While the festival’s most passionate attractions played out within the habitats of the station, Kreuzung’s interstice was not untouched by the music; in that venue, the melody and drumbeat had its own unique pace. When the core separation’s began to spread through Kreuzung, a number of humble maintenance personnel and disgruntled security staff were cast into complete darkness within the station’s numerous maintenance shafts, floodbreaks, and internal cargo elevators and conveyors. Those dark crevices became their venue.
As in the habitats, some of the principal revelers were the men and women (though mainly men) of the Kreuzung Public Security Department. Kreuzung’s police began as a private security force slowly replacing the retainers of the nobility in guarding the ports and villas, primarily in the payroll of the noveau rich. Legitimated by liberalization brought on by the purses of the capitalists, it became a formality to renew their contract, and they were renamed– they were organized as a Department of the Kreuzung government.
More than mercenaries, they became the law, as the station’s inhabitats suffered it.
The K.P.S.D had a lot riding on the proper conclusion of the festivities.
Despite the fervent denials from the corporations in charge of Kreuzung’s utilities and core power, it was immediately clear to the K.P.S.D. that foul play was involved in the core separation and its ensuing festival of carnage. When the government issued a station lock-down, the K.P.S.D was already rushing to enforce one. Not in Kreuzung’s main seaport, where millions of marks worth of lucrative business relations and K.P.S.D. racketeering could be jeopardized: instead, the effort was concentrated on securing the interstice and the private ports. Part of the hope was that from the lockdown areas, they could find ways to get around the hostage situation within the core shaft.
In Kreuzung’s largest tunnels, the K.P.S.D had room to deploy some of their heavier equipment, budgeted for but hardly ever used outside of drills. Several checkpoints were established, where mobile barricades mounted on armored trucks blocked access and served as platforms for grenade launchers and heavy machine guns. Shoulder-fired explosive missiles were stocked in piles behind each barricade. Each checkpoint had at least a platoon’s worth of men, and all of them felt quite proud in their riot armor and heavy weapons.
For some of the men, this presented a chance to show-up the Volkisch’s forces in Kreuzung, particularly the Sicherheitsdienst, Landwehr militia and the advance forces of the Stabswache, all of which rivaled the K.P.S.D. in recent months. Not necessarily to protect their patrons in the A-block government; but to continue to enjoy the privileges of being Kreuzung’s premier security force. Turning out in force, in excessive force, would show the fancy-uniformed fascists in their little offices and barracks who ruled Kreuzung’s streets, who pocketed Kreuzung’s cash; they were not going to allow a repeat of the election night skirmishes.
It would show Kreuzung itself– you need the K.P.S.D.
You need to pass new and bigger K.P.S.D. budgets. You need to raise K.P.S.D. recruitment, and relax K.P.S.D. regulations, raise a K.P.S.D. fleet. You need to tolerate K.P.S.D. rackets. The Volkisch Movement might do the job for free, but they won’t do it right. They let the core separation happen; and after saving the station, it would be the moment where the K.P.S.D. advertised themselves as an utterly essential product. They would be the ones taking away the strongbox at the end of the festival, and divvying up the donated coins alone.
“Oh! So that is what the hominins are doing. Tristitia understands now.”
Hundreds of slim, pale tentacles exited from as many orifices on an armor-wearing corpse, dropping the ragged mass of mutilated flesh into onto the wet floor of a maintenance shaft. Before it even hit the ground, a soft, jelly-like body began to glide over the shallow water and around the tunnels with a speed and adroitness alien to its messy body plan, as if floating in an invisible ocean. Its surface brimmed with color like a living oil slick.
Her mission continued.
Armed with information, though not necessarily understanding.
“Tristitia will just use these hominin! The hominin will stop the heretic for Tristitia.”
“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. Rottenführer in the Sicherheitsdienst.”
“Murati Nakara. I’m a cargo operations manager for Treasure Box Transports.”
She could let this woman know her name. She was not intending to let her walk away.
Whether or not Aatto knew her name was the least of her potential problems.
For the Brigand to escape, it was necessary to disable her and her men.
And do it quickly.
Murati felt the chill of cold sweat tracing a line down her back, and between her breasts.
In the midst of the Core Separation, Alcor’s module reminded her of when she used to live in Thassal. Her housing block’s power would be knocked out by faulty power conduits or junction boxes every so often. It was cold, the lights would be blinking, and it made her mindful of her breathing, as if it was actually possible to ration breath and thus breathe for longer. She was in the same situation– cold, sweaty, minding her breathing with an annoyingly deliberate mental effort. She was quite far from Thassal station, however.
Standing in front of what purported to be the station authority in Kreuzung.
But they were not coming to save her or assist her. Far from it.
She had to think about the situation carefully.
Opposite Murati stood Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, a member of the Volkisch’s national intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service. Her rank, Rottenführer, was roughly equivalent to the Union’s ‘Chief Petty Officer.’ This rank sat below that of an officer, but for a sailor, and in this case, for a technical expert or support servicewoman, this was a high rank, the next step being a commission. Murati had some awareness that within the Sicherheitsdienst this rank fulfilled important analytical work with security clearances.
It also clearly entailed some field command, with Aatto at the head of a squadron.
Murati tried to get a read on her opponent, in the moments of their mutual introductions. Aatto was– she looked like– an exceedingly lovely-looking woman. Murati had cultivated an anti-materialist and naïve idea (she began berating herself mentally)– that the fascists would all be foul of countenance as they were of heart, enormous pig-like men and warped-looking women like cartoon characters. She felt embarassed– Aatto had a perfectly comely face, her bangs were very neat, her hair was lustrous and wavy, and she wore a discrete and tasteful amount of makeup. Her eyes and expression were terribly conceited. She looked awfully amused with herself, as if going through life with an air of casual dismissal.
Her distasteful uniform was undoubtedly clean, and worn with fastidious tidiness.
She carried no sidearm. She must not have expected any resistance tonight.
Already, Murati was thinking to herself. There might be a way out of this confrontation.
Formed of both ethereal things, like Aatto’s appearance; and her concrete position.
She just needed the space to create an opportunity.
“Rottenführer, is it standard procedure to point guns at legitimate businesspersons?”
Murati asked. She thought it was a good tack to take.
Behind her, Tigris remained quiet.
Aatto responded to the inquiry calmly.
Peering briefly at Tigris and then at Murati again.
Her way of enunciating was clear and confident without pauses or slips of the tongue.
“There was an order to shelter in place, as well as orders not to leave the station.”
“I apologize for what must seem like a disorderly scene, Rottenführer, but I am afraid that we are on a tight schedule. We are completing maintenance on our ship. We have a contract and are part of a tight operation– any further delay will be catastrophic to our company.”
“Be that as it may, this much activity during a shelter-in-place is impermissible.”
“Can an exception be made? We will lose our contract if we are not ready in time.”
“That is none of my concern. I was sent here to inspect, and I found an irregularity.”
Aatto did not look to be in a hurry to push Murati aside. She continued talking to her.
“Rottenführer, I must object. There is a dearth of information about what is happening.”
Murati nodded her head toward the walls.
With how erratic and garbled the screens were, none of the warnings displayed correctly.
She did not want to risk gesturing with her arms too aggressively.
In fact it took all her willpower to speak without gesticulating.
Her eyes shifted their focus subtly between Aatto and the troops at her sides.
Thankfully, they did not seem to have itchy trigger fingers. They were all self-composed.
As Aatto spoke, they had their weapons trained, but they did not appear to be tense or shaky. None made threatening gestures, all kept neutral expressions on their faces during the discussion. Perhaps Murati could trust them to hold their peace for a bit, and not immediately shoot at her without being given orders. She could take advantage of that.
“We had no idea there was a shelter in place or any concrete orders and furthermore, we have always had a schedule to meet and were always planning to work tonight. There must be someone who can authorize us to continue working, knowing our circumstances.”
Aatto’s quite fluffy tail, which had been swaying gently, began to stand on end.
“I humored you for long enough, Murati Nakara. On the authority of the National Socialist Gauleiter of Kreuzung station, you will both, stop all of the work at this site, and, submit yourself to inspection. Failure to comply in this, an emergency situation, will result in far harsher punishment. Let us not complicate the proceedings any further.”
Murati found Aatto’s response to be very strangely worded and measured.
The Volkisch Movement had unquestioned power in this situation. They had utter political control over the former Duchy of Rhinea, and with it, they had the control over this particular station as well. They had weapons trained and a cornered opponent. It did not seem above them to arrest or kill Murati. They could get away with it. It was, like Aatto kept saying, an emergency situation. But despite being pushed, Aatto simply continued to request compliance and assert herself under the law. A curious legal display from a fascist.
For Murati, this was the first time she had ever met a fascist official face to face.
Murati knew fascism academically. Right-wing anti-monarchism and nationalist reform theories had existed for decades, even before the Empire’s loss of its southern colonies. From what Murati learned about the Volkisch, the loss to the “slaves and bandits” only intensified the growth of the national socialist ideology, into one which excoriated the Imperial system for its weakness and inefficiency. In its Rhinean expression, the Empire was, at the same time, decaying from outdated institutions and laws, while also being crippled by the promotion of weak untermenschen over vital ubermenschen who could renew it.
And yet, Aatto should have been one such untermenschen despised by this system.
As a Loup, she was a part of the perverse old order that failed to put Imbrians first.
But here she was, speaking of Gauleiters and the legalistic strata of Volkisch rule.
Murati, whose mind wanted to analyze things thoroughly, found this all quite perplexing.
Perhaps there was more to these nationalists– it would need to be investigated.
However, the contradiction also told her much-needed information about her situation.
Aatto was hesitant to order violence, but the men were professionally ready to deliver it.
She developed a good read on Aatto and no longer needed to look her in the eye.
Instead, her attention focused past the Rottenführer, on the men and their deadly weapons.
Without holding her gaze, Murati reached out a hand to Aatto, offering a shake.
“I am deeply, deeply sorry. I will make sure everyone cooperates, Rottenführer.”
