“Large biological entity rising from the Goryk Abyss, 2 kilometer from stern.”
“Profile matches ‘Dagon’, fortress-class of the Omenseer military group ‘Syzygy’.”
“Shields are at 60% power, no coverage over breached area.”
“Port-side stern guns are not responding electronically. Could still be manually operated.”
“Milord, your orders?”
On the bridge of the Antenora the main screen filled with a red and brown fog as the levels of katov mass continued to climb. Deep within that fog an enormous monster had arisen. Taking turns and speaking quickly but not over each other, the drones delivered their reports. There was no anxiousness in their voices or mannerisms, but they knew this was a crisis and it necessitated alertness and alacrity.
Norn and Adelheid turned from Hunter III, who was caught in a strange panic squeezing up against a corner of the bridge, and they looked over the situation developing on the main screen.
“Retain course away from the gorge for now. Where is the Pandora’s Box?” Norn said.
“They are moving in the direction of the gorge.” Said one of the drones.
Norn’s lips curled into a self-satisfied grin. “Oh, nothing to worry about then.”
“Acknowledged.” Said the drones.
“Nothing to worry about?” Adelheid asked. “That monster’s like Hunter III, isn’t it? The drones said it belonged to those Omenseers. It’d be pretty tough to kill if that’s the case, right?”
Norn glanced at the main screen again, shaking her head.
“We don’t know the full extent of what they’re capable of, but I doubt it’s an Omenseer body. An Omenseer would need to consume an enormous amount of mass to assume such a gigantic form using their powers as I understand them. And even if they had all that mass, they would need even more mass to patch it up against damage from a ship’s gun– it wouldn’t be a fight like those soldiers had at Ajillo against Hunter III where they couldn’t harm her. Regardless, it’s the Pandora’s Box’s problem.”
The Antenora was navigating away from the Goryk Abyss and the Pandora’s Box was set on going to Rhinea, which would lead them to follow the Goryk Gorge westward, closer to Dagon. So in terms of who the monster would see and target first, the Pandora’s Box would present the closest target of opportunity. They would be worthy bait to allow the Antenora to flee easily. There was no danger to them.
Adelheid seemed to catch Norn’s drift– and seemed dissatisfied with it.
“I suppose so. I take it you’re not going to try to intervene for Elena then?”
“Why would I? She could’ve been safe with me, and she chose not to. She talked big about finding her own way– let her taste the consequences of her actions then.” Norn shrugged. “I’m quite happy for Arbitrator II’s timely return to the world. It’ll serve to put Elena back in her place.”
“Sounds like you’re holding more of a grudge than I thought.” Adelheid said, grinning.
Norn tossed some of her blond hair in a dismissive gesture. “Be quiet, you.”
Adelheid was briefly erased from her attentions, and Norn knelt in front of Hunter III again, who had her back to the wall, her eyes glowing with red rings. Hunter III was seeing past them with those eyes, past the walls, past the Katov mass, to the Leviathan in the waters behind them. She was performing psionics, which she would have referred to as Omenseeing, to try to ward off the Leviathan’s attack. And perhaps, for other reasons as well. From what Norn managed to dig up from the archives of the Sunlight Foundation, it was their understanding that every Omenseer had a connection to Arbitrator II. At this moment, if the Autarch was on that biological vessel, she was likely able to communicate with Hunter III.
That was how Hunter III was so certain that the Autarch was near.
What was she being told? Was she trying to resist her influence in some way?
It wasn’t the first time they had seen this. Hunter III and Norn went back a few years.
When she had first found the little creature, unconscious in a puddle of her own filth in the depths of an underclass station habitat, the Autarch herself had given her a warning, in Hunter III’s own voice.
“Titan of Ice, you offer sympathy to this little wretch at your own peril. I am watching.”
Presumptuous little bitch. If Euphrates and Tigris had killed her before, Norn could also.
Still, it was advantageous to be able to travel in the photic zone without coming to harm. This is why tales of things like the Omenseers were once legendary among the ocean-going caste. They had attained all kinds of names in the canon of sailing myths, but all of the stories cast the ancient navigators as kingmakers of legendary ships, bestowing power and treasure. That it came with potentially having a spy aboard at all times didn’t outweigh the benefits unless Norn needed to confront the Autarch directly.
But the arrangement always mystified her. The Autarch was up to something.
Norn had hoped to sever this connection, and thus truly command Hunter III.
However, her confrontation with Euphrates made her realize she was still lacking in ability.
She survived and outwitted Euphrates, it was only their familiarity that allowed her to find an advantage.
Challenging an entity that was powerful in the Aether was trickier than she envisioned.
Even with all of her powers and understanding, Arbitrator II felt farther out of reach than ever.
Norn knew about the act, about the exertions, about the effects of psionics– but not enough about the source of the power, and how it interacted with the invisible world. In order to become stronger she needed to understand and explore Aether itself. She needed to know more about the mechanics of Aether as force, and the makeup of Aether as the space for clairvoyance and spiritual journeys.
Her intuition was deep and broad, it made her strong.
But it was incomplete. It was not true knowledge. And so Arbitrator II still eluded her.
Norn set down her hand atop Hunter III’s head and stroked the creature’s hair tenderly.
“I’m sorry. Please endure, and do not fear for us. I promise that I will free you.”
Hunter III shuddered, blinked, and tears escaped from her eyes.
In the middle of the hangar, the crew gave plenty of space for the confrontation to play out.
The recovered Petra and Yurii, the crew extracting Selene, Adelheid, they watched silently.
“Get up from the fucking floor Gertrude.”
She was kneeling, bowing. After everything she did! That shameless bitch–!
“I fucking said get up!”
Compelled by an invisible force, Gertrude Lichtenberg nearly jumped from the floor of the hangar as if picked up, lifted, and thrown onto her feet. She landed standing unsteadily, and almost fell back down, raising her hands in front of herself desperately as if trying to push Norn away. Norn approached step by daunting step, fists balled up at her sides, red eyes locked furiously on to Gertrude, and as she did Gertrude backed away step by step as if dogged by a predatory animal. In the middle of the hangar, with the drones working around them and the officers staring without expression–
“Please, Master Norn– please listen–”
Norn was too furious, so she could not stop time entirely.
She understood implicitly how slow or how fast time was moving during Temporal Control because of its effect on her heart. It was moving at about “half speed”, so Gertrude could have potentially still reacted, even if it was ineffectual, but Norn would not let her. Moving quickly, she kicked Gertrude’s legs out from under her. She controlled her strength so as not to break Gertrude’s legs.
She only wanted to trip her.
In order to allow Gertrude to begin falling, Norn breathed in–
Gertrude cried out in time for the second Temporal Control to take place.
She was suspended in air, parallel to the floor.
Norn raised her hand. She wanted to punch Gertrude to the floor.
In her mind she was already plotting the next few ways she’d inflict pain on Gertrude.
A punch to the stomach hard enough to smash her right back to the floor.
A psionic push to force Gertrude back to a stand, and as she stood, a punch to the face.
Hardening her sweat– freezing her tears against the spheres of her eyes–
Maybe ask her a few rhetorical questions to feed back into her own anger while she beat her. What did you think you were doing? Why did you countermand my order? Selene could have been killed! You could have been killed! Elena could have been killed! Did you want to subvert my command? Don’t you realize I am the one who controls you? Through your actions were you trying to control me?
Her heart and lungs moved even slower– Temporal Control had strengthened slightly.
Enough for Norn to look at her own fist, closed, ready to attack. As if she too was slowed.
That fist– her hand– it was as many things as she was. Locked in a multiplicity of states.
Apostle of Ice.
Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.
Head of the House of Fueller.
Norn von Fueller. Astra Palaiologos. She was all things that in the world were made to kill, destroy, to unmake and reduce. Her fist was an extension of her great power to kill which she had wielded countless times. She had killed such an innumerable amount of people with her bare hands that she felt her closest instinct was not to touch but to bludgeon, to choke, to gouge, to tear apart. In her mind there was a red haze of spilt blood that reeked of iron. In her ears a tinnitus of snapping bone.
