Depth gauge: 600m
Rain poured from the artificial sky in Schwerin Island, coming down in sheets that pooled over the synthetic earth around the palace in the center of the habitat. Gray clouds in the unmoving firmament and fields of bright red and yellow flowers surrounding the palace, joined by the great crystalline threads of the water. So much was coming down that it ran gentle rivers down the stone steps into the palace. Gate closed, windows shut but not shuttered. Inside, the residents enjoyed the scheduled spectacle.
On the stone steps into the palace, stood a girl.
Beside the stones, out of sight of the door or the windows.
Fists closed at her side. Teeth grit to keep from chattering. Soaking in the rain. Cold and quivering.
Dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, and dark brown overalls. No protection from the water.
Her skin, variously referred to as “swarthy” or “olive-colored” or “leather-tan,” was becoming grayer.
Dark, long, slightly tough hair, tied up into a braided ponytail that fell behind her back.
Tall for her age. A little tomboy out in the wilderness. Enduring the rain like a statue.
As much as she wanted to stand still as a stone she could not. She was too cold and vulnerable.
Her feet turned in place, shifted. She couldn’t help it.
But in the rain, she could not tell apart her tears from the water roaring over her body.
She wanted to scream, but not in pain. She wanted to scream with anger, with the power of violence.
Because she could not, she did not scream. She kept her voice trapped deep in herself.
Standing at the foot of the steps into the palace, in the pouring rain. Eyes shut. Teeth grit.
“Corporal punishment of this sort for a kid is rather cruel.”
Gertrude Lichtenberg opened her eyes and looked up.
In front of her was a tall man, grey uniformed, with a stiff posture and a grave face.
He was holding a small umbrella. With the grimness of his uniform and face, it almost looked silly over him. His brown eyes scanned across the stone steps and then fall back upon her. Deadly serious. This was a soldier, little Gertrude knew. A man of great gravity and dignity, peaked cap and thick boots, insignias on his coat. Gertrude knew the patches very well. He was a Lieutenant. Her own father was a Captain.
Gertrude tried to stiffen herself up also.
In return, the man knelt down in front of her, so he could look her eye to eye.
He lifted his umbrella to cover her too, just a little bit.
“My name is Einz. Einz Dreschner. What is your name?”
Between name and surname her teeth chattered.
“Did you cause mischief?”
“I hurt someone.”
“Did the Captain send you out here?”
Gertrude could barely contain her tears thinking about it. They felt warm in her eyes and cheeks.
“No. I sent myself sir.”
Dreschner looked, very briefly, taken aback.
“This won’t make amends. You’re only hurting yourself. Come with me. I’m sure it can be sorted out.”
He extended a hand but Gertrude did not take it.
“No sir. She’s not talking to me.”
Gertrude sniffed hard. Fighting back sobs.
Dreschner nodded. He made a serious face again. Like he grimly and fully understood.
“She’s not talking to me sir. I hurt her. So I just want to stand here and become a statue now.”
“I understand. But at least– you shouldn’t be sad and alone. Let me stand here with you.”
He closed his umbrella. Gertrude felt a shock– he must have been someone’s guest from the palace.
Dreschner took his place next to Gertrude in the pouring rain.
He did not explain. And she could not argue with him. He simply did it.
“My–” His own teeth chattered. “It is mighty cold, little soldier.”
Gertrude looked up at him, his smile flashing against the sheets of rain and the gray sky.
They stood, side by side in the rain like that, for a good while longer.
Perhaps Dreschner knew that in due time, the Captain would come looking for him.
And bring them both in.
And ultimately, help solve Gertrude’s little problem.
So that, then, nobody would have to stand in the rain.
Elena and Gertrude did talk again after that.
That very day even– and so soon, that Gertrude still felt soaked, even with a change of clothes.
Elena’s return to her side made her feel very warm, however.
Depth gauge: 1800m
Slowly, the rain-dewed pastures of her youth faded to the metal walls of her adulthood.
It was the year 979 After Descent.
Human life was relegated to deep beneath the surface of the Oceans on the planet Aer.
One such Ocean was the main Ocean of the western hemisphere: the Imbrium.
In this body of water, a woman once called a Knight had lost everything.
She could only dream now, of what she could have had. And what she did to let it slip from her.
Painful and unwanted dreams.
Gertrude turned in bed and almost reflexively wrapped her arms around the dark-skinned woman laying beside her. Feeling her muscled back against Gertrude’s bare breasts, holding her lean arms, burying her head in her long, slightly coarse dark hair. Her companion was still asleep. Her tail gently lifted and dropped beneath the sheets. Dog-like ears atop her head gently folded and lifted in rhythm with it.
Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.
Even her name sounded so beautiful to Gertrude.
“Mmm. You really don’t want to let me go?”
She began to mumble. Her voice pleasantly rough.
“I’m sorry to wake you. I couldn’t help myself.” Gertrude said.
“I’m flattered. You can tug on my leash anytime, Gertrude. You and only you.” Ingrid said.
She backed into Gertrude. She was shorter than her and nestled into her chest so well.
Gertrude truly never wanted to let her go.
Now that she had known loss, such loss as she had never imagined she would ever suffer–
It had taught her that she needed to keep close, jealously close, anything that mattered to her.
Ingrid was hers to hold. Hers and hers only. No matter what happened.
