A soft voice that was difficult to read into. Void of emotion, but direct and determined.
She was blunt, and never wore her thoughts on her face. Gertrude knew this very well.
That chestnut-brown haired, cat-eared girl with the olive skin, much fairer than Gertrude’s own.
She was a head shorter, but she never spoke as if she had to speak up, or endure being spoken down to.
“Her life is going to be far more dangerous and complicated than you seem to realize. It’s not enough to have this little dream world with her here. She’ll be taken away from you. You need to start thinking about how you’re going to protect her. If you don’t– then I’ll take her away from you myself.”
There was no one else whom Victoria spoke to with such conviction and passion.
It was because she actually respected Gertrude enough to criticize her.
Nevertheless, Gertrude slapped her across the face.
She was a teenager. She couldn’t control herself. It didn’t matter that they had a rapport.
It didn’t matter that they could have had feelings for each other.
Gertrude swung her hand with so much more strength than the girl in front of her.
Victoria face snapped aside, red in the cheek. She lost her balance and fell, heaping insult on injury.
Her accusatory gaze met Gertrude’s again very quickly. Defiant, righteous, because she was.
She didn’t say anything else. She’d said what she wanted to, and Gertrude gave her response.
Gertrude had saved Victoria from such abuses from their “friend” Sawyer before.
Striking Victoria was a horrifically low moment. A snap instant that destroyed possibility. Perhaps, had she any power to conceptualize, she would have realized back then what an omen this was. How it presaged all the evil she was capable of, all the harm she would do, how she would hurt everyone she loved.
Back then, she was full of wicked feelings, but–
In her heart, through all the wickedness she felt in that moment, she was ashamed of what she had done. Immediately ashamed as soon as she swung her hand, as soon as fingers struck the soft, fair flesh of Victoria’s cheek. That was not how she wanted to conduct herself, but it was never how she had intended to behave toward that girl specifically. She had always wanted to view her as someone she could protect. So she was ashamed of failing to live to that. Ashamed if Elena found out about that unjust deed.
But shame was not enough to set her on the right path. She lost something– but not enough.
Victoria–! as much as Gertrude hated to admit it, back then, she was becoming someone–
Someone, in the gentle haze of her school memories, whom Gertrude thought she might– feel–
burgeoning– but like everything about those unlucky girls, it was nipped in the bud–
Watching her walk away, back then, a younger Gertrude felt an immense frustration with herself.
But her path did not change at Luxembourg School For Girls.
It led, painfully, inexorably, to where she stood a decade later.
Depth Gauge: 2112m
“Situation report! I saw the preliminaries but I need a status update now!”
Gertrude rushed into the Iron Lady‘s bridge, fully in uniform, sucking down a vitamin jelly pouch and discarding it into a waste chute as she stepped onto the center island next to Captain Dreschner. She made her declaration, but there was already a good amount of information just on the main screen. There was a positional map that showed the inner and outer radius of a sonar and imaging scan, with the Iron Lady at its center. Five kilometers away and approaching, there was a small ship, perhaps a custom civilian vessel. Fifteen kilometers away and approaching, was a much larger ship– an Imperial Ritter-class.
Karen Schicksal stepped below the center island and saluted.
“At 0200 hours, our sensors issued a warning that we had been struck by a powerful active pulse from an enemy detection array. Per protocol, we responded with our detection and imaging efforts, and discovered two approaching vessels from the Vekan direction!” Her voice was trembling only slightly. Her posture was stiff and her shoulders deliberately locked as if keeping her head in place. Despite looking a little ridiculous, Karen was delivering her report quite well. “We have no prior profile data on the smaller vessel, but it is the size of a personal yacht, so we believe it must be a custom civilian model. Such models hit the private market every year. But the larger ship had its profile entered into the Navy Database. It’s the Vekan Ritter-class Cruiser Leader, Aranjagaan! Both vessels are moving toward us at top speed! Neither ship made any attempt to disguise its posture ma’am! I believe they may be in combat!”
She was sputtering out a little at the end, but Gertrude nonetheless smiled affirmingly.
“Thank you, Communications Officer! Captain, what is your read on the situation?” Gertrude asked.
At her side, Dreschner briefly shut his eyes to consider his words.
Gertrude had a hunch that the smaller vessel might be victim of some kind of persecution.
For a military Cruiser to be chasing a private yacht, it had to be a political crime.
Otherwise patrol cutters would have been the ones going after smugglers or enforcing border crossings.
“There is a possibility that the smaller vessel is a runaway Vekan aristocrat or industrialist.” Dreschner said. “Or an otherwise high society or connected individual. Otherwise, for a high profile vessel like the Aranjagaan to be chasing it doesn’t make sense to me. One thing we’ve witnessed since the death of the Emperor is the rise of many highly ideological factions– it could be that this is someone hoping to flee to Rhinea, Heitzing or even the Union. It may be worth contacting them and ascertaining the situation.”
“I agree, Captain.” Gertrude said. “But what rotten luck. All we wanted to do was go into this gorge.”
There was an element to this confrontation which hung foremost in Gertrude’s heart, sending a painful chill through her core. She would not tell it to anyone. But she knew well who was in command of the Aranjagaan now. Before the Empire fully collapsed, when such information was still being shared willingly into the databases at Naval HQ. Gertrude had already learned of Victoria selling herself to the Vekan monarch Carmilla, but she would thereafter discover her appointment as a “special agent” whose flag was borne by the Ritter-class Aranjagaan, fastest and newest of the Grand Eastern Fleet’s Cruisers.
God damn it, I don’t want to hurt her.
