Depth Gauge: 2155 m
“Alright, lets calm down. We’re all in this together now.”
In an unremarkable meeting room, Gertrude sat across the table from a very remarkable pair of guests. The Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation known as “Nile,” and the special agent of the Vekan Empire, Victoria van Veka. Circumstances had brought these three together on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, and not a minute had gone by since they sat next to each other, but antagonism was already brimming. Gertrude wanted to get on the topic of the abyssal expedition, but Victoria would not allow it. She launched into accusations without a moment’s rest, while Nile simply sat there with her arms crossed.
“Gertrude, this woman is extremely dangerous. You think you can make use of her, but you’re completely out of your depth. She stands accused of not only building clandestine infrastructure, but we have found evidence of human experimentation, including organs and tissue cultures from god-only-knows-where.”
Gertrude could have imagined it was something like that, with it being the Sunlight Foundation and all–
Nile turned her cheek and scoffed, her tail wagging so fast it was drumming on the chair.
“You completely misunderstand the assets you stole from me. I use my own tissue and DNA to test my products. But of course, you Vekans and your ignorant government are entirely run by biofascist superstitions. If you think an organoid is a living person, then I am a genocidaire par excellence.”
Nile fired back with some science, but allowing this debate was an intolerable can of worms to open.
“This is not the time or the place to define the meaning of human life.” Gertrude interrupted.
Victoria turned her own cheek. “The fact remains, Gertrude, she assembled a large amount of clandestine infrastructure for the purpose of drug manufacturing, away from prying eyes. God knows how many years it took to build all of this, where the funding came from, how it was staffed– other than being full of Katarran mercenaries! I don’t believe she is being altruistic for one second. She and this ‘Sunlight Foundation’ of hers cannot be trusted, and with her capture, the Vekan Empire would be one step closer to unraveling this syndicate and their misdeeds. Even with all of our resources, we’ve only scratched the very tip of the iceberg of what they’ve been doing. You must at least sympathize with that goal.”
Gertrude sighed. “I’m willing to share with you any information we uncover, and any information that Nile wishes to disclose. However, I am curious how you intended to extract information from her if you were to take her into custody. Nile did not strike me as someone who was willing to cooperate with you.”
Nile scoffed. “The Vekans would torture me, obviously. I’m from there, I know what it’s like. Especially to Loup who don’t practice Orthodoxy. Shimiist Loup like me are outright persecuted by the old believers, and Veka has always supported such savagery. Oh, am I getting to you now, you puffed up kitten?”
Victoria had her fists balled up at her side. “We would not have tortured her. This is ridiculous.”
“Trude, I’ll disclose to you our operating methods– but only in the Holy Land of Konstantinople, at the seat of the Inquisition. I am claiming Asylum from the Vekan Empire’s persecution. Until then, I demand that I be judged by my character and deeds, rather than by inferences marred by her bias.” Nile said.
These two were tearing Gertrude apart already. She almost wanted to scream at them.
However, she had her own convictions and her own beliefs which were playing a part.
Though she could believe that Victoria would not support torture herself, Gertrude was not so naive as to believe the Vekans would share her objections. When the Vekan Empire was just the Duchy of Veka, it was widely known to be a less civilized place than the broader Imbrian Empire. Vekans declared clan feuds, engaged in dueling, committed honor killings, practiced blood oaths and rituals, and certainly torture was neither novel nor rare for their military. High Inquisitor Samoylovych, one of Gertrude’s predecessors, had rescued Monika Erke-Tendercloud from a Vekan Sanitarium for the mentally ill. Her Orthodox family had interned her in this facility to “fix her,” and she was awfully abused. Such things were not uncommon in the hinterlands, and upon accession to the office of High Inquisitor, Gertrude witnessed them too.
Though Gertrude tried not to develop a bias, it was hard for her to ignore all the horror stories.
It was convenient for the Empire that Veka had a “warrior culture” that was internally stimulated.
This made them excellent guards for the Empire’s flank to the Mare Crisium and its strange cultures.
Despite fearing them and being disgusted by some of their traditions, the Imbrians let Veka be.
They wrote off the unsavory aspects as simply “Vekan culture” that couldn’t or shouldn’t be opposed.
So if it was Vekan culture and couldn’t be changed, then Victoria had to deal with the consequences.
“Victoria, the fact of the matter is that Nile is under my custody now.” Gertrude said, putting up a firm front. “I have a strong suspicion, and it is growing stronger, that she would have been abused in the custody of the Vekans. This is not a judgment on you personally, but releasing her to your allies is out of the question as they cannot be trusted not to violate her humanity. Since it is out of the question, I demand the issue be dropped, and I further demand that the two of you cease these needless hostilities.”
She laid out her concerns and conditions as gently but firmly as she could, hoping to stifle further tension.
First she looked to Victoria–
“Fine. I will pay close attention to your own much-vaunted ethics and see if there is any merit to your treatment of this criminal.” Victoria said, arms crossed, tongue dripping with venomous sarcasm.
“Thank you. I will endeavor be so inspiring that you come to mean that sincerely.” Gertrude replied.
Then she turned to face Nile–
“I will cherish the trust you put in me, ‘Trude.” Nile said, wagging her tail and smiling with her eyes.
Gertrude frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t trust either of you quite yet. But I hope I can at least expect you to be honorable. I want you two to shake hands right now, and at the very least, to swear to stay out of each other’s way. I don’t want to have to summon Vogt every time you two meet eyes. Are we clear on this?”
Then she stepped between the two of them, grabbed their hands, and brought them close.
“Are we clear?” Gertrude asked again.
Begrudgingly, Victoria and Nile shook hands, neither making eye contact with the other.
No curses under their breath at least, not that Gertrude could detect.
“Anyway. I’ll describe the Expedition I am undertaking. Please hold your tongues until I’m done.”
And so, Gertrude began–
The Imbrian Empire officially dated its founding to A.D. 418 with the rise of Heitzing as a city-state in the northeastern Imbrium Ocean. Before this date, records were scarce, owing to a vast underwater conflict known as the “Age of Strife,” where Stations acted individually to cut each other off, sabotage each other, fight each other or steal from each other without an overarching authority– presumably after the ultimate fall of the remaining surface civilizations and total loss of contact. Owing to this mass hysteria and a resulting regression in society of hundreds of years, little was empirically known about the Strife.
Because of this, the Strife era was thought of as a sort of tribulation that ended in a miracle, where divinity graced humanity and saved them from assured extinction. There were a multitude of stories, myths, legends. Some of these were recorded into the remains of the early station computers which had lost much of their function due to civil collapse and neglect. It was from these accounts that Solceanism’s first precepts were drawn; as well as the only records of the origins of the first Emperor of the Imbrium.
Azazel Nocht I had a number of associated legends, but the most common was that he descended into what would become known as the Abyss of Nocht, now the site of the Imperial Capital of Heitzing, and from the abyss, he returned with the power to end the strife and unite the stations of what would become the Palatine state. By some accounts he pulled Heitzing from the Abyss, and this explained why Nocht’s Gorge had collapsed and shut. Others said he was graced by the divine and accepted as a God Emperor.
From Heitzing and the formation of the Palatine, the Empire expanded to encompass Rhinea (displacing declining Shimii kingdoms in the process), as well as Bosporus’ North and South (subjugating more Shimii, Loup and dark-skinned Bosporan peoples), to Buren to the northeast, with Katarre as the limit, and what would become Skarsgaard, or now the Holy Empire of Solcea (previously the Gallian Kingdoms and other small station-states.) Contact was made with the Vekan proto-state which was vassalized, and the Empire stabilized, slowed down, but eventually, expanded to the Nectaris to form the Colonies.
Azazel Nocht I crowned his own sons, establishing a dynastic line and creating the Imbrian Empire, but from 516 A.D., where the Empire first encountered the Republic of Alayze and went to war with them, records of Nocht I became scarce, and his dynasty took prominence. He must not have been a God, and thus met mortality. This is what was commonly accepted to have occurred and taught in schools.
