Even with floodlights the creature loomed menacingly as if in shadows of its own making.
“It’ll kill her if I don’t do something.”
She felt so small, weak, useless in the cockpit of the stolen Strelok, its seat much bigger than her, the controls difficult to turn, tuned for a grown adult rather than a skinny teenaged trainee. Taking breathless glances between her monitors as if one of the cameras would offer a solution, flipping through her weapons on the touchscreen as if begging for a grenade launcher or torpedo to appear.
Between the thick steel struts holding up the substation the creature danced, snaking its way around the captive Strelok in its thick, slimy worm-like body. Hundreds of tiny crab-like legs flailing needlessly as most of the control was provided by long dorsal fins like black curtains swaying off its thick blue segmented hide like it was both crab and eel. All of its thrust came from pairs of hydrojets coming out of its body on adjustable limbs. Its snake-like head peeled back to reveal fangs that unfolded like four extra pairs of crushing legs, tentatively scratching the surface of the mecha in its grasp.
Around it was a cloud of sheer malicious black gas that Shalikova could not place.
Perhaps it was exuded by the hydrojets? Was it corrosive?
It was not the fear of what it could do that stilled her, that forced her to watch helplessly.
It was the fear of it that paralyzed her completely, irrationally. Drowning her in evil emotion.
She thought she was brave.
She thought she could come out here and save everyone. That she would be the big hero.
That she would kill the bad guy– if she could shoot, she would kill it–
“Zasha– It’ll kill her– if I don’t something, it’ll kill her–”
They were only supposed to be training! Nothing was supposed to go wrong!
Suspended in the ocean immobile in her prison of steel.
Shalikova watched the creature squeeze, the fangs scratch curiously on metal.
She could have pressed the trigger.
She could have moved the sticks.
She could have killed it– she needed to kill it–
Done anything but sink gently centimeter by centimeter on idle thrust.
But despite all her training and all her ambition she was frozen in place.
“Sonya! Stay back!”
Reacting on impulse as if the voice had activated her paralyzed muscles, Shalikova pushed the sticks forward until her arms and shoulders went sore, slammed the pedals down until her legs could stretch no further. Her fingers twitched on the trigger and the Strelok began firing wildly as it charged the monster in front laying down a spray of explosive rounds on the back of the beast’s hide drawing blood the thickness of mud and gore a bright red color that seemed unreal to bear witness–
Six eyes fixed on her that seemed to expand to cover her entire screen–
Alien malice-filled eyes showed killing intention–
Until there was nothing around her not even steel but eyes and black cloud bloodlust–
Screaming, Shalikova found herself transition without pause to a place all white.
She felt her blood rush, her skin brim, but she was seated, she was weighed down.
Thick blankets had been put over her body. There was a pillow behind her.
She was in an all-white room in the medbay, in her own bed. Shaking. She began to weep.
–there was no ocean, no cameras, no metal, no guns, or monsters.
Through foggy eyes she saw two women seated next to her.
Wearing tight black pilot suits with green uniform coats loosely draped over the shoulders.
One was a blond, long hair, soft but avoidant expression;
One silver-grey haired like a proud wolf, cold pink eyes with a smile bittersweet;
They were both looking at her with tears in their eyes. Hesitant to speak.
Shalikova’s words made Illya Rostova bring a hand up to her own face.
While Valeriya Peterberg averted her gaze and whimpered, “It’s not your fault.”
Drawing her eyes wider and wider, her jaw slackening, her shoulders quivering.
That young girl in the bed felt her whole world crashing around her.
“You’re lying.” Shalikova said. “You’re lying Valeriya. It was my fault.”
Shalikova clapped her hands over her eyes, weeping, shaking, she screamed.
“It was my fault! It was my fault! It was my fault!”
Screamed helplessly and beat her own head as she realized rather than save Zasha–
“Sonya, please!” Illya said. “Please don’t. Please don’t hurt yourself.”
“It’s not your fault!” Valeriya whimpered again almost as helplessly.
Both of them leaned over the bed and grabbed Shalikova into their embrace, each of them grabbing Shalikova’s arms to prevent her from hitting herself anymore. Held in their strong grip, watching them weep on her almost as strongly as she herself was weeping, unable to run from it all–
Shalikova felt more helpless, useless, worthless, than she could possibly imagine.
She was no hero. It was her fault that Zasha was killed.
Around the enemy the cloud of colors and textures and feelings intensified.
Shalikova felt a strange heat in the back of her eyes that drew tears.
For a moment she was chilled in place by the sight of the enemy Diver.
It had taken Ahwalia apart like he was nothing– how had he not had any time to react?
She had to be careful around it. She felt– She felt power from it.
It was an insane thing to feel, but this was no Volker, this was not piloted by a patrolman.
There was no sense to thinking such a thing, she had fought soldiers before!
And still she could not deny that this enemy felt different, despite her rational self.
Around the machine some forty odd meters away a cloud of black, red, and purple roiled and seethed. Larger than the Cheka by nearly a meter, with the sleek design of the Jagd that made the shoulders and chest seem like a single unbroken triangular piece, armed with beastly claws, an autocannon, and a strange projectile on the shoulder opposite the gun. Rather than an integrated water system it had some novel-looking external jets affixed in wing-like mounts on the shoulders, hips, and legs.
Rather than a symbolically humanoid head it had an animal-like, pointed face.
She could feel sounds and thoughts sloughing off as if the machine was broadcasting, as if its eldritch signals were so powerful that they could not help but affect the surrounding waters. Without bidding the help of her nascent powers, Shalikova felt as if the machine was drawing out her psionics–
–maybe even pulling her paranormal sixth sense into its orbit.
Hah! I’ll make you bow before me too, you and the pretty little toy soldier you’re riding!
Again, a girl’s voice–
From the machine’s right shoulder, a 20 mm autocannon flashed.
With that, battle was joined. The enemy made the first move and Shalikova had to react.
It was the same kind and caliber as the defensive gas guns on ships, and in an instant dozens of vapor bubbles the size of a head began to burst all around Shalikova, forming chaotic gas bubbles and sending shockwaves rattling into her machine. Shalikova took the Cheka into a sudden dive to avoid the attack and shook her head to clear out the airy thoughts the machine had momentarily provoked in her.
