“It seems hopeless right now, but we are beginning to turn the tide.”
Raul von Drachen reassured his bedraggled-looking intelligence staff, all of whom looked at him with dire expressions before returning to their tasks. Around him, every monitor had some scene of pure chaos. Dozens of dead bodies in failed frontal assaults on B.S.W. dock; some kind of Shimii-related altercation out of Tower Eight that led to tram hijackings and confrontations with the K.P.S.D; all of the concerted ship to ship and diver to diver fighting around the towers themselves which was already inflicting some infrastructure damage; and the continuing presence of armed forces in Kreuzung’s Core Pylon.
It was all darkness and no dawn thus far for them.
He would have described every front of this situation as “fluid.” In the most polite terms.
“Inform the K.P.S.D. that they will suffer retribution from the 7th Fleet if they harm the Shimii from Tower Eight.” Von Drachen told his subordinates. “I am but the messenger and that is my only role, but we have about 10,000 Shimii troops bound for here, and Violet Lehner is very fond of the culture.”
“Sir, the K.P.S.D is voluntarily withdrawing from the southeastern Kreuzung blocks.”
One of the intelligence agents described an unfolding situation–
“It’s probably a coincidence sir, but after the Shimii began their exodus from Tower Eight, a heavily armed group engaged the K.P.S.D lines in the western interstice. They have military grade weapons. K.P.S.D tactical teams are being moved to prevent them from escaping through the southwest main bulkhead. They don’t seem to be trying to stop the Shimii anymore sir. So we may not need to warn them after all.”
How serendipitous! Everything was starting to look up for the Volkisch!
At least, in the long-term strategic lens.
Anything that befell the K.P.S.D. was ultimately good for the Volkisch forces.
They only needed to hang on enough to prevent a total collapse of order in the station.
And only long enough for the rest of the Volkisch’s reinforcements to arrive.
“Interesting. A heavily armed group openly engaging the K.P.S.D?” Von Drachen said.
“There is a Cruiser size ship fighting out of the conveyor belt. It’s very strange.”
Because it was the K.P.S.D’s operational area, the Volkisch did not have good visibility.
Von Drachen would have to review the K.P.S.D. footage after this was all over.
“Why does the K.P.S.D not simply let them go?”
“Sir, I think the K.P.S.D is trying to justify its continued existence at this point.”
“What is your name?”
Raul von Drachen smiled at the female officer, a middle aged woman with beige hair tied into a bun and a very conservative approach to her uniform. She looked up at him bashfully from her chair and took a moment before answering. “Sir? My name is Josephine Reim. I’m– nobody important, sir.” She said.
“You are keen and a hard worker. I will be sure to put in a good word for you.”
“Um. Thank you sir.”
He turned to face the screens again. There was little they could do at Laurentius anymore.
Von Drachen had accomplished his tasks to their bare minimum. That was good enough.
All he could do was observe, with a great unearned pride in his calm inaction.
Now it was all up to Vesna Nasser to sort out the rest, in the waters of the Imbrium.
First and most immediately, she realized she was going much faster than she ever had.
Piloting a machine without battery-saving modes and impositions on fuel usage and parts wastage allowed Homa Baumann the freedom to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the components. As soon as she escaped Kreuzung’s core station and emerged into the waters of the Imbrium Ocean she plunged into an incredibly fast dive, unaware that her peak acceleration and slightly downward angle would carry her so far down so fast. Pulling back on her control sticks, she arrested her momentum quickly, the density of the water helping her to stop completely just above baseplate.
She realized that this machine felt entirely different to pilot than her Volker.
“If I can’t get the hang of this I’ll just get myself killed. I should do an equipment check.”
Homa was never unaware of the danger she was in. Off in the distance, her acoustic sensors passively warned her of the dozens of explosions, some of the largest of which generated shockwaves that carried even as far down as where she stood, gently rolling over the hull of her mech but still perceptible. Her combat computer overlaid large yellow targeting boxes on her screen to show her the estimated direction of targets generating large amounts of noise. Nevertheless, Homa stood still in the water.
Going through her controls, extending her arms, twisting the joints, moving the legs.
Boosting, briefly up and briefly back down.
She made a few adjustments to the control sticks and pedals now that she was in the water.
When it came to movement, she was fairly versed in it. She was also handy with Diver melee weapons.
She hoped it wouldn’t come down to shooting the gun– but she felt ready to do it if needed.
In a few minutes, she mapped the limitations and natural habits of the machine that she could observe from its reaction to her controls. It was heavier than the stripped-down Volker she piloted for old Bertrand, and yet, its range of movements was greater, its arms were more flexible, it could execute pretty tight turns, it could accelerate much more quickly to a higher top speed. She needed to know all of these things if she was going to effectively pilot it up above, where there was an actual battle. Homa had no illusions about winning battles, but at least she could take advantage of the agility she had to avoid danger and make her way to the Eisenhower as Kitty had told her. She could stop all of this.
Sitting back in her chair, breathing in. Sweat-soaked, tear-stained, fatigued, hurting.
Homa had never felt the enclosure of a Diver as much as she did in that moment.
Because Kreuzung had become forbidden to her. She could not go back where she came.
Docking at B.S.W. again was out of the question. And now that she was out here in this machine, she had become more of an enemy to the Volkisch authorities than ever before. Homa could no longer envision going back to Kreuzung. Materially, of course; but even psychologically as well. She had left home and could not turn back, not now. So she only had one direction in which she could go.
And therefore, no safety net. Only the walls of the Delta to keep the water out.
She raised a hand from her left stick briefly and put it to her head, sighing.
“Your longest day isn’t over yet, Homa Baumann. Concentrate. It’s all to play for now.”
She tried to psyche herself up, but there was no humor to be had.
This was the grimmest situation she had ever been in. It was nothing short of nightmarish.
That girlish impulse to make light of things and try to act cool couldn’t make a dent in it.
She saw herself briefly in one of the dark monitors, eyes distant, hair disheveled.
In her mind there was a nasty flashback– to Kitty McRoosevelt’s gory wounds–
Homa cringed. “At least I don’t want to end up like that. Let’s just go!”
Her destination was over a kilometer above.
At the site of the naval battle between the Republic and the Volkisch.
Homa slammed her pedals, pulled her sticks back, and the Delta launched skyward.
Water rushed past her, her main camera faced the endless, dark Imbrium. There was no sign of a sky, she could only tell she was rising because she was close enough to the main tower to see the steel structures on its exterior, the laser router contact points and the gates and bridges and berth doors and other landmarks, descending rapidly past her. Marine fog and tiny animals swept down at her. Held breaths as if any second she would see a change, as if the waters would part to let her through.
On the edge of the screen a flashing red box appeared noting the direction of an attack.
A flurry of shells detonated around Homa, forcing her to cease climbing and turn sharply.
Homa traced the intensifying lines of gunfire to a trio of distant Divers quickly closing in.
Each shell exploded into a shockwave that transferred gently into her body, not enough to rock her Diver individually but since there were dozens of shells the continuous shaking unsettled her. Grazes and near-impacts on her armor chipped away at it, not enough to penetrate, but in aggregate she was taking damage. Homa could not tell the caliber but each vapor bubble resulting from the detonations grew to about the size of her head in an instant before collapsing. Her cameras filled with water vapor from the detonations, over and behind and beside her as she swung a semi-circular turn out of her climb.
When the Divers came closer, Homa saw they were the Volkisch Sturmvolker model.
Volkers were known for their rotund armor that made them almost cartoonish, but the Volkisch Sturmvolkers made away with the bathyspheric chassis. Instead, rectangular plates of light armor were packed tight around the square cockpit, and square shoulders and hip joints were added to attach the arms and legs, the silhouette resembling her stripped down Volker. A new, sleeker, more aggressive head was used instead of the traditional Volker head, with more cameras and some helmet armor, and the whole thing was painted black and armed. Homa had seen them around Kreuzung on patrols and saw them on the news as well. She learned about them from a news program, in fact.