Out of that ill-fated little clique of lost souls at Luxembourg School For Girls–
Fighting Sawyer was not a problem, she had always despised Sawyer anyway and even at their friendliest moments their repressed antagonism was only barely affable in nature. They couldn’t have been said to be rivals, even that was too positive. When they laughed together, when they smiled at each other, it never moved them more than centimeters away from blows. Sawyer was someone Gertrude wanted to draw and quarter her, to strip and brand her with hot iron. She could have tortured her and laughed.
Such vitriol rose out of her heart when she heard that name, it almost caused her to feel ashamed.
But, the thought of fighting Victoria was awful– Victoria was someone that Gertrude had once–
I can’t even say it. I can’t even say it. I’m such a god-damned coward.
Their school days at Luxembourg had been a whirlwind of confusing emotions.
But all of them had been broken apart too quickly to resolve them.
They were too young to sort anything out before all their decisions were made for them.
Despite this– Gertrude did not want to have to fight Victoria (van Veka.)
However, she was torn, because this could also be a good opportunity. Veka was riding pretty high and mighty at the moment, and an escapee with sensitive information could help Gertrude’s position. She needed intelligence, desperately. She at least had to confirm with the smaller vessel what situation they were in. Even if it led to a confrontation with Victoria. She couldn’t escape the drama hurtling toward her, because she needed to enter the abyss. So she might as well see if she could turn it into some advantage.
There was nothing to decide. There was only one card to play if she wanted to stand her ground here.
It really was such devastatingly bad luck that they would come here of all places.
Gertrude stood from her seat and made her declaration to the crew.
“As soon as the smaller ship is in laser range we must hail it immediately and demand a connection. We need to take custody of it so we strengthen our position here when the Vekans arrive. Depending on what their story is, we will release them to the Vekans or grant asylum– so we must make preparations to resist the Vekans as well. Have Jarvelainen sortie in the Jagdkaiser, and Clostermann in the Jagd. We will negotiate with the Vekans but we must maintain standoff posture. I want weapons ready, just in case. In the event of battle we will want to quickly disable the Aranjagaan’s weapons and preferably capture it.”
In a shooting battle, the Iron Lady had all the advantages on the Aranjagaan.
That was not the tension Gertrude felt in that moment. She was confident she could win if it became a battle, but she did not want a battle to proceed to begin with. She did not want to start a shooting war with the Vekan side of this border, or worse, to kill Victoria van Veka in such an event. She dearly hoped that everything could be resolved smoothly, somehow– but she had to be ready for the worst.
For a moment, Gertrude felt the weight of what she was saying and it made her pause.
“Tell Erke to load the cartridge, but instruct Jarvelainen that she cannot fire without permission.”
“Cartridge, ma’am?” Schicksal asked. The crew had not all been briefed on what the Jagdkaiser could do.
To avoid unnecessary anxiety among them.
“Monika Erke-Tendercloud will know what it means.” Gertrude replied. “And so does the pilot.”
Schicksal was a professional. She would not complain about classified information.
The crew at the hangar got underway with combat preparations, and the helm turned the Iron Lady to face the direction of the enemy. Detection staff paid close attention to the data sources being fed into the prediction model from the sensors, with hydrophone witnesses keeping an ear out for anomalous sounds in case the computers missed anything. Gunnery and missile staff ran health checks on their weapons.
Gertrude sat back on her chair and watched the blips on the map inch closer to Kesar’s Gorge.
She took her tall inquisitor’s hat off and laid at her side, revealing her dark hair, tied in bun.
“Crown feeling too heavy?” Dreschner asked.
“I don’t think of it as a crown. It’s been closer to horse blinders.” Gertrude said bitterly.
“Well, if you take full control of the Inquisition, you can decree a new hat design.” Dreschner replied.
That drew a bit of a laugh from Gertrude.
While the Inquisition had been her vehicle to try to remain at Elena’s side, it alienated her from almost every other possible friend and ally. The Inquisitor was a figure of dread. The uniform of the High Inquisitor was proof of Gertrude’s single-minded devotion to serving Elena– a devotion that now felt foolish and shameful. She couldn’t discard everything, but she could discard the stupid hat.
Fifteen minutes later, the smaller, faster-moving vessel had entered the Iron Lady’s communication range.
“We’ve sent an acoustic text message to the ship demanding they stop and open laser communication.”
Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.
“Schicksal, if they respond, put them through to my personal terminal.” She said.
No resistance from the runaway vessel. They stopped 1.5 kilometers away as instructed, and opened a line of laser communication, transmitting video to the Iron Lady for a teleconference. Gertrude pulled up the flat LCD which was attached to an arm on the side of her chair, bringing the screen forward so she could watch, and so it could broadcast her own face back to the yacht. In a few seconds, the video quality of both sides normalized enough for them to see and hear each other almost in real time.
“This is High Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. You will follow all of my directions or I will arrest you.”
“Greetings, High Inquisitor. I may be the happiest woman you’ve ever threatened to arrest, right now.”
On Gertrude’s screen appeared a woman, clearly seated in the tight bridge of a personal yacht, lit primarily by her main screen and various instruments. Some of the objects around her looked just a little too complicated to be in a commercial yacht– Gertrude thought she saw a sonar monitoring station over her shoulder. Nevertheless, this confirmed some of her conjectures about the smaller vessel.
Her appearance brought up several fresher questions however.
