Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.4]

“Let me at that mouthy little bitch Gertrude! This is none of your business!”

“You’re getting violent over nothing! Calm down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Gertrude! Don’t FUCKING tell me to calm down!”

Four girls in a metal room full of eerie tubing, lit intermittently by LEDs and their own lamp. They had snuck down here after hours, below the beautified illusion of green grass, tall trees and blue skies that pervaded Luxembourg School For Girls for the unremarkable guts of the station. It began as a little challenge, then became a sleepover. But their little adventure had turned sour– while a violet-haired girl sat on the floor with her gaze averted, hands nervously grasping her skirt, the other three girls were locked in a standoff. A tall girl with brown hair and broad shoulders and a fiery expression locked eyes with a taller girl, swarthy and black-haired, a bit leaner but equally strong. Behind her was a smaller girl, light chestnut hair collected into two long pigtails, shaken and hiding behind the black-haired girl.

“She treats me like shit! All the time! And you always fucking ignore it!” Sawyer shouted.

“She’s not doing it on purpose!” Gertrude shouted back. “You should fucking know by now! That’s how she talks! She can’t help it! She’s not trying to disrespect you for fuck’s sake! Sit back down!”

“Please, the two of you–” Elena whimpered from the floor, but couldn’t finish her sentence.

Heedless of the outcome, Sawyer took two steps forward and got up in Gertrude’s face.

Close enough to smell the candies they had been eating in Sawyer’s breath.

Close enough to kiss, even–

“Gertrude, if you want to stand in the way, then you’re taking the punches for her!”

As soon as the words left Sawyer’s mouth, Gertrude punched first.

Her fist collided with Sawyer’s throat. Staggering backward, eyes drawn wide, the surprise attack caused Sawyer to trip over her own feet and topple backward. Gertrude rushed to her, despite a brief pull on her shirt by Victoria and a shout from Elena, both trying to stop her, but she lunged nonetheless. Throwing herself on top of Sawyer, punching her in the chest, in the shoulder, barely avoiding her face–

Until Gertrude saw Sawyer holding up her own hands in self-defense, weeping–

“Fuck. Please. I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please, I’ll stop. I’ll stop.”

In that empty maintenance tunnel, the shouting and crying of her other friends felt suddenly distant.

Muffled.

Everything but the sounds of Sawyer’s own cries, folding under Gertrude so easily despite her bravado.

Whatever it was that Sawyer intended to do– in that moment, Gertrude had thrown the first punch.

She had done it to protect Victoria, but nobody was happy with her.

And looking down at the battered, whimpering Sawyer, Gertrude was not satisfied with herself.

She had thrown the first punch, escalated the violence– and she hated herself for having that reaction.

She would be forgiven, after several days of awkwardness and the little private pains of teenage friends.

Forgiven, this time, in the ways that teenagers can forgive while remaining wary, hurt, for some time–

This time–

This time– but if something didn’t change, there would be more–

And Gertrude, at the time, did not have the ability to change herself, or anyone else.

Especially not someone like Sawyer.


Depth Gauge: 3002 m
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)

The Iron Lady maneuvered slowly such that the anarchist Cutter floated at its port-side.

From the dreadnought’s own sidepod, a boarding chute extended and locked onto the sidepod airlock door of the Cutter. Once Monika and the engineers deemed the connection stable, they opened the chute door on the Iron Lady’s side. One of the engineers donned a pressurized suit and crossed the chute to the Cutter’s door, while the Iron Lady’s door temporarily closed behind him. With Monika on the radio, he checked the Cutter’s airlock door and found it to be sealed. He returned to procure needed tools.

“Looks like we’ll have to drill into this and unlock it with a tentacle. This will take a while.” Monika advised.

While engineering worked on the door, the boarding team got ready to move.

Some of the security team’s female members brought out armor supplies and assist in fitting them.

Gertrude would be taking point, and she dressed for the occasion. Her grandiose uniform was discarded in favor of more practical clothes. She had a blue, long-sleeved uniform with long blue pants, plain, but what was inside the sleeves and pants was important. With the advent of ferristitching, her sleeves and pants were lightly armored with liners of tough and thin nanomail which could ablate stray small arms fire as well as partially deflect the force of a stab from a knife, or blunt force from a club. It wouldn’t prevent injury altogether, but it could turn a messy and fatal exit wound into bruises and broken bones.

To augment this protection, Gertrude also wore a chestplate with the letters IMP in block white, for “Inquisitorial Military Police.” The chestplate had nanomail as well, but it also had kevlar and a ceramic plate. Between these three materials, Gertrude could get shot by an assault rifle and experience the attack as a blast of blunt force distributed across her chest, rather than a fatal sucking chest wound. It would hurt, but she would live. She had similar plates in multiple pieces on her upper leg and forearms, as well as separate guards on her knees and elbows, and a smaller and thinner liner in her tall boots. Thick black gloves protected her hands. She had her black hair tied up in a tight bun behind her head, out of the way.

Gertrude forewent a helmet, and opted instead for a clear flip-up visor of bulletproof glass. She carried a ballistic shield, a riot club and a vibroknife. She took a pistol with her, armed with a single magazine of eight frangible 10 mm bullets. In the tight quarters of a Cutter, shooting was usually out of the question, since it could damage something important or cause unpredictable ricocheting inside. Frangible bullets would shatter on impact with the walls to avoid penetrating anything important, but ultimately, firearms were a weapon of last resort in this particular scenario. Gertrude would not count upon this weapon.

“A suit that befits the vanguard.” Victoria said, upon spying Gertrude getting outfitted in the hangar.

“You’re getting one too.” Gertrude said. “I’m not letting you go in nothing but your little dandy shirt.”

“Well– Of course I wasn’t planning to do that.” Victoria said, briefly averting her gaze.

Victoria was presented with similar protections at first but there were problems with fitting. Gertrude’s musculature was well honed and practiced in bearing such loads and she kept in shape for it. Because Victoria found it troubling to move in a full suit of riot armor, she ended up wearing light armor pieces fastened with straps over her arms and legs, along with a lighter chestguard sans the ceramic plate. K9-spec ear and tail armor was fastened over her Shimii ears and tail and fit decently well, and she was given a visor to wear just like Gertrude. She insisted on carrying her vibrosabre, and resisted taking a pistol.

“I can manage. I’ve been in close quarters fights before. Just trust me.” Victoria protested.