Born in a palace she couldn’t remember; growing up in a hole she wanted to forget.
Had that little creature huddling in the dark even been aware of her destructive destiny?
Was that always the person she was meant to become–?
And– could it ever– change–?
Norn peered deep into the wide, fear-stricken, tear-studded eyes of Gertrude Lichtenberg.
In the time bubble, with her heart slowly failing and her head slowly clouding, it was as if she was transported back in time to when she first met Gertrude, prostrated before her. Alone, pleading, begging for her life. Having no resources, no parents, nobody to rely on in her hour of need. For the first time she called Norn “master.” Back then– she wasn’t useful to Norn whatsoever. However–
–she reminded Norn of him, for a second, didn’t she? It tugged on her sympathy.
She realized that she couldn’t have let Doenitz and Brauchitsch have their way with her.
Gertrude had disobeyed her. She had almost killed Selene, Elena, maybe even herself.
Her body was suspended before her, awaiting punishment.
Alone, pleading, begging for her life. At her own lowest moment, having lost everything.
Norn drew in a deep breath.
Before her, Gertrude fell suddenly on the floor, on her back. She grimaced, clutching her stomach.
She realized that Norn had not struck her. “Master, thank you! Thank you for sparing me!”
“I’m not your Master anymore, Gertrude. I have nothing more to teach you.”
She wouldn’t make the same mistake as with Konstantin again and again and again.
Looking down at Gertrude, at her expression of renewed horror as she realized–
“Please forgive me.” Gertrude begged. “Master, please I still– I still need you–!”
Norn kneeled down and spoke in a low voice, one only Gertrude could hear.
“I forgive you. I have all the forgiveness in the world for someone like you. It’s my greatest flaw as a person, even greater than my rages and all the blood on my hands. My boundless sympathy for powerless people with dark ambitions. My crazed desire to give the world to fools with nothing but lofty words.” She said. “So I forgive you. But I won’t help you chase after Elena. It’s over, Gertrude.”
It hurt. It really did hurt in a way Norn thought she could never be hurt.
What was Gertrude to her? What did it mean for her to call her ‘master’?
As a teacher, she was neglectful. As a guardian, she was clearly a dismal failure.
And yet, it still hurt– not to be able to crown this pitiful girl king of her own wanton desires.
Norn had really cared about her– she had actually come to esteem her. It had been fun.
It had been fun having someone, for a while, that she thought could aspire to her position. Someone who could learn through her skin the violent language of power and humanity and become a villain as Norn had. She realized too late where she had erred — exactly as she had with Konstantin. Every damn time. She realized too late that the passion she so admired had become a blind, consuming wildfire.
Now, all she could do was continue to play the villain like she had been.
Norn von Fueller could never be a hero, after all. Not even to one single person.
So she stood, turning her back to Gertrude, leaving her in the middle of the hangar.
“Gertrude Lichtenberg! You’ve graduated from Norn Tauscherer’s own school for temerity and bastardy!” She put on a grin and shouted to let off some emotion. Hopefully it was funny to someone else. To anyone else. “I have nothing more to teach you. I will return you to the Iron Lady and should our paths cross thereafter, don’t expect I will ally with you easily. Erich has not been keen on his own support for the Inquisition. I recommend you head to Konstantinople. Your only allies lie there.”
Gertrude stood, slowly, with a grim expression on her face.
“Ma’am, I accept your terms. I have no other choice. But I’d have to go through Rhinea to return to the seat of the Inquisition, and the Volkisch bar the way. It’d be suicidal to head back.”
Even now, Norn felt compelled to give her a parting gift of sorts.
Maybe, if it was Gertrude– if it was her who saw it–
She might understand–
So, foolish as it was, vulnerable as it made her, Norn lowered her voice to the girl again–
“Between Sverland and Veka lies the Abyss of Kesar. Descend Kesar’s Gorge and seek the habitat that lies at 3000 depth, and beyond that, if you have the will, continue descending through the Katov mass. If you can’t find something there to help you, then you were not meant to succeed, Grand Inquisitor. You could give yourself up to the Union, perhaps. They’re certainly more principled than the Volkisch.”
Norn knew it was stupid and sentimental to have said such a thing, even to Gertrude.
But this was the sum total of the legacy that she could bequeath to anyone.
Kesar’s Abyss, where she had grown in the deepest darkness.
And beyond that darkness–
Where Gertrude might acquire greater power and understanding– or die.
Did she believe in her–? Norn didn’t want to have hope for it. She had already said enough.
Gertrude in return had nothing to say to that. Norn imagined her expression darkened and embittered, the way she had raged all throughout the time they chased the Pandora’s Box. Norn did not turn around to face Gertrude again. With her back turned, she made herself depart the hangar entirely.
Whatever happened from now would be Gertrude’s own doing under only her own power.
For the rest of her stay on the Iron Lady they would neither see nor speak to one another.
Samoylovych and Petra detained her for her misdeeds, and she remained quietly in the brig.
“You told her about Kesar. I read it in your lips. Don’t even try to hide it.” Adelheid said.
They took the elevator together, hoping to be ready in the medbay for Selene.
“It doesn’t matter.” Norn said, though it clearly did.
“You’ve never even shown that place to me.” Adelheid added.
Norn laid a hand on Adelheid’s head and ruffled her red hair dismissively.
“Norn–!” She began groaning.
“You already believe and trust me, so you don’t need to see it. But I’ll take you someday.”
“Hmph. Fine. Keep your secrets. I’m keeping mine too.” Adelheid teased, grinning.
Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Hey. What is that supposed to mean?”
As it was normal for them to do, they bickered childishly the whole way.
Floating in the water before her, crosshairs deadly sited. Enemy suspended between life and death on the instant mercy of a trigger pull. Weapons locked, vision wavering with rage and anxiety, killing blow one twitch removed. Her face reflected on glass across dozens of screens and meters, eyes on rainbow fire, sweating bullets, breath like steam, grin like a knife-slash across the bottom of her face.
Your pretend powers are insult to genetic perfection!
Accept your place as a born-to-be corpse!
Die! Die as many times as it takes!
She pressed the trigger again and again and again–
Purple tongues of a great daemonic power surged across her arm.
Selene saw a white-haired white face almost exactly like her own.
Apparition on every screen, pink lips spreading with sympathy to speak,
“I will save you.”
Her arm shattered, her fire leaped back at her in judgment.
What?! No! I’m your master! Shoot her! Shoot HER!
Bolts of purple lightning tore across her own armor, tunneling hex-shaped scars through her cockpit and slicing across her seat like razor serpents, crawling over her body tearing out hex-shaped cross-sections of her face, blood bursting from her like great smoking geysers, organs melting into gore slush, her trapped body writhing and twisting and thrashing, her face frozen rictus of unimaginable agony–
With a jump, Selene found herself suddenly no longer out at sea.
Distant furious thoughts that had spun in her brain like a whirlpool suddenly quelled.
She was in a bed, dressed in a patient gown with nothing under it.
In a sudden surge of anxiety she raised her hands to her head. Her indigo hair was all there. Her antennae were still affixed. Her cheeks, her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, everything she touched was still attached and unbroken. Selene breathed in and out. She scanned the room in a mute panic.
“Welcome back to the world of the living, little ace.”
At her side, Norn and Adelheid took up two chairs adjacent to the bed.
Across from her, the doctor, Livia Van Der Meer watched from her desk.
Selene stared at them, quivering with anxiety, struggling breaths quaking in her chest.
On a wheeled chair, Livia rolled around to the other side of Selene’s bed.
“Take a look, kiddo! It’s pretty fun-looking isn’t it?”