Those were not full-length, high-caliber rifles they were holding, but compact bullpups.
Despite this, the hail of automatic fire they were capable of had Homa on edge.
They had come in guns blazing and were repositioning to give chase as she tried to escape.
The Delta was in surprisingly good condition despite all the gunfire, but she couldn’t underestimate them.
Homa tried to give them a wider berth, using her superior acceleration to speed far around them and hoping to find an opening to continue her climb, but gunfire shadowed every meter that she gained on them. She could accelerate faster than them and had a higher top speed, but they were light and quick themselves, with good aim. The speed difference was not enough for her to simply ignore them.
She grit her teeth, feeling vibrations in her cockpit as the exploding bullets inched closer.
Her hands were both shaken and shaking on her control sticks.
She tried to twist suddenly from horizontal movement to vertical, shooting up–
Quickly aborting and diving away from further gunfire.
Those three figures existing in her cameras only as red boxes swerving in the water.
They filled her eyes entirely with the flashing yellow-red blasts of their shells.
Long lines of bubbles cut into the water before the inevitable explosions.
There were so many bullets, and they were beginning to coordinate their shooting.
All of the black lightless water turned to white vapor around her. Shockwaves intensified.
Explosions trailed closer and closer– a direct impact rocked her cockpit–
Her chest tightened. She was giving it everything– and she still couldn’t break free–
And the sky remained barred from her.
Chaos still unfolding; time still ticking–
She had to stop it! She had to!
“I’ve had it. I’ve had it! You asked for this!”
Homa quickly lifted her hands from her control stick and tapped a touchscreen.
On her magnetic strip, the “GA2 30mm Machine Gun” released.
She reached the Delta’s arm behind its back, taking the weapon into one hand. Its stock extended and locked into a slot on the Delta’s arm for stability in one-handed firing. A box-like weapon lock burst from around the barrel into the water around the Delta. An ammunition counter and heat indicator appeared on the weapon status monitor just below her line of sight as the weapon armed.
“I’m not fucking afraid of you!”
One fluid motion; Homa cut the acceleration suddenly and spun the Delta around.
Her gun sight traveled over one of the red boxes as she smashed her triggers down.
In seconds, the XM2 flashed and sent a barrage of dozens of shells slicing across the water.
Two of the Sturmvolker boosted in opposite directions away from the shells, but the unit in the center of the formation caught six high-velocity shells in its midsection, the barrage falling almost squarely on its position. From the distance she was firing Homa could not tell what kind of damage she had done, but the behavior of the unit told her everything she needed. Immediately ceasing movement, it drifted slowly downward and Homa’s flashing red enemy overlay contracted and separated from it to follow the remaining two units, ignoring the stricken one. Homa turned her attention away from it as well.
Her remaining enemies arced away from her in opposite directions, one soaring upward and one spiraling downward as if twin jaws trying to put her in a vice. All the while their guns flashed in the distance and continued to put dozens of tiny blasts near her. Homa tracked them only on her computer with just the faintest visual impression of their actual, physical forms on her various displays.
After firing, Homa charged at full speed while remaining between the two units, swerving from side to side and up and down while carrying as much speed as she could through her corrections.
Unlike them, however, she had the advantage of vastly greater firepower.
Her machine gun had a higher rate of fire, more ammunition and bigger shells.
In the middle of a quick climb to avoid the gunfire from below, Homa flipped the Delta, which had been facing down, such that it was now facing the opponent above while still moving at full speed away from it. On her back, gliding across the water at over 60 knots, Homa aimed for the center of the red overlay box drawn on her monitor, distantly overhead, and squeezed down the trigger for her machine gun.
A few seconds of pressure and her weapon erupted into bursts of dozens of shells.
She could see the lines cut into the water linking her to the target, the rhythmic booming of the detonating shells, the brief and far-off flashes of the ordnance and the water vapor expanding bubbles the size of her whole body. Her face flashed from the gun camera with every burst of gunfire, holding down the triggers and depressing when she felt it was enough. From that section of seemingly empty water that she had turned into a cloud, not a single shell answered her attack.
“One left. One left.”
Keeping the Delta facing skyward, Homa took the machine into a dive.
She twisted in a spiral motion and her enemy climbed in an attempt to go level with her.
Jerking out of the dive, Homa once again cut all speed and stopped with the enemy in sight.
“Get out of my way! You bastards are just making everything worse!”
Homa depressed her triggers–
This time, however, the Volker was within the 60 meters or so where Homa could see it.
It did not change that she ruthlessly opened fire–
But the results were immediately evident.
Firing until the machine gun’s 200 round pack magazine clicked empty and detached.
Watching the Sturmvolker distort under her brutal gunfire.
In that moment, Homa felt like her once-pristine soul had dirtied, the glass edifice of her inner beauty had a crack put it in. Blow after blow from her 30 mm shells, each of which was half the size of her arm and detonated into a blast bigger than herself. Pieces of metal went flying, holes punctured into the cockpit, the limbs of the machine were thrown in every direction, its head smashed to pieces, fading vapor clouds revealing the mangled thing drifting into the dark. A red mix streamed from inside the chest, perhaps lubricants, perhaps blood and gore or both. That violence had been so easy and instant to unleash.
Homa stood with her eyes wide open as the red targeting box vanished.
Breathing deeply, sweat trailing down her nose and lips.
She had killed them. She had killed them all. Fired on them and killed them–
Like they weren’t even human– they were just things in metal bodies– herself too–?
Suddenly another red box flashed at the edges of her vision.
Hitting all of her boosters in a panic, Homa threw herself out of the way–
As a sword sliced past her swung from a sleek, sharp, triangular chassis with a sharp face.
She barely had a moment to think before more bullets came flying in her direction.
Everything shook around Homa as several rounds exploded just off her cockpit.
Gritting her teeth, she slammed the pedals and thrust upward at an angle.
For a split second, she caught the assailant on her cameras, claws, sword, shoulder gun–
Second generation close combat model, Jagd, painted Volkisch black.
That one she had heard about in school– there had been a demonstration–
A roughly triangular, long-armed and short-legged, light and fast killing machine–
School was too distant to think about. It was life or death now.
Within the next breath, the agile Diver had shot up toward sky with her, and with the initiative and better control than the scared Shimii girl the pilot of that vicious machine got within distance again, swiping its vibroblade arm just below her legs. All the while the autocannon on its shoulder dispensed dozens of rounds of a smaller caliber, much like the bullpups that the Volkers had been carrying.
Homa’s armor could withstand the blows but she had already taken several shots and each one of them rattled her brains in her skull and caused her stomach to churn. Her skin brimmed with fear.
Then, with one mighty boost from all of its thrusters, the Jagd suddenly overtook Homa.
Like a predator lunging, pouncing, one shoulder reared overhead, blade coming down.
It was nothing like those bullets– one good swing on the cockpit and she would be dead.
Before she even realized it, Homa had already responded out of sheer instinct.
She withdrew her own melee weapon and instantly swung from behind herself.
The Delta’s vibroaxe engaged with just centimeters between the cutting edge and metal.
Chopping through the enemy’s arm and shoulder, across the cockpit, tearing the pod open.
Froth and gore and metal spilled over all of Homa’s cameras disgorged from the machine.
Resistance from the water arrested the Jagd’s swing, its edge bounced from her shoulder.
Leaving a scratch as the wreck slid back from her, sword buzzing with residual vibration.
Homa hung in the water for a second, watching the Jagd fall away from her sight.
As quickly as it had appeared, lunging out of nowhere’s shadow with naked aggression.
Gone, in a blink. It was a nightmare. It couldn’t be anything but a nightmare.
Everything that she had done, all of the evidence of her violence– it was gone.