She had to think about maneuver, she had to focus– build up speed, plan her attack–
Behind her, the machine pursued her, diving toward the sea floor at her back.
Despite its bulk, it was a sleek shadow when it moved, quick and agile.
Water ejected behind it in great waves that made it seem it wore a shimmering cloak.
Shalikova’s fingers tightened on the controls. “It’ll catch up if I don’t do something.”
Khadija hadn’t just taught her to move quickly but to move effectively for the situation.
In this case, the most effective move to seize the initiative back was–
Shalikova swung her sticks back and to the side and shifted pedals from the accelerator.
Without thrust, the density of the water very quickly halted her movement.
Executing a fluid turn, she came to face the enemy.
In that instant, she had her rifle trained right at the center of the approaching machine.
It was a game of chicken that the enemy unit gave up by losing its nerve.
Correcting itself haphazardly due to the suddenness of the Cheka’s stall in front of it, the enemy machine lost its own momentum and became a prime target for a few seconds of focused gunfire.
Shalikova held down the trigger on her AK-96, and firing two-handed from the hip, she sprayed a long burst of over a dozen 37 mm shells that impacted and exploded in rapid succession, obscuring her target in a cloud of bubbles and vapor, and burst shockwaves in the water.
Her sharp sight picked up nearly instantly that she had not destroyed her target–
–but its actual status bewildered her, nonetheless.
What she saw as the gas slowly wafted away from the enemy machine was its dimly glowing outstretched left arm, digits now spread radially around a palm with what seemed like the mouth of a mechanical lamprey in the center. Held out in front of it like a shield, the hand was entirely undamaged. Shalikova quickly ran through the filters on her cameras and realized that the hand was generating heat.
It was electrified or energized somehow– was it some close-in defense system?
“She just stopped and took all the shots dead-on.” Shalikova whispered to herself.
Let’s stand around staring! I could do this all day! Don’t you feel helpless?
The voice again– but it wasn’t entirely coherent because it wasn’t speech, it was thoughts–
It wasn’t that the enemy pilot lost her nerve to chase.
She wanted to prove that such an attack would not even faze her.
Shalikova could feel her heart pounding and her veins pulsing beneath her own skin.
This enemy was different — she felt less like a soldier and more like she enjoyed killing.
Like a monster–
Head pounding, fear pulsing in her veins, Shalikova took off running again.
Moving in a sweeping zig-zag to avoid gunfire that did not come.
Within seconds Shalikova realized the enemy had not charged full-tilt after her.
But her keen eyes detected the tiniest bit of movement–
That projectile from its shoulder detached and took flight through the water on its own.
Shalikova saw it arc around her flank at a devastating speed.
For an instant, swimming alongside her, there was this silver cylindrical object the size of a torpedo. She could see a small jet and some hydrodynamic surfaces on its hull, but no cables or things that she could recognize as sensors. How was it guided? Had it been anyone else that would’ve been chalked up to the imagination, but Shalikova had an eye for details, and if she could not see a cable in that moment, there had to be none. But then, how was that unit being controlled wirelessly with such responsiveness?
Nothing about this projectile made sense to her, not its speed, not its design–
Then as she almost doubted she was even seeing it the projectile it turned its nose to face her.
Arrayed around its cylindrical nosecone were four barrels that began to spin up.
Buzzing and booming like the cry of a beast barely muffled by water.
Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and she pulled on her controls–
As dozens of 37 mm projectiles flew from her side in a furious spray of metal.
Slicing the water over and around her, low booming as the shockwaves buffeted her.
Shalikova launched her Cheka skyward and hurtled abruptly out of the fire with every bit of thrust she could find leaving dozens of seething orbs of vapor and gas behind her. With miraculous dexterity she prevented the Cheka from being overwhelmed and escaped with barely a scrape– but behind her the lines of supercavitating gunfire paused only briefly as the pursuing gun executed a turn.
It darted behind her with incredible acceleration almost as if it was unaffected by the water.
Once its nose swung her way again its barrels started to flash once more.
Bursts of exploding shells firing with control and precision, tracking her, firing ahead and behind and around her– trying to suppress her? Alter her movement? Shalikova jerked her sticks, thrusting up and fluidly arcing back down in a dive, swinging from side to side, losing the enemy’s fire only briefly before the flashing barrels sent the next burst crashing her way creeping closer and closer.
Had she been in the Strelok that slightest loss of maneuverability would have cost her dearly.
She was barely staying ahead, barely surviving– “It’ll kill me if I don’t do something!” she thought.
Waiting until she was in the peak of an ascent–
Shalikova dove and in the same movement, turned on her heel.
She fired her rifle behind her, spraying in the direction of the autonomous gun.
As soon as she rapped the trigger she knew she was not going to hit.
Aborting from that maneuver she threw her weight forward into a dive–
And jerked back, pulling so hard she felt the joysticks would tear off their mounts.
Her forward cameras filled with bubbles and gas for a split second.
As the glowing red claw on the mecha’s right arm sliced through the water right in front of her.
That claw belonged to a beast– an alien beast that was filled with intention to kill–
All of you are getting written up! All of you! I have so many complaints!
Dominika Rybolovskaya was seething.
Never in her life had she worked with such a collection of rockheaded martyr complexes!
She could understand the squad leader feeling responsible for Ahwalia, but the rest–
“Lebedova, up front!”
With McKennedy, al-Shajara and Shalikova having dispersed suddenly, Valya Lebedova in their Strelok was all that stood between Rybolovskaya and the remaining enemies. Lebedova, having been given lead of the squadron, was probably deliberating in their cockpit– but the enemy would not wait. Just moments after the two of them were abandoned a Jagd swept out of the marine fog to attack.
Rybolovskaya hefted the heavy rifle in her Strelkannon’s hands and fired a timed shot.
Despite the chaos she managed to land the shell right where she wanted–
A vapor bubble bloomed between Lebedova and the Jagd, forcing the latter to disengage.
At that moment Lebedova seemed to realize the danger and began to fire on the Jagd.
Lines of supercavitating rounds sliced across water, making a lot of noise without effect.
The Jagd fluidly recovered from its failed attack and took off to circle around them.
That sleek, slippery mech was going to be a problem, and one that could kill them all.
She needed Lebedova to be more aggressive! She had to chase it off!