With an amused look on her face, Livia showed Selene a mirror. The girl observed that her right eye had aggressive red veins around the edges, and that the outline of her irises was completely distorted. Half of it had become a rainbow-colored fractal shape three branches deep into the white around it. Her heart jumped at the sight of it. Selene had never seen something like it before in her life.
“What the hell is that?” She asked, turning sharply toward Norn. “Do I have a disease?”
“No. It’s the lingering effects of a psynadium overdose.” Norn said.
“You can overdose on that shit?” Selene asked.
“You can overdose on it! You can even die! Psynadium has been described in the literature of a certain unsavory group as a ‘neural accelerator’ that increases blood flow to the brain and ‘dilates thought pathways’, whatever the hell that means!” Livia said cheerfully. “Thankfully I have been administering psioxone, a ‘neural accelerator antagonist,’ to keep you whole and hale!”
Selene was speechless. Not just at the doctor’s manic behavior, but at her own foolishness.
She had pumped a lot of psynadium during her confrontation with that girl–
To think she had to go this far to try to outmatch her and even so–
“I fucked up.” Selene mumbled. “I totally fucked it all up.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t suffer permanent brain damage. Maybe you really are a fucking ubermensch.” Norn said, openly sighed once her last glib statement left her lips. “Because of the psioxone, you’ll be unable to use psionic abilities until you recover. Don’t even try to read auras or look at the aether. It will only frustrate you. You will stay put here and rest until I say otherwise. Understood?”
What else could Selene say? She felt foolish, like she had lost her credibility.
That manic wind which had swept her since she learned about her origins was no longer rushing her forward. Her first real test of strength, and she had been taken apart by some nobody. She had her at the end but– only with a gun that she couldn’t really fire. A small bitterness arose when she thought of that. When she recalled the events that had transpired at the edge of memory. She needed to know.
“Norn, why didn’t you let me kill her?” Selene mumbled.
“Selene, this isn’t a bloodsport, you know? Think about the bigger picture.” Adelheid said.
Selene shot a glare at the incongruous red-head. “I wasn’t asking you.”
“You weren’t, but she’s right.” Norn added, a quick and sharp retort. “Sure, you could have killed that girl with the cartridge, you can tell yourself you won that bout if it makes you feel better. But our goal was to extract Elena from the Pandora’s Box, and you were no closer to doing so in that situation.”
“Fine, I fucked up. I fucked it all up. Then just– just toss me aside like trash, then.”
Selene’s fingers squeezed the blankets over the lower half of her body.
She gritted her teeth. A spasm of anxiety shook through her chest.
Tears started to build in her eyes. She was useless now. Complete garbage.
Without the Jagdkaiser, or any other Diver to pilot, she wasn’t anything special. Some colossus of genetics she had proven to be. She felt like she was back to square one. She wasn’t some great and invincible psionic super-being, and she hadn’t even proven herself a particular capable pilot either. That Sonya Shalikova had completely outmaneuvered her. Her psionics couldn’t reach that girl. She felt like an idiot, thinking back to every stupid misstep she made during that fight which had grown in her heart to have such a frenzied, insane importance that she had lost sight of everything surrounding it.
Norn reached out a hand and set it right on top of Selene’s head.
Gently ruffling her hair like she was petting a small animal.
“You’re still my ace and the best pilot on this ship.” She said. “I’m telling you already to stop thinking about that one engagement. That goes both ways– don’t focus on it as a source of victory or as the potential for ultimate defeat. At the end of it all, as your commander, I take responsibility for our defeat. I underestimated the enemy, and I entrusted tactical command to the wrong individual. I don’t blame you for the mess that Gertrude Lichtenberg and I created in the first place. Just lay down and relax, ok?”
That hardly assuaged Selene’s fears. It didn’t change what had happened at all.
“I don’t want your pity. How the hell am I supposed to keep going after all this?”
“Live to spite your enemies. Grow stronger to take your revenge. Remember what I said?”
Norn withdrew her hand, and patted Selene on the shoulder.
“I’m not giving you my pity. Once you recover, I’m going to put you through hell.”
Selene raised her head and fixed a quizzical look on Norn’s determined eyes.
“What is that– what do you mean–?”
“I’m going to train you personally. You’re my ace; I’ll make sure you’ll be worthy of that.”
Norn smiled at her. It was one of her usual awful grins but Selene felt it was different too.
“You shouldn’t go too hard on her.” Adelheid said, crossing her arms.
“You get ready too. Your piss-poor psionics are beneath my standards as well.”
Selene felt a strange excitement brimming under her skin at the prospect.
Could she become the true protégé of Norn the Praetorian? Immortal Apostle of Ice?
“Norn, why?” Selene said, interrupting the lover’s quarrel playing out in front of her.
“Why what?” Norn asked.
“I don’t understand. I– I failed you. Why would you bother with me anymore?”
Selene started to actually weep. She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
She was a product who had failed to live up to her designed expectations.
Despite all the lofty ambitions which had been ascribed to her birth, she was a failure.
“You mean why would I train you? Because you need it, obviously.”
“What? It can’t be that simple.”
“You cry too much. Just calm down already. I’m not such a bad commander, am I?”
Adelheid butted in again with a little shrug. “I can see where she would get the impression.”
“No one asked you. If you’re not going to be productive then be quiet.” Norn said.
“I told you Selene– you would hate it the first time she scolds you.” Adelheid teased.
Those two were putting on an act to try to make her feel better, she realized.
They always did that. They started bickering with each other like a couple of kids–
And it made any situation, no matter how awful, feel run of the mill and every-day.
What a stupid bit of theater, wasn’t it? But it made Selene chuckle just a tiny bit.
“I do think you’re something special, Selene. I didn’t lie about I wanted with you.”
Norn looked at her again with that determined seriousness she had before.
“It’s not because of your psychotic mother’s obsession with eugenics. Nor is it because of Euphrates taking you under her wing. It’s because you remind me of another girl who felt born from nothing in a deep, dark hole in the ground, growing up secluded from everything. That girl who was whisked away from hiding and fed a grand destiny. I always wished that she could have been freed from that destiny.”
“That’s–” Selene’s face turned a little bitter. “That rhetoric is totally empty to me, Norn.”
“I want you to attain the power to surpass your obligations and protect your own freedom.”
Selene could not say anything to that. They had already had a conversation like this and back then Selene had wanted to say the same thing she wanted to say now: did she want a ‘thank you’ for that? Because Selene would not thank her for this self-serving sophistry. All her life Selene had grown up wanting an answer to a simple set of questions: “Who am I?” “Why was I born?” “What am I meant for?”
Nobody was giving her a straight answer. All of them could go to hell for that.
She wanted to hear: “You are Selene Anahid. You were born from love and into greatness.”
For the past few days, before she sortied out to be defeated by that Shalikova.
Selene had really come to believe that she was special. That her life had meaning.
That she was born with a great destiny inscribed in her genes.
Because if you weren’t born with a such a destiny, how did you attain it?
Who could give it to you? Who could tell you your life wasn’t just an empty whim?
How did you come to know whether or not your existence had any meaning to it?
People who were born from the womb had destinies imbued into their very flesh.
Families, communities, territories, states and nations, ethnicities, all with their own history.
Selene wasn’t even a Katarran. She was a blank slate. Where did her purpose come from?
“Norn, I– I just want to be able to tell myself I’m more than nothing. Do you get it?”
Norn shut her eyes briefly. She had a little smile again. “I know. But I can’t relate to your anxiety Selene. Because I’ve regretted all the easy answers I was given. Unlike you, I wish that nobody had given me their lofty purposes and made me believe in my own grandiosity. And I don’t wish that regret on you.”
She reached out again and laid her hand on top of one of Selene’s hands.
Still looking her in the eyes. That strange tenderness disarmed Selene momentarily.
“For now, is it enough to be Selene Anahid, ace pilot of the Antenora?” Norn asked.
“I don’t know.” Selene said. Her defiance was weary and waning, however.
Hearing the word ‘ace’ and feeling Norn’s touch really did set her heart alight a little.