They might as well have been phantoms. Attacking from outside her visibility, from outside the thickness of the water that prevented her from seeing farther than out than the length of Kitty’s yacht. Then falling back into it and vanishing. Aside from dissipating bubbles and water vapor, aside from the pits and dents on her armor, there was no evidence that she had enemies– that she killed humans.
“No. Please. No more.”
She was already hearing the familiar alert noise as a red flashing box appeared.
More enemies. Even more enemies–
In the distance, a ship was slowly approaching, sixty meters long.
A conical body with an angled prow and a straight, rectangular conning tower.
Only a few guns across the hull, all of them smaller even than the station defense cannons.
It must have been a Cutter from the patrol fleet, but it was headed right for her.
Had she been out on a gig for Bertrand it would have been a welcome sight, a sign that she was safe and watched over, but she was fighting and killing with the rest of the maniacs involved in this chaos and so she was its enemy, and it was her enemy. Another enemy barring the way up above. Homa almost wanted to stand in place, to be shot and die and disappear with the rest of them, to cease struggling–
On the touchscreen, her shaking fingers selected the “M78 LAW” missile on the backpack.
As soon as it spotted her the Cutter’s double-barreled gas gun opened fire.
Homa launched upward with a lick of solid fuel boost to avoid the attack and launched her missile.
The defensive guns were targeting her, so they failed to shoot down the exceedingly fast projectile.
Arcing out of her backpack and boosting toward the ship, crashing onto the top deck.
Erupting into an explosion unlike any Homa had seen. A vapor bubble the size of the Delta itself tore open the top of the Cutter while the shockwave caused it to bob in the water like a dying fish, rocked by the sheer force. Equipment, tearing armor pieces and unmentionable objects disgorged from the orifice.
The Imbrium’s hungry waters quickly forced their way through the Cutter. Homa watched as its once confident advance toward her came to a halt and its prow tipped toward the seafloor. Runaway pressure damage tore into the interior, nearly split the ship top to bottom as the bulkheads burst from inside out from the pressure. It careened out of sight, crashing into sandy crater below too far away for Homa to hear. On her main screen, the targeting box on the ship remained pinned on it for far too long.
faster than Homa could fear of it
it flashed purple for a moment rather than red.
It was as if the ocean below Homa parted to show her a vision as clear as on land.
Without the veil of darkness she had an impossible, terrifying visibility.
A hideously beautiful, perfect sphere of glowing purple energy lit up the world.
Like the core of some otherworldly weather pattern.
Several alarm sounds, flashing alerts, boxes and overlays warned of the danger.
Homa was entranced, staring down at the approaching purple glow.
Spreading, rising, consuming–
It never got far enough to devour her. Somehow, it ran out of energy with which to hate.
Below her, a circular crater with its walls covered in a hexagonal shaped grid.
Revealed to her for a moment before the water drowned the sight again.
No sign of the ship, not anymore. A runaway agarthicite reaction had annihilated it.
Everything became silent. Homa clutched her necklace. She couldn’t get herself to cry.
“How many people staff a patrol Cutter? It’s like– It’s like sixty or seventy isn’t it?”
In her mind, Homa had killed a hundred– no, hundreds of people. Thousands of them.
Her shoulders and chest shook up. She thought she would vomit right on the controls.
“No.” Homa’s lips trembled. “It’s not you. I– I have to get up there. I have to get up there.”
We Believe In You.
That almost made her weep. Almost. “Thank you. At least I– damn it. Damn it.”
Homa interrupted herself. She had to see this through to end. She had no other choice.
Without any further enemies to stop her, she launched skyward again with renewed haste.
Those words which she had cut off– she had almost said, “At least I know I can fight.”
“Ma’am, the John Brown is out of position! They are moving northeast!”
“God damn it. They’re fleeing– of course we couldn’t count on the fucking convicts.”
The crew held on their stations as a shockwave rolled over the hull of the Republic Cruiser Eisenhower, munitions from the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah detonating haphazardly in the waters around it. A fierce battle had begun over 100 meters above the crown of the Kreuzung Core station, its massive span and the gargantuan crater into which it was set, all forming the backdrop to the fleet’s dizzying exchange of shells and missiles. The Imbrian vessels strafed in a wide circle that prevented the Republicans from scoring direct hits with their static guns, but Republicans had six times as many cannons and rocked the waters around Kreuzung with enormous rolling barrages that shook their enemies’ bridges.
So far, however, they had not managed to slow them down.
Eisenhower was the lead ship of the expedition, and its Captain was decided by democratic vote to be second in command to Kitty McRoosevelt overall, and the overarching decision-maker when it came to fleet combat. But Captain Dianne Smith had little experience guiding entire fleets. As Captain of a Cruiser she was versed in leading her ship’s barrage. She had always taken her orders from others, and now, amid a chaotic situation, she found her focus was narrowed to her ship’s barrage alone, and that she had neglected to give anything but broad orders and communications to the rest.
She had expected the John Brown, largely staffed by the 808th Penal Battalion, to flee.
However, this brought attention to the overall positions of her fleet’s constituent ships.
In chasing the tails of the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah, they were beginning to move out of the range of their mutually supporting flak fire. They would become vulnerable to torpedoes and missiles if they did not regroup, even if some of the smaller ships might have a look at the enemies with their guns. Though it pained her to take the pressure off the Imbrians, she saw no other choice to survive.
“We need to recover our formation! Tell the Frigates to tighten up on us. Send the Divers out to harass the Greater Imbria. That should keep them off our backs until we can regroup!”
Eisenhower and its remaining three attendant Frigates began to reorient, making up for the loss of the escaping John Brown, while their half-dozen S.E.A.L. mecha made up a squadron and sortied, leaving the defensive aquaspace of their motherships. On the Eisenhower’s main screen, a map of the crater with the relative positions of their own Divers was displayed in place of the chaotic predictive imaging. Soon, information on the enemy Diver’s positions was collected and appeared on the screen too.
“The Greater Imbria deployed two Divers, and the Mrudah deployed two additional.”
The Eisenhower’s communications and sonar officers rattled off map updates verbally.
“We have the numbers on them.” Dianne said. “We just have to clinch it.”
Dianne bit the side of her gloved index finger, staring at the main screen.
As if her sheer concentration could change anything. Her heart stirred with anticipation.
Kitty, none of us had any choice, ever since we became trapped here.
All of them had unloaded their responsibilities and culpability on that woman.
And she had gladly taken it all. Even if it was resoundingly unfair. She suffered for them.
They were a fleet of cowards. Dianne could never have deluded herself otherwise.
But they were dangerous cowards. Cowards whom the Imbrians could not treat lightly.
“We’re almost there.” Dianne muttered. “If we get through this–”
“Ma’am! One Diver has broken off from the enemy formation and is headed for us.”
Here’s our chance! Pile on them!
With the advantage of numbers and a haphazard Imbrian formation, they could–
“Ma’am– something’s wrong!”
On the main screen, their Diver squadron had intercepted and surrounded the Imbrian diver.
Its supporting units were hanging back, closer to the Greater Imbria–
In moments, the S.E.A.L.’s positions stopped and became fixed in place.
And the enemy unit continued to move.
“How is it possible? Tell them to destroy that thing!” Dianne cried out.
She turned to her communications officer and the woman turning pale in her seat.
Shaking hands clutched her headphones– staring at her monitor incredulously–
“Pass it through to me!”
Dianne gave the order and donned her own headset, tuning into the Diver’s feeds–
“Agh!! No! I can’t–! I can’t–!”
“We’re going to die–! We’re going to die–!”
“Please spare me! Please– I have a family!”
The Captain was speechless as she heard the cries of her Diver pilots, all of whom fell into a sudden panic, screaming and begging for their lives and crying helplessly without firing a shot at the enemy. They would not respond to being hailed. On the main screen the representations of their Divers, marked by their IFF signal, began to waver and disappear one by one, the audio feeds cutting one after another with horrific atonal feedback noises. In place of each one, the lone Imbrian unit that had moved out of formation moved closer and closer as if sweeping methodically through the S.E.A.Ls killing each unit.