Gertrude wanted to squeeze her close, to taste her, devour her–
Then a pale green light glowed over the lovers. There was an accompanying sound, radio-static.
A voice-only message from the bridge of this ship– the Irmingard-class dreadnought Iron Lady.
That squeal could have only come from the Irmingard’s mousy communications officer, Karin Schicksal. Despite her auspicious surname, she was a small and skittish woman whose voice was cracking from anxiety. After a too-long pause she continued. “Y-You did say to alert you when we got closer!” There was a nervous little laugh. “We’re approaching Kesar’s Gorge. Um. Let us know if you have any orders!”
Gertrude lifted her hand from Ingrid’s chest placed it on the wall to respond to the voice-only message.
“I’ll be in the Bridge shortly.”
Ingrid grunted a little– but not enough that Schicksal would hear her.
She always made sure to toe certain lines for Gertrude’s sake.
“Dismissed.” Gertrude said, with an exasperated sigh.
“Oh! Sorry, I forgot to cut the line! Very sorry! See you soon!”
Finally the light green glow from the wall disappeared as Schicksal’s message window closed.
“Might not get many chances to fool around for the next bit.” Gertrude said.
“I’ll live. I survived a multiple-year drought in our sex lives after all.” Ingrid laughed.
Gertrude wondered but never asked how long Ingrid had felt this strongly about her.
Her own feelings were still muddled. She loved her, but–
But she had to set these doubts aside for now.
Standing up from bed, her room closet automatically extended a hanger with her uniform.
A black coat with gold and red accents, black pants, and the tall hat of the High Inquisitor.
In a lot of ways, Gertrude was still the little tomboy from Schwerin Island.
Except she was not so little at all. She had grown very tall for an Imbrian woman, though not as tall as some. And now in addition to a swarthy tomboy, she was at times called gallant, handsome. At least physically, she fit the uniform which she had been given. Its strength, its unwavering steadfastness.
Its brutality too– perhaps her mind and spirit also, regrettably, befitted the legacy of this uniform.
Gertrude felt a pat on the back as she started to dress. Behind her, Ingrid smiled.
Standing with her shirt half-open, tapping her palms on Gertrude’s back and rubbing.
“Don’t look so down. Everyone wants to have faith in you. Including me. Show us some confidence.”
Seeing her acting so supportive, Gertrude could not help but smile back.
“There’s my handsome tyrant.” Ingrid said.
“Hopefully everyone else will be as charmed about it as you.”
“Hah! Hopefully not that much!”
The pair laughed at the implication.
Though this bubble of peace which they had seized for themselves could not last, they still cherished it.
Soon both women donned their uniforms and the duties that came with them, and set out into the day.
Depth gauge: 2000m
An adult bluntnose sixgill shark descended from the surface waters, looking for the ocean floor.
Struggling briefly against the titanic wake of some massive creature it could not possibly fathom.
Avoiding the current, the sixgill shark had its reckoning of its own course briefly disturbed.
Try as it might, the sixgill had chosen its dive location poorly, and the ocean floor eluded it for a while.
Instead, beneath the sixgill’s sleek body there was only darkness and further descent.
And so, in order to avoid the gigantic being in whose wake it had been traveling, the sixgill ascended.
An uncommon encounter between humans and nature, in the reality of the After Descent era.
But one that reminded these separate worlds of each other’s presence.
Between the rocky and uneven seafloors of the southern Imperial territory of Sverland and the vast, rich silt plains of the eastern Imperial territory of Veka, there was an enormous trench known as Kesar’s Abyss or Gorge. It was a connecting point between the Khaybar mountains dividing the Empire and the Narodnaya range separating the territories of the Union from Veka and Sverland both. When viewed from the Imbrium above, the Kesar trench was nearly a kilometer across and many more long, a gaping black maw screaming at the heavens. Torn open, split jagged as if by the strength of some titantic monster.
Kesar– the place where Norn the Praetorian’s journey began. Could there be an answer here?
Approaching Kesar was Gertrude’s Inquisitorial flagship. Irmingard-class dreadnoughts all shared many traits. Most distinctive was the thick, “spoon-shaped” prow, like its namesake upside down with a beautiful curved surface above and the tapering point jutting at the fore. Between the prow and the larger main body was a “neck” containing sensor equipment. All quarters in which work and daily living were contained had been spaced into the massive main hull, a semi-cylindrical, flat-topped, beautifully curved monument, bedecked with cannon pods, sensors, and winged fins and control surfaces. Flared armor “wings” around the circumference of the ship’s stern protected enormous hydrojets fed through intakes on the sidepods and below the stern. The most powerful Agarthicite reactors ever fielded on Imbrian ships powered massive turbines that drove this beast, as well as its massive main coilgun turrets.
The Irmingard class was not only the largest and most well-armored and well-armed ships designed and fielded by the Imbrians, the sheer power of their reactors and engines made them the fastest and most enduring vessels in the world in terms of speed over long distances. While they were not necessarily sprinters, the Irmingard class could chase any vessel to the ends of the earth, indefatigably hunting its prey, creeping nearer and nearer to pressure smaller and lighter ships and never allowing escape.
Per the wishes of its commander, the Iron Lady sailed without a livery, wearing only flat gunmetal gray.
But even this behemoth found itself dwarfed by the sheer size of Kesar’s Gorge.