Even with station computers and other such technology, time and political convenience eroded what was known and shaped what was thought. Over time, the Nochts became more divine than human, until they ceased to be either of the two. Eventually, the line of Nocht ended with the Fueller Reformation between 932 and 934 A.D. All record of the divinity of the Nocht family and their mythical exploits was expunged and driven from the public consciousness. Konstantin von Fueller, the first non-Nocht Emperor, struck the name of Nocht from the Empire itself, and declared that the “hypnosis” that the Nocht family had put over the Empire was now broken. The Nochts were mere men, and they had been defeated. The Engineers of the Fueller family brought about an age of secularism and materialist rhetoric.
But of course, hundreds of years of superstitions did not just die with one man nor with his family.
There still remained the mythical descent, etched into the collective imagination.
The Abyss continued to tempt the people of the Imbrium with its alluring legends of power and splendor. It had almost the same reputation as the photic zone, of a place where daredevil explorers could find mythical realms and lost islands of Strife era civilization to plunder. But such people were only legends. Outside of the Katarran mercenary culture and its tall tales, there were few successful stories of descent into the Abyss. Horrific beasts, sights so terrible they melt the mind of the beholder, disorientation and the threat of being spirited away– people who ventured into the abyss never came back. Or perhaps, it was easier to believe that if they came back whole and hale, then they never went at all and were lying.
Most of them were probably lying; but who could determine truth from fiction in such a situation?
The governments of the Imbrium, whose base of control lay in the zone of human activity, had let the Abyss rest unperturbed for hundreds of years. There was always a greater problem or a more lucrative venture right in front of them, between 1000 and 2000 meters– governments rarely saw need to venture further. Whenever they did, they sponsored some quackish expedition that was already dead set on doing so. If they came back, it was always in failure with nothing to show for it. If they never came back, it didn’t matter one bit. Even the secular Fueller regime had done little to stir the pot of Abyssal exploration, sponsoring ultimately less such trips than even the Nocht family, and publicizing none of them at all.
Perhaps that was the influence of a certain someone at play– someone who had experience in this realm.
According to Norn von Fueller, Kesar’s Gorge held a habitat below 3000 meters depth. Gertrude Lichtenberg believed staunchly that this habitat held her origin story, and perhaps the origin of her power. And she did not intend to stop there. Norn had taunted her to go even deeper into the Katov mass, and Gertrude intended to do so. This was her last gambit. She would retrace Nocht’s steps into the eldritch shadow that lay beneath humanity’s eternal coffin in the depths of the Imbrium. Come hell, high water, or madness.
She already felt like she had been through hell in spirit. So now she would sink in it, and rise again.
“Norn is just trying to get rid of you. She is sending you on a suicide mission.” Victoria bluntly said.
After a brief explanation of the history of abyssal exploration as Gertrude understood it, Gertrude laid out her grand ambitions for the trip to Kesar’s Gorge. Of course, it was immediately shot down by Victoria.
“Norn would not do that. We have a history together. I know her better than you.” Gertrude said.
Victoria briefly seemed to bristle at the idea. As if offended in a snap reaction to the second statement.
“You don’t understand.” Gertrude continued. “Norn doesn’t lie. She doesn’t feel the need to do so. Norn believes she is so powerful that deception is beneath her. If Norn wanted me dead she would have killed me. She thinks she’s above the law. She was being sincere, Victoria. There is something in the Gorge she wants me to find and I’m going to get it. And If I need to, I’ll turn it against her. That’s my goal here.”
Gertrude of course withheld that Norn delivered this information after nearly killing her.
That detail made Gertrude all the more certain that Norn was not cheating her.
But she had no ill will toward Norn and some part of her didn’t want Victoria to think ill of Norn either.
Some part of her was still a bit soft-hearted about her “Master,” to whom she owed so much.
She had to pretend that Norn was an antagonist– but deep down, she felt like she had wronged her.
“How has Veka’s abyssal exploration turned out? I’m genuinely curious.” Nile asked.
“I don’t need to disclose anything to you.” Victoria responded.
She was back to her emotionless and blunt tone of voice. Gertrude took this to mean she was calm.
However, she was still being uncooperative.
“The Sunlight Foundation has never ventured too deep into the Abyss.” Nile said. She gestured with a palm toward the floor. As if in response to Victoria’s uncooperative demeanor, she started an impromptu lecture that surprised Gertrude. “We have sent instruments into those holes which picked up all kinds of anomalous readings. It is difficult to communicate between the Abyss and the Aphotic Zone, and there are problems with navigation also. Euphrates and Tigris, two of my colleagues, have the most experience with such things, and even they limit their activity to no more than 3500 depth. For an outfit like ours, which has to be careful with the assets it is moving, there’s always something more important to do, relative to the effort. The Abyss is teeming with life that is only rarely agitated by human activity– they respond aggressively and view us as prey. Scientific expeditions cannot hope to survive. They must be accompanied by military assets. This massive ship might give us a ghost of a chance to succeed.”
“Um. Thank you for the disclosure.” Gertrude said. “I take it you’re invested in giving it a shot?”
“I’m uninterested in the Abyss.” Nile said. “I am only speaking as a Doctor hoping to mitigate what will be obvious harm. I am willing to offer the limited expertise I have in order to prevent possible casualties. Speaking of which, Trude, do you have a clinic aboard? I don’t believe I saw one open.”
Gertrude blinked at her. Ship’s clinics were established at the discretion of the commander, and–
“We have medics aboard, with the security team. They can administer first-aid. Our doctrine entails we should go to a Station or to a Hospital Ship after we have stabilized people for follow-up care. We’re an elite and fast-moving unit that gets a lot of requests, it’s not a good environment for long-term care.”
–she had never recruited a ship’s doctor to the Iron Lady. It had not seemed necessary before.
Inquisition soldiers could get care anywhere– until now, when that was impossible.
“You don’t have any stations or Hospital ships to go to now. Let me open a clinic here.” Nile said.
She wasn’t entirely wrong, but Gertrude was still immediately nervous about the idea.
Victoria shot Gertrude a skeptical glare. Nile sounded quite invested in her request.
“At least let me give a health check to your crew. I bet they haven’t had preventive care in months. I’ll show you how much you need a doctor, and you can decide whether you approve of my care or not.”
Gertrude glanced at Victoria, meeting her suddenly evil-looking stare. She then looked back at Nile.
“It can’t hurt, I guess. You can set up in one of the meeting rooms to do check-ups, and only check-ups, with a limited selection of tools overseen by Security. Then I’ll evaluate whether to keep it or close it.”
Victoria crossed her arms. Nile wagged her tail more vigorously and smiled with her eyes again.
“So, then–” Gertrude tried to steer back to the main topic–
“Veka’s attempts to explore the Abyss have not been successful.”
Suddenly, Victoria spoke up. Arms crossed, eyes shut, cheek turned. Her own tail stood straight out.
“There are three Abyssal gorges in Veka, the Abyss of Temujin, the Abyss of Mansa and the Abyss of Hus. We sent small military expeditions into the Temujin and Mansa gorges down to 4000 meters. Both of which were attacked by Leviathans as well as buffeted by strange weather patterns and returned with damage and not much else to show for it. In the Abyss of Hus, we found the main base of this individual at 3000 depth and aborted our mission to go deeper.” It seemed this was the most polite way that Victoria could refer to Nile in that moment. “Then we tracked her down again to a smaller, lower depth site within an inactive subaquatic volcano. I am willing to disclose that it was not only that we desired to bring her to justice– we wanted to acquire someone who had real experience with depth sites.”
“You’ve got the wrong woman for that. You want Euphrates instead. Good luck.” Nile replied.
“Hence,” Victoria ignored her and continued speaking, “why I am here now, why I was chasing her, and why I have interest both in this individual but also in your expedition Gertrude. Not everyone has an Irmingard class dreadnought to spare for a journey like this. So it is beneficial for me to join you. Perhaps if you can uncover something valuable, I will rescind my intentions toward this individual.”
Gertrude felt her heart leap. That withdrawn cat had finally begun to cooperate!
“I am glad you actually opened up. It looks like everyone stands to profit here.” She said.
“Don’t get used to it. I’m only here to safeguard Vekan interests.”
Gertrude felt her heart tumble off a rooftop and crash into the street.
Nevertheless, at least everyone could finally agree that they wanted to be here now.
“Since it appears everything else is in order, the meeting is adjourned. You two have room assignments in the officer’s hall, get some rest.” Gertrude said. “I need some too. Your quarrel woke me up at like 0200.”