That green and black Diver with heavy armor and winged shoulders–
Its implacable aura of death broke their souls as it marched toward the Eisenhower.
Cresting over the top of the Kreuzung Core, the S.E.A.L Delta piloted by Homa Baumann paused to gain its bearing. There was no mistaking the presence of the combatants nearby. Far below, she could feel the heavy ordnance as vibrations, but above Kreuzung, she was struck by a greater force of the shockwaves, carried on disturbed water seeking a surface to crash upon. She quickly found that she had to keep mobile, or risk being shoved into the station’s ceiling. She could see far off flickers in the darkness, the explosions muted by the distance, the ships battling still out of her limited sight.
But the booming and roaring of the detonations felt clear and close.
Homa looked over the ceiling of the Kreuzung Core, a sight she never thought she’d see.
Inside that tower, Homa was confined to the lower levels and for all she knew, the higher ones must have been a gilded and pristine heaven. Looking at it from overhead, it was not so impressive. There were none of those terrifying domes exposing the inhabitants to the Imbrium. Instead the ceiling was an uneven but closed surface. Near Homa’s vantage there were hatches for vertical berths, as a well as a missile launcher that was facing the enemy’s way, but out of power. There were all manner of sensor towers, some with rotund sonar arrays, some with high-powered lasers. In another world Homa had thought of learning how to fix these to continue her education. Becoming a station engineer, helping to keep people safe.
She was maybe twenty meters above it, but she was above Kreuzung, for the first time.
Such dreams felt lofty and distant now.
She only here to prevent further destruction– not to feel sorry for herself.
“Eisenhower– I have to find the Eisenhower. It would be the biggest one, right?”
In the Delta’s imaging computer, there was a profile for an Eisenhower.
Homa made note of the appearance of the vessel. As soon as the Delta had it on camera, Homa would have a green box pointing out the way to go. With a judicious press of her pedals, Homa advanced into the fog of war, following the dim flashes of the detonating shells. Careful not too move too fast so as to not run right into enemies without time to react to them, but also to retain enough speed to respond.
Within moments, several red boxes appeared, overlaid on distant but approaching targets.
There were several models in the fight which she already knew of, Sturmvolkers and Jagds.
There seemed to be some skirmishing in the distance. Homa hoped not to get involved.
She quickly reloaded her machine gun and kept the weapon on hand.
Water rushed past her, and the yellow munition flashes became closer and larger.
Up ahead, in the parting shadow and marine fog, she saw an enormous green hull.
Like a wall of metal taking up much of her vision. Homa stopped– a green box appeared over the ship. It was a Republic frigate. A boxy hull with retractable fins, a square conning tower, thick cylindrical jets tucked between sixteen-section rectangular rear flaps in the stern section. Even as it moved past Homa, all of its guns were blazing, its dozen defensive gun emplacements firing at unseen threats, its prow-mounted cannons periodically unleashing fast barrages of shells.
Homa found it hard to stay near it– it was displacing so much water as it moved.
And there was so much ordnance flying off it that she was scared of being shot.
“Not the Eisenhower. But I better signal, just in case.”
Reaching for a few buttons off to the side of the left stick housing, Homa turned on her emergency signal. She flipped through the preprogrammed channels on her communicator, hoping she could interject in whatever chatter the Republicans had, but everything was encrypted and her Diver wasn’t decrypting it automatically, so she heard nothing but garbled noise. Homa had never worked with the kind of military communications gear that was in this Diver. She was not sure how to communicate with them.
“Hello! Hello! Please come in! Kitty sent me here! I have a recording for you!”
No response when Homa tried to call them– she really wasn’t able to get through.
Was it because they were in the middle of battle?
Or was she doing something wrong? Which dial or knob should she turn?
“Ugh! I’m such an idiot!“
Homa had to hope they would see the Republic distress signal and contact her instead.
“Maybe the Eisenhower specifically– maybe I can get their attention.”
Hoping that the Frigate in front would not shoot her, Homa climbed several dozen meters up, cresting the top of the ship’s boxy hull and dashing over the top deck. To her relief, none of the gas gun emplacements turned to shoot her. As she crossed over it, however, there was an enormous explosion off the port side of its prow section, and this time, Homa nearly lost control of the Delta.
An immense wave of water poured over the top deck of the Frigate as a munition struck.
Homa rocked in her seat, slamming her shoulder into the side.
She nearly tumbled from the force, expending solid fuel to correct with gritted teeth.
Her toes curled, her fingers gripped the horizontal sticks with all the force she could muster, fearing that they would get pried off their mounts on the sides of the pilot’s seat. Such was the force of the tremor.
Rushing up and away from the ship, she looked at the underside cameras.
Catching a glimpse of the Frigate beginning to sink beneath her.
It would not crash into the Kreuzung tower, thankfully, but this was so dangerous!
If it annihilated like the Cutter that Homa sank–
“Where the hell is the Eisenhower?”
Homa found herself among several enormous, vague shadows each of which floated at the edge of her vision. She saw the gargantuan hulls, each over a dozen times larger than her mecha. All of the hulls had a dozen or more points all along their surface that shone brief in quick bursts, flashing muzzles, sailing comets with tails of vapor, painting distant suns in the darkness. Within these unceasing, incandescent barrages of cannon shells, Homa felt smaller than a single LED in the endless shadows of the Imbrium.
In the dim cockpit her face lit up again and again, every second, with flashes of gunfire.
Rumbling and roaring and crashing noises pounded into her ears through the hydrophones.
She felt as if every single piece of ordnance shaking her cockpit was touching her gut.
For a moment she stood transfixed at the scene of titanic, brutal war before her eyes.
Giants armored in billion times her weight of metal, causing detonations that could vaporize her a hundred times a minute, inexorably moving through the water in such a way that the waves which rolled off them slammed and shook Homa’s armor. Pure engines of destruction. The Delta was big and strong, and she could fight while clad in it, but this was another level of magnitude altogether. There were only three or four ships fighting in this group, and just that was already dwarfing her with its scale.
She recalled Majida al-Khaybari’s words when she told Homa she could not stop this.
At that moment, Homa sucked in a nervous breath.
And as she exhaled, green targeting boxes marked all of the ships as friendly.
One flashed, dead ahead.
Homa immediately slammed the pedals and the Delta thrust headlong toward it.
“The Eisenhower! I found it!”
Amid the three other shadows, there was one vessel half a length longer than the rest.
The flagship, Eisenhower, with the most flashing red guns and searing white projectiles.
Filled with renewed hope, Homa rushed closer, heedless of the gunfire blazing before her.
Climbing over the vast, broad deck of the ship, avoiding the gas gun emplacements.
“How do I broadcast Kitty’s message to them? Come on, one of these systems has to–?”
Homa reached out to the communicator when her face lit up red.
Warning overlay box–
Split into eight–
“No! Oh no!”
Jerking back the control sticks–
Half-second breath held slamming the boost–
Fire, buffeting blasts one after the other–
Barely escaping, hurled from the deck by the sheer scale of the attack.
Within an instant, eight missiles crashed in brutal succession over the Eisenhower’s deck.
Punching a vertical line of craters along the top of the hull that compounded into a runaway fissure from prow to conning tower. Through explosive decompression and flooding the hull was almost split vertically in half. Disgorging massive plumes of gas bubbles, thousands of unmentionable shreds of metal and ripped apart bits of electronic gear, whole rooms and sections peeled like the guts of a deboned beast. Red foaming masses of human interstice within the ship’s effluvia, death, hundreds of deaths rendered impossible to prize apart from one another in the killing mass. Abstracted and turned brutally symbolic.
Absorbed as if into the Imbrium itself. The Eisenhower was gone, destroyed, in a blink.
“No. No way. No, no no no– NO– NO WAY– NO WAY–!”
That helpless Shimii in the stranded Diver slammed her controls, her fists turning red.
