This chapter contains graphic sexual content and themes of suicidal ideation.
In the year 974 After Descent, the center of hegemony in the Imbrium Ocean still lay within the edifice of Heitzing. The cradle of the Imbrian Empire, raised from the vast trench that would come to be known as the Abyss of Nocht, named after its conqueror. In the southeastern border of the Palatine, Heitzing stood on a dusty circle of earth surrounded by jagged rock, like a thousand wounds sliced upon crust abruptly stitched closed.
These structures formed something of a shallow crater.
A subtle but visible demarcation around the heart of the Empire.
Legend had it that Heitzing was raised from the abyss and closed the dark trench from whence it came shut upon rising. Setting all of the legends aside, it remained an absolutely formidable fortress in a material sense. Automated cannons and missile launchers dotted its surroundings. Four underground sub-stations with attached seaports were constructed in the spire’s surroundings, housing a dedicated fleet of 125 ships, mainly composed of fast Frigates. Each barracks had several underground hangars, and together they contained almost 500 Divers and 10000 troops. Patrols went round the clock. There were enough stockpiled rations, munitions and fuel to withstand several months of siege.
Just a few kilometers east from Heitzing lay the border to the Bosporus Duchy. Just a few kilometers north was the Volgian abyssal plain that led to the formidable Northern Ice Wall. Just a few kilometers south was the Khaybar mountain. In antiquity, these directions each contained enemies. The old Bosporan Republics, the ancient Shimii caliphate, the Volgian Principality; Heitzing was a salient into all these territories. Despite this, it remained an imposing barrier that had never been conquered, single-handedly protecting the eastern flank. Heitzing was the sword cleaved into the Imbrium by the first Emperor.
Its region came to be known as the Black Crater, nearly 3000 meters deep.
So long as Heitzing remained, the Imbrium Empire was invincible, immortal.
Or so the ascendant Imbrians thought, once upon a time.
One kilometer tall, the spire was smooth and purely black but speckled with indentations where its ancient plates had been joined, giving off blue and red light mixed purple from millions of LEDs, humming with a purpose older than the Descent of humanity. Within the middle of the structure was a dedicated port, and at the top, the royal palace had been carved out of the hab block that once occupied the upper levels. At the base, and below, there was self-sufficient farming and manufacturing for the inhabitants. Industrial stitcher machines below ground built the first Nocht emperor his first imperial warships, commencing his ancient conquest of the Palatine, and beyond.
No more– the lower part of the complex was finally ordered sealed. Once upon a time, the Fueller family were the dynastic engineers tasked with the maintenance and furtherance of this machinery. Now, the last remnants of this family, that was near annihilated in its rebellion against the Nocht dynasty, would put an end to Heitzing.
By decree of Konstantin von Fueller, the one man who had defeated the structure and begun the end of an era. History regarded his ascendance as a passing of the fortress from one hand to another, as if to deny Heitzing the sting of defeat. Nevertheless, Konstantin had claimed the fortress, made it his home, took on the title of Imbrium Emperor, and now, his word was law absolute. And his word was that the mysterious depths of the fortress had to be forever shut. Architects and engineers were called forth by the crown, discreetly, to put together a permanent solution to the tower’s depths. To inflict a wound of finality onto the Black Crater that would render its ancient secrets permanently gone.
In response to this, Norn Tauscherer arrived at Heitzing one autumn morning.
Her hand held at her side, closed into a shaking fist. Her teeth grit together.
Her ship approached the center of the structure. A black panel slid open to accept her ship into a berth. Once closed behind her, there was no telling where the ship had gone, or whether any berth lay within that part of Heitzing’s space. Subsumed into the black steel it was as if the ship became part of Heitzing. She stepped off the ship, left the port, and rode a secret elevator for what felt like an eternity to the top of the tower.
All the while, fuming to herself.
Her face reflected back at her in the silver-plated interior.
Blond hair tied back into a ponytail with the slightest bit of an arch to it. Red eyes staring back at her themselves reflecting her own reflection, dark mirrors of a wrathful infinity; her fair skin colored over by a blue and green half-cape and a grey Imperial Navy uniform. Her slim build hid the immense power contained in every muscle fiber of her body, much more than that of the Imbrians she pretended to be part of. Few people called Norn beautiful, but she knew that she was. In everything she did there was beauty, and in the implements that she used there was beauty too. In her rage; in her calm; even in her despair.
Nevertheless, she was wearing makeup on that day. Something of a rare sight for her.
There was only one man in the world for whom Norn observed formality.
To have been casual with him would have only caused him to erode his own power further.
Her dress, her artifice of nobility, was to remind him of his position.
When the elevator opened, it did so on a lobby that was not Norn’s destination.
Quickly, she ordered the elevator to close and inserted a physical key into a physical slot.
Finally, the elevator went up an additional floor, and there, it opened into a suite.
Inside, everything was lacquered wood. Real wood, preserved with a shiny finish. Norn stepped out onto a lobby with a wooden floor, past an adjacent living room with silk-upholstered couches and a real clay and brick hearth seated on a steel plate and separated by a glass shield. Above, an intricate chandelier model of the sol system, within which Aer was one lonely little blue planet. Several lights forever lost to humanity shone with it.
On the walls, experimental artwork. Emperor Nocht had a taste in portraiture and traditional subjects; Emperor von Fueller had donated all the old work to museums and digital collections and instead decorated with modern art, abstracts and semi-abstracts, dada and expressionism and texture-art and programmatic mechanical artworks. Norn had no opinion of the chaos of shapes and colors that surrounded her as she traversed the space.
Except, that everything clashing, the wood and the glass and the post-modernism–
Probably reflected on the man who cocooned himself within.
“Emperor von Fueller, eternal be your reign. Norn Tauscherer brings counsel.”
Stepping into his bedroom, Norn dropped to one knee and looked at the ground.
Pulling a beret off her head and holding it to her chest.
“Oh Norn, no, you do not need to! Sister, dear sister! Please stand and look at me!”
He touched her shoulder, and so beckoned, Norn stood, and she did look him in the eyes.
Still unused to seeing nothing of the man that she had fought for, for so long already.
Norn still looked as she always had, while Konstantin looked like a corpse walking. She wanted to see the blond clean-shaven boy of her past but she saw instead a wizened figure, cheeks sinking, copious grey hair down his back, a sleek but dense beard. His shoulders, his limbs, had all grown skinny. His hands were the only place he had remained strong, because he made use of his fingers still. He was dressed in coveralls and an ornate coat without any shoes. He had been working. All around his bedroom, copious amounts of mechanical trinkets paraded about, flying, climbing poles, spinning on the ground. Mechanical knights on clockwork horses charging at nothing, origami birds made of thin steel sheets, functioning quadrotors assembled piece by piece. An entire clock in the middle of being put together piece by little piece, meticulously engineered, blueprints on the bed.
“Do you like it?” Konstantin asked. He gestured toward the clock with a smile on his face, ear to ear, so proud, so excited. “Nobody makes these anymore. Isn’t it a shame? I found the schematics and I wanted to make one. The Fueller library, we have all kinds of these things. Blueprints for old machines that have no purpose anymore. I wanted to make one so badly– it caught me one day, the itch. Like a haunting from the past. So I had all the pieces made very exactingly but I did not want it stitched together. Do you like it?”
“It’s stately.” Norn said. “But did you have to make it run? Isn’t the structure nice enough?”
“No, no, no.” Konstantin said. “Things– things are their function. Beauty– it’s function. A clock that doesn’t run– it’s a waste isn’t it? It can do nothing but be stared at. Robbed of itself. I wanted to make something that ran. That had a purpose for being.”
He had trouble speaking. His condition was clearly deteriorating since she last saw him.
Norn thought grimly, he might die before Erich ever gets his hands on him.
If Erich were so inclined of course–
“Konstantin, I am here because you are robbing Heitzing of its purpose, as you say.”
Konstantin’s eyes narrowed. “Heitzing is an abomination. I am fixing it, once and for all.”
Norn grunted. “Are you willing to tell me what is down there now?”
“No. Never you mind that. I have made my final judgment.” Konstantin said.
She could tell he wanted to turn around and go back to his toys.
He was half-stood up on the edge of the room and hall, half-staring away from Norn.