“Selene, I need you. Will you stay with us? At least until you have found a better answer.”
That word, ‘need’, really shot through Selene’s chest like a bolt of lightning.
She quivered. Her stomach felt fluttery. What could she say? She tried to be defiant, but–
“Quit patronizing me. It’s not like I can fucking go anywhere else.” She said.
“I can drop you off at the next peaceful dock we find. Free of obligations.” Norn said.
“Fuck no! What would I do with myself? Just shut up and just– keep using me, then.”
Selene laid back in her bed. She felt stupid, like a little kid giddy with her parent’s praise.
A facile, pathetic feeling– to be so validated by such a vacuous thing as being ‘needed’.
“I’ll rest and recover and think about my future after I’m through with your stupid training.”
Selene turned her back on Norn and covered herself up in her blankets with a huff.
Under them, her face felt red and hot, and she wanted to cry. But she felt– less bad.
“How’s life treating you, little Hunter? Oh wait– I can just see it for myself.”
Hunter III of the Third Sphere found herself in a void surrounded by all kinds of colors.
She was seeing through her brainself, dragged to meet the progenitor who lived in all of her kind.
Long red hair, a single horn, a grinning face that was white as bloodless flesh.
Hovering just above the ground. Her arms spread out so the colors could coil about her.
The Autarch of the Omenseers. Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.
“Please don’t make me hurt ‘em. I really don’t wanna. I really don’t wanna, boss.”
Hunter III kowtowed in front of Arbitrator II, weeping openly, her body shaking violently.
Arbitrator II furrowed her brow in consternation. Her lips formed a brutal grin.
“Huh? Really? Weird! But I thought all that you cared about was eating, Hunter III!” Arbitrator II said dismissively. “I was convinced that you were just a stupid little animal who just wanted to stuff your gullet with meat from whatever source you can get it. Last time I ever trusted you with anything you just ran off like an idiot to gorge yourself and ruined my plot! Do you remember? Of course you don’t! Don’t even answer! I know you only remember the taste of meat. That’s all that fills your dim little brain, is meat and eating and looking for your next meal of meat. Even after I uplifted you, rotten little vermin. So would you really be so upset if you ate the Titan of Ice and the miserable hominins in her employ?”
Hunter III looked up from the floor and Arbitrator II’s face was directly in front of hers.
Wide-open furious eyes locking with Hunter III’s own.
“Please don’t– Please. I’ll do anythin’ boss. I’ll really do anything but hurt ‘em, please.”
Hunter III’s weeping eyes just centimeters from the cold, heartless gaze of Arbitrator II.
In the next instant the Autarch returned to her hovering position, laughing to herself.
“You’re lucky that almost to the very last individual, you Hunter caste have all turned out to be totally useless to me. I don’t expect better from any of you, so don’t worry, I have no grand punishment planned. Having you eat the Titan of Ice and her crew would be really funny, even more now that I know you esteem them for some bizarre reason. But it’s better you just stay so I can keep an eye on them.”
Arbitrator II made a subtle beckoning motion with her slender white hand.
In that instant, some of Hunter III’s colors fled from her and formed a bubble.
In the Autarch’s hands, that bubble began to reflect images with Hunter III’s memories.
Eating the delicious steer– killing all the bad men Norn told her to– saving Adelheid–
Norn patting her head– and all the feelings that rushed into her chest when it happened–
“Liberate you? Oh that’s funny. I’d like to see that evolutionary dead-end try it.”
Arbitrator II closed her hand around the bubble of Hunter III’s memories, crushing it.
Colors swirled around her and drifted up into the air like gas.
“You may remain at her side. She’s a Titan, after all. We’re destined to do battle.”
Hunter III looked up from the floor again. Surprised to have received a little mercy.
When she did, Arbitrator II’s face was hovering directly in front of hers again.
“But. Remember this. You and them, are bacteria compared to me. I am infinity itself.”
Arbitrator II gave her that wide-eyed, terrifying stare once more, gauging her reaction.
“Take advantage of their kindness all you want. But if you hold any notion that you can escape from me, you will only suffer for it. I can assume control of your body any time I want. Don’t give me another reason to notice you, little Hunter. Be meek and know your preordained place in my natural order.”
Her slender white finger touched Hunter III’s cheek and laid a scratch mark upon it.
A thin trickle of blood formed on it. Hunter III felt it sting, felt the skin part.
She felt the influence of Arbitrator II’s power over flesh creeping into her body.
“Yes, Autarch! I’ll obey! Please don’t do anythin’ rash!” Hunter III begged.
Arbitrator II returned back to her floating position, this time on her back, facing skyward.
She held the overlong ends of her robes over her face as if shielding her eyes from light.
“Little animals who know their place get to stay in their place, unharmed and undisturbed.” She said. “I must say, I’m really disappointed though. When I uplifted you, I really thought you would appreciate the gift I had given you. Restoring your lost humanity, awakening your potential, giving you mastery over the world. We are divine beings, exalted of the flesh, the apex of biological life. And yet you would give away your holy dignity to comport yourself like a beast anyway. Beasts care only about eating and fucking. Humans should support my Godly ambitions. It makes me angry. It makes me furious that I couldn’t restore the fullness of the humanity you lost– and you don’t even care about it.”
Hunter III felt herself be pulled up as if by invisible hands.
Raised up by her wrists, dangling like a doll in front of the lounging Arbitrator II.
“It makes me seethe to think that bastards from 1000 years ago are still getting their way.”
She made a dismissive gesture, and Hunter III’s aetheric self was instantly torn apart.
Her arms limbs ripped in opposite directions, her torso pinched in half at the belly.
Head burst like a blood-filled boil squeezed by an invisible hand.
That colorful void in which she had been suspended disappeared instantly.
Her eyes had been wide open the whole time, her jaw hanging. When her brainself returned to her biological form, Hunter III blinked, and awakened as if from a daydream. For a brief instant she felt intense pain throughout her whole body, shaking itself out through her limbs, down her narrow chest. She gritted her teeth and wept. But the agony was gone as quickly as it came.
She was on the bridge, her body against a corner on the floor.
Looking up, Norn and Adelheid had gone, but–
“Finally awake, cutey?”
Hunter III looked up and saw the tall, long-haired dog-woman in the gray uniform.
Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.
She waved at her. Hunter III responded with a far less enthusiastic wave of the hand.
“Where’s Norn? And Adelheid?” She asked.
“They’re tending to Selene in the medbay.” Samoylovych said. “They wanted me to keep an eye on you now that we’ve tidied up everything else around here. And of course, I couldn’t turn down taking care of a cute little snack like you.” Samoylovych winked at her with a big grin on her face. Hunter III pointed a finger at herself in confusion, as if to ask silently if she was really referring to her.
“Me, a snack? What’re you talkin’ about?”
“A delicious morsel. If you were willing, I’d absolutely devour you.”
“Y’wanna eat me? Like really eat me? No joke?” Hunter III asked in disbelief.
Samoylovych laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m a gentleman. I’ll make sure you enjoy it.”
“You gotta be jokin’. I dunno how anyone could enjoy being ate.”
“Ah ha ha! How charming! Well, maybe someday I’ll teach you personally what I mean.”
It wasn’t very alarming, if Samoylovych took a bite out of her she could grow the bits back.
More than anything it was just confusing. But at least it confirmed she had truly awoken.
Hunter III let out a deep-held sigh and collapsed against the wall, relaxing her tense body. Though the bridge’s main screen still showed a lot of red water, she couldn’t feel the Autarch anymore. That was an incredible relief. As if a dozen spotlights had ceased to burn on her specifically. She couldn’t remember exactly what the Autarch told her– but she felt it. As if it had been burned under her skin.
“Hey, can you tell Norn everythin’s okay? I wanna take a nap.” Hunter III said.
“I’ll mention it in my report. But she wants you to check in with the doctor.”
