Sitting in a corner of a room she never left.
Everything was dim. Her stomach was rumbling. She hardly understood why.
She hadn’t the words, at first, to ask why she was trapped here.
Trapped in a hole in the rock in a pit that led straight to hell.
They called her that– a word meant to evoke the legacy she had been bequeathed.
Those who called themselves her servants waited on her and bowed their respect.
But she was small, grey, skinny, and hungry. Her tail was the biggest part of her.
Spending her days huddled in the dark in pain, waiting miserably for food or drink.
When she ate, it was bony fish, vent worms.
Things that had no taste to her but staved off the pain of hunger.
Until one day, a traveler fed her bread.
Then the fish, the worms– they disgusted her. Even eating became painful.
“You can call me Ganges. I come from very far away. I wanted to see you.”
She came and she left hardly remembered– and the world was dimmer for it.
Her name when she wasn’t “Princess” was Astra Palaiologos.
And every time the outside world intruded on the prison in which she was kept, it brought with it nothing but pain. Because it was so grand, so vast, everything in it so magnificent in scale that it made the dim, deep hole into which she was cast, 3000 meters below, the surface, all the darker, all the more meagre. She wished she had never tasted bread, never learned of the world outside the abyss, never learned of outsiders and the Empire from which they hailed, never learned of the Kingdom of Katarre that should have been hers, but which was taken. Never learned that all her useless retainers had failed to save her parents and brought her here to hide until she died. Never learned about duty, fealty, responsibility.
Never learned that, perhaps, she was created in a way where she might not ever die. That perhaps, this experience of life would last forever.
She wished she had never learned–
“You’re a very special girl. I hope that you can live in peace, Astra.” Ganges had said.
Astra looked up at her with dim eyes that saw only enough light not to go totally blind.
She reached her hands out to touch, desperate, weak, addled by malnutrition–
What she really wished was that Ganges would’ve never existed. That she was dead.
In a sudden fog of color that old, painful memory gave way to a new one.
A room, broad and vast, high-ceilinged, blue and green carpet streaked red.
Light had been shut out of it save for a few emergency LED flashers.
Standing at the end with a line of corpses behind her.
Before a throne, before which, a man groveled before her bloodsoaked body.
She was not Astra– she had buried that name with the rock that these men destroyed.
She loomed over Him. Blond, clean-shaved, in the prime of his life, silk-dressed, eyes wide and red with tears, on his hands the blood of a guard that had been smeared nearby and could not protect him. Upon Him the colors of his dynasty, blue and green, and the semiconductor of fate that calculated all outcomes and became the heart of industrial society. Konstantin von Fueller– Emperor of Imbria.
“Please, I beg you–”
“A being of such miraculous power as you, surely, you have mercy in you?”
“Not for you.”
She raised a hand, and in an instant, the blood, the sweat, from all around her, congealed and crystalized in her grip as a great, jagged red and clear spear. She hefted the weapon and put the sharp end close to Konstantin’s forehead as if gauging the distance for a thrust. He stared at her, unwaveringly. He was in tears, shaking, but he looked at her, locked eyes with her, unmoving. She didn’t know whether it was a challenge, “kill me while you stare me in the eyes,” or simply a show of witless panic.
He began to speak, his voice cracking, spitting through strong sobs– and she allowed it.
“Had I the power you command, I promise you, I swear upon god and family, I would have done everything I could to prevent whatever befell you and brought you before me. I wish every day that I was a stronger man and could end the atrocities happening all around me. I know not how much you have suffered, only that we all have– but I beg you, please, allow me even a single day of life with which to right all of these wrongs. If you kill me, I can do nothing for anyone. Please, have mercy. Please.”
She scratched across his forehead with the sharp tip of the spear, drawing blood.
Blood which incorporated into the blade making its edge glint with a mirror sheen.
“You have no idea– I have already given you so many more days of life. So many.”
Her power had stopped the powerful Shimii tyrant Mehmed from annihilating Imbria.
And to what end? Killing him hadn’t ended the wars and slaughter. It had saved nobody.
All it did was liberate Mehmed’s enemies– and subject Mehmed himself to atrocity.
Those people she supposedly saved were oppressed, fearful and dying every day.
Despite the supposed authority and protection of the so-called Emperor they served.
“Then I apologize deeply; I knew not that I should reward your heroism.” Konstantin said.
He was so pathetic. A weak, helpless man trapped in this dim corner of the ocean.
Waited on hand and foot and dubbed king of a country tearing itself apart in front of him.
“Fueller,” she practically spat out the name, “why should Imbria live even one more day?”
Konstantin stared up at her. He slowly rose from his groveling and sat before her.
Legs crossed, head bowed, hands clapped as if in prayer– still begging.
“Because its people don’t deserve this era of chaos. And we can end it– we can reform it.”
“‘We’? That is a lot of people, Fueller.”
Her grip on the spear wavered just a little. Had she struck in the heat of the moment, before thinking, she would have just killed him. But now, she was thinking– would killing this man solve anything? Was it as easy as finding the right man to kill? If not Mehmed, then him? If not him then who?
Could she really revenge herself fully on this man she had never met nor seen before?
Without the violence affording her momentum– what would she do?
She had abandoned her home, her name, and the companions she had made.
“When Emperor Nocht slew my father unjustly, I acted rashly to avenge him.” Konstantin said. “I was foolish, I didn’t understand the scope of the violence I was setting in motion. I didn’t understand the truth of the challenge I issued when I killed that man. I didn’t realize that killing that man wasn’t the end of my suffering or the start of a revolution by itself. I didn’t know what it meant to revitalize this state or reform its foundations. I still don’t– but I can’t escape it now. I’ve set a great violence into motion.”
He reached out to grab the edge of the spear. It bled his palm. He held it to his head.
“If you kill me– you won’t be able to escape the pull of this vortex either.”
She gritted her teeth. Frustrated– frustrated with herself. Hopeless, without vision.
“If you let me live– if you join me. We can set things right. End the bloodshed. Build up the nation. Protect the people. I called my movement the Fueller Reformation for a reason. We have to stop the violence, along racial, religious lines, nations, castes. We have to reform the state. What is your name?”
She didn’t have a name.
It was an old story told by someone she had hoped to forget.
Konstantin’s face lit up with a smile.
“Norn, the weaver of fate. Of course. Of course you are. Norn– we can do this together.”
Upon that scene which she was watching over as if peering from her own shoulder–
A voice intruded, a voice belonging to neither of them.
“Why did you believe him?”
“Because I wanted to. Because I had nothing else I wanted to believe in, over him.”
“My darkest shame is that I believe you should have become Emperor in his place.”
“Your darkest shame should be dragging me out here after Ganges told you to leave well enough alone.”
“You were the only one who could keep the world from ruin. Then, and maybe now, Norn.”
“You are always pushing others to take responsibilities that you refuse, Euphrates.”
Norn von Fueller moved away from the throne.
As her cheek turned on the scene unfolding behind her everything melted into color.
Euphrates stood before her in the void of the aether as if barring her way.
“You taught me too well, and I made the same mistake that you made with Yangtze.”
Norn locked eyes with Euphrates.
That blue-haired, fair-skinned girl in her lab coat, vest, and pants–
Shuddered in place. Shaken. That impenetrable armor of her ethicality began tearing.
“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”
Norn smiled. “No. It’s the whole truth Euphrates. It’s why I wanted you to see him. Konstantin turned into a brother to me. I did once, truly believe, that I could entrust the world to him. Not because he himself was so convincing or capable. But because I didn’t want responsibility for the world.”