“Norn, we have to think about– we have to think about the future. Not just my children, but everyone’s children. Nobody should live with this thing held over their heads. All of these awful legends and superstitions, but also, the– the physical thing itself. I want to move the capital to Schwerin Isle, seal up Heitzing, blow it up for good. End it all. I trust Erich, but I will never trust Erich’s children, or his children’s children, I will not be here to see them, I can’t evaluate what they’ll do. Or heaven forbid those Republic pigs. No. I have to fix it.”
Norn breathed in and out trying to calm her nerves and frustration.
“Right now, Heitzing is one of the few things keeping you in power, so-called Emperor.”
“Power? Bah! If that is so, then I abdicate with it. I’ll go with it, and it will go with me.”
“Konstantin, there’s no climbing down this mountain except the way you climbed up.”
“Then let them depose me, but they will do it after this hellmaw is finally buried.”
Norn’s face was slowly overcome by a grim expression.
She found herself speaking more candidly than she wanted to. Her emotions swelling.
“Konstantin, if you gave me the order, I would exterminate the lords and ministers. I would kill every plotter and annihilate all of their families down to the last crying baby in a cradle. I would put an end to everything you could not. I would protect you. I can protect you.”
Konstantin’s distracted expression was suddenly overcome with horror.
He had a face as grim as that which Norn herself was making at him.
Rushing back to Norn’s side he grabbed hold of her shoulders.
Kissing her on both cheeks in a way she found repellent– because he was so different now.
“Norn! Norn, my dearest friend, my oathsworn sister– no, absolutely not! It has to end, Norn!” He started to weep. His tears fell on her like droplets of blood from open wounds. “No more killing for me, Norn. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of this. I didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. I am so sorry. All of the evil I made you commit! I didn’t understand the consequences back then. Please. Don’t go after Sedlitz or Veka or anyone else. Promise me that you will not. It has to end. This is why I have to fix it.”
He was hysterical. “Fixing” Heitzing– by destroying the ancient machines in its bowels?
Even the children of Nocht had lost so much knowledge of what Heitzing could do. Even the old Fuellers long before the era of Konstantin could only slowly lose their grasp on what it contained. Today the true capabilities of the tower remained a mystery, along with its true origins. It was insane to speak of destroying the tower, and the functions they did understand, as a transformative change that would make the Empire freer.
Were he to take this tack to its logical extreme he would not be able to live in this suite making little toys all day– he would cut off his own lifelines, the Imbrium Empire would collapse and all the sharks chipping away at his power bit by bit would finally smell blood and throw themselves in teeth-first. But he seemed to not make that connection. That if he did not take action now, there would soon not be an Imbrian Empire for him to hide behind while he lived in luxury and ignored the reality of the outside world he fretted about.
It was Norn who had to go out there every day and deal with the consequences.
Not him– he was insulated from everything. He judged everything from a fleeting safety.
But for a moment, in that outburst of emotion– he sounded like himself.
So Norn, disarmed, could say nothing to him. Could no longer dissuade him from it.
He wanted to declaw Heitzing, he would do it. He wanted to move the capital, so be it.
When he had conviction behind him he could do such things.
And he so often lacked any conviction that to see it caused Norn a dreadful feeling.
She would have to leave this room and set forward those machinations and watch.
Watch him rot away; watch the Empire fall apart; watch the vultures rise from under him.
All were worse than he was; and far, far worse than he had been, when she knew him.
“Norn, Syrmia is an old woman, and Erich is strong– but please take care of Elena.”
Had he really said that? Back then? 974 was not so long ago for her head to be so muddled.
“Take care of her. She’s just like her mother. Her mother– rest her soul–”
Konstantin’s weeping features distorted like the paintings on the living room walls.
For a brief instant he looked more deformed, hideous, broken and rotting than ever before.
His face etched itself into Norn’s bright red eyes as if laser-burnt into her–
Her eyes snapped open.
Cold sweat running down her, sticking to the wine-red blanket.
Steel, all around her.
Not the fine wood construction of the suite. She was in a wine-red metal room with dim yellow lights. Mirrored surfaces on every third panel reflected her half of her face, parts of her bed, and her sleeping partner, back to her. She was on a plush bed with soft silky sheets. Clothes had been thrown and came to lay all around the room in different locations.
Norn had been dreaming of old days. She was nowhere near Heitzing now.
It was actually 979 A.D. Five years later.
Konstantin was dead and the Imbrium Empire was near-totally dissolved.
She sat up on the bed in her private bedroom on her flagship, the Antenora.
Her back stung. Distinct, short lacerations– a woman’s nails.
Reaching behind herself, over her shoulders, she touched open wounds.
Throwing a sudden contemptuous glance at the beautiful, fair, utterly naked back of the red-haired woman sound asleep beside her. Her expression quickly dissolved into fondness. Norn had given far harder than she had gotten and Adelheid was practically fucked to sleep, and so there she lay, discarded where she had been used. Circular bite marks, red sucking marks, blood-flecked bruises, on her shoulders, neck, down her back. A ring of bright red visible on her left breast. Soaked with sweat down her back, and soaked between the legs.
Her face was serene. Her breathing steady. A smile on her red-smeared lips.
Norn could not help but smile and sigh fondly at the sight.
When she moved to get up, stretching out made the claw marks hurt even worse.
Looking around the room, still a bit hazy in the eyes.
Despite the damage that the Pandora’s Box had inflicted on the upper tier of the ship, Norn’s room managed to survive as it was sealed shut at the time. Once the upper tier damages were patched up enough, and all the spilled anti-flooding gel and freezing agents in the halls were chipped away, Norn had use of the room again. She re-inaugurated it by inviting Adelheid to sleep with her. Adelheid’s own room was still being prepared.
And Adelheid belonged to her– she could tell her where to sleep without pretext.
Tossing her hair, pulling off the band holding it in a ponytail, Norn ambled to her shower.
Turning the water on cold and standing under it, head down, hands on the wall.
Cold water running down her back and over the scratches Adelheid left on it.
It stung. She grinned. Everything was so complicated, but pain, at least, was simple.
She recalled her dream. Konstantin had really been haunting her lately. Was it her just desserts? He was already Emperor when she met him, but her exploits gave him confidence to be more than Emperor of parts of the Palatine and Rhinea. Without her intervention could he have reached the heights that he achieved? She cleared his way by defeating Mehmed, then became part of his retinue, his loyal bannerman who could defeat anyone in battle. Stronger than Samoylovych-Daybringer or Arvokas the Kinslayer or any Shimii Hero; a match for any Katarran Warlord, Bayatar, or the Hanwan Konoe Shidan; killer of an Immortal.
Norn had helped crown Konstantin the new hegemon of the Imbrium. When a certain traitor insinuated that the chaos in the Imbrium was her fault Norn had answered in the affirmative– but it went deeper than any singular scheme. Norn was just a brick in the Imbrium’s foundation, but she was a miraculous brick laid at a critical time.
Now Konstantin was dead. Erich had killed him, Norn had killed him, Leda had killed him; the Empire itself killed him. His magnificent power had ultimately taken everything he loved from him. It had withered his bones and stripped his hair of color. It bored a hole in his soul, and through that void he let slip even the modicum of empathy he had for his distant subjects. The evil shape of the Imbrian Empire was as much his direct doing as the result of his neglect. He could have chosen for the Fueller Reformation to do anything— and choosing nothing over the years and years of his rule, made him responsible for the conspiracies, the pogroms, the continuation of slavery, the nascent tumor of the Volkisch.
It all started when, instead of killing him instantly, Norn wanted to see hope in him instead.
That stupid woman who had hardly made any decisions in her life; she made the worst.
“Those same judgments I levy on him apply to me, don’t they? I’m the villain here.”
Teeth chattering as she spoke to herself under the torrent of biting cold.
Little punishment for the evil she had tacitly supported, by her inaction, by her support.
Norn was responsible for the pogroms, slavery, the Volkisch, and now, the dissolution.
She laughed at how horrid everything had turned out.
No matter what, she was a Katarran.
Those cursed; those condemned. Never to know peace. It was their fate, wasn’t it?
So what would she do now? There was no making amends for any of it. It was too much.
Was all she could do ride the storm of blood to the end and make good on her old promise?
Kill everyone who had used, lied to and betrayed her– and her dear brother Konstantin?