Her eyes were on the men, whose faces briefly registered Murati’s hand moving.
Fingers tightened on pistols, and the submachine gunner tested the weight of his firearm.
Nobody shot at her, not out of response to that. They held firm to Aatto’s command.
“Very well. I am glad you saw sense. I will make note of your compliance in my report.”
She reached out her hand, delicate fingers entwining with Murati’s more rugged digits.
Murati gave Aatto a firm shake, testing the pressure on her fingers on Aatto’s soft hand.
At first she must have just seemed like the kind of idiot who puts effort into a handshake.
Until she suddenly jerked Aatto toward her by that same hand and arm–
And simultaneously pushed on the armed men with hands which only she could see.
While her eyes were off Aatto she had tried to acquire a mental picture of the surroundings. Of the men and their positions, they ways each held their weapon, the weapons they were holding, whether or not they wore a hat or the markings on their uniforms. Like a predictive imager that used input to generate a view of reality, Murati concentrated on seeing the image in her mind, of moving in that space, acting upon that reality– and in turn, acting simultaneously on the physical. In her mind, all of the targets were locked on.
All of her focus and desire, all of the weight of what she wanted to bring into being, she poured into the power. There was no controlling it; Murati had not learned to control the degree of force that resulted from her telekinesis. In that instant, when she quit holding herself back and pushed out the vector she had prepared, it was an utterly blunt instrument. A massive wedge of kinetic force that emanated from hopefully just behind Aatto and expanded outward from there. That was as much of a vector as Murati was able to create, despite Tigris and Euphrates’ instruction and her attempts to train further.
Murati’s eyes blinked red and turned hot enough to vaporize her tears.
For an instant she feared her eyeballs would liquify. All of the world swam.
In her mind, she had pulled the trigger.
Soon as it was released, Aatto’s coat billowed up, and she nearly fell into Murati’s chest.
While her men were blown back as if a piston had smashed them all in the chest.
Guns went flying from hands that bent and shattered . Air rushed out of the space, storming so loud that it almost masked the crunching of bone as force impacted bodies. Limbs twisted in unnatural directions and deformed. Eyes went up into heads, gazes snuffed out. Spittle mixed with blood burst out of the mouths and noses of the men. Murati saw their auras shift dramatically one after another before the corpses had even hit the ground.
It was not the first time she had killed someone.
It was not even the first time she had seen a person die in front of her, without the barrier of a diver between herself and the reality of what she had done to them. However, it was the first time that, with her new sight and the new dimension of the world, she witnesses the final moments of a life ended in violence. That primordial scream as their soul exploded from their bodies, a wave of black and white overtaking the familiar colors for an instant before the aether dulled and drifted from the body, lingering only in the surroundings.
Her head immediately erupted with the sheer agony of what she had done.
Murati felt like a razor blade had traced a deep line down the center of her skull.
Knees nearly buckling, feet shifting unsteadily, she almost fell forward.
Involuntarily, she screamed, into the back of Aatto’s coat.
But she still had the presence to seize hold of her captive.
Hooking one arm around the Rottenführer’s neck, pulling her into a choke.
Lifting, with a heavily shaking hand, her pistol to the fascist’s temple.
Breathing heavily into Aatto’s ear. In front of the eerily stricken bodies of her men.
Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather felt her mind empty with shock.
It all happened in mere seconds.
When Murati Nakara pulled on her arm with such vehemence she thought that it would be ripped from its socket. While behind her back, an immensity of power crushed her subordinates from the outside-in like dolls being smashed into walls. Something she only realized when she saw the preponderance of color around Murati as she exercised her power– and when Murati turned her around and seized her neck. Aatto’s body felt light and helpless against that power, so much so that all thought of resistance faded immediately. When she felt Murati’s head against her shoulder– she understood nothing of the situation, as if all of the signifiers of the world had lost their rooted contexts before her.
So she stood motionless, struggling to breathe from the forceful pressure around her neck.
Her hands raised reflexively to Murati’s elbow but could not even tug.
And the collection of limbs and torsos which had become of her men lost all concreteness.
She felt the cold barrel of Murati’s pistol press against her head and froze up.
While the woman’s warm breathing tickled the nape of her neck.
“Tell me–” Murati struggled to recover her breath. “What is really happening? Tell me–”
Her grip lessened, allowing Aatto to breath and speak, but still controlling her movement.
Aatto was barely all there in her own head when she responded. “Core separation–”
“It’s not– it’s not maintenance, is it? It’s not– It’s something out of– out of your control.”
Her voice slowly regained its forcefulness. Aatto felt sweat travel down her own forehead.
“Cogitans.” She said. “Cogitans took over the core. To take down the station’s defenses.”
There was silence for a second. Aatto felt Murati’s breathing slowly steady itself.
“A severe but interesting strategy.” Murati mumbled, reflexively, as if only to herself.
Those words went through Aatto’s brain with as much force as the still-chambered bullet.
In that instant, Aatto’s body shook with a mixture of thrill and terror she had never felt before. Her tail wagged, her ears folded, and her breathing became labored. Murati’s strength upon her neck, upon her body, felt ever heavier and more oppressive. Aatto felt like mere debris inexorably swallowed and crushed by the gravity of a mightily shining star.
Murati’s light and power, of which she could comprehend only a fraction, seemed then to destroy all former possibilities and rearrange the future before Aatto’s eyes. No one in the Volkisch or from the Liberals, neither the highest admirals nor the bloodiest lieutenants, had ever instilled in her as much fear and admiration as this out of place woman had.
This was a woman who could shatter the taboos– who could challenge Destiny—
“You’re coming with me. Don’t try to resist. I won’t hesitate to shoot.” Murati threatened.
Aatto smiled, and tears filled her eyes. To everyone else she must have seemed insane.
But she was thrilled, inspired. She was Murati’s captive; and she wouldn’t escape.
My king, her spiraling mind clamored, I have found my king.
At first, the prospects of escape seemed daunting.
Slowly, the project began to come together nevertheless.
After the incident with the Volkisch, Tigris gave Murati an earful but quickly reassembled her team and got back to work. Nobody had the time to dwell on anything that happened. Murati had taken the strangely compliant Aatto to the brig as a captive, and the bodies of her men were taken to be disposed of in the ocean– uniforms, gear and identifications were collected and stored. Murati was committed to sickbay against her wishes, having been found to be demonstrably unsteady on her feet and bleeding from her nose.
There was a brief chaos as the bridge tried to confirm exactly what had happened.
And headaches grew into pounding migraines very quickly when they learned.
“This is a nightmare.” Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya remarked.
“At the very least, Murati acted quickly. She has bought us time to take further action.” Commissar Aaliyah Bashara replied. “I’ll post Zhu and Van Der Smidse outside in case of further intrusions. We’ll just have to prepare to fight our way out of here if necessary.”
Ulyana grunted, aggravated. She rubbed her fingers on her forehead.
“We’re quickly running out of competent people to post outside with guns.” She grumbled.
“About that, Captain!”
Semyonova turned around from her station, and waved a hand toward the main screen.
One of the cameras, paired with a floodlight, shone on an approaching group.
“Semyonova, send the doctor and some sailors out with stretchers!” Ulyana shouted.
From the direction of C-block, Evgenya Akulantova and Syracuse Chernova had recovered their stragglers and returned. Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg, along with Braya Zachikova and the ‘guest navigator’ Arabella or Arbitrator I. Ulyana, who was unaware of exactly why they went missing in the first place, was shocked speechless at the sight of them. Everyone but Syracuse was wounded with even the rugged Akulantova suffering blows and looking quite worse for wear. Illya, Valeriya, Braya and Arabella were covered in blood and grime and dirty wounds and they carried the smell of smoke and lead with them.
All were quite mum upon being brought aboard, and as much as she wanted to scream in their faces, Ulyana did not have the time to waste doing so. Everyone but Akulantova and Syracuse ended up committed to sickbay, and formally detained and disarmed.
“Captain, we should prioritize their care for now. I will take responsibility.” Syracuse said.
“Alright. I just don’t have time to grill them– please write up a report.” Ulyana sighed.
“I will endeavor to ask what animal mauled all of them.” Dr. Kappel sighed as well.
Ulyana turned to Akulantova. Her hands heavily bruised, her forehead patched bloody.
“I am overjoyed to see everyone returned safely. Thank you, Chief. I will be needing all of this properly reported.” Ulyana said. Her voice then turned gentle. “Evgenya, we could use you in action– Lian and Klara are stretched thin right now. But if your condition does not permit it–”
In response, Akulantova simply adjusted her cap and smiled brightly at the Captain.
“Captain, I returned as quickly as I could precisely because I am still on duty.” She said.
From the side of the sickbeds, Syracuse rolled her eyes and turned her back.
It was agreed for Akulantova to resume her position, and Ulyana returned to the bridge.
Now that the entire crew was present and accounted for, they could leave whenever ready.
All eyes were now focused squarely on the task of moving the Brigand out of the station.
Down in the hangar, a dozen sailors rolled out an enormous power cable through one of the deployment chutes. Normally this particular cable was connected to a power distributor that served the battery charging apparatus on the Diver gantries. It had a direct, high-power line to the Brigand’s agarthic reactor. Taken outside the ship, the cable was stretched out to attach to a quickly-rigged power supply for use by Alcor’s mobile berth, while Tigris and two dozen other sailors worked on the motor that would ultimately draw upon that power.
Euphrates was dispatched from the bridge to check on the progress of the work.
Tigris immediately became distracted by her appearance.
“What’s with that face?” Tigris called out.
Euphrates smiled. “I am just admiring your work, and how attractively sweaty you look.”
“You ought to quit gawking and get sweaty too!” Tigris said.
“I would only slow you down.” Euphrates said, turning her cheek with a little grin.
While the red-haired woman bickered with her blue-haired counterpart, the work continued.