Shit. Shit. I can’t believe I wish that idiot was out of the hospital and out here with me.
Supporting fire underwater was almost a cruel joke.
Despite all the firepower she was laden with, Dominika could not target anything too far away.
Passive acoustic detection on Divers was not very precise at long ranges. It could, basically, alert the pilot that a target was coming and posit a rough angle of attack, but it was not something she could target with in any precise way. It was just a big warning box on the screen showing her in which direction something could have been coming from based on low fidelity sounds. The only way to get a precise lock in order to shoot from a long distance was a target paint from another machine. Short of a laser effector painting a target for her, all Rybolovskaya could rely on to aim her weapons was her sight.
Her sight was an extremely poor substitute for a full-fledged targeting sensor package.
In the water, Rybolovskaya’s vision was theoretically effective out to around 50 meters, and this did not account for the sub-cameras having a significantly worse resolution than the main camera on the mecha’s head, so a lot of the time her vision was essentially 50 meters in front and 25-30 behind. This was also in perfectly lit conditions– normally she was only seeing what she had her floodlight cluster pointed toward, because the rear LED effectors were far less bright than the forward floodlights anyway.
In essence, when Rybolovskaya stared at her monitors, she saw mostly a dark blue environment, made slightly brownish by the marine fog, in the direction of her lights. Otherwise everything was black. In this cone of well-lit vision she could see the figures of the Jagd and the Volkannon that had remained to fight them, but the Jagd, which was in motion, quickly darted up and over the range of the main camera, and as it circled around, the sub-cameras could barely capture it. Rybolovskaya’s Strelkannon was too heavily burdened to chase or dance with the Jagd, so she needed to anticipate its attack and then throw herself away from it with a shot of the vernier boosters. This is why she needed an escort!
“Lebedova, I can’t avoid its attack! You need to engage it!”
“I’m trying! I can’t overextend, that Jagd is fast!”
Lebedova was technically proficient, but they were hesitating due to the circumstances.
Sticking to the orbit of the Strelkannon, trying to interdict the Jagd, it became a game.
That Jagd began circling around them, taunting, making as if it would approach before backing off and going up or around them, keeping a distance of just over 30 meters as the bubbles in its wake outlined the cage that it had trapped them in. It knew the limitations of the mecha it was preying on.
The Jagd could always face them as it dove and banked around its prey, allowing it to make full use of its lights and sensors while its enemies had to rely on passive acoustics and lower resolution subcameras to track it. It was making full use of its speed and the fact that it possessed the initiative. If Lebedova never challenged it, the Jagd could simply bide its time, pick a moment and attack from any direction.
Rybolovskaya wanted to shout again and again for Lebedova to go attack it but–
She understood all too well that one could only fight in the ways one was motivated to.
They’re just not up to it. I’d be asking them to go get cleaved. No, I have to do something.
“Firing 88-mm anti-ship torpedo!”
Lebedova cried out. “Wait what? I didn’t give an order though–!”
Aiming at the empty ocean around the Jagd, Rybolovskaya loosed a single torpedo.
“Lebedova, dive down!”
Lebedova obediently launched into a dive, while Rybolovskaya took her mech climbing up.
Within the confines of the Jagd’s cage–
Its prey escaped in opposite directions, and a massive explosion went off in the center.
Caught while circling close to the center, the Jagd paused suddenly and pulled away.
For a brief moment, Rybolovskaya had her floodlights and main camera trained on it.
One snap shot from her 50 mm rifle–
There’s no shot!
There’s a shot!
In the smallest possible unit of time Dominika adjusted her aim just before executing a full press of the trigger; the tiniest movement of a muscle prompted by the briefest movement of her eyes; signals processing and acted upon in an impossible instant of human action; there’s a shot!
Like the simultaneous step and strike of a trained sword fighter, acting within thought.
One supercavitating shell cut right through the center of the explosion and struck.
One of the Jagd’s arms severed, splitting just below the shoulder, ejecting metal.
Dominika felt a rush but could not savor the victory for long.
Her cockpit monitors flashed a rare warning: a radiation effect had been detected.
That could only mean–
She was painted for an attack! That Jagd was painting her!
In the next instant, a round from out of sight impacted her shoulder, nearly destroying the missile mount that was set upon it. She was lucky it didn’t blow– she was forced to detach and abandon it.
After chastising Valya in her head for their poor performance, she got drawn away by that Jagd and ignored the presence of the Volkannon– now she couldn’t even see where it had gone after shooting! She had no idea where it had come from! With one hand she set the flank camera about tracing the angle of the shot from its footage, a subroutine already programmed into it, while the other hand remained on one stick, taking the Diver in a steep diagonal dive away from the Jagd, anticipating more shells.
“Valya, sniper!” Dominika shouted.
“Can you go after it? I’ll try to put any pressure I can on that Jagd!”
Can you go after it? They were supposed to be the leader!
Everything had gone to crap! Dominika could hardly believe this turn of events.
“But I’m also completely helpless here!” She shouted back. It was painful to admit.
Around her there was only the vast, dark expanse of the ocean.
Even Valya was beginning to disappear from her cameras.
She could expend some or all of her ordnance to take out the Volkannon if she knew where it was located. That would render her unable to attack the Antenora with anything but her rifle, but the plan was already cocked up. If they could at least the disable the enemy’s escorts then they had more room for the Brigand itself to become their weapon against the enemy ship, freeing Dominika from this burden.
Dominika grit her teeth. Everything was too quiet, too dark.
Alone, she was useless.
“Let Gertrude and Samoylovych do most of the work.” Norn had said. “You have nothing to prove to me, but Gertrude Lichtenberg certainly does. You’ve got one cartridge loaded by the way. Don’t use it unless I tell you to. There’s no need for you to push yourself for this mob, so don’t overdo it.”
Selene grinned and giggled to herself. Swelling with emotion and expected triumph.
Why would she leave anything to those two muscleheads?
In the water, she was the mightiest– she would fight to her heart’s content.
Norn always warned her about the cartridges, but at this rate she would not even need one. She had already taken apart one of the mercenaries and she had the other one cornered like a lab rat in an experiment box. Selene Anahid, pilot of the Jagdkaiser, was luxuriating in the sense of power that the Jagdkaiser fed into her mind. She knew who she was now: a perfectly created specimen.
