Surviving An Evil Time [10.7]

At the far end of the dockyard at Bertrand Shore Works bellowed the main driving gears of the ship conveyor and cargo elevator, pulling a 50 meter long Cutter liveried in Republic green up into the bowels of the station. The station interstice was essentially a highway for cargo and ships that connected the docks to the scrapyards and shipyards and a few other modules across the vast acreage of the Station. Aside from a few junction points, it was essentially on rails and strict about where one could go.

From Bertrand’s, the Cutter entered the interstice. A high ceiling and tight walls that allowed only enough space for ships and the equipment hauling them to pass, about 100 meters wide. The conveyor forked, and the Cutter hung a right at the junction to be taken behind B.S.W’s module, where the conveyor was eerily stopped. The Cutter remained trapped in the interstice where it had paused.

From the Cutter’s side, the main bulkhead opened, and a quadrotor drone hauled a boxy piece of equipment up thirty meters from the conveyor belt, against one of the high walls. The drone moved the gear to the wall surface, where magnetic couplers attached it to the metal. Connected by a thick power cable leading back into the Cutter, the box-like device analyzed the surface it was set against and then cut a square the size of an adult into the thick steel wall, exposing a maintenance corridor. Once its work was complete the drone picked the cutting gear off the wall and returned it to the Cutter.

Along with the drone, a team exited the Cutter as well, a group of armed men and women in bodysuits protected by flexible Kevlar plates on the chest and limbs. After the cutting gear had been returned and they were ready to climb up into the wall, they handed the drone a line which it attached to a thick pipe within the exposed maintenance corridor, allowing them to use motorized rappelling equipment to pull their bodies up quickly and effortlessly to the newly exposed gap.

“Kitty, we’re going in. Hold the fort for us. Fleet’s only about an hour out.”

Clearance into the Core Pylon was normally extremely strict. Only people born in a station or who had lived a very significant amount of time in one could become Core engineers for that station. Kitty McRoosevelt could have never acquired clearance to sneak into the Pylon. However, every complex module in a station needed maintenance corridors and out-of-module infrastructure access.

The habitats, the dockyards, these were not seamlessly fitting cubes in a stack. Veins and arteries ran through and between them. Every station had a vast inner world of pipes and fiber-optic junctions and electrical connections that human hands had to be able to reach somehow.

And the Core Pylon was no exception. There had to be paths to it outside plain sight.

Kitty and her Katarrans were setting up turrets and using her yacht to block the path into the dockyard, preparing for a possible siege. While they did so, the entry team stalked their way through the maintenance corridors searching for a way into the Core Pylon. They were once a Cogitan special operations squadron from the failed Ayre Reach invasion fleet, now vying to become the successful Kreuzung occupation fleet. Once inside the Core Pylon, they would have no good way to escape, and several very direct routes through which the Imbrians could assault their positions.

But in the world of black ops, their lives were already forfeit, nonetheless. Taking out as many of the day’s enemy as they could, to the last bullet in the last mag, for the cause of freedom and democracy and enterprise– that was what they had been taught, and learned, to aspire toward.

Soon, the entry team had snaked their way to another wall and stood aside so the drone could fetch and move the cutting gear into the tight corridor they had scouted out. Orange sparks flew in the dark halls of the station interstice. They repeated this a few more times until finally, they knocked down the right bit of metal and entered a stark, white-walled corridor lined with thick, protruding sheets of a silvery metal. Osmium shielding. And from several gaps in the wall, a purple glow could be seen to shine into the white hall. They were on the exterior of the Core Ring. Inside the Core Pylon structure itself.

Some of the entry team members showed a quiet reverence for the place.

Regardless of this, they all knew what they had come here to do and could not turn back.

Raising their assault rifles and moving so as to cover all approaches.

They stacked on one of the gaps in the wall, around the purple glow shining in.

Peering around, they hit the jackpot.

Osmium and steel scaffold suspended a control platform over an enormous pool of water below, into which the energy array could be “dumped” if needed. The platform, containing instruments and computing equipment for monitoring and controlling the core, was lightly populated with only a few technicians and less guards. None of the guards had firearms, only shock prods and body armor. They could not risk causing damage to the Pylon. They were only there to oversee the technicians.

In the middle of the platform was an absolutely massive structure, its complexity such that the entry team hardly understood what they were seeing. It appeared to the naked eyes to be a polyhedron with hexagonal faces, with a seemingly flat exterior wherever perceived, and a constantly moving interior structure generating the pervasive purple glow that dominated the entire core ring. From each cardinal direction of the core ring an enormous multi-section steel shaft connected to this complex middle structure, housing the pipes and cables supplying water, collecting steam, routing electricity. Upon the “polyhedron” itself could be seen hundreds of snaking cables and pipes and other arteries such that it appeared like a terrifying mechanical heart, pumping purple glow and eldritch energy.

Seeing it up close was like madness. It was surreal and gripping and terrifying–

“Are we really doing this?” a cracked, whispering voice sounded among the Cogitans.

Without word, the lead members of the entry team breached before anyone answered.

Single shots from their assault rifles sailed across the scaffold and struck the guards in the upper chest and neck where the chestplate terminated. Tense but skillful, knowing they could not be retaliated against. Surgical. The Cogitan entry team dispatched all of the guards in a lightning attack within seconds, and the technicians in the room shrank back into the core ring computing equipment, stunned, incredulous that there could possibly be a violent, armed attack on the core.

“You want to live? Separate the fucking core! Now! No fucking questions! Just do it!”

Despite the gravity of the attacker’s demands, the technicians had no choice.

They were afraid if they didn’t comply it might cost them more than their lives.

Firing guns inside the core ring– the Cogitans could have very well destroyed the station.

This was such an extraordinary and hellish situation. An instant trauma for the technicians.

They could not have possibly responded with anything but compliance.

And comply they did.

From above the polyhedron descended an enormous pair of mechanical structures, like two planes attached to multi-jointed mechanical arms, silver-plated in Osmium, between which electricity could be seen to briefly arc. The top of the polyhedron split to allow the arms into the water in which the energy array was suspended. There was a bright flash, within the space of which every heart in the room ceased beating for an instant as if to presage their demise. Within that instant revolved all of their lives.

Nobody was killed. Not yet.

From the core, the energy array ascended.

Suspended between the devices. Plucked as if by a titanic hand.

Now unmoving, its true form seemed to continue to elude the sight for several seconds.

As if between those mechanical arms there was shapelessness itself held aloft.

Blurring and warping the light, a smooth array of agarthicite tubes and osmium shielding.

In mere minutes, the terrifying deed had been accomplished.

With its energy array secured outside the core ring and unable to impart power–

Kreuzung’s Core had been separated. They could see it; they were in its presence.

Everyone involved stood around the hanging device, staring. Their God on the gallows.

Wondering as if there was anything more to be done now. Or if time would stand still.

Instruments blared at them. Core Separation warnings would be displaying and sounding and raising alarm throughout the station, but inside the Core Pylon, there was only the gentle glow of the energy array suspended outside of its core ring. They still had energy from the Core Ring and backup systems, and they were insulated from any of the panic that could result from the actions which had been taken.

In the eye of the storm, there was calm, but also–

–the foreboding sense of coming destruction began to finally creep in.

“Kitty, it’s done. Hold fast in the dockyard. We’ll keep the Imps out of the Pylon.”

The Cogitan assault team began to prepare their defenses.

It was around 1900 hours for the people of Kreuzung station.

In the year A.D. 979 on the 203rd cycle.

A tragedy that would be recorded in history as the first offensive use of a Core Separation.

On that day, after hundreds of years, the inviolable sacredness of Agarthicite wavered.

More than any of the perpetrators at the time could possibly understand.


For just long enough to sow great unease, Laurentius lost power.

Casting the surveillance room into pitch black.

“Hmm. Well. This is mighty inconvenient. I hope it comes back soon.”

Amid the panicked whispering, the smooth, slightly accented voice of a young man.

As if responding to him, the lights came back on moments later.

Throughout the room the black-uniformed Volkisch intelligence agents slumped on their computers and desks. They were surrounded by enormous monitors subdivided into feeds that gave them dozens of eyes within the station, whether by floating drones or fixed camera pods on the walls or at street level. For a moment the cameras had no picture; several of them came back online in slow succession. There was strange movement on a few in particular, that were meant to be pointed at the bulkheads inside of the baseplate maintenance tunnels. Blurring and sliding and bubbling of something–

“Turn those off. They’re clearly glitching. We don’t need to look at the baseplate now.”

“Sir?”

“It’ll conserve energy, my dear. Turn them off.”

“Um– right away, Lord Drachen.”

“I am no longer a lord, madame. Veka is far behind me at this point.”

With Imani Hadžić missing, command at Laurentius had temporarily shifted to one of her subordinates, in this case, Sturmbannführer Raul von Drachen. A tall, slender man, with slick blond hair, a hooked nose, and heavily defined cheekbones, he looked like the actor who would leer at the protagonist and his sweetheart in a corner of the movie poster, cast as the looming villain. His sophisticated, fox-like menace was only enhanced by the black Volkisch uniform and the armbands on his sleeves, the black sun of the Volkisch’s Esoteric Order, and the black sword and moon of the 7th Stabswache Fleet, the Zabaniyah.

Despite his appearance, his voice was soft, and he was never without an easy expression on his face.

“We will have to start rerouting power to be able to respond.” Von Drachen said. “Contact the control room. We must at all costs keep the life support and our computers operable but anything else has to be temporarily shut down. Have all docked ships and Divers deploy and terminate power to those modules once they are in the water. Cannons and missiles will have to go offline with them. Organize assault squadrons to move into the tower, and once all soldiers are deployed into the Core Station, terminate social area and habitat power in order to conserve. Then we will have to quickly gather intelligence and respond in force. Find out where the Pylon was breached. Deploy a team to the Standartenführer’s last known location. Are you writing all of this down dear? Am I going too fast for you?”

At his side, a skittish intelligence officer fidgeting with her hair drew her eyes wide.

With a jump, she began to record the items that needed to be done.

“Oh it’s truly okay. I will simply repeat myself with less vigor.”

Within minutes the initial preparations for the Volkisch’s response were complete.

Power was rerouted, station defenses went offline. Dozens of Volkisch Sturmvolker Divers and the docked Cutters of the patrol fleet deployed from their berths so that the docking infrastructure could be temporarily shut down. A thousand rifle-armed troops crossed the Bridge into the Kreuzung Core and split into several heavily armed squadrons to respond. Surveillance officers began practically crawling through every centimeter of the station with cameras and drones as their eyes– except below the baseplates, where any auxiliary equipment controlled by Laurentius was shut down to conserve power.

“I do hope the Standartenführer is doing well. She is a sweet and delicate girl.”

“Sir? I– I suppose so sir.”

The intelligence officer looked up at him in barely disguised terror behind her spectacles.

As if only an insane person could see Imani Hadžić as a “sweet and delicate girl.”

“How are things inside Kreuzung?”

“Err– less than optimal, sir.”

Around them the monitors switched to only street level feeds throughout Kreuzung core.

On every LCD surface, red warnings were blaring at the citizens that a Core Separation was underway. Normally this message should have automatically cleared in 15 minutes to instead display a curfew notice or other more useful guidelines. But nobody had set what the replacement message would be. Von Drachen quickly had Laurentius’ control room create a replacement emergency announcement and push it to every screen on the station, but due to the varying states of connectivity in the multitude of different modules in Kreuzung, only some areas received the notification to shelter-in-place at first.

Responses to the Core Separation warnings varied greatly.

For the most part, people in habitats were congregating in their hallways, seeing if their neighbors had any more information than they did, or they stayed in their rooms looking for news online, anxious but not storming the elevators. People in transit were the most upset, as the trams and elevators were behaving erratically and for a brief moment had completely lost power and trapped them. However, even here, there were only some minor altercations and hard words between the commuters and staff.