“Fine. I will be trusting you to have my back. So if you go down, I will– keep that in mind.” Gertrude said.

Victoria held her hand to her chest and locked Gertrude’s eyes with a fierce gaze.

“I swear that will not allow an enemy to touch a single strand of your hair.” Victoria said.

“Um– Well. I can’t possibly turn away an oath like that, can I?”

Gertrude was slightly taken aback by Victoria’s smoldering eyes, and held them for some time.

She smiled. Victoria’s emotions were hard to read sometimes, and she had difficulty emoting.

But when she did, there was so much passion in that pampered cat.

Gertrude could not help but– admire her.

Off to the side, Ingrid, dressed in a pilot’s bodysuit, stared at the two of them with a sulky expression and her arms crossed. She was going to be the pilot on standby, so she was already not the first candidate for an entry team, and with how tight Cutter interiors were, it was standard to use two personnel per team, and employ only one or two teams for entry. Victoria was dead set on going, and Gertrude wanted to make herself personally responsible for their diplomatic guest– so the team was instantly configured.

Was she jealous? Gertrude noticed and felt an instant spike of anxiety.

“Hey, listen, I trust you with my life, and I’d take you if she wasn’t insisting.” She tried to mollify her.

Ingrid narrowed her eyes, throwing a look at Victoria. She then sighed and shrugged.

“It’s fine. I’m on standby anyway, and we don’t have that many pilots.” Ingrid put on a mischievous expression while staring at Victoria. “If there’s anyone I’d trust you with, it’s a Vekan ‘special agent’ anyway. You don’t know this Gertrude, because you just keep hearing and saying ‘special agent’ in Low Imbrian, but the Vekans actually have a specific word for that title, and boy, does it have history.”

Clearly this was some attempt to make fun of Victoria and raise her hackles.

Gertrude frowned. She was curious, but she knew what this was. “Come on, don’t antagonize her.”

Ingrid stared, perplexed. “Huh? I’m not antagonizing her! Hey, am I bothering you?”

Sighing, Gertrude looked to Victoria, about to apologize for Ingrid trying to bait a response.

Victoria, however, had no expression on her face. She didn’t seem to even recognize it as mockery.

“I’m not bothered.” Victoria said. “She’s correct about my title. She can tell you the story if she wants.”

“So then, you do have the title of Bayatar?” Ingrid pressed. “Is that what you mean by special agent?”

Her eyes were wild with some strange fascination. Gertrude did not like this interaction.

If she could have helped it, she would have prevented Ingrid from ever talking to Victoria, but–

“Yes. I am a Bayatar appointed by Empress Carmilla von Veka.” Victoria said nonchalantly.

Victoria responded simply as if she did not understand Ingrid’s tone.

Didn’t she realize she was being made fun of? Ingrid sounded like she was just mocking her.

Perhaps– was Ingrid really not making fun of her–?

“Can somebody explain?” Gertrude mumbled.

Ingrid grinned wider. “That’s so wicked! I guess I gotta trust whatever Veka sees in you.” She turned back to a confused Gertrude to explain. “Gertrude, Bayatar is the High Vekan word that this girl keeps saying means ‘special agent.’ In reality, it means hero, but even that doesn’t explain it at all. For the Vekans, the Bayatar are the greatest warriors. Even just saying ‘special forces’ doesn’t cut it. Bayatars kill so that their rulers do not have to fight unworthy battles. This ruffled-up kitty cat is invested by the Empress with the power to kill anyone— and to attain that title, she must have demonstrated a lot of fighting ability.”

“That’s correct. She knows her Vekan history.” Victoria said. She had seemingly no additional response based on Ingrid’s tone of voice or the bloodthirsty pleasure in which she spoke about the title.

Gertrude had been afraid Ingrid was going to joke about Victoria prostituting herself or something equally heinous, but she seemed to be just stating facts. It was rare to see Ingrid extend any kind of courtesy to strangers, especially to Shimii or Vekans, who were widely maligned in the Empire. Now Gertrude just felt bad for assuming Ingrid was going to be discourteous to Victoria automatically.

“I see.” Gertrude said, feeling awkward. “Ingrid, I didn’t know you had a thing for Vekan history.”

“It’s not just Vekan history. It’s also my family history here.” Ingrid said.

“How so?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. She paused for a second before speaking.

“During the Fueller rebellion, the Northern Host of the Loup sided with the Fuellers, while the Southern Host of the Loup sided with the Nocht dynasty.” Ingrid said. “At the time there was a Loup Bayatar. You’ve heard the surname, Samoylovych, from that one fucking bitch. Well, her ancestor in this story was Bayatar Samoylovych-Daybringer. My grandfather Arvokas Järveläinenn Tenderheart nearly died fighting him, but got the upper hand in the end. I heard all about this story– our family honored that duel a lot.”

Samoylovych– the old High Inquisitor was perhaps related to Samoylovych-Daybringer. Certainly that woman Samoylovych-Darkestdays was related. Perhaps that explained some part of her freakish strength.

Gertrude nodded silently as Ingrid spoke. She had never heard of this story in detail from her lover.

She knew the basics, but it seemed like every time Ingrid was prompted to bring it up, she learned something new that her lover had never wanted to say before. On the one hand, she was happy to understand her better– but on the other, she felt a stab of anxiety at this conversation. She rarely saw Ingrid approach others in this way– she was someone who was often incurious and brusque toward strangers. Victoria prompting Ingrid to delve into her family’s past was probably not wholly positive.

“The Samoylovych family ended up traitorous to Veka.” Victoria said. “Your grandfather did us a service.”

“Wonder if that confrontation would be any different today.” Ingrid said, in a slightly altered tone of voice.

There it was– now that was a provocation. Gertrude was prepared to step in again–

“Back then, the Fueller forces were simply superior. It would depend on who is backing you, I suppose.”

Once again, Victoria wasn’t taking the bait. Ingrid sighed openly, shook her head and walked off.

“You’re no fun whatsoever, Victoria van Veka. Watch how you speak of other’s families in the future.”

Gertrude also sighed and ran her hand down her face, feeling the culmination of her mute panic.

“Did I offend her? I apologize. It wasn’t my intention.” Victoria said.

“You– forget it. Just forget it right now. God, it’s just like before. We’ll talk about it later.”

Please don’t turn out like Sawyer with her, Ingrid. That’s the last thing I need.


Finally, Gertrude and Victoria were equipped, and stacked at the end of the boarding chute.