From the circular bridge of the Irmingard, Gertrude Lichtenberg watched the yawning abyss through the picture of the main screen, taking up most of the wall at the very front of the bridge. She approached the island in the center, surrounded by the various battlestations. At this central post was the Captain, Einz Dreschner. He was the man responsible for the direct, day to day leadership of ship operations, even though Gertrude was in charge of the vessel as a whole. She counted on him to enforce her commands.
An older man with a heavily lined and severe face, hairless in head and chin both, never without his cap.
Nevertheless, that grim expression became as much of a smile as it could when Gertrude appeared.
“Inquisitor.” He said warmly, by way of greeting.
“Captain.” Gertrude said, taking his side. “So that’s Kesar.”
“Indeed it is. Just as Norn the Praetorian described it. Vast and seemingly empty.” Dreschner said.
“Seemingly. But it was here, Captain, that the Praetorian’s legend began.” Gertrude said.
Dreschner nodded. He spoke in a lower voice. “I am a very material sort of man, Gertrude.”
Only for her ears. “Do you trust me, Einz?” She asked, whispering back.
Dreschner crossed his arms. He spoke in a measured voice, like a wise man giving oratory.
“I believe that I should support you in this adventure even if I don’t fully understand it. To me, the benefit to be gained is for your confidence to be restored, and for you to be able to make clear decisions about your future. However, a part of me believes this ship should head for Konstantinople, rather than here, trying to unearth some treasure or discover some mythical secret to the Praetorian’s rise to power.”
“Do you think the crew feels the same way?”
Drescher reached out and surreptitiously, he patted Gertrude once, in the side of the arm.
Such that nobody noticed, but she knew he was offering reassurance.
“Sailors sail. Their compact with their ship is that they are the ones who have to worry about pipes and pressures and nuts and bolts, and leave the worrying about direction and missions to the officers. And your officers, Gertrude, have nowhere to go in the world except where you tell them. In their minds, I believe they are still trying to excel to secure their livelihoods. Ultimately, all we want is to sail, as well.”
“Let’s hope you’ve read them correctly. I wonder if any of them are getting homesick.” Gertrude said.
“Like you, Gertrude, I don’t believe they have homes to return to that are any better or brighter than the bowels of this ship.” Dreschner said. He sat back farther into his seat. “For now, this ship is their home, and it is their home because they have faith in their leader. They trust your path is the correct one.”
“Thank you, Captain. I’ll make sure to walk my path confidently then.”
Gertrude stood up on the front of the island. Putting on her most stern and confident expression, and briefly preparing her voice. She face the massive abyss on the main screen and laid out her plan, which was heard not only on the bridge, but broadcast to the sailors working in the lower tiers of the vessel.
“Look sharp, soldiers! Before you lies the Kesar Gorge. Before we return to Konstantinople, we must carry out a thorough investigation of this pit. Our objective is to fully reconnoiter this area before we attempt to rejoin the Inquisition. Kesar’s Gorge contains a buried secret of the aristocrats and warlords currently vying for the throne and we cannot rest until it has been brought to light. Uncovering the truth is the justice of the Inquisition, whether the deceit comes from royal or peasant lips! This mission is the Inquisition’s first step toward ending this era of strife and setting right the current of Imbria’s history!”
It did not matter how much of that was improvised. It was a motivation they could understand.
She surprised herself with how convincing it sounded– in reality, what Gertrude was hoping for was only to find the source of Norn’s power. Perhaps even to gain such power herself, and learn to wield it.
Her officers proudly stood at attention, saluted, and followed her words closely.
With a flourish of the hand, Gertrude pointed at the main screen as if pointing a saber at it.
“We will tackle this task in stages! First, I want an imaging buoy to be lowered into the abyss to a depth of three kilometers. Once we have a clearer idea of the geography below, we will judge a course to descend into the gorge, and reconnoiter the path using a drone. Finally, the Iron Lady will descend. While we are tackling the imaging and analysis work, I want the ship to receive a quick maintenance. Check all filters, make sure nothing is leaking, and make sure all repairs to the exterior have held firmly. We will be descending into extreme depths through Katov mass. We need to be prepared and in top condition!”
As one the officers on the bridge responded.
Gertrude looked down at them, all of their faces, their cleanly gray uniforms, well manicured haircuts, perfect postures. Service on a dreadnought’s bridge crew was a huge privilege, and everyone who accepted such a competitive position had to look and act the part day in and out. She saw determination on their countenances, a steel edge in their eyes. They were ready. Gertrude did not think these were the faces of people who had given up on her at all. So she felt a weight being lifted from her shoulders.
“Sonar and LADAR crews and Electronic Warfare officers will have to split their attention between the imaging and drone work and maintaining alertness! We are on the border between Veka and Sverland, and could reasonably expect responses from either the Vekan Empire or the Union, now that it has exerted control in this region. Be aware of all possible threats! Our Diver pilots will run routine patrols, but it’s up to us be their eyes and ears to threats in the far distance. We are an Irmingard class crew! We are the Inquisition! We will bring all crimes to the fore and dispense justice! Commence the mission!”
All of the bridge officers shouted in chorus, offered a final salute, and returned to their stations, conferring with one another to begin the work ahead of them. Gertrude breathed in deep and sat down beside Dreschner. He gave her a quick look filled with his approval, the tiniest bit of a smile, before he joined the chorus of chattering voices, restating orders, calling officers by name to delegate tasks.
“Captain, I will recover my breath for a moment, but then I need to inspect the hangar.”