She approached Euphrates, descending on her, jabbing her index finger like a knife on the shoulder between emphasized words, words raining like blows of the icy spear she once turned on Konstantin. “Euphrates, I wanted the world to rest solely on his shoulders. I wanted to congratulate him if the world was saved, and I wanted to excoriate him if it was destroyed. In the exact, same, manner in which you gave up your precious Sunlight Foundation to Yangtze, whom you can no longer face up to. You wanted to laud her achievements and to curse her deviations, but most of all, you wanted to remain a third party to the colossal responsibility you laid on her shoulders. You crowned her like I crowned Konstantin.”
Her grinning face within inches of Euphrates’ pale, sweating, choked expression.
“You are not here to save anybody. You are not here to stop me. Because those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility. You are here, Euphrates, to defray responsibility. Onto me, or onto Tigris, or onto whomever can confront the situation while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting. This is the perfect power for you to wield. A power you can turn on someone to prevent you from acting.”
Her final poke of the finger shattered Euphrates’ shoulder as if she was made of glass.
A reflection of her soul. Breaking apart, speechless, demoralized, mentally defeated.
Norn had finally figured out her trap. And all around her, the void in the aether collapsed.
“–ordnance penetrated to the social module. No casualties, nobody was there.”
“I can still feel it shaking. Was it mitigated properly?” Adelheid said.
“Exterior breach sealant and flood mitigation was unsuccessful. Isolation was successful on the social pod, it is sealed, and flooding did not spread. Shield is down over that area. It will need immediate maintenance. For safety reasons, I recommend sealing off the officer’s habitat.”
Adelheid and one of the drones were assessing the situation. The Pandora’s Box had struck them.
Despite Hudson’s supposedly impenetrable shield– that cat always oversold everything.
Norn herself was bound up in a thought for a moment.
Unbidden thoughts of Konstantin von Fueller.
Her bridge crew was speaking up, but their voices felt distant to Norn for a moment.
She felt the return of her aethereal form to her material body like she was rid of a migraine that she had been enduring. It was a lightening, liberating feeling, like a plastic sheet that once restricted her movements was peeled off her skin. She had bested Euphrates in a mental contest– if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just an extension of herself, she would have thanked her aethereal self for her help.
“Norn, your eyes aren’t glowing red anymore. Are you alright?” Adelheid asked.
Norn shook her head and ran her hand down the bridge of her nose.
“As alright as I can be.”
While this was a positive development, the situation was still grim.
They had underestimated the mercenaries.
Norn had entered the battle with an overabundance of confidence. Her troops would lack in cohesion from never working with each other, but they had the right gear and decent skills. She believed them capable enough to hold off or sink a bunch of bandits in laundered Union gear. Now, however, she was sure her enemy were not such lowly peons– these were likely Union soldiers in diguise. Though they lacked cohesion too, they had experience and innovative tactics when cornered. Norn had been focusing mainly on Selene. That girl was outmaneuvered utterly and about to make an enormous mistake.
Her enemy must have unlocked their own psionics, to have stood a chance.
Perhaps Euphrates had trained all of these people– though that was not like her at all.
Nevertheless, Norn had to cut her losses now. Fighting to the death was pointless. But she also had to prevent a rout of her forces. De-escalation and an orderly retreat could still be in the cards.
“Selene, stand down. You are not authorized to fire a cartridge.”
On the main screen, the Jagdkaiser’s forward camera feed broadcast back to the Antenora via an intermediary relay buoy. Norn saw the machine’s arm, extended and ready to fire. Between Selene and her enemy stood one of the mercenaries, along with the Grenadier of Sieglinde von Castille. They were trying to dissuade Selene from firing. And the girl hesitated just enough for Norn to intervene.
In the next instant, Selene’s face appeared on the Antenora’s main screen. Sweat-soaked, red eyed. On the part of her neck visible over her suit, the sinews glowed with a rainbow gradient over the main artery. Her outer irises glowed with the same colors, and had developed a fractal pattern to their outer edges.
Tell-tale signs of overdosing on Yangtze’s psynadium drug to boost her psionic tolerance in combat.
“Norn, I have her.” Selene whimpered, near breathless. “I have them! I can kill them all!”
“You are not authorized to fire a cartridge. Your chassis is unstable. You would die too.”
“I don’t believe you! I can survive it! And if– I don’t care if I die! I’ll wipe them all out!”
Adelheid averted her gaze. This was a low, painful moment for Selene.
Norn shook her head at the girl on the screen.
“You’re not the only one who has lost face here. We are going to retreat; this entire situation was ill-advised, and I will have restitution for it. Selene, live to make them taste a future defeat. All corpses are the same in death. It is only in life that you can distinguish yourself. Thrash, gnaw and bite for every second of life you can to spite your enemies. Trading life for glory is for fools.”
Selene visibly gritted her teeth. Her eyes were overflowing with tears.
Hunched over her control sticks, ready to annihilate the enemy and herself in an instant.
Norn feared the worst for a moment; but Selene fell back on her seat, gaze averted.
Her pride as someone who viewed herself superhuman had been wounded.
Thankfully, she was not so far gone as to fully forego reason for violence.
“I have no doubt about your abilities.” Norn said. “Pull back. We’ll talk later.”
At that moment, Sieglinde von Castille also appeared on the main feed.
“Milord, you must retreat from this foolish endeavor while you have the chance.”
Norn narrowed her eyes at the defeated ‘Red Baron’ and scoffed.
“Don’t lecture me. Go talk to your intrepid leader about retreat if she’s still alive.”
“I’m not unaware of the responsibility we bear for this. I swear I will stop her.”
In that moment Sieglinde’s face disappeared from the main feed.
And shortly thereafter appeared another face, the video initially garbled–
Adelheid gasped; even the drones looked at it with a muted disbelief.
“Something is connecting to us. Unknown protocol, but we can try to next-nearest decode.”
“Interesting.” Norn grinned, leaning her chin up on one fist. “Monitor, don’t block.”
It was definitely the Pandora’s Box– because Norn knew the silhouette trying to broadcast.
When the communication was accepted, and the picture clarified completely–
Long purple hair, a slight frame in a chaste blue and green dress, bright indigo eyes that looked just a bit older than before, but cheeks still just a bit baby-soft. Princess Elena von Fueller.
Elena quietly panicked in her room as the bearing monitor displayed a familiar Ritter-class.
The Antenora was the flagship of the Fueller family. Of course she had seen it before. She had even ridden inside it once or twice. The physical ship was different now, it used to be a Prinz class and the flag was moved to the new Ritter– regardless. Her head was going at a hundred kilometers per hour trying to make sense of it. Was that really Norn von Fueller after her? What did this mean for their journey?
In her mind it could only, possibly, mean one thing.
Gertrude had survived their last battle; she was sure of that already.
Tragically, this had to mean Gertrude was back a second time.
And the Union soldiers would kill her.
Around her the ship shook. Ordnance detonated around the Brigand, an almost per-minute quaking that at times was violent enough to nearly knock Elena out of her bed. Lights flickered, her stomach churned. Surely, the Brigand was giving as good as it was getting. In her dim little metal room, she rubbed her hands together, wept, her voice caught in her throat. What could she possibly do about this?
How could she stop it?
She gritted her teeth, hating herself fiercely.
“I’m so stupid! Powerless; useless! I can’t– I can’t do anything but sit here and cry! Everything I love, everyone I care about, are all going to be killed because of me. Is it really true that all I can do is sit here? Sit here crying and suffer this over and over? Whether I die or Gertrude kills me– I can’t imagine the suffering this useless battle is going to cause. I have to do something– I have to. I have to!”