Immediately, Gertrude took notice of the woman’s tall, narrow dog ears, dark brown bordering on black with a lighter brown streak partially on one side. She had very bright golden eyes and earth-toned skin, from what Gertrude could see of her face. Much of it was taken up by a mask. Stylized as a dog’s snout, it also resembled a muzzle to Gertrude’s imagination. There were vents on the sides, and when the woman spoke, her voice was clearly being output by equipment on the mask. It gave the impression it was not a simple facial covering but actually a respiration mask, like the kind issued to powered armor troops. On her neck, there was also a collar, with a square-shaped device that had a series of LEDs glowing yellow.
Beside the mask, she appeared an ordinary Loup– ordinary in the sense that she was not abnormal, but not plain. Gertrude admitted a certain affinity for Loup, but she imagined under the mask the woman must have been very beautiful, as she appeared quite arresting even while wearing it. Her hair was back-length, smooth and well kept, shiny in the lighting of the woman’s bridge, parted down the middle with short, side-swept bangs. She wore a green turtleneck sweater and black pants with a white coat, with a lanyard full of ID cards around her neck that were illegible with the quality of the video call. Her figure, from what Gertrude could tell and what her imagination automatically filled in, was tall and buxom.
“I’ll take that as intent to cooperate then. So, whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to so late in my ship’s night cycle, and what is her business that has the Vekan Empire mounting a combat response?”
“I’m afraid names are a very distant formality for me. I suppose you can call me Nile.”
Gertrude narrowed her eyes at her. A one-word codename, and she had never heard the word before–
“You will suppose nothing. Give me a real name that I can search in a database.” Gertrude replied.
Could this woman be related to that group Norn was affiliated with? The Sunlight Foundation?
“Fine.” Nile’s eyes shut briefly and she sighed in her mask. “A name I never use is Hilana Tarik.”
That did not sound like a Loup surname–
“Before you say anything, I’m a Khedivate Loup. Or was– whatever. We’re rare these days, but we exist.”
“Don’t presume I’m so ignorant, Hilana Tarik.”
Gertrude was just about to ask why she had a Shimii name. Thankfully the woman interjected.
And so Gertrude could pretend she was not about to make an ass of herself.
“Ugh. I’d honestly rather you call me Prisoner B or anything else.” Nile said.
“Fine. I’ll call you Nile on one condition–“
It was a gamble, but at worst she would just look foolish. She needed to confirm her hunch.
Gertrude flicked a switch, and a shield of soundproof sheets rose around the island in the middle of the bridge. It encompassed Gertrude and Dreschner’s raised seats only, leaving out even Schicksal.
Dreschner gave her a brief look before turning his gaze back to the main screen.
Once she was sure the crew would not be listening to her speaking out loud, Gertrude continued.
“–Are you familiar with the ‘Sunlight Foundation’?” She asked.
“Oh. Interesting. Very well. In that case, you should call me Nile. I am a boss of that outfit, after all.”
Behind the mask, the woman’s expression was hard to read, but she sounded obviously elated.
Gertrude’s hunch was right. An eccentric-looking woman insisting on a one-word name.
Gallivanting around the ocean doing whatever she wanted, even if it flew in the face of the law.
Norn had always kept the Sunlight Foundation’s affairs distant from Gertrude.
Though she knew of them through Norn, she knew little else, little overall. Only that they were helping to supply equipment for Imperial clandestine operations under Prince Erich’s orders. She had interacted only briefly with Potomac, the SF’s representative aboard the Antenora, who kept largely to herself. Norn had attacked Potomac, so their relationship must have been fractious. Based on the technology in the Jagdkaiser, this was a dangerous group and did not seem like the sort of people Norn would get along with. Not that Gertrude could judge Norn for her affiliation whatsoever– the Inquisition had their fair share of grotesqueries at their beck and call, such as the Jäger corps, that Gertrude also kept hidden.
“I am an acquaintance of Norn von Fueller. Through her, I came into contact with your organization.”
“Cocytus? Oh dear. You must have a very negative impression of us, I assume.” Nile said.
“You’re correct. I don’t think highly of you whatsoever.” Gertrude said. “But it is not negative enough that I’d let the Vekans strip you and tear your in half on a rack when I could make use of you myself.”
“Ah, what an interesting imagination you have. I wouldn’t mind letting you use me, Lady Lichtenberg.”
Gertrude saw the woman’s golden eyes narrow and briefly lost composure at that lustful tone of voice.
“Keep it professional or you’re coming with me in chains.” Gertrude demanded. “I know you people are not normal. I won’t fall for your tricks, Nile. Without mincing words or playing games, explain yourself.”
“Of course, High Inquisitor.” Nile replied. “It is as you suspected– I am part of the Sunlight Foundation and I am in fact one of its managers, or ‘Immortals’ as a certain theatrical woman deemed to term us. I don’t have as much of a big head as her. I am part of this organization because they are at the bleeding edge of science. Without arbitrary regulations or religious proscriptions. I have no grander interests.”
She sounded like a psychopath who wanted to toy with human lives outside the bounds of ethics.
Or maybe that’s just what they all sounded like to her after learning about the Jagdkaiser.
“I see. What did you do for this organization, Nile? Tell me about your role.”
Nile shut her eyes again and crossed her arms. “I am by profession a medical doctor, specifically an epidemiologist, but lately I have been working in logistics. I founded a project within our organization to find ways to increase production of certain medical drugs and lower the cost to produce.”
Now she sounded proud. Gertrude did not really believe the magnanimity she was trying to imply.
“Then I assume this has to do with why a Vekan Cruiser is on your tail.” Gertrude said.