“Of course, Inquisitor. If I may comment, it does appear you are back to your old self.”
Gertrude wished that she could truly believe that was the case.
Too much had happened, however. She could never be the same again. Not completely.
That woman who fought unflinchingly, with a single-minded focus and devotion to one purpose.
If she was a monument to order and justice, she was one with deep cracks across its surface.
That purpose was gone. If not gone completely, it was shaken, warped.
She was still hurting, still vulnerable, in some soft and sad little part of herself, buried deep.
Like stepping on a tiny nail and continuing to tread upon it.
While wearing a confident smile and speaking in a proud voice to everyone who could see her.
But there was nothing to do but to keep going forward. Not just for herself.
All of these people were entrusted to her. She owed it to them as well to do more than doubt herself.
So even if it hurt, she had to walk the path laid out before her as Gertrude Lichtenberg.
To wherever it led her. To whatever end. For them.
Gertrude sighed deeply upon entering the hangar.
She had been so caught up in herself, and between Ingrid’s legs, that she forgot the state they were in.
With Sieglinde von Castille gone, so was her Grenadier— and in its place there was now a pile of scrap that was once called a “Magellan.” They were not able to do much with this machine. They had extracted data from its computer, but there was very little diagnostic information included, likely so the machine would be harder to replicate or repair outside its origin. Without spare parts, and without data on how to service it, they would have to kitbash Jagd parts into it and then pray that it could run that way.
Looking at the remains of the machine, Gertrude could almost recall, as if a sensation on the tips of her fingers and the bottom of her feet, the ease with which that machine moved. The power that it conferred to her. She almost defeated the Pandora’s Box with that Magellan. She was certain that had she fought with greater clarity and more reliable allies she could have ripped Elena from the Pandora’s Box. Now, however, it was vaguely propped up on a gantry, kept together with steel cable and thick ribbed tape.
Norn had managed to recruit and supply more pilots, but Gertrude had gotten too complacent.
She wished she had been more conservative with the Serrano patrol fleet.
To think she lost all those lives in the fighting–
–and still didn’t get her back,
“Don’t look at it so much! I’m embarrassed with it! Stop looking at it, Commander!”
From behind Gertrude came a whiny little voice.
She turned in time to watch a short, dark-blond woman hopping up and down.
Her tail wagging furiously. Her ears lightly twitching.
Dressed in a white coat over a green and black bodysuit. Spectacles perched on her nose.
“Chief?” Gertrude replied.
“Commander. If only you could see the visions I have– you wouldn’t look at the scrap so disdainfully.”
Dreadnought crews attracted two types of officers: prim and proper careerists, and unique eccentrics.
The intense hopping, paired with the warped smile on Chief Engineer Monika Erke Tendercloud’s face as she stared at the pile of Magellan parts barely retaining a shape– put her squarely in the latter category. She was a woman barely 154 cm tall, her blond hair divided in two long tails. Her small stature besides, she had a full, rounded, mature figure, and Gertrude knew for a fact she was the more senior of the two of them. Within those wide-draw orange eyes there was an intellect of inscrutable fathoms.
“Stop staring at it as it is now– stop staring at my shame. I will inform you when it is dignified again.”
She rubbed her hands together in front of herself. Gertrude crooked an eyebrow.
“Monika, this is the first I’m hearing that you have any plans for that thing.” Gertrude said.
Monika crooked her head to one side. “Of course I’m not going to just let it take up space! Now that we lost the Grenadier, I was thinking of using the Grenadier’s spare parts and some Jagd parts and making something exciting. I just need a bit more time to perfect my vision. Until then, don’t judge it.”
Gertrude acquiesced and ceased staring at the pile of junk.
“I’m– I’m sorry about losing the Grenadier.”
“Ehhh, it’s fine!” Monika put on that strange smile again. “Wasn’t my idea anyway. Maybe I’m happy it’s gone. Maybe I think it wasn’t made right and deserved to be destroyed. Maybe I’m good with it being someone else’s problem.” She turned her crooked head back right-side-up once again, shrugging. “It’s not like I have anyone to answer to about it. Rescholdt-Kolt isn’t going to call me up anymore.”
She crossed her arms and shut her eyes. Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.
Suppressing the urge to apologize for how she had been treated, a habit which Ingrid so disdained.
Loup scientists were pretty rare. Owing to the prevailing military culture of the Northern and Southern hosts, most Loup valued spirituality and warfighting over scientific pursuits. Of course, Gertrude knew that these norms were encouraged by the Empire. It was convenient to have the Loup as an Imperial “guest culture” that produced seasoned warriors unflinchingly obedient to the Imperial officer class.
As an outlier in this arrangement, Monika would ordinarily have few opportunities. But Gertrude accepted Monika into her ranks and even convinced the R-K industrial firm to work with her on R&D. In the Empire many scientific careers began as these partnerships between military personnel and industrial firms.
Now Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries and Monika stood on opposing sides of this civil war.
Thankfully, this did not seem to be slowing Monika down one bit.
“My vision will be sweeping and grand– I will make an armor worthy of a knight like you!”
Monika raised her hands with a big smile.
Gertrude suppressed the urge to say something like ‘Knights do not exist anymore.’
That, too, was a habit people like Ingrid found distasteful.
“I look forward to taking it out then. I wasn’t aware you wanted to make a personal craft for me.”