Workers in industrial areas hunkered down, while the strikers in Tower Nine seemed to be pooled at their barricades as if awaiting an opportunistic attack by the Volkisch. Where there was most chaos was in the commercial areas. Shoppers rushed to the elevators and tram stations trying desperately to get back to their homes or to areas that felt safer than the long strips of storefronts with their blaring LCD windows. There were many accidents and injuries in the crowds as people shoved and struggled to get through tight corridors, to get ahead of their peers into the elevators, or for space in trams. Public workers and roving patrolmen were utterly overwhelmed and gave up on imposing any order in these situations.

Compared to the amount of people trying to get to safety or hunker down, there were relatively few instances of vandalism, assaults, or looting among the population. There were some broken storefronts, particularly in retaliation against major brands who had instituted dynamic pricing. There was very little theft or opportunism. The mass violent hysteria that the Volkisch authorities had feared could ensue as they got the first Core Separation warnings did not manifest. People were not wantonly killing and robbing one another on the streets. For a station with millions of people, the incidence of rioting and anarchy was minor on the whole. Despite this, property defense continued to be a Volkisch priority.

Infrastructure in Kreuzung responded poorly to the loss of power. The last revision to the backup power schema had been undertaken over forty years ago in the aftermath of the Fueller Reformation, and since then the systems on the station had only increased in complexity as civilians and businesses acquired more civilian scale personal computing and mechanical automation than ever existed before.

When the first blackout hit, and subsequently when backup power came on, hospitals and care facilities had to scramble to manually turn off convenient but not life-saving systems, much like Laurentius had to, in order to prevent their backup power from diminishing too quickly. Certain forms of care and certain comforts were denied to patients in order to prioritize ventilators, life support, dyalisis and so on.

Meanwhile the power grid itself began to struggle to deliver available backup power because the computer systems handling the backup power schema were themselves older, some entirely untouched, and a few had short circuited entirely from the initial shock of the Core Separation. Water systems, particularly complex ones like flood mitigation and desalination, saw their mainframes partially shut down. This led to water becoming intermittently available in residences, and sometimes the water was foul or salty, or worse. Lights all over the station flashed intermittently and erratically.

“Hmm. On the whole this is not unworkable. It could have been much worse.”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and looked almost pleased with the situation.

While across the room the intelligence officers stared at him with great worry.

They were on a clock. With how much the power draw in the station was fluctuating, it was impossible to tell when they would run out of backup power and die. They had to act quickly.

The Volkisch response to the incident was in its opening stage, but the main objective was always clear. They had to return the Core Pylon to operation, and then prevent any potential further attacks on infrastructure. Von Drachen knew a few details of the situation that none of the other officers did, but he kept it close to the chest for now. Troops would be sent down into the core, as well as into peripheral dockyards to prevent potential intrusions– just a hunch of his, supposedly.

“Any response from the Governor’s office toward the incident?” He asked.

“Not yet sir. Neither the Central K.P.S.D contingent nor any statements from his office.”

“He was caught flatfooted. It could be– fortunate, for us.” Von Drachen smiled knowingly.

“Sir, there’s a laser communication coming in. It’s the Greater Imbria, through a relay.”

“Ah, lovely! Then our cavalry is on its way. Put them through, mind the bandwidth.”

On one of the screens, appeared the face of a young woman, brown haired, in a black and silver uniform. Strong-shouldered, tall, fair-skinned with a sort of earthy, rustic beauty. This woman shared Von Drachen’s rank, but unlike him, she had been an early and true believer in the Volkisch order: Heidelinde Sawyer.

“Von Drachen, we’re escorting the Mrudah to Kreuzung to hand off its flag. We’ll be there soon. The Aleksandr and the Atyrau will arrive after with the fleet. Where is Standartenführer Hadžić?”

“She is on mission. We’d be glad to have your assistance. Events are transpiring.”

Sawyer and Von Drachen were both quite aware of the events transpiring, to some degree.

As soon as the Zabaniyah arrived, the fireworks would commence in earnest.


After the blackout hit Tower Eight, the rooms emptied out into the hallways.

Lit up by the red warnings on the walls, the neighbors in a certain bobtailed Shimii’s hall exchanged worried looks and shared any information they had. One older man who worked in maintaining the tower explained that there was no maintenance today and wondered if there was a failure. A young woman tried to make sense of the warning on the wall, wondering what a “Core Separation” even meant. This was not common language among the Shimii, many of them could not place it at all. After about twenty minutes of suspense, the red letters turned to a bright blue with an animation of a doorway shutting behind a pair of silhouettes and commanded instead for all citizens to shelter in place.

This only brought up more questions from those assembled.

“They’ll tell us to shelter in place, but not what’s going on in detail?”

“Has anyone heard from the upper tiers? Are the elevators working? Is everyone okay?”

Amid the confusion, Majida al-Khaybari walked out and excused herself as she slipped past the crowd and knocked on the door of the room adjacent to her own on the left. She understood all too well what was happening, and why, and who was the perpetrator. She had resolved herself to doing something about it, but before that, she wanted to check up on her skittish little neighbor girl and her sad little tail. Ever since their last encounter, Majida had been worried that Homa had been shaken by her words.

“Hey, Homa, open up. Are you okay in there? Power’s been sketchy.”

No response.

Majida sighed to herself and put her hand on the wall next to the door.

On the other side of that wall, there was a touch surface that was a door control by default.

Thinking about it for a second, she came up with a sound theory of how to open the door.

Her own room had a panel on that wall– these rooms must have all been identical.

Majida thought of the type of panel and focused on generating force against it.

And with the ability she had been practicing–

Spatial Control.

Seconds later, the door to Homa’s room opened.

Peering inside, Majida did not find Homa as she expected. Instead, seated at the edge of the bed, was Leija Kladuša, known as ‘Madame Arabie’. Majida’s brain instantly conjured up something that was not very godly nor polite at seeing the striking brunette beauty holding her forehead on Homa’s bed, her face a bit pale, her eyes half-shut with clear exhaustion. She did have all her clothes–

“Kladuša,” Majida said, stepping through the door and closing it. “What happened?”

Leija snapped her head to the door and fixed a contemptuous glare on Majida.

“How did you get in?” She said. Not taking the time to correct the name Majida used.

“I have my ways. Listen, I don’t want to start anything. I was just looking for Homa.”

“Homa?”

Eyes drawn wide and startled, Leija suddenly stood from the bed.

She looked around the room. Her eyes settled on the cooking pot in the back.

It was the only thing in the room which wasn’t stock furniture included in every unit.

The way her eyes lingered on it, she may have realized whose room she was in.

“Where is she?” Leija asked suddenly. Her eyes were puffy– her makeup had run.

Had she been in here crying this whole time?

“I don’t know. I thought she would be here, but I found you instead.” Majida said coolly.

“What do you want with her? She– She was taking care of me. I was ill.” Leija said.

Majida could tell that wasn’t quite the whole story. But she did not press Leija further.

“Kladuša, have you been asleep this whole time? The station’s in crisis right now.”

“What are you talking about?”

In the room itself, the curfew notice was just displayed on a wall in a relatively small size.

To demonstrate the gravity of the situation, Majida opened the door back up.

Out in the hallway, the crowd, the intermittent lights, the larger curfew notices on the walls.

Leija stared in mute disbelief. She blinked her eyes hard.

“What happened to cause this? What was the prior warning?” She asked.

Majida felt insane just stating the proper facts. There was no way to sugarcoat it.

“Core Separation.”

“I’m asking seriously!” Leija said. “Majida, I’m starting to get pissed with you.”

“Get pissed all you want. It’s a Core Separation, Leija. There was even a blackout.”

“That’s impossible.”

Leija immediately sat back down on the bed, staring down at the floor.

She ran her fingers through her hair, coming to settle over her ears, bending them slightly.

“That’s impossible. How could it be? This– this can’t happen.”

“You can ask anyone in the hall. We all saw the warning.”

“This can’t be happening! There must be a false alarm, it must be a mistake!” Leija shouted.

When her agitated cries met Majida’s unchanging expression, however, her resolve started to waver. She looked down at the floor again, lips trembling, her feet shifting on the metal, hands clutched together.

“Far be it from me to tell you how to run things, but it strikes me that the Shimii here don’t so much have leadership as a bunch of community figures, so as one of them, maybe you should say something about this? Make a statement from the station control room to calm people’s spirits. Whether or not it’s real, the residents of Tower Eight are all in the dark, and you’re the boss, right?”

Majida offered that suggestion with a mind to leave the room immediately, but–

–Leija’s distraught expression caught her attention. She started to nurse new anxieties.

“Kladuša– I would be willing to help you, if it will keep our ummah safe. I can escort you.” Majida said.

No response. Leija was still staring at the floor with a hand over her forehead.

“Kladuša!”

No response.

“Something is going on. Tell me what it is. You can’t just sit there doing nothing!”

Even if she was just shellshocked from the Core Separation, she was the big tough mafia boss in charge of this place, wasn’t she? Majida had never thought of her as being this fragile and easy to shake. Most people probably didn’t understand exactly what a Core Separation meant, but for people who were in charge of communities and made decisions for stations, it was standard to know. So Leija must have understood the gravity of the situation. Majida approached and touched her shoulder.

“Wake up already! Every second we waste could be the one where a panic starts!”

“Majida, I don’t have access to the station control room!” Leija said suddenly.

“What? How? You’re the boss around here, aren’t you?” Majida asked.

“Tower Eight is administered remotely.” Leija said. “The Imbrians don’t trust us with it.”

Majida was briefly speechless.

A Core Separation was an unthinkable event. But something more mundane, like a broken power converter or distributor, would require flipping around which modules were receiving electricity, to prevent life-saving systems from having to fight with skybox simulation or empty docks or non-emergency network traffic. This was something that even the Shimii in Khaybar Mountain could do with their hacked together homebrew systems, it was standard to support living in tightly controlled environments. Majida had assumed that the Shimii in Tower Eight had control of the tower’s physical administration through a control room– but if it was all being done remotely–

“Kladuša, don’t tell me– it’s just an automatic system, isn’t it?” Majida asked.

Leija’s hands covered her eyes and she grit her teeth. Her frustration confirmed the truth.

Of course– they couldn’t even spare a single fucking Imbrian technician to actively monitor it.

Then– that meant–

In the event of a Core Separation, their backup power was not being actively optimized.

“Allah protect us all– Everyone’s going to fucking choke or flood to death in here!”

Majida bolted out of the room, leaving the despondent, helpless Leija behind her.

Out in the hall, she saw her own door open and Raaya peeking out of it.

“Majida?”

Raaya sidestepped just in time to avoid Majida charging through the door.

She knelt in front of the bed and withdrew a steel case from under it.

Inside were four pieces of Katarran power armor. Legs, and gauntlets. No battery pack, no chestplate.

Majida had the physical strength to wear them without power. She started to clap them on.

Realizing what she was doing, Raaya withdrew an additional case from the closet.

She presented Majida with a double-sided composite personal armor, and silently helped her to put on the pieces, snapping them closed over Majida’s chest and back. It was a tight fit over Majida’s breasts, as the suit was not intended for her, but she could withstand the discomfort. She did not possess a chestplate of Katarran armor, but the arms and legs pieces would help in a fight, and security armor like the type she fitted over her chest was enough to prevent a lethal wound from small arms fire.

Finally, she donned her white-gray cloak over it– a special keepsake from Raaya’s father.

“Majida.”

After helping her suit up, Raaya stood off to Majida’s side with a gentle smile.

“I have to get everyone out of here. It’s not safe.” Majida said. “That means you too.”

“I know. I wasn’t going to complain. I married a hero, and I know I did.” Raaya said.

Majida felt relieved by those words, despite the awful situation.

Her heart resounded with a million thanks to the most exalted, who brought her this woman.

“I will follow along with the folks and mind my own safety.” Raaya said.

From the case that she handed Majida her body armor, she withdrew a pistol.