“Of course. A poor sleep schedule does explain your depressed countenance.” Nile said.
“I don’t care what you do. Just inform me if I’m required for anything.” Victoria said.
Without another word, Gertrude left the room feeling thoroughly exhausted by those two.
Depth Gauge: 2498 m
Gertrude shut the door to her room behind herself. She promptly dropped her coat on a nearby chair, undid her tie and the buttons of her shirt, and practically ripped her hair loose from its bun, and fell down into bed. Her black bra clung close to her swarthy olive skin, slick with sweat. She began feebly reaching around behind her back, but aborted trying to unhook the bra. She was completely wiped out.
Staring at the roof, at first without expression. Then, compelled as if by a mad passion to smile.
To laugh– to crack up into nearly sobbing laughter.
“What a farce! What a stupid farce!”
She raised her arm over her eyes, covering them with her sleeve.
“Do I really think I’m capable of any of this? Am I suddenly dreaming of being Emperor Nocht now?”
She was so exhausted. That burst of laughter felt like it took the last of her strength.
Unable to move, all she had was the ceiling above and her own wicked passions.
Gertrude was nothing more than a trumped-up military policewoman.
This enormous ship, all of her weapons and her crew, all of it was just from playing politics.
She hadn’t won any of it from just her strength.
Her weakness and helplessness frustrated her to no end.
Ultimately, she was just a coward. Hiding behind Norn without ever truly understanding her.
Without an Imbrian Empire, she was nothing. Her uniform meant nothing, and so she herself didn’t.
But it was not just the expedition that felt farcical either–
No. That was just the very start. Beneath the skin, everything about Gertrude was despicable.
“What rotten luck. Victoria is here too. God, I’m so pathetic. She reminds me of–“
Don’t even say it.
Don’t even think it.
Stop now. There’s only hurt down that way.
Gertrude laughed. Heavy on the bitter notes this time. Weak, sputtering laughter.
“What if I want her? Why can’t I have anything? Why do I have to lose everything?”
No response from that inner voice of self loathing.
After all, what did her mixed-up, wicked heart truly even want now?
Could she have Elena back?
Could she keep Ingrid?
Could she have–
Gertrude heard the door luck to her room slide open.
In a panic, she sat up instantly in bed–
Finding herself staring up from the edge, with legs spread and her shirt open, at Nile.
She had moved so fast that her vision was blurry, her brain rattled. She couldn’t believe this.
“I wanted us to talk alone.” Nile said. Her eyes scanned over Gertrude.
“I locked that door.” Gertrude said incredulously. Too confused to be upset.
Nile reached out and dropped a tube shaped thing with a trigger on it and a tiny screen.
“Masterkey. Creative name, isn’t it? Some irascible little woman made it. You can have it now.”
Gertrude realized how bad her posture was.
She closed her legs and held her shirt closed with one hand.
“I am this close to having you locked up in a black room for the rest of the journey.” Gertrude said.
“That would be a pity. There’s so much I can do for you after all.” Nile said.
God damn it, don’t respond to that–
Her body was instantly responding to it. But Gertrude still had her mind to resist with.
Even if her loins did stir–
“What the hell do you want? Ingrid’ll tear you apart if she notices you snuck in here.”
“That lovely lass in the next room over? She’s sleeping like a log. Relax. I am not here on any nefarious purpose. I just wanted to ask if you knew about Agarthic Weather. I have something for you.”
From her coat, she produced another object. It looked like a watch.
However, the face was completely different. Rather than numbers and hands, the face of the watch had a gradient etched into the back, and some kind of fluid trapped behind the glass. Gertrude had never seen anything like it. Nile dropped it on the bed next to the Masterkey without a second’s hesitation. She picked it up but no amount of observation could elucidate the true purpose of the little gadget.
“What is this? Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”
“That’s an Aetherometer. You can use it to tell the color and intensity of Agarthic Weather.” Nile said. “And I wanted you to be prepared. We’re already very close to the boundary line after all.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about!” Gertrude said.
Nile’s face looked like she was smiling behind her mask. Mysteriously pleased to be able to explain.
“Cocytus clearly didn’t train you. But I’ll oblige– our world has a layer of passively resonant emotional energy that is everywhere humans are, but invisible. This is called Aether. You can think of it almost like dark matter or the quantum world. It is observable with the right tools, but not with human eyes– most human eyes, anyway. But unlike other observable phenomena, which neatly conform to behaviors that can be documented, Aether can be as irrational as humans themselves are. Are you following me?”
In that moment, Gertrude could not possibly have responded. She was tired and aggravated and hearing nonsense which, indeed, not even Norn had ever spoken about to her. So she made no response to Nile’s sudden pseudoscience lesson beyond drawing her brows in and narrowing her eyes at the Loup.
“In the Abyss,” Nile continued, “the Aether exists in a state of agitation that has profound psychological effects on humans. It starts anywhere from 2500 to 3000 meters deep. I will make recommendations as to how to deal with the Weather once I see which color of weather we are going into, and you can use that Aetherometer to keep track of the weather and its severity, so you won’t be caught off-guard.”
Nonsense, pure complete nonsense.
She might as well have been whispering gibberish words like a baby.
And all the while Gertrude was trying to keep her own tits in her shirt–
“Get out of my room.” Gertrude said. “Get out. Right now.”
“As you wish. Perhaps I can accompany you some other time.”
Gertrude stood up from bed, but Nile retreated quickly with a little bow, the door locking behind her.
She stared at the locked door, briefly, her legs wavering under her weight.
Looking back at the bed with the aetherometer on it.
“God damn it.”
She lost her temper. And she was losing the battle she had been fighting with her own stamina.
“Ingrid is right. I’ve been running myself too ragged for too long.”
She practically collapsed into bed moments later, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly.
While on her bed, the fluid on the discarded aetherometer turned a pale blue.
Depth Gauge: 2540 m
True horror reared its head the next day, after a night that felt like a blur.
“I’m not even well rested! I still feel like crap!”
Gertrude put her head down against the cafeteria table. Her muscles ached, her head was pounding.
Opposite her, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong reached a hand and brushed the top of her head gently.
In that moment, Gertrude’s heart was filled with love for that wild and beautiful brunette.
“There, there.” She cooed. “You’ll be okay. Why not rest your head on my lap?”
A lap pillow– the panacea which had cured the ails of many heroes.
Ingrid was an angel. Gertrude ill deserved her kindness.
However, she couldn’t be seen to rest her head atop Ingrid’s lean, alluring thighs.
Such a thing would call into question the High Inquisitor’s vigor and alertness.
Alas– Gertrude could have nothing. She truly was not allowed any happiness!
“Thank you. But I probably just need strong coffee. And something to eat.” Gertrude groaned.
“I’ll go get you some food. But stop whining. If you’re going to be pathetic then go all in on it and let me take care of you. This tiptoeing shit you have going on just ends up annoying me.” Ingrid said.
“I’ll rest on your lap when we’re out of this place.” Gertrude moaned.
“I’ve half a mind to break into your room somehow and make damn sure about it.”
Ingrid winked at her.
Gertrude looked up at her blearily.
“Please don’t sneak into my room. I have enough trouble with that already.”
“Nevermind! Please get me some food and coffee, my head is killing me.”
“God. You’re being extra whiny today. Hopefully coffee is really all you need.”
Ingrid gave her a worried look before leaving for the cafeteria’s serving counter.
Breakfast that morning was a savory porridge with dried beef and frozen spinach mixed in, topped with a dab of margarine. It was rich, creamy, just lukewarm, imbued with a meaty flavor from having the dried beef and dry rolled oats cooked slowly in the same pot of reconstituted milk. It went down easy, just the sort of unchallenging dish Gertrude could really appreciate that morning. It was served with a side of “compote” that was essentially just tangy fruit mush as the frozen fruits disintegrated upon defrosting, and a piece of plain biscuit that had been steamed soft, presumably to spread the compote over.
Ingrid, however, had other ideas.
“Trude, where would you be without me? Here.”
She took the compote and dabbed it into the beef porridge before bringing the spoon into her lips.
Her tail wagged vigorously.
Gertrude mimed her and found the combination surprisingly tasty.