“I got a front row seat to your last battle from the data we extracted from the Magellan.” Monika said. “You are an amazing pilot. And since we’re low on pilots, it makes sense anyway, doesn’t it? Clostermann was never going to extract the full potential of my machine– and Ingrid has her own mecha now too.”
Opposite the pile of scrap that had become of the Magellan was a symbol of Gertrude’s folly.
Standing up on the gantry, looking almost brand new–
Was the Sunlight Foundation’s Jagdkaiser Type I. Where the Magellan was beveled and beautiful, the Jagdkaiser was angled and jagged and evil-looking. Its namesake was the second-generation Jagd type, a light and sleek and fast machine designed for close quarters attack. Over-long arms, big shoulders, a compact body. The intention with the Jagd was to have a lot of thrust with a tight center mass and fully integrated weaponry that was ready to go with very little setup on the hangar’s part. The Jagdkaiser shared many of these traits with it, but its built-in weapons were far more terrifying than any Jagd.
Particularly its left arm, which was a special agarthic weapon unique to the machine.
Because of the damage it had received, even with the spare parts they had been given, it could not be fully reassembled. One of its arms once belonged to a Volker, it was repainted and kitbashed, and allowed the machine to use standard assault rifles and vibroswords, as well as to manipulate objects. The Sunlight Foundation’s wake-jet integrated propulsion was too difficult to reproduce and service, so until Monika figured it out, they had affixed an ordinary suite of thrusters, with solid fuel verniers and backpack, shoulder and foot jets, routing the water intakes and turbines wherever they could around the chassis.
While this increased the weight and bulk, it made the machine far more usable for them.
Now it was Ingrid’s machine–
At first, Gertrude had come to believe Norn delivered the machine to them as a cruel joke.
Gertrude lost Elena by commanding this machine to attack against Norn’s orders.
A moment of great shame and evil impulse that she wanted to forget.
This was Ingrid’s machine now. So Norn had said; and so Ingrid greedily accepted.
For the power to fulfill Gertrude’s wishes.
“Monika, since you’re here already, tell me about that one.” Gertrude said.
Monika put on her most perverse smile yet.
“That Sunlight Foundation is a strange group of folks huh? Scary scary scary.”
She crossed her arms as if beholding a master’s work of art at a gallery.
“So this is all conjecture from me, based on what we could extract from the machine’s computer, and going over the parts we were given as well as the spares that came with the damaged chassis.”
Then she began to lay out her interpretation of the art to the awaiting student.
First by pointing out the most obviously worrying feature.
“That arm is a miniature Agarthicite reactor. Except, rather than trying to capture the energy of the annihilation reaction and converting it in order to put it to good human use, all that arm needs to do is vent the annihilating force out onto a target. So it’s bulky for weapon, but significantly more compact than ordinary reactor infrastructure. Even within that use case, I’m baffled how they miniaturized a core ring to that degree while maintaining its structural integrity– but anyway. That higher chamber in the arm catalyzes the munition cartridge, which contains agarthicite and a sheet of material to trigger a reaction when certain conditions are met in the chamber. It’s like a reactor and a gun slapped together. After the reaction is triggered and the cartridge is consumed, at that point the reaction is directed by powerful magnetic fields and osmium shields out of the claw toward the target. This happens in a flash.”
She made a gesture with her hands, closing the fingers, then spreading them, moving her hands apart.
As if, between the gesturing hands, there was an expanding circle.
An Agarthicite sphere of annihilation, consuming all in its theoretical path. Gertrude understood.
“Frankly, I am not sure about the pseudophysics behind the reaction actually being able to travel to a target and smack it. It feels like it shouldn’t be possible once the reaction exits the claw and escapes the magnetic fields. Maybe it’s because of the trace amounts of matter in the water– but anyway.”
She clapped her hands together, shut her eyes, and resumed lecturing.
“Annihilation reactions depend on the amount of agarthicite used, its quality, the type of catalyzation and the resistance of the material being annihilated. So if I put a die-sized cube of very high grade agarthicite in a football size orb of Osmium and slam the whole thing into the ground, I’m inflicting violence on the agarthicite, which generates a strong reaction. But it’s got so much osmium to eat through, I’ll never see even a hint of purple. However, Agarthicite needs material to annihilate, or it will never react and yield its true power. Now, Gertrude, pop quiz time! What material can generate a reaction while offering the least possible resistance? Can you think of anything? Agarthicite only annihilates solid matter, you know.”
Gertrude was taken aback by the sudden audience participation.
“I think reactors use special nanocarbons? They’re part of the core ring fuel assembly.” She said.
“True! But, that’s a compromise for ease of manufacture and portability. There’s other possibilities.”
“I can’t imagine what. Stitcher carbon tubes are everywhere. You just have to process it.”
Monika grinned at Gertrude with a twisted delight and a dark glint in her eyes.
“Tissue. Human tissue for the most salient example.”
Gertrude was speechless, staring with a mixture of horror and disgust.
“What? That’s a pretty macabre joke Monika.”
Monika pointed over her shoulder at the rack next to the Jagdkaiser, containing a single cartridge.
“No way.” Gertrude said. “You can’t be serious.”
“Human sacrifice is indeed always an option.” Monika said. “Not only do our bodies have a good amount of carbon, they have tons of water. That water superheats during the annihilation reaction, it isn’t annihilated specifically, but it vaporizes, creating steam, heat. Energy that can actually be put to work.”