Tigris’ plan involved ‘borrowing’ a pair of electric hydroturbines from Alcor’s warehouse and modifying them along with attaching rudimentary shafts to the track gears on Alcor’s mobile berth. Normally, this berth was just a trailer unit and needed either a winch cable, a crane or a truck to pull it. With power provided by the Brigand’s own core through the hangar cable, it would work as a self-propelled prime mover on its own massive caterpillar tracks, hopefully providing enough torque for the Brigand to slide down the dead conveyor belts.
Then they could take the ship to a floodgate and escape out into the ocean, leaving the tractor behind. Tigris was sure there would be no issue in moving the Brigand to begin with– longevity was the actual question. The system of welded rods attaching the turbine to the drive gear would be workmanlike at best, and the cooling solution for the improvised motor could not be trusted to work for long. None of the most important parts of this system were ever intended to run in completely dry and hot conditions like those inside Kreuzung.
Owing to the time pressure, and the many hands, the standard of quality would dip further.
There were dozens of sailors on hand working tirelessly on every part of this messy project.
Tigris rejoined them as soon as she had shouted Euphrates’ ear off.
To no one’s surprise, she was working as hard as anyone else.
Drenched in sweat, her red ponytail coming undone, taking a few bruises.
Everyone was pushing their limits.
However, the work was coming together quickly before their eyes.
It wouldn’t be long.
“Did you by any chance contact Alcor about using their parts?” Euphrates asked suddenly.
Tigris peered at her from around the enormous home-made engine box.
“What? No? Why would I?”
And so, the next interruption presented itself soon enough.
Euphrates and Tigris grimaced together when they saw a party approach from Alcor’s HQ.
“Captain, I believe your presence will be required.” Euphrates said, tapping an earpiece.
One dark-blond woman approached the ship, while several men waited farther away from it.
Their primary visitor was Amelia Winn, their favorite executive from Alcor Steelworks.
Even at this hour and in this situation, she was well-attired and perfectly manicured.
Ulyana Korabiskaya left the bridge to meet her.
The most she did to hide her dishevelment was to wear her teal jacket and put on a tie, her blond hair still quite tossed about compared to Amelia’s, and without any makeup. They met off to the side of the ship on the Alcor blacktop while in the background of their conversation, the sailors and the two ladies from Solarflare continued working, and even farther down the road, Amelia’s companions looked at the whole scene with confusion.
Standing half a meter from each other, under the surreal light show of the confused sky.
“Miss Winn, I take it you’re here because–”
“No, I’m not here to investigate, Korabiskaya.” Amelia said, smiling at her. “I promised to uphold your confidentiality, right? It would be for the best that we don’t discuss what has happened in detail.” She glanced over at the ship. “It does seem that I may soon be losing some equipment– but that’s alright. I will be reimbursed healthily, when this blows over.”
“Well– I appreciate it.” Ulyana was a bit surprised. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
“I am only here to insure our continued cooperation. You’ve become something of my golden goose, Captain. Thanks to all of you, I’m set to be leaping ahead in my career. Your money was a very good deal– but I never expected you had such lucrative connections.”
“I see. I am happy it was mutually beneficial.”
Euphrates must have actually struck that deal she was talking about with Amelia.
Whatever the details were was none of Ulyana’s business. At least it was convenient now.
“So, may I ask then, since it seems your affairs are in order– why are we speaking?”
Amelia’s eyes looked to her sides briefly. She put on a bubbly little look.
“For appearances’ sake, we should leave on bad terms. You robbed me, threatened me, and in my fear of reprisal, I failed to report to the Volkisch. It will buy you some time and allow me to claim victimhood. I am here in person just so you can rough me up a bit.” She said. “However, I can’t help with the K.P.S.D. They have set up a roadblock in the tunnels.”
Ulyana silently approached Amelia and grabbed hold of the collar of her coat and shirt.
Amelia raised her hands up as if to surrender to this aggression.
“I appreciate the gesture.” Ulyana said softly, while shaking Amelia roughly.
“It’s just business.” Amelia said, shutting her eyes and gritting her teeth as Ulyana throttled her with such force that her head shook. When Ulyana paused in her abuse, Amelia recovered her breath and continued briefly. “I hope that we will see each other again. For a nepo-baby like myself, having adventurous clients is exciting. Especially ones with good grip.”
Ulyana couldn’t help but crack a grin. Such an absolutely ridiculous situation.
“We’ll be back someday. Amelia, brace yourself now.”
After her warning, Ulyana threw Amelia to the floor with all her strength.
It was quite convincing– Ulyana felt a little catharsis beating up the bubbly executive.
She could not say that they didn’t get a good value out of Amelia.
But the two of them wouldn’t be bosom friends. Ulyana wanted nothing to do with her.
“Klara!” Ulyana called out. She made a hand gesture, toward the road to Alcor’s HQ.
From under the ship, Klara Van Der Smidse of the security team rushed out to meet them.
She went down to one knee and unfolded the stock on her 40mm grenade launcher.
Aiming for the road where Amelia Winn’s other lackeys had been waiting.
Amelia struggled to get up, her footing troubled in a way which was not all empty drama.
With one final look back at them, and one final shove from Ulyana, she limped away.
Even with everything agreed to between them, the scene was quite tense.
Amelia’s party looked very aggravated when she arrived in pain back at their side.
They chatted animatedly for a few minutes, everyone throwing frequent glares at Ulyana.
However, Amelia finally managed to convince her subordinates to retreat to Alcor’s HQ.
Watching them go, Ulyana heaved a sigh. Her chest was pounding from the stress.
She recalled how safe she had felt about their arrangement with Alcor just hours ago.
But she had no choice.
“Good work.” She patted Klara Van Der Smidse on the shoulder.
“Um. Thanks Captain. Are we sure about letting them go?” Klara asked.
Ulyana smiled. “Yes, it was all theater. Just keep your eyes on the road for now.”
For the remainder of the work on the Brigand, she remained outside, standing off to the edge of the workers, her weary countenance visible only intermittently under the chaotic lights. While the work continued, she was briefly lost in her own thoughts.
“Moment of truth time! Everyone cross your fingers!”
In the Brigand’s hangar, Tigris stood on the edge of a deployment chute, surrounded by sailors. She had in her hands a portable computer with a long, long cable connecting it to the wall and another long, long cable that had been duct-taped to the power supply snaking out from under the ship. Despite all of her previous bluster, she was visibly shaking when she took up the portable. At her side, Euphrates tried to get a look at the software.
On its screen was a simple user interface that was clearly drawn by hand.
“What happened to all your confidence?” Euphrates asked.
Tigris grumbled. “It’s not about the motor. It’s stage fright. If it fails, I’ll look ridiculous.”
“But it won’t fail, right? You said it had a 99.99% chance of successfully starting.”
“Please shut up. Just shut up. I’m going to push the button.”
Tigris flicked her finger across the screen.
There was no immediately discernible effect that the crew inside the ship could detect. The electric turbine motor simply was not so noisy, even with the rushed craftsmanship. Any vibrations were very minimal as well. Nobody seemed affected by the ‘pressing of the button’ in the slightest. However, Tigris started to smile, and she held the tablet up and pointed its screen at a camera on the wall nearby, while pointing at it happily.
From inside the bridge, the officers of the Brigand could see that, on the very simple and hand drawn interface of Tigris’ hastily-written control program, there were various signs that the motor was running and ready to move. With the camera still focused on her, Tigris held her finger on an arrow, and it was then that the Brigand began to lightly stir– because it was now moving. She moved it just enough for everyone to realize it was possible.
Ulyana and Aaliyah sat back in their chairs together, holding their hands to their faces.
“There’s no going back. At least the tractor works.” Ulyana said.
“If I were religious, I’d start praying for that motor to endure.” Aaliyah groaned.
“Ha, ha, ha! Gaze upon its majesty! I call it the ‘Tigris Mover’ I!” Tigris shouted.
She was celebrating in the hangar. Nobody was communicating directly to her.
But she knew they could see her little cheering and dancing and shouting in the cameras.
“Get her off the main screen.” Ulyana said. “Semyonova, focus the central prow forward camera, but keep all other cameras in the periphery using picture-in-pictures. Be ready to swap to them when needed. And get Tigris to turn over control of the prime mover.”
“Captain, to which station should we send the program? The Helm?” Semyonova asked.
Kamarik protested. “Captain, I’ve danced with a few ships, but I don’t know tractor tango!”
“Captain, please send the program to Electronic Warfare.”
Hearing that voice, Ulyana turned to the doorway, but that was not where it came from.
“I am at my station, Captain. Braya Zachikova is reporting for duty.”
There was a scratchy, mechanical-sounding corruption because the voice was coming from the low fidelity speakers on Zachikova’s station, and not from a human mouth. But there was no denying that it was Zachikova’s voice. When Ulyana stood from her chair to inspect the once vacant Electronic Warfare station, she found a cutesy little face resembling that of Braya Zachikova, drawn like a pixelated animation on the station’s LCD. She possessed a triangular, unfriendly-looking little mouth, lines for eyes, a simple oval head, her antennae, as well as Zachikova’s bangs and spiral ponytail rendered enough to be identifiable.
“You’re supposed to be detained in sickbay.” Ulyana said sternly.
“My body remains detained, Captain. But I can still work remotely.” Zachikova said.
“You’re testing my patience.”
She felt a little ridiculous talking to the screen. It was different than a video call.
Somehow, she felt like Zachikova was in her presence, even though she was not.
It was perhaps a psychological effect from knowing how Zachikova’s implants worked.
Zachikova’s little face on the screen shut her eyes in comical contrition.
“Captain, I know that I caused us problems. But I do take my work seriously, and as a professional I do not want to be a failure point in the system. I request to be allowed to make up for my previous disruptions to the mission by resuming my duties as fully as possible.”
Ulyana crossed her arms.
“Ensign Braya Zachikova. We can discuss the matter of your escapades later– my real concern is for your health! You are badly wounded! Is the Doctor even aware of what you are doing right now? Or does she think you are asleep? It could affect your condition!”
It didn’t matter whether or not she snuck out of the ship. That could be settled long-term.
What Ulyana actually feared the most was Zachikova dying because of this!