“Normally, our facilities are hidden inside abyssal gorges, just within the concealment of red biomass waves but not deep enough to create further difficulties. Unfortunately, the Vekan Empire has of late become very interested in abyssal exploration. Veka was my territory, so it’s been an issue.”
“The Vekans found your drug lab, toppled over your operation, and put you to flight.” Gertrude replied.
In that instant, the woman’s ears rose straighter than ever and she shot a glare at the Inquisitor.
“Leave it to an Inquisitor to make it sound so criminal.” Nile grunted, sounding aggravated. “My ‘drug lab’ as you put it, was working on gene therapy and anti-retroviral solutions. Imbrian companies charge hundreds of thousands of marks per treatment for these, while I have been working to make them available at cost of production. I am not some street dealer feeding people’s vices. You can hand me right back to the Vekans if you think the misgivings of Cocytus are enough to condemn my work.”
Gertrude was taken aback by that sudden passion. For a moment she felt like a child put in her place.
Her impression of the woman completely changed. That wasn’t the sound of a cynical profiteer.
She wanted to apologize, but it would have betrayed too much weakness in the middle of this discussion.
“I believe you. Your passion sounds genuine.” Gertrude said. Her voice trembled very slightly at first as she said her first words since Nile raised her voice so potently. “It explains your equipment as well.”
“My equipment? You mean this?” Nile ran a finger along her muzzle. “This is for the protection of others, not myself. I am a victim of orphan diseases as well, Inquisitor. That’s where my passion comes from.”
Gertrude blinked. She struggled to find an inoffensive way to ask what she wanted.
“Is it– Is it safe to have you aboard? Do you need to quarantine?” She asked.
She was sure that despite her best efforts she had made an ass of herself.
“No, I am fine. My personal protective equipment is more of a precaution.” Nile pointed out her collar. She sounded, thankfully, like Gertrude’s bumbling about her condition did not offend her. “These lights represent my viral load. I’m only infectious when they are Red. Yellow means I’m due for treatment, which I’ll administer as soon as I have time and a sense of safety. As long as they’re Green, I am a completely ordinary individual. I can join the crowds, be close to people, even have penetrative sex, without issue.”
Gertrude tried not to think anything at all about the last item– and failed to do so.
She was composed enough to say nothing about it, however, and air none of her lurid visions.
“Alright– Umm, well, thank you. For being up front about it.” Gertrude replied.
“It’s nothing. So– we had business we got sidetracked from.”
“Right. Nile– if you request asylum, I will grant it. But to the Vekans, I’ll present it as an arrest.”
“I must admit I don’t quite relish coming into the custody of anyone involved with Cocytus.” Nile replied. “But I have no choice at this juncture. You do feel different from Cocytus– and even kind of cute.”
Gertrude tried not to visibly wither under the attention. “I am not a copy of Norn. I make my own decisions. I’ll be up front. I’m only taking you in to acquire more information. I am on a journey into the abyss here to unearth Norn’s secrets. Since I am only using you, you had better prove useful.”
Nile laughed. “It’s as I said before, High Inquisitor. I don’t mind you using me. In any capacity.”
“Quiet with the innuendos.” Gertrude grumbled. “You better behave when we bring you in.”
“I’ll be as a puppy on her leash.” Nile replied, clearly smiling behind her muzzle, her ears wiggling.
Gertrude would have been lying to herself if she pretended it was only a naked power grab.
Her soft spot for Loup, an exploited and oppressed people, made Gertrude want to view Nile through a lens of sympathy, especially after what she said. She had to be cautious about having a narrative spun on her, but it was difficult to be stone-hearted toward her story. Perhaps Nile was different from Potomac. Maybe there was merit to the Sunlight Foundation. She would hope to find out through Nile’s conduct.
However, that was not something the High Inquisitor could admit to anyone.
To everyone else, she would only say what was the most obvious truth about the situation.
Gertrude had to use the law and position she was invested in, or it would become meaningless.
On some level, she had to resist the Vekans to prove the Inquisition still had independence.
Furthermore, anything the Vekans took was something Gertrude herself would never have access to.
This was an opportunity to potentially recruit a talent Gertrude would need to reach Norn’s level.
Or if she had any faint aspiration of surpassing her and winding her own path in this era of chaos.
It only made sense in the moment to take Nile from them– whatever the future consequences.
However, now, it was impossible not to confront Victoria. But perhaps that had always been impossible.
“Nile, dock into the port sidepod chute. We’ll help you extract any equipment from your vessel. I’m afraid we can’t bring the entire thing into the Iron Lady, so we’ll have to ditch it afterward.” Gertrude said.
“I won’t miss it, don’t worry. I look forward to meeting you in person, Lady Lichtenberg.”
Nile bowed with one hand over her chest, and ended the video call.
Before lowering the soundproofing and giving her directions–
Gertrude fell back against her chair with a deep sigh.
I’m in over my head, aren’t I?
At her side, Dreschner had pretended not to hear anything he wasn’t told, as usual.
“We have met with the guest. We are processing her with caution and inspecting the vessel.”
Gertrude received a call from her head of security, Vogt, a broad, burly, and big-shouldered blond boy with a nearly blank expression. He and his men and women were armored up and had plastic visors over their faces. Nile was on camera, in the background behind Vogt, and looked pretty calm and collected for a woman surrounded by burly men with shields and prods. Nobody was being aggressive– Gertrude’s forces were very well trained and disciplined. Anyone who had broken under pressure while Gertrude was in command was dismissed immediately. She had no use for loose cannons or cowards.
These were not only her standards, but those of a dreadnought crew.
An Irmingard’s bountiful amenities were reserved for elite and prodigies.