All that was left was to demonstrate her superiority to one meager prey after another.
“You’re only alive because I only have one Option left, little mouse.”
That machine quivering before her was certainly interesting.
Its profile and performance put it strikingly close to a Magellan class mecha, sleek and fast and with a pilot who was no slouch, but there was no comparison between it and the Jagdkaiser. It was workman-like compared to her mighty steed. And of course, that pilot, crafty as they had proven in the few blows they had traded, could not measure up to Selene’s vast psionic abilities in the slightest.
Pirouetting about in the water to avoid the Option’s line of fire.
That pilot didn’t understand Selene’s intentions.
Corralling them about the water by denying space, Selene had trapped them into melee.
Now they were meters before her, in the grasp of her claws. She dodged once–
“It’s over, little mouse!”
Selene’s antennae stood on end, dimly glowing with sinews the colors of a rainbow.
With her mind, she guided the Option and controlled its weapon system, a four-barreled chain gun firing 37 mm rounds. Its maximum rate of fire would empty its enormous magazine in twenty seconds, so Selene fired it in quick bursts of 20-30 rounds at a time. Even this seemingly small amount of rounds was far more impressive than the 5-10 round bursts from an ordinary 37 mm rifle. Her enemy would see enormous slashing lines of gunfire chasing them across the ocean, saturating the water around them with orbs of gas and fire creating a no man’s land wherever they dared to move, trapping them.
Not only was the Option controlled psionically, but with a thought, Selene could push it with kinetics in any direction easily overcoming water resistance. Between efficient control surfaces, tightly packaged thrusters and a bit of psionic aid, the Option could turn in water with alacrity unknown to any man-made weapon or even any native of the sea. It was the ultimate psionic weapon, entrusted only to her hands. Its only small flaw was that it could not shoot while being pushed, or it would misfire. Irrelevant.
Her superheated claw slashed at the little mouse with passion and ferocity.
Dancing to the flute song of Selene’s violence the mecha thrust itself up over the claw.
Trails of frothing vapor rose from the red-hot digits nearly slashing the mecha’s leg.
With a grin on her face and a fire in her chest that burned hotter than the claws, Selene sent a snap thought to the Option and swung it in a tight spiraling turn. Circling around her, rising in the water column above even the enemy and then snapping its nose to face the little mouse in a space of mere seconds. She was trapped, no place to escape, the Jagdkaiser below, the gun above.
Lines of slashing bullets–
And the rising, surging claws of the Jagdkaiser–
“You’re mine now mouse!”
No matter which direction they fled to–
Suddenly the mecha threw itself down at the Jagdkaiser.
Selene impulsively swung the heat claw and found her digits digging into the metal–
of an assault rifle–!
That mecha slammed rifle into claw slowly melting it into a blob over the sharp digits–
–and got past it, into the Jagdkaiser’s guard, with a burst of solid fuel thrust.
Her head camera was taken up fully by the shadow of the mech bull rushing her.
Then all of the fire from the Option came raining down upon them.
And as it did, the enemy boosted out of the Jagdkaiser’s embrace and around her flank.
A dozen rounds crashed upon the Jagdkaiser’s armor, pitting the thick hull, and severing a chunk of the shoulder with the Option’s mount, smashing a sharp bit of plate off the skirt, before Selene could spin down the guns. Gritting her teeth she ordered the gun to circle back around to the other side while she turned in place and slashed behind her, aided by a lick of solid fuel thrust on the shoulder and arm to overcome the water. A curtain of vapor swept in front of her and the molten assault rifle slid off her claw but she caught no more metal as her disarmed enemy backed just enough away.
“Damn it! God damn it! Psynadium, now!”
On command the tubes connected to the back of her neck pumped the drug through her.
She felt power surging through her like hot glass slicing through the veins in her brain. She gritted teeth, enduring a brief instant of the most horrific pain but rewarded with the clearest view of the ocean any living creature could possibly have. Her eyes glowed not red but with a rainbow gradient that matched the colorful sinews of her antennae. The Aether trails flashed and swirled before her in the sea.
Within the water she saw the outline of the enemy like a shadow in all of the lights.
Selene awaited a flash of insight as to its next movements.
The Jagdkaiser’s homunculus enhanced psionic power, along with the boost of Psynadium.
When her antennae were loose and connected to this system as well, her clairvoyance became so powerful she could vividly see everything her enemy would do before they even tried to do it. Their emotions and thereby their intentions fed into her through the aether seconds before their bodies took action. The hands of fate gesticulated for her eyes only, and she read the sign language to deadly effect.
“A cunning little mouse.” Selene cursed to herself, furious, near breathless.
This time the trap was the same, but rather than a vertical snare the two mecha stood on a horizontal plane before the fateful blow. Her enemy before her, the gun at its back and the claw to its chest. Once she charged the enemy would move up or down– she did not need to guess or use the logic of battle because she would have the truth of it. Whatever it decided in the next second she would know.
Not only that but it was disarmed of its rifle. There was no weapon at its disposal.
Clever athletics would do no good. It could no longer inflict any damage.
She was almost positive it was about to move any given microsecond of thought–
When it did–
That little mouse turned around to face her and launched– something–
Acting before thinking, Selene raised the Jagdkaiser’s special claw.
Glowing with an electric field, it deflected the projectile launched at her.
Causing it to arc around the Jagdkaiser’s body harmlessly.
Rather than being heated, the larger, rotating claw that held the muzzle for the agarthic cannon possessed a powerful magnetic field generator in the wrist with effectors located beneath the digits. While the claw could be swung as a large, sharp piece of metal it was far less capable of slashing than the heated, vibrating claw on the other arm. Designed to shape the agarthic energy from the cartridge away from the Jagdkaiser’s hull, Selene pioneered using the magnetic field on this claw defensively.
In this way bullets could be made to arc away from the claw and explode uselessly.
Instead of a weapon it became her unbreakable shield.
Selene felt momentarily like a genius, however–
It was not a bullet which she had deflected around her flank.
Her enemy had launched a grenade.
She realized it within a split second of the projectile exploding at her side.
Her cockpit vibrated wildly as she tore herself away from the blast leaving in the water a small chunk of the Jagdkaiser’s flank and a strip of the shoulder and arm plates. Wild eyes snapped to each camera looking for that enemy mech and finding it suddenly rushing her directly from the front.