On the monitor, the little face put on a softer expression. As if reacting emotionally.
“I– I appreciate your concern for my health. But my brain can handle this much.”
“Can your body?” Ulyana asked pointedly. Zachikova’s little face nodded energetically.
“Yes. It can! Please, Captain. It will contribute to our success if I am allowed to assist.”
“Ugh. I can’t believe this. Fine. At this point, I can use all the help I can get.” Ulyana said.
Semyonova, watching wide-eyed the drama unfolding near her, handed control over ‘Tigris Mover I’ to Zachikova’s station. Much of the bridge crew had their eyes on the empty chair where Zachikova once sat, all with confusion and unease. Minutes after the transfer, there was movement registering on the main screen. The ship pulled back out of the Alcor blacktop, and then began to trundle toward the elevator platform under its own power.
A collective sigh of relief ensued.
Alexandra and Fernanda slumped over in their chairs. Kamarik clapped his hands gently on the side of his station as if congratulating the Brigand on her newfound powers of locomotion. Semyonova and Fatima continued to stare at the little Zachikova face on the Electronic Warfare station adjacent to their own. They exchanged brief glances, shrugged and returned to their work as if Zachikova was actually there with them.
Ulyana sat back down, gripping the armrests on her chair like she wanted to dig into them.
At her side, Aaliyah reached out and patted her on the shoulder and back in support.
That simple touch was enough to partially heal what felt like hours of stress.
“Captain, I appreciate how you treat your officers. You clearly care strongly about them.”
On Ulyana’s other side in the restructured upper bridge, Premier Erika Kairos now had her own chair, along with a smaller pull-out seat that Olga Athanisou could occupy at her side. The two of them had remained mostly quiet during the proceedings. The Premier had requested to be off to the side near a wall, so as to not take up the Captain’s spot in the middle of the upper bridge. She had been observing with minimal input.
“We can contact the Rostock once we’re in the water, and it can assist us.” Erika said.
Ulyana felt like responding to Erika’s cheerful confidence– but she held her tongue.
Slowly but surely the Brigand completely left its little lot in the Alcor work area and stationed itself atop the platform into the station interstice and the ship elevator. With Zachikova in control, they had instant access to full diagnostics of the ‘Tigris Mover I’, including its power draw and the speed at which they were moving. Rudimentary sensors in the improvised engine helped them in monitoring heat, cooling, and other vital statistics, though the fidelity of this data was dubious. The motion of the ‘Tigris Mover I’ was surprisingly controllable. Zachikova seemed to have no problem guiding it.
“Captain, I’ve accessed the elevator controls via a short-distance connection. We will begin descent into the interstice.” Zachikova said. “It will be several minutes before we are able to move again, and very dark. Semyonova, Al-Suhar and I will remain vigilant.”
“Good. Keep us posted. And take a– breather, if you can find the time.” Ulyana said.
Within moments, the Brigand shook as the enormous elevator platform slowly lowered them down into the cavernous maw of the station’s depths. It was even darker within the elevator and tunnels now than it was in the Alcor module, utterly lightless rather than intermittently lit by the alarm LEDs. But it gave the bridge crew a decent respite while the elevator brought them slowly down several levels of the station. They could chat again a bit.
“Zachi– did you ascend to a state of pure energy, surpassing the material form of life?!”
Semyonova seemed to have been working up the courage to ask this question to the station.
On the LCD of the Electronic Warfare desk, mini-Zachikova put on a disgusted expression.
“You’re ridiculous. Please add some nonfiction to your media diet for once in your life.”
On the opposite side of the bridge, Fernanda and Alex quietly chirped in their ways.
“–this is exactly like stage 10 of ‘After The Fall: Kannonkaiser’ in Kaiser difficulty.”
“–our situation uncannily reflects the remarkable climax of ‘The Adjutant’s Last Will’.”
Ulyana tried to tune everything out and leaned back on her chair, letting herself breathe.
Until she felt a gentle tug on her coat, which could only have come from one person.
“Captain, unfortunately, the two us can’t simply take a nap at this time. We need to plan.”
Ulyana opened one eye again to meet her Commissar’s determined but gentle gaze.
“I know. We have one more problem ahead. Can I at least take five before we discuss it?”
Aaliyah then gave her a stern glare. There was no rejecting whatever that gaze desired.
As the Brigand descended, there was one final obstacle between themselves and the water. Amelia had mentioned that the K.P.S.D. was setting up roadblocks in the tunnels. Nobody on the Brigand was aware of the extent of the defenses nor their exact location, but they could make an educated guess based on the station layout: at the bottom of the elevator shaft, there was one long and wide stretch of conveyor belt that lead into a second transfer elevator and to a floodgate. Defending the length of it with man-portable weapons and mobile or stationary barricades was possible, and it made sense as the site of a checkpoint.
“Our grand operation upon the vessel has left the nature of its forward complement largely unperturbed. We are possessed of two 76 mm guns each in their own individualized turrets, and the main turret boasting two barrels of 150 mm guns, the ship’s pride,” advised Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa in her capacity as gunnery officer. “These weapons work synergistically with the frigid depths of the sea– the heavy casemates proof them against water and ward the components. Cooling succor is meant to come from the sea herself.”
Erika blinked. She whispered to the Captain. “Does she always talk like that?”
“Uh huh.” Ulyana said dryly.
“So I take it the guns will immediately overheat when fired.” Aaliyah replied.
“Fate may will otherwise. However, my keen foresight tells me so.”
“What about the gas guns?” Ulyana asked.
Fernanda shrugged. Those guns were not controlled by her particular station much of the time. Rather, the non-commissioned officers in the lowest tier of the bridge controlled the gas guns, a series of small caliber double-barreled autocannons meant to stop missiles, torpedoes and ward off the approach of Divers into close range with the ship.
Owing to their responsibilities, gas gunners were crucial but unremarked upon. They had their own area, and a manager who looked after them. Aside from the Captain, nobody was supposed to talk to them or bother them during operations– it was simply too important that they remained entirely focused on interdicting munitions to protect the ship.
“Perhaps owing to their diminutive caliber they may prove capable of sustaining fire.”
“I’ve seen Imbrian style mobile barricades, Captain.” Erika said. “They may be able to withstand enough 20 mm fire for the gas guns to overheat trying to clear them.”
Ulyana also knew they could not just run over the barricades with their tracks.
Any unsuppressed enemies at close range could easily damage the Tigris Mover I.
They would be crushed and killed in the attempt and the barricades could still be toppled over after all was said and done. But it might also leave the Brigand stuck in the tunnels without backup. They had to use their limited ability to fire, with care. And there was not even any point in asking Alexandra about the torpedoes, which were equipped with hydrojets or propellers and would go nowhere in dry combat. Similarly, their new ballistic missiles installed in the middle of the upper deck had no room to crest and fly indoors.
“We’ll just have to see what’s down there and how things develop moment to moment.”
“Worse comes to worse Captain, Kalika, Olga and I are no strangers to close combat.”
Erika spoke up in reassurance, but the Captain immediately shook her head and denied it.
“We’re not going to risk your life like that, Premier. We’ll handle this.”
Ulyana turned partially to face the communications station.
“Semyonova, raise alert Semyon. We need every crew member available at a moment’s notice. Have Klara and Lian suit up in our powered-armor, and release explosive munitions for their grenade launchers to them. They will be on standby. Have Evgenya prepare submachine guns for twelve sailors, led by Galina– but do not release those arms quite yet. We just want to be ready. Finally, prepare the Cheka and the High-Mobility Strelok.”
“Yes ma’am. Should I contact Shalikova and al-Shajara as well?” Semyonova asked.
“Tell them to be ready– we just want to have options open.” Ulyana said.
Inside the Brigand’s halls, the silent, gently red alarm lights of alert state “Semyon” got the sailors moving again after their short break from the intense work they had undertaken outside and throughout the ship. None of them had the full picture of what was transpiring, with the Bridge being the main actor in this battle– but they did not need to know.
A small task force had dressed up in osmium mesh hazard suits and opened the core containment area in order to drag in wheeled tanks and pumps just in case they had to dump more coolant into the core to maintain stable temperatures. Several others were monitoring electrical systems. In the hangar, a dozen engineers got the Divers checked and ready. Akulantova brought wheeled weapon rack out to the hangar, but kept it locked.
“In a minute, the tunnel will be visible in the forward cameras, Captain.” Zachikova said.
“Thank you, Ensign.” Ulyana said. She took a deep breath.
In front of her eyes, the black chasm that was the elevator wall in front of them finally broke to slowly reveal the long tunnel ahead of them. The conveyor was close to seventy meters wide and tall to fit ships of their size, but no larger than it had to be. In the darkness brought on by the core separation, LED lights on the walls and ceilings flashed on and off in frantic sequences across the tunnel, but there were a few steady sources of illumination.
Floodlights, strategically placed by the K.P.S.D forces.
Before them lay a K.P.S.D. defensive line. One mobile barricade mounted on an armored vehicle barred the way some hundred meters ahead. Behind it there were assemblages of infantry in riot gear, and a few nests of deployable bullet-proof shields affixed to the ground on heavy bases. At the far back, Ulyana could almost see the floodgate, barred by one final barricade. Their objective was to get close enough to the floodgate to force it open, and activate the anti-flooding gates behind themselves. Then they could sail away.
“Captain– the K.P.S.D. is requesting communication– and ordering us to desist.”
Semyonova’s voice carried the nervous tension of the moment.
Ulyana tried to smile a little.
Here they went again– into the fray once more.
After the ignorant peace of the shore, the chaos of the sea invited them forward.
“Forget it!” Ulyana called out. “Zachikova, forward! Fernanda, ready guns!”
All of the upper bridge crew called out simultaneously, even those not ordered specifically.
They knew they were all entering battle now.
“Gas gunners, forward barrage! Try to suppress the infantry behind the barricades!”
All of the gas gunners in the lower tier got to work.