Concealing it in a jacket she then wore over one of her sundresses.

“Okay.”

Majida bent down just a little to Raaya’s eye level and kissed her.

She put her forehead to the shorter woman’s, and then they touched noses affectionately.

“If you encounter any danger, call out to me with your mind. Okay?”

“Of course. But don’t be worrying about me all the time. Do what you have to do.”

“With Allah’s guidance and vigilance.” Majida gently squeezed Raaya’s shoulders.

Her heart was filled with so much for love for this woman, she nearly wept.

To think, she had put her in this danger.

But none of the Shimii in this tower would be able to escape it without Majida’s intervention.

Those Imbrian checkpoints had to be forced open.

From the same place Raaya had drawn her pistol, Majida withdrew a Union diamond blade.

“Let’s hope those Katarrans had a decent supplier.”

They had made good couriers, running to Khaybar and back. But now she needed their gear to work.

She briefly revved the chainsaw motor and found it good.

Using a magnetic strip attached to her armor, Majida stowed the weapon under her cloak, along with a pistol similar to Raaya’s. Armored, armed, and with her inner fire burning in her chest, Majida set out, giving Raaya one final authoritative glance as if to confirm her intentions.

Raaya smiled back and just as silently bid her farewell for now.

As soon as Majida stepped out of the door to her room she found Leija right in front of her.

Leija paused for a moment, staring at Majida with eyes drawn shock-wide.

Then, she clapped her hands together, shut her eyes and pleaded.

“Majida, please– please bring Homa back safe. She’s innocent of all our quarrels. Please.”

Majida could have berated Leija in so many different ways in that moment.

She didn’t even care that much about the drug smuggling or the extortionism. It was petty to her.

As for her racism– she would have her judgment for hating Mahdists in the afterlife.

No– what Majida hated about Leija was that she took everything she built for herself.

She even failed to share it with her kin Homa, and now she was all distraught and worried.

Majida had dealt with all kinds of scum. She had to, because she and her people were barred from leading ordinary lives in the Imbrium. There were gangs, mercs, extortionists, pushers, in every corner of the Empire, playing dirty to survive. Compared to Leija, some of them at least took care of their own, just like Majida tried to do. Those were the kind of low-lives that she could respect. Leija was greedy and self-centered. Her silver tongue and deadly charisma enriched only herself. But– perhaps this day could constitute a new leaf for Leija, and maybe a better life for Homa. It wasn’t for Majida to judge. Majida reserved her true hatred for killers. She couldn’t chase after every money-grubbing crook on Aer.

For all her faults, Leija had yet to commit slaughter or engage in massacre with her influence. She was not starving the people of Tower Eight and at least in terms of economics she was not discriminating against Mahdists. When put up in a line beside other warmongers, extremists and nationalists, she was a harmless bitch to someone like Majida. Despicable, a low-life, but harmless– unworthy of her flames.

And– it was difficult for Majida to hate those distraught eyes.

Eyes like those of a mother.

She reminded Majida too much of another older woman with sad, tired eyes.

So, for all the things Majida could have said and done, her only response was–

“I’ll do what I can.”

Leija nodded her head. Perhaps she understood her pathetic position as well as Majida did.

“Thank you.” She was nearly in tears again.

Majida averted her eyes.

There was so much pain and evil in the world and she could never fight all of it.

But she knew that– which is why she fought for the Shimii.

For her Shimii, for Jabal Khaybar, her kin.

But now–

She couldn’t leave Tower Eight’s Shimii behind. Not if there was something she could do for them.

And she couldn’t leave Homa either.

Homa was just like their people as a whole. Troubled, hurt, lost, and innocent.

She had suffered so much and didn’t deserve to suffer further.

“I have to do something.”

Majida made her way through the hall, past all of the Shimii that had come out of adjacent rooms. Technically it had to be one room to one person, but there were couples and mothers with children on this hall, older men and women, young workers sharing rooms in their two’s and three’s, and so a sizeable crowd was forming end to end in the hall. Despite the intention of the station’s design, this particular hall was affordable, so all of the people without good jobs or with families that had nowhere else to go were crowded into these lower tiers, packed like sardines to enrich the Imbrian landlords.

When she rounded the corner, Majida had to excuse herself dozens of times.

As she struggled past the people to the elevator.

“Hey, no cutting!” cried some of the folks as she elbowed past.

There were all kinds of eyes on her as she finally shoved her way to the elevator.

A group of younger men stood in front of it, occupied between the control panel and keeping others from usurping their place in front of the crowd. They stared jealously at Majida when she approached, trying to look tough but clearly quivering in their shoes. Her cloak was not long enough to cover her entire body and they could see the segmented plate on her lower legs, and on her arms when she moved them. Katarran body armor had a reputation– anyone with any kind of street smarts knew about it.

Universally it was the mark of a real badass. Though that was not Majida’s true intention.

Around the backs, shoulders and heads of the men congregated tell-tale colors of aether.

Dark greens and reds, verging on black at the edges. Anger, anxiety, fear of death.

Majida could read them plain as day. Their emotions practically leaked from them.

“I don’t care what you’re up to. Is the elevator working or no?” She said.

She did not need to employ her powers to get this lot to obey. Her authoritative voice was enough.

“Panel’s out.” One of the boys said. His friends looked at him brusquely for answering.

When Majida approached, they crowded around her but did not impede her way.

She stood in front of the blank touchscreen controls beside the elevator door.

Placing a hand on the unresponsive touchscreen she tried to feel the energy inside it.

Majida was much less a fool or a brute than her enemies and detractors gave her credit for; but she wasn’t too handy with electronic repairs. However, her powers and a bit of logical deduction could substitute in some cases for real engineering skill. She couldn’t control electric charges the way that she could spontaneously create fire out of nothing (at least not yet). But she was able to feel the heat and energy like a heartbeat within machines, tracing the current in her mind back through the wires that carried them to their power sources. She realized in a moment that it was not the elevator’s power which was out, but this specific panel had broken, and it was the only obvious way to interact with the elevator. She lifted her hand from the touchscreen and placed it on the elevator door itself.

“What are you doing, sis?” Asked one of the young Shimii men near her.

“Shut up.”

Her voice was infused with just a bit of otherworldly menace. Not intended; her emotions had flared.

Whenever she used one kind of psionic power, she always risked her aura spilling out.

Raw emotional energy that altered her tone, altered her presence.

She could feel his own aura quiver at her response, and he was instantly cowed to silence.

Tracing the power from the door itself, she walked a few paces to an adjacent wall.

With a flick of her wrist, a tile of OLED material fell out of the wall as she pulled on it.

Revealing behind it a manual control for the elevator. Levers and buttons.

“Someone will have to operate this!” Majida said. She pulled a lever and the door opened.

She looked at the young men in front of her and singled one out.

“You. Operate the elevator. We’re letting the women and children up first.”

“Up? Up– where?”

Did he not think things through any further than ‘I want to be on the elevator first’?

Majida turned to face the crowded hall behind her and called out instructions.

“We’ve got a working elevator! Everyone stay organized and wait for your turn. I promise I’ll make sure everyone can get up and out of here. It’s not safe here and we need to get everyone into the Kreuzung Core station. Forget the curfew notice on the walls! The Imbrians don’t care what happens to you! We need to get out of here! So line up, let the women and children first!”

Everyone stared at her. There were incredulous looks everywhere.

No one moved. An entire crowd of resentful staring people that she had just elbowed past.

She was so used to Khaybar, where everyone listened to her when she spoke.

Awkward silence and frightened gazes. Of course, nobody knew her or trusted her. Maybe they knew of Majida al-Khaybari, distantly. But not this silver-haired woman with the strange ear that was yelling in the hall while everyone was scared and worried and being told to stay indoors. None of them knew the potential danger they were in. It was all flashing lights and hushed voices in the halls.

Perhaps she could influence them, but Majida hadn’t really mastered how to do so with any amount of tact. She knew how to instill fear or draw out anger via her psionic powers; but she did not want to act like she was press ganging a bunch of kittens and moms! She would have to try to appeal to them on rationality alone. She would have to tell them what was happening so they understood.

She would have to pray to the Almighty and All-merciful that they wouldn’t panic.

“I need everyone’s attention! There’s something you need to–”

“Listen to her and get moving! What are you waiting for? I have somewhere to be!”

From the very back of the crowd a voice carried through the halls.

In an instant, the crowd parted to allow through Leija Kladuša– Madame Arabie.

Her makeup was done again, and her hair was brushed and orderly.

Following closely behind her was Raaya– Majida could not thank her enough.

“Form a line! Women and children first!” Arabie said. “Forget the curfew!”

Raaya stood beside the elevator with a hand on the operating lever.

She winked at Majida. Majida smiled with all of her heart. That woman was God-sent!

Acquiescing to Madame Arabie’s repeat of Majida’s demands, the crowd in the hall began organizing themselves, letting women with children walk forward. As they held their kittens close they waved gently at Majida, several expressions of gratitude, and a mild mixture of confusion. Many were veiled with hijab except for the front of their faces. Majida always felt a bit inadequate in the face of very pious mothers who observed all the traditions, when she was such a hellion who barely knew Fusha and was so far behind on studying the teachings and prayers– so she averted her gaze awkwardly.

“You look so handsome when you’ve got that flustered teenager look on your face.” Raaya said, teasing Majida. “I’ll handle the elevator. You’re the first one up, aren’t you? Get on board.”

“I’m taking a different route. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Raaya.”

Majida bid farewell once more and glanced at another panel, lower on the wall.

It had a passage, which she had to crawl on all fours to get through. A maintenance tunnel.

She pulled on it, standing in front of it so no one could see it just fall off by itself.

Then she crawled inside. Through a dark vent, as tight as the shower in her room.

For light, she produced a tiny, flickering flame that danced between her fingers.

This much exertion of her power was nothing to her. The fire didn’t even need oxygen.

It burned only off her fiery, passionate aura.

On the other side, when she could finally stand, she found herself surrounded by switches, junction boxes, pipes, and meters, packed over every wall with only a 2 by 1 meter space for a human being to occupy and work in. She waved her hand slowly in front of herself so that the flame could illuminate each wall in turn. In front of her, she found what she really desired. A tight stairwell, made up of individual rungs that attached to the wall, cables routed around and through each. It was the way up.

Raising her hand and the little fire dancing between her fingers so she could see overhead.

Impossible to tell how far up it went. Her destination was several hundred meters up.

“I might be able to do it. It’ll take me forever to climb. I just need it to go all the way up.”

If there were no obstructions, then perhaps–

“With Spatial Control, could I haul myself up there?”

She had never moved anything as heavy as herself, much less moved it that far away.

There was no time to hesitate further. There would be worse difficulties ahead.

Majida put a hand over her chest and shut her eyes, concentrating deeply. Even just thinking about using Spatial Control sent a discomfort like the cold touch of a razor over her brain. It was difficult, taxing.

Shimii knew psionics as Sihr, a forbidden art attributed to illusionists leading their kin astray. But the esoterics of the Mahdist faith were interested in its characteristics and thereby more tolerant of it as an observable phenomenon of the world. Majida herself knew factually that Sihr was characterized extremely differently by the Old Engineers, by people like her mentor Norn. Because it had helped her protect her people, because it was part of her legacy– because of who her “father” was. Despite the prohibitions and taboos, despite her own pretense at Piety, Majida relied on Sihr and would need it. She knew that Sihr, as psionics, was a power of the mind that affected the world through Aether like food cooked in oil.

Aether reacted to emotion, and to the state of mind of the observer and the observed world. Aether passed on this reaction into the physical world, making the effects observable, real. Material consequence happened in Aether’s wake.  Majida concentrated herself on the task ahead, on the feat she intended to perform. Trying to pull herself from the material and make herself weightless, movable, seeking oxygen as flame did to ignite the way forward. In such a state of mind, prayer came to her. Not just because she associated concentration and power of the mind with the ascetic preaching of the Mahdists themselves–

–but because she wanted to associate the hated Sihr with God’s mercy for her personally.