Monika gesticulated further, but this time the Inquisitor was hardly paying attention to interpreting it.
Gertrude tried to maintain her composure, but it was a titanic task in the face of what she was hearing.
“What is in the cartridge? Tell me now. I can’t believe you didn’t report this immediately.” She demanded.
Monika shrugged, unconcerned.
“After disassembling and putting it back together, I believe it contains human bio-carbon.”
“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “And why? Why would they do this?”
Monika bobbed her head to one side and stood on one leg. Her tail fiercely wagging.
“Carbons in particular are Agarthicite’s favorite meal. In reactors, carbon-based catalysts are introduced to an energy array to trigger a controlled reaction. It’s a good trade-off between the energy generated, the volatility of the reaction, and the cost in materials and processing. Agarthicite can ‘burn’ carbon cleanly and keep an entire civilization alive and warm almost perpetually. Human tissues are cheap and renewable however. They have just the right amount of carbon to make a violent but controllable reaction, without needing any processing. Simply put, humans burn good. It’s certainly an alternative!”
Gertrude had heard horrible legends about how, during the Age of Strife, superstitious and insane warlords fed people to reactors to try to keep them going after the collapse of civilization. She thought it must have been sensationalism– as if to say, look how ignorant and barbaric these people were, and how enlightened we are today. Look at how much progress we have made, and how much better we have it.
Now, she was staring right in the face of the most unconscionable barbarism–
“Whoever made this machine doesn’t give a wit about taboos. They’ll inflict any horror for science.”
“So– Inside that cartridge–“
Gertrude was nearly speechless at the thought. She had ordered this weapon to be fired!
And it contained–
Monika put both legs down on the ground again and stopped hopping.
“Human bio-carbon. I don’t know how they got it. It’s probably tissue cultures. That’d be the path of least resistance, and you could control the amount of carbon versus water. But it would also take a long time to grow the needed amount per cartridge. So who knows? Maybe the material was extracted from a willing donor or maybe it’s a human sacrifice. We can’t know. But that’s what we’re dealing with.”
Could Gertrude really let Ingrid pilot this evil machine?
Even if viewed only as a weapon, without moral constraints, it was exceedingly dangerous anyway.
“That machine also has a weird interface that assists in piloting it.” Monika continued her assessment. “Ingrid is not going to be able to use it completely, but it looks like it can work by pulse alongside a bio-port, like a prosthetic. I don’t know what it does and I’m hesitant to take it apart because we don’t have any spares for it. It might help Ingrid though. I talked with her and she agreed to hook herself up to the pulse-collector when piloting. It’s just little pads that attach to her wrists and temples, it should be fine.”
Selene Anahid, the previous pilot, was clearly unwell when she piloted the Jagdkaiser. She had been operating under the influence of drugs and psychological conditioning in order to enhance her synergy with the machine. Gertrude did not know all the details, only brief and vague explanations given by Norn. While Norn and Selene accepted this state of affairs, Gertrude didn’t want to subject Ingrid to that.
After what happened, and knowing what she did now, Gertrude was terrified of this machine.
Could it even be piloted safely at all?
Or did someone’s brain need to be as cooked as Selene’s to do so?
And each time that weapon fired– was it really consuming human material?
It was a weapon, it would kill people with every cartridge nonetheless, but this was still disturbing.
“Monika, will Ingrid be safe piloting this thing?” Gertrude said.
For once, Monika put on a serious face.
“Is she ever safe piloting a Diver, Commander?” She asked.
Gertrude wanted to shout at her for this brazen sophistry, but she held herself back.
Monika was just a blunt and unrestrained sort of person– and she was not wrong.
Ingrid risked her life every sortie. She was a soldier. Kill or be killed was the law that governed her duties.
“What if I put the question this way: will this machine traumatize or hurt her irreversibly?”
Gertrude sounded, for the first time, openly a bit desperate. Monika frowned at her.
“Commander, again, I have to say. Ingrid is a soldier. She is irreversibly traumatized already.”
This time Gertrude reflexively grabbed hold of Monika’s coat as if to shake her.
Her hands moved before she could stop herself, towering over the Engineer.
That sight of the smaller woman, her surprised face, and Gertrude’s powerful hand near her neck.
Once she realized what she had done, Gertrude’s expression softened, her eyes drew wide.
“I– I’m so sorry.” She whimpered.
She let go of Monika and took a step back, distraught. Her mind started spiraling.
It was barely seconds of aggression, but it caused her a staggering amount of sudden mental anguish.
Monika looked at her with a sad but understanding expression. “It’s fine, I get it. I’m sorry too.”
There wasn’t anything to get. Gertrude was an absolute, uncontrollable, evil monster–
–she had no right to judge the maker of that machine.
Not after everything she had done. And all that she was about to set out to do from here.
After all the people she hurt and was still hurting–
“I– I need to return to my quarters. Thank you, Monika. I leave the hangar to you.”
“Hey, Gertrude, please don’t–“
Without listening to Monika’s pleading, Gertrude turned and walked quickly to the elevator.
Keeping a stone face that finally broke when the elevator doors shut.
“You look glum again. C’mon, cheer up. We’ve got Pastete! If you’d let us have booze, we’d have a party!”
“We’re not having booze.”
“Okay, just for you, I’m going to throw a two-woman sober party. It’ll be lame as fuck, but it’ll be ours.”