Trundling forward on the caterpillar tracks of the ‘Tigris Mover I’, the Brigand began its sluggish but inexorable advance toward the first K.P.S.D. barricade. To the men on the opposing end of the conveyor it must have seemed like a gigantic piston was slowly moving to crush them against the walls. Small bursts from the Brigand’s six forward 20 mm ‘gas gun’ turrets peppered the barricade and its surroundings, red and green tracer trails slicing long lines into the dark distance, ending in blasts of fire and smoke leaving black spots on the barricade armor. Minor damage, no penetrations. Those shots which sailed over the barricade crashed between the enemy groups. Infantrymen dispersed closer to each barricade for protection while assembling arms with which to counterattack.
In moments, the first flashes of return fire began to appear from the enemy formation.
Shoulder-launched missiles from the barricade smashed into the prow of the Brigand.
While the cameras shook lightly with each hit, the bridge crew felt no vibrations.
“God damn it! We just repaired this thing!” Ulyana lamented.
“Missile impacts are not causing damage, Captain!” Kamarik said. “She’s a tough one!”
“They are shoulder-fired 60 mm missiles, Captain. Useless against ships.” Erika added.
“I’m afraid an actual threat is assembling, however.” Zachikova said.
On the main screen, the miniature, pixelated Zachikova from the station appeared and pointed at a location behind the barricade, which the predictive imager then highlighted as well. Several men were setting up a tripod mount and had affixed a large tube on top. Two other men were gathering much larger rockets than the shoulder-fired ones–
–munitions to be fed into a gun.
“That is a 152 mm Panzerfaust-IV turret.” Erika said, in a much graver tone of voice.
“Gas gunners! Hold fire! Concentrate on interdiction!” Ulyana called out.
Within seconds, a bright orange flash and exhaust heralded the incoming missile.
“Captain! Guns red! Guns red!” came a cry from bellow, the manager of the gas gunners.
“Brace for major impact!” Ulyana cried out.
Then, on the main screen a few more red tracers suddenly soared out of an overheated gun.
An enormous explosion boomed directly in front of them.
All of the smoke from it crossed their cameras as the Brigand trundled forward.
As yet unscathed–
“One of the guns managed to fire! Thank everything!” the manager called out.
Ulyana knew the gas gunners would not get much more time to celebrate.
“Fernanda, aim a 76 mm and vaporize that thing!” She called out.
“Captain, I have an idea!” Erika interrupted suddenly. “Aim low at the barricade vehicle!”
Fern snapped her head to face the Captain and Premier.
There was not even a second more for Ulyana to think, but–
If the gas guns had already overheated, the 76 mm would overheat from firing one shot.
They only had two of those they could use– if Erika was wrong that was–
“Fern, listen to Erika! Now!”
Ulyana had to trust it. They had pledged themselves to her.
But if she was wrong–
“Firing 76 mm high-explosive!”
Fernanda called out and in the next instant, the green tracer sailed out over the tunnel.
The K.P.S.D. gunners had already extracted one enormous munition and loaded the next.
This Panzerfaust-IV could seriously wound them, its armament was Cruiser-caliber.
Ulyana was not a praying sort, but in the instant that 76 mm shot went out.
She truly thought she wanted to pray. In a snap decision, she had trusted Erika.
Was it the right call–?
Before she could doubt any more, the 76 mm munition struck low at the mobile barricade.
An immediate high-explosive detonation ensued–
fire and pressure spread under the lip between barricade and floor–
and the force of it flipped the vehicle right off its wheels and onto its side.
Overturned with such shocking force that tore metal pieces from it to scatter in the air. Men standing on the barricade were thrown bodily, and men behind it fled as hot metal and flying glass spread out several meters in every direction. Munitions that had been piled behind the barricade received the blow as well and went flying haphazardly, undetonated but streaking through the air like blunt projectiles and connecting with the fleeing men.
In that instant of chaos, the crew on the Panzerfaust-IV escaped from its vicinity, leaving the tube loaded and running for their lives to the nearest shield. The abandoned and exposed weapon became a priority target, and as soon as the gas guns could fire even a single bullet each, Ulyana ordered the gunners to fire on its position. Bursts of 20 mm gunfire crashed around the gun and sent the tube rolling off its mount, snapping its bracing legs.
“We’ll be going over the barricade in about a minute.” Zachikova said.
Ulyana let out her breath. She turned to her side and laid a hand over one of Erika’s own.
“Thank you, Premier. I’m glad I trusted your judgment.” Ulyana said.
On her other side, Aaliyah also nodded her head as if to support Ulyana’s praise of Erika.
Erika smiled bashfully as if she did not know how to take the gesture.
Before she could speak, there was a heavy metallic thud echoing across the tunnel.
“Captain, there’s an enemy!” Aaliyah cried out suddenly.
“Zachikova, stop all movement!”
Ahead of them, one of the side walls of the tunnel suddenly opened up a panel.
And stomping out from it, walked a giant metal impression of a person.
Two arms, two legs, 7 meters tall, a rotund body with a helmet-like head armed with numerous cameras. In its articulated metal hands, it held a 37 mm automatic rifle. Over one of its shoulders, a rocket-launching tube had been affixed. Several remaining infantrymen rallied to it as a base of fire, instantly reassured of the possibility of their success.
This was a Volker-class Diver, sometimes referred to as a ‘mecha’ or ‘mechanoid’.
An armored vehicle intended to fight ships in the Ocean; and able to fight them on land.
Mere seconds after jumping out from the side of the tunnel, it turned its assault rifle on the Brigand’s bow and opened fire, each bullet hurtling out of the barrel with a heavy crack. A Diver’s assault rifle was comparable to a heavy auto-cannon, twice the power of the gas guns, and firing explosive shells. A burst of 37 mm ammunition crashed into the Brigand’s prow, and there was enough force there that they felt the vibrations in the bridge.
Ancillary effects of the explosions, shrapnel and explosive shockwaves, damaged an ancillary forward camera and cut a wound into one of the over-heated gas guns, completely disabling it. As quickly as that first burst of three rounds had come, there was suddenly a second set of flashes, and even more shaking followed as the bullets exploded on the Brigand’s bow.
They could not afford to keep taking such fire for long.
“Semoynova, tell the sailors to pipe in the coolant! Zachikova! Bring the shield up! Now!”
Ulyana called out; Semyonova signaled the sailors; Zachikova flicked a digital switch.
There was suddenly a purple sheen over the cameras.
Extending over the front of the prow like a transparent, impossibly thin blanket.
The Volker fired a third burst from its automatic rifle.
Its shells exploded just off the hull.
Detonating as if in the air, and the force dispersing easily away from the ship.
“Shield is operational. It won’t last for very long in this condition.” Zachikova said.
Tigris’ bluster had not been empty. This gift from Solarflare LLC was impressive.
Much like the one they saw equipped on the Antenora, an Agarthic repulsion shield.
Perhaps the most rare and valuable piece of kit that had gone into their refit project.
But it was not perfect–
“Captain, the core is getting upset.” Kamarik warned. “She’s not used to being hammered this hard running dry, even with the coolant. We better think of something else and quickly.”
There was no visible effect of core strain within the ship at first, but the figures did not lie.
Unlike Kreuzung’s core separation, their lights were not flickering randomly, and all their stations worked fine. However, Ulyana could see in the diagnostics passed to her screen from the helm that the core temperature was climbing. Slowly but surely. Cores could remain indefinitely in equilibrium provided there was water and the systems around the core were stable themselves. Once the heat and pressure started to climb, the core could spiral out of their control very suddenly. It simply was not designed to operate this way.
It was untenable. Ulyana’s heart and lungs pounded. Her skin brimmed with anxiety.
Just one measly Volker would have been nothing to them in vastness of the Ocean.
On land, in this situation, it was suddenly an obstacle that could stop them in their tracks.
“One 76 mm shot might not take down that Volker.” Aaliyah said.
One 76 mm shot was all they had, Ulyana could not afford to waste the main guns–
“Captain, I have an idea!”
This time, it was a dramatically less likely source of tactical advice than Erika.
Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo and missile station.
She raised her hand like she was in a classroom. There was a nervous smile on her face.
“Captain, hand me the controls to the two forward jet anchors!”
Ulyana narrowed her eyes.
Alex smiled. “Come on, Fern knows what I’m putting down! We can do this!”
Fernanda narrowed her eyes and glared at Alex in a similar expression to the Captain.
“Let them try it, Captain.” Erika suddenly said. “We don’t have any better ideas!”
Ulyana turned to face Aaliyah, who nodded her assent as well.
All throughout, the Volker had continued firing at the shield as if not comprehending why its gunfire was suddenly ineffective. It put round after round into the bow none of which left an impression. On the main screen, there appeared numerous explosions deflected by the purple shield, leaving smoke dancing right in front of the cameras. There was a pause, possibly to reload its gun, but the Volker instead withdrew the rocket from its shoulder.
“Geninov has jet anchor control! Gunnery be ready to support her!” Ulyana shouted.
“Shield down! Now!”
Slowly the cameras lost the purple sheen that had once covered them.
“Firing jet anchors!” Alex shouted.
Two jet-propelled titanium claw anchors shot out of the Brigand’s bow on long lines.
Like metal fists they pounded the Volker one after the other on its rotund torso, and the machine toppled backward, unsteady without the ocean to support it and unable to maneuver quickly without the ability to run water through its hydrojets. Fallen on its back, the machine struggled to right itself, its weapons cast to the floor of the tunnel and causing even more disarray among the infantrymen that had been rallying to its position.
“Fern, now! Right in the underside!” Alex called out.
“I– I see! Indeed!”
The Brigand’s remaining 76 mm gun immediately overheated as it fired, but this did not stop the high explosive munition from soaring out of the barrel and striking deep between the legs the Volker. Perforating its less armored underside, the shell entered the cockpit and exploded with such force that the hull door burst open, spewing smoke and fire and metal and the unseen remains of the pilot. Permanently ending the threat of the diver.
“Zachikova, forward! Take us all the way now!” Ulyana shouted.
The Tigris Mover I began to turn its tracks once more–
“Captain! Stop, please!”