“Allah is all that I require, excellent is his protection.” She murmured. “Greatest blessings unto your Prophet who is most worthy. Now that my affairs are difficult, Open the ways I could not see. Open the ways out of my difficulties that I could never imagine, most merciful of the merciful.”

Of all the many sayings, quotations, prayers, declarations, of the Shimii scripture, this one always stuck with Majida the most. Even her wayward mind could not escape rapturous attention at these words when the Mawla or Raaya recited them in the past. “Open the ways I could never imagine.” Allah was the opener of ways, the source of truths, and Majida wanted to believe that she was not born an evil witch, progeny of a tyrant with cursed powers, that had to be scorned, locked up in shadows–

–but someone who could enter a new form of supplication,

and see a new form of God’s majesty, a new opening of His ways.

Spatial Control!

Majida al-Khaybari was the Apostle of Fire.

And the Apostle of Fire could control not only things burning and violent, but the distances between persons and objects, like combustion sucking in oxygen or a detonation pushing out the world with its shockwave. Igniting the path between herself and her destination with the invisible flame of her desire, claiming the air like wildfire, Majida vanished out of the bottom of the steps in the maintenance tunnel to reappear at the landing at the very top of those steps, in a single and sudden instant.

“Alhamdulillah–”

She bent forward at the top of the steps, involuntarily dry heaving onto the metal floor.

Choking out blessed words while clutching her head, which felt like it had split open.

Her skull wracked with spasms of pain so powerful they felt like clubs striking her.

Teeth grit, fists clutched, forcing herself to a shaking stand. Eyes tearing up, nose bloody.

Step by tenuous step, each centimeter struggled for against the agony of her body.

Murmuring to herself whenever her lungs filled–

Give me guile against him who schemes against me,

 power over him who oppresses me,

 refutation of him who reviles me,

 And safety from him who threatens me.

Reciting prayer as she inched her way to the door she could see ahead.

Out of the dark maintenance tunnel, and, practically throwing herself through the threshold.

She appeared under the glass and steel roof of the top of Tower Eight.

Beneath the overwhelming darkness of the Imbrium ocean. Framed beneath the girders and the infinite sky of crushing saltwater. In her hands and in her heart, a pyre’s light burned brightly. Whether or not people hated her, she knew– God loved her. She believed it with all of her heart, that she was put on Aer with this ability to fight for her people. And she was growing ever stronger even now.

Her pain fading, she took stock in her surroundings. She had come out near one of the elevator banks. There was a gathering of people, maybe a few dozen, who had made it up the tower to the gates. Nobody she recognized from the hall below. The elevator Raaya took command of must’ve still been making its way up or down. Majida did not know from which elevator bank it’d come.

In front of the assembled Shimii, barring the way to the tram tracks into Kreuzung Core, stood the guards, five of them. Shut behind their gate and in their booth and waving their guns in front of themselves whenever anyone tried to come close to the chain link fence. Their eyes were wild with panic and anger, they were sweaty and clearly losing their wits. As Majida entered the crowd as surreptitiously as she could, an older woman walked forward to the gate, her tail curled in fear, her hands raised.

“I just want to talk sir.” She said, voice trembling. “We don’t understand–”

In front of her the guard raised his assault rifle to his shoulder.

“Stand back! What part of shelter in place don’t you understand, you fucking animals?”

“Sir– please, I apologize, but you have to understand how confusing this all is–”

“The only thing to understand is all of you fucking go back to your homes or I’ll shoot!”

“We just want some clarification! What is happening? Is it true that the reactor core–?”

Overwhelmingly loud, the rifle’s report rang through the crowd.

Everyone stepped back, gasped, cried, leaving the woman who had stepped forward.

Beside her, the round had struck the floor and dented the fake clay tile set over the metal.

Spared bodily harm, but with all of the guards sighting her, the woman dared not move.

Majida’s fist opened and closed at her side. Her toes curled in her metal boots.

Nobody in this crowd posed a threat to these men.

These were old folks, women with kids, young men. There were no soldiers here.

Except her.

She realized, however–

–that there was a woman at her side, with a baby. Could Majida splatter these men here?

No– not in front of innocent eyes.

“It’s your lucky day, Imbrian scum.”

Spatial Control.

It transpired in the blink of an eye.

Give me power over him who oppresses me.

Spatial Control was a form of psionics, and Majida had discovered it could be resisted by a strong will.

However, there was no hope for the weak minds of these panic-stricken, ignorant Imbrians.

In an instant, the men inside the booth had their bodies moved into each other.

Inside the booth, the man who could not move where Spatial Control forced him to, instead crashed suddenly into the glass and fell back onto his chair, his gun thrown wildly from his grasp and rattling against the walls before coming to land upon him. Outside the booth, the three men with guns and their officer collided with each other, pushed back as if hurled bodily off their feet, while their guns were pulled the opposite direction, coming to lay discarded on the ground. Two men struck each other perfectly in the foreheads and fell concussed, the man who had been threatening the most tripped over his feet and knocked the officer in charge down with him. In the tangle, Majida charged the fence.

Running out of the crowd and in front of them, she seized the gate, and with all her strength, tore it from its automatic hinges on the opposing wall of the tram bridge, knocking it down over the guards. The crowd stood speechless as the way forward was completely torn open for them in a surreal instant.

“Don’t question God’s blessings! We need to flee here! Come on!”

Majida called to the crowd. Tentatively, the older people and the children walked forward.

Meanwhile, a group of young men and women rushed out and reached for the guard’s guns and pulled them out from under the fallen gate, coming into possession of them. “Good instincts!” Majida praised, and she helped them and the crowd to fully subdue the guards, pulling them from under the gate, stripping them of their IDs and keys and weapons, and cuffing them all together, crammed inside the booth with the door locked where they would not disturb anyone further. More people began to arrive via the elevators, and with Majida’s direction, lined up respectfully on the platform.

“Ma’am, how will we get into Kreuzung?” asked some of the younger people.

Majida put her hand on the security booth, and on the tram platform, concentrating.

She discovered a current running between them, running out onto the track.

Over to a hidden spot off to the side of the bulkhead leading into the bridge.

There was always some kind of hidden emergency panel that had a higher level access.

These trams were “overseen” by people, but they were “operated” mechanically. If the computer told the tram to disobey the tram car personnel then the computer would always win, because the computer was assumed to be under the command of the boss. And she just happened to have an officer’s ID card that could send override commands in times like these. None of that was a problem now.

“I’ll take care of it! All of you just relax and line up. Women, children, and old folks first.”

From within the crowd around Majida, the woman who had been standing in front of the guards stepped forward suddenly. She was shaken, and there were tears in her eyes, streaming down the light wrinkles on her face. She offered her hands for Majida to hold, and Majida accepted and held them softly.

“Child– what is your name? I will pray for you every day.” The older woman said.   

After some thought, Majida smiled gently. “Madiha. Madiha al-Nakar.” She said.


“Damn it! Damn it!”

Homa Baumann smashed her fist into the unresponsive elevator’s touchscreen panel.

Water had risen to her knees in the dim slowly flooding Old Iron module now lit only by the red flashing warnings for the Core Separation. She accomplished nothing but hurting her hand. The closed doors in front of her were still shut. Without the panel it was impossible to tell whether there was any movement in the elevator because the panel was the only way to see the elevator’s position.

She put her head up to the double doors, banging her fist again and again.

Think, think.

This time it was her own mind speaking– not the other voice.

“Don’t think about stupid shit now. Come on. Focus.”

There had to be a different way to reach the higher levels. Homa had crawled all over B.S.W.’s module and there were maintenance tunnels, physical ladders between different levels. There had to ways to access the station’s guts so if a junction box or switchboard or a control computer or some other artery of the station’s exceedingly complex organs failed, a person could physically reach in and fix it. She had to look around for a way into the station interstice– the space between modules and even between blocks, inaccessible to the public but absolutely necessary to keep the station running smoothly.

But Old Iron was flooded and dark, and Homa did not have proper tools on her.

From the pocket of her jumpsuit she withdrew the vibrodagger she took off Imani.

On one side of the blade she flicked a little safety lever, and on the other, a switch.

Homa saw a tiny, dim indigo glow, heard the humming of the blade, and felt the vibrations from the oscillator spreading through the flesh of her palm and stirring the bones and sinews in her hands. Like her Volker’s vibromachete, this weapon, once engaged, possessed cutting power beyond what should have been possible for its size. It could not cut through this wall whatsoever, it was just too small and Homa was just too weak for such a monumental task. But perhaps she could cut into a vent, or pry open a panel.

If she could find a place to gain access– without electrocuting herself.

“There’s no other way. I have to get out of here.”

She had to stop Kitty McRoosevelt. She didn’t know how, but she needed to.

For the events of this day, Homa could only forgive herself if she did everything she could to stop it.

Whether to stop Kitty, to subdue her, to– to kill her– she had to do something.

(Kill Kitty? Can I possibly– would I actually– but man, taking a person’s life is no joke–)

Her own doubts reverberated across the space of her mind, but she had to silence them.

Because she felt complicit in this tragedy. She couldn’t just let it happen!

“I don’t have to kill her. I just– I’ll just make her stop! She has to be able to stop this.”

Homa started to look around the elevator. Feeling with her free hands the lines between the panels, following them lower on the wall, under the water, to see if she touched anything different. From her experience at B.S.W., panels that could come off had a slightly wider seam around the edges where they caught the wall, whereas the seams on solid panels were uniform throughout.

She knelt down in the water and begrudgingly put her head to it.

Holding her breath so water wouldn’t get into her nose, crawling along the floor.

It was just barely possible to make out the geometry of the wall with the red warning lights.

Come on, come on

That Way.

Homa raised her head.

She thought she heard a voice–

and saw a glint

a curling stream of color like the vapor off a pipe

shimmering in the dark like a sparkling dust

leading her

to the wall

“What– it’s–”

Homa pressed her hands along the wall where she had seen the colors.

She felt the seam, her fingers able to fit between the panels.

Scrambling to her knees, she put her vibroknife between the seam and pushed. It did not take much for the panel to separate, bubbles rising out as the water flooding slowly into Old Iron pushed its way down the maintenance tunnel entrance with more vigor than before. It did almost nothing to the level of the water, of course, but the vent became flooded. Homa looked down at the gap in front of her feet.

To make it to the other side, she would have to crawl on her belly through the flooded tunnel.

How far in would she have to go to breathe again? Could she tell? Could she even see?

In the adrenaline of the moment she forgot about the voice and colors–

“Damn it, there’s no time!”

First making sure any sensitive gear in her jumpsuit was in one of her handy waterproof sealable pockets, Homa hold her breath, crawled on all fours and started to drag herself through the tunnel. Elbow to elbow, pushing herself as much as she could with her knees, mouth shut, head starting to pound.

Her chest quickly began to hurt. Had her breasts been any larger she wouldn’t have fit.

Only the glowing oscillator of the vibrodagger in her hand provided dim illumination.

Ahead of her she only saw pitch dark, around her only four metal walls.

She was packed in, a bobtailed sardine in saltwater.

Crawling forward with growing desperation, every second closer from having a held breath to drowning, to dying. Her eyes clouded from the harsh seawater that had flooded in and in which she was suspended. How long could she hold her breath? How long had she been holding it? She felt her panic building across her entire cold, soaked body, shivering with every second of struggle.

Elbows forward, pull, elbows forward–

Nothing ahead but implacable darkness–

Feeling acutely the barriers in which her body was trapped–

Unable to stretch her arms out any farther wide, unable to spread her legs–

Impossible to stand–

Her vision swam, she could hardly hold her mouth closed through the pain in her head.

Everything was turning even darker than it had been, even her vibrodagger darkening.

Was she going to die here?

Lost forever in this horrible place where no one would find her?