Not the shell he had become– but the man he once was and could have remained–
Behind her, the door slid open. Norn did not turn to look, she knew who it was.
“Oh! Goodness! It’s so cold– let me warm you up, dearest master.”
A fair and slender hand extended past Norn’s chest to the controls on the wall.
Another cupped one of Norn’s breasts, squeezing. Then the first went to her waist.
As the water became warmer, a sizeable pair of breasts pressed against her back.
Red hair fell over her shoulders. A kiss was laid on her cheek.
“I’m being a good girl today.” Adelheid whispered.
“Are you?” Norn asked, laughing. She was not surprised at this intrusion.
Adelheid pulled her in tighter from behind, embracing her even more closely.
Skin to skin at all points without even a film of water between.
“You really set me straight. I can barely walk. I will certainly not court your wrath now.”
Her voice took on a sultry tone as she spoke of what was done to her.
Norn felt the words in her ears and stiffened between the legs.
“Who gave you permission to come in here?” Norn said gently.
“I can be good.” Adelheid whispered.
Norn her felt her breathing rise sharply, suddenly.
“You can be? We’ll just have to see.”
Norn reached back and took Adelheid’s wrist.
Pulling it down from her waist.
“Do I have to do everything myself? Or can you be good?” She said.
“I can be good.” Her words submissive, distant, almost dream-like.
Adelheid’s hand, guided halfway, completed the journey herself.
Cupping Norn’s cock until her fingers dexterously wound around the erect shaft.
Stroking, warm water between silken skin and warming, rigid flesh.
Norn shuddered. Laughed. “Maybe you can be good. Show me. You can do it.”
Fingers sliding up and down Norn’s cock, thumb pausing over the head and pressing.
Turning the thumbprint over the surface of Norn’s tip, roughly, before sliding back down.
She grit her teeth. It was exquisite but she would not admit any praise so easily.
Without request or instruction, Adelheid found the rhythm that made Norn’s hips shudder.
No smart words left her lips, however. She was being good; she was really a good girl.
Quiet, compliant, and excellently-behaved– for how long only she knew.
In this moment, however, it was long enough. Norn groaned and buckled slightly.
Lost in the rushing shower water, small feed of Norn’s orgasm preceded a strong shudder.
“Good girl. You really earned it.” Norn said, breathing heavy.
Hips still shaking gently, her spent dick still twitching in Adelheid’s fingers.
“Can a good girl get a reward?” Adelheid asked.
Without word, Norn turned around, meeting Adelheid’s bright eyes.
Taking in her beauty, the soft, pleading expression on her eyes, the little pout on her lips.
Norn briefly arranged the bright red hair away from Adelheid’s features.
Her hands then took Adelheid’s hips and pushed her to the rear wall of the shower.
Lifting her, so she could lock her legs to Norn’s waist. Pinned against the false tile.
Just holding her like this was almost enough to get Norn hard again.
Savoring the weight of physical control. Adelheid was hers without any actual binding.
Intoxicated with lust, it was Norn’s turn to push close to Adelheid.
Kissing her deep. Tongue pushing far into her mouth.
Tasting residual bitterness of liquor. Smeared wax and pigment from her makeup.
Breaking the kiss. Adelheid lifted her head as her neck was lavished with Norn’s attention.
Her chest tightening, breasts rising and falling with heavy breaths.
Her back arching.
Lower body shuddering and pushing against Norn.
Toes curling, eyes shut, teeth clenched.
“Norn– I love you–” Adelheid said through shuddering gasps.
Norn made a brief noise as if to quiet her, lifting her just enough more to suck in her breast.
Beneath the rising warm mist, Norn’s fingers traced her lover’s cunt, up and down.
Adelheid’s hands tightened against whatever of Norn she could hold in the throes.
Her rhythm was slower than Adelheid’s hands had been. She was working her up to it.
“I– I love you so much–” Adelheid whimpered.
Sharp intake of breath each time Norn ever so briefly brushed her clit.
“You make me feel like my time is moving.” Norn admitted between hungry kisses.
Whether Adelheid understood the significance as Norn’s fingers entered her–
It did not matter; it was all the admission of their love that was needed.
“You make me feel alive again.” Norn whispered as she took her in closer and harder.
Close enough to feel each orgasm as if through a shared body, and lose all individual fears.
“You’re a lucky one, little miss! Full recovery, and a clean bill of health.”
“This wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t stuck me with weird drugs!”
“Me? You can’t blame me for that. Doses were administered at your command.”
“Alright, yeah, it’s my fault, I’m the moron who fucked everything up! Fine! Whatever!”
“Miss, I think you ought to just celebrate. How about some codeine for the road?”
Across from the enthusiastic doctor, a young woman averted her gaze.
Her beautiful face passively making an indignant scowl. She ran her fingers through her long and fluffy purple hair, wishing that she never had to make any recovery in the first place. A pair of semi-translucent rabbit-like ears with dimly lit vascular lines that curved out from the top of her head twitched as a sign of her growing irritation. She felt like an idiot. It really had all been her fault– and she had to sit around doing nothing for days because of it.
Stewing in the fact that she had lost control of her emotions and nearly got herself killed.
In her desperate attempt to kill that enemy pilot, Sonya Shalikova–
(Whose visage seemed burned into her mind despite never having seen her–)
–she had overdosed on Psynadium and lost her wits completely.
Then that creepy pervert Lichtenberg had ordered her to attack while her guard was down.
In Selene’s mind, in that moment, she swore she had heard Norn give the order to fire.
It was only after the fact that she realized she had been used and made a fool of.
Goryk’s Gorge was still a horrid and fresh memory for Selene.
Now she was in no mood to be friendly or compliant with anyone.
“Keep your drugs to yourself. Can I go now? Can I be out and about again?”
On the chair next to the bed, the risible excuse for a “doctor” of the Antenora, Livia Van Der Meer, smiled brightly at her. She raised a clipboard and showed it as if it mattered to her.
“It’s got Norn’s signature and everything. Selene Anahid, free to go out and about.”
Selene sighed deeply, stood up off the medbay bed and left the room in a huff.
Dressed in a wide-neck, ribbed brown sweater that exposed her shoulders and a pair of tight blue pants, Selene wished she had anywhere to go to show herself off. She had dressed for where she wanted to be– anywhere more interesting than these sterile metal halls. At least they were headed for a station soon. Maybe she could have a little adventure in Aachen. In the meantime all she could wish for was for the ship to get attacked so she could deploy and take out days’ worth of her repressed anger on something alive by making it dead.
Though it was rather unlikely that they would be attacked in photic zone, 500 meters deep.
Hunter III would see to it that the Leviathans would not bother them.
So Selene had nothing to do. Or nothing she wanted to do. She was at loose ends.
Selene walked down to the hangar, the speed of her steps suddenly renewed. She hardly looked at her surroundings, now well-traveled. She hardly felt about them as she crossed them. The Antenora was a ship– and Selene had little opinion on them. Tight metal halls, stately compared to smaller vessels but nothing warm, nothing that felt like a home to her. It was familiar, but from what she knew and what culture she had picked up from external sources, it was not comfortable.
She had grown up in the sterile halls of deep abyss Sunlight Foundation laboratories, where all color was trapped in the laboratories of the immortals Euphrates and Tigris. So she was used to being surrounded by metal walls with a low ceiling and close boundaries. Not wanting to become a scientist like her caretakers, and longing for the outside world, she would eventually be given over to the Sovereign Yangtze who needed bodies for hardware testing, and then seconded to Norn, learning to pilot Divers and fight battles, and stepping into the military world that fascinated her as a child.
Her current gig as the Jadgkaiser’s test pilot helped satisfy her desire to know what else was out in the world. Charmed by stories of soldiers fighting for ambition and power, she had done everything she could to go out to sea. Now she had discovered what was out there– and her enthusiasm dimmed. It had been undeniably fun to use the Jagdkaiser to crush those who stood in Norn’s way. She had never cared about them, never thought twice about killing them and she still did not. To go out to sea, one accepted the possibility of being crushed by the immense pressure. To guarantee safety, one simply had to stay home.
They left home; they accepted the consequences.
But she had not realized how close that knife of judgment was to her own vulnerable throat.
Sonya Shalikova– was she a real soldier in a way Selene was not?
Or even, could not be?
She shook her head.
So much intrusive, annoying philosophy bouncing around in her skull.