Lesser-thans served in Frigates.
“Thank you Vogt. I’m about to get into another lengthy discussion. Hold Nile for now. Treat her well.”
“She will be treated with the utmost courtesy, High Inquisitor.” Vogt said.
That of course meant– if she threatens you, High Inquisitor, she’s paste. Until then, she’s perfectly safe.
Gertrude was glad to have found someone like Vogt in the trenches of the Inquisitorial police.
“High Inquisitor, the Aranjagaan entered communication range.” Schicksal said. Her voice was firm, but her face was shimmering with sweat. Her hair was damp. That woman’s anxiety always came out somehow. Nevertheless, she carried on professionally. “We sent an acoustic text to desist at a 3 kilometer range. We have instructed them send comm buoys one kilometer out and that we will do the same.”
“Good idea. A meet in the middle buoy relay– it’ll keep both of us in standoff range.”
“Yes ma’am– I thought it would be amenable to all parties, ma’am– prevent an escalation–“
“You’re doing a great job Schicksal. Keep it up.”
A little bit of praise–
Schicksal’s eyes drew wide and she nodded her head vigorously. “Thank you ma’am!”
–and the desired result. Schicksal was a good soldier. She just needed to be built up a bit.
On the main screen, Gertrude kept her eyes peeled for any signs of compliance.
“Ma’am, the Aranjagaan has stopped at the 3 kilometer standoff range.”
Her sonar and imaging detection team updated her on the situation.
Gertrude breathed out, relieved. “Send out a drone buoy and try to connect to them.”
Her electronic warfare section was ready with the drone as well.
Everything that was process-driven was going smoothly.
But soon, the human element would be fully at play. For both the Vekans– and herself.
“We are receiving a video communication from the Aranjagaan.” Schicksal said.
“Put them through to me.” Gertrude replied.
It was the moment of truth.
Gertrude saw the face she wished she wouldn’t have on the other end of the call.
“It’s been a long time, Gertrude. Misfortune compels us to meet once again.”
“I am still hopeful that we can have a pleasant chat, Victoria.”
She smiled, but inside, she was twisted in a knot.
Bah– why did she have to look so good–
Gertrude did not know what to expect. She was surprised, in a complicated fashion, by how closely Victoria still resembled the girl in her fondest old memories. As a woman, she still looked young and petite, with almost as much of a babyface as Elena. Rather than the pigtails Gertrude remembered, she wore her light chestnut-brown hair in a ponytail. Her ears were rounded, fluffy and soft-looking. Her olive skinned and soft features were so exact to the memories, those appraising eyes and guarded expression.
Victoria hardly ever smiled. To see her neutral, unsmiling face was the most familiar sight of all.
Her style was quite different, however.
Gertrude was used to seeing Victoria in little dresses, blouses, bloomers. She had really taken to the imperial lifestyle of late, it seemed. She was dressed in what appeared to be a button-down shirt and tie, the collar peering out of a dark green waistcoat. She had on high dark colored socks along with very dark blue shorts that met the socks mid-thigh. On top of this attire she wore a cape that fanned out from her back, almost triangular, clipped on her shoulders, black outside and dark green in the interior.
Had it been the old days Gertrude would have jokingly referred to her by “young master.”
Unfortunately those days were as far removed now as Veka was from Konstantinople.
“Let’s skip the pleasantries.” Victoria said. Her voice and mannerisms were always blunt. She spoke her mind. It was one of the reasons Sawyer often wanted to tear her in half back then. “I am a special agent for the Vekan throne and I am pursuit of a wanted individual. Hand her over, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”
She always was a little softer with Elena– with Gertrude, the fullness of her personality came out.
“I’m on the Sverland side of the gorge.” Gertrude replied. “I’ve not intruded on Vekan territory. So from the start, the Vekan Navy has no reason to advance any further, or pursue anyone beyond these bounds. Furthermore, I have already made an arrest for this individual to stand fair trail in Konstantinople, on the grounds that she is potentially being unfairly persecuted in her home nation. She is a Loup, and there are special provisions for her legal safety. This is a critical role that the Inquisition plays in our legal system. I am willing to listen to your case, Victoria, as to why this individual should be released to you.”
Gertrude had hoped that Victoria would divulge some information she could use against Nile, but–
Victoria was completely unmoved.
Her expression did not once change during Gertrude’s entire speech.
Until she was done speaking.
“Your rhetoric is entirely empty.” Victoria said. “There is no Sverland side of this gorge anymore. Sverland has ceased to exist as a state. The Inquisition, also, has ceased to exist as a force for law in this region. The law here is on my side now. I am going to contact my Union liaison and summon a Union Fleet Combat Group to protect the Union side of this gorge. Even your mighty ship can’t stand against that much firepower. And you won’t receive the slightest bit of sympathy from them. So I suggest you give up.”
Gertrude was taken aback. She knew Victoria was blunt but this sudden aggression?
She was bluffing. She had to be bluffing. Gertrude held her tongue to avoid a snap response.
A Union Fleet Combat Group was 30 to 40 ships; they could not possibly be loitering nearby.
“Victoria, let’s not escalate to threats. Especially to threats as equally empty as you say my rhetoric is.”
“I’m sending you some data. Think of it as good will from me to help speed this discussion along.”
Gertrude looked down and to the side at Schicksal’s station. Schicksal nodded her head vigorously.
“We’re definitely receiving something! It looks like a few minutes of real time imaging data.”
“Put it on the main screen.”
For a moment, Victoria cracked a tiny smile on Gertrude’s screen.
As the High Inquisitor looked up at the main screen and for a moment couldn’t control her expression.