She struggled with the last of her strength, all of her breath long since spent, desperate–

And suddenly found herself in open, rushing water–

Scrambling blindly, kicking her legs and clawing the water, every sinew in her body feeling like it would burst, her chest feeling like it would cave inward. Heedless of the surroundings, swept in an animalistic mania of pure survival instincts, flailing any kind of movement that would propel her further up. Breaching a surface, sucking in air desperately as soon as there was any breath to claim. Water was slowly rising, and she had to fight to stay up. Painful breaths wracked lungs feeling as if calcified by disuse, feeding into a brain and skin that was at once cold and burning. Had she any spare strength she would have screamed.

“What the fuck? Hey– who is down there? What the fuck are you doing?”

A flashlight shone over Homa’s eyes, briefly blinding her as she struggled for breath.

She was in a much larger space than before, with water much deeper, walls wider and taller.

On a platform outstretched from the wall, a dozen meters up and away from her, there was a man in a wetsuit and protective goggles, lit up by an OLED panel. Beside him there was a toolkit, Homa had seen the kind before, it had wire-testing prods and micro-soldering irons, it was equipment for fixing electronics. He was situated in front of an open section of the wall, in front of shadowy impressions of thick cabling and exposed electrical and computer equipment. He sounded irate.

“It’s flooding here! You’re not supposed to be here. You need to get the fuck out, Shimii.”

Homa shut her eyes hard, still gasping for breath.

Why was every Imbrian so belligerent? She couldn’t believe her rotten luck.

“Hey, are you listening? I’m not kidding, it’s dangerous, and we’re on alert, and there’s sensitive shit here! What the hell is your problem? I’ll call the K.P.S.D and tell them you’re rooting around here, you’ll never leave Tower Eight again!” That man shouted at a higher intensity with every word he said. “Are you fucking deaf? Get out of here or I’ll get you out! Can you understand Imbrian? Shimii?”

Homa tried making any kind of gesture with her head, shaking it, nodding, anything.

She started to paddle away, trying to make it to a platform or a foothold.

In one of her pockets Imani’s gun felt suddenly heavier than ever, more pronounced.

But Homa didn’t want anything to escalate to violence! She just wanted to get out of here!

“Alright, I’ve fucking had it. I’m not taking any chances you bitch.”

On the platform the man withdrew and pointed something at her.

It was bright orange with a yellow barrel, maybe a stun gun or a tranquilizer?

She hoped it wasn’t a lethal weapon. She backed up against the wall, trying to speak.

All that came out was a choked mumbling, “Please– I’m lost– I’m sorry–”

“Now you understand Imbrian huh?” mocked the man, his voice sounding desperate.

He took aim at her– he was really going to shoot– Homa froze in a moment of panic–

All that issued from the man was a wet squelching noise.

Stock still on his platform, his fingers shook and went limp and dropped his gun.

His torch rolled into the water, sent flying by a spasm of his legs as he went down to his knees. As the light spun around the room Homa briefly saw a shadow of something cast upon the wall, something long and substantial that she could not otherwise see. As the man began to audibly gag and gurgle and bleed Homa had the wherewithal to rush to the torch fallen into the rising pool and take it and point it at the platform. Where she saw again the shadow, the shadow of something great and horrific.

Not only the great long gelatinous thing trailing all kinds of spikes,

but its massive body that

stretched through the water blue and orange and red like a calcic jelly spinal cord

vague dim siphonophoric thing with jets and bulbs and prongs spiraling

through the water like a sigil of muscles and meat

leviathan–

Tristitia hates the noisy hominin. Tristitia wants the noisy hominin to quiet.

In the next instant the spines which had punctured the man’s back pierced through him.

Homa was spared the gorey detail by the darkness of the room.

But she heard his blood, and maybe more, spill into the water below him.

She was frozen in place, clutching the torch and slowly and impotently paddling back.

Leviathan– how did a Leviathan get into the station interstice?!

Had it navigated the flooded Old Iron somehow?

Was the Core Separation causing so many problems that the station was breached?

Her heart pounded, her lungs couldn’t breath fast enough.

She did not feel cold because her flesh felt dissociated from her mind and presence.

It had come from the direction opposite Homa. It was massive, amorphous.

Homa had learned about siphonophores in school, and it was the closest thing she could compare it to without an imaging computer to tell her the class associated with this monster. One enormous string-like cord the thickness of a human torso but with seemingly all the strength and muscle of some beastly tail or backbone, capable of lifting a man off his feet. Hundreds of bulbous objects connected to this central nerve, dimly bioluminescent, some appeared like biojets, many others like dagger-like vibrating spines, others like pulsating organs, and near the section that had skewered the man there were some that looked like wings, and Homa got a sense there was even more underwater. She imagined the beast was many many times the size she could see, coiled casually throughout the depths of this place.

Killing that man had been like a giant flicking its finger nonchalantly at a fly.

There was no thought of even trying to shoot it.

This would have been a terrifying opponent for a Diver or a ship.

For Homa, it was a thing out of nightmares that she had no hope of harming.

She backed slowly away from it, looking around the room for a potential exit.

Behind her, she saw rungs, rungs of a ladder that could take her up.

If she could climb out of the water, could this thing even follow under its own power?

Its body did not look like it could go very far out of the water.

Ragged breathing, her veins vibrating beneath her skin, Homa slowly, slowly backed up.

Cat-Hominin, Tristitia sees you. Cat-Hominin, are you a heretic?

Homa thought she heard something in her mind, clearly she was losing her grip–

Then she felt a shiver down her spine that told her instantly to stop moving.

Around her legs she felt the water stir like something enormous had rushed past her.

Curling around behind her back, around her side, and finally emerging in front of her.

Hundreds of sheets of veiny dimly glowing red and blue velvety flesh suspended close.

Like a flower of fleshy angel’s wings, fluttering into themselves before her eyes.

Crowned by a floating circle of blood or gore that somehow hovered in place.

And attached to that same strand-like body that stretched infinitely into the water below.

Homa wanted to see the thing before her as a face or a head, but it was faceless, headless.

She only saw herself reflected in the multitude of opaque surfaces.

Hanging, dripping, the flesh undulating as if it was performing some kind of action.

Homa’s mind wanted to process it as “sniffing” her, as a show of “curiosity” or even, perhaps, speech.

But she knew it was insane to think so.

Cat-Hominin, what is a heretic?–

Her mind and most of her body paralyzed with fear–

Homa’s hands crawled over her chest and grabbed hold of her necklace.

It felt like it had retained some of its warmth, a tiny star clutched against her breast.

Oh! Cat-Hominin is loved.

In the middle of the mass of wing-like folds, there was something directly beneath the halo.

Briefly, the wings spread enough for Homa to see it, or to think she had seen it.

Something that couldn’t be– Like a central, fleshy pearl containing–

An inquisitive face as if belonging to a girl, dark-haired, green eyed, floating inside–

Cat-Hominin is loved. Tristitia will respect this– but only this once.

Next time, you’ll despair, Cat-Hominin.

Its horrific sliding and flapping noises– Homa’s head was trying to turn it into words.

That had to be it– there was no other sane explanation–

Suddenly, the siphonophore leviathan reversed the curling of its cord from around Homa.

That winged meat thing it had shown her shut like a flower turning back into a bud.

Slithering back into the water from the direction it had come.

Homa did not miss the opportunity. She turned tail and rushed for the rungs of the ladder.

Climbing like her life depended on it, taking each rung like her hands had clawed at the water when she was drowning, moving so fast that she barely took in breaths between hand-holds. Weeping, her lips quivering, her whole body shaking, until she felt like she had climbed a hundred meters and stopped, putting her head up against the next rung on the ladder and sobbing and screaming.

For a moment, everything felt hopeless.

All of the weight of the physical pain and terror she had felt that day.

Kitty’s wounds on her– hunger and exhaustion– leaving Imani behind–

How? How could she climb even one more step on this ladder?

And how many more steps would she have to climb after that?

You Are Courageous.

She heard the little gentle voice in her head again.

That voice which she began to associate with the warmth in her chest.

With the necklace that had become her good luck charm.

“Thank you.”

Homa whimpered. She was going insane. She really was going insane.

But–

Everything she was doing was insane.

Everything that was happening was insane.

Nothing could be the same again after this, no matter what happened.

Not Homa herself, not Kreuzung, and maybe, not even the Shimii of Tower Eight.

“I have to stop Kitty.” Homa told herself. “I can’t let more people die senselessly.”

That Leviathan was not just going to kill irate Imbrian guards accosting her.

And that Leviathan was not going to be the end of the horrors unleashed this day.

Homa had to fight, she had to stop this whole nightmare from growing worse.

That determination was the only thing keeping her holding on to that ladder.

Keeping her from the infinite abyss of water below. As insane as that thought was.

She reached a shaking hand up to the next handhold. She still could not see the top.

But she climbed with all of her might regardless. She could not let herself stop.

Step by step, as long as it took, giving everything she had left.


Two trams to Tower Eight had been reported “hijacked” and “commandeered” by the tower’s Shimii in a brazen show of civil disobedience of the Kreuzung curfew. Responsibility for capturing the ringleaders and breaking up the hijackings fell onto a small squadron of K.P.S.D, the Kreuzung Public Security Department. Six men with assault rifles waited with bated breath on the platform. They had no way to stop the trams, physically, so they were waiting to threaten whoever stepped out.

The Volkisch troops had an acrimonious relationship to the K.P.S.D, who were still largely under the command of the liberal government of Kreuzung. The Volkisch would not assist them closely.

They had more important places to protect, such as the manses and wealthier districts.

The bulkhead began to rise into the Kreuzung Core’s end of the Shimii tower’s tram bridge. As the headlights of the tram shone into the gloomy tunnel, the men stationed there nearly jumped. They raised their assault rifles and began scanning the windows of the incoming trams desperately. They stood, for a few minutes, looking through the irons of their rifles, until the doors opened.

They remained standing for only a few seconds after that.

Spatial Control.

Majida appeared between the men and swung her diamond blade like a studded club.

Had she engaged the motor there would have been blood and skin flying and gore spilling.

But there were too many decent people watching– and it was not necessary.

With Majida’s God-given strength, she beat each man to the ground in a flurry of attacks.

Swinging at knees, shoulders, flanks and arms under the intermittent lights of the platform.

There was no retaliation. Every blow broke a bone on the unarmored, flatfooted men.

In moments, they were crawling on the floor, and Majida had secured their weapons.

From the tram, the group of young men and women who had been following behind her tied up the guards inside the booth and locked them there, as they had done before. They were all armed with rifles taken from the guards, but Majida ordered them to drop the things in the booth and lock them in with the handcuffed and gagged guards before entering Kreuzung. Instead, she ordered them to grab the men’s stun batons, and a riot shield that was locked up in the booth in an emergency gear kit.

“None of you know how to shoot, and if someone sees you with the guns it’ll be mayhem.”

Majida’s judgment was quickly supported by the older women following behind.

“I’ll need some of you to stay here and let everyone know what’s going on!”

Each tram could pack only pack in so many people out of a population of thousands– their impromptu evacuation would take a lot of trips. Majida could not guarantee everyone would be able to leave, but she wanted as many as possible to be able to escape. They would need to go somewhere– not the Pavilion shopping center, though they might have to. There was an enormous park that could be accessed from it. Majida ran from the tram station to try to reconnoiter that park.

When she entered the Pavilion she thought she would see more Imbrians and guards around. The top floor of the Pavilion had been vacated quickly. While it was level to the highest point of Tower Eight, it was below the midsection of Kreuzung Core and there were habitats right above it. She could still see small crowds of people in the tiers below, perhaps trying to get to the lower habitats. There were a few broken storefront windows and some people rummaging, and there were lost and bewildered people in their ones and twos throughout, and a few distracted guards here and there, but in terms of the chaos Majida had thought she might see, it was downright peaceful at the top of the Pavilion.

“Hey! Shimii, the fuck are you doing here? There’s a shelter in place–”

Spatial Control.