It was boredom, she told herself. She had been so disengaged she was becoming insane.
Perhaps she should report to Norn, but she did not feel like being obedient.
Truthfully she felt a bit lonely but she would not let herself admit to that.
Instead, she wanted to goof off or pick on someone. To find another person to bother.
With Potomac gone, however, she struggled to think of who she could harass for fun.
Yurii Samoylovych was way too scary. She might actually get out of hand with Selene.
Petra Chorniiy was too dense and compliant. She wouldn’t even respond to mockery.
Hunter III was too stupid. There was no challenge; it got boring very quickly.
She could get the zombies to do push-ups or form a human pyramid but it was too easy.
From what she had seen, Adelheid liked being bullied, which was just kind of gross.
Norn was Norn. She gave back as good as she got and bothering her had consequences.
“Oh wait. There’s that new mechanic girl.” Selene’s lips warped into an impish grin.
Her steps regained their confident character as she stepped into the elevator.
Down in the hangar, much of the mess that Selene remembered before her medical recovery had been cleaned up. The remains of her old Jagdkaiser were gone. The machines once belonging to von Castille and Lichtenberg were also gone. There were three gantries set up in a tidy fashion. Yuri’s Jagd model Diver and Petra’s Volker beside it; and the second version of the Jagdkaiser. Selene looked up as she approached it, looking it over.
Her companion through whatever was next.
Her previous Jagdkaiser had been defined by its shoulders, heavy-set, bearing the mounts for the Options and the thick support attachment necessary for its wicked cannon-arm. Selene had to admit the second version had refined much of the first. Yangtze, with whatever small amount of data she had extracted from Selene’s struggles, had whittled down many unnecessary things– it was as if the new version of the demon had been hatched from cracking the old one like an egg. Slimmer shoulders and limbs and a cockpit with more aggressive angles to its armor. It’s horned head had been ever so slightly-slimmed down. Selene almost thought of gendering this thing female in her head now.
Slightly widened hips attached to a semi-circle magnetic strip in the rear that now hosted four smaller Options, rather than the big shoulder-mounted type. A smaller backpack with only two traditional jets was supported by four separate, all-inclusive wake-jet pods on the rear shoulder and hips. From what Selene understood, these thrusters took advantage of the fact that the water in the Imbrium Ocean was bizarrely agarthoconductive due to all the agarthic salt now found in it. Therefore they needed no moving parts to generate thrust, just some intricate engineering to accelerate agartho-ionized water through it.
Perhaps it would move even faster if the water was more contaminated.
A macabre fact.
However, the agarthic weapon embedded into the machine’s arm was nearly unchanged.
Save for one fact. It had been moved to shoot from the wrist, and a normal hand was added.
With the removal of the embedded claw in the other arm, Selene could choose a loadout. She could wield rifles and swords instead of the inadequate built-in weapons.
That might give her a better chance– she almost pondered a “rematch” with Shalikova.
In reality such a thing was highly unlikely to happen.
Selene tried not to think of it further.
Across the hangar from the Jagdkaiser, there was a woman standing in front of a stitcher.
Grinning to herself, Selene quietly made her way over.
When they first met, this individual had stupidly blurted out her real name instead of her code name– Dunja Kalajdžić rather than “Neretva.” She had not endeared herself back then but Selene was in a mood to reevaluate. She had to admit the mechanic was a little bit of a looker. She was just a bit shorter, enough that Selene would use it against her. With her coveralls pulled half-off, exposing the ribbed tanktop she wore beneath, Neretva had slim, lean shoulders and arms with a bit of definition. Her tits were alright, and she had a bit of belly. Her face was okay, slightly round, slightly pretty– wavy brown hair tied into a little nerdy tail, nerdy little glasses on a nerdy little nose. A bit of freckling, big eyes, thin lips. Her Shimii ears were rounded off and fluffy, and her tail was short and bushy.
Poring over a ferri-stitcher blueprint on a portable while preparing the machine to print.
“Oh ho, what do we have here? Do you have permission to print little kitty?”
Selene loomed over her target, bending slightly, putting her chest to Neretva’s back.
Her grinning face was partially reflected in the touchscreen of the ferristitcher.
Along with Neretva’s eyes, drawing wide, and the flushing of her cheeks.
“Oh! Miss Anahid! How– how nice to see you have recovered!”
Neretva turned around quickly, raising her hands up in defense.
Selene had not backed away even a centimeter from the meek mechanic.
“It was inevitable. I am built of stern stuff, you know. So what are you doing here?”
“I’m– It’s nothing untoward– I have permission from Lord von Fueller–”
Selene’s eyes narrowed and her grin widened. Neretva could not meet her eyes.
“Then why are you so nervous? Obviously it’s because you’re hiding something.”
“Look, see, these are blueprints for Jadgkaiser parts!” Neretva showed Selene her portable.
There were Stitcher print files for various bits and bobs like specific Jagdkaiser bolts and hydraulics and plates. Selene could not recognize them as coming specifically from the Jagdkaiser but they were labeled as such. Neretva was just loading the templates into the ferristitcher in order to have them available for when she needed to stich up some parts in the future, Selene supposed. Regardless, what she was actually doing did not matter.
“I’ll let you off the hook this one time.” Selene said. “But you have to grant me one wish.”
“One wish?” Neretva asked, quavering slightly.
“Uh huh. I’ll never trust you ever again unless you pass my ultimate test of loyalty.”
Neretva still could not make eye contact. Even the insides of her ears were turning red.
“Um– ma’am– miss– is this really–”
“I know a little magic spell to get your compliance– Dunja Kalajdžić.” Selene whispered.
Rivers were not supposed to use their real names on Sunlight Foundation business.
For their protection, and the security of the Foundation too.
Only the Immortals could be glib about their real names, but they hardly used them, and they were all so old, that even they hardly ever spoke them. For Rivers, regardless of how ridiculous their code names sounded, they were required to use them or risk expulsion and perhaps even the deletion of their memories by Yangtze for breaking their covenant.
Having fumbled and given out her real name, Neretva looked mortified.
“Please don’t use that name.” Neretva whispered back. “I’ll do whatever you say!”
“Good, very good. I like a compliant girl– but you know what I like even better?”
“I– I don’t know–”
“I like for my subordinates to look up at me like a goddess. From far, far below my station.”
It seemed to dawn upon Neretva at that point that she was being toyed with.
However, all this inspired not determination but a look of helplessness on her face.
That simply motivated Selene to continue bothering her even more. It was so funny!
She was such a pathetic wimp! Who even let this loser into the Sunlight Foundation!
“Don’t worry. It will be merciful. I won’t make you do anything too weird.”
“What do I need to do?” Neretva sighed.
“Well, of course, I don’t look monumental enough from this height. You have to get down.”
Selene pointed at the ground and shook one of her feet.
Her casual open-toed heels would come in handy for this particular situation.
Neretva raised her shaking hands, interposing them defensively in front of Selene.
Selene noticed the clear indentations in her fingers and wrist. Her hands were cybernetic.
“That’s supposed to be ‘not weird’?! You said it wouldn’t be weird?!” Neretva whimpered.
Selene turned her cheek and shrugged and pretended to start walking away.
“I guess I’ll call you ‘Dunja’ from now on. I’ll dox you and find out everything about you.”
“No– but– I don’t– please, I don’t have any secrets–”
“Kowtow and kiss my feet and it’ll all go out of my head like it never happened.”
Neretva’s head was set to spinning, Selene could tell. She grinned viciously.
She had her wrapped around her finger. She felt like an actual goddess in that moment.
It was both funny and a bit titillating. She made the perfect choice for whom to bother.
“It’s not all bad you know. If you become my worshiper I’ll bestow you with blessings.”
Selene closed in again on Neretva, reaching and caressing a few locks of her hair.
Neretva suddenly laid her portable on one of the resting arms of the ferristitcher.
She shut her eyes, bent one knee, and then the other, lowered her head–
Oh my god! She’s such a little wimp!! I wish I could take a picture!!! Ahahahahaha–!!!!
Spread her lips, closed them, and sucked one of Selene’s toes–
WHAT THE HELL–!!!!!!!!
Selene drew back so suddenly she nearly fell on her arse on the hangar floor.
Neretva quietly stood back up, face fiercely red, with a look of nervous resignation.