“Please no, please. They can’t all be dead– they can’t all be dead–”
She was not being rational. She had not been acting rationally for a very long time.
This was not something that she knew. It was not something someone could know.
When an idea became too big in her head, of course, it sounded the most necessary.
Not rational– necessary. It was necessary, for Homa to “stop this.” It was necessary.
Necessary to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop being manipulated, to take control.
And to confront it, to confront the looming thing and climb on it from the ankles up.
Homa had been used too much. She had felt too much dread, seen too much pain.
In such a state, it was necessary to fight. It was necessary to take control of her life.
Nobody else was trying to stop the tragedy, to stop the killing, to stem the blood.
Why? Why was it only she? And why– why did it end like this? Why did she fail?
“The Volkisch. They killed them all. They let all this happen so they could kill them all.”
Homa’s exhausted, panicking, self-hating, and fundamentally innocent mind, too distracted with punishing herself for her naivety, had never considered the idea that the Volkisch, through the sheer brutal violence of which they were capable of, would ultimately put an end to the battle themselves.
That they could take all the lives that were left to be taken, kill everyone that she had wished to save, and conclude tragedy with tragedy. She had been so focused on turning back the Republic assault, on “stopping Kitty,” on finding a peaceful means through which to reverse all of the violence– that she had simplified the presence of the Volkisch in her mind. But now they loomed larger than ever. Homa had failed to stop the fighting; they had succeeded in crushing all of their opposition through force of arms.
“I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and helpless and useless and worthless.”
Punching her controls between every word. She was already in pain. She barely felt the strikes.
Floating among the debris of the Republic fleet in an Ocean that was suddenly silent and still.
Perhaps she could have saved them if she had been here sooner, been more skilled.
If she had gone to the authorities about Kitty when Imani would not do so.
Maybe if she could have done something about Radu and had secured Majida’s help.
And if she had been stronger. Someone stronger. Someone not Homa Baumann.
“What am I supposed to do?” Homa whimpered. Her strength had begun fading.
Without the adrenaline, she was just–
A burst of arms fire detonated around the Delta’s flank, rocking Homa in her cockpit.
It was a high enough caliber to cause damage and tore a piece off the flank armor.
“Please stop! Please! I surrender!”
Shameful words that she immediately hated saying escaped her lips before she could think.
Her hand shot reflexively to the communicator, slamming the broadcast button.
Jaw clenched, eyes finally finding tears again.
“Please. My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.”
She would go back. She would go back to Kreuzung clapped in chains.
Anything not to die. Anything to be lost in a million pieces in this cold cruel ocean–
“Remain where you are. If you lift your weapon, your life is forfeit.”
There was a voice responding, a woman’s voice. A slight accent– a familiar type.
In a moment, the Delta flashed a red overly off to the left side, and Homa turned to face it.
Her machine gun was still firmly grasped in her hand, but it was pointed below her.
Rapidly approaching, a Diver, green and black, fearsome, large and rugged.
Sporting the same symbols as Imani’s armbands, a black sun, a sword and a moon.
It had a broad chest which sloped from the center, like a rough, angular cone. Two thick shoulders bore a pair of missile racks which it discarded on its approach, as both were empty and dragging. Multiple hydrojets provided a lot of thrust for the bulky frame, with thick, armored arms and legs and a square backpack. Its head had a number of sensors arrayed around it that resembled a crown. Behind its back, the array of jets and control flaps looked almost like an abstract pair of wings.
Homa had never seen this model before. It was no wonder the Republicans had lost.
That machine approached and stopped within fifty meters of Homa. Terrifyingly visible.
“You say you are a civilian? What are you doing out here?” Asked the woman pilot.
“I– I panicked and stole this unit! I wanted to escape the station!” Homa replied.
“You are a terrible liar. But very well. It’s useless to interrogate you here. I’ll take you back.”
“Who are you?” Homa asked. “Are you with the Volkisch Movement?”
Head pounding, voice feeble, breath ragged. The wind had been knocked out of her.
It was all finished–
“Correct. I’m a Volkisch Standartenführer. My name is Vesna Nasser. So, drop your weapons–”
Homa’s eyes shot wide open.
Her head cleared like an explosion had sucked all the brain fog into its flames.
Fingers trembling, hands shaking, feet tapping on her pedals.
Brimming from the back of her neck, down her spine, into her hips.
Homa’s brain filled with weeping faces and grief-filled words–
So much suffering– so many people she had come to care about–
so many more innocents unspoken for that had been hurt–
The Delta lifted its arm while simultaneously boosting backward with all available thrust.
Homa crushing down the triggers as if she could squeeze more bullets from the gun.
With a roar the machine gun sent a chaotic burst of shells hurtling into Vesna Nasser.
Her machine lunged forward and arced up, an immediate response.
Absorbing a few shells but rising out of the way of the attack. She was fast!
“You’re not getting away! This is all your fault! I’m going to– I’m going to–!”
Homa pulled up the machine gun in the midst of firing, sending line after line of burning red trails chasing after Nasser’s wake, her machine rising, circling overhead, fast for its bulk. In her fury Homa turned with the machine but could never put rounds anywhere closer than around the feet, watching with frustration as the Vesna Nasser weaved overhead always a step in front of a long tail of vapor bubbles and yellow splashes of fire. In the midst of her attack, however, she realized an idea–
Suddenly, she boosted aside while firing the gun, leading the shots ahead of Nasser–
One final onslaught from the machine gun before it clicked empty.
A storm of a dozen machine gun shells hurtling into the center of the enemy.
Nasser shot straight down into them, straight down at her.
Several shells crashed into her Diver’s shoulders and chest. Pits, cracks, dents–
Out of each explosion, the diving, rapidly accelerating machine came out undaunted.
Homa’s panicked reflex was to fire her remaining missile, but was it too close–?
Would she survive the explosion–?
Killing people is no joke–
Homa had killed– She could die for this–
I want to live—
Her own pathetic voice in her own mind.
Homa’s hand froze on the missile trigger and retracted, wasting precious time.
“Damn it. Damn it!”
Vesna Nasser bore down on her, suddenly swinging an unfolded and active vibro-halberd.
The Delta’s hand came out from behind its back with an engaged vibro-axe.
Edge met edge, clashing in the water and spreading vapor and short-lived sparks.
Nasser swung her weapon with furious alacrity. Homa gave everything she had to match.
Two Divers in the middle of a cloud of water vapor and drifting metallic debris, blow after blow.
Their cutting edges smashed and blocked and parried in a vicious brawl–
Homa felt feedback from the arm transfer into the side of her cockpit. Harder each time.
She was being pushed back!
For a brief second, she lifted a hand off a control stick and grabbed hold of her necklace.
“I’ll give it everything. I’ll make you pay!”
As soon as her hand grabbed hold of her sticks again, she pushed both forward.
Hit both pedals, engaged all thrusters.
The Delta surged into a wild swing and caught the Halberd under its edge, pinning the weapon.
Slamming suddenly against Nasser’s Diver, the two of them grappling, grinding metal on metal.
Weapons up against their chests, sparks flying between them as the oscillators gnawed.
A contest of pure durability as their weapons and mechs wore each other to pieces–
You’re too weak, little-tail.
That voice did not belong to the “little guy in Homa’s necklace” that she fantasized about.
Too cruel, too cold–
It was Nasser’s voice– but she was hearing it in her head.
Homa was certain it was not the communicator. Nasser was speaking to her, to her mind.
the Delta suddenly pushed back, just enough to give Nasser room to swing.
Weapon rearing up, while Homa’s axe was to her chest, not even in a guard stance.
Homa had not moved it– and Nasser’s mech had not shoved more strongly than before–
How did she get knocked off-balance–?!
You never understood the difference between us.
Time seemed to suddenly stop for Homa.
She felt as if she was suspended, not in metal, but out in the ocean.
