’s was real, Solarflare could be a useful partner. A company with manufacturing muscle, needed to have a strong and varied supply chain, and judging by the good Doctor’s clothing and cybernetic implants, Solarflare LLC was loaded. They had also dealt with mercenaries before, so they probably knew how to be discrete and covert.

Such an entity could be a very useful ally, over and under the table.

Based on Doctor Röntgen’s expression, it looked like she agreed.

“You’re very astute. I’m glad to be talking to a professional.”

“So you can pay our professional rates then?”

“Of course. I look forward to a long, fruitful relationship between our companies.”

She had an uncanny ability to read people. Ulyana almost felt unnerved by it.

Doctor Euphemia Röntgen– this lady was more than just some white coated nerd.

Regardless, they had a deal. If it panned out, it might just save their asses one day.

“We’ll need to dock for repairs at the outpost. It shouldn’t take more than a day.”

“I’m in no hurry. In fact, as a sign of our cooperation, we’ll help with what we can.”

Doctor Röntgen gave Ulyana her biggest smile yet, before the two agreed to end the call.

The Captain of the now-mercenary ship Brigand sighed her deepest, weariest sigh yet.


In the middle of the empty ocean wastes of central Sverland a shimmering vessel entered suddenly into view, approaching prow forward. Plates of armor which had once rippled like disturbed ocean water began to turn white instead, revealing a sleek pointed fore that tapered out from a curved, disc-like hull. It had approached silently, gliding across the water using a pair of strange rectangular engines set atop the hull on either side of a squat conning tower. It was not an ordinary ship design.

This was a Columbus-class cruiser, a mainstay of the Sunlight Foundation.

These ships could be so stealthy that regular military patrols simply would not see them in the water. It would take a deliberate sonar pulse to detect the mass of the object. And its specific design, the materials from which it was made, and the special equipment carried aboard, was meant to give the sonar operator launching the pulse some trouble telling what exactly the object was. It would not identify as any class of ship on any standard Imperial databank, and depending on the approach angle could be mistaken for a creature or written off as a glitch in the sensor returns. While it was not a perfect disguise, combined with a circuitous route and a swift response to detection, it made them tough for anyone to catch.

Certainly, the crew of the Antenora had not seen it coming.

They knew they were going to be resupplied before they went north to hunt Gertrude’s phantom mercenaries. However, the nature of the resupply operation had taken them by surprise.

“Scary, scary, scary.”

Norn von Fueller laughed. On the main screen of the bridge, she watched the ship appear.

Always, the Sunlight Foundation scurried in the shadows while longing for the sun.

“Sunlight Foundation Columbus-class identified. Requesting shuttle for cargo delivery.”

One of Norn’s bridge drones spoke up. The Praetorian nodded her head and acknowledged.

“Ask them if one of the rivers is aboard.” Norn said.  

The query was sent, and a reply came quickly. “Negative, milord. Only lab assistants.”

“Boring!”

Lab Assistants had barely any individuality worth speaking about.

Norn had hoped to poke one of the Rivers for information about the organization’s status.

Rivers were the flunkies they recruited rather than created. They were privy to real information.

Yangtze would not send an Immortal on an errand like this, but at least an inductee!

Clearly, she was getting too comfortable working with Norn. To send a ship full of lab assistants meant she expected nothing to go amiss. Norn felt she had to think of a way to send a message to that arrogant sociopath Yangtze, that not everything would be going her way in the future.

Her rumination was interrupted by its most frequent interrupter–

“Looks like you’ll have to settle for Potomac then, poor you.”

Adelheid van Mueller punctuated her speech with a cutesy shrug of her shoulders.

Seated beside Norn, her lover was a permanent fixture on the bridge.

While she was just trying to be a smartass, Norn had to admit she had a point!

“You’re not wrong. I’ll go make sure she’s earning her keep. Hold down the fort.”

“What if they try something while you aren’t here?”

“I trust you to make grown-up decisions.”

Sighing, Adelheid half-heartedly saluted. She leaned back on her chair as Norn departed.

The Antenora’s hangar had never been so full as it was then, at least not in recent memory. Norn finally had a full complement of Divers. The Jagdkaiser on its special gantry found itself in the company of a Jagd and a Volkannon brought aboard by Samoylovych, as well as the fancy Grenadier contributed by Gertrude and von Castille. Behind the gantries and the deployment chutes, they had launched the Antenora’s shuttle to pick up the cargo from the Columbus class and transfer it.

Norn found Gertrude and Sieglinde von Castille loitering around the hangar as well, and she waved at the two of them, wearing a broad, self-satisfied grin to meet their sullen expressions. They were not the ones who interested her whatsoever at that moment though. Instead, she made for Potomac, who was standing around in front of the grey steel shutter that had closed over the shuttle’s moonpool. She must have been awaiting for the cargo; Norn had ordered her to get more Jagdkaiser parts.