“You need to think outside the box more, Trude. Defy norms and shit!” Ingrid said.
She guffawed with a spoon in her mouth and Gertrude almost felt like kissing her.
Her smile, her enthusiastic unpretentiousness in both kindness and criticism– she was a treasure.
I wish I could feel like I haven’t lost anything just from having you.
It was a sick thought that sawed her heart in two. But she couldn’t help thinking it.
Along with the meal, Ingrid had brought her a strong black coffee.
Gertrude practically downed the whole thing as if hoping to drown her thoughts.
“Whoa! Jeez. I didn’t know you were such a coffee freak. I’ve never seen you tear into alcohol that enthusiastically.” Ingrid said, watching with wide-eyed horror as Gertrude drank and drank.
Immediately after putting her glass down Gertrude felt an immense headache.
But the dagger with which she had stabbed her brain had quieted her evil thoughts.
She did feel much more alert too.
“I’m fine.” Gertrude said, through a slight bodily tremble. “Let’s check in at the bridge.”
“Alright. But hey– is something the matter?” Ingrid asked.
She stood up and followed Gertrude along the Iron Lady’s halls.
While they walked, Gertrude thought of how to put her feelings delicately.
“Victoria van Veka is an old school friend of mine.” Gertrude said. “She and I and Elena von Fueller went to school together. I was horrible to her in the past. It was rather painful to get her cooperation now.”
Gertrude expected the worst after mentioning the circumstances to Ingrid. It might have stoked her envy.
But her bristly-tailed lover was not offended or threatened by the sound of it.
“You can’t take back bullying her in school or whatever the hell you did, and you won’t ever change her mind if she doesn’t want it.” Ingrid said, with casual ease. “It sucks, but you can’t go back and change it. Nothing you do in the present will make the past hurt less. All you can do is ask for forgiveness. Tell her you want to put in the effort to mend things, and ask her if there’s anything that can be done.”
“What if the answer’s no?” Gertrude said. It felt like an immediately childish question.
Ingrid smiled gently. “Trude, I know really, really well what it’s like having something you can’t take back and that you will never, ever be forgiven for. It’s fucked– but you have to live with it. Be happy for her; she’s alive, and she moved up in the world. And then carry on your own way with your chin up.”
Her words brought to mind the episode with the Antenora’s crew. Gertrude remembered the insinuations made by Norn’s subordinate, Yurii Anneccy Samoylovych Darkestdays, that Ingrid’s family had killed their own kind, and particularly, killed southern Loups. This was different than what Gertrude had gone through. While the scale was monumentally different, it was also the case that Gertrude was personally responsible for her own troubles. Ingrid was damned not by her own sin, but her grandfather’s crimes. Her response to that accusation was unfortunate, but it had been Samoylovych’s intention to needle her about it. Among Loup, maybe Ingrid had to deal with that situation so much, she could only get angry. Maybe that same scenario over and over drilled into her head that there was nothing she could do.
Gertrude had made her mistakes with her own hands, and would have to carry the weight of them. But that advice was still resonant. She felt gently happy that Ingrid had demonstrated such sympathy to her, even though her worries felt so pointless and childish. Ingrid was right– whether she could mend things with Victoria or not, Gertrude would have to live with the result. There was nothing else she could do.
If Ingrid could live with the legacy of her grandfather’s murders–
Gertrude could survive Victoria’s disdain.
“Ingrid, you’re really strong, you know that?” Gertrude said, smiling at her lover.
“Of course I do. I’m extremely sexy too.” Ingrid laughed. Her tail started wagging incessantly.
“I’m extremely lucky to have you by my side.” Gertrude said.
“You are! Praise me more!” Ingrid laughed raucously.
God– she was so beautiful. Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid! Gertrude momentarily felt her troubles leave her.
Average days on the Iron Lady still found themselves subject to a background hum of anxiety.
It was the stereotype that sailors and mechanics are a little bit more personable and salt of the earth, and officers are either a bit more stodgy or far more eccentric; but on a Dreadnought, the whole affair was colored through the lens of an unshakeable elite status. For naval personnel, service on a dreadnought was “making it.” A dreadnought, with its thick armor and powerful guns, was the safest ship to be on. It was the most prestigious, often in a command position in its fleet group. And because it was the largest, it had better amenities. Sailors had actual ranks, and the best of the sailors slept four to a room instead of eight to a room. Chief mechanics and engineers as well as work managers had their own rooms.
There was better food and more of it. There was a gym, the showers had stalls separating them, there was a social area, people could take more personal belongings with them on voyages. There was more freedom and more luxury, relative to other vessels. All of these incentives gave the crew the feeling that their hard work was finally being rewarded. There were few dreadnoughts in service. There was stiff competition for these posts. They had made it; they had gotten to the peak of their sailing career.
With those rewards came an expectation. Elite status had to be maintained through elite work. Sailors were expected to maintain a spotless standard of maintenance on the ship. Service level expectations were prompt. A service ticket could never “wait,” even a second. Preventive care was of the utmost importance. Not one centimeter of the ship could be overlooked. Meanwhile, officers had to be exemplary. Service on a dreadnought was such a sought after and exclusive position that an officer who made a mistake could be replaced by thousands of others that might not. Officers were expected to be highly experienced, experts in their fields and stations, with the most developed military thinking.
Orders could never be questioned. You made it to the peak; you followed along or fell from it.
Backchat was for low ratings on Frigates, dime a dozen people on dime a dozen vessels.
That expectation was not always fulfilled, and failing to live up to it was not always punished. It was said that Gertrude Lichtenberg ran a tight but compassionate operation in the Iron Lady. Because she valued long term stability, she only discarded flagrantly abusive people or those with unsalvageable failings. She did not see herself as having a crew that was elite in and of itself, but that became elite through hard work and demonstrated its status by growing stronger and tighter throughout its operations.
Nevertheless, that did not diminish the existence of that expectation. Walking down the halls was not like seeing happy faces in a station hallway, but almost like a line of students on a permanent examination period. Focused expressions, nervous expressions, confident but inwardly contrite expressions. A low hum of anxiety– this was the public life aboard a dreadnought, as one crossed the halls to and from work.
But everyone had friends, everyone had moments where they could privately let themselves be a little silly or a little loose. They were in this together, and trying to help each other succeed. Having good friends made up a good crew, and a good crew didn’t lose any of its members to outside recruitment. A good crew stayed together and grew together, and that was the feeling within dreadnoughts as well. This camaraderie protected the individuals by protecting the group, and kept everyone honest. Pure social climbers existed, but they risked shaking apart a stable house for the rest, and were not well liked.
Gertrude Lichtenberg and her closest confidantes shared such moments of lighthearted camaraderie.
They were not alone in doing so– perhaps it was the actual truth, that everyone on a dreadnought was a bit eccentric, but that everyone, also, could put on a strong face and get their work done when needed.
Perhaps the same could be said of all people, writ large.
On the bridge, the main screen had a split view.
One half had an expanded picture from the conning tower cameras. Outside the ship, the environment, wherever it was lit by the ship’s spotlights, had turned an unexpectedly deep blue. Gertrude had expected that with the katov mass density, everything outside would look red. One could still see the thick cloud of particulate matter all around the ship, but it was a deep, almost algal blue, like staring into a growth tank. On the port side of the ship, it was possible to see the distant, vague shadow of the rocky gorge wall.
On the other half of the main screen, there was a topographical map generated by sonar and laser imaging. It showed the Iron Lady as a wireframe object within a simulation of the gorge, to allow the crew to gauge its position relative to the surroundings. There were a few objects in the gorge with the ship. At that moment, they were maintaining 2500 depth. 500 meters below them in the murk, and a kilometer east, there was an object which was floating in the middle of the gorge. At 3500 depth, there was an object that appeared to be wedged into the gorge’s wall. At 5000 depth, the gorge widened, and there was a seafloor, but 2 kilometers farther east, there was a hole through which they could descend further.
“Inquisitor, Sotnyk.” Karen Schicksal greeted Gertrude and Ingrid, stifling a little yawn as she did.
On the center island seats, Captain Dreschner covered his mouth, yawning as if infected with it.
Throughout the bridge, everyone seemed a little bit fatigued and less alert than normal.