Entry from the Iron Lady into the boarding chute remained closed in order to mitigate potential damage in case the boarding chute collapsed or something happened with the Cutter’s airlock. . Communicating via radio, the engineers let Monika know of their progress, and she in turn let Gertrude know.

They had drilled through the length of the bulkhead door and inserted a spy tentacle. This was a little legged drone with a camera for a head, at the end of a long, ribbed cable. Snaking it through the hole, they saw that the airlock was open on the other side, into the interior of the Cutter. None of the heliolights that provided “sun” to the humans aboard were on, but there was very dim bluelight from devices still receiving electricity, like the airlock door touchpad. With this brief foray inside completed, the engineers crawled the spy tentacle to the bulkhead door’s physical lock and pulled the lever.

A shunting metal noise reverberated across the boarding chute.

Gertrude felt her guts tighten–

It was nothing. Just the door mechanisms. The engineers called back in. The Cutter was open.

“I’ll stay here in case emergency engineering is needed.” Monika said. “I have some combat training.”

Monika would remain in the Iron Lady’s airlock room along with one guard chosen by Vogt.

The bulkhead into the Iron Lady’s hangar would remain locked behind them. Then the door into the boarding chute would be opened. This precaution meant if anything happened, the tragedy would be limited to the four people in the airlock. Thankfully, work had been done to prevent such an occurrence. The anarchist cutter was tied to the Iron Lady by jet anchors, and remained buoyant of its own accord. They had been working in the boarding chute for over an hour to open the door and there had been no incidents. Precautions were part of the protocol, but so far, the situation had been very stable.

Once the bulkhead door behind them was locked, Gertrude and Victoria bid farewell to Monika and the guard, and walked through the boarding chute, a 5 meter long tunnel that extended from within one ship’s sidepod to another ship’s airlock door. It was equipped so that the opposite end of the chute could attach to a ship’s sidepod and hold it tightly for boarding. Pumps and pipes emptied the chute’s interior of water and normalized the pressure between the two vessels, so that when the doors opened on either side, it would be as natural as walking from one room to another in the same building.

Then, they stood on the threshold into the Cutter’s airlock, which was already open into the ship interior.

Through their earpieces, Monika could communicate with the two of them if they hailed her.

“We briefly tested the atmosphere and it seems fine. Nevertheless, you should both have respirators handy, just in case.” Monika advised, as the team stacked up at the outer bulkhead.

“Got it. They’re on our belts. We’ll be limiting radio contact when go in.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Hail if you need anything. Good luck.” Monika said.

“Thank you. I’ll be back without a scratch. Victoria promised.”

“I’ll give her an earful if she fails.”

Victoria’s ears twitched as she seemed to start paying attention. “Hmm?”

Monika was just being friendly, but Gertrude hoped that she was feeling better too.

It was hard to tell whether she was still mad at Gertrude through her radio chatter.

At the door, Victoria remained largely unaffected by the circumstances.

Gertrude’s heart was pounding.

She had breached a lot of doors in her life in the Inquisition– it never got easier.

Even with an open threshold. Anything could be out of sight, and anything she overlooked could be fatal.

Not just for herself, but for her team, whose lives had been entrusted to her.

“Ready, Victoria?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course.” Victoria replied.

“Lights on.”

Both of them switched on the torches attached to their visors, parting some of the shadows ahead.

Shield up, club in hand, Gertrude walked through the open threshold into the dim interior of the ship.

Behind her, Victoria stuck close, with one hand on her vibrosaber and another on Gertrude.

Gertrude could feel the Shimii’s body close to her own back.

Imperial Cutters were often built to between 50 meters and 80 meters in length, depending on the equipment aboard. Much of the difference was made up by the size of their sensor arrays– patrol Cutters were smaller because they could offload their imaging and sonar array burdens partially to buoys, relays and stations in their patrol area. A long Cutter like the one these anarchists had claimed was fully equipped to sail on its lonesome, able to detect and respond to threats of its own accord.

However, the width of any Cutter was very similar and the true source of the cramped interiors– under fifteen meters, generally. The Iron Lady was over 300 meters long and maybe nine or ten times the width, so it was equipped with far more internal space. Much of the Cutter’s width was the watertight hull of the exterior of the ship. Inside the pressure hull where people lived, the ceilings were only 2.5 meters overhead, whereas inside the Iron Lady, they would be 3 or 4 in the upper deck, and close to 10 meters tall in the hangar. The halls of Cutter were in places a little over a meter wide, with necessary equipment in the walls and tightly packed little side-rooms making up much of the space of the pressure hull. The place with the most leg and arm room was the galley and staging rooms– maybe the reactor too.

Gertrude had led that life for a bit, and did not miss it. And she was not very happy to be back.

Directly from the threshold into the ship, Gertrude and Victoria found themselves in an absolutely tiny landing. They had a tight and dark hall directly to their left, and to the right, the room opened up ever so slightly more into a galley, divided into two parts. One had tight seating arrangements in an open side-room. The other was enclosed by a prep table with a waist-high door, that served as the partial wall of the hall in which they arrived, it looked like it contained a pair of electric ovens and a wall-mounted microwave, along with storage space for plastic plates and cutlery, and a dishwasher. The touchpad LCDs on the appliances were dimly lit in standby mode, counting down to the next “chow time.”

Aside from their visor torches and the LCDs, there was no other light inside the hull.

And everything smelled strange– this was because of the chemicals used by the CO2 scrubbers. On a larger ship, there would be scent purifiers, in addition to the oxygen generators, CO2 scrubbers, and other environmental controls. Purifiers rendered the air a bit “stale” but concealed the fouler odors of the equipment hidden in the walls. On a Cutter, sacrifices had to be made for the space involved, and to bring down costs. Those scent purifiers, a luxury, were among the first things sacrificed, and so the entire hull interior often smelled salty and fishy because of the particular chemical used in the CO2 scrubbers.

“I’m going to look down. Keep an eye on the hall behind me.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged.” Victoria replied.

Gertrude had thought she had seen something on the floor in the hall when she scanned over the galley.

In the hall, she and Victoria could not fit side to side. Gertrude needed room to move her shield.

So they continued in a single file. Gertrude stepped inside, Victoria followed, watching her back.

Then, Gertrude brought her gaze, and her light, down to the floor of the Cutter.

Lighting up a pair of glassy eyes and a pale head–

“Found a corpse.” Gertrude said. “Moving closer.”