–and instantly paused once more at the behest of an officer.
In the sonar and sensors section, Fatima Al-Suhar looked suddenly ill at ease.
She turned to the Captain’s chair with tears in her eyes and her hands shaking.
Her ears folded, and her tail stood on end. Her honey-brown skin going white.
“Captain, something is wrong. They are getting back up– and I hear an odd noise–”
“Captain! Main screen! Something weird is happening!”
Ulyana barely had a moment to listen to Fatima’s concern before Alex started shouting.
Feeling torn in a dozen directions Ulyana glanced at the main screen.
Her eyes then remained fixed on that bizarre scene, which sent a chill through her body.
“It can’t be. What– what the fuck?”
“Gun status–” Aaliyah said, shocked herself at the sight, “Gas gun– status– now–”
All the bridge officers were held captive by the horror unfolding before them.
Throughout the brief but chaotic span in which the Brigand had clashed with the K.P.S.D., which could not have been more than ten or twenty minutes all told– scores of men had died. If there were a hundred men before them it would not have surprised Ulyana for eighty to have died and twenty to have fled by the end. Between the gas gunners’ frequent barrages, firing bullets large enough to blow a man’s torso open at a rate of ten per second; the overturning of the barricade which crushed and lacerated many more men; the overturning and explosion of the Diver which had become a base of support and thus killed all of the men who had been using it as a shield. There was a preponderance of death.
Resistance should have been crushed, not just in spirit, but actually, concretely crushed.
Physically hewn apart with violence. Splattered visibly all over the tunnel.
Now, right in front of them, several of those hewn bodies and splatters resumed fighting.
Men in all kinds of heinous conditions were standing back up.
Those corpses which had been in the best condition, stiffly forced themselves to a stand, and in horrid twitching motions they made their way slowly to their discarded equipment and picked it up. Bodies without arms and legs twitched useless on the ground; bodies with legs but not arms still stood; and arms without legs crawled on the floor. Bodies without heads still moved; one such body made it all the way to a discarded rocket tube.
It lifted the weapon to its head-bereft shoulder, pointed at the bow of the Brigand, and fired.
That missile sailed just under the bow and crashed into one of the struts holding the ship.
Even just a 60 mm– so aimed, it caused the worst shaking the crew had felt yet.
On the side of the main screen, Tigris and Euphrates appeared suddenly.
They were calling in from the hangar using their officer clearances.
“Captain, what the hell was that! Don’t let them shoot the mover!” Tigris cried out.
“I– I wish– I could answer, what the hell it is–”
Tigris and Euphrates looked confused. They could not see the main screen.
Ulyana tried to control her breathing. Most of her officers were shocked numb.
“Status of guns!” Ulyana called out suddenly.
Fernanda looked even more pale than normal. She looked over her screen.
“M-Main guns ready. Auxiliaries overheated. G-gas guns, um– well– some are ready.”
Their gunner had never spoken so succinctly nor with such fear in her voice.
“Fire gas guns. Fire! Now!” Ulyana called out.
On the main screen, the remaining gas guns fired in disorganized bursts at walking corpses.
Arms, legs, heads, torsos; blasts from 20 mm rounds shredded ever more ambulant meat.
And yet– within moments, the gore-strewn things simply started moving again.
Right in front of all their eyes, the most complete corpses started moving very specifically.
They had begun to reassemble the knocked-about Panzerfaust-IV.
Lifting the tube upward.
Several ruined bodies raising up the mount.
Crawling things dragging munitions over.
They had a goal– they retained the singular purpose of stopping the Brigand.
Ulyana had to struggle to keep from having too strong a reaction to this horror.
Everyone was relying on her to be strong, and to give out orders.
No matter what.
Her life had been replete with violence. Ravenous leviathan attacks, relentless and mighty ships of war, hundreds of lives snuffed out in a second, brutal killings in stations. Massive barrages of cannon fire and gargantuan salvoes of missiles that when detonated were so bright they left their flashes scarred into her eyes for seconds. So many horrid things were so rote and expected that she could no longer have much reaction to them.
These men had gone to pieces before her eyes.
There was no thought spared to that. Men died. But for them to return from the dead?
That was new– that was pure, absolute and utter madness.
It couldn’t be real– and yet–
No, it does not matter, it does not matter–
It was her duty to get her crew out alive! She would not allow another Pravda tragedy.
Ulyana turned to Aaliyah. Her commissar turned to her.
They shared the fear in their eyes. But– they also shared a small, glowing determination.
On the edge of the main screen Euphrates and Tigris exchanged worried glances.
“Captain, is something wrong? Captain, Commissar, talk to me.” Euphrates said seriously.
“Ugh, I’m coming up there!” Tigris shouted. “You can’t keep us in the dark like this!”
“No!” Ulyana shouted back. “Stay right there! Start– start disconnecting the mover.”
Tigris’ eyes opened wide. “Say what? But we’re not–”
“Just do it. Tigris, don’t argue with me. Cut the mover, unclamp us, and seal us shut!”
There was only one choice to escape from this nightmare.
“Yes, Captain.” Tigris said.
On the picture-in-picture, Tigris and Euphrates both left the cameras.
Semyonova, shaken, briefly changed the main screen to show the hangar view.
Tigris and Euphrates had gotten the sailors to assist them in pulling the plug.
“Docking clamps have separated.” Semyonova said after, her voice toneless and rote.
At her side, Fatima had her head down on her station and was shaking, gripped in terror.
Kamarik was praying on the helm. Erika and Olga both had grim expressions.
Everyone was horribly shaken by what they had seen. They could not believe their eyes.
“Order on bridge! The Captain is speaking!” Aaliyah shouted.
Presaging the Captain’s speech.
Ulyana took in a deep breath.
They needed her– no matter what the situation.
“Comrades! We must act now in order to escape! We’re not going to die in this tunnel! I will not allow my precious crew to fall here! Raise your heads for me, one more time!”
She shouted at the top of her lungs, and stood up from her chair for added effect.
With a pointed index finger on the main screen, that Semyonova quickly switched back.
From the hangar view, to the surreal scene playing out in the darkness before them.
“Gunnery, open fire with main guns on the far wall of the tunnel!” Ulyana commanded.
Fernanda blinked for a moment as if in disbelief that she was being addressed.
“Y-Yes Captain!” She shouted. “We’re shooting the floodgate?”
Aaliyah then spoke up again in place of the Captain.
“We’re in the lower levels– the flooding will be contained by interior pressure.” She said.
Shooting at a station and deliberately causing flooding was a taboo–
but they were had to open that floodgate to escape anyway– and it was life or death–
–and there was no guarantee their guns could break open a thick floodgate.
But they had no other choice. Everyone accepted that flimsy reasoning immediately.
Ulyana was so grateful for Aaliyah’s support just then.
And she wasn’t the only one–
“Comrades! I believe in the Captain wholeheartedly!” Erika called out.
She stood as well, and also held a hand out to the main screen.
“Let us see a brilliant barrage, gunnery section! Show me how you’ve come this far!”
With the Premier’s sudden enthusiasm backing the Captain’s dramatic flair, there was no one on the crew still focused primarily on the main screen. Having no choice in the matter and seemingly with little remaining willpower with which to object, Fernanda quietly worked at her station. On the main screen, a small graph appeared with a real-time calculation of the main gun’s firing arc and the predicted effect on the target– it would strike the far wall–
–the computer had no idea, because it was not supposed to compute such a thing,
“Main guns, open fire!” Erika and Ulyana said at once.
Directly followed by a resounding bellow that thundered through the station interstice.
Two enormous flashes lit up the bridge through the main screen picture.
In the blink of an eye, two 150 mm shells crossed the tunnel and crashed into the far wall.
Smoke blew across the tunnel from the blasts. The bridge held their collective breaths.
“Only cracks! No penetration!” Fatima cried out, putting her head down again.
Then her ears perked up. In the midst of her despair, her golden ears recognized it first.
On the main screen, the predictive imager focused on the sound as well–
First a trickle, and then the flood.
Unequal water pressures between the ravenous Imbrium and the station interior tore at the wounds left on the floodgate. Through every minute crevice, the ocean wound its way, tearing and pushing and crawling heedless like the horde of corpses before them.
Within the seconds a storm of seething ocean and swirling metal tore into the tunnel.
Ripping apart the K.P.S.D. blockade–
and with it the hidden 8th Enforcer of the Syzygy–
washing over the Brigand, sealed tight and ready to sail past the carnage.
“I can’t believe how happy I feel seeing the fucking Imbrium again!”
Through a cloud of foam, debris and corpses that were finally silenced–
The UNX-001 Brigand engaged its newly-upgraded hydrojets, pushed water through its updated turbines for the very first time, and with some repairable damage to its bow, finally escaped from the inside of Kreuzung’s core station. In so doing, it returned to the Imbrium Ocean, embarking upon the next leg of its journey. Its officers practically fell over their stations in their collective relief, many of them openly weeping, all of them shaking.
Ulyana dropped back into her chair.
Aaliyah let out a long sigh and leaned fully onto her.
“Semyonova, we’re almost out of it.” Ulyana said. “Deploy the Cheka and Strelok I~bis.”
“Yes, Captain.” Semyonova said weakly.
She pushed her back up to a seated position, waving her hands in front of her face to fan herself, her face quite red, while simultaneously calling the hangar. At her side, Fatima al-Suhar also forced herself back up. Her makeup was running, and she was still weeping gently, but in the Ocean, her station was far more crucial than it could be on land.
“Captain, we’re receiving passive sonar data again. Updating predictions.” She said.
“Thank you.” Ulyana replied. “Fatima, we’ll get you relieved soon, so you can rest.”
Fatima shook her head. She wiped her face on her sleeve.
“Absolutely not, Captain. Forgive my weakness. I’ll be resolute from now.” She said.
“Don’t push yourself too hard. Nobody here will ever call you weak.” Ulyana said.
Fatima nodded her head, smiling for the first time in a while.
She was a sensitive girl, but she was unquestionably an officer.