Disbelief flashed clear on her face.
“Impossible.” Under her breath, but, barely audible.
Victoria crossed her arms.
On the main screen, an image of the farther off surroundings of Kesar’s Gorge, to dozens of kilometers.
Closer to the Narodnaya range, about twenty five kilometers south, was a clearly labeled Union FCG.
Thirty ships, led by the Yaksha, a Union Cruiser under Admiral Chinedu Kimani.
How are they this far out already? I knew the Serrano Region had fallen, but this rate of advance–
Victoria finally spoke up.
“To support our cooperation, Veka and the Union set up coordinate exchanges near our borders. I will offer the Union your Irmingard-class vessel in exchange for taking custody of the crew under force of arms and turning them over to Veka. I hold all the cards here Gertrude. You don’t have a choice.”
This bitch— this fucking expression-less self-absorbed snake-tongued BITCH—
I’m going to get my hands around that pretty neck and choke you—
Gertrude tried to put a chain around all the wickedness spewing from her evil heart.
Melting down is exactly what Victoria wanted. Victoria knew Gertrude as well as Gertrude knew her.
“Schicksal, keep everyone on alert. But this discussion has become sensitive now.”
“Yes ma’am! I understand!”
In a moment, Schicksal and the rest of the bridge disappeared behind soundproof shutters again.
Dreschner gave Gertrude a worried look that she did not return.
She was focused back on Victoria van Veka. Nothing else existed for them.
“You could have fabricated this data.” Gertrude said, trying to be calm. “I have no way to verify.”
“Try me then.”
“You egocentric bitch–“
“I don’t care if you insult me.”
Victoria had done it again. She’d gotten a rise out of Gertrude.
Pathetic– so pathetic–
God damn it.
“Enough.” Gertrude grunted. “Is this person really so valuable to you as to confront the Inquisition?”
“Yes. There’s no Inquisition Gertrude, just you. Turn her over and I’ll allow you get on with your business.”
“Allow me? You have no authority and I will not be swayed by your threats. Take her from me then.”
Victoria shut her eyes and breathed a little sigh.
“I should have known that you would respond like this. Block-headed to the last.”
They weren’t getting anywhere. It was exactly the worst situation Gertrude envisioned.
And she still stupidly walked into it anyway.
Gertrude brought up a hand to her chest, and locked eyes with her counterpart seriously.
“I swear to you that I do not want to fight with you.”
Again, Victoria was infuriatingly blank in the face.
“Then don’t.” She said simply.
“God damn it! Give me even a centimeter here! We’re on the verge of shooting here!”
“Any blood is on your hands. I am acting fully within the moral rights and self determination of Veka.”
It didn’t help that Gertrude knew she was ultimately the one without a case.
She only wanted to retain Nile for her own selfish purposes.
Maybe Victoria did have a good and just reason to pursue her.
But at that moment, if Gertrude gave up, she was not just giving up Nile.
She was giving up the Inquisition’s ability to resist the tyrants of this era.
And Gertrude’s ability to resist them as well.
“The Inquisition doesn’t surrender its prisoners to ducal authority. It is the Inquisition’s role to see justice done across the Empire, and above regional bias, and I still believe in that, even if the Empire has been fragmented. I am on the side of justice, Victoria, and I will see justice done in the end.”
Pure sophistry, empty rhetoric–
Victoria narrowed her eyes.
“You’re lying to me, but you’re also lying to yourself. This is bordering on pathetic. You pursued a higher status for your own self-gain and the Inquisition was the opportunity available to you. That’s it.”
“Then I’m only following your lead, Victoria van Veka! You seduced a woman decades your senior and shamelessly claim moral authority drawn from her? And you have the gall to criticize me?”
She snapped without thinking. Again– she had lost her composure like a fool.
And this time she’d said something truly horrible–
A bitter little laugh escaped from Victoria’s lips. An uncharacteristic sound from the stoic girl.
“You and I are like oil and water still, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”
Gertrude grit her teeth.
God damn it. She kept fucking up! She kept fucking everything up! With all of her friends!
“We don’t have to be, Victoria! We can let this go and avoid escalating it. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Victoria met Gertrude’s eyes with an unfamiliar expression on her face. A little grin.
And sharp, glowing red rings around her eyes– familiar ones–
“How is Elena?” She asked.
Gertrude grit her teeth. This woman had grown capable of much greater cruelty.
She now knew who Victoria reminded her of. That expression– Norn.
“Thanks to our mutual acquaintance, she is gone from me forever.” Gertrude said.
“No, that’s thanks to you Gertrude, isn’t it? It’s not just Sawyer who is responsible anymore.”
Her voice had an unsettling tone of voice. Her entire presence–
Power. She radiated power. Power that Gertrude did not have.
Was this real? Was Gertrude going insane and cracking under the pressure?
“Sawyer attacked Vogelheim, and you were nowhere. But I saved Elena– you should owe me for the second chance that you got. A chance that you squandered. You pushed her away again.”
It was like she could see through Gertrude now, like the Inquisitor’s facade was just paper burning away to reveal the secrets beneath. Victoria had always been perceptive and intelligent, but this was beyond the bounds of perception. For the first time since leaving Norn, Gertrude felt the awful presence of a power beyond her understanding, the chill of helplessness that came with being read and the guardedness that it engendered in her. There was nothing Gertrude could do about it.
But how did Victoria acquire this power?
It was frustrating– everyone else had come so far, and she was always a step behind–
“You don’t know anything, Victoria. Neither now nor back then. But you love to run your mouth.”