Gertrude would keep coming after her. Nothing would deter her.
There was nothing in the world Gertrude loved more than her.
Gertrude Lichtenberg was hers. Her companion, her friend, her knight, her hope, her love.
It was Gertrude who was supposed to save her from everything, right?
“That’s why I’m so useless! That’s why all of this is happening!”
Elena had always been powerless. She always needed someone to rescue her.
And those people put themselves in danger again and again.
Not just Gertrude; but Marina, and even Victoria, and–
Her weeping and sobbing intensified as she remembered her lively nag of a maid.
Bethany had died, she had died and was gone and would never come back.
Because Elena was powerless to do anything.
Powerless to see the danger looming around her. Powerless to take precautions or defend herself. Powerless to get herself out of danger when it came. She was a burden on so many people who gave everything they had for her sake. Like a poisoned chalice, passed around the hands of anyone unfortunate enough to know her. Now it was the crew of the Brigand who was unfortunate enough to be passed the cup. But out there, everyone was taking a long drought of the poison now regardless.
Gertrude would fight no matter what; and the Brigands would unknowingly defend Elena.
Until everyone died, each one to protect her from the other.
It was too cruel. It was too evil a fate to allow to pass.
Elena stepped up from her bed–
In time for another explosion to knock her to the floor.
Falling on her face, groaning, lifting herself up on her hands.
Teeth clenched. Her arms and legs hurting, feeling like she would heave up her lunch.
She could have stayed on that floor and moped, but she slowly lifted herself up.
Running on an anxious strength drawn from nowhere and everywhere.
Amid the rumbling, she searched under her bed.
Marina had few possessions, but she did have a few things of use–
Cosmetics, and clothes. She always had a lot of clothes around to disguise herself.
Marina was taller and broader-shouldered than Elena, but she found a dress that was a lot closer to her own size among the cocktail clothes, blue and green, long-sleeved, and modest, like formalwear for a family outing. The colors reminded Elena of the Fueller family regalia. She also found a product to remove the black hair dye. As quickly as she could, she washed her hair, dressed up and set about her course.
Walking out of her room moments later, she was no longer “Elen” the analyst.
She told herself: Elena von Fueller was formally stepping into the UNX-001 Brigand.
Out in the hall, a group of sailors took a lingering look at her but said nothing. They were running down the halls checking for damage, testing the electronics, crawling into the walls to check for leaks. Farther down the hall Elena could see activity near the bridge. There were a few people together, moving someone on a carried stretcher. By the time she arrived, there was only Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse guarding the door to the bridge. They waved at her as she arrived but were still staring.
“Uh, hey!” Klara said, “Nice dye job! Purple looks good on you!”
Zhu smiled briefly at Klara’s remark, but then put on a more official face.
“Sorry Elen, the bridge is kind of in chaos right now. You shouldn’t bother them.”
Elena took in a deep breath and made herself speak.
“I know this will be a hard pill to swallow, but I think I can stop everyone from fighting.”
She had not come up with a better excuse than that.
Elena was not a grand orator– all she could do was be honest and try to keep calm.
Klara and Zhu glanced at each other briefly. More concerned than angry or suspicious.
“Elen, it’s a boulder sized pill to swallow. It’s the hardest to swallow pill ever.” Klara said.
“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but you were acting erratic in the last battle too.” Zhu said. “So tell us what you’re thinking, but we can’t let you be disruptive in the bridge for no reason. I’d like to think we’re all friendly, and we like you, but Klara and I need to do our jobs properly.”
“I understand but–”
“She’s the princess of the Imbrian Empire, Elena von Fueller.”
Behind Elena, a girl approached from the direction of the brig, where the party from earlier had gone. She must have been with them. Dressed in a nun’s habit, with w-shaped eyes, dark-pink skin, and long purple hair, some of which was wriggling at the side of her head. Diaphanous purple and blue fins wiggled atop her head. She waved and smiled and confessed to Elena’s secret without any prompting.
Everyone, Elena included, stood speechless for a moment.
“They wouldn’t know!” Maryam Karahailos said, bubbly and cheerful. Two long, thick pieces of her hair that ended in little paddle-shapes, pointed at Klara and Zhu independent of the sister’s hands. “Because they are new to the Empire, but I recognized you the moment I saw you! I’m glad you survived!”
“Maryam, this chick got some hair dye and contacts. She’s not a princess.” Klara said.
“Why don’t you let her on the bridge so the Captain can decide.” Maryam said.
Elena did not know why Maryam was suddenly helping, but she felt her heart lift.
She had one ally in here at least! Elena tried to press the security girls alongside Maryam.
“Klara, Lian, please, please let me talk to the Captain! I can explain everything!” She pleaded.
Zhu Lian grunted brusquely. “I am doubly not letting you on the bridge for this.”
Had Elena heard Maryam say something? She thought she had, but–
Klara and Lian’s eyes flashed briefly red– was Elena seeing things now too?
Was she really losing her wits? When she most needed to keep it together?
It reminded her of Vogelheim, of Victoria, but the energy she felt was so brief.
And so vastly powerful.
Then, suddenly, Klara and Lian both sighed heavily, and visibly dropped their guard.
Maryam really hadn’t moved a muscle. She was just smiling at them the whole time.
Was she really–?
“Fine, but if the captain tells you to leave, you damn well better.” Zhu Lian finally relented.
Elena could hardly believe what she was seeing. But she thought she knew what it was.
They started to move from the way, and in her desperation, Elena simply accepted the boon.
“Whoa! Hey, the sister, she’s–”
Klara pointed at Maryam with a sudden shock on her face.
“Oh, this? It just happens sometimes.”
Maryam’s nose had started bleeding heavily. Dark, inky blood trailed down her lips as she spoke.
Her words slurred slightly. Her legs clearly began to turn to jelly.
Zhu Lian stepped forward and held her steady. Maryam’s once sharp gaze started to trail off.
“What happened to you?”
“It’s nothin’– It’s nothin’–“
“No it’s always something around here.” Lian said, taking Maryam’s arm over her shoulder and helping her walk, even at Maryam’s increasingly slurred protests. “I’ll take her to medical, I think she might’ve taken a knock when she was helping Valeriya and Illya carry that Euphemia lady away. There’s been a lot of quakes and she looks like she’s made of jelly, she could have a concussion. Klara, keep an eye on Elena. Let her on the bridge but if nobody cares about her story, you gotta get her out, understand?”
“Duh. Don’t treat me like a bimbo Lian, just go.”
Klara smiled and shushed Zhu Lian away.
Gently, Zhu Lian urged Maryam to take small steps back down the hall with her.
Elena turned to Klara, with a sense of disbelief surrounding everything that had just happened.
However, she finally had an opportunity. Maryam– she would have to talk to her later.
Right now, she was closer than ever to a threshold that had felt impossible to cross moments before.
“Okay, the stage is yours, Princess.”
Klara took a deep breath, opened the bridge door, and stepped in.
Walking in behind her, Elena saw all kinds of inscrutable data and maps and video on the vast main screen, officers hard at work on the three tiers of stations in the descending bridge. At the top, just off of the door, was the Captain’s and Commissar’s chairs. They had been whispering to each other. Ulyana Korabiskaya, the gallant blond Captain, turned to her with gentle confusion.
She looked her up and down, clearly surprised by her attire and hair color.
“Elen? Is that Elen the analyst?” Ulyana said.
Elena was briefly reminded of Bethany. Maybe every pretty older woman did.
There was something comforting there. She wanted to believe the Captain would understand.