“You cracked a smile, you bitch, don’t pretend!”
Gertrude had indeed smiled. She couldn’t help it with Ingrid.
The Irmingard’s mess was its own little food court, with both cooks and vending machines. Long row tables in the center of the mess held the most people, but there were tables for four up against the walls of the mess, and Gertrude and Ingrid had taken one in a corner. For the day’s dinner, they had Bavarian Stew, broth-boiled pieces of dried beef with potatoes, pickled carrot and a touch of sweet cream. Ingrid’s eye had been caught by the side-dish, however, which consisted of margarine-buttered biscuits and pastete, a paste of boiled liver ground up with sweet onion and garnished with pickled garlic shreds.
At Ingrid’s behest, Gertrude mindlessly smeared some of the pastete on her biscuit and bit down.
To her surprise, it had a rather sweet and earthy flavor, with only a slight hint of the iron-like taste she associated with offal. Dry biscuit should have done the pastete no favors, but somehow the textural contrast worked to the point Gertrude could not imagine eating it with a softer bread or cracker. The rich, fatty paste complimented the salty, crumbly cracker-like biscuit and kept everything balanced. She understood Ingrid’s excitement, and the delight in her face as she tasted the pastete with spoon alone.
Her tail wagged so hard it was making noises. It was as if she was eating with her entire body.
“It’s better than I thought.” Gertrude said. Unable to muster that level of emotion.
Thump thump, went Ingrid’s tail. “You Imbrians don’t know how to eat. Offal is the taste of a hunt!”
She spooned more of the pastete into her mouth like a kid enjoying an ice cream or a sherbet.
“Liver gives you vigor! It makes you want to fight! It makes you want to fuck!” Ingrid cheered.
Gertrude smiled. “You could stand to have just a little less vigor, I think.”
“And an anemia patient like you should be eating this every day!” Ingrid said through a full mouth.
Both of them laughed. Gertrude tried the stew. It was a hearty blend of flavors, slightly sweet, slightly tangy, savory and rich. It had good mouthfeel, with the potatoes and carrots easily picked apart, just soft enough without becoming indistinct mush. Clearly the cooks had thought of how to try to bring some of the unctuousness that real stewing beef had, and which the dried-up beef could never possess. Sweet cream was an interesting idea, and the broth used as the base had a decent body to compliment.
Despite the disadvantages it faced, it still managed to taste like home.
Was that still Schwerin Island?
Not that she could ever go back there. Useless to even consider.
Gertrude looked directly into Ingrid’s eyes. Her companion looked back, in the middle of eating.
“Are you really going to pilot the Jagdkaiser?”
Ingrid stared at her, while swallowing all the food she had stuffed in her cheeks.
She washed it down with some vitamin drink, and wiped her mouth.
“Is that what’s got you down now? You’re so fucking fragile.”
Gertrude did not imagine that particular response.
“Do you trust me?” Ingrid asked, arms crossed, pouting.
“Of course I do!” Gertrude protested.
“No you don’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t be spiraling out over this.”
“I’m not spiraling out.” Gertrude asserted. “I’m concerned. That thing is dangerous.”
“Everything we’re doing is dangerous.”
Not that type of rhetoric again. Was this just how Loup approached everything?
“I’m afraid of this machine warping you– making you not yourself.” Gertrude said.
It took a lot for her to reach into herself and pull out and expose that anxiety.
For a moment Ingrid paused. Her expression softened. Her words became less sharp.
“‘Trude, I don’t know what you went through with Norn, but you’ve known me for how many years now? Nothing is going to happen to me. Piloting a different machine won’t change me or how I feel. I promise you I will be careful. Like, fuck, I’m doing this for you. I want to be able to protect you. I saw the data, the stuff this machine can do is crazy. Even if I think Norn can go fuck herself, the Jagdkaiser is too useful.”
An impulse took over Gertrude in that moment, and she said the first thing she thought of.
“What if you didn’t have to fight? What if you could just stay here for me?”
Ingrid’s eyes drew wide. Even Gertrude, after she was done speaking, realized how scandalous it was.
It did represent her honest feelings.
She could not bear losing Ingrid.
“What the hell? That’s so cute.” Ingrid recomposed herself and grinned at her.
“I– I might’ve gone too far–“
“Nah, you’re finally being honest. Look, being the homefront housewife is not my style.”
It really wasn’t– and Gertrude knew that part of what she loved about Ingrid was her gallantry.
Ingrid was a warrior. In her own way, she really was an old-school Loup hunter.
She was determined to fight to prove her strength and gain respect, status and accolades.
Somehow the Iron Lady had ended up the village that bore witness to her deeds.
If Gertrude tried to smother that wildness out of her– then Ingrid would really not be herself.
“Sorry.” Gertrude said. “I’ve been really stupid. You’re right.”
“Talking about it is how we get it fixed. So I’m glad you finally let me know your feelings.”
She reached out and patted Gertrude’s shoulder.
“I’m going to get so strong, Gertrude, you won’t have to worry about me ever.” Ingrid said.
War wasn’t about any one person’s strength.
That meant, to protect Ingrid, Gertrude also had to become stronger. All of them did.
She would not say that to Ingrid however. It would have ruined the mood.
“I believe in you.” Gertrude said instead.
Ingrid had no snappy comeback. She smiled gently and girlishly and accepted Gertrude’s words.