“Gunnery, Missiles: status report.” Ulyana turned to the opposite side of the bridge.
“Gunnery is still cooked.” Fernanda said.
She sounded too miserable for her own gimmick. Rather than explain, she pushed her station diagnostics to the main screen. There were a few gas guns with damage, and the main gun was hopelessly overheated for now. The forward 76 mm guns were recovering faster.
Beside her, Alex started hugging herself and her teeth were chattering. She was soaked in sweat, and perhaps cold from how little clothing she had worn during the chaos.
“Torpedoes can actually be fired now. Missiles are ready as well.” Alex said.
“We’ll be relying on you then. Let me know if you need to borrow a coat.” Ulyana said.
“I think I’ll take you up on that, Captain.” Alex said, a chill shaking her entire body.
“Predictions updated!” Fatima called out.
On the main screen, the pitch black Imbrium Ocean began to part ever so slightly.
Using a wide variety of sensory data, the predictor computer assembled a picture of what the ocean before them would look like if it was not naturally lightless, coloring and framing in objects and features. That wall of black with hints of green that had taken up their main cameras started to fill with more than the beams of their forward floodlights.
For the first time, the Brigand could see the absolute bedlam outside the station.
“Sonya Shalikova! Cheka, deploying!”
“Khadija al-Shajara! Strelok I~bis, deploying!”
From the deployment chutes located on the bottom of the Brigand, the hangar’s engineers released two of the ship’s own Diver suits into the water. Sonya Shalikova gripped her two control sticks, her face lit only by her monitors and panels. She engaged her Diver’s hydrojets when she was released from the deployment chute. She could already feel the chaos that was unfolding in the waters around Kreuzung. Ship-caliber ordnance detonated twenty a minute overhead and the vibrations traveled all the way to the tower’s midsection, to be felt by Shalikova as she accompanied the Brigand on its ascent up the station tower.
Despite going into danger, Shalikova felt a sense of relief to be in the cockpit again.
Without the Cheka, or another Diver, she had no control over her own destiny.
Until now, the bridge crew had been handling crisis after crisis, and Shalikova was not even fully aware of what had happened, nor had she been able to participate. She had been in her room or in the hangar while the ship shook up and alert lights flashed, waiting to be deployed. Unable to protect her comrades– unable to protect Maryam.
Out in the water, she had power, agency– she could fight.
“Shalikova, how is the communication?”
There were several LCD screens on the Cheka for her dive cameras as well as video from the communications equipment. On the dedicated communication screen, there was a familiar round-faced blond woman whose current dishevelment did little damage to her bright, pretty face: Natalia Semyonova, the chief signals officer on the Brigand’s bridge.
Shalikova practically had to avert her eyes from that shining smile on her screen.
“It’s fine.” Shalikova said. “We’ll see how the picture holds up when we’re up there.”
Semyonova nodded her head with a solemn expression.
“Based on our current predictions, there are between five and eight ships trading fire overhead. There could be more. Please be on the lookout for ordnance, particularly toward the bow.” Semyonova said. “We’ve lost half the forward gas guns, so our interdiction barrage will be weak. Our objective is to escape, so don’t pursue any enemies too far.”
“Got it.” Shalikova said. “I’m sick of this place– I’ll make sure we get out.”
“We all believe in you!” Semyonova said.
“By the way, before you go. How is Mur– the Lieutenant?”
Shalikova averted her gaze, embarassed to be asking.
Semyonova smiled even wider.
“She just needs some rest. She will be up and about in no time.” She said.
“Oh– good– thank you.”
There was a blink on the LCD, and Semyonova disappeared.
Taking her place: a sly and attractive face, wine-colored makeup and silky blond hair.
A pair of fluffy ears twitched lightly upon meeting Shalikova’s eyes.
“Shali, how’s it feel to be back in the armor after a long vacation? Excited?”
Khadija Al-Shajara winked. Shalikova had no expression to return.
“Is our intrepid leader’s absence troubling you? Does someone have a crush?”
“Can you defer teasing me until after we’ve escaped?” Shalikova groaned.
Khadija suspected about Maryam already, so she was just being an asshole.
But it did cause Shalikova to crack the tiniest smile as they worked.
The Brigand began to ascend the water table. They had emerged from just below the center of the tower. A few hundred meters above them, there was a pitched battle, and there were signs of battle around the station as well. Murati Nakara had extracted from the Rottenführer Jarvi-Stormyweather that Cogitans were behind the core separation. The bridge of the Brigand had also detected the remains of Republic S.E.A.L. suits and small Republic vessels close to the station baseplate– likely from further failed incursions trying to relieve the Core hijackers. Shalikova, and the rest of the officers, could only conclude that the Republic had somehow infiltrated a force into Rhinea to fight the Volkisch.
As much as Shalikova had some sympathy for their erstwhile allies in this war–
“We can’t do something like this. We can’t win like this.” She mumbled to herself.
Something like a Core Separation would only make the people of Kreuzung hate them.
Shalikova was not as politically-minded or strategic as Murati or the Captain.
However, in her mind, threatening to destroy the habitations of Kreuzung’s people would only give power to the Volkisch. How would they be any different from the fascists if they punished ordinary people like that? It was the exact opposite of the promise communism had for the people of the Union. But what exactly did the people of the Alayze Republic even believe in? Shalikova did not know, and there was no way she would be able to puzzle it out in the cockpit of the Cheka. But she felt her heart hurt at the events that had transpired.
When she allowed herself to see the colors, to feel the aether around Kreuzung–
She saw so much black, so much red, so much green– anger, fear, and resignation to death.
The dark waters of the Imbrium around the station were tinged bright with those colors.
Inside that tower, the people of Kreuzung had been exposed to the greatest of horrors.
Their entire world was threatened. Their entire lives, threatened with the Ocean’s violence.
That could not possibly be how they liberated them. It was– it was just– wrong–
“Can’t let it consume me. Focus up, Sonya Shalikova.” She said to herself.
Hardening her heart and shutting her senses and empathy off to Kreuzung.
Dispelling the colors before her eyes and focusing herself on piloting the Diver.
The Cheka rose alongside the ship on the starboard deck, while Khadija’s Strelok held the port closer to the lower hull. The Cheka had been equipped with a standard 37 mm assault rifle and a pair of grenades, along with a Diver-sized diamond sabre attached to her magnetic strip in the back. Khadija had been equipped with exactly the same weapons.
Shalikova flipped reflexively through her weapons on the armament display, toggling through it with flicks of her index finger on one of the paddle-buttons attached to her left stick. On her monitors, there was nothing to see ahead but the empty, pitch-black ocean, an endless expanse of nothing even where her diver lights shone upon it.
All her light revealed was the biological debris of the marine fog billowing around her.
Marine fog, displaced water in the Brigand’s wake and sheer nothingness.
Shalikova could see only the barest impression of the tower wall on her side camera.
Along with her dive computer’s depth gauge, it was the shape of that long shadow which, when finally overtaken and left behind, let Shalikova know to brace herself. It indicated she had arrived at the battlefield that had formed over the station. There was no surprise to it– immediately as she climbed, she could feel the thundering of ordnance growing closer, and could even see the distant flashes of explosions on her cameras, with her own eyes.
Semyonova appeared on the screen– her face distorting slightly every second.
Up here, in a battlefield, the water was distorted by gunfire, and the vibrations affected their communications. Even the audio was a little troubled. But they could still communicate.
“Shalikova, I’m establishing a live connection with predictions of the battlespace.”
On Shalikova’s screens, the predictive output from the Brigand’s much more powerful sensors and computers overlayed directly on the otherwise near-empty ocean.
Impressions of quite massive ships, trading gunfire in circling battle lines.
There were three Republic combatants remaining, two of them Cruisers or maybe even dreadnoughts and one an escort, and two Volkisch ships of similar sizes. The Republic ships were coming close, but the Volkisch ships, firing from cautious ranges, were still hundreds and hundreds of meters away. Shalikova liked their chances of escaping now.
An audio communication played in Shalikova’s ear through her headpiece.
“With the way the Volkisch are circling, we’ll be safest with the Cogitans between us.”
That had been the Captain’s voice. Likely speaking to her, Khadija, and the bridge.
“Copy.” Shalikova said.
She easily followed the Brigand as it began to turn and accelerate.
Then, quite suddenly, one of her cameras was filled with dozens of short-lived flashes.
Rapid and powerful explosions blossomed across the hull of the largest Republic ship.
The prediction Shalikova received from the Brigand updated to reflect the slow sinking of the vessel. As well as to display the suspected culprit. To Shalikova’s surprise, a single Diver was marked on her screen with a red warning indicator of an incoming enemy. A hundred meters away, floating still over its destructive work, and closing in as the Brigand approached it. Shalikova’s mind immediately brought her back to Goryk’s Gorge in the boundary between the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans, one month ago.
An image of the demonic mecha she fought back then appeared in her mind unbidden.
It gave pause to her confidence–
and prompted her to unleash the psionic power in her sight.
In front of her the lightless foaming water, the dancing marine fog, the digital outlines–
All of it lit up in the deepest, most seething and dark aura Shalikova had ever felt.
Within which there were sudden sparks of a much smaller, much weaker red–
Clashes! That enemy Diver was in combat!
Khadija’s face reappeared on her communicator, her eyes steeled on the threat ahead.
“Someone from the Republic ship must have survived! I’m moving to rescue them!”
For a moment, Shalikova’s heart sank and her breath arrested.
Khadija did not know– she could not have known– she was not psionic–
“I’ll move ahead!” Shalikova shouted suddenly. “You cover me!”
Shalikova pressed her pedals down as far as they would go and leaned forward.
Unleashing all the power she could and minimizing the Cheka’s surface against the water in front of her. Just like Khadija had taught her to move. With the Cheka’s inherent advantage in thrust and mass distribution, as well as a proper forward stance, Shalikova practically rocketed ahead into the water, outpacing Khadija’s Strelok, overtaking her and drawing closer to the enemy before she could. Shalikova heard and felt hundreds of rounds of ammunition rhythmically exploding ahead, and in seconds could see the two combatants, exposed by the ocean like an unfolding curtain on a brutal theater play–
In time for the green and black Diver to slice across the red and white one.