“Will you trust this useless worshipper and have mercy, miss Selene?” Neretva mumbled.
There was definitely shame in her voice but that expression–! It did not look ashamed–!
“W-why, you– you are absolute trash– you gas-sucking vent worm!” Selene grumbled.
“Oh, you’re not tying them up now. I didn’t know they could emote– that’s really neat.”
Something caught the mechanic’s attention and seemed to distract her from everything.
Neretva pointed a heavily shaking finger and nervously flicked one of Selene’s antennae.
Selene noticed her antennae were twisting up in frustration as she stood and yelled.
Upon contact with Neretva’s quivering digit the antennae started quaking uncontrollably.
Immediately Selene grabbed both of her ‘rabbit ears’ and pulled them down to stop them.
“Don’t touch me! What is your problem? Don’t you have common sense?!” She shouted.
“I’m– I’m just resigning myself.” Neretva said, clearly nervous. “As your worshipper.”
Despite shaking and sweating and being unable to hold eye contact– she was so brazen!
Selene wanted to admonish her further but she realized how childish she must have looked.
Having her own foul play turned against her and looking like a mess– that too was pathetic!
She calmed herself down and tried to play along with the outcome of their little game.
“Hmph! Well. Clearly you know your place under the sole of my foot. I will graciously accept you as my lackey from now on. But you must obey me to the letter! No– improvisations!”
“Y-yes, m-m-mistress.” Neretva stammered, smiling very slightly.
That ‘mistress’ entered Selene’s gut like a knife– and pulled down to her groin.
She averted her own gaze. “Get back to work. I’ll just inspect and make sure.”
Without a word, the quivering Neretva returned to what she had been doing.
Among the two of them it was tough to say whose face was redder.
Selene looked at Neretva’s back as she worked, loading the files into the stitcher. She had the stitcher arms move and make up a framework of a Diver part in order to test that the outside joins were being handled correctly. It was boring– Selene had no idea why the machine had to be calibrated and could not just perfectly replicate the print files. Neretva seemed to know what she was doing, and Selene’s eyes drifted.
Down her back, following the tanktop until it cut off at her lower midsection.
It was there that Selene noticed, just above Neretva’s tail and buttocks–
Oops, my finger slipped~
She ran her hands down a bit metal she saw peeking out from Neretva’s cover-all pants.
Neretva shuddered slightly and reached back her hand over the piece.
“Please don’t poke at that, miss Selene.” Neretva said, her voice quivering a little again.
“What is it? Are you a weird cyborg like Hudson is? You apprenticed under her right?”
“I’m not a ‘weird cyborg’ no– but master Hudson did help me by installing these for me.”
Neretva left her portable on a stitcher arm and once again turned to Selene.
She knelt down and for a moment Selene thought she might attack her toes again–
–instead Neretva pulled up her pants sleeve enough to show Selene a bit of her leg.
Attached to her flesh and maybe even to the bone was a thin exoskeletal metal part.
Selene had seen this category of enhancement before in the media and in stories.
Sometimes workers would receive augmentations such as these. To let them lift heavier loads or to be able to work as hard once they grew older and weaker. Compared to how advanced internal cybernetics had gotten, allowing people who could afford it to get muscle replacements and even internal hydraulic boosters, exoskeletal work prosthesis like Neretva’s were quite simple. Selene wondered why a cybernetics freak like Hudson would perform such simple work. Did Neretva not want to follow in her footsteps?
“I have a condition– I have to work harder to move my legs.” Neretva said in a low voice.
“Oh! Is that so? And the exo’s hydraulics help get your legs going?”
“Indeed. It’s really helped my quality of life a lot. I can’t thank master Hudson enough.”
Selene momentarily felt a bit rotten to have been picking on a girl with a condition.
She disabused herself of that notion pretty quickly– she didn’t want to dwell on it.
If it had been her she wouldn’t have wanted anyone’s weak pity like that.
“Miss Selene, you were raised by masters Euphrates and Tigris, is that correct?”
“Uh huh. ‘Raised’ is giving them too much credit though. Those two hags just made sure I hadn’t died and periodically gave me stuff to read and watch and whatever. Tigris was always busy with some stupid invention and any time Euphrates caught sight of me she would just give me an annoying lecture. Both of them annoyed me so much growing up.”
“That sounds about right.” Neretva smiled. “I was raised by master Hudson.”
“Ah, I see. So you’re like her daughter or something.”
“Do you count yourself Euphrates and Tigris’ daughter?”
“What? No? Of course not? Fuck no? Not in a million years?”
Neretva laughed a little bit. “I wish I was as energetic as you.” Her voice trembled again.
Selene gave her hair a haughty toss, feeling self-satisfied to have received praised.
“How come I didn’t see you around?” She asked.
“Because– I wasn’t around– I suppose?” Neretva was getting stuck on her words again.
“Uh huh. I guess I didn’t see Hudson around much either.” Selene said.
“And I never saw masters Euphrates and Tigris much.” Neretva said. “Especially recently.”
“You’ll have to specify what ‘recent’ means.” Selene said, grinning. “With Euphrates and Tigris, ‘recent’ is like 200 years ago. It’s a word that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”
“I’m not Immortal.” Neretva said bashfully. “So I guess I mean, in the past year?”
“They’ve been busy. Plus they all hate each other now, so you’ll never see them again.”
“I really hope that isn’t the case.” Neretva said nervously. “I admired them all a lot.”
“What’s there to admire? They’re a bunch of insane hags all stuck in their own ways.”
Neretva looked upset for once. “Those ‘hags’ are doing more for humanity than anyone.”
“What’s with that tone? Am I getting under your skin? Want to go under the heel again?”
Selene leaned forward into the confrontation. Neretva just sighed and turned around.
Trembling again. Selene only briefly saw something in her. A tiny flash of red aura.
“Fine. Keep up the good work, Neretva. I’ll be watching.” Selene said sharply.
Turning on her heel and putting her back to the mechanic without a further word.
There was a sharp pain in the center of her forehead. Not from psionics or anything–
Just frustration and a bolt of self-loathing that were fogging her mind up.
Ugh, that wasn’t fun at all. What am I fucking doing? Why didn’t I just talk to her normally?
It was all so childish but– wasn’t it at least supposed to be funny? It was funny, right?
If she could not even convince herself of that then what the hell was she doing?
At that moment she felt so low she just wanted to hide in her room and never leave it.
Maybe she should have just taken the codeine from that insane pusher upstairs.
“I’ll come out when Norn needs me. To hell with all of this, I’m done. I’m done!”
It was being cooped up in here that was driving her insane. It was the noise and the people and how irritating everything was to her. It was lack of sleep. It was a knock to the head. It was bad food and being bored. It was her genes being too superior yet not at all.
As many excuses as she could come up with stacked together to make sense of things.
Selene felt lonely and lost and purposeless and like it was impossible not to feel that way.
And that was the last thing she would ever admit.
So she slunk off to her room and sulked for as long as she could get away with.
Eventually someone would need her again and she would have a reason to exist again.
“Hah hah! Helm-hominin, 50 disagrees to the farboard! 60 disagrees! Fire all big ones!”
In the Captain’s chair sat a short and somewhat skinny woman, girlish in features, quite pale, the only color on her a blue stripe in her hair. Dressed in a big black hood, a smooth, rubbery-looking tail swinging behind her. She pointed dramatically at the screen. It was known that she could barely read and thus barely understand the Imbrian scrawls all over the map in front of her but it did not matter. Because she could barely tell if anyone was listening either, and therefore they all had orders not to. However, she looked like she was amused.
“Captain Hunter III! The ancient navigator scourin’ the world for meat and shinies!”
“I’m curious, what is more important, my dear Hunter III: meat or shinies?”
“Huh? What kinda question is that? Meat of course! But imagine eatin’ a load of meat while also bein’ all covered in the best shinies. You’d be like a king or somethin’! King Hunter III! That’s what she said it’d be like anyways– it was never like that for poor ol’ Hunter III–!”
Hunter III started moping in an exaggerated fashion until she seemed to realize–
She turned sharply in her chair to find Norn standing next to her with a grin.
Dressed in a long-sleeved red and yellow shirt with a deeply plunging neckline, flattering her humble cleavage, and a pair of pants; along with the Fueller family coat, blue and green with an abstract etching of an old semiconductor die, trailing veins of color and gold. Her blond hair done up in a simple ponytail, her imperious, beautiful face contorted into a sneer.