Depth Gauge: 2100m
Gertrude slept alone that night.
She and Ingrid both knew they had been too boisterous lately and people were talking.
No more midnight rendezvous for a while. It would only distract from the operation.
Laying in an empty bed again, Gertrude immediately missed the feeling of a warm body beside her.
“When did I become so needy?”
Her brain responded, ever so helpfully–
When she took Elena’s virginity.
Gertrude raised her hands to her face, gritting her teeth, cringing.
“God damn it.”
She was not about to stay up all night with these thoughts. She would drive herself crazier than she was.
Reaching out to her nightstand, she withdrew a bottle of sleeping aid pills.
She took one with a cup of water she kept on her nightstand as well, and dropped back in her lavish bed.
Spreading her arms only punctuated how alone she was. So she curled up tight under the sheets.
With the help of the drugs and her environment, Gertrude’s mind went quickly dark.
Drifting into nothingness as if falling and falling, a comfortable lack of gravity, suspension.
Freed from reality, freed in the truest sense. Floating without care for course, without need of agency.
Behind her shut eyelids she saw a road of colors upon which her consciousness drifted along.
Ferried as if by a million soft little hands, downriver to a great waterfall of colors.
Splashes of light in a great welcoming dark where she was bare and free. Free in every way.
Slowly, the colors dimmed, just a little, and the shadows faded into a stark white sky.
That sky became solid– it was not sky at all but the great white crowns of hundreds of trees interlinked, their branches and leaves making up the visible firmament. Absolutely titanic trunks of white and silver stone grooved as if through erosion brought hundreds of tiny rivulets of water from the heavens to a muddy, dark earth below. Down to this forest, she drifted, upon the oft-bending streams of color that ran in the air visible like expressions of the breeze. Thick roots that glowed gently purple tore into the earth between the trees and made up most of the geography of the forest floor in grand size and complexity.
Like cave echoes, cheerful waves reverberated between the trees, their whispering, their conversation.
They were a community, and they were happy to have a visitor.
Peaceful Place. Restful Place. Sweet Dreams.
They cheered, welcomed, in their own way. Their voices spoke directly into the senses.
But they were not alone–
In the distance, in a rare clearing between all of the trees, amid tiny red algae and scuttling crabs–
Two figures stood across from each other. One figure was gray and silver-haired, while the other was starkly white, with flowing red hair and a single horn jutting out of the side of her head. Clad in an ornate white robe, in contrast with the grey and black dress on her counterpart. The yellow over black eyes of the white figure dilated with hatred for the grey one, she grit her teeth, and inky, roiling black color expanded out from her. All other colors began to gather around her feet like snakes about to bite the grey figure.
“What are you doing here? You foul, corrupted thing! Don’t pretend as if you are worthy of this place!”
Castigating words reverberated from the white figure, silencing the happy whispering of the trees.
Without word, the grey figure withdrew and brandished a blade at the white one in response.
A blade upon which the colors gathered, as if to meet the tendrils forming around the white being.
Gertrude stood in the middle of this scene, in the middle of both sides, gathered there–
And when she was seen and when she saw herself for what was–
She bolted awake.
Gasping for breath inside the metal walls of her bedroom–
“ALERT KONRAD! ALERT KONRAD!”
Red lights began to flash in her room. Karin Schicksal’s voice sounded in the room.
Alert Konrad was–
In the next instant, as she leaped from bed to hastily don her uniform, a message from the bridge came through. Gertrude quickly acknowledged it and scanned the contents in glances while dressing.
Once she grasped the entire meaning of the message, she paused for a moment.
Warships from the Empire of Veka were approaching Kesar’s Gorge at combat speed.
One particular ship had been detected from a previous All-Navy profile: the cruiser Aranjagaan.
Flagship of Veka’s security division– a ship that Gertrude knew.
She had intelligence on a particular person for whom this ship had become her flag during this Civil War.
“No fucking way.”
Gertrude was briefly staggered by the circumstances. Her luck– and that of a certain sad little group of strays who once shared their most precious days together at the Luxembourg School For Girls–
–their luck was rotten to the very core.
“Approach at combat speed. Target only with light guns. Fire for effect, avoid direct hits. We want to take them alive. We need to determine if they know more about this facility than the mercenaries do.”
Three vessels detached from the task force to pursue the fleeing criminal, whose escape craft had risen suddenly from a secret hangar about a kilometer from the site of the operation. Led by the cruiser Aranjagaan, with two Frigates for support, the flotilla began to give chase. In the background, the Task Force’s remaining twenty ships loomed over a depression in the silt plains where an illegal bio-laboratory had been operating. Wreckage from several Divers and some Katarran mercenary ships littered the plains.
Instruments predicted the path of the escapee– that it may attempt to lose them in Kesar’s Gorge.
“We won’t allow these cretins to do what they want in Vekan territory! Go after them!”
On the bridge of the Aranjagaan, the order to pursue was reaffirmed by a chief Vekan enforcer.
This woman was a young, chestnut brown-haired Shimii named Victoria van Veka.
Little did she know that this Vekan security operation was about to get mightily more complicated for her.
Both professionally and personally.
A woman with an infernal passion burning in her chest–
A secret a million years kept, and another kept a mere thousand–
What will be discovered in the extreme, forgotten depths of the world?
We can only descend further, enduring the deepening weight of history—
Even if the truth of our pain is buried ten thousand meters deep.