“Sorry, Captain, this lady’s got something to say to you.” Klara said.
For a moment, the bridge shook as another shell exploded somewhere near the Brigand.
Ulyana Korabiskaya turned to the main screen, gripping her chair tightly.
“God damn it, they just don’t quit. Keep shooting! We have them on the run!” She said, before turning back to Elena. “We’ve got a bit of a situation here analyst. What do you need me for? I applaud your new look, but this is a very critical moment. If you’re inquiring about McKennedy, she is alive.”
“No ma’am– I’m here to turn myself in.” Elena said suddenly. “I’m– I’m the one that they want, Captain.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah Bashara both were now staring fixated at her and then at Klara.
Nervous, Elena performed a curtsy. “I’m Elena von Fueller. The Inquisitor and the Praetorian are after me.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah turned to each other, blinking mutely. They turned back to Elena.
For a moment they just stared. Their lips moved very slightly, but the words aborted every time.
“You can ask Marina McKennedy to confirm, ma’am.” Elena said. An awkward smile, shrinking a step back.
At the same time as each other the Commissar and Captain brought hands up to their faces in despair.
“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah mysteriously cried out, lapsing into some Shimii saying out of consternation.
The Captain then shouted a strange archaic curse: “When it rains it fucking pours!”
“It really is a small ocean, isn’t it?”
On the Brigand, the brig was not very spacious, as there was not much thought given to the capture of prisoners given the mission they have been given. There was one larger containment area behind bars which could hold about five or six people humanely, or up to twenty in very inhuman conditions; and four personal containment cells each for one person, each of which could be made lightless, soundless, padded, and individually temperature controlled. There were no illusions as to their ultimate purpose.
Illya and Valeriya had moved “Euphrates” to one of the individual cells and laid her on the fold-out bed, which could be locked to the wall if they were intent on being really cruel to whoever was inside. There was no better place to put her for now, as she was stable, unconscious and under suspicion. “Tigris” joined her soon after in an adjacent cell. She had agreed to this and did not resist arrest.
But Valeriya and Illya had a secondary concern while they went about this task.
And that secondary concern was clearly concerned about them too.
Xenia Laskaris eagerly awaited them on their way out of the brig. Submachine gun slung around her shoulders, a magazine held between her gloved fingers. Her antennae flicked with recognition.
“Don’t worry,” she said immediately, “They aren’t paying me enough to do anything about this situation. I wouldn’t risk my neck for those two. I was honestly far more interested in getting to see you two again.”
She held out a hand. Smiling, Illya shook, and then Valeriya gave her a brief shake too.
“It’s been a while. How have you been carrying on?” She asked.
“Living with things, and without them. We were also thinking about you during this mess.” Illya said.
“Oh?” Xenia said. Her tail twisted behind her back. “Were you worried for me?”
“Worried for you, and worried about what you could get up to.” Illya said.
“Like I said, they’re not paying me enough to become a problem for you.” Xenia said.
“Good. We know how big a problem you can be, and our officers really don’t.” Illya said.
“She won’t be.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head with a neutral expression.
“You think so?”
“I trust her.”
“She owes us.”
Valeriya put on a tiny smile.
Xenia smiled back, stretching her arms up behind her head and leaning back.
“See? And you know your lady friend isn’t easy to get along with.” She said.
“Right.” Illya smiled. “Well, if Valeriya says so, then I really have to trust you.”
“Charming!” Xenia laughed. “So, you want something from me right?”
“Of course. You know how it is.”
For both Katarran mercenaries and special operations personnel, the world was defined near entirely by transactions, and people were what they could do, what they knew, what they promised and what they owed. Exceptions were few and had to be cherished. That was why Illya held Valeriya close.
Unbeknownst to most of the Brigand, Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg were no ordinary security guards. They had to support the mission of the Brigand, and it was a mission they believed in and which made sense to them. However, their identities gave them a separate sensibility from the rest of the crew.
Between them and Xenia, friendly as they were, what mattered most was how they could be valuable to each other, and help each other survive the violent underworlds in which they lived and moved. Illya believed in communism, but there was no economy and no charity for people like them, tasked with smoothing out the sharp, jutting edges of the world so that the peaceful folk only saw curves there. For special forces to exist at all, they had to be exceptions, in ways that were not fully understood by civilians. Not only could they kill others; but their lives were also forfeit the care and kindness given to others.
In training and thought both, Illya and Valeriya were not just security guards, they were beasts.
BEAST– short for “Benthic, Abyss and Station.” Parvati Nagavanshi’s concealed weapons.
It was a sacrifice that they chose naively but lived with wholeheartedly.
For the sake of another old friend; and the naive, fragile world she gave her life to protect.
Illya fixed the grinning Xenia with a calm, but resolute expression.
“We need information. I found this Solarflare LLC business fishy from the start. It reminded me of what we saw a few years ago, with the Ahwalias. So from one operator to another. I need to know how big a problem are those two going to be, and if they are involved in anything larger than corporate R&D.”
She motioned with her head toward the cells where the unconscious Euphrates and the irate but compliant Tigris had been locked up. For the moment, they were playing along, but surely they wouldn’t stay there. Those two were more than they let on. Their names, which were taken from old world mythology, laid a pattern for Illya and Valeriya. That was something they only realized when Tigris divulged her real name. But Illya had been wanting to grill Xenia about them ever since she realized her Katarran acquaintance from their sordid past was aboard– their responsibilities just got in the way.
Xenia knew the score. She had owed them something, and now she could square it away.
“From one operator to another. Because you two are honorary Katarrans to me. I can tell you a little something about a certain Foundation.” Xenia began. “As much as they’ll let the help know.”
Clouds of gas and bubbles dissipated from the waters around Goryk’s Gorge.
An eerie, tense calm settled over the former battlefield.
The Brigand’s laser network between Zachikova’s drone and those of the HELIOS had grown suddenly capable of delivering much higher fidelity communications across the entire area of combat as long as they routed everything through the HELIOS itself. Murati Nakara informed the Brigand as such, and this helped them concoct a plan to bring about a parley. Though a long shot, it proved initially successful.
Elena von Fueller’s pleas for the fighting to cease broadcast to every unit in the vicinity and to the Antenora itself. Despite the fierce fighting, no one on either side had been killed, but everyone had damage, and every Diver was running low on battery and vernier fuel. The Antenora also had a breach that was much more serious and debilitating than the damage inflicted on the Brigand, but the Brigand was much more vulnerable. In the final calculus, this made the decision to stand down far easier.
Without fighting, the momentary peace could not have been achieved.
Nevertheless, token forces on either side remained, as tension and distrust remained high. They met between the two ships in order to respond rapidly if their counterparts took any suspicious action.
On the Antenora’s side, Gertrude, Selene and Sieglinde.
On the Brigand’s side, the HELIOS’ two pilots Karuniya and Murati, Khadija, and Marina McKennedy.
Though the Union had other Divers in much better repair, they chose their forces to show some good will toward the Antenora. Out of all of them, Khadija still had the Diver in the best shape, giving the Union an advantage nonetheless. But as Shalikova pointed out to her Captain, Selene’s unit was still capable of rapid movement and possessed a strange, additional weapon that it had threatened to use on her.
So perhaps the Union advantage was not so great after all.
Nevertheless, the focus wasn’t on fighting anymore but on the awkward parley.
All of these parties which were deploy outside crowded the main screens of the Brigand and Antenora in a massive video call. Norn von Fueller and Ulyana Korabiskaya represented their ships, and Elena von Fueller was in the center, hands behind her back, pouting slightly on camera. To the side of her, in one of the video squares, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s eyes drew wide, clearly stunned. She started to weep.