“Not just me, huh?” Gertrude asked. “Pass around vitamin drinks to everyone.”
Their vitamin jelly drinks not only contained vitamins– in fact they had more caffeine than vitamins.
“Yes ma’am. Good idea. I’ll call the kitchen.” Schicksal replied.
Gertrude and Ingrid climbed the steps to the center island and stood next to Dreschner, looking over the main screen. Ingrid whistled, impressed by the depth of the gorge, and the objects within it. Certainly, Gertrude never thought she would be down here, and she had never thought it would look blue. It was almost beautiful to behold, though truly there was nothing to actually see. All that beautiful color was just murky water and contaminated biomass wafting up from the abyss. It was a cloud of beautiful emptiness.
There was something out there, just beyond Gertrude’s reach. Centimeters from her fingertips.
That emptiness had to mean something. It had to contain something she could not see.
Otherwise, her entire life up to this point had led her to nothing, and she would die with nothing.
“What’s the situation so far, Captain?” Gertrude asked. “Anything dangerous?”
“No leviathans quite yet.” Dreschner said. He pointed at the map. “We’ve found two points of interest. There appears to be an 80 meter long metallic object below us. It could be a derelict ship. Might be worth looking into. There is additionally a larger object farther below, which may be what Norn the Praetorian desired you to find, Lady Lichtenberg. From what we can see, the exterior is at least 100 meters across and 50 meters tall. It is embedded into the gorge wall, so there is likely more to it than we can see.”
“Why is everything blue? Isn’t all that stuff out there just katov gunk?” Ingrid asked.
“Affirmative, Lady Jarvelainen.” Dreschner said. “You are correct, everything we are seeing is still shrouded in ordinary Katov mass. It has become blue instead of red, and I can scarcely imagine a reason why.”
“Is still just acting like Katov stuff normally does? Nothing is different?” Ingrid’s ears folded a little.
“As far as we have observed, it is exactly like any other cloud of Katov mass based on its turbidity. The Katov scale is still accurately predicting laser and visual fall-off. It is simply blue instead of red.”
Hadn’t there been something about blue–? It was just off the edge of Gertrude’s memory.
“It’s kinda creepy, you know?”
“Indeed. But it is still predictable, at least.”
Despite Ingrid’s lower rank, the Captain treated her respectfully as a courtesy to Gertrude.
Ingrid and Gertrude were common enough companions aboard the ship. Even before they started having clandestine trysts. Everyone knew from observing them that they were good friends and they never hid this aspect of their relationship. But Dreschner was keener still– if anyone suspected the depth to which Gertrude favored her loyal Sotnyk, it had to be him. Thankfully, he would never air such thoughts.
“What’s the scale of the mass out there?” Gertrude asked.
“At the moment, 200 Katov. We can expect worse to come.” Dreschner said.
“What’s our current speed of descent?” Gertrude said. “I’m surprised we aren’t deeper yet.”
“I ordered the helm to limit our speed to a small handful of knots.” Dreschner said. “The Iron Lady is such a large vessel that we wouldn’t have time to correct any mistakes if we descend quickly. Visibility, communications and detection are all going to get poorer and poorer, so we need to be careful.”
“I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to. But your concerns are valid.” Gertrude said.
“At our pace, we can reach the derelict or the suspected habitat in an hour or three.” Dreschner said.
“Alright. Let’s go look at the nearest object first then.” Gertrude said, without much hesitation. She understood the concerns and deferred to Dreschner’s experience here. “If it’s a derelict then we need to see what the status of its core might be. I don’t want to leave a ticking time bomb out here.”
“I was going to suggest that as well, Inquisitor. I will inform the helm of our course.” Dreschner said.
While they talked, Ingrid stood off to the side, arms crossed, tail wagging gently, staring at the screen.
“I’ll leave it to you. I’m going to go check on the hangar crews. Ingrid, coming with?” Gertrude asked.
Ingrid yawned a little. “Of course. Let’s grab one of those vitamin drinks before we go though.”
“We’re all at 10% battery, aren’t we?” Gertrude said. “Captain, tell the crew to relax a little.”
Dreschner nodded solemnly. “I know they will appreciate a more measured pace. Thank you, milady.”
Gertrude could not afford for her crew to fall apart now. Especially not by her own hands.
They were so close, so tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. There was something down there.
She stared at the diagram of the gorge, at the small Iron Lady on the screen descending meter by meter.
There had to be something down in the dark. And she had to claim it and live to tell the tale.
Or else– everything was meaningless–
Depth Gauge: 2625
Down in the hangar, the crew had put up the gantry for Victoria’s Jagd, which was painted royal purple but otherwise appeared a fairly ordinary member of its class. Now the hangar engineers were engaged in the production of small spare parts using the ferristitcher and CNC machines located in the workshop near the shuttle bay. Melted down pieces from damaged equipment could be recycled to some degree in this fashion, making for new pushrods, bolts, pump parts for hydrojets, steel tubing, turbine blades, even bullets as long as there was available powder. They could easily ferristitch a whole assault rifle out of junk.
In this case, much of the junk had come from the formerly torn to pieces Jagdkaiser, which had been largely reassembled from Jagd parts. And now, much of the reconstituted junk seemed to be going into the Magellan, which had been its torso suspended, and the limbs separated to different parts of the hangar. Work seemed to have started on it. In front of the torso, Gertrude and Ingrid found Monika Erke Tendercloud, the small woman seated on the floor and looking up at the mecha with a drawing tablet in hand. She yawned audibly, and dropped onto her back, lying down. She then saw the arrivals looming.
“Oh, hello.” She said. Gertrude thought her voice sounded a little sad. Though perhaps she was just tired.
“Is everyone having trouble sleeping?” Gertrude asked.
“I think I just overdid it. I pulled an all-nighter preparing a work program for this thing.” Monika said.
Her cheerful, hopping around levels of energy were clearly gone.
Now instead, she fidgeted slowly with the tablet, drumming fingers on it, spinning the pen.
She pointed the digital pen from her drawing tablet at the Magellan’s torso.
“I’ve got plans to turn it into a cool super-robot.” She said.
Gertrude sat down on the floor next to her, unprompted, and looked up at the Magellan.
As if it was the most casual thing in the world, and it was. It was easy to sit next to Monika.
Ingrid stared at the two of them briefly before sitting down herself.
So that the three of them were all together on the cold floor, staring up at the enormous machine.
In the presence of company, Monika’s tail began swishing gently behind her.
“Monika, I wanted to apologize–“
“No harm, no foul.” Monika replied immediately, shutting Gertrude down.
Gertrude tried to quiet her instinctual doubling down on her own guilt, and accept Monika’s grace.
Still, she felt like she should make amends somehow. She would have to think of a way.
“Puppy, do you think Gertrude is good enough to pilot a third generation super-Diver?” Monika asked.
“Don’t call me that.” Ingrid grumbled. “I think she ought to stay in the ship, to be honest.”
“Your feedback is acknowledged, appreciated and discarded.” Gertrude replied.
“Go to hell.” Ingrid said.
“Manners, puppy.” Monika replied.
“You runt, just because you’re older–“
“Manners, puppy.” Gertrude added.
“I’m going to knock both your heads together.”
Monika and Gertrude laughed.
Eventually Ingrid let herself have a bit of a snicker toward the moment.
“I’m serious though. I want to know what you think of the Inquisitor’s piloting skills.” Monika said.
“Gertrude is a fancier pilot than me.” Ingrid said. “But she lacks aggression, so she can’t capitalize on it.”
“You have too much aggression.” Gertrude said.
“She’s a fucking pussy.” Ingrid finally said.
“Gertrude, don’t even.”
For the slightest moment, Gertrude let herself loosen up a bit and laughed. She glanced at Monika.
“Monika, are you just joking, or do you have a plan to push this thing’s performance even higher?”
She was briefly excited– the Magellan was already so strong–
Suddenly, Monika’s ears drooped and her gaze went down to the floor.
To her surprise, she found the previously cheerful demeanor of her chief engineer quickly darkening.
“I was just joking. I’m not good enough to beat all the brains at Rhineametalle and Rescholdt-Kolt. Or this mysterious Sunlight Foundation of yours. But I think I can at least get it back to ordinary working order.”