Standing across from the tall blond Shimii woman sneering at her in her pilot’s suit.
Homa had the vibroaxe in hand, in her own hands, holding it, feeling its heft somehow.
Nasser, too, had her Diver’s weapon in her real, physical hands, wielding it with ease.
But Homa couldn’t move properly. She was trapped in the instant of their collission.
Between them, hateful red color like a cloud consumed the entire ocean.
“I can feel the anger you have for me. I can see it. You want revenge.”
Nasser’s lips moved and Homa could hear her voice as if standing across from her.
Homa was furious, full of violence, full of dark desire, but–
She couldn’t find the strength to attack again.
In that instant, in this strange space in which she and Nasser were personified–
Nasser was a colossus. She had an overwhelming presence.
Homa’s sputtering wrath was like a candle-fire to Nasser’s volcanic aggression.
She felt like she was choking under the withering hatred of that woman’s gaze.
“You have spirit, but you lack a key element to challenge a King’s power, Homa Baumann. It is not enough to have virtuous words, a cause to fight for or even fighting spirit. A King must have domain over life and death. The power to kill. Not just fight; kill. I will show you the gulf between us, little tail.”
Around Vesna Nasser that nakedly aggressive red color turned immediately, starkly black.
Like the snuffing out of a light, an instantaneous smothering darkness.
Radiating from around Nasser and consuming all of Homa’s surroundings.
Her pitiful little red color was invisible in the pitch black sea.
Homa’s heart sank, her hands trembled, her legs shook. Her head felt empty and airy.
It felt like when Radu reached out his hand to her.
All of her rebellion, all of her emotion, all of her hope and vigor drained from her.
DANGER DANGER DANGER!
That pitiable little voice blared its premonitions on deaf ears.
Despite the urgency of the threat, Homa could hardly make herself move to respond.
Something was squeezing the strength of action from her, and she could only watch.
Vesna Nasser raised her halberd overhead, its edge lacquered in the same deathly black color..
In that instant she was both the woman and the machine, just as Homa was both.
Swinging from shoulder down with all of her strength and killing intention.
as if through the clad metal protecting her
the black killing wave swept through
spraying out the weak red from her
causing immediate unfeeling
Homa’s held-up vibroaxe clashed with Nasser’s halberd to no effect.
Though the Delta’s weapon and the Muawiya’s collided out in the Imbrium Ocean–
An invisible violence directed the blow through the armor and right into Homa.
One brutal slash of furious black color running in a steep diagonal across her.
For an instant, she felt hot and crushing pain as if being hurled against a wall.
Then came the numbness–
Chills, the distortion of her vision, dissociation of her thoughts from her body.
Breaths escaped that couldn’t be caught. Smothering dark covered the edges of her vision.
Losing power over her limbs, releasing the Delta’s controls, spiraling into a descent.
Drifting, down like the debris of the sinking ships, down below the bottom of everything.
I’m going to sink and disappear. Just like the people I– I killed–
With her final strength, she lifted a hand, and it tore from her body, unable to reach anyone.
Vesnar Nasser was growing farther and farther out of that severed grasp.
The gulf between them had become as far as heaven and earth.
ANTHOLOGY II: WELTGEIST
You can unearth history while struggling alone.
But you will never change history on your own.
With the sinking of the Eisenhower, the Republican fleet’s dim and distant hopes of occupying the Kreuzung stations came to an end. The Greater Imbria and Mrudah along with the arriving Aleksandr quickly eliminated the remaining Republican forces. The Republic’s troopship surrendered, thousands of marines packed inside like sardines now becoming prisoner. The Volkisch’s assault troops sent another wave of suicide drones into B.S.W. and found no further resistance within. Republican ringleader Kitty McRoosevelt had taken her own life after being horrifically, fatally maimed by a Volkisch attack.
Inside the Core Pylon, the Alayzean special operations group was surrounded.
Once the fate of their comrades was made known to them, it shook their will to fight. A negotiator successfully argued for the release of the core technicians, but the exchange was a ruse to get the shooters to lower their guard. Volkisch troops attacked from all directions with vibroblades and riot shields, pressing the shooters in with their phalanx and practically hacking them to pieces. Standing atop blood and haphazard corpses, the traumatized technicians were made to resume their work. Within minutes of subduing the Cogitans, Kreuzung’s separated Core was again rejoined.
Power returned to Kreuzung and its outlying towers, making its way module to module, block by block. After about fifteen minutes the overwhelming majority of the station was back to normal functioning.
Civil authorities began to sound an “all clear” but extended the curfew as a precaution.
Throughout the station, the Volkisch took over for the battered K.P.S.D in leading the confused masses back to the status quo. With honeyed declarations they allayed civilian fears, playing up their own role in averting tragedy and defending the National Proletariat from a horrific threat. Investigations would be called, said the Volkisch press office, into the grotesque negligence and incompetence of the station authorities. They praised the great heroes of the nation who stood stalwart in the darkest hour.
Within hours, the Republic vessels over Kreuzung had been replaced by over 100 arriving ships bearing the “black sun” and “sword with moon” symbols of the 7th Fleet of the political troops of the Volkisch, the Stabswache. A particularly ethnic Fleet, it was uniquely made up largely of Shimii, exclusively Rashidun Shimii of Brennic and Diriyan descent, as well as a small regiment of Khedivate Loup who subscribed to Rashidist religious ritual despite their race. Collectively, these forces were referred to as the Zabaniyah— beasts that meted out the punishments of hell to those damned to the eternal fire.
Over the course of their disembarking, it was evident that they had been carried on a wind that would alter Kreuzung’s destiny. Thousands of Shimii in black uniforms and fascist armbands with assault rifles and anxious looks replaced the K.P.S.D. policemen on the streets. Block by block, module by module, they advanced, and the remaining Kreuzung police or guards stood aside, helpless to stop the march. In the Administration Block near the top of the Kreuzung tower, the old Governor remained silent. Those ranks of cat-like ears and tails in their black uniforms were slowly and steadily coming to greet him.
It was not for nothing that these once-repressed people were now part of the Volkisch.
There was talk of Tower Eight Shimii being allowed to live within the Core for the first time.
Talk of ending segregation in Kreuzung and of greater Shimii participation in the government.
And with these incentives, talk of getting the young and vibrant Shimii of Eisental to join the Volkisch Movement and become heroes of not just their own Volk, but of the National Proletariat as a whole.
Bolstering the Volkisch ranks at a time when they needed the assistance most.
Amid the commotion and the beginnings of change, the Ritter-class Cruiser Aleksandr docked into Kreuzung’s main seaport. While at the head of the Volkisch reinforcements, it had to wait a few hours before the troops disembarked and secured positions, before it could touch down on its new domain.
In front of the bulkhead to the Aleksandr’s offboarding chute, a tall woman in black uniform waited, her long, bushy tail swaying casually behind her. Long, honey-blond hair and tall ears trimmed of fluff, lightly tanned skin. Sharp and arresting facial features, exotic and photogenic. Athletic in build and somewhat boyish in her stance and expression, but for this occasion, made up in lipstick and pigments, wearing a pencil skirt and female dress coat with her military decorations. Arms crossed beneath her bust.
She had just gotten off a brutal battle where she killed hundreds of people.
But she cleaned up exceptionally well into the clothes and refinement befitting an adjutant.
Her eyes lifted from her feet when the bulkhead in front of her finally opened.
Unveiling the woman to whom, despite everything, she owed her own allegiance.
Flanked by a pair of armored Shimii, a shorter, distinctly Imbrian woman stepped into Kreuzung, slender with a soft face. Her hair was mostly dyed light blue but had a wide band of light pink, including some of her bangs and the hair covering her right ear and down the back. Her schirmmütze cap was decorated with silver cat ears, and she had one earring which boasted a flag-shaped decoration with the same bands of pink and light blue that dyed her hair. Her black uniform and cape was even more lavish than that of her surbodinates, heavily trimmed in gold. Upon meeting her counterpart, she eyed her figure closely; and the Shimii, so observed, seemed to allow the open lechery with a certain subdued glee.