“I think you’ve eaten too much. It’s made you far too chipper.” Norn said, amused.
“This’s how Hunter III is s’posed to be!” Hunter III shouted. “I was dyin’ t’death before!”
“You had a delicious cut of steer not that long ago.”
“So? Do you hominin ever just eat somethin’ tasty once and then stop forever?”
Grumbling complaints, Hunter III vacated the Captain’s chair.
She sat against the rear wall of the bridge with her arms crossed, hood pulled up, sulking.
“You’d be happier if you learned to enjoy the jerky and sausages you eat every day.”
As always following behind Norn was the adjutant, Adelheid van Mueller.
Black sheep of the number two aristocratic family in the Empire, the Muellers, staunchest supporters of the Fueller family. Once upon a time they were critical to providing food supplies for the Fueller war effort against the Nocht loyalists, and by that opportunity propelled themselves to the heights of the new Fueller-led aristocracy.
Adelheid had absolutely no trace of a farm girl in her appearance, however.
Even while dressed in military garb she gave off an air of a high society fashionista, beautiful and exactingly confident and a bit aloof, as if only that which interested her could be allowed to exist around her. Her very red hair falling over her shoulders, her fair skin and youthful features, the tiny amount of faint freckles near her nose, and her piercing eyes, lent her an intense but girlish beauty that was the platonic ideal of a noble lady. On her body, the tight, flattering gray uniform coat and skirt, along with the covering bodysuit that she wore, long sleeved and high-necked– all of it looked as if it had color, owing to her radiance.
One could not look too long, however– this princess was the property of a jealous dragon.
With a self-assured little smile on her red lips, she took her seat beside Norn on the bridge.
“Situation report.” Norn asked. “Where are we now, and how far are we to Aachen?”
On command the drones that worked on the bridge began their reports.
Norn went over what had transpired in her own mind too.
The Antenora had a rocky start to its nominal mission, assigned a few months ago by the crown Prince Erich von Fueller as the Empire underwent its collapse. They were meant to have been collecting test and R&D data for a next generation Diver known as the Jagdkaiser, the mass production of which would give instant superiority to the Fueller faction.
For this reason, Norn left the Palatine on her flagship, taking it first into the Photic zone. Selene proved quite adequate in slaughtering Leviathans and avoiding the Agarthic weather in the Jagdkaiser, so the testing returned to the aphotic zone, where Norn was met with a lot of unexpected business in Sverland. Avoiding a trap by a traitorous officer in the Serrano region; meeting up with a dear subordinate near Goryk’s Gorge and assisting her in attempting to recover Elena von Fueller, thought dead in the Vogelheim disaster.
Norn had refused to fight personally during this second skirmish, not wanting Gertrude to receive too much of a reward for her pathetic begging; but even despite this she had to admit that the Antenora had met something of its match in the mysterious Pandora’s Box, a mercenary ship that had taken in Elena von Fueller. Despite Gertrude Lichtenberg’s protestations, Norn let them escape to their own fortunes, and cast out her old student, having graduated ignominiously as one of Norn’s many repeated failures to cultivate a young conqueror’s ambitions. Now, Gertrude was possibly dead in the deep abyss, or possibly awakening to her true potential, who knew; Norn and her remaining troops meanwhile headed for Aachen, a city at the crossroads between Rhinea and the Palatine heartland, separated only by the Great Ayre Reach just beyond the Aachen Massif.
They had collected and sent enough data that Yangtze had already refined the Jagdkaiser into a second version for them to test. Mass production was nowhere near possible, as the Options representing the machine’s most practical offensive potential were not able to be ferristitched just yet. Another part, the most radical part of the machine’s arsenal, could also not be mass produced yet– the exotic cannon arm containing a taboo agarthic weapon. Judging by the number of cartridges given to Norn in her last supply rendezvous, Yangtze wanted much more data on this weapon specifically in future rounds of testing.
Norn, meanwhile, wanted to rip Yangtze open and strangle her with her own intestines.
For the moment, what was she actually, officially doing was a resupply and retrofit mission.
The Antenora had been banged up, and Aachen was a place where it could receive attention that was prompt, reliable and inconspicuous. There was a faction of the Shipbuilders Guild in Aachen who supported the Fuellers, rather than the liberal trade unionists, the constellation of leftists, or the fascist breakaway government of the Volkisch Movement. With their support, the Antenora could park in Stockheim and receive everything that it needed, while Norn took a break. Adelheid was somewhat excited– Aachen was a city, and she had been out at sea for so long. She also had friends in Aachen, and Norn had friends too.
They could catch up, make some social calls.
However, what the Antenora was officially doing did not matter much to Norn.
It was just a smokescreen as she thought seriously about what she was doing anymore.
Defeat at the hands of the Pandora’s Box, and the tragic condition of Gertrude Lichtenberg, had provoked in Norn something she was unused to– serious personal introspection.
Those stupid dreams featuring her old oathsworn brother, whom she had betrayed–
That did not help matters either. Not that she felt much actual guilt over it.
What she felt was worse than guilt– more complicated and less difficult to describe.
Sitting in the chair, wearing the coat of the Fueller family, as its nominal head.
His coat– that she both helped him attain, helped him turn into a symbol of power–
–and watched him squander the splendor of its colors, before she stole them from him.
Norn was starting to feel a weight of responsibility– and the long trail of her own actions.
Even if she, personally, was an invincible body that could hardly be challenged.
Her world and the things she held dear were deeply vulnerable.
To enemies; to herself.
To their own flawed selves–
Her uncharacteristically brooding thoughts inspired curiosity in her adjutant and lover.
“Norn? Was the sitrep too boring? Would you like a massage?” Adelheid asked sweetly.
“No, I’m fine. Later.” Norn said. “I’m just thinking about what we will do at Aachen.”
It was not like Norn to lie, but she had no qualms about withholding information.
Especially where it concerned her emotional self.
“Don’t worry– as your adjutant, I will make sure your social calendar is well stocked.”
Adelheid winked at Norn and laid her hand over the back of Norn’s own hand.
Her fingernails scratched gently up and down over skin. Like a mildly rambunctious cat.
“I’ll leave it up to you then. You said you had a friend there, right?” Norn asked.
“Yes, an old classmate from Luxembourg School for Girls. Do you follow pop music?”
“I would not even know where to start following it, Adelheid.”
“I should have realized.” Adelheid shrugged. “That’s your old and unfashionable charm.”
Norn grunted. “You’re already done being ‘good’ even by your own warped definition?”
“Anyway– she’s made a tidy career as a singer.” Adelheid smiled, ignoring her. “Number one hits, magazine covers and even TV shows, all the glitz and glamour denied to me. Not that you would know. Not only that, she is getting married, unlike me, to the son of a bigshot family in Aachen that basically own the place. Maybe if we catch up at Aachen she might make me her bridesmaid, and I can experience second-hand what I will never have.”
Norn felt like every couple of words a knife was being thrown directly at her chest.
“You’ll experience first-hand the back of my hand if you keep throwing jabs at me.”
Adelheid put on an expression of utterly false and mocking contrition.
As if the slap had been delivered and she mischievously enjoyed it while feigning shame.
“Adelheid, I have a question for you. Use your brain for this one. I’m serious.”
“Oh, we’re done playing so soon? Boo. How boring.”
“What is it?” Adelheid said, putting on a disinterested expression.
“Give me your honest assessment,” Norn began, “about the state of the civil war.”
Though she hardly ever showed it, Adelheid was actually a competent adjutant.
“Oh, it really is serious time, huh? You know, I have been thinking about it too.”
“Don’t you think it’s too quiet? It’s been months since the Emperor passed.” Norn asked.
Adelheid nodded her head.
“Indeed. Only Rhinea has made a big move to subsume another state; the Royal Alliance set up in their geographic neighborhood so they had no choice but to come to blows. So far none of the other competitors have started any outright shooting wars. There’s even still some inter-duchy commerce happening with all of the sides overlooking it.”
“Why do you think that is? Use your foreign policy brain. I need real analysis here.”