“Okay. I’ll visit Livia after I’ve had some z’s. Night night Sammy. Don’t eat me, okay?”
While an incredulous Samoylovych watched her, Hunter III shut her eyes, relaxed her breathing, her mind slowly emptying of difficult thoughts. Refilling with innocent dreams of juicy, red meat.
That night, Norn and Adelheid assembled together in one of the planning rooms, setting down a pair of bedrolls on one of the fold-out benches along the wall. The officer’s habitats were sealed off due to the breach the Pandora’s Box had carved in their social pod, so they were planning to bunk in this room for the time being. It had a central table, a few ancillary benches, and a terminal screen.
However, they also had an important conference to attend. The Antenora had left the waters of Goryk Gorge, escaping the cloud of Katov mass. They reconnected to the laser relay network once more, and established an encrypted connection to the palace at Heitzing, seat of the Fueller Dynasty and capital of the former Imbrian Empire. On the screen, a young blond man in a lavish suit appeared before them, in the background a great blue and green standard hung from a colorful wall.
A rose on his lapel suggested that he was perhaps readying to attend a party.
“What’s with the getup?” Norn asked.
“Salutations to you too, esteemed Aunt.” Erich said dryly.
He then nodded his head in acknowledgment. “And her adjutant, of course.”
Adelheid bowed her head. “May you live long and prosper, milord.”
She was on her best behavior in front of the Prince. She had already been scolded once.
“Erich, we recovered the defector. Did you know it was Samoylovych’s girl?”
Norn and the Samoylovych family had some history. Pleasant, for the most part.
“I had an idea that was the case.” Erich said. “Did you get a chance to peruse the goods?”
“Yurii is a very attractive girl, athletic, handsome, voluptuous. In full bloom, you could say.” Erich had no reaction to the joke. Adelheid clutched her skirt in clear irritation. Norn continued without acknowledging either. “We’ve discovered that the Vekans are planning a major security alliance with the Union, and furthermore, that they are under pressure from the Hanwans. I suspect the Hanwans will take the opportunity with all that’s going on to make a swing for total control of the South Nobilis gap to secure their mining colony. The question is how hard will Carmilla swing the hammer down?”
Erich shut his eyes as if contemplating what he was told.
“The Union? That’s interesting. I thought they would bide their time until the very end.”
“No reaction to a possible Hanwan incursion from the esteemed tactician?”
Erich shook his head. “Hanwa is an Empire in rhetoric only. Veka will defeat them.”
“If you say so. Then how will you respond to the Vekan overtures to the Union?”
“I’ve got a few levers I can turn when it comes to this Union-Veka alliance. We’ll see.”
“The Union could be an interesting player in all this. None of us have influence in there.”
“What we can’t get done with influence, we can get done with force. I am untroubled.”
Norn smiled to herself. That was the end of the official business she had with him. Aside from the question of what their next move would be, she turned over in her mind whether or not to tell him about Elena. Would he even have a response to it? She was certain he had engineered things such that she would come to harm from the Volkisch. Even if he had not pulled a trigger on her himself, he had implicitly told several willing gunmen where to point their cannons. Did it even weigh on him?
“I have someone that I want you to talk to.” Erich said, interrupting her train of thought.
“To clarify: she wanted to talk to you.”
Without asking for permission, Erich split his own screen. Himself in one half–
–on the other half, appeared a woman with long, olive dark hair tied up in a ponytail, a pair of modern, chic black glasses perched on her sleek nose. Her skin was very lightly tan, her features typical of an Imbrian save slightly narrower eyes. Wearing a white lab coat over a dark green turtleneck that looked soft enough to have been real cotton. Seemingly youthful, but Norn knew that was all a façade.
Even this particular iteration of the Sunlight Foundation’s “Sovereign,” Yangtze, was at least thirty-nine years old if not “older,” depending on when her body was decantered and reprogrammed.
Certainly, from what Norn knew about her, her mental age may well have been as old as the world they inhabited, counting from when humans first fully settled the ocean “After Descent.” As a group with ambitions to return humanity to the surface one day, the Sunlight Foundation’s most prized talent was the ability to live long enough to see that happen. This unsavory group was therefore led by a collective of people who had cheated death, the Immortals. Yangtze, Potomac, Hudson, Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, and Ganges. Norn herself, as one of the psionic Apostles, had ‘honorary membership’ even to this day.
Once upon a time, even Mehmed– no, even to this day, Mehmed was an Immortal to them.
No matter what she wanted. They would always count her in their number, and him too.
“Cocytus, or should I say, Norn von Fueller.” Yangtze said by way of greetings.
“Don’t call me by your stupid codenames.” Norn said. “What do you want?”
“Such hostility!” Yangtze feigned injury, putting on a childishly petulant face. “Potomac contacted me and told me you treated her roughly. It’s understandable. She was never very friendly with you, and I should have realized there would be tensions. I just wanted to apologize for any offense she caused.”
“No you don’t.” Erich said. “Quit screwing around. What do you really want with Norn?”
“Everyone’s after me today!” Yangtze moped, shutting her eyes, and frowning in a very exaggerated fashion. “Norn, did you end up going to Goryk’s Gorge? Euphrates disappeared there and I wanted to know what happened to her. You must be on your way out of there now, aren’t you?”
“Don’t bullshit me. You know what I would do if I got my hands on Euphrates again.” Norn said.
“Oh dear. Maybe there are a lot of things I’m not realizing.” Yangtze feigned innocence.
“You pathological liar. I’d twist your head off if you were here.” Norn hissed.
“Did you kill her then? If anyone could, it would have to be you.” Yangtze said.
“This is interesting.” Erich interrupted. “Norn, did you kill one of the Immortals?”
“Euphrates can’t be killed. But this bitch already knows that.” Norn replied.
“I resent these accusations!” Yangtze said. “Euphrates has been awful distant from me lately, but I was sending Potomac and Norn to seek her purely out of concern for her wellbeing. I thought you would just rescue or resupply her. I had no idea that it would end in violence! None! I am innocent.”
Norn tried to push down the raging flame lit in her chest by the very sight of the Sunlight Foundation’s Sovereign. Out of anyone in that organization, nobody was responsible for more suffering than this bitch. She was a fixture atop Norn’s to-kill list. “Yangtze, I refuse to participate in your internecine drama. If you want to kill Euphrates, next time, do it yourself. I informed her that you sent me, by the way. She’ll be coming after you now. I can’t wait to see your little club torn asunder by your collective vanity.”
“Euphrates won’t attack me.” Yangtze said, waving her hand dismissively. “She isn’t like you, Norn.”
“You’re right, she’s been a complete pansy. But I’ve seen a lot of people change lately.”
Erich spoke up. His eyes narrowed, his first display of emotion on that call.
“If you attempt to interfere with my personnel again you can consider our partnership over. I can launch simultaneous attacks on every Sunlight Foundation facility in the Palatine, where all of your most precious laboratories are situated. Don’t test my patience. Norn and I are not here to do your dirty work. You are here, and you continue to breathe, to do my dirty work. Do you understand?”
“How can I respond to that when no one believes a word I say? Hmph!”
Yangtze’s half of the screen shut off. Erich heaved a sigh, returning to fullscreen.
“Whatever. Waste of my time. Norn, as you must have realized, I have somewhere to be. Please make your way back to Heitzing. Extract any combat data from the version one Jagdkaiser for analysis and dispose of the chassis. Use the version two model from now on. If you need to make repairs, we have influence in Aachen station on the Rhinean northern border. The Volkisch authorities there are tenuous.”
“Thank you, dearest nephew. Perhaps we will make a stop.” Norn said.
He bowed his head slightly. “Take care. And keep your eyes out for that sun cult.”
At that, the screen went dark. Norn and Adelheid breathed out, releasing some tension.
They were alone in the room again, and it was about time to go to sleep–
“Norn, what the hell was that about Samoylovych?” Adelheid grumbled.