“Elena. It really is you.” Her voice took a reverent tone. “You’re here. You’re alive.”
She lifted a gloved hand to her cover her mouth, clearly sobbing.
“It’s– It’s lovely to see you Gertrude.” Elena said. Shrinking a bit from the attention and the tone with which it was given. “I wish it didn’t have to be under these awful circumstances.”
“H-How are you?” Gertrude looked mildly hesitant to ask. “You’re not hurt are you?”
Elena smiled a little. “I am unhurt. They’ve been treating me fine, I promise.”
“They had better been–“
“They were perfectly gentlemanly.” Elena said. “They are actually kind people, Gertrude.”
“Right. I’ll trust you. It’s just– I’m really relieved to see you.”
“I was afraid we would never meet again.” Elena looked embarrassed to relay that fear.
“I’ll always be at your service Elena, no matter what.”
“Thank you, Gertrude.”
Both of them looked like they had so much more to say, but were awkwardly brief.
Were it possible for the two of them to be alone, they could have been much more candid.
However, in the current setting, it was impossible for the two close companions to truly bond again.
With all of the eyes watching, they could not be as intimate as they each desired to be.
Elena was just embarrassed, with a girlish flush; but the Inquisitor was clearly afflicted by her desires.
“Come back with me.” Gertrude said suddenly. “Elena, come back. Let’s talk things over tea.”
She reached out to the screen, her eyes wide, speaking breathlessly, succumbing to her emotions–
“Out of the FUCKING question, Lichtenberg.” Marina shouted suddenly, interrupting the Inquisitor. “I’m not letting you endanger her for whatever sick scheme Norn von Fueller and the Inquisition are plotting! You Imperials want her back, you’re gonna have to take her, you’re gonna have to take her from a veritable fucking army we got here! An army that has already proven they can kick all of your asses–”
“Korabiskaya, shut this embarrassing woman up or we have no parley.” Norn demanded.
Marina flew into an even more frothing rage. “FUCK you Norn! You and I have unfinished–”
“Don’t act like you have the authority to order me around, Norn.” Ulyana replied.
Nevertheless, Ulyana silently agreed with Norn and had completely muted Marina’s irate audio.
Murati Nakara, Karuniya Maharapratham, and various unrelated persons made awkward faces on the video call but otherwise remained mum. The discussion naturally came to involve only a few of the people watching: Gertrude Lichtenberg, Elena herself, Ulyana Korabiskaya as a moderator, and Norn as an interested party, and the one who seemed most likely to resume combat. Elena and Gertrude lost their moment to catch up as friends. Rather, the conversation became a tense, business-like affair.
“I don’t think we will get anywhere without first establishing what exactly is going on here. Elena, would you care to enlighten us on the situation?” Norn said. “Your disappearing act, and your subsequent actions, have led to a lot of suffering that I must now insist you take full responsibility for.”
Gertrude looked upset with Norn’s tone. “She’s the victim, Norn! What matters–”
“Shut up, Gertrude. And it’s master Norn to you.”
In response, Elena performed a deep, repentant bow on camera.
“Of course, aunt Norn. I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything.”
Watching this, everyone must have wondered what kind of person the princess of the Imbrian Empire must have been to make such a vulnerable gesture as bowing before someone– and not only that, but the lordly character of the person she was bowing to, Norn von Fueller. Nevertheless, Norn settled and allowed the princess to speak. With her voice just a bit stuttering and stressed, Elena began to recount her tale, saying what she could say and admitting to what she could admit, but with many gaps that she was unable to fill. She spoke matter-of-factly, outlining the events with as little emotion as she could.
Elena told Norn and everyone watching, a brief story of the events of her birthday; Gertrude’s visit, her brother Erich’s no-show to her party; the attack on Vogelheim; her escape with Marina McKennedy; the subsequent destruction of Vogelheim which she saw from outside only, as the station cylinder split and collapsed. She told them about Serrano. Though she knew the truth of the Brigands, she was kind and clever enough to speak only in the terms which everyone else was using, calling the ship the “Pandora’s Box” and referring to the group as “mercenaries.” In this narrative, Marina had employed them.
“They have served excellently. I would prefer you cease your hostility toward them.”
Elena stuck up for them. Then of course was the part of the story everyone present knew.
Gertrude’s attacks, Goryk substation and ultimately, Norn’s pursuit, and the recent battle.
Throughout the story, Gertrude looked terribly affected. Shutting her eyes, grimacing.
As if she felt the pain Elena had at each moment and it moved her nearly to tears.
“It’s all my fault.” Gertrude said. “If I had stayed behind, I could have protected you.”
“Gertrude, of course not.” Elena said. She averted her gaze. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t want anyone to blame themselves, least of all you. You’ve always been so good to me. I am doing all this right now because I don’t want anyone to blame you or hurt you. So let me be the only one that needs to efface myself here right now. You can’t take all of my problems on your shoulders again.”
“I can’t accept that.” Gertrude said. “Elena, the only who has been hurt here is you.”
Elena looked somewhat frustrated with that response.
She ignored Gertrude for that moment and turned her attention back to the Praetorian.
“Aunt Norn, I understand that these events have caused you material and personal grief. However, at the moment, I don’t know who I can trust in the Empire. Vogelheim was supposed to be safe. The Volkisch came and shattered my world and all the little lies that supported it for me. I can’t just forget that.”
“You suspect your brother was involved.” Norn replied casually.
Elena was visibly disarmed by her tone. “I– I didn’t say that–”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I suspect as much. Who else would it have been?”
“I mean– Marina got a hold of the information too–”
“You don’t have to cover for him in your mind. Distrust him too.” Norn said.
Elena blinked. “I just don’t understand. You serve brother Erich, don’t you?”
Norn cracked a grin. “You and I take ‘serve’ to mean very different things. To you servitude toward the Empire is a recognition of its heavenly virtues and thus becomes a dignified duty. But I have no great respect toward the lordly qualities of individual men. Elena, right now, my position is convenient. Nothing more. My beloved nephew gets only as much as he gives to me. The Fueller Family is a useful bit of structure in my life. I am not blind to your brother’s more devilish qualities. But I will neither help you nor him in your squabbles. In fact, I’d love it if you wanted revenge on him. Then I could use you too.”
For a moment, Elena blanched. “You’re also laying claim to the throne then, aren’t you?”
“Nobody fighting right now believes that throne is worth anything. Except maybe you.”
Laying back on her chair, grinning widely, resting her cheek on one fist.
Norn von Fueller looked greatly amused by the naïve responses of her “niece.”
“All I care about is power. The throne of Imbria is a powerless fixture. You can have it.”
“Princess, it appears your aunt has made her character quite clear. She’s playing all sides.”
Ulyana Korabiskaya entered the fray with a cool-headed, motherly-sounding remark.
She turned narrowed eyes on Norn von Fueller. “However, despite my disgust, I don’t believe this is the time or place to have involved philosophical or ethical discussions. For Treasure Box Transports, the only question left unanswered in this discussion is ‘what happens from now’. And the most pertinent choice to make is whether you remain with us or join Norn instead. I have no opinion on the subject.”
Elena nodded. She took a deep breath and let out a gentle, weary sigh.
“I have been giving that some thought–” Elena said, barely squeaking out the words–
“What is there to think about?” Gertrude interrupted. “Elena, you can’t possibly be thinking about remaining with these mercenaries. How can you even consider that? I understand you did what you had to when Vogelheim was attacked, and that Marina woman and this Volgian gave you a way out. But I’m here now– you don’t need to keep paying for these mercenaries! That’s wholly unacceptable! I’ll protect you! No matter how you feel about master Norn! I’m here, and that’s all that matters isn’t it?”