All she could do was talk! And anything she could say wasn’t worth a damn!
Victoria was again utterly unaffected by her words.
“I never ‘run my mouth.’ I always say what I want to say. Gertrude, there’s no more Inquisition. All of your remaining subordinates are hiding in Konstantinople, even the Inquisition’s precious Jagers have not made a move. It’s only you, out here, with nothing to back you. You must accede to my demands.”
She even knew about the Jagers— and she was more informed on current events.
Gertrude felt the shame and helplessness growing inside her. She had lost the verbal spar.
Or maybe she could have never won it to begin with. Not in this kind of scenario.
Victoria had all the cards. Gertrude was isolated.
It was the worst situation. Victoria did not know about the Jagdkaiser, but it did not matter. Firepower did not matter. Gertrude could kill Victoria, could run heedlessly at her and annihilate her in one blow, to no avail. It accomplished nothing. The Union would be tipped off to attack her immediately; she would not be able to stay in Kesar and uncover its secrets. She would have failed in every way. In this game, there was only one possible winner no matter the circumstance, and it was Victoria van Veka. She was the only winner because Gertrude could only possibly lose, no matter what action she decided to take.
That was the story of her life. No matter what, she was always losing everything she loved.
But still– her heart continued to fly with a tiny, smothered conviction she could not repress.
There was more to the game. There was them, the two of them.
And what Gertrude’s heart desired.
Something that perhaps superseded the game of ships and guns and politics being played.
If she could let herself drop the mask and speak from the heart–
“Victoria, I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t want to hurt you. To me, you are still someone whose life I cherish. I am sorry. I am really sorry and I am really ashamed about everything I’ve done to you.”
She was defeated. So she let herself be honest. It was the most sincere thing she had said yet.
Victoria’s self-satisfied smile disappeared from her face. She broke eye contact with Gertrude.
“Cut the theatrics.” Victoria replied. “Done to me? I don’t care–“
“I’m sorry that I slapped you back then. It wasn’t right. I threw away our friendship.”
“What? Slapped me?” Victoria blinked, bewildered. “That was years ago.”
“Like a whole other world. And I’ve carried that weight forever. It wasn’t just Elena I fucked up with.”
Gertrude tried to fight tears building in her eyes, but a few did slip out.
“God damn it. I don’t want to be put in this situation. I don’t want to keep fighting all of you.”
Victoria looked confused, for the first time in their confrontation.
“Victoria, I want to work together with you. If you’ll cooperate, I can be on your side.”
Victoria looked like she had taken a blow to the chest. She had clearly not expected this.
And to a great extent, neither had Gertrude expected it.
“I can’t possibly trust you. You are Erich von Fueller’s pawn now, Gertrude.”
“I’m nobody’s pawn. Prince Erich didn’t lift a finger to save Elena. In fact– he’s responsible for it.”
Her anger when she spoke that sentence was palpable. And Victoria clearly felt it too.
Dreschner looked like it was taking all of his willpower to pretend not to be interested in this.
Gertrude continued to make impassioned declarations.
“I am nobody’s pawn, not Erich’s, not Norn’s. I am not going to be your pawn either, Victoria. But I can extend my hand to you as an ally. I need your criminal on my side, Victoria. She, and the abyss, hold answers that I seek. In Imbrian literature, Nocht, the first Emperor, descended into the abyss for power. Norn did as well– and I am here to uncover this secret. Then I will take command of Konstantinople and make it my fortress. I have no intention of it becoming another foothold for Erich von Fueller.”
On the screen, the Shimii closed her fists. Her posture tightened ever so slightly.
“So you want me to stand aside and let you go on your little quest, based on nothing but your word? It’s all well and good to say this when it’ll get you out of trouble!” Victoria said, raising her voice. “But if Erich comes knocking, what will you do then? Will you also promise him things with gilded words?”
“I will attain the power to become a bulwark against Erich von Fueller.”
Gertrude smiled at her, weeping but full of determination. She had finally stated her aim.
Airing words and thoughts that had been formless in her mind since Vogelheim.
At first spoken in wild anger after the loss of Elena– but now fully reasoned.
If the price of power was losing the support of the Fuellers– then she would choose power.
If she had to lose Victoria as well to remain on the side of the Fuellers– then she would betray them.
It was too unjust to live otherwise. To keep losing everything she loved and gaining nothing.
“Everything that I am doing is to try, however much in vain it is, to protect the people I love and the people who swore fealty to me, from this era of chaos and injustice. I know I am a hypocrite, because I helped bring all of these tragedies about and I helped support the people responsible. I was completely heedless to the consequences of my actions. But I want to make amends. Let me make amends, Victoria. Under my own power, but for your benefit as well as mine. I want to protect you.”
Gertrude reached out her hand to the screen. Tears glinting in the sides of her eyes.
Victoria reached a hand up to her face. Eyes shut, lips slightly drawn.
“I never gave up hope for us. I want you to be safe.”
“Liar. You awful, damned liar.”
Her ears twitched. Her frustration was clear and visible and it was tearing her up.
She did not speak for several seconds. Gertrude’s smoldering gaze continued to lock on to her.
Finally, she heaved a sigh as if she had been holding a breath since they first saw each other.
“Very well. The Vekan Empire will look the other way, just this once, on one condition.”
“Name it.” Gertrude quickly said.
Victoria lifted her hand from over her eyes and pinned a serious gaze back on Gertrude.