“You don’t have to tell me what brain to use, I’m not a bimbo like you think I am.” Adelheid said, now her turn to be aggrieved at the insults. She recollected herself and put out her hypothesis in a serious and even tone of voice. “If I had to hazard a guess– I think that the internal situations of the states are all worse than we think. Even the Union made a modest move with their invasion of Serrano, but from the news we gathered while leaving, it seems they haven’t capitalized further, even though the Volkisch are a mess right now. The Prince is being cautious even though his military forces are the qualitative best; and Veka, with a similarly strong military, is trying to focus on diplomacy instead. I think that politically they are too shaky for all-out war. They might risk creating opportunities for internal rivals.”
“That’s an interesting assessment. I think you’re right.” Norn said. “Honestly I don’t know what’s going on in Erich’s head– I advised him that he needed to attack Bosporus and Buren quickly to absorb their resources. But I’m not there with him. I’ve never been part of the Grand Western Fleet. I have no insight into its internal culture. He might be struggling to clean the ranks. There was a lot of corruption in the Navy. Maybe even in his fleet.”
“To think you’re being so distant with your nephew, who is now practically your son–”
“When you’re helping raise a child, you must give them room to resolve their own issues.”
“Right. I thought you’d say something like that.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.
“I’m not done picking your brain.” Norn said. “You know more about the duchies than I.”
Adelheid shrugged. “I had to study foreign policy when I was the Mueller heiress.”
“How do you think these ‘internal problems’ might manifest in the competitor states?”
Adelheid brought her fingers as if to count them. “Let me see. I think– Buren’s nationalist revolution will need to be sure the old loyalist elements are fully suppressed; Veka has a strong and young officer cadre full of ambition that might need to be contained; Solcea is a theocracy, which has never been tried in the Imbrium, so I don’t know if they have the bureaucratic experience needed to keep the trams running; the anarchists in Bosporus are a mess because anarchist ‘government’ simply can’t work; Volgia can’t hide behind the ice wall forever, and the ice queen has the greatest variety of grudging subjects under her wing; The Palatine is less resource-rich than it used to be and all the social climbers in the aristocracy were located there before the split. I don’t know anything much about the Union, but I suspect they have the same problems everyone else does with ambitious officers, social climbers in government, ethnic grudges, economic constraints, and so on.”
As for Rhinea, they had already seen the problems in action. Same with the Royal Alliance.
It was a very apt assessment, befitting a woman who wished to serve the Praetorian.
Such a strange situation, where the Antenora’s skirmish with the Pandora’s Box might still merit a mention in the annals of history– because there were so few other battles in the dissolution of the Imbrian Empire that were worth mentioning so far.
It was impossible for there to be peace and unity among the fractured states, each was too ambitious to ever accept any of the others. But so far, most of them avoided immediately attacking and seizing their neighbors. While there might be skirmishing that Norn simply did not know about, if there were more all-out wars, she would have known.
Especially if those wars were being personally ordered by Erich von Fueller himself.
“It does feel like we’re, somehow, still in the calm before the storm.” Norn said.
“I don’t know whether anything will happen.” Adelheid said. “But something might.”
Norn sighed. Oh, to what depths Konstantin’s project of peace and order had fallen.
“At least Elena might be safe now– I suppose I fulfilled that promise.” She mumbled.
“What was that? Are you done quizzing me on things you ought to know now?”
Adelheid put on a fox-like grin again. Norn shot her a sharp look that made her shudder.
“Distributing some of my thinking is the role of my adjutant. And she does it well.”
Norn smiled. Adelheid looked surprised to have received praise while being a bitch.
It shut down her ability to respond with a snide remark and led her to sit quietly contented.
“Boring hominin junk! Who cares! Kill each other already and let Hunter III feast!”
From behind them, their little navigator heckled, clicked her tongue and slapped her tail.
“You’re always welcome to try to eat me, Hunter III. But you know what’s good for you.”
Hunter III quieted for a moment at Norn’s response. Her little brain must have been ticking.
“Eh– y’all bony and gross anyway. Easier to sit here and earn good meat.” She mumbled.
Selene laid on her bed, her back partially to the wall, propped up on a pillow.
Kicking her bare feet every so often as she read a magazine on a portable.
Swiping through pages full of fashion tips for young women; step by step guides to wearing some complicated outfits that required body glue or tape to pull off; makeup tutorials; reviews of the latest accessories and lingerie from the top brands. Gossip columns and celebrity talk and upcoming concerts from hot bands. It was typical for a Rhinean magazine, there were a lot of blonds even skinnier than Selene and with much flatter asses with super high cheekbones and little button noses– but she never expected to see a vat-grown intersex thing like herself in a magazine anyway. Still she read the magazine, and she thought about going on a shopping spree in Aachen, getting all the new pigments and buying up a dozen hypermodern vinyl tops and synthesilk pants and tiny lacy panties to feel sexy.
“Maybe I can bribe that buffoon Hunter III with some meat to carry all my stuff.”
Selene put the portable to her chest and laid on her side, thinking about things.
Like the girlhood she was only really getting to experience now– in a warped way.
Adelheid’s glitzy pop girlie magazines were an object of aspiration Selene would have never admitted to if she was asked. But even the clothes she was wearing presently, with her exposed shoulders and tight pants, had come out of a book like that. Selene imagined herself sometimes as a celebrity. What if she had been born with a namesake and family in the Imbrian Empire? She could have been anyone. She could have been a big name. And she dreamed that all of the eyes of the world could focus on her– she had the beauty for it, and she was incisive, quick-witted, and she was good at reading people thanks to psionics.
Even outside the impossible fantasies, however, fashion had a certain allure.
She rarely dressed up, but she wondered why she did not do it more–
it made her feel–
“Whatever. I’m actually the superior being, it’s all of them who are wrong.”
Selene idly reached out her hand to the drawer under her bed.
Producing again the cylinder of katov mass she kept hidden from everyone.
Popping it open, she induced it to become a caterpillar that crawled along her arm.
Red and shiny like slick living wax. Moving with electrically-induced purpose.
Mindless, soulless, lifeless, an imitation of life–
Selene shut her eyes and grit her teeth, the intrusive thought striking her like lightning.
Then she nearly jumped when there was a physical knock on the door.
“Selene. Are you decent? Get yourself up and come out here.”
Norn’s voice, undeniably.
Nearly spilled the red matter and nearly dropping her canister.
Quickly, she disassembled the red creature born of her whim and hid the canister again.
She stood up from the bed, put on her synthestitched heels and made her way to the door.
Opening it and finding herself immediately face to face with Norn, crossing her arms.
“What is it? You said I didn’t have to be alert during this trip.” Selene grumbled.
“That’s a really cute sweater. Are you proud of your shoulders?” Norn said.
“Uh huh, my shoulders are flawless, my face is angelic, my dick is sublime.” Selene joked.
“Who taught you to be this crude? Euphrates was never like this.” Norn sighed.
“What do you want already?” Selene said, leaning impatiently between the hall and door.
Norn leaned closer to her with a vicious little grin on her face.
“I thought you were just being a little shit for no reason, but it looks like you really forgot. I told you as soon as you recovered that I would put you through hell. It’s time for your training. Luckily for you, it’ll be hell for your brain, not your shoulders or your dick.”
Selene’s eyes drew wide.
She had completely forgotten that Norn had promised to train her.
Suddenly her heart was soaring.
Norn was going to train her? She would learn psionics from a powerful Apostle?
Her head filled with an all-consuming delusion.
Selene told herself, if she could ace the training in the first day without Norn’s help–
–she would prove her great power and intrinsic superiority.
How difficult could it be? Selene was already well versed in using psionics.
“Sorry Norn! I forgot! But I’ll be right down!” She said.
“You’ll be down right now. You don’t need to change clothes.” Norn said.
She gestured for Selene to follow her down the hall.
Without a word, Selene trailed obediently, down the hall with the officer’s quarters.
Norn stopped near the end of the hall and gestured for a side door.
Inside, was a meeting room that had been repurposed as storage for unused gym equipment. When the gym was damaged during the Goryk excursion, flood mitigation prevented the total destruction of the pod– some things survived and were stored. In addition, there were some leftover gym supplies that had lived in a corner here.
Dumbbells and disassembled machines and piles of rubber exercise mats.
In the center of the room, one mat and one piece of equipment had been laid out.
“I didn’t know I was going to get messy. I’d rather not in my nice sexy sweater.”