“Acknowledged.”

There was no tremble in Victoria’s voice, no hesitation.

She had become much stronger since Gertrude last saw her. Perhaps more used to death.

Ahead of them, the tight center hall led to few rooms. First up would be the staging rooms, containing needed equipment in lockers, such as basic clothes, a few pressure suits, heavy tools for the mechanics and engineers, and any firearms. Then farther behind, were the dormitories. At the far end of the hall, there was a bulkhead door locking up the reactor and engine room. But much closer to Gertrude than all of these, was the body– the bodies. As she got closer, she saw there were two people on the floor.

“Two men– maybe? Hard to say– kinda androgynous–“

“What does that matter?” Victoria asked. “What happened to them?”

“They fell together, it looks like. They’re almost on top of each other.”

Both bodies were pale, but that was in the light of Gertrude’s torch. It was hard for her to tell how long they had been dead, but they were dead. She knelt, with her shield up in front of her, and stowed her club briefly on her belt, to check their pulse. They were truly dead. There was no visible signs of injury however. Both were wearing grey jumpsuits partially unzipped with white shirts beneath. There was no blood on them, no signs of shooting, stabbing. They could not have been beaten to death, not bloodlessly.

“Respirators?” Victoria asked. Her tone of voice was a little more agitated.

“I don’t think it was poison gas or anything like that.” Gertrude said. “They’re all leftists, right? Why would they gas each other? To me that scenario doesn’t make sense– in addition, if they were dying out in this hall from poison, the end result would look different. They fell over together like this, and didn’t even hit their heads that hard. Their eyes aren’t bloodshot, their mouths look normal, there’s no discoloration, it doesn’t seem like poison. It’s like they laid down to sleep here and just passed away quietly.”

“How much crew would this ship have? There’s only two people in this hall.”

“Sixty or seventy in the Imperial Navy. You can run as lean as twenty though, and if these are anarchists then they don’t need to follow regulations. They may have stolen this ship and ran it very lean.”

None of the bodies had any imperial identification. No tags, no security cards on lanyards.

“If they weren’t using keycards, then everything must be unlocked.” Gertrude said.

“We should find a terminal and test your theory.” Victoria said. “We could get all their data that way.”

“Let’s go to one of the staging rooms ahead. Are you doing okay back there?”

“Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing behind and I’m keeping sharp.”

“Okay. Watch your step. I’m advancing.”

Gertrude stood up from her knees, and began to move step by step further into the hall.

Club once again gripped tightly in hand.

She thought she felt Victoria’s fingers tighten on her back as they crossed over the bodies.

“I’ve only ever served on Cruisers or Dreadnoughts. I had no idea Cutters were this tight.”

“It’s tough, but the crew gets to commiserate. You know everyone’s names and get familiar. You don’t have that on a dreadnought. It’s too big and there’s too many people to keep track of closely.”

Victoria had finally expressed some genuine emotion, so Gertrude did the same in return.

She thought of giving her a hard time for being pampered– but she refrained.

Step by step as they inched along the hall together, they finally got to talking in whispers.

“My flag is in the Aranjagaan, but in reality, I go wherever the Empress needs. I’ve worked on a few ships over the past few years. I have never formed the kind of bond you have with your crew.” Victoria said.

“It’s the nature of your work and I’m sure your crew respects it. You shouldn’t compare it.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But, you know– I was surprised by how professional your crew was.”

“You thought I wouldn’t run a tight ship?”

“It’s not that. I felt that they were proud of you and proud to be there.”

“They’re serving on a dreadnought. They’re elites– that’s what they’re proud of.”

“No. It’s more than that. I could see it– maybe we’ll talk about it later.”

“Right. I’d love to. Door on the left?”

“Got it.”

“Usually the left staging room is equipment. Right is food storage.”

“I trust your judgment.”

Gertrude truly wished they had a chance to sit down and talk over coffee.

Maybe it could be possible to mend their broken bonds. But not in this situation, of course.

Her heart was buoyed by Victoria’s trust– but it was just necessary professionalism.

During an operation, they sank or swam together. Gertrude just wanted to believe it was more.

In the derelict Cutter, they made it between the doors without any surprises.

With her club, Gertrude prodded the door on their left.

Then she extended a finger off the club and used it to open the door via its touchpad.

The door slid open. There was a mess of shadows inside the room. Gertrude swept her visor across.

“It’s chaos in here.” Gertrude said. “Watch your step.”

“Noted.”

Inside the staging room, three of the walls were occupied with lockers, with an aisle down the middle were men and women could sit to suit up. At the far end of the room, a chain-link door fenced off an area where bigger tools were once kept locked up. But the door was thrown open, and the tools scattered in the room. Several lockers hung open, their contents spilled. There were six or seven people on the floor, men and women both it seemed. Gertrude stepped further into the room, allowing Victoria inside.

Victoria sat on her knees beside one of them, turning the body of a woman around.

“No wounds. She fell on her face, but it doesn’t look like she hit her head very hard.”

Gertrude grit her teeth. “It’s almost like she laid down on her belly deliberately. What the hell?”

She was a woman with cropped blond hair, fit, heavyset, wearing nothing but a tanktop and pants. There was a preponderance of tools beside her body that she might have reached for to hit someone, a crowbar, a hammer, wrenches, thick industrial flashlights, likely ripped from the open lockers that loomed over her body. There were no wounds anywhere on her. There were several other people in varying states of dress around the room. One of them had apparently managed to take the vibrocutter tool from the unlocked storage area, but he was laid back against a wall with the tool discarded at his side.

No uniforms. A lot of different hairstyles. Tattoos, body modifications; no wounds, on anyone.

“I don’t get it. It’s like they were trying to grab the tools? But then they fell?” Gertrude asked.

At her side, she thought she saw a brief flash and turned partially to face Victoria.

Whose eyes, she could have sworn, had gone briefly red– but only for a split second.

Enough that the red almost felt like a fabrication of her mind–

“They were panicking. Not acting rationally.” Victoria said.

Not a farfetched conclusion.

But the gravity with which she spoke– it felt like there was something more to her words.

Gertrude had suspected Victoria might possess a strange ability, like Norn.

Maybe she really could see something in this room that Gertrude could not.

“I can’t explain it any other way, I guess. Let’s check the dorm and then double back to the bridge.”

“I’m dreading the amount of bodies we’ll find.” Victoria said.

Gertrude lifted her shield and directed Victoria to follow her again.