“Why? Why couldn’t I see that?!”
Her head was foggy with rage, her whole body shaking as more of the drug injected.
In a rush Selene positioned the Option like a knife to the enemy’s back–
Plunging and driving the blade, the blades–
Spinning up in half a second the bullets came flying in dozens–
That enemy mecha still unarmed rushed her fool-hardy–
Selene had expected a blade but–
Mid-charge the enemy feinted her, throwing itself into a dive to avoid crashing into her.
And leaving her once again exposed to her own gunfire.
“Using me as a shield?! God damn it!”
Her own bullets arced around her claw and exploded around her harmlessly.
Again the gun spun down, again she forced it to arc to the enemy trying to take her back.
“You won’t get away! You won’t! I’ll tear you out of that cockpit and melt your guts–!”
Selene lunged behind herself opening and snapping her heat claw, trying to snatch the enemy.
A vortex of vaporized water briefly burst between her fiery claws as she seized nothing.
She could have sworn– she could have sworn it would be there–
Why wasn’t she seeing–?
On one of her monitors, something she wasn’t used to paying attention to.
Her acoustic system painted a red targeting box to alert her.
As soon as her eyes snapped down to the lower camera and back up to main.
That enemy had flown under her, behind her, and to the side in quick motion–
She had deluded herself as to its trajectory thinking that a vision would come that did not.
And in the next instant, a diamond sword swung and sliced clean off one of the metal digits.
In that brief instant in which it had gone cold after her last attack with the claw.
I’m not a lab rat! I’m Sonya Shalikova! You think this is fun? Are you enjoying yourself?
Thoughts broadcast into the aether. A girl’s voice– a girl just like her– no. Not quite.
Selene raised a hand to her glowing eyes, slouching her shoulders. Her heart leaping.
Grinning. Laughing. From the absurdity of it. So her little mouse had fangs? SO WHAT?!
This girl was clever, and apparently psionic too, a worthy opponent perhaps– but INFERIOR.
Selene’s eyes burned as her emotions surged in her chest like white-hot flames at her core–
The name of your killer is Selene Anahid, she projected, and you’ll die one order evolved, kitty!
Everything was quiet, orderly, there was a sweet scent and gentle lighting.
“It’s so peaceful here. I’m sure she loves it.”
Zasha Shalikova felt a sense of trepidation as she sought out the right door, walking down a special hall in the middle deck of Sevastopol Station. The Children’s Hall was cozy and earthy, made up with very fake wood panels and relaxing yellow light and the walls had beautiful posters with colorful characters. The posters in the hall exhorted the children to be kind to each other, to be on time for tasks and appointments, to eat their fill and instructions for using the computers to hail adults for help.
It was the year 966 AD. She was twenty years old and her sister was ten years old.
Yes, it was her sister who lived in a warm little room in this children’s hall.
Just beyond one of these doors. She told herself, it was important to remember.
She was a sister now, and Zasha was beyond happy for her.
Her trepidation did not come from that change in their positions.
Rather, Zasha was always afraid that Sim–
Sonya. Yes, Sonya. She was named after their mother now, not their father.
Anyway– Zasha feared that Sonya would be– too independent, perhaps?
In the Children’s Hall, the kids were taught to be responsible for their environment and toward each other. They did their own cleaning, they made their own beds, they were responsible for dressing themselves and going to their classes. They could even, once or twice a week, prepare their own meals. They could call adults for help at any point and the help would be given easily and cheerfully, but the Children’s Hall was supposed to be like their own little enclave that taught them to value the home and to value community with each other, to take care of their own space and make use of their own time.
It was part of the ideology of their ex-Premier, Daksha Kansal.
In honor of her, the current Premier, Elias Ahwalia, continued the practice.
The government wanted children to not be beholden to parents or caretakers entirely.
So the default was for children to live in children’s halls or at specific school dorms.
Parents had to beg for exceptions if they wanted to exclusively raise their children.
And if the reasons weren’t good enough, then they had to gracefully accept separation.
Zasha gracefully accepted separation. At least, outwardly so–
She had always been very protective. So it was hard to let go, but it was for the best.
There were many visit days on the calendar, but Zasha had been busy.
Hopefully, her Sonya would not resent her as she took her first visit day in a year.
Producing a portable terminal from her bag, Zasha double checked the room number.
And she found herself in front of it. 102417. She approached it and took a deep breath.
Before she could knock on it, the door opened– her perceptive sibling had noticed her.
Sonya had always had keen senses.
“Zasha! I heard you shuffling behind the door! It’s so nice to see you in meatspace!”
Sonya smiled brightly, her bright indigo eyes shining, her soft little cheeks turning up.
Zasha laid a hand on her silvery-white hair and patted her head vigorously.
“Are you being a good girl, Sonya?” She asked.
“Hee hee, you called me a girl, Zasha.”
“Of course I did! You’re my sweet little sister.”
“Ahh! I’m so happy Zasha!”
“I’m glad. Everything feels ok, right? No stomachaches or anything?
“No! It’s great! I love the medicines. Now I can be as cool as you are!”
Zasha laughed a little. What an impressionable kid– but Zasha always trusted her choices and let her have what she wanted. That was the ethos of the Children’s Hall after all. When Sonya confessed on a video-call about being Sonya and sent her a digital pamphlet about hormone therapy that a caretaker had given her, Zasha was nothing but pleased. It was important to her, more than anything else, that Sonya Shalikova got to have a say in who she was. That she wouldn’t be funneled down a path that anyone else wanted or expected. If that meant taking hormones, then Zasha was happy for her.
And if it meant living away in the Children’s Hall, then that was fine too.
“I suppose I’m so cool, you definitely needed a doctor to help you catch up.” She joked.
Sonya’s eyes stared at her wide and round. She then made a bashful little pout.
“Oh no, Sonya, I meant nothing by that. You’ve always been very cool you know?”
She was such a sensitive kid too sometimes.
“Come in. My room is so huge!”
Zasha smiled. It really was not. And it looked like she was sharing it too.
Rather it was a standard Union single, but for a kid, it was a lot of space. And they really went all out on the kid’s decorations. The walls of the room were projecting a fake wood texture but if one touched any of them it would feel like a smooth resistive touchpad, which it all was. There were two little desks, for Sonya and a roommate, along with a combination shower, toilet and wash basin accessible behind a retractable wall panel. More colorful posters decorated the walls too. A Union single, but for kids.