“Hey, don’t put yourself down.” Gertrude said. “You’re fantastic, Monika. You’re a miracle-worker here.”
Ingrid wrapped an arm around Monika’s shoulder and pulled the woman’s head close to her own chest.
“Now who’s behaving like a puppy? Come on, you’re a huge brain. Biggest among the Loup.”
“I heard you brought one of them aboard, and that she was a Loup.” Monika said.
“What? Are you sulky because of that? No one is gonna replace our runt.” Ingrid said.
“I’m not a runt and I’m not sulky about that.” Monika said, averting her gaze.
“Nile is a medical doctor. She has no idea what to do with this.” Gertrude said, pointed at the Magellan.
Ingrid let go of Monika, who sighed and stared at her own feet.
“I was just thinking I’d like to chat with her about the cartridges. Pick her brain.” Monika said. “See what being a genius with the resources to make magic happen feels like. Their whole situation fascinates me. I wonder what they’re up to? Trying to make a difference in this horrible world– or making it worse?”
Of course– Gertrude should have known this could happen.
She knew Monika was a bit fragile when it came to her feelings, even though she was quite grown.
For Gertrude to have caused all this commotion to bring aboard a new scientist–
She should have considered how it would look to Monika.
“Nile will be around. You can always talk to her. But you’re worth ten of her around here.”
Gertrude reached out and fussed with Monika’s blonde hair, vigorously petting her head and dog ears.
Monika had an annoyed little expression but leaned into Gertrude’s hand a few times as she stroked her.
“Thanks for trying to cheer me up.” Monika said. “I’ve been feeling out of sorts. You can probably tell on my face, huh? I’ve been trying to get this thing fixed, but it’s been an uphill battle. All kinds of awful things have happened and I haven’t been able to do anything about it. Repairing the Divers isn’t good enough for me. I need to come up with more power. I feel awful about Baron von Castille too. I couldn’t even develop any kind of rapport with her, and she took the Grenadier. I– I should’ve done more.”
Gertrude could sympathize with Monika to such a degree that it almost hurt.
Those words sounded frighteningly like the ones swimming in the most toxic sludge of her own mind.
She felt guilty that all her failures were affecting the poor little woman, who had done no wrong.
“That Castille woman was a mess. It wasn’t your fault. She didn’t talk to anyone.” Ingrid said.
“I guess. I don’t know. It’s not enough for me to forget it like I had no involvement.” Monika replied.
“All of our tribulations are my responsibility.” Gertrude said suddenly. “I’m the one who failed.”
“Monika, none of this reflects on you. I’m the one who has to–“
Monika closed her fists, averted her eyes, and then stood up just as suddenly as Gertrude had started.
“Gertrude, this ship doesn’t run on your own passion alone, you know?” Monika said.
And the way her words sounded, almost like a low growl, alerted Gertrude– she was mad.
“You can’t just keep saying ‘don’t worry, it was all my fault.’ You can’t keep pretending like all of us didn’t individually fall short of our own aspirations. We were all part of this. We failed in our roles. Trying to collect all our injuries on your own body doesn’t help any of us heal. It’s just frustrating, okay?”
Monika turned her back and walked away, half-running. Gertrude tried to say something, but felt Ingrid’s firm hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, forcing her to sit back on the floor and quieting her.
“Let her go.” Ingrid said firmly.
Gertrude watched Monika storm off feeling an upswell of worry for the fragile little Loup–
“She needed to tell you that and she needs you to listen. Not to patronize her further.” Ingrid said.
“God damn it.” Gertrude put her fist to the floor. “That’s the last thing I wanted with her.”
“Monika doesn’t hate you, she’s just trying to help you. And she’s right.” Ingrid said.
“How is she right? She’s blaming herself! Did you see her? She’s so depressed!” Gertrude shot back.
Ingrid’s expression darkened.
“None of us feel proud of what’s happened since we left Vogelheim.” Ingrid said. “We fucked up, Gertrude, and now we’ve fallen from our big deal status to all of this mess. But you fucking piling it all up on your shoulders– it sucks! It doesn’t acknowledge that the rest of us are trying really hard to make up for that, and to work harder and keep this thing afloat. If it’s all your fault, where does that leave us? People who are only on this ship because you made a big deal for them to be here? And now we don’t have anywhere else to go, and can’t do anything to fix it? We don’t need this from you right now.”
Gertrude raised her hands to cover her face. She almost wanted to cry into them.
She couldn’t ever win, could she? Everything was always a fucking failure–
“Listen, I don’t want you to have a meltdown about this.” Ingrid said. “Just think about it, okay? Think about Monika’s feelings, and my feelings– not just your own for once. All of us admire you for achieving your rank, despite being just some bitch– that’s where we all want to be too. So you need to act like you deserve to be here, so that we can deserve it too. Anyway. Fuck– I’m gonna go– it’s my turn on standby. You should check in on that Sunlight Foundation creep you brought in. Keep yourself busy.”
Every word was like jamming a knife into the cracks of glass in Gertrude’s soul.
“Not you too–“
Gertrude mumbled. Ingrid fixed a sharp glare on her.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Gertrude sighed. She had to calm down. Ingrid was right. “Okay. I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah.” Ingrid said. “I’m not abandoning you, okay? But you need time to think. For Monika’s sake.”
Ingrid patted Gertrude on the shoulder twice, stood up, and left, waving at the Jagdkaiser’s mechanics.
Leaving the High Inquisitor seated on the floor with her cape collected behind her, hugging her knees.
Staring up at the hanging torso of the Magellan, still pockmarked with the battle damage Gertrude took.
“It’s frustrating for me too.” Gertrude mumbled. “I just don’t want the rest of you to hurt like this.”
There was nobody to hear it. Nothing but the machine that had fallen apart due to her failure.
Eventually, Gertrude did pick herself up off the floor and went to inquire about Nile.
The Iron Lady had an upper and lower tier of modules, and in the upper tier, near the bridge, there was a hall that had a dozen meeting rooms. After Nile expressed her intention to open a clinic and Gertrude accepted it, she had blearily told Dreschner to allow her to set up in a meeting room of her choice. Apparently, Nile had taken up two. One had much of its furniture pushed to the second, adjacent room, which had become a warehouse for Nile’s medical supplies. In the other, she was seeing patients.
Gertrude found the room because a portable LCD had been pinned to the wall with signage.
There was a hand-drawn logo of a sunburst, a streak of water, and letters spelling NILE’S CLINIC.
Below the name, it also read FREE HEALTH CHECKUPS!
Gertrude walked up to the threshold and knocked on the wall beside the door twice.
“Letting myself in, Doc.” She called out.
“Of course! I’m almost done here. I can see you next.” Nile said.
Inside the meeting room, everything had been removed except for a small table and a pair of chairs. Nile had a wheeled table beside her chair for her tools: a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor, a roll of measuring tape and a portable scale to measure weight, and a portable with a pen, acting as a digital clipboard. Seated on the second chair was Karen Schicksal, who was taken by surprise by Gertrude’s arrival and looked like she had gone pale with fright. Nile was taking her blood pressure at the time.
“The High Inquisitor’s appearance is causing your heart rate to spike immensely.” Nile said. “That’s not unusual since she’s your boss, but I just want you to know, this clinic is a safe space, and if you don’t feel safe at your job, I will do everything in my power to protect and advocate for you, Miss Schicksal.”
“Um! It’s really fine!” Schicksal said, putting on a fake, nervous smile. “She’s quite kind to me!”
Nile held Schicksal’s hand gently in both her own, which nearly caused Schicksal to jump out of her chair.
Stroking her skin, she cooed. “If I am allowed to continue operating, I’d like to discuss the possibility of a short term of anti-anxiety medications, just to see whether they help you cope with these episodes.”
“Episodes?!” Schicksal pulled at her own collar. “Uhh, ma’am, I’m fine! I’m truly fine, and alright.”
Gertrude stood by the door like a looming shadow and watched this play out without expression.
Once Schicksal had left, in a particular hurry, Nile jotted down something on her digital clipboard while patting the chair that Schicksal had just vacated with the palm of her hand. Signaling for Gertrude to approach. But for a while, Gertrude remained at the door, because she noticed that Nile was not wearing her respirator that morning. She also noticed another thing– that Nile was quite beautiful, with a delicately curved nose, a rosy-red gloss on her lips, a smooth jaw. Her features fit her striking eyes.