“You’re looking fine as ever.” Said Oberführer Violet Lehner, grinning vigorously.
Across from her, the Shimii woman adjusted her glasses with a similarly gleeful expression.
“Have I ever looked less than perfect at your side, milady?” replied Standartenführer Vesna Nasser.
In the Old Iron block the water had begun to recede as the pumps regained power with the rejoining of the station’s Core. The level of flooding went down from waist deep back to ankle deep. Without repairs it would remain at this level, but for now, the threat of flooding the entire block was staved off. Aside from a few unlucky souls and a few corpses, there was no one on the streets.
No one except a little drone, the size and shape of a silver, hairless metal cat.
Walking with elegant strokes of its legs, despite the difficulty presented by the water.
Ankle-deep water was still half the cat-drone’s body, so it was a bit encumbered.
Nevertheless, it made its way up the street, and turned into the knocked-down door of a bar once renowned by the name “Majestic-12.” Its final days had come and gone, and its revival as a hub of conspiracy was quite short-lived. Now corpses were all that was left, corpses hours fresh but rendered quickly chill and gray by the cold saltwater washing in. Dead katarrans and–
–one unconscious girl, the contents of her heart kept closely guarded and unknowable.
It was the first thing she mastered when she studied psionics. She did it even in her sleep.
Navigating around the remains, the cat drone approached the sleeping Imani Hadžić.
Stopped, seated on its rear legs. Its tail extended around its body.
Attaching to her neck and delivering a drug to reverse her anesthetized state.
Within minutes, Imani’s eyes opened, and she stared, incredulously, at her surroundings.
“Master Hudson?” She looked down at the robotic cat.
From the cat’s neck a speaker responded in a tinny voice. “As-Salamu Alaykum.”
Her situation slowly dawned on her. Imani rose to her feet.
Immediately, she felt her shirt and belt lighter than before. Her gun was missing.
Imani’s fingers reached up to her lips. She started to make for the door–
“Time has passed. I’m sorry to say.” Hudson said. “All of the fighting is done.”
Nearly to the door, Imani paused. She reached out her trembling hand behind herself.
Showing Hudson the remnants of a powerful emotion. Dancing colors on her fingers.
An emotion that another woman had given her, and which had remained on her kissed lips.
Shaking its head, the drone’s unmoving steel face confirmed the worst.
“That aura– I’m afraid you won’t find it here anymore. Did she mean a lot to you?”
Imani did not turn back. Did not show her expression to the drone. Revealed nothing to it.
She ran out, as fast as her legs could carry her, and as far away, as if from misery itself.
Leija Kladuša ran as far as her legs could carry her back to Homa Baumann’s room.
I never found her! Majida never came back! What happened?
Once the Core had been linked, reversing the Core Separation, a group of Volkisch Shimii presumably under Imani Hadžić’s command had informed the civilian Shimii in the Kreuzung Core to return to Tower Eight and that they would receive emergency supplies soon, and more news in the coming days. These soldiers took over the manning of the checkpoints. Leija had been informed that her presence would be called to discuss the incident with the Shimii’s commander, again presumably Hadžić, but–
she did not care! All of her business with Kreuzung could collapse and she wouldn’t care!
Her heart heavy with regret, all she cared about in that moment was Homa.
Even after everything I’ve done to her. How could I have been so stupid? How?
Homa who had taken care of her drunk, worthless self even when she was just a child.
Homa who had helped her with her despicable affairs as an obedient young adult.
Homa who had given her worthless self a bed again, without cruelty or unkindness–
I failed her again and again and again! But she never turned me down! She followed my every word!
That poor girl, she terrorized her, she hit her, she got drunk at her, she swore at her–
Homa had never abandoned her. No matter how much she deserved it. Until– until now–
Elbowing past the people crowding back into the hall, rushing down to the door.
“Homa! Please! Are you back? Please tell me you got back safely! Please!”
Some part of her was prepared to find an empty room. To simply– to simply not know.
Instead, inside the room–
“Leija– I couldn’t protect her. I am sorry.”
Seated on the bed was a man in armor. His cloak burned and shredded. His chestplate burst inward and bloody. His legs shaking in heavy graves sliced and dented. His gauntlets cracked. His cat-like mask was broken, exposing one grey ear, singed gray hair, and a quarter of a face partially scarred by a patch of hexagon-gridded burned flesh, red-purple squeezing a mournful green eye.
Leija brought her hands up to her mouth.
“What do you mean? What do you mean sorry?”
She rushed to the bed and slammed her fists into the man’s armor.
“What do you mean you’re sorry? What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
Radu the Marzban had no response.
He embraced Leija as she struck him repeatedly.
She beat him until her hands were bloody, until she had no voice, until her strength faded.
“Homa–! Homa–! Please– No–”
All she could do was cry and all he could do was bear it.
“Right this way! Right this way! She’s waiting for us! Make way, make way!”
In a sing-song voice, Katarran mercenary Xenia Laskaris escorted a young Shimii woman carrying several cases through partially flooded rooms below the baseplate of Kreuzung Core. While all eyes were focusing on the Core Pylon, the Administrative District in A-block near Tower One and the Shimii in Tower Eight, the baseplate was completely unguarded. In fact, Xenia had learned a juicy tip from a broker– the cameras to the baseplate sectors had all been shut off. Zero security down there, all day long.
“Making good money and getting out of this dump? I couldn’t ask for a better windfall.”
“Glad you’re feeling chipper, but she better be whole and hale, or you’re leaving in a box.”
“Whoa! Whoa! Calm down! She’s alive! That one’s the toughest Katarran I’ve ever seen!”
“She’s not a Katarran, she’s a Shimii. So you better have the right person, you glib crab.”
“Then she’s the toughest Shimii I’ve ever seen. Please just relax– I’m a professional.”
Xenia opened a door and bowed with a little smile, allowing Raaya Al-Shahouh through.
Raaya gasped as soon as the light from the corridor entered the dark room.
Huddled in front of an elevator into the old Kreuzung mines, was Majida al-Khaybari.
Collapsed on the floor, panting. Her chestplate’s ceramic layers were smashed, the armor still held together only because of the nanofiber chain-links that ran through it. Her face and hair were red and brown with caked blood, her arms limp at her side, her breathing heavy. Her tail had been cut in half, as had been her cartilaginous, fin-like ear. Only her Katarran armor was still intact.
When Raaya gasped, Majida looked up from her seeming stupor and smiled weakly.
“Don’t worry. It’ll all grow back.” She said, coughing, hacking up a bit of red phleghm.
Raaya ran to the other side of the room, dove to the floor and grabbed hold of Majida.
Weeping profusely into the injured woman’s shoulder, holding her, screaming with agony.
Majida weakly ran a hand, heavy in its Katarran greaves, over Raaya’s hair.
“Ahh, so much love! Do not worry! Your nightmare is over! I’ll get you two back home!”
Xenia Laskaris gave the miserable couple a thumbs-up from the door.
“You might have to carry me.” Majida said, her voice rough and weak.
“Don’t worry boss! From the look of you, I expected that!” Xenia said cheerfully.
“Raaya, I’m really sorry.” Majida said. “I– I couldn’t even save the kid–”
“Idiot! You big idiot! You could’ve– You–” Raaya cried, continuing to embrace Majida.
Majida embraced her back as strongly as she could in her weak state, crying together.
They had gotten through this, but to Majida, it felt like the prelude to weather far worse.
Everything felt cold; numbingly, miserably cold.
Up above the white sky was completely covered in the branches of the great silver trees. They whispered among themselves with great worry, praying for the girl’s health. Trails of colors flew like paper streamers between the trunks, curling around branches and delving phantom-like into the great bodies. When the colors touched one tree to the next she could almost hear a sound echo distant and hushed.