“I have a roommate, Klob Hondros, but I gave her one of my recreation tickets and a bunch of credits so she would go see a movie or stuff herself or do whatever for the afternoon so we could hang out alone, Zasha.” Sonya said. “I don’t use the credits for anything, and I get them all the time.”
“I see.” Kids were paid a small wage for going to school, and bonuses for exceptional behavior.
Zasha was not concerned by Sonya’s money habits, which didn’t matter, but rather–
“I would have liked to meet your friend.” She said gently.
“Klob? I wouldn’t call her my friend– we study and do stuff together I guess.”
She was still so antisocial. They would have to work on that somehow.
“Well, maybe I’ll stick around long enough to meet her.”
“Ehhh, if you want to. She’s kind of cool I guess. She’s a fish I think. She has horns.”
Sonya sat on her bed kicking her feet happily while Zasha looked around the room.
“If you have enough money to bribe her to leave–”
“–It wasn’t a bribe–!”
“–then you must be doing really well academically.” Zasha said.
“Oh!” Sonya smiled again. “Yep! I’m doing so good. It’s like crazy how good I am.”
“Keep working hard!” Zasha said. “I’m so proud of you!”
“What about you?” Sonya asked. “Did you kill any bad guys?”
“There’s no bad guys to kill. And that’s not really what I do, you know.” Zasha said.
She cringed just a little bit– she did not want Sonya to have such bloody-minded ideas.
Nevertheless, as a child who lived through the revolution, it was inevitable.
Death and killing were always going to be part of her mind. Sad as it was to think about it.
She had not been old enough back then to understand what was happening with any nuance.
Sonya’s voice turned serious. Zasha turned around to make eye contact. She had been looking at a shelf where one of Sonya’s sewn stuffies was sitting. It looked like a big purple blob of a cuttlefish, a simple beginner stuffie. Zasha dearly wished Sonya would do more sewing and less thinking about war.
Looking her eye to eye, Sonya stood up and seemed to be trying to look tall.
“I want to be a hero like you!” She declared.
Could she say ‘no’ to that? Had Sonya finally done something utterly unacceptable?
“In your own words–”
“–huh? you sound like my teacher–”
“–what does it mean to be a hero, Sonya?” Zasha asked with a firm tone but a smiling face.
Sonya’s bright round eyes glimmered with excitement.
“A hero is like, strong! They know how to fight really good and kill the bad guys!”
“Hmm. Why would you kill the bad guys though?”
“Because they’re bad, duh?”
“Not quite.” Zasha said.
She bent down a little and stroked Sonya’s head gently.
“Sonya, if you want to be a hero like me, first, you must be kind and responsible. You must make friends and help people. Take care of your tasks and avoid hurting others. Those are the important things that makes your big sister Zasha cool– it’s not my rank or being in the navy, and not ‘killing bad guys’.”
Zasha would defer telling Sonya that she had been inducted into the special forces.
For as long as humanly possible now, given the circumstances.
It would give her some funny ideas about this lecture.
Still– she wouldn’t say no if Sonya wanted to join the armed forces.
It was not in her nature to tell Sonya not to do something. Even something like this.
But she had to do it for the right reasons. She had to really understand it.
“Don’t you need to fight to be a hero?” Shalikova asked.
“Hmm, not quite!” Zasha smiled. “There’s all kinds of ways to be a hero. Heroes aren’t only those who fight. The lady at the cafeteria is a hero; your teachers are big heroes too.”
Sonya puffed her cheeks up a bit. “Big nags, actually.”
“Okay, okay. But you fight bad guys, or you train to fight bad guys, don’t you?”
“Then why do you do that? If it isn’t to be a hero?”
Zasha continued to smile. Sonya was asking the right questions. “In my case, Sonya, I want to fight so that other people don’t have to. Fighting isn’t something soldiers want to do. But we will fight so that the cafeteria lady, and your teachers at school, and even you yourself, don’t have to do that. So you can do other things that help people more, like cook or sew cute stuffed animals.”
“You don’t think fighting helps?” Sonya asked.
There was a tiny little shudder in Zasha’s heart, but she never ceased to smile.
Whatever Sonya wanted to do– Zasha would support it with a smile and proper guidance.
“I think that we need to be really careful about fighting.” Zasha said. “We need to think a lot about why we do it and most of the time we need to find ways of sorting things out that aren’t fighting. That’s part of my job too, you know. If you can think of a really good reason to fight, Sonya, and you find that fighting is the only way that you can help or save people, only then should you fight.”
Sonya looked determined and smiled. “I’ll fight to protect you, Zasha!”
Zasha suddenly took Sonya into a tight embrace.
For some reason she felt tears in her eyes. Tears for everything her sister had been through.
“Sonya, you’re full of love. I know you’ll understand my lesson someday.”
She whispered this almost to herself, holding her fragile little sister in her hands.
And praying that everything would really turn out well for her.
Being a hero– what Zasha had said it meant– Could Shalikova really–?
Cold sweat built on her sharply rising chest. Her breath came in fits.
Thoughts unbidden. She was getting emotional, she was swimming in pure emotion.
Everything was so desperate that she had begun to think about her sister.
After trying to push her out of her mind for so long.
What would Zasha have done? What would Zasha had said?
It was painful to remember– but the confrontation was forced–
Emotions flooding, cascading in brilliant colors, inescapable–
Black and red, she was wreathed in the ferocious void-fire of killing–
Was that her only emotion too–? Was she only colored with intention to kill–?
“Focus! Tight focus!” Sonya Shalikova told herself, trying to break free of this spiral.
She would need every neuron she could spare to survive let alone achieve any victory.
“Zasha, I have to fight.”
For the difference in power between their machines, Sonya had been doing admirably.
The Cheka had only taken a bit of cosmetic damage– and one melted rifle.
But that enemy machine had not lost any speed or power from the damage that it took.
Its armor was pitted and shredded in places, but it was still moving like a juggernaut.
Shalikova had not intended to do much damage with her tricks anyway.
She had planted a seed of possibility. That keenness she couldn’t escape had guided her.