Norn grunted. “Huh? Jealous? Maybe you should tell me about those secrets of yours.”
Adelheid lobbed one of the bedrolls at her in response, a blow which Norn took gracefully.
The Antenora’s brig was entirely standard for an Imperial combatant ship. There was very little thought put into the taking of prisoners, particularly by a flagship. There was a simple brig outfitted with one barred cell that could cram a few dozen people like sardines in a can, and four solitary confinement cells equipped for a variety of punishments. They could be made lightless, soundproof, cold or hot, humid or dry, the fold-out bed could lock against the wall to be unavailable, and so on.
“Put me in a solitary cell. I don’t want anyone to look at me.”
Gertrude Lichtenberg made this request immediately as Petra Chorniy Sunnysea brought her into the brig. Petra stared at her, tipping her head to one side in mild bewilderment. She had walked ahead partway to the barred cell. For a moment she looked between Gertrude and the solitary cell. She walked over to it, opened the door, and peered inside. It was not very spacious. With the bed folded out, there was very little space to stand or walk in. Petra turned back to Gertrude with a small frown.
“Are you sure? Um, this kind is usually for driving people insane.” Petra said innocently.
Without a word, Gertrude entered the cell and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Configure it however you want. I just want to sleep and be alone.” She said, once seated.
On the adjacent wall, a touchpad panel configured the cell’s potential torments.
“If you say so. I’ll make it a little dim so you can doze off then. Nighty night!”
Petra shut the door behind Gertrude, locking all of the lights and sounds of the brig and the Antenora’s halls instantly. Even the air she breathed inside the cell was controlled differently. A cluster of LED lights provided the cell’s illumination, and these dimmed to a very dark blue. She was completely isolated from the rest of the Antenora. Gertrude pulled her legs up onto the bed and laid back upon it.
The mattress and pillow were stiff, and there was only one thin blanket.
She threw her hat on the floor and undid her ponytail, letting her hair down.
Unbuttoned her greatcoat and threw it over herself as an additional blanket.
She stared at the wall.
Without any sound in the cell, and without any sounds from outside, her brain furnished something for her ears to hear in their place. At first it was only ringing, the dull ringing or whistling of metal clashing with metal as if the battlefield had followed her even into this isolation cell. Then came the voices. Of course there were voices– Norn’s shouting, Sieglinde’s final threats, her own cries.
Bury your love for me in this gorge–
Elena’s voice hurt the most. Even more than Sieglinde, who had tried to kill her.
Gertrude turned in bed, staring directly up at the ceiling.
Minutes became hours. Hours became days. Days must have become weeks.
She tossed, turned, wept, scratched herself. Rages overcame her. She pounded on the walls.
Her moods became as unpredictable as the corrupted weather of the surface.
Alone with her thoughts she would find herself swept up in mania, thinking of herself as some ridiculous and farcical character, laughing, unable to see a future before her. Then just as quickly, just as unbidden she would be stricken with a sudden feeling of immense loss. Clutching her hair, shaking all over. Mumbling to herself. Elena. Elena. She would never see her again. She would never touch her.
Gertrude was hollowed out and quickly refilling with gut-wrenching catastrophe.
After Vogelheim Gertrude had turned the uncertainty of Elena’s disappearance into a mix of hope and despair. Knowing nothing, she could be buoyed upon fantasies of coming to her rescue, because there was no evidence she was dead and no evidence she was alive. That Elena was “out there, somewhere” and their relationship had been untouched by the destruction wrought by the Volkisch. Gertrude filled that gap. Sometimes in feverish mourning, sometimes in a grand empowering insanity.
Elena, perpetually in distress, pushed Gertrude to keep moving forward.
Those dreadful events which had transpired in Goryk’s Gorge were completely different than the tragedy at Vogelheim. Elena had “died” to her in a different way. She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that Elena was alive– and that Elena had rejected her. There was no room for doubt. No gaps to fill herself.
She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that everything was her own fault. She had attacked Elena. Boldly and without excuse. This was nothing she could fantasize about. This was a hell of her own making. There was no amount of delusion that could protect Gertrude or give her hope. She had in front of Elena and in front of many others, unleashed arms upon her, endangered her. In her desperation she called upon a weapon she hardly understood, violating the trust of her benefactors, and making herself a villain. She was lucky Elena hadn’t been killed by her hand that day, but that was no silver lining. What overcame her at that moment? What kind of madness was she capable of on a mere whim anymore?
Gertrude stirred up a storm of self-hatred that she wished would slash her skin off.
Sieglinde was right. The Red Baron had been right to try to kill her. To treat her as the villain.
In her world, Gertrude had styled herself a hero, but more and more, she knew otherwise.
As an Inquisitor she had beaten innocents, incarcerated protestors, jailed political dissidents and enforced laws she knew, without a doubt, to be evil and written for cruel purposes. For her own advancement and selfish wishes, she had reached into the guts of the Empire and pulled out handfuls of gore that caked her hands, and she had more than a taste of it. With a grimace she tore into that meat like it was medicine. Fueling her bloody climb to the highest echelons of power off the despair of weaker men.
Even as a Grand Inquisitor she would not have been a class equal to Elena.
She would have been adjacent to her, however.
Access to power meant continuing access to the woman she desperately loved.
And in loving her, protecting her, exalting her, the bloody beast consecrated herself.
It made all of the loss and the pain mean something. Made it worth anything at all.
The Empire was not worth anything to her. Elena, however, meant the world.
For Elena, she would have killed, annihilated, repressed, crushed all of Aer, with a smile.
And in the absence of Elena. She would have done those things also–
She would have even,
upon Elena herself.
If I couldn’t have her, no one would.
That was the dark proof that unmade her delusion.
Because Gertrude Lichtenberg was a being of irrepressible violence. She was a truncheon slamming down on a skull over and over. She was a shield crashing into the ribs of a body and the steel-studded boots crunching it underfoot. She was a rubber bullet smashing the side of a skull and squeezing out the eye like spurting jelly from its socket. Gertrude was not a knight in shining armor.
Knights in shining armor ended their stories with a princess in hand, and a kingdom saved.
Gertrude was the dragon in the tower.
She was the claw and flame, the brick and steel.
Greedily coveting the Princess.
Complicit in her captivity.
Killing to get close to her, to keep her close, to prevent her being taken.
Smiling at every step of the way. I’ve saved her. I’ve made her happy.
Of course she is there only for me. Of course I know what she needs.
Elena was hers to consume. And she had consumed her. All of her that she could have.
Thoughts descending on her brain like knives carving, neuron as traced lines of agony.
Memories shook her like the volts of the electric chair.
Was it all so pointless, so doomed?
She held herself, held her head, squeezing herself in that bed, tension in every muscle.
“I love her. I love her. I love her so much. What was I supposed to do?!”
She screamed. “What was I supposed to do?”
She was powerless! The world was so vast and cruel! But she loved her! She loved her!
All she wanted was for her own filthy unworthy visage to fill those perfect indigo eyes!
All she wanted was a taste of the paradise promised in that pearl skin!
Could everyone but Gertrude Lichtenberg possess selfish desires?
Was it only her who was cursed to suffer the final judgment for her own?
“Ever since we met as kids! I loved her! Was that so wrong? Was it so evil?”
Elena loved her back! Elena had never said she hated her, never turned away!
She had every right to reject Gertrude’s advances and overtures before, but she never did!
Elena always had the power. She always held the advantage. And even still–
They even consummated their love! They were both in love! Elena loved her back!
If they had been any two other women, there would have been no obstacle!
Not even laws, not even political and military movements! They could have simply been!
They were Princess Elena von Fueller and Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg.
There was always that wall–
–and in trying to shatter it had Gertrude made some unforgivable sin?
“It’s this world.”
Clutching her own face, Gertrude opened her eyes peering through the gaps in her fingers.
Shaking in the dark, her tearstained, red-flecked eyes drawing wide, her mouth grinning.