In the same formation and process as before, they carefully made their way a few meters down the hall from the staging rooms to the dorm doors. Cutter dorms were essentially bed bunks packed into every square centimeter of wall that could be afforded to hold them, with a gap in the floor plan between them so people could actually get into and out of the room. They were even more cramped than the eight-man sailor rooms on Frigates and Cruisers. There were dozens of beds packed into only two small rooms. Each bunk had barely enough space to fit an adult body lying down. Everyone had a small drawer to hold a few personal necessities and that was the extent of their space– clothing was kept in the staging room lockers. Each bunk had some additional amenities, like lights, a fan, and headphones that played music.

Gertrude presumed that everyone aboard had met the same strange fate, and she expected to find dozens of people dead in behind this door. However, for completeness’ sake, they had to look. There was something deeply wrong about this situation, and every room was a new piece of evidence.

At the door, Gertrude heard a low, continuous noise from inside the room.

“Something from inside. Keep sharp.” Gertrude whispered.

“I have your back.” Victoria whispered.

Gertrude touched the door’s pad and it slid open.

Immediately she caught sight of a body on the floor, surrounded by all the beds.

One red-headed girl in a long, brown one-piece dress.

She looked like she had come into the room and immediately collapsed.

“She was being chased.” Victoria said.

“By what?”

“I don’t know.”

“It makes as much sense as anything based on her posture, but how do you figure?”

“Just a hunch. Nevermind me.”

Gertrude went down to one knee, and found that the girl was clutching a portable.

It was a newer type, one of those handheld, slate-type personal terminals.

That noise was coming from the slate. It had been recording something and ran out of space.

So it was throwing errors and making noise.

“This is a personal device with its own storage. We’ll take it back with us.”

She picked up the portable and tucked it into a pouch behind her back.

“If it’s still active, maybe these people haven’t been dead for very long.” Victoria said.

“We detected them last night. These devices have a long battery life. It’s possible.”

Victoria waited at the door as Gertrude checked the beds. There was not enough room for both of them and the body in the middle of the dormitory, not without stepping directly over it. As she scanned across the bunks, she found at least ten more people. Not as many as there were bunks. She surmised that the ship was being run very lean. She took the pulses of the bodies she could reach and found them in the same state as the previous ones. Untouched and dead– no signs of struggle, choking, anything at all.

“Now I’m starting to worry about gas.” Gertrude said. Though it went against her experience.

“It’s not gas. I think something did attack them.” Victoria said. “I know this will make no sense to you, but you should trust me– I feel a lot of fear in this place. These people witnessed something terrifying.”

Gertrude believed her. But she did not want to let on the extent to which she understood this type of talk.

Norn was like this too. Like she could see through people. Maybe Victoria could see through the dead.

“Some secret Vekan detective technique I’m unaware of?” She said, to brush it off.

“Let’s go to the bridge.” Victoria said.

“Sorry– I didn’t mean to offend you.” Gertrude said.

“I’m not offended. There’s just no point in responding to that.”

Gertrude supposed Victoria was not about to give her an explanation of her ability any time soon.

From the dormitory, the two of them ventured back the way they came, down the hall, briefly peering over the separator between the galley and the hall and finding nothing of note, and then venturing toward the ship’s prow. Checking doors as they went, stumbling upon a few utility closets before finally opening the door into the Cutter’s bridge. Immediately upon entering, Gertrude had to bow her head.

The Bridge was no larger than the rest of the ship’s spaces. From the door, the ceiling slanted down, and there were a few steps leading down to additional stations, all of which were packed tight together, with their monitors, station desks and seats and barely any additional legroom. At the highest point of the bridge, just off of the entrance, there was a recess for the captain’s seat and terminal. To reach it, Gertrude had to duck down at the entrance, and then walk with her shoulders slouched for a few steps, before slipping a foot into the recess so she could begin to slide between the chair and desk and finally sit. She discarded her shield at her side and slid her fingers along the side of the monitor, feeling for buttons.

“Good lord.” Gertrude sighed. “I don’t miss this.”

Victoria walked inside and leaned over Gertrude’s shoulder, looking at the Captain’s terminal monitor.

Her sudden weight and warmth, the closeness of her cheek to Gertrude’s own–

It sent a shiver down the Inquisitor’s spine.

“Is something wrong?” Victoria asked. “You must be able to operate this.”

“Yes, I can do it. Nothing is wrong. This seat is just uncomfortable.” Gertrude deflected.

Victoria leaned forward a little more. Had she not been wearing that breastplate–

Gertrude powered on the display with the button on the side.

Everything turned on without a hitch. The Inquisitor breathed a sigh of relief.

She found herself on the Administration dashboard for the Captain. No prompt for a passphrase or to insert a keycard or provide any kind of authentication. It was just unlocked, and dumped her right in the middle of a trove of information. The Captain’s terminal home screen was an Administration dashboard with a summary of everything the Captain needed to know. Statuses of the main modules, agenda items set by the Communications officer or by an adjutant, a small and abstracted map of their current position, bearing and destination supplied by the helm, and easy access links to communicate with other officers.

“They departed from Antioch in Bosporus. Looks like they were headed to the Union– specifically to that little Campos anarchist state in the far south.” Gertrude said. “Judging by the bearing anyway.”

“That makes sense.” Victoria said. “They would have never reached it though. The Union keeps significant skirmishing forces surrounding it. Under Jayasankar’s regime it has been practically blockaded, ever since the anarchists took action against her. But even the Republic just recognizes it as an unruly chunk of the Union rather than its own state. These anarchists were on a doomed journey from the beginning.”

“What does Veka think about ‘Campos Mountain’?” Gertrude asked, suddenly curious.

“We acknowledge the Union’s sovereignty over it, and would support its annexation.”

“Would the Union really attack these little lost anarchists?”

“The word ‘attack’ implies a greater effort than would be necessary.” Victoria said. “They would run into a Union patrol frigate and stand no chance of anything but capture. It is my understanding that the Union gives captives like this the option of joining Union society under invasive surveillance for a few years until they assimilate and acknowledge Mordecism-Jayasankarist Thought, or to self-righteously opt for jail time so as to not betray their ideologies. If they choose the latter, the Union drops them in the deepest pit it can find and they’re never heard from again. The Union’s Internal Security doesn’t mess around.”

Gertrude snickered. “So you can be chatty when you want to be.”

Victoria made a slightly grumbling noise.