“I will join you on your expedition. The Vekan Empire is also trying to explore the abyss. I will join you on the Iron Lady as a temporary liaison and intelligence agent. I will ascertain your intentions, freely record any information you encounter explicitly for Vekan use, and if you harm me or Vekan interests, then as soon as you come back up, this journey is over for you. I will be watching the criminal Nile as well. If you prove unable or unwilling to manage the criminal’s affairs, Veka will also turn against you.”
Gertrude had to roll with the punches but she was briefly stunned herself at this concession(?).
Maybe as stunned as she had left Victoria when she first started speaking from the heart.
“Of course. You are welcome aboard. But won’t your allies feel uncertain about this?”
“My allies have unquestioning faith in me, as the Empress’ special agent. You are my ally too now; so I demand unquestioning faith from you. I will set my affairs in order and depart on a shuttle.”
“Well– I suppose I will be seeing you in the flesh shortly.”
“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. But at least it’s amicable to both parties, without bloodshed.”
Gertrude thought she saw a small smile before the video connection severed.
Without the Shimii to yell at on the other end, the entire exchange felt utterly surreal.
As if Gertrude had exited a wind tunnel, and her body was still shaking, her senses confused.
Victoria might still have a soft spot in that hard heart for her old school friends.
Just like me.
Gertrude sighed. She really was in over her head. Everything was in turmoil.
Dreschner glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to his own computer.
“With me, or against me, on this one?” Gertrude asked.
Dreschner let out a short laugh. “I am always with you, Inquisitor. Or should I say, Emperor?”
Her expression darkened immediately. “Oh, don’t even joke about it.”
“You’re right, I should treat it as seriously as you do. We shall see where your ambition takes us.”
Dreschner was far too enthused about this.
Gertrude fell back on her chair, wishing she could become a soft jelly and slide right off.
After a tense couple of hours, the Aranjagaan backed off from standoff range. The Cruiser retreated to a 5 kilometer line further into Veka, and informed the Union 8th Fleet FCG-F of a Vekan operation in the Kesar’s Gorge area, in order to avoid potential hostilities between allies. The Union acceded to this, and the Aranjagaan shared all information with the Iron Lady pertaining to the Union position in the area. Before leaving, the Aranjagaan released Victoria van Veka, and then awaited the return of their shuttle.
Collectively, the crew of the Iron Lady breathed a sigh of relief.
“You are such a shrewd negotiator, High Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “We got out without a bullet fired!”
Gertrude laughed, more than a little nervously.
Please, God, let me have a power other than groveling someday.
Nile’s vessel was fully unloaded, and the woman was admitted into the Iron Lady’s interior. Aside from a pitiable amount of food and water, Nile’s vessel was packed almost wall to wall and corner to corner, in every possible place she could find, with boxes and vials and bags of medicines. Gertrude’s security team was greatly confused. There were large amounts of staple antibiotics, painkillers, sterilizing and saline fluids, gauze and stitches, scalpels and scissors and picks and other cutting and twining tools, but also bio-stitcher cartridges of various sorts, hormone therapy drugs, insulin for diabetics, inhalers for asthmatics, eye drops, in addition to rarer and more exotic drugs. Rather than being named, some of the boxes had long formulas and strings of compounds to designate them and were full of vials.
Everyone had assumed there would be weapons somewhere but found not a single one.
“Why would I need weapons? I’m a medical doctor. Medicine is my weapon.” Nile said.
Nile was unbothered by the attention of the security team and cooperated fully throughout the inspection. After overseeing the unloading of her medical supplies and leaving behind instructions for their safe long term storage, Nile was gently ushered to a meeting room to await debriefing.
Shortly thereafter, a small, cylindrical shuttle arrived to convey Victoria van Veka to the Iron lady.
Victoria brought with her one wheeled trunk full of luggage, which was scanned on entry and found to be inoffensive, full of nothing but clothes and needed sundries. On her hip, she had a ceremonial vibrosaber which was given to Vekan armored cavalry. Since it was a symbol of office, and as a gesture of good will, she was allowed to keep it. Processing her into the ship was much faster and less tense than with Nile.
On the shuttle there was only one piece of larger equipment that had been brought from the Aranjagaan for Victoria’s use– a Jagd model Diver. This item was cleared by security and brought aboard into the hangar through the underside cargo hatch. Monika and the engineers would have to set up another wall gantry to hold it. Until then it was sat up against the wall like a sad, claw-armed child in timeout.
With such deference, the Iron lady welcomed Victoria van Veka to their quest for the Abyss of Kesar.
Despite the verbal scuffle with Gertrude, Victoria was unfailingly polite to the Iron Lady’s crew.
“Such a splendid security detail. I hope that choleric woman treats you properly.” Victoria said.
“The Inquisitor is a good commander. Please do not insult her, milady.” Vogt replied gently.
It did not escape anyone that the target of the phrase “that choleric woman” was immediately known.
Gertrude was not too fond of that when she reviewed the processing reports and footage.
Nevertheless, once Victoria’s shuttle departed, the Iron Lady’s expedition officially resumed.
Thus, Gertrude found herself in a meeting room sitting across a table from Nile and Victoria.
A black-eared dog and a light-eared cat– the tension was thick enough to coat a spoon.
Gertrude had to debrief them on the situation and the coming expedition, but–
Victoria was staring daggers sidelong at Nile, who was untroubled by the antagonism.
And Nile was smiling too noticeably behind her mask, and clearly up to something.
“Lichtenberg, your name is too long to say formally. Let me call you ‘Trude.” Nile said.
“Absolutely do not let her call you that.” Victoria said suddenly.
Gertrude briefly felt like hurling herself through the outer bulkhead.
What have I gotten myself into?!