Majida cleared the hole in the middle of the pavilion through which the spiraling staircase descended connecting the floors. She battered a K.P.S.D guard on the other side through a storefront window with her reappearance. An Imbrian woman who saw it took off running the opposite direction. Majida looked around. It’d be so convenient if she could set these bastards on fire– having to restrain herself meant abusing abilities she was far less practiced in. Her troubled breathing betrayed weariness.

“Damn it, if this tires me out–”

While catching her breath, she let herself trail off.

There were far too many things she needed to do that required even more power.

From the Pavilion’s top tier, Majida made her way through the northeastern exit, a glass and gold filigreed archway. There was a long and wide hall beyond it with a few more closed businesses that led to a broad and high fountain plaza breaking up the mall’s hallways. This was the place Majida remembered from wandering around Kreuzung the past week. A couple thousand folks could loiter in the park and its adjacent halls comfortably. There were no Imbrians around, not even the guards or any public workers. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but there were a few places for the older folk to sit, and at least it was safer than staying in the tower. Majida doubled back toward the tram station–

“Madiha! Madiha al-Nakar, is that you? Madiha, please–”

Majida looked over her shoulder, recognizing that deep, girlish voice even in whimpers.

She turned around to find Homa Baumann running from the other end of the park.

Her work jumpsuit was completely drenched and dribbling a little trail of water. It was like she had fallen into the ocean, she had salt in her hair, her skin was clammy, her body was shaking. Majida stood speechless as the girl stopped in front of her and doubled over, a vibrodagger in one hand and an electric torch in the other, gasping for breath, feet trembling as if hardly able to bear her weight. She couldn’t imagine where this girl had been or what her body had been put through.

“Madiha– Madiha, please–”

“Calm down. I’m here. What happened to you?”

Majida briefly knelt down, until Homa forced herself back to a stand again.

She wiped her sleeve over her face, leaving behind a bit of salt on forehead and eyelids.

Her eyes were blaring red.

She was crying; and she was must have been crying a storm before.

Or she had been swimming with her eyes open and without protection.

“Were you in the station interstice?” Majida asked, putting the pieces together.

“Madiha–”

Homa stopped and caught enough of a breath to speak a full sentence.

“Madiha, I have to stop it. The Core Separation. I know who did it!” Homa whimpered.

“Kid that’s a really hard sell right now, you realize.” Majida said.

The girl grit her teeth and closed her fists and stomped the ground.

“G.I.A. agent! Kitty McRoosevelt! B.S.W. dock! She did it– Katarrans– she did it–”

Homa devolved into shouting names, but what blew Majida away was that she was correct.

In that moment Homa Baumann truly did know exactly who was responsible for their crisis.

She knew where they were and what they had done– and she was trying to stop them?

How had she gotten mixed up in this? But she knew the truth, there was no denying it.

Knowing the truth wasn’t enough, however. This crisis had a scale far beyond Homa.

It was insane to think that she could do anything to change the course of these events.

Majida grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Homa, I believe you, but you can’t stop this.”

“I have to!” Homa shouted at the top of the lungs. “I have to stop it! I have to go–”

“You’re going to get yourself killed! You need to stay put here! I’m bringing Kladuša!”

“Kladuša? You mean– Leija–”

For a moment, Homa’s eyes drew wide, and her expression grew paler and more distant.

“Is– Is Leija okay?” Homa asked.

“Yes. She’s taking charge of evacuating tower eight. It’s not safe there.” Majida said.

“It is safer than here, Khaybari. You cannot bring them here.”

Majida and Homa turned in the direction of the third voice.

Deep, breathy, spoken through the audio outputs of a fully sealed power armor helmet. Standing suddenly in the middle of the park was an enormous figure in a cloak and black power armor, an entire suit. His armor shimmered wherever a LED from the roof shone on the plates, in a dazzling pattern.

His helmet was shaped to include covers for his ears, as well as the vaguest representation of a real cat’s snout, housing his rebreather and audio output, a face like no Shimii on Aer actually had, for they were all fundamentally human in nature. His tail moved freely behind him, with flexible plates over the top, but below the armor, she caught a glimpse of tattered and scarred flesh with patches of grayed fur. He was taller than the two of them, well over two meters, and with his powered armor, he was much broader.

There he stood, implacable, making no movements, like a statue peering at them.

A living legend to the Shimii, a man who had risen out of the short-lived “Age of Heroes.”

“Ra–”

Homa’s voice was barely audible. She choked, sobbed. Her arms shook.

She peeled herself from Majida and turned and took bewildered steps forward and back.

“Radu– Why– You’re–”

Majida grit her teeth and said his name and title like a curse.

“Radu the Marzban.”

“Majida al-Khaybari. Stay away from the girl.”

His voice sent a shiver through her, not because of any power it then contained, but–

He had said her real name aloud so nonchalantly.

And it caused Homa to look over her shoulder, flashing a look of fear.

“Majida– Majida al-Khaybari–? Radu– you said–?”

Homa nearly fell from the anxiety of that moment. Majida’s felt a bitter swell in her heart.

It was like she didn’t know whether to step back and away from Majida or from Radu.

Like she was caught between two monsters and her brain could barely process it.

Majida hated it. She hated that the girl who wanted to rely on her was now terrified of her.

Homa Baumann had been lied to so much. And now Majida had lied to her too.

“Kid, I’m really sorry! But I’m not here to hurt you, or the tower’s Shimii!” Majida said.

“Your reckless actions and incitements have already brought them harm.” Radu interjected.

Majida closed her fists. She wouldn’t take that lying down– not from this bastard!

“That’s quite rich to hear from some gallivanting bandit who hasn’t done shit for them!”

“You broke the agreement which guaranteed their safety. You crossed a line.” Radu said.

“An agreement for them to be trapped in a ghetto without even the control room keys?”

Radu stood unfazed by her shouting. “An agreement to prevent further bloodshed.”

“You fucking traitor!” Majida shouted. “Do you really think you’ve prevented anything? If you approve of this ghetto then all you’ve done is agree to killing these people slowly rather than quickly! At least in a fight they would have agency over themselves! You’ve got them confined to a prison!”

“They are not ready to fight, so defying the Imbrians is nothing but choosing their death.”

Radu stood implacable, unmoving.

Majida clenched her fist so tightly it began to heat up, to flicker with stray fires–

Homa walked a few steps in Radu’s direction and interrupted the shouting match.

“Nobody has to die!” Homa shouted. “Radu, you’re here to stop this. That’s why you came here right? You knew there was going to be a crisis coming. So you met with Leija and that’s why she chose me to work for Imani. You know about Kitty, don’t you? You’re going to stop her. You’re going to stop her and stop all of this, and then nobody will get hurt. Please tell me I’m not wrong about this, Radu.”

Judging by her broken tone of voice, Homa’s rambling was willful self-delusion.

Homa have already suspected what Majida knew the moment she saw that armored freak.

“Homa, you need to rejoin our people and return to Tower Eight now.” Radu said.

That bastard Radu wouldn’t do anything! He was just here to corral the Shimii back to the ghetto!

“Radu,”

Homa’s shock-wide eyes streamed more and more tears down her cheeks.

Her lips trembled. She had a wild expression on her face.

“Radu, you’re a hero right? You– You have to be here to save everyone– Please–”

Radu the Marzban stepped forward, his heavy armored boots thudding loudly on the floor.

“Our people will be safer by standing aside and letting the Imbrians solve their own problems.”

Homa’s shoulders slouched, her arms slowly losing their strength. She looked faint.

Majida could see her aura spiraling. She was experiencing heartbreak, disillusionment.

“She believed in you; all of them did. And people call me an illusionist, you vile fraud.”

“Majida– Please don’t insult him.” Homa said. Her trembling words pleading her.

She called her by name, but she did not say it like a slur. Majida was taken aback. “Kid–”

“Please. Majida– just let me talk to him. So, then, Radu– do you care about me at all?”

Homa turned from Majida back to Radu. It was impossible to tell the man’s response.

In that occluding shell of metal, there was only his voice. No gestures, no expressions.

“I swore I would protect you. You and Leija Kladuša. I want you to be safe.” He said.

“Radu, if you want to protect me and you want me to be safe then please listen,”

Majida could see a strip of black color forming along the edge of Homa’s aura.

“Radu, I’m an Imbrian too.” Homa said. “I’m not just a Shimii. I’m also Imbrian.”

Those words came out with such an audible pain. Like spitting out a rotting, hanging tooth.

That pathetic little voice made Majida want to tear up with sympathy. That poor girl was in tatters.

Homa gathered her breath again. She spoke, with a few pauses, a few more breaths.

But more eloquently than Majida had ever heard her. She had been thinking this over.

“This isn’t a problem for the Shimii alone. People all over this station could die. People are dying as we speak. Whether from violence or neglect or accidents, people are dying, Radu. And I could’ve done something to stop it. But I made all the wrong choices. Everything is really, really hard for me Radu. Ever since you left me here, I’ve never been just a Shimii, and I’ve never been just an Imbrian. I’m enough of both to be hated by both, and not enough of either to be loved by either. Our worlds are so separated that I don’t even know how it was possible that I was born like this. But I’ve seen innocent people in both those worlds who don’t deserve this. People who don’t deserve to have their lives toyed with by Kitty or by Imani or anyone. I was so stupid. I wanted to play the big hero and to stop the bad guys, I tried to make everything so simple in my head so I could feel okay sitting around or running away. I never understood how complicated it was– I never even knew what it really looked like when someone died. But Radu, you’re back– you’re the real hero of this story, aren’t you? Radu the Marzban.”

Homa reached out her hand. Tears still streaming down her eyes, teeth chattering.

“Please–” She begged. “Radu, you can stop Kitty and save the Station right now. Right?”

In that moment, a sudden vibration transferred through the floor and into their bodies.

Far in the distance, there was the muted sound of a blast. And then a second, a third.

Rumble after rumble, causing the lights to blink even more than they already were.

Not an earthquake, not enough to shake everyone to the floor.

But Majida felt it in her gut. They must have all felt it.

She could imagine the ships outside, jockeying for position, cannons roaring.

The Republic of Alayze versus the Volkisch Movement, now in earnest.

“Kitty’s cavalry is finally throwing its weight around.” She murmured to herself.

Homa’s hand hung in the air unanswered. Even through the rumbling, she held out hope.

Then, Radu the Marzban extended his own hand return.

Raising his palm to her as if to squeeze her head from afar. “King’s Gaze.”

From around him, his aura began to extend like a mantle, smothering Homa’s own.

Dark green tendrils leaped out from him and coiled around Homa like snakes.

“Homa, you will return to Tower Eight. You will help the Shimii to return to safety.”

Homa’s tiny tail ceased fluttering, her ears drooped, her posture started to slouch.

She struggled as if trying to speak but unable to– she was unable to resist him.

His dark green aura tinted her own, flooding her with unbearable hopelessness–

In the next instant, Majida simply reacted, her sense of justice and outrage grown too hot.

“HOMA, RUN! RUN NOW!”

Vanishing from her spot, she appeared in front of Radu as if in mid-sprint.

With her fist already wound up for a strike.

Align one vector with my arm, use spatial control to cut the distance, and PUSH!

Putting all her strength both physical and psionic into one punch–

–connecting right into Radu’s armored sternum with the force of a cannon shell.

His aura scattered in every direction like a bursting balloon as Majida struck him.

Radu staggered back, his feet lifted and gliding over the metal floor for several seconds, before planting his greaves and going to down to one knee. That he didn’t tumble rear over head was a testament to his might, managing to grind himself to a stop. Nevertheless, a deep rift the size of Majida’s fist appeared on his mighty chestplate, exposing torn up artificial muscle and power cables and the innermost layer of armor lattice, streaked a moist red. His psionic hold over the girl was instantly broken. Majida stood between him and her, her own aura beginning to expand to potentially counter his influence.

She grinned with false confidence, looking over the outcome of the attack with fangs bared.