A halberd cutting phantasmal across the sea of the soul–
For an instant, Shalikova felt the agony of the stricken Republic pilot–
The Cheka lifted its assault rifle and opened fire as it approached the enemy.
Her opponent thrust away from the gunfire and the slowly sinking victim.
Shalikova neared at high speed, interposed herself between the two combatants.
Firing a second, closer burst while moving– but then entering a sudden twist,
that halted her momentum entirely–
Three rounds of 37 mm ammunition soared past the opponent’s hip as it easily leaped aside the first and second attacks, but it was caught off-guard by the suddenness with which Shalikova stopped moving entirely. She must have looked to all the world like she was just going to sweep past the enemy. Instead, she completely stopped inside the enemy’s guard, and at less than 10 meters distance with a surprised target, renewed fire.
Striking the enemy Diver square in the center of its substantial hull, explosions followed which blossomed red in the water dispersing high-pressure vapor bubbles.
Leaving behind– at most, pitted marks, and causing appreciably little damage.
Suddenly, Shalikova saw those inky black trails of aura amass behind the enemy Diver.
And then surge toward her like tentacles, hurtling toward her hull with pointed violence.
Shalikova could feel an oppressive pressure like an enormous hand squeezing her chest.
Bow your head in surrender to the King’s Gaze.
There was a voice in her head that resounded as if spoken by a hundred mouths at once.
Shalikova’s hands shook– and she gripped her controls tighter to compensate.
Undeterred, the Cheka fired a second burst into the enemy machine.
Rounds struck the upper torso and shoulder, putting a hole through a control fin but leaving only cosmetic damage otherwise. However, the opponent must have been surprised by Shalikova’s resolve– that had definitely been an attempted psionic attack, but Shalikova had managed to resist it somehow. Her heart quivered, her hands shook, but her gaze remained firmly on her cameras and she had not even blinked in a minute.
The aggressive, heavily armored Diver was temporarily shocked.
Who– How–? Why can’t I see your aura?
Shalikova thought to respond to the psionic inquiry, but she lost the opportunity.
From behind both of them, six tracers struck the monster in the hip armor and back.
Bubbles and foam erupted over the right side of the Diver’s body in the ensuing blasts.
A piece of a control fin flung off– and a chunk of hip armor was left deformed.
Nevertheless, the machine endured, nearly unharmed once again.
“Shalikova! Don’t just stand there! Protect the survivor, the ship will cover us!”
Khadija’s Strelok charged up from behind the enemy mecha, leaping out of the marine fog.
Closing in rapidly, the Brigand’s gas guns began to pepper the surroundings shortly after.
Amid the deepening barrage, the green-and-black Diver lost its zeal for the confrontation. Along with its remarkable armor it demonstrated impressive thrust and maneuverability as it escaped. Accelerating quickly, it thrust up and then away from the Union divers and the incoming Brigand, disappearing into the marine fog and avoiding attempts to pin it down.
Shalikova watched it retreat into the lightless fathoms with a deepening worry in her heart.
That had been a Volkisch craft. It had come out of a Volkisch ship to fight the Republic.
Which meant the Volkisch movement had a powerful psionic pilot working for them.
One maybe even more malevolent and much less reasonable than Selene had been.
Judging by the sheer brutal power contained in that aura.
An oppressive, choking power. The power of a King.
And it was unleashed on command against Shalikova.
Full confidence, no hesitation.
“She used the King’s Gaze.” Shalikova mumbled, remembering Maryam’s words.
“Hey! Help me with this Diver! The pilot might still be alive– I don’t see much damage!”
Shalikova shook her head.
Khadija and the Brigand needed her. They had almost escaped.
Shutting her eyes, she put the impression of that Diver, and of Selene’s Jagdkaiser, out of her mind. There was nothing she could do about either of them. Instead, she assisted Khadija in using their Jet Anchors to draw up the sinking Republic diver into the Brigand.
The Republic ships had been routed, and the Volkisch was closing in–
the Brigands could do no more for Kreuzung but to make good on their escape.
Inside the Kreuzung interstice, the floodwaters had blown through every open passage they could find, filling the conveyor tunnel and partially filling the elevator shaft, and several of the ancillary tunnels. Once the Core Separation was reversed, flood mitigation began to work once more, shutting several passages and draining them to reverse the damage.
All of this water being pushed out left several of the ancillary tunnels scattered with debris from the fighting that had taken place in the conveyor tunnel. Flotsam, washed quite far.
On the floor of one such tunnel, a body that had been drifting aimlessly in the flood now lay beached on cold metal ground. Coming to lie gently on her back as the water drained away.
Her shoulder-length black hair was completely soaked in saltwater.
There was half a halo of a bloody-looking substance suspended over her lolling head.
Deep wounds checkerboarded her otherwise perfectly pale skin.
Her arms and legs were missing, snapped off or cut apart at different angles by the pressure-strewn shrapnel that had swept through the tunnels. Much of her former body, a gelatinous-seeming mass with hundreds of tentacles, had been pulverized and ripped apart and splattered across the walls of the tunnels. What remained was a mutilated human torso.
Around her in the drained tunnels there were all manner of gory remains.
Taking a breather, she tested how much strength the remains of her body had left.
She managed to force herself to a sit.
And to then to drop forward onto her belly and breasts.
Crawling on stumps of limbs caked bloody.
Patiently, without expression or frustration.
Syzygy Enforcer VIII Tristitia. Having failed and allowed the heretic to escape.
She made her way to the torso of a K.P.S.D. trooper.
Gunfire from the heretics as well as the violence of the flood had left the hominin torso spread wide open and unfolded like a red and brown flower of organs and muscle and shattered bones. Tristia crawled until she could tuck her head into the mass. She took a bite of shredded, saltwater-logged meat still stuck to ribs, and tore into the chewy brined heart. She supped on coagulated blood in swollen sinews. None of these things reached what was left of her stomach inside her– all of it broke down immediately into material with which to repair the horrific damage her own body had sustained. Slowly, she closed her wounds, staved off organ failure, and began to mend her bones and limbs.
Her thoughts returned to her as she ate and healed.
“Tristitia thought she understood, but Tristitia was wrong?” She said to herself.
She laid no blame on anyone.
Not on Avaritia’s hands-off command, nor Accedia’s useless guidance or even the heretic who had taken shelter with Hominin and caused this to happen. She could not even blame the useless K.P.S.D. hominins who seemed so confident in themselves that even Tristitia, who absorbed and assisted their plan, believed in them and in their possible success.
Instead, what she felt was a boundless curiosity, and a million questions. Why, why, why? What, what, what? She scrutinized every detail of every moment to try to understand what was desired of her next. She would rotate these events in her mind– but the project would bear no fruit. Only more questions would arise out of the questions pondered.
Tristitia was a being of questions without possible answers. That was true despair.
At least she was still alive.
Her leviform destroyed– but her search for purpose continued.
The UNX-001 Brigand ascended from the Kreuzung crater.
They departed at full speed, leaving behind the site of the festival.
Until nothing could be seen of the place. The Brigand now sailed for Aachen.
Resuming its journey into the vast and dark expanse of the Imbrium Ocean.
Soon, there was only the ship, and nothing in the cameras but featureless water all around.
Ulyana Korabiskaya collapsed into her chair.
She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs. At her side, Aaliyah Bashara looked equally worse for wear, her pajamas clinging to her. Both of them leaned into each other.
Sweaty and exhausted.
Another scrape; another too-close escape.
Pounding hearts transferred stress across each other’s bodies as they touched.
“I think it’s safe to come down from combat alert now.” Erika said, temporarily taking over command from her thoroughly exhausted upper bridge. “Give it twenty or thirty more minutes at max speed and I think we can send everyone away to rest as well. They have more than earned it. Olga and I will volunteer to hold the ‘night shift’.” She smiled reassuringly.
Ulyana could hardly believe the stamina on this woman.
“Semyonova,” continued the bubbly Premier, “Status of the survivor we rescued?”
“Ma’am, the survivor is now undergoing surgery.” Semyonova said.
“I see. Well, let us all pray for her good fortune.” Erika said.
Rather than a Republic soldier, they found a Shimii in the cockpit of the Diver they rescued.
A poor girl younger even than Shalikova– and hacked in a few pieces.
How her body was mutilated was the least of the inexplicable things they had seen.
“It should go without saying,” Olga spoke up then, “the mess back there– it’s classified.”
“We’ll decide later how to communicate those events to the sailors, she means.” Erika said.
Nobody on the bridge had any desire to argue about that.
They were all completely drained.
Certainly, Ulyana wanted to the forget their ‘night of the living dead’ as soon as possible.
With space to think, she told herself, it was probably all a result of psionics.
Psionics– good lord.
She had so many insane reports she would have to endure soon!
“Everyone!” Erika clapped her hands. Tired faces turned from their stations to see her. “Please do not let today linger on your hearts, except as the triumph that it was for all of us! You were absolutely gallant! You may not feel that way, but I have nothing but praise for all of you. We were caught by surprise, time was against us, and we had to think on our feet– you all put together a miracle before my very eyes. Now it is my turn to say: it will be my pleasure to work with all of you. Victory is possible! Believe in victory!”
Everyone was far too knocked about to clap or to take much pleasure in Erika’s speech.
However, the tiniest smiles crept onto the faces of the bridge crew.
Once more, against mounting odds, they lived to return to the Ocean and fight another day.
Around Kreuzung, the festival’s dying embers served as semaphore to new arrivals.
A dozen ships first to gather up the remnants.
Then, a hundred more arrived to overturn the venue.
And soon, there would be another hundred, to clear the land.
With the end of the festival, the grounds would be prepared for a grand opera instead.
Thundering voices sing in turns each proclaiming their vision of Eisental’s Destiny.
The ensuing performance would be titled, Der Nationale Volkskrieg.