“It’s this putrid Imbrium ocean and the bloodsucking amoral mob that owns it!”
I’ll kill everyone, she thought! I’ll send this whole edifice tumbling down into hell!
Erich, the Volkisch, Millenia, Carmilla von Veka, the Royal Alliance–
She would tear their heads from their necks and pull their spines from the orifice and crack their marrow with her own teeth like a fucking dog! She would send their stations tumbling into the ocean floor, send their people screaming in their stupid masses in a great all-encompassing cloud of gore that would spread across the hundred million meters of Imbrian Ocean between continents! Cast their laws into oblivion and consign their history to global amnesia by a sheer, unrelenting brutality!
You want a villain? You want an unworthy swarthy-skinned beast? Gertrude laughed.
Laughter shook through her like shell-quakes in the water.
Uproarious laughter, kicking her legs, squeezing her fingers on her face.
She laughed and laughed and laughed until she sobbed, wept, screamed, and bit her tongue.
Everything drained out of her. She laid limp in her bed rejecting any stimuli.
Mind in a fog, heart stilling, making no sounds but a few involuntary coughs and whimpers.
Cycles of mania and crashing depression wracked her. She turned the same thoughts over and over in her head until they meant nothing. Her head was a revolving door of the same agonies.
Every dreadful thing that she had done was irreversibly inscribed in history.
Sieglinde had been right. Gertrude had been made and unmade. There was no changing it.
Elena was gone. Her hands were stained. Nothing could be the same anymore.
Light intruded suddenly upon the dark world Gertrude had entombed herself in.
She looked to the light as an intruder, an offender. She felt a surge of anger.
“What is it?” She snapped.
She was sweating, her eyes were red, her clothes all half-undone.
At the door was Petra Chorniy Sunnysea once again.
“I was going to bring you food, but actually, we made contact with the Iron Lady.”
“We made contact? How long has it been?”
“You’ve been in there for 14 hours or so. You must have been really tired.”
Gertrude felt her chest tighten with anxiety. Petra made no sense to her.
“Have I been sleeping?”
Petra nodded, her floppy dog ears shaking as she did.
“Every time I checked the camera, anyway. Sometimes you looked a bit rough.”
“A bit rough? I feel like I’ve been kicking and screaming for weeks.” Gertrude said.
“Aww! Oh, that’s so sad miss! You ought not to have stayed here!” Petra’s ears drooped. “You know, I don’t feel any grudge against you, so if you want, I can bring you a hot chocolate and some sweet bread while you wait for your friends to pick you up. We should meet them in a few hours. Norn says you can wait in the hangar if you want too! But if you do that, Master Yurii has to keep an eye on you instead.”
Gertrude could hardly muster a response to that.
She felt like her thoughts were being vacuumed out of her skull.
Raising her shaking hands over her face in disbelief.
That light which Petra had brought into her cell had obliterated her. Hollowed her out.
“I’ll stay here. I– I need to sleep a bit more.”
“Okay! If you say so! Nighty night!”
Petra cheerfully shut the door again, slowly shutting the light back out of the world.
Gertrude sat in the bed. Alone without thoughts. Minutes felt like hours.
And those hours felt like days.
There was nothing she could do alone with her own mind to solve anything.
No matter how much she hurt herself, it would neither expiate nor reverse her mistakes.
She did not want to think about what to do. Not right now.
All she wanted, all she begged for, was for something to make her feel human again.
The Iron Lady and the Antenora reconvened in the northern Serrano region.
Using a natural rock formation to hide the bulk of the vessels as they tried to dock together.
There was a sense of urgency to their meeting that neither side had counted on.
“Milord, the situation in Sverland has changed dramatically,”
On the bridge of the newly-repaired Iron Lady, now spotless compared to the damaged Antenora, Norn appeared on the main screen. Captain Dreschner and his adjutant and communications officer Schicksal exchanged information they had collected on the way to Goryk Gorge with her. Norn briefly perused the data and had a visibly surprised expression on the screen. She gestured something for one of the crew off-screen, before returning her attention to Dreschner with a darkened expression.
“Did you verify this? How are both the Volkisch and the Union here?” Norn asked.
Dreschner had handed her several files which were making their way through the Laser Relay Network from Serrano station. Civilian-captured images of black Volkisch vessels hovering outside the Serrano dock in the midst of being torn apart by shells. Packs of dark blue liveried Soyuz-class Frigates pursuing disparate Volkisch vessels like sharks descending on bloodied prey. Shuttles in Serrano’s docks unloading green-uniformed Marines with AK rifles led by black and red uniformed Commissars.
“While we repaired the Iron Lady we had routine drone patrols out to several kilometers as an early warning system. These drones picked up distant, but ferocious sounds of battle, and hours later, we began to see leisurely and confident Union patrols, and were forced to retreat our drones to avoid discovery. We accelerated our repairs and escaped as stealthily as we could.” Dreschner said.
“What’s your assessment of the current situation?” Norn asked.
“I believe the Union has the upper hand on the Volkisch forces for now. Judging by the ferocity of the acoustics alone, there was a titanic battle near Serrano. Then came the patrols, which were calm and orderly. In my experience, if the Union is now controlling the battlespace, the Volkisch may lack the forces to counterattack. We don’t have a lot of time to spare, lord Praetorian. We should move quickly.”
“Interesting. We will maneuver to dock. We have some supplies we want to drop off and Gertrude Lichtenberg will return to your care, Captain Dreschner. Then we go our separate ways.”
Dreschner bowed his head in supplication, and the two ships set about their work.
There was a hectic atmosphere within the Iron Lady from hours of high alerts brought about by the apparent Union incursion. It was an easy leap to make that if they had already been bested by some Union-equipped mercenaries, and then a Union invasion transpired some time thereafter, then there was a complex Union operation underway that was beyond their ability to contend with.
Within this stewing anxiety, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong had been unable to get a certain Inquisitor out of her head. Even as she worked hard and did her best to keep the crew focused in her own way, she was preoccupied with the fate of Gertrude Lichtenberg. She was so worried. She did not trust Norn, she did not trust Sieglinde, and she was silently furious about Gertrude chasing after Elena.
More than anything, Gertrude’s vulnerability and mortality turned over in her head.
“Gertrude should have taken me.” She mumbled to herself. “She’s got no one out there.”
Ingrid had felt bitter and hurt.
She had always stood up for Gertrude since they met. Fought for her, killed for her.
Always she had thought of herself as Gertrude’s strongest soldier, her ace, her protector.
But she wasn’t strong enough. Sieglinde was stronger. Norn was stronger.
So they could do for Gertrude what she couldn’t.
For days, she struggled to distract herself with the work throughout the ship, with morale and supervision, trying to fill in the hole that Gertrude had left. A mixture of worry and bitterness fermented in her chest. She couldn’t even drink– she was working around the clock. In time she was even grabbing tools and pushing crates with the sailors when she wasn’t yelling and leading work songs.
Then she finally saw in the bridge’s bearing monitors the approaching Antenora.
Her mind instantly emptied of its previous contents.
And immediately, she ran out to the hangar and rushed to the docking chute.
That one name rang in her mind and in her heart endlessly. Gertrude Lichtenberg.
She was back. She had returned to her. Nothing else mattered to her then.
Ingrid waited, tail wagging behind her, arms crossed, tapping her feet nervously.
Would she be hurt? What kind of violence had she gone through? How would she feel?
The name “Elena” did not occur once in her mind. All she cared about was Gertrude.
When the bulkhead door opened, it was like it had shone the sun upon her face.
There, the very first and only person that she saw was her.
Her Gertrude had finally returned. Clad in her grandiose uniform, seemingly unharmed.
Head bowed, clearly sulking, but alive. Whole. Gertrude Lichtenberg in the swarthy flesh.
Ingrid walked tentatively forward, her lips curled into a smile, her eyes bright and wide.
Gertrude cut the distance between them in a few long strides of her own.