Now Selene would nurse an expectation of how Shalikova would move in reaction to the projectile’s gunfire. If Shalikova tried to use her as a shield again, would the reaction be different?
Would she shoot at herself, or reposition it differently, or make a more adverse move in response? Any wrong move and those molten claws would destroy her completely, or she would be shredded by that flying chain-gun but when this fight had started, she was far more helpless than now.
She had an opportunity. But she had to convert it into a way to disable that machine.
Or at least try to disarm it. If only her sword could have cut that entire claw off!
“She wants to kill me. She would love to. That’s the feeling I get in the aura, but–?”
All that bleak anger and hatred radiating from that machine–
Was it really a window into the heart of the person inside?
Was Selene Anahid a monster as ferocious and evil as the one that had taken Zasha?
“No. She’s a human being just like me. I can stop her.” She said.
Selene was clearly psionic, however. Since she learned about psionics, Shalikova had been dimly considering the possibility that they might confront someone who knew about psionics too. As much as she hated the thought of relying on this strange new power, Shalikova had to give as good as she was getting– and the machine’s wild aura told Shalikova that psionics was involved here.
Remembering what Maryam had shown her–
Shalikova pulled the mental trigger and her eyes felt hot from inside.
That irregular cloud of colors in front of her came more sharply into focus.
“So I was right–”
As she had been fighting Selene she had felt that an attack was coming and this was heralded by the intensifying of the machine’s red and black aura. It was like she could feel the decision to attack before Selene made it. This allowed her to be somewhat more confident in taking risks with very tight timing, like dropping into and escaping from the machine’s grasp in order to lead its attacks into itself. It was something she only acknowledged after the fact– in the middle of things it just felt like she really good instincts and coordination. Now she recognized the source of those instincts clearly.
Because now she could see the patterns in the water among all the other colors.
Trails of red and black slowly dissipating behind their machines like scars of their battle in the aether– and trails of possibility extending ever so subtly from the machine like tendrils ready to imprint the next scar of their violent fate onto that ocean-spanning cloud of human emotions. It was tricky– she was seeing the aura shift this way and that as if nothing in the future had been settled yet.
Was Selene seeing this too? Shalikova recalled something else– Maryam’s fortune telling.
Sword in hand, suddenly inspired, Shalikova drew the Cheka back to provoke a reaction.
In the next instant Selene’s claw swiped right in front of her.
A cloud of bubbles and vapor from the superheated claws hid her intention. A burst of 20 mm bullets from the autocannon on her right shoulder kept Shalikova at bay, popping one after another in little bursts of vapor and metal. Shalikova could not see the sea floor but she knew she was close to the bottom now and so she dove further with the space created by the last exchange of attacks.
If she could drag Selene to the benthic surface there would be one less plane of movement.
Normally that would be an enormous disadvantage, but Shalikova was counting on that.
And counting on Selene’s reaction to having a sudden, seemingly massive advantage.
In response to Shalikova’s dive the flying chain gun appeared at her side.
Following her with alien ease and agility, the machine spun up its barrels to attack from her flank.
With Selene above and behind, chasing, the chain gun could safely attack from the flanks.
As soon as she saw it, Shalikova struck a button on her joystick that had been glowing green.
“Sorry Murati and Gunther!”
On a supplementary screen, the Cheka’s Energy Recovery System status appeared.
Gathered power deployed from hidden battery cells and supercharged the water system.
In an instant, the Cheka began moving much faster than it had been.
Selene’s gunfire flew right past her, not even close–
Dozens of flashing red status warnings popped up for every conceivable system.
Everything was overheating or stressed, nothing was handling the increased power well.
Shalikova began to plea silently with the machine, hold together, hold together, hold–
Below her, she could suddenly see the grey, sandy rock of the Goryk plain dominating her vision.
She had been diving headfirst, but when she saw the ground Shalikova twisted her body around and glided across the dusty surface– with her back to the ocean floor and her head and chest facing up at the machine approaching. Its horns glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, veins of color playing about its hull, and that demonic red and black aura growing thicker and thicker as it approached.
And as Shalikova glided over the surface, her water jets kicked up all the loose sand.
There was sediment! There was enough sediment–!
For an enormous cloud to blow over Shalikova and for a few dozen meters all around.
Just as she hoped– as she planned.
WHAT? GOD DAMN IT.
Shalikova heard a psychic wail emanate from the enemy machine.
She stopped, briefly caught her footing, standing up the Cheka inside the cloud.
Praying that she was right– and with each passing instant believing in her observations.
Though her cameras were blinded by the cloud seafloor deposits she could still see the enemy machine’s aura. Hovering overhead, losing initiative, moving slower and with less confidence–
Selene couldn’t predict her movements.
GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT–
Psychic screams of frustration, the red and black aura began to grow a sickly green stripe–
Maryam had said–
“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all,”
That machine was generating such an intense amount of emotion that it stirred the aether.
Shalikova had put everything together, she knew she must have been correct in thinking–
She generated no ambient emotions for Selene to pick up. She was invisible to psionic senses.
Unless she deliberately broadcast her emotions to Selene, her enemy could see nothing.
Just like a certain powerfully psionic cuttlefish had failed to read her before too.
“Maryam, when I get back I’m going to kiss you!”
Shalikova leaned on her controls with a burst of determination.
Overhead, the machine and its projectile positioned themselves over the center of the cloud.
Within seconds, massive amounts of gunfire burst from the chain gun and the autocannon.
Since they couldn’t see her, they made use of the high ground to furiously bombard the seafloor.
That last thought was Shalikova’s– and she made sure not to broadcast it.
Selene had already seen how fast the Cheka could dive with E.R.S. on–
–but she had no idea how quickly its horizontal and vertical maneuvering would be–
As Shalikova burst out of the cloud, still on the sea floor, right behind Selene’s machine.
Launching up nearly forty meters in just over a second as her systems cried from the strain.
Almost instantaneously the alien projectile’s chain gun snapped up from the sea floor–
Selene must have realized–
–that once again she was between Shalikova and the gun.
So she made a correction.
Throwing the gun into a climb so it would shoot over her at an angle on Shalikova.
Exposing the chain gun to retaliation.
Soon as Shalikova’s keen eyes spotted that cluster of aura rising separate from Selene–
From her shoulders two jet anchors fired on their rocket boosters, cables instantly cut.