Her ears twitched slightly, and their eyes met briefly, contact which the Inquisitor quickly broke.
Gertrude’s gaze then fell upon and lingered on Nile’s neck, where her infection monitor–
–was brightly green.
“I already told you; you can trust me to be responsible. I’ve been living with this for decades.” Nile said.
“Right.” Decades?! How old–? “I just didn’t think– you’d discard the respirator so soon.” Gertrude said.
She raised a fist to her mouth and cleared her throat to avoid putting her foot in her mouth any further.
“I wear it the majority of the time.” Nile said. “But with new patients, I like to show them my face as a proof of my sincerity. Of course, if there’s even the slightest risk of infection, I will wear my mask.”
She patted the chair again with her hand.
“Alright, alright. I’ll get to see first-hand how you work.” Gertrude said.
Conceding, Gertrude sat on the chair. As she was arranging her cape, Nile shook her head.
“Take the cape off. And the coat too, I need better access to your body.”
Sighing, Gertrude’s hands went from the cape to its clasps, undoing it completely. She went button to golden button on her black coat, pulling it off the long-sleeved button-down shirt she wore under it. There was the visible impression of her back swimsuit top beneath– she did not wear lingerie under it. The underwear Nile had seen her in before was a result of being woken for battle past midnight.
Feeling surprisingly freer without the coat and cape, Gertrude let them fall on the floor.
Alight with a mixture of disdain and catharsis from the sound of them sliding off.
“Good.” Nile said. They were seated next to each other–
For the first time Gertrude realized how close she was and her heart skipped a little beat.
As Nile’s hand firmly took her own arm and ran fingers down the length of it.
“Keeping fit, that’s good. Lean and firm muscles, flexible, what I’d expect from a soldier.”
Her fingers traveled to Gertrude’s shoulders, to her neck– the Inquisitor grimaced–
“Can I touch your chest? I’m just trying to get a sense of your physique.” Nile asked.
Gertrude imagined Nile’s hands squeezing her breasts like stress bags–
But much like before, her fingers just ran across her chest and belly, gently but firmly.
“Raise your arms over your head.”
Gertrude did as instructed. Nile narrowed her eyes and shook her head.
“You’re so stiff.” She said. “Do you stretch in the morning? How long do you spend seated?”
“I guess I sit still for a lot of my day. I never really thought about it.”
“You need to get up more. Stand up, stretch your arms, back, waist and legs. Gently– don’t treat it like a workout. Every two hours or so, more often if you don’t feel any soreness when sitting back down. Honestly, you should take this opportunity to make this a crew standard. It’d help everyone.”
Her hands slid down Gertrude’s back. “Can I get the contour of your legs?”
“Um. Yes, just–“
Gertrude sat up straight as Nile’s hands squeezed briefly around her black pants at the thigh.
“Skinny, but lean. You need to incorporate leg exercises. I bet you also skip meals regularly.”
Before the Inquisitor could defend her self-destructive work habits any further, she stiffened up again.
Nile had picked up the digital pen and tapped on one of Gertrude’s breasts.
“That’s why these stayed such a humble size.” Nile smiled at her, her tall dog ears shaking a little bit.
“It does contribute to your handsome profile.”
Gertrude would have shouted more if Nile didn’t look so lovely when she was cheerful–
“You’re the sort of person who is pretending to be healthy while destroying herself behind the scenes. As your doctor, I’m going to make sure we take the last step together to actually leading a healthy life.” Nile took her digital clipboard and jotted down something. It was the sort of portable touchscreen device that could turn her vibrant swishes of the pen into neat block text on the page. “You have to eat 3 meals a day, of regular size cafeteria portions, and I am recommending a morning and evening snack that has protein but also a healthy fat content. Furthermore, you have to stand more. Moving your body is not something you should only do at the gym after work. Your body is very stiff and your posture is not helping.”
For a moment Gertrude felt extremely self-conscious of how she was sitting and straightened up.
“You can tell all that just by manhandling me?” She replied, fixing Nile with a critical stare.
“And from watching you move around and interact with people for a few hours.” Nile said. “I can make educated guesses as to your lifestyle from my own experience. You’re not the first person I’ve told this. I have been working with the most self destructive people on this planet for decades. Chasing them around about their health, whenever I had the chance to, has prepared me for practically any patient.”
“Fair enough.” Gertrude sighed. “You really are a doctor, huh?”
Nile stared at her blinking. “You thought I was joking?”
“I thought you were some mad scientist type, not a kindly pediatrician type.”
“What do you think now?”
Gertrude felt compelled to smile. “I’m still thinking.”
Nile smiled brightly back at her. She looked amused. “Then let us continue the assessment.”
Measurements and weight came next, then reflex tests on the knee. Throughout, Gertrude allowed Nile to move her around like a doll, posing her in whatever way was needed so she could observe everything she needed to and take down all of the data that she desired. Sit up, arms out, sit down, knees bent– there was something that warm and comfortable, almost liberating, about having someone’s close attention.
They had a very animated discussion as the assessment continued.
“How many people have you seen so far?”
“Twenty-six, with you. Mostly officers. Mind releasing some sailors to me soon?” Nile asked.
“I’ll think about it. Can I get a look at their assessments?”
“Denied. As their boss, you could use any healthcare data I give you against your employees.”
“I wouldn’t do that!”
“Doesn’t matter. Doctor-patient confidentiality is a pillar of medical work. Period, end of story.”
“I just want to know if anyone needs help.”
“That’s my job. I’ll recommend changes to the work process on the ship once we are done.”
“Fair enough. But I’m telling you– I wouldn’t use the information in a biased way!”
“I don’t care. Not everything is about you personally.”
Gertrude snickered to herself, feeling like she had found a weakness in this unshakeable woman’s facade. “I thought that you joined a clandestine organization to defy norms, and here you are insisting about doctor-patient confidentiality. Are ethics only important when they’re convenient for you?”
She was being childish but– damn it, she was allowed to be childish sometimes!
Nile met her eyes, confidently, firmly. “Ethics between people are important. Confidentiality engenders trust, which creates an environment of compassion, and allows medical work to be efficient and tailored to the patient. Legislating against good tools and bold projects, are just barriers to progress.”
“Are you pro-human experimentation?”
“An unfair and loaded question.”
“I believe a person, given the full context and understanding of what a procedure might do to their body, should be allowed to have it from a provider who will undertake it. That is the side of bodily autonomy that our biofascist society doesn’t want to accept, including yourself, asking that question.”
“Can you give a person a ‘full context and understanding’ of being experimented on?”
“You’re missing the point. They’re not being ‘experimented on’. You are treating it like an attack on them from a mysterious source. Yes, I can fully explain to a human person with full faculties, what a gene therapy drug or a new treatment tool could do to them. Then I can trust them to make a decision for themselves, and honor it. Especially, if the alternative is certain death or a lifelong disability.”
Nile withdrew her stethoscope and began to listen to Gertrude’s body, first on her arms, her back.
Gertrude felt a little shiver wherever the doctor touched.
“I guess that’s not really what I viewed as ‘human experimentation’.” She said.
“That’s your problem, and why it’s a loaded question.” Nile replied.
Despite her passion, Gertrude never got the sense Nile was angry at her for asking.
In the clinic, her tone of voice was always measured, she was always calm.
Unlike when their video call got a bit heated yesterday. Maybe it was her bedside manner.
Maybe she didn’t feel she was being judged by a complete stranger anymore.
Still, Gertrude felt a bit better being able to converse with her like this.
“Victoria said she found evidence of human experimentation, and you told Victoria that you experimented on yourself. I guess I imagined you might be drugging people or performing surgery–“
“–without their consent? Like some boogeyman with a scalpel, maybe kidnapping babies?”
Gertrude felt like an idiot for bringing it up. “I apologize. I put it in a sensationalized way.”
Was there any other way to think about the “Sunlight Foundation” but sensationalized?
How could an Imbrium-wide conspiracy to commit scientific and medical fraud be anything but?
Still, Nile’s gentle responses made Gertrude feel like the villain, made her feel contrite.