“These are basic facts about the Union that aren’t too hard to uncover, not top secret Vekan information.”

“Fair enough. But tell me– do you really trust the Union’s forces at all?”

“I trust in their self-interest. Same as anybody else’s.”

At the top of this dashboard there were tabs that opened up more detailed pages for communications, helm, gunnery, electronic warfare, sensors and so on. Gertrude immediately went to the tab for Core Engineering and held her breath as the status of the Reactor updated. Thankfully, everything looked green. At the behest of what seemed like a random person, the Reactor core had been put into resting mode. It would fill the backup batteries and keep the environment on, as well as power on any devices that were deliberately accessed, but everything else would be shut down until further notice.

“I’m tired of the darkness in here. What do you say?” Gertrude asked.

“It looks safe to turn things back on. It’s not like we’ll awaken the corpses.” Victoria replied.

“The Lady has spoken. Let there be light.”

Gertrude sent a command to begin the Core wakeup sequence.

She watched as a command line prompt appeared with dozens of lines of text indicating the status of each computerized operation necessary to bring the Core back from its resting state. While the main computer slowly brought the Reactor back to full functionality, Gertrude sat back on the chair, sighing. Their adventure was almost over and without incident. Once the ship was powered up, they would connect to the Iron Lady and allow Schicksal and the Electronic Warfare station to remotely operate it, ceding all functions to the Dreadnought. It would be easy to do, since the permissions were unlocked.

“All of these systems are unlocked and the permission scheme was edited so everyone aboard the ship could access any of the functions. These anarchists were certifiably insane. Imagine they have some nutcase among them that is plotting something– would they even be suspicious of anything?”

“It’s non-hierarchical thinking. It makes sense for them, even though we wouldn’t adopt it.”

“But you want to be the big boss of things, right Bayatar?” Gertrude teased.

“I want my orders to be followed unquestioningly.” Victoria said.

Gertrude glanced at her shoulder, where the Shimii was looking the slightest bit sulky.

“We make a good team, don’t you think? We were pretty in sync.” Gertrude said.

“We’re both professionals who have had good training. And nothing really happened.”

“I’m a little hurt that you disagree.” Gertrude said, with a little laugh to show it wasn’t serious.

“I didn’t disagree, I qualified.” Victoria said. “I just said exactly what I wanted to say.”

While it made Gertrude smile warmly, this was the kind of attitude that always got this cat in trouble.

Still, she couldn’t help but notice a tiny but glowing little smile appearing on Victoria’s lips.

Within a few minutes, all of the heliolights suddenly turned on in the Bridge, and possibly throughout the ship, illuminating everything with the soft yellow light of human life and activity. Immediately, Gertrude caught sight of a body bent over one of the lower stations. She turned off the torch on her visor, and Victoria did the same. The Shimii left Gertrude’s side and went to check the body further below.

Gertrude switched over to the networking tab and issued a request to the Communication station to connect to a nearby vessel– in this case, the Iron Lady. She asked for Victoria to accept it on the communication station below, on the way to the body. The Bayatar gracefully slid her finger across the screen to accept and carry out the order automatically. Within minutes, the mousy-haired Karen Schicksal appeared on the main screen of the Cutter’s bridge, her lips quivering and shoulders shaking, breathing in and out heavily, clearly slick with sweat. Her eyes drew wide with relief upon seeing Gertrude.

“Ma’am! I’m– We’re all glad to see you safe– IS THAT A CORPSE?”

An enormous Schicksal on the high-resolution main display pointed down nervously.

Her index finger vaguely pointed at the dead man on the lower station.

Victoria looked up from taking the body’s pulse. “Yes, I’m afraid that it is.”

“It’s a long story, Schicksal.” Gertrude said. “I’m giving you and the bridge full control over the derelict. Download all operation logs, chronicles and recent camera footage from the supercomputer– no need to copy the protocols or any infrastructural stuff, they left that all the same. We’re heading back.”

“Yes ma’am–” Schicksal fidgeted nervously. “We can send a team to escort–“

“No need. Don’t worry about us. There’s nothing in here.” Gertrude said.

“Acknowledged! We’ll carry out our orders and see you soon, ma’am!”

Schicksal saluted and the main screen shut back off with the call ending.

Gertrude cautiously stood back up from the Captain’s chair, trying not to hit her head.

Below, Victoria nonchalantly walked back up from the lower stations.

Her very gently smiling face looked quite arresting to Gertrude in the heliolights.

“You can probably imagine by this point. But that man was also dead.” Victoria said.

“There has to be something in the main computer that can tell us more. Let’s go back.”

“Acknowledged. Good work, Gertrude. I appreciated your calm professionalism.”

“Likewise. I do think we make a good team.”

“Hmm.”

As Victoria moved past her and began to walk out of the room, Gertrude noticed something that had been impossible to see when the heliolights were shut off. In the focused light of their torches, it was impossible to discern in the environment, but there was something in the air– it was so fine, that it was hard to tell whether it was her eyes adjusting to the light or an actual phenomenon. But Gertrude thought she saw a fine red powdery mist playing about the room. Exceedingly fine but eerily textured and yet completely without volume. It very well could have been a trick of her tired eyes, it was so thin.

“Victoria, do you see something red around us?” Gertrude asked.

“Red?”

Gertrude followed Victoria out of the room, the Shimii inadvertently leading since the mission was over.

Victoria turned over her shoulder.

Her eyes flashed briefly red–

As they did, they drew wide with a sudden and wild panic.

“Gertrude! Behind–!”

In a snap reaction, Gertrude half-turned and it was enough to see–

At the dead end of the hall which led to a service door to access the sensor array for maintenance–

Stood a figure–

Wispy, red and black, bound up in frayed cloth and chains, amorphous, tall, thin–

Masked face carved jagged smile red giving off furious red eyes–

Lifting

a dragging arm fused iron and flesh

metal point drawn back like a jet spear

giving off furious red heat

as the spike launched to Gertrude’s face,

“Gertrude!”

In the next instant, Victoria leaped past Gertrude with incredible speed and precision.

Her vibrosaber swung, its blade picking up the red in the air and becoming wreathed in it.

Like pale digital fire, translucent, insubstantial but extant and hot and filled with power.

Saint’s skin!

She thought she heard Victoria’s voice emanate from the surroundings–

The Bayatar’s keen edge met the metal spike with that red sheen that coated the blow.