“So, what’s the haul? Are we finally getting the parts for the Options?” Norn asked.

Potomac looked surprised to see her. “Uh, well, no, actually!” She said.

“You’re being funny, right? You’re telling me a joke?” The Praetorian’s tone darkened.

Potomac crossed her arms and avoided meeting Norn’s eyes, shifting her feet nervously.

If she thought this body language would better her situation, she was sorely mistaken.

“No, Yangtze is not sending us the Option parts. She’s actually doing us one better.”

“Explain quickly before I fold your spine for not doing what I instructed you to.”

Norn’s eyes narrowed, her brows drew closer together. She had told this bitch–

“I asked her for the parts you wanted! It’s not like I have control of that woman! She actually sent us parts for a brand new version of the Jagdkaiser and a Magellan for you! And spare parts for both! We’re making off like bandits here, so you don’t have to be mad at me!” Potomac cried out.

For anyone else this may have sounded like incredible news, but Norn knew quite well that just having a preponderance of equipment lying around didn’t improve the effectiveness of a unit. Giving them a new Jagdkaiser was not entirely unexpected, but it was inconvenient since it needed a special gantry and they only had one. They would have to tear down the old one and set up the new one, and such a messy project would have to wait until they were docked somewhere safe and protected.

Furthermore, she also knew that Yangtze of the Sunlight Foundation was not running a charity. Sending a Magellan suit for Norn’s use meant Yangtze wanted her to do something with it. She would have to prioritize getting that thing put together when the shuttle returned with the crates.

“What does she want?” Norn asked. “And when were you going to tell me?”

She took a threatening step into Potomac’s space, forcing the latter to step back.

Potomac held her hands up in defense. “I didn’t think it would be a problem! We’re already heading where she wants us, so I was just going to ask you then and avoid making it an issue–”

“You were going to lie to me? Potomac, you dense bitch, do you want to die?”

Norn was barely able to restrain herself from punching Potomac’s head off her neck.

This spacey idiot– she knew that nothing made Norn angrier than being lied to–!

“Goryk’s Abyss! She just wants us to go to Goryk’s Abyss! That’s it!”  

“You’d better have my fucking Magellan set up before we get there, then.”

Norn shoved Potomac, not too hard, but it was surprising enough of an attack to push her down.

From the floor, the Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation gazed up at her with a petulant anger.

Even this minor physical humiliation was more than she had suffered in likely decades.

“You’re– You’re a monster, Astra!” She cried. “What happened to you? You used to be so–“

In the next instant, Norn was looming over Potomac on the floor with burning red eyes.

Something long held taut inside her finally and suddenly snapped.

Words she had held in her throat for decades.

You pieces of shit happened to me. Yangtze; Euphrates; Tigris; Nile; Hudson; Ganges. You.”

Her eyes were not just red-ringed from the psionic power raging inside her, not just red because they had been engineered that way to command respect and strike fear; she was seeing red, blinded with an incredible fury. She raised her hand to Potomac’s face, and in the air around it, a series of razor-sharp knives began to materialize as if out of thin air, each the crystalline white of packed ice. Potomac’s eyes drew wide with sheer terror, and Norn was one provocation from gutting her–

She hissed in Potomac’s face, tensed like a harpoon in its launcher–

“Monster? How fucking dare you? After all that you people did to me–“

“Master! Don’t! Please calm down!”

From behind her, Gertrude Lichtenberg appeared and laid gentle hands on her shoulders.

Norn turned her baleful red eyes on the tall, swarthy woman in her ornate uniform.

She had such a gentle expression at that point, as if she feared for Norn more than Potomac.

It was such a contrast with that evil title of Inquisitor that Norn helped her attain–

–which had come to define Gertrude in perhaps the same way that Yangtze had defined Astra.

And it made Norn’s righteous anger begin to turn alchemy-like into a seething guilt.

She couldn’t explain it– but Gertrude really was the last thing she wanted to see in that state.

Sighing deeply, Norn withdrew her arm. Her knives turned uselessly to vapor.

Brushing Gertrude’s hand aside, she stood up and marched out by herself.

“Gertrude, just– just see to the cargo for me.” Norn said, walking away, meeting no one’s eyes.

Taken by an anger that was ebbing but still hurt.

No one called after her, no one inquired. Sometimes, Norn was just angry. They understood it.

For now, Norn would play Yangtze’s game. She would go to Goryk’s Abyss for that bitch.

She had a resolution in her fractured heart, however.

Whatever she found there that Yangtze wanted, she would break it into a million pieces.

If the Sunlight Foundation wanted to retaliate like they retaliated against Mehmed–

Then they knew where to find her. And she knew very well where to find them too.


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