“I use my own cells as well as special stem cells to create organoids for first round medical testing.” Nile said. “These things are living organisms, but they are not ‘people.’ You can be disgusted about that if you wish, but they are important tools. I can create a beating heart, or a semi-functional brain, or some other individual piece of a body, and then I can infect it with disease and treat it with drugs, tools, therapies, without violating a person. Once I am more certain of the effects, I seek an affected individual to care for.”
Gertrude tried to hold her own tongue and not judge Nile for her approach.
Everything she said still sounded kind of disgusting. Gertrude didn’t fully trust her about all of it.
“Has anyone turned you down?” Gertrude asked.
“Yes. There are people who would rather die or suffer on their own terms. That’s the fault of our society.”
She sat Gertrude down, and pointed with her pen at her shirt.
“Open a few buttons and hold this to your heart.”
Nile handed her the contact for the stethoscope and Gertrude did as instructed.
Unbuttoned her shirt a bit, holding the end of the scope in place while Nile listened.
“Agitated. Your blood pressure is a bit high, but it might be a temporary spike due to anxiety. Next time I check up on you, we’ll avoid difficult subjects and I will ask you to relax alone for a bit before we take the reading. To be safe, I think you ought to make sure to drink water and take your breaks from work. Avoid salting your food further after it comes out of the cafeteria– your diet is likely high in sodium already.”
She was assuming that there would be a next time– and Gertrude found herself wanting it to be so.
Gertrude began to believe this woman was a real doctor, and a good doctor at that.
Finally, Nile was done the assessments. She had been jotting everything down on her touch clipboard.
Gertrude did as instructed. Behind her, the door to the room closed.
Nile also stood with her, and took a step forward.
“Can I embrace you, in a chaste, private and professional manner?” Nile asked.
It was in the same tone as her other instructions, but the request affected the patient differently.
In a moment, the Inquisitor found herself answering as if a dam had broken and her emotions spilled out.
Her reaction was rapid and unreasoning.
Then, just as quickly Gertrude found herself swept up into Nile’s chest.
Her arms around Gertrude’s back, one hand stroking her head, guiding her face to the doctor’s shoulder.
“You’ve had a very difficult time of things.” Her voice cooed in Gertrude’s ear. “All of that pain is inscribed on your body and blood. Tensions bound up like knots inside you. Because you’re the Commander, you can’t let yourself falter, so you keep everything shut tightly, and you don’t show it even to your friends. You’ve done well to come this far, and you are someone who is indeed strong and strong-willed. But I am your doctor; you can let yourself be honest here. Your doctor won’t tell anybody. You can cry, if you want to. Crying to a person, honestly and without judgment, can be different than crying to yourself.”
Gertrude hardly needed prompting. Hiding her eyes in Nile’s shirt, she was already crying.
Feeling the gentle hand stroking her hair, and the soft, sweet words in her ears.
She did vent her frustration, crying, gripping the woman hard, letting herself be lost in irrationality.
She did not know for how long, but Nile held her exactly as long as she needed.
Gertrude donned her coat and cape once more. Nile unlocked the door to the clinic again.
Despite how hard and for how long she cried, the Inquisitor felt curiously refreshed.
“You can run your clinic.” She said, unprompted. “Judging by all the yawning I’m seeing around, we do have need for a ship’s doctor, and you feel like a real doctor. I’ll have you formally inducted as a member of the crew when I can. You’ll be on a Chief Petty Officer’s pay scale to start with.”
“I don’t need a wage.” Nile said. “I just need food, lodging, sundries and medical supplies.”
“You’re getting a wage. Don’t be difficult about it. It’ll be easier to justify to Victoria.”
“Do you need to justify anything to her?” Nile asked.
“Just let me handle things and don’t cause me any more stress.” Gertrude said.
“Of course. Your health is my utmost concern. I will play along, then.”
Gertrude stared at her. Her skepticism had been fading, but was not completely gone.
“Is it really your utmost concern? You’re not thinking about escaping?”
Nile immediately smiled at her and wagged her tail. She looked her most girlish, almost innocent.
“Escaping? Not at all! Initially I was desperate to prove my value so I wouldn’t be imprisoned– but after today, I’m simply happy to be working on a ship again. Research environments, particularly the ones Sunlight Foundation Immortals have set up for ourselves, are lonely and sterile places. I forgot how good it feels to care for living people. How motivating other people can be for me. I’ve been working in an isolated and antisocial way for so long– it’s good to have gotten out. Do I like the circumstances perfectly well? Not at all– but the work is good. So I’ll stay, earn your trust, and clear my name to you.”
Nile winked on eye and saluted with one hand. “Commander– I look forward to taking care of you.”
Such a coquettish little response– Gertrude saluted back. Laughing a little inside.
Outside, smiling in a professional, chaste and measured way.
“Glad to have you aboard, doctor.”
When Gertrude turned to leave, Nile exclaimed to herself and hailed her again.
“Oh! Inquisitor– did you wear the aetherometer that I gave you?”
Gertrude paused, and half turned to meet Nile’s gaze again.
“That thing you gave me when you snuck into my room? I want to forget that whole episode.”
She had left it in her bedroom, completely forgotten.
“It’s important. Right now, I believe a lot of the crew are becoming fatigued due to the Blue Weather.”
Nile put her fists to her hips. “You really retained none of what I told you?”
Gertrude had a snippy response. “It was late! I was in lingerie almost collapsing! Look, if the crew is fatigued, I’ll let Dreschner and Schicksal know you have authority to issue nutritional supplements and raise concerns as ship’s doctor. Work with them to adjust the work schedule. You can debrief me about your color theory later. We’re about to embark on a mission and I need to be available.”
“Ya Allah!” Nile groaned, momentarily lapsing into Shimii-speak. “You need to work on that stubborn attitude of yours– Fine then. I’ll do what I can about the crew without bothering you for now.”
“Look, I’ll be available later. Thank you for everything Doctor. I have to go.”
Folding her ears with a bit of a sigh and a bit of shrug, Nile let Gertrude leave the clinic.
It had been close to two hours since she left the Bridge and she felt a sense of urgency.
They must have been close to the “object” by now. Gertrude started running in the hall.
By the time she arrived at the bridge, Gertrude found Victoria standing by the center isle–
–and something enormous on the main screen that was captivating all eyes on the bridge.
“We were just about to call you, Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “Look there!”
Gertrude stood off to Victoria’s side, staring up at the main screen, taking in the picture.
“It’s an anarchist ship. Look at that rough marking on the hull.” Victoria said.
Just ahead of the Iron Lady’s spoon-shaped prow, there was an Imperial cutter, close to 80 meters in length, holding depth but unmoving. A pair of jet anchors led from it into the marine fog, and judging by the stiffness of the cables, they had dug into the cliff wall about 150 meters to the left. One of its fins was turned up and the other down for no particular reason. Its 76 mm single gun turret mounted on the deck was pointed backward from the prow as if aiming for its own conning tower. On the hull, where the flag of the ducal or station patrol fleet or the specific naval insignia might be found, the old livery was scratched out. In its place, there was a rough red A within a circle and framed by a drawing compass.
“Have we had any contact with them?” Gertrude asked.
“We tried. No response.” Schicksal said. “What’s eerie is that we can ping the ship and get an automated signature packet back from the acoustic router, so the ship has electric power but the crew isn’t communicating even in the simple ways. For a derelict, we would expect nothing back, and if there’s people to rescue, and operational systems, we would receive an SOS back. It’s– It’s kinda scary.”
Gertrude looked back at the screen. She had expected a derelict, but not like this.
An unresponsive but operating anarchist ship, stuck in place amid the blue biomass.
Not what she had come into the abyss for– but maybe something she should have been expecting.
“Are you planning to board it?” Victoria asked.
“I am. I want to see what happened to them. So we can avert it here.” Gertrude replied.
“Good. I will join the boarding team then. No objections.” Victoria said.
An alarming declaration, but there was nothing Gertrude could do to dissuade her from this course. Not with the determination on her face. All she could do, then, was to join the boarding party herself as well. Because the Cutter was tight, the boarding party would be small. It might just be the two of them, even.
Delving into the bowels of a ghost ship in the Abyss. What could possibly have happened?
Depth Gauge: 3002 meters
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)