Deflecting the thrust, Victoria transitioned into a horizontal slice that flashed bright red.

Her blade hung in the air after completing its arc, having cut through–

Nothing.

There was nothing at the end of the hall.

Gertrude stood speechless. She had been unable to move her body to respond.

But– respond to what–?

She thought she had seen a metal spike launching at her head.

She thought she had seen a horrific mangled figure wielding the weapon.

She was sure she felt the weight, the impact of Victoria’s parrying the enemy attack.

Victoria stood in front of her, coiled into a stance with her sword in front of her.

Her breathing heavy, turning to face every which way.

“You saw it, right?” She cried out.

“I did. There was something there.” Gertrude said.

“It’s– It’s gone.”

Victoria’s eyes had red rings around the irises as she looked around the hall.

Gertrude could notice them plainly. She kept herself from remarking upon the fact.

“It’s gone. It’s not anywhere.” Victoria said. “Anger. It was cloaked in so much– anger–“

Coming down from the terror of that moment–

In the next instant, Gertrude stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Victoria from behind.

“Agh! Gertrude!”

Her face sank into the Shimii’s shoulder. She could smell her hair, feel her warmth.

Victoria’s tail stood on end and she was paralyzed in Gertrude’s embrace.

“You saved my life. From whatever that was– thank you. Thank you, Victoria.”

In that moment, Gertrude felt like she could cry, she was so overwhelmed with–

“It’s nothing–! We’re allies! Let me go– we have to leave this place!”

Feeling foolish, Gertrude suddenly withdrew back a step from Victoria.

“Sorry. It was the stress. You’re right– let’s form up again.”

Victoria’s cheeks and the fleshy interior of her cat-like ears were a little bit red.

Clearly flustered, she followed behind Gertrude, who led with her shield up.

There was nothing around them, but they were both suddenly tense.

“Victoria– you know something, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“I don’t know— I’ll tell you about my hunches when I’m sure we’re safe and alone.”

“You saw that creature too. Is it still around?”

“I don’t think so. I– I think I repelled it. But we should still be cautious.”

“Nobody can come back in here. I’ll tell Schicksal to melt the core down.”

“Good idea. Nothing will survive that.”

Gertrude began to think that whatever that creature had been, it must have been responsible for all of the deaths aboard the Cutter. In the past she would have felt foolish and irrational, but after seeing what Norn could do, she had become more open to strange events. She imagined a phantom that hurled its invisible weapon to kill without leaving wounds– it made no rational sense, but if she invited the idea of the supernatural, it cold explain what her eyes had seen and her mind had actually felt.

Had that spike gone through her head, would she have fallen to her knees, peacefully dead?

It was insane– it wasn’t something that she could decipher by reasoning through it.

But it was the closest thing she had to an answer to everything she saw.

“Victoria, I’m not insane, right?” Gertrude asked.

“I saw something attack you and I kept my oath not to let harm come to you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude understood the subtext. If she was seeing things and had gone insane– Victoria was even crazier for reacting physically and launching an attack as if against a real enemy. She was right. Both of them had seen something. They had been affected by a presence. They couldn’t pretend it was fake and they couldn’t rationalize it away. Gertrude at least wasn’t alone in having reacted to that figure.

“Trust me, Gertrude, there was something. But let’s keep it to ourselves for now.”

“I need to know, Victoria.”

“I’ll tell you when I’m ready– until then, please believe that I’ll protect you. Will that suffice?”

She felt powerless and ignorant, having to rely on others so much.

But there was no use fighting Victoria on this. She was cooperating more than before.

And– the thought of Victoria swearing to protect her, put a little warmth in Gertrude’s heart.

“I’ll trust you. Confirm your hunch, but please tell me what you know as soon as possible.”

“Thank you. I swear, I won’t let anything happen to you. I won’t let it end like on this ship.”

“You have sworn a lot of oaths today– but I’ve not heard what you are swearing by.”

Gertrude cracked a little grin, feeling just a little bit cocky toward Victoria again.

Only to be immediately disarmed–

“I swear by us, Gertrude. I swear my oath on the friendship we had and could have.”

Gertrude felt her heart skip a beat. She kept walking, pace by pace, shield up.

But it hit her like a battering ram. She felt Victoria’s hand on her back closer than ever.

“It’s no use swearing by the Empress. You don’t believe in that. You don’t believe in my sincerity where it regards Veka. But you said you still believed in us. As part of that, you must trust me.”

Victoria’s voice was so full of determination.

Gertrude couldn’t see her face, but she imagined the expression. It filled her chest with fond feelings.

She almost laughed. “You got me there. Then, on us, I’ll swear to trust you.”

“I would shake hands on it, but let’s skip that. You already hugged me pretty tight, that’s enough.”

Despite the grave atmosphere inside the derelict, Gertrude felt her heartstrings strum along to the melody of an undeserved affection. She had been longing terribly for any sign of it.

For the first time– it felt possible.

And carried on that wind of determination, the two of them escaped the derelict without further incident.


Once the data from the derelict Cutter had been collected, the Iron Lady retracted its boarding chute back into its sidepod, and the armored hatch which allowed it to deploy sealed the armor shut over it. Again the derelict was released into the water, but this time, the derelict was remotely operated to sever its anchor cables, and to descend far into the gorge. Three kilometers away from the Iron Lady, it would autopilot to the seafloor and then withdraw all cooling and shielding from its reactor while draining maximum power from it. Having voided all advanced permissions on their ship, the anarchists made this task easy to accomplish. Soon, the cutter would disappear in a flash of purple far out of sight.

“There’s something a little macabre about sending a ship to its death this way, I must admit.”

In a meeting room, Schicksal and Gertrude had a monitor with a diagram of the cutter as well as a live feed from one of its cameras as it descended, for as long as the connection could hold up in the katov mass– which wouldn’t be very long at all. Seated around a table, they went over preliminary discoveries by the analysts of the recovered data. Gertrude turned her head from the monitor and crossed her arms.

It was macabre indeed– everything about that ship was macabre.

“We couldn’t have done anything else for them. At least they’ll have a burial at sea.” Gertrude said.

“In a sense, however, they’re still ‘lost forever’ aren’t they? I don’t know– it gives me the creeps.”

Karen Schicksal let out a little yawn. Her eyes glanced aside at nothing. Fidgeting; nervous.

“We have a roster. If we wanted to, we could notify Bosporus about this.” Gertrude said.