Elena averted her gaze from Gertrude, unable to respond to that outpouring of passion.
“My demands remain the same.” Norn added. “I see no reason to leave Elena here.”
“Princess, they are capable soldiers with more resources than we have.” Ulyana said.
On the video, Elena fidgeted, bowing her head such that her hair hid her eyes.
“But do you trust them as much as you trust us? Or well– can you trust them?”
There were a few surprised faces as Ulyana Korabiskaya said this.
She had on a self-satisfied little smile. Norn cocked an eyebrow.
“Korabiskaya, fleecing this naive girl for more money should be beneath you.” Norn said.
“You can read into it however you want, Norn. This isn’t about you.” Ulyana said.
Norn grinned again. “I should remind you, Ulyana Korabiskaya; I didn’t sortie in a Diver during our previous confrontation. You are aware only of a fraction of the nightmares I can create for you, so don’t test me. You have no reason to be getting confident or to be pushing Elena in this conversation. All of you are breathing right now because I am limiting my involvement in this charade, nothing more.”
“Right now, I am only looking out for my employer’s best interests and nothing more.” Ulyana said.
She was not shaken at all, despite Norn’s very clear and direct threats.
Gertrude interrupted then. Raising her voice, sounding openly irritated.
“Elena, that volgian bitch is clearly trying to manipulate you!” Gertrude said. “You are too trusting, to a fault, but you don’t have to second guess yourself. I’m here. You know me. We’ve sworn oaths to each other, and I would never allow you to come to harm. I love you with all my heart! If you can’t trust master Norn, you can trust me. I will take you to the Iron Lady and you will assuredly be safe there.”
“That same Iron Lady that we bested before?” Ulyana said mockingly.
“Shut the FUCK up right now Korabiskaya!” Gertrude said. “Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t bear to endanger Elena, whom you held HOSTAGE in your dirty little can of a ship, I would have sunk all of you in seconds flat! You wouldn’t have stood a god damn chance! I’ll boil your entire crew alive in that–
“Gertrude, you’re being awful scary!” Elena interrupted. “Please calm down! Let me speak!”
“I’m– Elena, this is ridiculous. This is completely ridiculous. You can’t–” Gertrude struggled–
“I haven’t even gotten a chance to speak and you’re already saying it’s ridiculous?” Elena shouted.
“Elena– I– I mean–” Gertrude was tongue tied. Elena shut her eyes, frustrated with her friend.
“I believe it would be helpful to clear the airwaves and let Elena speak for herself.”
Ulyana spoke up again, smiling gently. She gestured for the hesitant princess to speak.
Elena looked over her own shoulder at the captain behind her on the bridge.
Ulyana nodded encouragingly in response, visible on the video.
Again, the princess took a deep breath, with a hand clutching her dress.
She turned back toward the camera.
When she held her head high once more, she recomposed herself. She looked determined.
“Gertrude, I love you very much, and you know this. I love you in a truly unique way out of anyone I love. You’ve always been there for me, even against my wishes. I used to think it was charming. But out of the love that we have, I need you to respect my wishes now. I’m not a child; and I may not be worldly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own desires. I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and recent events. There is nothing that I can do if I join you Gertrude– and yes, I confess, I am afraid that Norn might use me as part of some plot for the Fueller family. As the Imperial Princess, I am just an object.”
Gertrude began to speak up, but she had been muted– Ulyana had muted her as moderator.
She noticed what had happened and became clearly irate– but Elena could keep speaking.
“Gertrude, please just stop and listen to me. I, Elena, as an individual and person. I want to continue to travel the Imbrium. I’ve already seen and learned so much. I’ve met new people and I’ve had my naïve ideas challenged. But it’s not enough to just be a passenger here– that’s why I’m coming forward. I’m tired of being powerless. I can’t take people sacrificing themselves for me any longer. I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I don’t want to dress up pretty and receive news of more deaths in my name. I know if I go with you, Gertrude, or with aunt Norn, I will remain powerless. People will keep fighting over me as imperial Princess or using me for what that title once symbolized. So I am abdicating the position of Imperial Princess. I’ll find my own strength and my own purpose, as my own person.”
Elena fixed her gaze on Gertrude, who, unable to broadcast her voice, simply stared.
Her eyes dead and wide as if she had the air punched out of her gut.
“Gertrude, if you truly love me, then I know we’ll find our way back together. But for now–” Elena clutched her chest. Tears drew from her eyes as if the words were painful to say. But they were clearly words which she had thought for very long, painfully long. “Gertrude, bury your love for Princess von Fueller here in Goryk’s Gorge. Start over with me by loving the person I want to become instead.”
Gertrude raised a hand to cover her weeping eyes.
Elena could not bear to look, and averted her own, breaking down into sobs.
There were a few silent reactions from the participants. Of these, Sieglinde von Castille, who had been staring impassively, now looked moved herself, and raised a hand to her own lips. Khadija al-Shahara nodded her head as if excited for the girl’s determination. Selene Anahid appeared utterly dazed.
Norn grunted loudly. Her grin had turned a little smaller than before.
“That’s a lovely little speech. But Elena, whether you like it or not, because of your birth, nobody will care that you have abdicated your titles or not. You have value as an object. People will still chase you, covet you and use you. You won’t be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter what you decide as an individual.”
“Aunt Norn, I realize that you were quite right, when you said the throne of Imbria is powerless.”
Elena’s gaze turned from Gertrude to Norn. In turn Norn fixed her own gaze back on the girl.
Despite those imperious eyes clashing with her, Elena never once wavered.
Wounded by the words she had to say to her lover and friend, and visibly shaken by the monumental declarations she had to make, Elena, eyes still tear-stained, shoulders quivering, small and weak in the face of Norn’s confident power. And yet, her eyes once fixed on Norn’s did not once shrink away. She looked at her as if to say, that whatever spear of rhetoric Norn would launch next, she had to launch unblinking at the girl opposite her, for Elena von Fueller would not blink in response to it.
“I’ve decided that I no longer want to hold on to something powerless.” Elena said. “I will find my own power and have my own achievements. You are right, you speak more sense than you know, Aunt Norn. I realized– I had always asked myself why my father’s Reformation failed. Why, after he declared an era of change, was the Empire still so cruel and petty, so randomly, pointlessly wicked? I think– it’s because the throne of Imbria has never had any power to change anything. The Empire can’t be reformed by it.”
Her words now hardly stuttered, a confident little grin on her eyes, those shining eyes.
Even Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to recognize the change that had gripped her.
Elena von Fueller spoke, for the first time, with a passion wholly her own.
“Elena Lettiere. From now on, I am Elena Lettiere. And I will fight to change this world.”
“Incredible. Your eyes looked just like his, when he spoke the same sort of utter foolishness.”
Norn sighed. She played it off– but there was a change in her.
Her gaze looked upon Elena not disdainfully but with a strange fondness to them.
“I believe you will suffer for your pitiful little dreams just as your father did, when he swore an oath like that with those exact deluded eyes you are making.” She said. Elena did not waver, despite this pointed criticism. Norn continued, smiling. “Elena Lettiere, I will reassess your value as a captive and your position as friend or foe when next we meet. Until then, pray you don’t see the Antenora ever again.”
Elena let out a long-held breath in relief. She looked like she would cry.
“To clarify, you’re retreating?” Ulyana asked, raising her hand as if a student in a classroom.