They sailed over Selene like a pair of thrown daggers.
One crashed into the center of the chain gun barrels.
Second dug between a control fin deep enough into the chassis to hit the magazine.
Shalikova knew instantly that while it could still move that gun would never shoot again.
Feral psionic screams erupted from her enemy.
As Selene furiously swung the machine’s bulk around to attack her, Shalikova threw all of her weight and thrust into a two-handed, overhead swing aimed down the middle of the mecha’s shoulder.
She only ever attacked with this claw and the shoulder cannon–
Destroying the machine was out of the question–
But if she could disable its weapons–
Shalikova’s sword plunged smashing and slicing through the new style thruster on the winged mount atop the shoulder guard and biting through to the housing for the autocannon. Diamond teeth ground furiously, chewing through the metal and composite and churning debris from all ends of the wound glowing red hot and irregular, gnawing cabling, electric cells, armor, inner supports and tubes–
For an instant it caught within the steel of the arm suspension–
Chewing up its teeth hot, violence briefly stopped–
Please, cut through, cut harder, cut deeper, push! Push!
Shalikova begged and pleaded and cried for the sword’s deadly jaws–
Her eyes welled up hot vapor streaming from her tears–
If she could only sever that arm– she could stop all of this–
“I understand, Zasha! I understand now! I just need a little more strength!”
Shalikova physically could not kill this behemoth. Had she tried she would be dead.
Aiming for the cockpit hull would have done nothing. It was thick enough to shrug off an explosion.
But the arm– she felt like if she gave everything she had she could disable that arm–
Then she would not need to kill Selene. She could make her surrender, take her prisoner–
“I don’t want to kill her! I don’t want to! I want to– I want to save her!”
Answering Selene’s cry with a determined scream of her own that sent her aura flaring–
Spurring the diamond jaws to a snap instant of violence severing the entire shoulder.
Exiting shattered ejecting the diamond chain in pieces as Selene’s gutted arm descended.
The Cheka’s entire hands snapped from the pressure and ceased to respond, letting go of what was left of the diamond sword. All of these instruments severed from their masters and descended gently out of sight onto the cloudy seafloor, the sword, the hot-clawed arm and its shoulder cannon, and the chain-gun, suddenly losing power. A silent cloud of metal debris drifted in the marine fog.
For an instant Shalikova found herself in total darkness.
Abusing the E.R.S. had downed all of the Cheka’s power. She stood blind and in silence.
Then the power came back on– and Shalikova reached for an air mask.
On the diagnostic screen, she saw that the E.R.S. had burned out the main turbines.
Smoke began to seep into the cockpit. Propulsion completely died.
She donned a mask from the emergency supplies, giving her about an hour of life–
And then glanced through her cameras in a panic.
But the enemy machine was not moving. It could not take advantage.
Shalikova sank back in her chair, sucking air through her mask while her mind reeled.
You can’t– You can’t possibly– I was born, I was made, stronger than you! I was! I am!
From the enemy machine the cloud of colors became tinged with all shades sickly and sad.
A roiling vortex that had it been physical looked like it would have crushed the machine.
Selene’s panicked, morbid, self-hating, self-hurting thoughts cascaded out of the mecha.
I’m complete, I’m perfect, I was made perfect, how can she be stronger than me? Mother, why?
Shalikova’s own thoughts poured painfully out of her own soul in return–
Please stop. Please just surrender. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.
Within the clashing aether where all human hurt and suffering had left its mark.
Shalikova felt like crying– she was crying– there was so much pouring out of her.
She knew it was irrational, but she was so affected by the emotions she felt from Selene.
As if that keenness which had haunted her eyes all her life was haunting her mind now.
All of those emotions were so much more violent than anyone could possibly feel.
And she felt them so keenly, as if they were her own, flashes of pain and insight–
Cold, indistinct halls–
Distant people’s words hung with enormity never understood–
Authorities she rejected– figures she refused to let herself rely upon– so much to prove–
Shalikova had never seen an aura like it. Even Ahwalia driven to attack Illya because of their past. Shalikova had seen that anger. She had even seen intention to kill, from when Valeriya struck Ahwalia back that same night. Those were human emotions pushed to their limits, but Selene’s intensity led Shalikova to think maybe the machine was doing something to Selene Anahid inside. Making her worse.
None of those people wanted to powerfully, so strongly, to kill, to hate, to commit violence.
None of those people had been so purposeless in their pursuit of tragedy.
We don’t have to kill each other. We don’t. Selene, please.
Above all what she felt from Selene was a great, exceptional loneliness and isolation.
There was a hole inside Selene that had been filled inside Sonya.
Thoughts of her sister Zasha and all the hurt and inadequacy that she felt came to her unbidden.
All of these years she had run away from it.
It was painful, forcing herself not to think about Zasha while living without her, it was so painful.
It was painful, pain beyond any, to accept that she was gone.
To accept she couldn’t save her. That jumping in that mecha and killing the monster did not change anything. Suspended in the middle of the ocean having fought a battle to a violent standstill, Shalikova finally stared sharply into years old scars that she had been scared to acknowledge. Zasha was gone. She had failed to save her. But she wasn’t alone– Shalikova still had everything Zasha ever left to her.
Had it not been for Zasha–
For Illya and Valeriya–
For Murati and Khadija–
For that kind and gentle Maryam Karahailos–
For what purpose or meaning would Shalikova have been comitting violence and taking lives?
Would she have been in Selene’s shoes, roaring with self-assured but morally empty anger?
Heroes kill bad guys.
Superior beings triumph over inferior ones.
Those childish things which they had both thought– had they been so dissimilar at all?
Selene, I want to save you–
Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, lit up purple in the dim cockpit. An agarthic radiation warning.
Camera filters drawing a flashing purple box around Selene’s mecha as she lifted the remaining arm.
Hitherto unused except as a defense system, Shalikova had thought it wasn’t a weapon.
Claws separating radially around a hole in the palm creating a magnetic field.
Vapor vented from the thicker part of the arm closer to the shoulder as it generated heat.
A furious, rising, incredible heat– and a purple glow through a wound in the arm’s plates.
Tongues of agarthic energy each the width of hairs leaped across the surface of the machine.
“Sonya Shalikova. You are the one who needs saving. Not me– I am the strongest of us.”