“Well– my pity doesn’t extend that far.” Schicksal said. “I apologize Inquisitor. I’m being silly.”

“It’s okay. I’ve never asked you not to be human. But there’s nothing we can do for the dead.”

“Right. Then let’s focus on what we’re doing for ourselves, the living.”

Aside from telling Vogt to keep rotating patrols in the halls, just in case, Gertrude had not yet ordered her crew to perform any tasks that might be seen as a reaction to her adventure on the derelict. She had not informed them of the mysterious phantom, or anything about Victoria’s “hunches.” All she had told them were the basics: mysterious deaths, uncertain timeline– a mystery scenario. She could not appear too shaken up or paranoid. It would only cause undue concern. Gertrude figured that the analysts would organically turn up a smoking gun within the data, and at that point, she could take action on it.

She had not gotten a chance to talk to Victoria yet, either. They would need to prepare for their next adventure into the mystery habitat below, and the Inquisitor felt that the adventure in the derelict was too fresh anyway. Victoria was a blunt person who said what she wanted and did what she wanted. She would approach Gertrude when she was ready, and approaching her before that was likely pointless. Judging from her guardedness on the derelict, it would take more than a few hours distance to coax her.

And so, Gertrude was left in a bit of a lurch. She could only move forward, but on unsteady ground.

Schicksal put down on the table a portable terminal in the shape of a clipboard.

She slid it over to Gertrude, who picked it up.

“I have a preliminary report on the data we collected.” Schicksal said, stifling another yawn. She leaned over the table and pointed her finger at the items recorded on the portable, which Gertrude was already looking at. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take us longer to determine a timeline of events. Everything on the computer was classified as personal data, and there is only partial metadata for the entries. Upon learning of this, we initially hoped to narrow our efforts by isolating and analyzing only the data logged by the bridge crew. But it looks like the crew had no specified roles, and traded duties between all members. Everyone also wrote in the ship’s chronicle on a rotating basis. Because of this, we’ll have to parse through every crew member’s contributions as a big blob of data, separating items of importance out from the random junk, while also going over hundreds of hours of camera footage.”

Gertrude knew the job could not possibly have been done in thirty minutes or an hour.

But she felt a tight knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach upon hearing the magnitude of it.

God damn anarchists– their utter disorder was only going to slow her down even more.

They had paid the ultimate prize for having no discipline– but she still begrudged them for it.

“What about that little personal portable I found?” She asked.

Schicksal nodded her head in acknowledgment, and then looked at her own hands on the table.

“That portable belonged to the youngest member of the crew. She was just a girl.” Schicksal averted her gaze. “It was used for keeping video diaries. Addressed to family members. They vary in length from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes, but most recent one is four hours long. We have a hunch that she was recording an entry, and then the catastrophe struck– so we’re watching it. But it’s long, and we’ve only gotten started– we’re doing our very best to extract every clue from the material, ma’am.”

There were tricks that analysts could use to quickly get a big picture from a lot of data, but in this case, it was not going to yield results. Algorithmic video profiling would be useless because what had happened to the ship was so mysterious that they could not rely on the computer to draw any patterns from the footage. They weren’t looking at a billion samey camera frames for the ones that had faces. And because the metadata on all the log files was screwed up, they could not use an algorithmic text parser. Because the sample size was still an amorphous blob of all the computer’s data, it would distort the results, since useless personal anecdotes were mixed in with official records of the ship’s operation.

It was going to take good old fashioned detective work– pouring over dozens of terabytes of data.

“I know it’s a tough ask, but it’s important.” Gertrude said. “I want every forensic analyst on this. If it’s going to take brute force, then pile on the force. Hell, if there’s engineers who have nothing to do, have them watch video too. I think the camera footage will be the most important material here.”

“I agree. I’ve already gotten all of forensics on the job. But still– I’m sorry ma’am. It’ll take time.”

Schicksal averted her gaze again. Gertrude handed her back the portable with a smile.

“It’s fine. It’s just my job to spur people on, you know?” Gertrude said. “So then– what next?”

“We’ve set a course for the suspected habitat, as you requested.” Schicksal said. “It’ll be a few hours ma’am. If I can make a suggestion, you ought to get some rest, if you’ll be going out again.”

Gertrude sighed openly. “Good idea. I slept horribly last night.”

“May I escort you out ma’am?”

“No, return to the bridge. You’ve been fantastic at organizing all this, Schicksal. Keep it up.”

Schicksal looked down at her hands and rubbed her two index fingers together.

“Thank you ma’am– I’m quite unworthy, I’ve only been doing what I can is all–“

“Without you, this ship would fall apart.” Gertrude said. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Ma’am– Yes!”

Schicksal saluted stiffly. She must have been taken off-guard by the praise.

While she was just a little bit neurotic, Schicksal was a dreadnought-tier officer in action.

She had good instincts, communicated well between teams, and delegated work efficiently.

Her nervousness caused her to be slow to react to shocks sometimes– but once she got a hold of herself she exceeded the expectations of a Chief Communications Officer. Of her own accord, Schicksal could take Gertrude’s orders and immediately find the right teams and prioritize the right tasks to maximize effort, drawing on her experience without needing a thorough strategy plotted out. She could see that Dreschner did not choose her out of pity or obligation. Schicksal was a prodigal talent of her own.

“Alright, I’ll see myself back to my room. Tell forensics I wish them luck. I’ll swing by myself later.”

“Yes ma’am! Rest up!”

As she said this, Schicksal stifled another yawn.

This caused Gertrude to have to stifle her own yawning as she walked out of the meeting room.

Everything felt both stuck in place and yet inexorably in motion.

In a few hours, she would finally be able to see–

Norn– what did you want me to see here? What happened to you here?

Thinking about the woman she once called “master,” who taught her much and yet precious little–

Gertrude, stripped of much of her armor, dropped into her bed. Soaked in sweat, exhausted.

Her arm, extended out at her side, fell upon the object which Nile had given her, discarded on her bed.

Fingers curled around the band. She picked it up and lifted it in front of her eyes.

She looked at the face of the watch and saw the fluid gather on the blue part of the gradient.

Strobing wildly it formed a pattern of hexagons, twisting on itself. What did that even mean?

Gertrude tied it around her wrist. She would ask Nile about it later. Maybe show it to Victoria.

For the moment, it was all too easy to sleep and wait to see how events played out.

As the Iron Lady descended ever further into the depths of Kesar.

Depth Gauge: 3108 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)


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