“We’re retreating. Go on your merry way Korabiskaya. I will also reevaluate you if we meet again. Maybe someday I’ll throw some coin at your people myself. You’ve proven– interesting.” Norn said.
“Yeah? Well, I’m going to try my damn best never to see you again, so don’t bother.”
Elena spoke up with an awkward smile. “Captain, can you allow Gertrude to speak again?”
“Since we seem to have reached a productive agreement, sure.” Ulyana said.
Gertrude was unmuted. Elena looked back at the screen expectantly.
On her face was an expression that seemed both melancholy and sweet.
“Gertrude– I still love you, but I hope you understand my feelings. Let’s just–”
In response, Gertrude’s own expression was not soft and sad but furious.
With clear anger and disdain in her eyes and a tense expression on her face.
“Elena, you are mine. I haven’t come here to just let you go.”
“I absolutely refuse this. I won’t allow this. Selene! Fire cartridge at will!”
On the main screen of the Brigand the Jagdkaiser came into focus–
Lifting its arm, the claw separating, the magnetic field brimming around the bore–
“What?” Norn shouted. “Selene, you are not authorized! That woman can’t–”
Suddenly, there was once again chaos that gripped everyone present.
Perhaps, all along, Gertrude had noticed something where nobody else had.
That Selene had been completely gone during the call, eyes glassy and dead.
That she was perhaps susceptible–
To that final desire to succeed over her inferiors.
Having heard the words she wanted to, a demented, violent grin appeared on her lips.
And with her eyes lined by a glowing rainbow fractal, she obeyed the order she desired.
Irrespective of Norn’s cries, the Jagdkaiser armed a cartridge and readied to fire.
Steam vented from the weapon-arm, a brief purple glow–
“Despicable! Absolutely despicable Lichtenberg! I won’t endure your villainy any longer!”
At the Jadgkaiser’s side a one-armed mecha appeared instantly, brandishing a sword.
With one swift slash of her vibroblade, Sieglinde von Castille chopped off the Jagdkaiser’s remaining arm just below the shoulder, the Grenadier’s vibroblade coming out the other end of the superheated launch tube a partially molten, dull stick with a sharp point. That arm which had been raised to the Brigand thrummed as if taking on a foul afterlife, steam spouting from the severed end of the launch tube.
Sieglinde was too late, to the horror of the helpless participants watching these events transpire.
Even cut off, the firing end of the claw glowed purple and red for a split second.
Before sending an erratic bolt of consuming purple lightning snaking toward the Brigand.
Even at a velocity far slower than any conventional munition, it would soon inexorably reach its target like a ravenous serpent. Agarthic energy which annihilated matter instantly, making it disappear as if it was removed from material existence altogether. There was no way the Brigand could escape it.
Everyone watched for seconds of mute horror, unable to tear their eyes from the glow.
Until two objects threw themselves in its way.
Zachikova’s drone, too slow to transpose itself in time.
And a beautiful, graceful red and white fish that had been following it–
Launching itself headfirst between the bolt of diabolical energy and the Brigand.
For an instant, the surface of the Leviathan’s body glowed with its own purple energy, hexagonal delineations visible over its skin as if it too had a shield like the Antenora’s. When the bolt crashed into the beast, it appeared that it could surmount the assault, the projectile losing much of its coherence, breaking into multiple streams of energy like water falling over a rock, dancing and flickering around the surface of its body. Then dozens of thin streams of vapor rose from all over the skin of the great creature, and these became fissures from which red, thick blood erupted from all over its body.
Despite its resistance, enough of the obliterating bolts pierced its body to kill it.
“Lichtenberg! You have befouled everything you ever claimed to stand for!”
Having subdued the Jagdkaiser, the Sieglinde charged at the Magellan.
There was no response from the Inquisitor who had begun this disastrous attack.
Overcome by the sense of what she had done, and that it had failed, Gertrude choked.
She cried out, covered her face with her hands, pathetically awaiting her end–
The Grenadier drove its broken sword through the Magellan’s head, spearing the main camera and down into the chassis, forcing the Magellan back– but there was not enough blade left there to kill the pilot deeper inside. That vibrating tip stopped just short of piercing the cockpit and killing Gertrude. There was no mistaking the intent, however. And Gertrude visibly paled at the sudden, vicious attack.
All vessels cut off their video feeds, leaving the Inquisitor alone and adrift with what she had done.
Her assassination failed, Sieglinde von Castille suddenly fled to the Brigand’s lines.
The Antenora approached to recover Selene; the Brigrand and its forces fled with the surrendering Baron.
Everyone feared a resumption of hostilities–
At that moment, however, an even greater distraction overcame this scene of chaos.
I’ll protect them, Braya. I’ll protect you.
Your body is in there– I’ll protect you.
Don’t do it. Please!
Her drone had been mere meters off from the bolt–
All of her cameras filled with the light,
and the sight of her beautiful dancer struggling, succumbing, bleeding–
no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO
Zachikova watched, screaming inside of her own metal brain helplessly.
Within a cloud of blood that majestic form she had– she had fallen in love with—
Ruined, broken, almost deflated, her softness and grace shattered utterly–
Please no, please–
One of the drone’s cameras caught the slightest twitch of movement.
Of one beautiful eye turning on her with what was clearly the last of its living strength.
No, don’t leave, please–
I’m sorry, Braya–
In the background, a great geyser of brownish-red miasma erupted from Goryk’s Gorge.
Even the ships and Divers began to stir from the currents created by the rising biomass.
Zachikova’s instruments recorded truly insane levels of Katov pollution–
However, Zachikova was completely fixed on the drifting body of her dancer.
She couldn’t let her fall to the bottom of the sea and be set upon by abyssal bottomfeeders.
There was no use– no use for the body of a dead creature– but still–
Mind racing, Zachikova could not bear to part, it would be too horrible to consider.
Extending her drone’s arms, she embraced the rapidly dying body of the beautiful dancer.
Then she issued a command to the drone to return to the utility chute with the body.
We’ll meet again– Braya– I love–
And simultaneously, Zachikova ripped herself from the body of the drone.
Awakening with a start in the bridge of the Brigand.
Her head hurt as if she had torn a piece of her own skin off, having pulled her own biomechanical plug. Reeling from the ungentle separation, sweating, eyes afire, heavy breathing. Her head pounding, tears flowing from her eyes as rivers. Unbidden thoughts and emotions flooded her brain, years of emotion she had repressed and weeks of feelings she barely wanted to admit. She thought she was going crazy.
But she couldn’t let go. She had to see her again. She had to.
On legs that nearly bent out from under her–
Zachikova took off running from the bridge, offering no explanation and heeding none of the words spoken to her. She took off down the hall as fast as she could, barely seeing where she was going, past the sailors, past Klara Van Der Smidse whom she nearly shoved down. To the elevator, mashing the buttons all the way down to the first tier, cursing every second of the ride, pounding the panel.
When the doors opened she charged across the hangar, past the deployment chutes with the returning Divers, past the shuttle bay, shoving sailors away, heedless of the shouting around her. She hurried through a side door in the rear that led to a pod adjacent the lower end of the reactor room. Down a dark maintenace corridor to the dimly lit bulkhead into the drone chute and maintenance room.
Her whole body screamed with pain, her lungs tearing themselves apart in her chest.
Wiping rivulets of sweat and tears from over her eyes with her clenched fist.
Stopping, only briefly, in front of the bulkhead door.