In response, the Inquisitor grabbed hold of Ingrid, taking her into a tight embrace.
Those strong arms immediately took the breath out of the Loup. One hand around Ingrid’s waist and behind her back, another on the back of Ingrid’s head, stroking her hair and scratching the back of her ears. Ingrid thought she wanted to say something funny– but she felt an unfamiliar intensity in Gertrude’s grip that prevented her from even speaking. Now she really was thinking about Elena– there was no one else coming from the Antenora. Gertrude was there, alone, with only Ingrid in her arms.
For a moment they simply held each other silently. Then Gertrude finally, briefly, spoke.
“Ingrid. I have to talk to Dreschner. Once we set sail again, please come to my quarters.”
She rested her head on Ingrid’s shoulder, they were cheek to cheek.
Ingrid could not see Gertrude’s eyes, could not see her face in that sudden embrace.
Gertrude held her for several minutes more, gripping Ingrid’s clothes as if trying to prevent her from being ripped from her grasp. Subsumed into the Inquisitor’s warmth, Ingrid could not offer any glib retort, could not even interrogate what was happening. She embraced Gertrude back, leaned into the taller woman’s chest, savored the warmth between them. She shut her eyes. It was so calming.
She wanted to weep. Her Gertrude was back– the woman whose hands deserved her leash.
“Of course, ‘Trude.” Ingrid finally said. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ll do anything.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you then.”
When Gertrude released her, without another word, she quickly left the docking hallway.
She had left as fast as she had come. They both had responsibilities to carry out.
Gertrude returned to the bridge and set a course — to Kesar’s Gorge near the Vekan border.
Dreschner informed her that the Union was launching an invasion into Sverland.
“That changes nothing. Our next destination is Kesar’s Gorge. We have received a mission to investigate that area and recover important data from it. I’ll explain in greater detail tomorrow, Captain. For now, we need to escape from here, and I need to get some rest. I’m sure the crew also needs some rest.”
She had spoken with enough conviction and passion that there was no further dissent.
On that bridge, everyone felt that their commander was finally returned to them in full.
Everyone seemed glad to have a destination. It gave the crew something to focus on.
Slowly, the atmosphere of anxiety began to change. There was a plan– they had a mission.
Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg was back, and the Iron Lady was back in business.
Meanwhile, Ingrid supervised the unloading of a shuttle of goods from the Antenora.
When the rear ramp of the shuttle touched down on the hangar, it unveiled the “supplies.”
To her untrained eye it looked like two damaged Diver chassis. It was quite mysterious.
“Gertrude, what happened out there?” She asked herself. She hoped to soon find out.
Because, in addition to the Divers, which were quickly unloaded, there was also a visitor.
Norn von Fueller. The Praetorian herself– her presence gave the mechanics a bit of pause, but she waved them up and urged them to work fast in unloading. As the mechanics and engineers rushed past her, Norn walked down the ramp at a leisurely pace, grinning with the same distant malice that she always wore. Ingrid, at the bottom of the ramp, watched her approach, eyes fixed on one another.
“Milord,” Ingrid bowed her head, quickly, with the least respect she could offer.
“Sotnyk.” Norn said. “I thought I would see you. That’s what I had been hoping, anyway.”
“How can someone so lowly as me assist you, milord.” Ingrid replied without emotion.
“You desire the power to save Gertrude, don’t you? To surpass the great aces of the sea?”
Ingrid’s face briefly flashed surprise, and a bit of anger, that she had to master that instant.
Norn seemed satisfied with the reaction. “Gertrude failed in her mission, and Sieglinde von Castille is not coming back to this vessel. You must have noticed neither the Baron nor the Princess are here. You don’t need to care about transpired, but what it means is she will be relying on you more than ever.”
Before Ingrid could respond, Norn clapped a hand on her shoulder.
Her lips turned into a dark smile, eyes shaded by her hair, a macabre expression.
For that moment it was almost as if time had stopped, and Ingrid was alone with her.
“That machine was once called the Jagdkaiser, terror of the seas. If you and your crew can repair it, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, the machine should be yours and yours only. Among these gnats, only you have the will to wield it. It will grant you incredible power. But power is nothing without an ambition to channel it. I only ask that you have it and that you use it to realize your desires. Protect Gertrude for me.”
Ingrid knew, almost implicitly, she was referring to the larger, darker-colored chassis.
With a pair of severed arms soaked in seawater. Heavy damage all over the hull.
She knew, in that moment, that she could not respond. That she was not meant to.
And as soon as Norn had spoken, in a fleeting, blink-of-an-eye instant, she was gone.
Turned back around, headed up the ramp, striding confidently away.
Leaving Ingrid wondering if a conversation had even happened.
Moments later and with little additional interaction, the Antenora and Iron Lady completed their exchange, and bid farewell. Once the ship was underway, as she had promised, Ingrid left the hangar, which had become abuzz with engineers and mechanics going over the new goods. She made her way to the end of the Iron Lady’s second tier, to the door opposite her own, where her master and friend waited.
She tried to put out of her mind what Norn had told her.
“Some gift, a bunch of junked Divers. But my Jagd is fucked up anyway.”
They could kitbash the parts from her Jagd into that Kaiser-thing. Whatever.
Gertrude Lichtenberg, waiting in her room. They had not seen each other in so long.
Ingrid knocked on the door, and without awaiting a response, let herself in.
“’Trude, I take it you need a shoulder to sulk on?”
Ingrid had finally made her little joke, but she was just a little taken aback as she entered the room and shut the door behind herself. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Gertrude had removed her coat and hat, draping them over a chair. Her white button-down shirt was near entirely unbuttoned, revealing a simple black brassiere which she wore beneath. She was swirling a glass of wine in her hand.
When Ingrid came in, Gertrude smiled warmly. She did not appear to have drunk much.
“I’m happy to see you.” She said. “I was waiting– I broke out the good stuff.”
She raised the glass and pointed out the bottle and an additional glass on the nightstand.
“Oh! Hell yeah!” Ingrid said. “That’s what the fuck I’m talking about, ‘Trude.”
Laughing, she made her way to the nightstand, and poured herself a glass.
Without waiting a second more, Ingrid downed the entire thing in one gulp.
A glossy mouthfeel, a complex hint of sweetness, and rich, boozy warmth. Crazy good wine.
“Shit, you weren’t kidding.” Ingrid said. “This is the good stuff.”
“It’s the finest vintage on the ship. A gift from Vogelheim, once upon a time.”
Gertrude took a sip, set her own glass on the nightstand, and stood up from the bed.
She took a step directly into Ingrid’s space.
Spread her arms and took her close; so suddenly Ingrid nearly dropped her empty glass.
“Hey! Aren’t you handsy. You sure you haven’t put down a few glasses already?”
Ingrid was more than happy to embrace her back. To feel even the briefest closeness.
She was shorter than Gertrude, so when they were close, when Ingrid was being held–
The handsome Grand Inquisitor looked down at her, just a little. Smiling softly at her.
“Ingrid. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I made so many mistakes.” Her hand stroked Ingrid’s hair.
Her touch without gloves was lightly callused yet so soft, so firm. Ingrid could’ve melted in it.
Gertrude bowed just a little deeper, touched her forehead to Ingrid’s own.
“Ingrid. Ingrid.” Her voice was so soft. Her lips so near. “Ingrid. Let me comfort you.”
Ingrid said nothing. She felt the warmth in her own cheeks, her vision hazy, tail wagging.
When Gertrude finally kissed her, she practically dissolved into her arms. She was floating.
“Ingrid. Ingrid. I love the sound of your name. I love you. I love you so much.”
Kisses, tugging on clothes, a hungry grasp upon her breasts, sucking bites on her neck–
Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid–
Her name like song, heard from lover’s lips. Gertrude finally took possession of her.
Ingrid closed her eyes and lost herself to the release of years of brimming lusts.
Collar and leash seized, pulled, with enough force to make her gasp.