Ah– I really hoped I would do more than that. Killing him would’ve been nice.

Several of Majida’s fingers screamed with pain, feeling like hot jelly inside her gauntlet.

Katarran power armor was fearsome stuff. Majida’s body was shaking from the effort.

Raaya, I’m so sorry– you really married such a hot-headed and foolish woman.

Look what I’ve gotten us into, playing the hero for some kitten. Allah give me strength.

She glanced behind herself and saw Homa take off running as fast as her legs could sustain.

That kid had really put her in a spot. Majida could only hope she was running back to Leija.

But she couldn’t be responsible for her anymore. She had done all she could for her now.

As Radu moved to stand, he reached behind his back and withdrew a folded vibro-weapon.

Grinning, Majida outstretched her arms, a growing pyrokinetic fire in each of her palms.

“No onlookers. I can put an end to your legend as viciously as I desire.” She said.

“You are nothing but a pathetic imitation, with none of His grace and majesty.” Radu spat.

Radu engaged his vibro-halberd, and Majida felt a vicious excitement overcome her.

”Your meaningless defiance dooms all of our kin. I will impress upon you the order of things, Mahdist.”

Majida grinned. ”Rashidist scum always bending the knee to some reprobate. I’ll burn your order down.”


Danger! Danger!

“I know! I’m running!”

Homa clutched the necklace in hand and ran as fast as her abused legs could muster.

She was crying from such a depth in her heart, she had no idea how many more tears could be left, it felt like she would cry blood next. Sorrow in her chest like tight thorny coils constricting her heart and lungs. Her entire body was a knot of pain, but nothing hurt more in that moment than her heart or spirit or whatever it could be called. She couldn’t believe it– it was just too painful. She was heartbroken.

Why, Radu– why would the Marzban–

He was supposed to be a hero!

He was supposed to stand up for the Shimii!

Radu the Marzban, stalking the deep oceans and dark shadows of the Imbrium, punishing the Imbrians, raiding those who hurt or exploited the Shimii, giving his treasures to the needy folk and protecting their homes. Where had that man gone? Had he ever even existed? Hadn’t he saved Homa’s life? Hadn’t he protected Leija when she was in danger too? Had it all been just lies all along?

“He’s just following the Volkisch’s twisted plan! They’re not going to do anything!”

What did Homa care if he thought about her safety personally? If he cared about her?

“He’s a monster! All of his rhetoric! Majida was right! He’s nothing but a fraud!”

She could understand Imani– Imani was supposed to be the villain, wasn’t she?

And maybe– maybe Imani was just an idiot swept up in things like Homa was!

But what happened to the hero? Why wouldn’t Radu move a muscle to stop the crisis?

If he wasn’t going to stop the tragedy befalling the station, Homa could only hate him!

In that moment, her entire heart hated him! She hated him and she couldn’t stand him!

All of his stupid legends, his mythical deeds, the great bandit, the bringer of retribution!

Instead he wanted the Shimii to return to their ghetto as the station collapsed around them!

“Bastard! Useless, worthless evil bastard! You’re no hero! You betrayed us all!”

There were no heroes! The Shimii had no Knights, no soldiers! It was all stupid fantasies!

Even the armor-clad legend from the Shimii’s heroic era stood back and let all this happen!

I’m such an idiot! I kept thinking there was anything to the fact that he saved me!

Homa grit her teeth. She barely knew where she was running– it was all automatic.

What could she do now? What could she even do? Everything, everyone, had betrayed her!

You Are Courageous.

In her mind, that gentle voice to which she had no answer.

Homa paused, standing in front of the elevator down from the Pavilion.

She saw a group of Shimii trickling in from the tram station.

Where she was, she could still get to B.S.W. She could still confront Kitty herself.

Follow Your Heart.

Homa.

That little voice had so much trouble pronouncing her name.

It was the most tinny and unnatural thing it had said. Like it was making a huge effort.

Homa smiled to herself.

Whatever it was– it really did believe in her, didn’t it?

“I’m going crazy, little guy– but you’re really the only one who followed me here, huh?”

She was just talking to herself. There was no ‘little guy’. Her necklace couldn’t speak.

But the idea that she wasn’t alone after all gave her comfort and even courage.

Without even wondering whether the elevator was operational, she set her destination.

Down to the habitat below, across a hall, to a service elevator, down to the grimy depths.

Somehow, everything was still operating. Her luck had held out.

Homa made her way as fast as she could down to Bertrand Shore Works’ ramp.

She covered her mouth immediately at the sight she uncovered there.

A war zone, dominated by the scent of smoke and metal. That metal both the spent shells on the ground and from the iron in the copiously running blood. At the bottom of the ramp, the main bulkhead into B.S.W.’s dockyard had been blown open. There was a collection of human bodies in dark uniforms, collapsed at the door, collapsed at the walls around it, with a leg out of the door, with a leg or an arm peeking into the door and only hints of a red mess beyond it. Blood and bits pooled at the bottom of the ramp, a sea of unmentionable fractions belonging to once-whole bodies. On the wall across from the shattered bulkhead, were hundreds of marks the size of Homa’s fist left on the thick metal.

Dead bodies– so many dead men. Homa raised her hand to cover both mouth and nose rather than the mouth alone. Slowly, as if she feared rousing the ruined bodies, she moved forward step by step. Along with the bodies there was all sorts of equipment thrown about. Discarded assault rifles and grenade launchers, riot shields splintered to pieces. There were bits of drones scattered around, stray rotors and camera bodies and eerie cylinders on shattered legs and wings with flashing LEDs that made Homa fear them being undetonated mines or bombs. She could barely stand to look at any of it.

She neared the bulkhead, step by tenuous step, keeping her head level, to avoid them

Near the door–

she felt a touch.

Homa screamed and leaped back and nearly the dropped the knife in her free hand.

Off to the side of the bulkhead was a man, staring up at her, eyes foggy.

“Turrets.” He mumbled. “Turrets. Out there.”

His shoulder shook, but he could not move his arms anymore.

Unlike many of the bodies around him, he was not missing limbs or turned to paste.

However, he had dark-red, viciously bleeding wounds on his chest.

Homa knelt down in a sudden impulse of human sympathy–

Before seeing the red and white armband emblazoned with a black symbol on the man’s uniform.

She nearly fell to the floor behind herself, standing up to full height clumsily.

That symbol greatly troubled any sympathy she was feeling. She could not help him.

Peeling herself from the sight, she stacked next to the open door.

From her pocket, she withdrew the guard’s flashlight she had picked up and threw it.

It didn’t make it to the other side of the door before a shell sailed across the door.

Breaking up into pieces on the opposing wall and splitting the flashlight in two.

Homa covered her face, but her reaction would’ve been useless, had there been a blast of shrapnel she would have already been pierced before she could even bring up her hands. Regardless she could not fight her instinct, so she huddled quietly beside the door as if time would heal her invisible wounds.

When she finally worked up the guts to move again, she cried out.

“Kitty! Kitty, it’s Homa! Please stop the shooting! All the men here are dead!”

She yelled in the direction of the bulkhead, unable to look through it.

“Kitty please! I just want to talk to you! I came all this way! Please!”

Homa thought she heard laughter, faintly, from the direction of B.S.W.

“Run through quickly.”

Kitty had raised her voice, but it was still barely audible.

Regardless, Homa took the chance she got. If Kitty was lying then this was it.

On the literal threshold toward the potential end of her life.

Eyes shut, teeth grit, head down, Homa ran headlong out of the bulkhead.

Her legs screamed from the effort, her arms, her stomach, everything hurt immensely.

Every effort was pure agony, sweat like cold razors down her back, burning nerves.

But that pain meant she was still alive, still running forward.

She opened her eyes, and quickly shut them again.

All around Kitty’s yacht were katarrans in a similar state to the men in the ramp.

Around their bodies were the remains of what seemed like dozens of drones.

Atop the yacht, Kitty’s cannon turret continued to watch the bulkhead silently.

Through snatches of vision, Homa made it past the charnel house and around the Yacht.

Doubling over on the open space where she had been working on the Yacht’s paint job.

Gasping for breath, sweat dripping down her face and stinging her eyes.

Through the haze of exhaustion she finally saw her.

Kitty McRoosevelt, sitting with her back to the yacht. Her blond hair disheveled, her coat over her lap and legs, soaked in blood. She had a ruggedized suitcase-computer, perhaps for the turret controls. Across her cheek was a deep gash that streaked the lower left side of her face with blood. Her shirt looked like she had spit up on herself. There were signs of chaos around her. More unfortunate Katarrans. More drone remains. Dozens of blackened spots on the floor, even small holes. Explosive munitions? Homa did not know enough about weapons to put together what could have happened in more detail.

She still had her life, but she was standing among the dead.

There was no processing this for her battered brain. Her head was blank of anything.

Anything, except–

“Kitty. Please stop all of this. Please order your men to fix the core and leave.”

From the floor, Kitty scanned her face for a moment. She smiled.

“It crossed my mind. Once or twice. But they won’t listen to me– not anymore.”

Homa closed her fists and shouted.

“Don’t make excuses! You’re the boss of these people aren’t you? Make them stop!”

It was childish. It was always a childish, simplistic fantasy.

To think there was any “stopping” what had been unleashed here.

“Those soldiers in the Core Pylon are resolved to leave only in caskets.”

As if to demonstrate the depth of the crisis–

Kitty briefly moved aside the suitcase computer,

and the coat she had on her lap,

just enough to show Homa,

how her legs, or what remained of them,

were no longer part,

of what was recognizable as Kitty McRoosevelt.

“There’s so much blood.” Homa gasped. Her mind reeled. She only retained a glimpse.

And even then. That blurry red and brown and black photograph in her memory.

Was the most horrible thing she had ever seen up close and in detail.

“I’m going to die, Homa.” Kitty said. She hid her wounds again.

Faced with the severity of Kitty’s situation, Homa could not barrage her with all of the admonishments and hatred that she had planned to unleash. There was no point to it anymore. For Homa, the most hateful little thing she was capable of in that moment was that she suppressed the idea of offering to get Kitty medical attention. She knew in her condition, with how much blood she had lost, and God knew how deep her injuries truly went, it was pointless to offer or to withhold such an offer.

It made no difference either way– just the same as attacking her rhetorically.

Instead, Homa felt nothing but pure, crushingly silencing misery.

She couldn’t even ask ‘why’? She couldn’t even ask ‘what for’?

Why did I get jerked around like this? Why did she have to hurt everyone so much?

For what cause; for what creed. It didn’t matter. And she became afraid to say it.

As if those questions had a devastatingly pointless answer that would kill her to hear.

Kitty averted her gaze. When she looked off into the distance, even with all her wounds.

She looked beautiful. Tragically beautiful and peaceful.

Like someone– who shouldn’t have done this. Who should have been better than this.

“Homa, I wish that I could say that I’m dying without regrets, because maybe it would assuage your tender little heart. I thought that I was hard enough, that I had fully prepared myself for it– but death has broken me.” She lifted a weak arm, holding herself. Weeping. “I’m so scared. At first, it hurt so bad. I thought I would die of shock. But now it’s numb. All of my guts are cold below this suitcase. Don’t let anyone tell you they can stare death in the face and laugh, Homa. They just don’t know– your own death will be so much different than when you see others die, even others that you deeply love. It’s so terrifying– I wish I could turn back the clock on all of it, Homa. I really, truly, wish I could.”

Homa averted her own gaze from Kitty.

“Don’t talk so much. It’ll only make it worse.” Homa said.

Maybe she meant Kitty’s injuries. Maybe she meant her own instead.

At that moment, her thoughts were so mixed up that she didn’t even know.

“I was fucked up from the start.” Kitty said. “You were a poor little thing, Homa, you had no choices, but I had everything the world could give. My family had humble wealth, we were a military family with connections, we were on the cusp of being a political family. I wanted adventure, thrills, to hold people’s lives in my hand like pieces in a game. I thought I was on top of the world and invincible. With all of the might of the greatest country in the world behind me. But I was fucked up from the start, Homa. I was never good. I was never going to be good. Because I chose to do all of this, and nothing else.”