Glancing at the monitor on the wall. Her drone returned, and the chute had been drained, sealed, and pressurized. She feverishly ordered the drone be lifted by automatic crane from the chute into the utility room with its contents, and heard the mechanisms go off. Then she paused, a sense of trepidation.
Crossing the bulkhead in front of her she would be face to face with– the remains–
Vomit rose to her throat. She grabbed hold of her mouth, fought the urge.
Even if it disgusted her– even if it scarred her– she had to see her again.
“It’s my fault she died. It’s my fault. I have to– I have to see her.”
Teeth grit hard, body tight, dizzy with nerves, hugging herself, she shoved against the door.
Sensing her, the bulkhead opened automatically into the room.
Overwhelmed by the smell of salt, brine and a horrid, fishy smell that felt like it turned to oil in her nostrils. Zachikova gagged, but a cry sounded that was not her own. Something squirmed in the dark, the only light the dim LEDs outside the door from the hall leading to the utility room. There was a puddle in the room, jelly-like melted– her head swam, senses failed eyes clearly glitched a waking dream–
Flesh. She saw flesh sloughing off — a figure cloaked in personhood lithe, draped– with–
Hair? She has hair? She has a face? Eyes, skin, limbs, breasts, horns–?
Zachikova stared, weeping, sweating, clothes clinging, skin blanched, throat burning with rising bile–
In front of her, a woman– a woman– tore something from her head and bled onto the floor.
Pale, slender, long red-and-white hair falling over her shoulders, down her back–
To the floor, where red gore pooled like the entrails of something rapidly decaying. Long-limbed long fingers grasped a curled bone-like horn, thick as a tusk, soaked bloody. Cast aside dismissively, making a clanking noise as it struck the wall. Eyes opened once shut, filled with an intellect that glinted bright in the shadow and acknowledged the terror-frozen girl at the door. She smiled. That body smiled.
“Braya.” A cooing voice came out of the woman-body. “Is it a pleasure to see this form?”
Clouds of red and brown biomass erupted out of Goryk’s Gorge like the breath of a foul titan corrupting the waters around the gorge to an unprecedented degree. A stormwind-like current blew. Visibility even with floodlights was quickly reduced to below a dozen meters, and all around them the seething mass of dancing microorganisms in the marine fog seemed to take on a new diabolical character. Dim red as though the creatures were giving the surroundings an eldritch bioluminescence, the rushing biological tide turned the surrounding sea into a vision reminiscent of hell, save for the presence of fires.
“Biomass concentration approaching 400 Katov and continuing to climb.”
“Unknown biologics on sonar. They are increasing in number and intensity.”
“Successfully recovered Jagdkaiser and Magellan, bringing in–”
Norn cut off the drones, bolting up from her seat, fists clenched, furious.
“Order the security forces to detain Lichtenberg! I am going to rip her fucking head off!”
“Begin separation for Selene!” Adelheid added. “Norn, I’ll go get the doctor.”
“Right.” Norn said, clenching her jaw too. “Be careful, she could act out at you.”
“I can take Hunter III. She should be able to stop Selene if she gets– dangerous.”
Adelheid’s voice trailed off, stifling a tiny sob. Her features had a gentle, melancholy expression of concern, brows lightly furrowed, eyes wandering. Her hands were shaking. Norn herself had a noticeable vibration in her temples, a twitch in the cheek that indicated her concern. She was neither meeting the eyes of her adjutant nor staring directly at the main screen. Both of them were shaken.
They had all been too careless, and the Antenora had been defeated.
“Norn, you don’t need to project that aura of infallibility. I’m here for you.”
Adelheid tugged on Norn’s shirt gently like a red-headed cat nipping her owner’s heel.
For the first time in what felt like hours, Norn turned a smile full of love on her.
“I appreciate it, Adelheid. But I shouldn’t have been so weak from the start–”
“She’s comin’! She’s comin’!”
Norn and Adelheid turned around. There was a mad shout coming from behind them.
Backed against a corner as if something was approaching her, crawling on the ground.
Squirming, mouth hanging in horror and the red rings of psionic power around her eyes.
“Boss, I can’t stop it! She’s comin’! The Autarch! We gotta run boss!”
Hunter III raised a shaking hand at the main screen, tears rising as steam from her eyes.
On the predictive image appeared a distant, enormous shadow read by the computer as a dreadnought.
“Hey uh, I’m not used to running this, but we’re hitting like 400 Katov out there.”
Alexandra Geninov tapped on the LCD screen at the Electronic Warfare station in disbelief.
Part of what Zachikova had been doing was monitoring part of the sensor package to free up Fatima to focus on detection and early warning. However, after the failed attack by the one-armed machine from Norn’s forces, the electronic warfare officer had run out in a panic. Respecting her feelings, the Captain allowed her time alone and ordered that nobody fetch her for a few hours unless there were problems.
Alexandra Geninov had temporarily taken her place as the most computer-savvy of the officers. The fighting had completely halted and the Brigand was poised to retreat, having recovered their divers along with one unexpected addition. As the hangar assessed that situation and detained Sieglinde von Castille, the ship began to head in the direction of the Gorge, away from the Antenora and toward Rhinea.
And closer to the heart of a seething red tide the likes of which Ulyana had never seen.
Despite the rising, thickening, furious biomass all around them, the bridge was quiet.
Eerie as it was, there was an even more eerie sight which had shaken them all.
“Zachikova was clearly affected by the death of that creature.” Ulyana said gravely.
“I’m honestly affected too.” At her side, Aaliyah patted her shoulder, briefly but gentle.
They had all seen it on the main screen. It still felt like it couldn’t have been real.
At Lichtenberg’s command, a strange projectile was fired at the Brigand. That glowing purple bolt would have punched right through their armor, in one way and out the other. It was clearly some kind of agarthicite weapon, a design so evil it was unconscionable it existed. Agarthicite was the life blood of their society, but when disturbed, it could vaporize almost any kind of matter in an instant. Without ultra-dense Osmium or a miracle, that purple projectile would have bifurcated them like a hand tearing paper.
They owed their lives to that creature Zachikova had discovered, and its curious, tragic humanity.
There was no way they could have prompted it, commanded it to do such a thing.
Whatever anyone had to say about animal intelligence– it chose to sacrifice itself.
“It saved us. It really gave its life for us. What animal would do that?” Aaliyah said.
“Leviathans are pretty mysterious.” Ulyana said. She sighed. “To think that’s what it took to survive.”
“It was a miracle.” Aaliyah said. “Don’t blame yourself. We did what we could.”
“It wasn’t enough.” Ulyana raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a coming headache.
At that moment, the cat-like ears of sonar operator Fatima al-Suhar visibly perked up.
She stood up from her station, an incredulous look on her face. Ulyana took notice.
“What’s wrong now?” Ulyana asked wearily. When it rained, it truly fucking poured.
Fatima took a moment to respond. “Biologics. All kinds of biologics. Strange ones.”
As she spoke, there was a red warning flash on the main screen.
Their predictive computer drew a box around an area of the Gorge off of the side cameras.
There, it struggled pixel by pixel to render what seemed like a gigantic shadow within the red and brown cloud. Though the computer tried to label this a “dreadnought” none of the officers watching the main screen with deep held breaths could possibly believe that, seeing what looked like a distant unfurling of enormous wings, the stretching of a pointed, horned head at the end of a neck on a massive body.
From its mouth a roar unleashed that left no doubt about its provenance.
This was a Leviathan– a Leviathan larger than the Iron Lady, rising from Goryk Gorge.
And the predictive imager, able to count on only its sonar, marked dozens of target boxes around it.
These subordinates mustering around the massive Leviathan it labeled as Divers.