“We just keep running into each other, huh.”
Someone knelt beside the body of the girl, on the pale muddy earth. A girlish face with red hair, eyes yellow on black. loomed over her and stared sideways down at her. A single black horn curled from the side of her head, and two smaller ones rose from her forehead, splitting her long bangs. She was pale, bloodlessly pale, and wore an ornate robe, closely fitted to her lean frame, with sleeves and a hem that both looked like streamers of greyed skin peeled from some creature. Over her shoulders and around her neck was a loosely tied string of crumbly, fleshy silverskinned fruits, like dry grey figs.
On that pale, beautiful face, thin lips spread into a monstrous grin full of sharp teeth.
She, the girl, the body who was being observed, could not move. She was as if suspended atop a pool.
Cold; paralyzingly cold. So cold there was nothing– not even a name in her.
“You are loved by them. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that is special– they love all of you Hominins. They can’t help it. It’s ancient history.” For a moment, the woman’s grin became a little smaller. Her eyes scanned curiously across the body. “But you can hear them. And that is indeed special. So you may yet earn yourself praise that the rest of your species hardly deserves.” Mockingly, she clapped her hands together slowly. “Congratulations. You have become a witness to the Great Silver Trees.”
Still clapping her hands, she sat, cross-legged, beside her.
Her gaze filled with the woman, whose enormous twice-split tail curled behind her.
“I am the God of this world, little Hominin. I am the Omenseer lord, Arbitrator II.”
Arbitrator II stared at her. She ceased to clap. When her hand outstretched, colors from the trees snaked around her. It was as if she was opening herself up to be bathed in them, as if the colors were delighted to come to her body and dance around it. Arbitrator II seemed to enjoy it. Some of the colors wafted up from her like vapors from hot water and washed over the girl, the body, wrapping her in fog.
“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes. Ali, I believe. Ali Ibn al-Wahran. An auspicious name. I know for a fact that meetings like this do not happen by coincidence. While I despise your kind, Hominins have ecological reasons to exist in my new world– albeit, maybe not in such numbers or such forms as you do now. There are many who would slander me, but I am merciful. I do not wish to strictly repeat ancient history. After all, for whatever reason, I could not win back then.”
For a moment, Arbitrator II stared at the body as if carefully examining her.
Then she stood, and walked to the body’s side, bending over her from a standing position.
“Out of my boundless mercy, I will grant you a boon. May it stir the course of things.“
Her pale hand grabbed hold of the body’s head and covered her face, transferring the colors.
She squeezed. Muffled screams as if from a sewn mouth. It hurt– oh God it hurt!
It was if Arbitrator II was trying to squeeze the brain out of the skull–
–yet it was also as if the pressure was not being applied by the physical force of her hand.
An unmoving body writhed beneath the touch of that hand, its soul screaming for release.
Then, instantly, the pain ceased as the hand retracted, and the colors retracted with her.
Over and behind Arbitrator II the colors spread, growing more intense, all-encompassing.
“I completed what you possessed. You can have your people’s Omensight— if you desire.”
That hand which had seized upon her face moved down to one of her cold, immobile limbs.
“Now, you won’t be needing this anymore. So in exchange, I will dispose of it.”
Without a sound Arbitrator II split her arm off above the elbow as if it was already severed.
Her vision swam as she saw the creature holding her jaggedly cut, bleeding limb.
And taking– hungry bites from the sheared flesh– sucking blood and marrow from bone–
Licking her bloody lips with an expression of euphoria.
“You’re delicious. I want more. I understand the omens here now. Seek me out Hominin– I’ll taste your blood and talk about the past. I feel like reminiscing. Hmm– but such a meeting requires a sacrifice worthy of the ceremony of it all. After all, Ali Ibn al-Wahran took a lot from me, and I do still hold a grudge. Tell you what– it’s not like you’ll be needing this either, young Great Tree Ascetic. I will take the price entirely in flesh and call the grudge settled. Descend into the Agartha and I will welcome you.”
Arbitrator II’s hand traced down the body to the leg opposite the taken arm.
Just as easily, she tore the leg off. Holding it like a fresh-caught fish by a gory tail.
Taking a loving red bite from the blue-tan dead flesh of the leg’s severed knee, savoring it.
The body screamed with all of her might, but her mouth made only muffled, weak noise.
She thrashed and thrashed but the brutalized body amid the trees only barely shuddered.
She could not move. She could not flee, could not fight, as she watched her flesh eaten.
“Tell everyone far and wide of my mercy– and do not squander what I have given you.”
Arbitrator II’s mouth then opened farther than should have been humanly possible.
Stuffing the remains of the plucked limbs down her throat like a snake swallowing an egg.
Savoring the taste of human flesh with unrestrained glee even as the trees watched her.
The colors became fog and overwhelmed all the body’s already fragile senses, in her panic.
Her sense of self had never been so shaken as now– she was made unwhole in spirit.
Was her body– already unwhole–? Had her limbs– already been severed–?
“Now: away with you.” Arbitrator II put her hand over the body’s eyes and made the world dark.
“Oh my god– she’s critical– so much blood–”
Distorted visions, like viewing a cracked screen with broken audio.
“Get me– she needs– stat!”
Metal walls, facsimiles of faces, hands, hands coming down on her.
Hands, thousands of hands touching every part of her, squeezing hands, sawing hands.
All of the hands of all the people she killed dragging her down.
Horrible faces climbing over her body and gnawing at her.
Teeth tearing muscle and bone. An imperceptible instant of the worst imaginable pain.
“It’s the only way–”
She bolted upright, gasping for breath.
Sweaty, breathing heavy, but her body did not hurt. She was not restrained, not sinking.
Her chest pounded. Her eyes darted around.
Nobody was attacking her.
Snapping in a blink from darkness to light was disorienting. She found herself in a plain-walled room. She had been laid on a bed, with soft gel pillows and a warm mattress, blankets. There was a line of other beds, all of which were empty. There was a table next to her bed, on wheels, covered by a blanket. There was a faint chemical smell, but the atmosphere did not feel hostile or uncomfortable.
Once comprehension finally came to her she realized she wasn’t alone.
There was a blond woman on nearby chair. Hair tied into a ponytail. Lipstick and makeup, a soft expression, handsome, beautiful. Button-down shirt, teal jacket starting to fall off her strong shoulders, a black pencil skirt and black tights. She had her hands on her lap, watching with eyes partially averted, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with a lock of hair. She felt familiar somehow– and safe.
On the other side of the bed was a long-limbed, lithe woman, long hair wrapped in a messy bun behind her head. Dyed a few different shades of blue, with tidy bangs up front. She was dressed in a white coat over the same type of shirt and skirt as the blond woman. She had painted pink lips and a gentle expression and looked over with sympathy in her eyes. She had a badge on her coat, with a multi-pronged blue star with an internal red cross– she must have been a doctor, and this place a hospital.
“How are you feeling dear? Any pain?” asked the doctor.
She could not feel her hand. Not like before.
When she tried to clutch the blankets. Her fingers weren’t moving like she was used to.
A shiver of cold fear ran down her spine.
She slowly lifted her right arm.
All the while moving the hand that she no longer possessed.
In its place, there was a mechanical ring, like a coupler made of metal, attached to the remains of her elbow. Under a band of aggravated red skin fused to the carbon-fiber connective layer in the machine, ran cables, inside her, visible along with her sinews. When she tried to move her hand, the physical feeling of moving her hand ran through the arm phantom-like, and instead, the ring coupler moved, and tiny electromechanical elements inside of it whirred and poked out of holes in the contraption–
“I’m sorry. We couldn’t save the limbs. We have prosthetics ready. I promise that your quality of life–”
Homa Baumann suddenly broke down, first into sobs, and then into full-throated screams.
She was alive.
And in that horrible instant she was convinced that she should have died, and unsure how to keep living.
All she could do was hold her head with her severed hand and scream until it drowned out the mourning.