“Shut up.” Homa said. Speaking through renewed sobs. “You’re not dead yet are you?”

“I am dead, Homa. Maybe you have the power to talk to corpses. Because I’m truly dead.”

Kitty’s arm struggled to move, but she produced something from the pocket of her coat.

A little black plastic gadget with a laser emitter. It scanned Homa’s face.

She put it on the ground and then slid it toward Homa. It stopped short of her boots.

“I’ve been dead since the beginning. I have a dead woman’s name. But you’re alive, Homa.”

In that moment, the station rumbled again. It was stronger at B.S.W. than at the Pavilion.

B.S.W. was closer to the ocean. All of the shockwaves from the munitions were closer too.

“Homa. The Volkisch are going to attack this place again and again. I expect there will be more suicide drones deployed. My turret is on its last drum of ammunition, and I’m a dead woman. You still have a chance at life. You can either run into the station interstice, or back the way you came, but in either direction, you will still be stuck inside here, without any power or hope, beset by enemies.”

She looked over her shoulder at the berths and smiled.

“Homa. You need to go out there. It’ll be risky– but I can help you escape into the water.”

Those words broke Homa out of her stupor.

Escape.

Into the water.

Leave Kreuzung and sail out into the open ocean. Wasn’t that what she wanted?

It felt so long ago, that wish of hers, it felt like a fantasy from another era.

“Can you do something for me, Homa?” Kitty asked.

Homa bent down to pick up the little gadget Kitty had slid toward her.

“What is it?” Homa asked.

Kitty smiled at her again. She looked strangely serene.

From the pocket of her coat, she withdrew a ring. A simple silver band.

She put it on her finger.

With that finger, she pointed weakly. Her gentle smile turned into a sharp grin.

“My gun ended up over there. Those drones are scary stuff. Can you bring it to me?”

Homa looked and found the gun on the ground.

She knew what it meant, but she was completely numb. She couldn’t object to it.

Almost mindlessly, she walked over to the gun, picked it up, and walked to Kitty.

Silent, with distant eyes, she handed Kitty the pistol and Kitty took it.

Her hands were shaking harder than ever.

“Homa.” Kitty’s voice was starting to slur. “Is there a Shimii prayer you can say for me?”

Those words turned to leaden weights in the pit of Homa’s stomach.

She had never learned much Fusha or practiced many prayers.

Whether or not Kitty deserved them, Homa could not fulfill this wish.

“I understand. It’s okay.” Kitty said. “Homa, do you think I’ll see her again?”

She showed Homa the ring on her finger again. Homa understood the implication.

Homa Baumann was certain that if there was a blazing fire for evildoers in the afterlife, then Kitty McRoosevelt would be burning in it. No matter what Homa herself wanted in that moment because of her soft heart and how unjust she felt this entire situation was to everyone. Kitty was absolutely hellbound. Perhaps Kitty’s wife would comfort her in the fire of their own making. Perhaps there was nothing hereafter but darkness that was so impenetrable that their souls would never find each other.

Follow Your Heart.

Once again, that gentle little voice had spoken. Homa said what she wanted to say.

“You will.” Homa said. There was little emotion behind it. She couldn’t muster any.

Kitty smiled rapturously. It was this smile, this euphoria, that told Homa the ultimate truth.

She really was going to die. She was dying right now. Maybe– she really was dead already.

In front of Homa’s eyes, was the joyous dead woman, Kitty McRoosevelt.

“Homa, turn around, and put the key I have given you into a hole in the back of my yacht. That will open up the cargo chamber and stand up a vehicle for you. I know for a fact that you can make use of it. Take it and go now. Don’t turn around even once. I don’t want you to remember me like this. From now on, your destiny is out in that ocean. If you want to stop this– then rise up above Kreuzung. Find the Cruiser Eisenhower. There is a recording loaded on the machine. Play it for them, please.”

Homa stood, paralyzed, in front of Kitty.

Then she heard the autocannon above them fire a shot.

“Homa! Turn around and go! Don’t die here! Don’t turn back!“ Kitty shouted.

In a panic, Homa did turn from Kitty and run to the back of the yacht.

She found the obvious hole in the yacht’s flat stern section and inserted the key.

One last time, the key scanned her face from inside the hole with its laser.

Then, the back of Kitty’s yacht began to open, as if unpacking a metal giftbox. Side walls separated at acute angles from the stern plates which lifted overhead, while the floor extended a pair of scaffolds that rolled something out onto the floor of the dockyard and then stood it up, nearly seven meters tall. To think that this was all the “junk” they had casually detected was in Kitty’s yacht and kept under confidentiality. It was a gantry– a gantry for a full-fledged military combat Diver.

Homa found herself in its shadow, looking up in a trance.

Her Volker had been practically nothing but a cockpit with arms, legs, a head and the thrusters.

This was a fully armored military machine with military-grade weaponry and systems. A broad chassis with an angled chestplate tapered into a waist connecting two hip thrusters and the legs to intakes with armored caps. It had sleeker arms than those of the Volker but better armored, with elegant plates patching several gaps. It had a more aggressive and angular profile while maintaining the look of a squat, stanced human with heavy shoulders and a helmeted, visored head atop the chest.

Unlike the Volker, which had a rounded backpack, the backpack equipped on this unit was rectangular and more substantial. Intakes were located on the backpack itself, as well as on the shoulders, and the jets that extended from behind the shoulders and pack almost looked like wings. Two long, rectangular pieces of equipment were attached to each side of the backpack, and there were weapons on a magnetic strip just below the backpack too. A long arm and a folding vibroaxe perhaps. Homa had never seen anything like it. Everything looked so sturdy and tightly packaged, but it looked so much more powerful.

Painted a stark white with red accents. Towering over the bobtailed Shimii.

When she took a step toward it, she saw the laser on the yacht sweep over her face again.

As if in response, the unit bent down to its knees, and the gantry released several cables.

On the Diver, the chestplate split in half to reveal the cockpit, as if beckoning her inside.

Homa stared at the titan of metal in front of her.

Looking down at her own feet and weeping. Wiping her tears for more to take their place.

Leija–

Leija and all of the Shimii of Tower Eight. She really was going to leave them behind.

“I’m sorry, Leija. I’m really sorry. I’ll– I’ll promise– I’ll see you again. I promise.”

All of this time, everything that happened. And they wouldn’t get to talk at all.

It was so stupid, but she really wanted to see her again. She wanted to thank her.

Despite everything that happened. Homa wished she could see Leija again.

But if Homa ran back or stayed here she would be killed by the Volkisch.

Kitty was right. Homa had no place to go but forward. Nowhere to turn back to anymore.

She climbed up into the open cockpit and took her seat between the controls.

Just as the cockpit closed around her, she thought she heard a gunshot ring out.

Homa would not entertain her imagination of what had happened.

Within seconds of the cockpit doors sealing, her face lit up with the boot-up screens.

Symbols of the Republic of Alayze flashed by. Homa’s eyes darted between them.

Red, white and blue flags; a sigil of an eagle grasping arrows, surrounded by a wreath.

An owl behind a shield; E Pluribus Unum. Finally, the OS booted with unit designations.

A logo for the manufacturer, RAYHEED. A stylized blue and white star.

2nd Generation Model RYHD-08 S.E.A.L “Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: Delta.”

Heavy Assault Platform was the unit role. She was just mindlessly reading things.

“Freedom and peace, even if it costs our souls.”

Homa read the motto and it sent a chill down her spine. She gripped the control sticks.

Tested the pedals, disengaged the acceleration locks, checked the battery and fuel levels.

With a slight tilt, she moved the machine– made it stand upright.

That sense of shifting metal around her, movement, mechanical, kinetic.

She faced the open berth in front of her and the darkness beyond it.

Kitty must have set the berths to two-way automatic entry. Homa could escape into the ocean.

Her eyes scanned her various cameras, the screen with the weapons display.

She took in a deep breath. This wasn’t a dream, or a fantasy. Her body was screaming at her too much for that to be the case. Her brain reeled with all that she had seen, in the span of hours she felt like everything in her life had been broken to pieces she could not put back together. Now there was death at every turn. She wanted to scream, to cry even more, but she couldn’t wait any longer.

It was a nightmare–

But she was no longer entirely powerless within the grasp of the schemers around her.

Feeling a rising sense of urgency, of catharsis, pain and adrenaline mixed–

“Homa Baumann, S.E.A.L. Delta! Launching!”

Homa cried out as heroically as she could and the Delta threw itself forward into the berth.

As soon as it closed behind her, and as soon as the exterior door began to flood.

She slammed on her pedals and pushed her control sticks forward with all her strength.

Surging out of Kreuzung and into the chaotic Imbrium ocean outside the walls.


Over Kreuzung’s aquaspace, ten ships of the Republic Navy had descended into the crater. Long, boxy profiles with heavily armored prows, thick conning towers and fins, unmistakably utilitarian and mass produced. Their main distinguishing feature were their unmoving rows of cannons which were built into the prow and not on turrets, with limited facing. It was only this weakness which allowed Kreuzung’s defenders to cling on as long as they had during the raid and resist the attackers.

Volkisch patrol cutters and a single Frigate, “flagship” of Kreuzung’s local defense fleet, rounded the towers and the core station, keeping mobile and coordinating dozens of Divers to slow the Republic’s advance. The Republic deployed their own mecha defensively as they attempted and partially succeeded in descending several vessels in between the eastern towers, Three, Four and Five.

A couple of Republic Frigates managed to break through to the seafloor along with a Troopship while the rest of the force remained mobile and covered the aquaspace higher in the water table. But their entry into the tower was on the opposite side of the complex, at B.S.W. near Tower Eight. And every meter was proving hard fought as the raiders attempted to wind around the southern towers.

Then, just when it seemed like the Republic might have the upper hand, more enemies appeared on the sonar. Unbeknownst to the Republic, they had been compromised, and there would be more enemies than the Patrol fleet coming from all directions. Headed their way first was a Ritter class Cruiser, able to fight ton to ton with any ship in the Republic fleet, the Greater Imbria. Alongside it was a strange vessel, shaped almost like a black manta ray, long with a roughly diamond shaped chassis that tapered into wings housing numerous thrusters, its round deck bearing numerous gun emplacements.

Experimental stealth vessel Mrudah, pride of the Zabaniyah fleet.

Because of its profile and relative quiet compared to the expectedly noisy Greater Imbria, the Republic found it hard to tell the position or even the existence of the Mrudah until it was upon them. The Republic’s Cruiser and remaining Frigates prepared to meet the Greater Imbria specifically, and cannons once again traded blows directly over Kreuzung’s waters, sending great shockwaves below. The arriving Volkisch forces began to accelerate, hoping to take advantage of their turrets against the stationary guns of the Republic ships, while the Republicans relied on their massed raw firepower.

“For fuck’s sakes! Shoot faster! Didn’t we have the cannons retuned?”

Heidelinde Sawyer heaped abuse on her gunners as the Greater Imbria shook around her.

There were no direct hits, but the amount of ordnance hurtling the Cruiser’s way was unnerving. The Volkisch were on edge, and Sawyer nearly jumped when Rue Skalbeck called her name.

“Sturmbannführer! We’ve got a communication from the Mrudah!” shouted the adjutant.

“Put it on for me! The rest of you, I don’t want to see a wasted second in our barrage!”

Regardless of her misgivings, Sawyer then received and accepted a set of battle orders.

The Greater Imbria would continue to engage and draw attention. Meanwhile, from the depths of the Mrudah, the main force of the Volkisch Shimii Zabaniyah got underway, dropping in a dozen Divers from numerous deployment chutes. At long last arriving to fulfill their intentions for Kreuzung.

“Model RM/SF-15X Muawiya. Vesna Nasser, launching.”


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