“You won’t be lifting weights the traditional way, so don’t worry.”
Norn’s eyes looked over Selene briefly and settled on her loose antennae.
“You’re not pinning down your rabbit ears anymore?” She asked, smiling.
“Yeah what about it? And don’t call them rabbit ears.” Selene said, turning her cheek.
Her rainbow-veined ‘rabbit ears’ stood up straight with a slight irritated twitch.
“I just think it’s nice. They are a unique charm point for you.” Norn said.
Selene made a face. “Gross. I’m gonna hack them off with a rescue axe now.”
“Tch. Colicky child. There’s no winning with you is there?”
Though Selene took umbrage to being called a child, she did not push her luck.
Norn gestured toward the equipment laid out in the middle of the mess.
There was a round base holding up a vertical metal weight bar. Circular weights were stacked on the pole near the base, each with a hole in the center. There were four such weights, each five kilograms. More weights were laid next to the pole, ready to be dropped on top of the rest. Selene stared at the pole and the weights, suppressing an urge to kick it over.
“Use kinesis to lift those weights.” Norn said. “If you send them flying, that’s a demerit. If you knock over the pole, that’s a demerit. If you hit me with anything– even worse. For each demerit on your psionic fitness journey, you owe me 20 physical push-ups on the mat.”
Selene shuddered. She stared at the weights, mildly annoyed at the test and consequences.
What kind of stupid training was this? Did Norn think she could flex her brain?
Bored, Selene lifted a hand and waved at the weights.
Near effortlessly, with nary a thought, the weights lifted from the base to the tip of the pole.
Just enough not to have the holes in the weights actually clear the pole.
She then let the weights drop back to the base with a loud clang.
With an emotionless expression on her face she turned back to Norn for feedback.
“Of course you can do that.” Norn said. “Don’t get too smug yet.”
Norn went around the pole, picked up more weights and dropped them on.
Selene lifted them up as easily as before. She did not even move her hand. Psionics was the power of the mind and human emotions. It was not strictly necessary to move any part of one’s body to perform psionics; however, Selene found that pointing at the object to be moved, or making a gesture at it, or even shouting at it, helped the power along.
In this case, however, she did not even need to make a noise or do anything.
Responding to the continuing lack of challenge, Norn dropped in even more round weights.
Sixty kilograms. Double what was on the pole before.
“Again.” Norn said.
Selene felt the slightest bit of intimidation.
Not because she could not lift them. Rather, she wanted to show off.
Thirty kilograms was like a throwing a kid around. Sixty was like a whole supermodel.
She could lift it, but she could not lift it effortlessly and she wanted it to be effortless!
At first she tried to lift the weights without any gestures or noises like she wanted.
However, she immediately felt the slightest pang of irritation in the back of her head.
That seed of doubt made them heavier– she had to correct herself.
Teeth clenched, she stretched out her hand and beckoned the weights with it.
Perhaps, if the thought, ‘these weights may be too heavy to lift easily’, had never entered into her brain, she would have been able to lift them easily. Psionics was tricky in that way, Selene knew this– the slightest frustration could suddenly associate a simple task with difficulty, and thus make it more difficult in the process. A self-fulfilling cognitive prophecy. Utmost confidence and belief equated to a perfect expression of power, and any sewing of doubt could conversely snowball into a spiraling loss of control over her mind.
“What’s the matter? Is that it? Sixty kilograms and you’re raring to kiss the mat?”
Selene centered herself, and ignored Norn.
As before the weights rose up to the top of the pole.
Then Selene let them drop and they hit the base with an even louder clanging.
She looked to Norn for feedback–
Norn suddenly tipped over the pole. The weights at the base slid off and into the wall.
From the mess of reserve gym equipment, Norn produced a different set of weights.
Effortlessly carrying the stack in her hands. These were each heavier than before.
Instead of five kilograms per weight, each disc was now twenty kilograms.
And Norn five four of them into the barbell. A hundred kilograms.
That was just a barbell or two under Potomac’s weight. A large or plush human adult.
“Again.” Norn said calmly, still watching inexpressibly from the sidelines.
Selene looked at the barbells with a growing apprehension.
Then– she had a very silly idea that could potentially work to skip the whole business.
Clapping her hands together close to her chest, shutting her eyes and concentrating.
Straining to hear– that impossible voice of aetheric power that rang in certain individuals.
Saint’s Skin: Anoint!
From Selene’s body, waves of blue aura washed gently over the surroundings.
According to Euphrates, Saint’s Skin could not directly pierce the aura of another person, but it could influence the ambient aura in order to alter properties or concepts found in the environment and objects. Blue aura represented peace and calm and rest, but it could also represent lightness, and ease. With a strong enough will behind it, with enough concentration, and with enough desire, it could make a person move faster or feel lighter on their feet. In that moment, Selene concentrated strongly on the idea of a sheet of the thinnest paper or plastic, spilled from atop a stack and floating in the air, not quick to land, so light that it caressed even the air with its gentle, near weightless form.
She recalled Euphrates’ desk, littered in papers, sheets of plastic, micro-LCDs–
Blown as if on a strong wind, flying this way and that, their gentle swaying–
Then she opened her eyes, and instantly lifted the weights, now as insubstantial as paper–
“Nice try. But that’s cheating. King’s Gaze.”
Norn’s voice sounded as if it came from all directions at once.
In the blink of an eye the colors shifted as if the room had never been bathed in blue.
Waves of green anxiety and disquiet overcame Selene in an instant.
Suddenly the weights were even heavier than 100 kg, even heavier than 200 kg.
They were an impossible boulder by lifted up an endless mountain by a despairing wretch.
When they dropped back down Selene thought the clang would split her brain in half.
She knelt holding her head, gritting her teeth, nearly weeping. Overwhelmed with pain.
How unfair of Norn! To so thoughtlessly display her power to Selene that way!
Selene almost wanted to throw something at her– but that would have been trouble.
“Don’t look at me with such resentment. I am glad you have this sort of power but it is besides the point.” Norn said. “It was very clever of you to try to alter the conception of the weights themselves in order to lift them more easily but I am looking for something else. I want to see you crash into a wall stubbornly. I want to push you to your limits. You’ve only just begun to experience what it is like to fail, to be defeated, to experience falling short. Euphrates coddled you too much. You need to learn to deal with pain.”
Norn lifted another 20 kg from the mat, gesturing with her hand for it to drop on the rest.
“Psionics is not limited by imagination. It is limited by pain. Lift the weights again.”
Selene, wordlessly angry, her entire body shaking, lifted herself up from the ground.
Breathing in deep, she focused on the pile of weights again.
One hundred and twenty kilograms, now heavier than Potomac or any human Selene knew.
With both hands out, she bent her knees, pushed out her back and then rose suddenly.
That motion, of lifting with her legs, gave her the boost in confidence she needed.
Her mind evoked a brief rushing of great power over the weights.
All of the metal discs lifted from the base to the tip for a second and then fell again.
Selene resumed a comfortable posture, sighing and breathing heavily.
“Fantastic. See? When you shut up and stop complaining you can set your mind to things.”
Norn then easily dropped another disc of weight onto the pile. “Again.”
“So the point of this is to hurt me?!” Selene said, unable to contain the anger in her voice.
“No, the point of this is for you to work through the pain.” Norn said calmly.
“What the hell is that for? What does that do for me? Will I get stronger?” Selene said.
Norn turned from the bar and weights and stepped closer–
Selene flinched, thinking Norn might beat her like she beat Gertrude Lichtenberg–
But Norn instead laid a hand on her bare shoulder and squeezed gently.
“You will gain something that you currently lack.” Norn said.
Selene averted her gaze. “You think that cryptic shit works on me?”
“Then I’ll be blunt. You’ll learn what it is like to live; and I hope you will want to live.”
“How the hell do I learn that from lifting weights until my brain melts down.”
Selene hated that she actually understood Norn’s intentions.
All of the times she had been challenged and even hurt on the Antenora were new to Selene.
She had never known struggle. So it was easy to throw a tantrum when anything was hard.
“You are too sheltered. This is the real world. For the entire rest of the human race, Selene, they are beaten down to the floor, have their cry about the pain they are wracked with, and are then faced with however many more days, weeks, years, of more suffering ahead of them. But they continue walking forward because every new day presents them with an opportunity. It is that determination to live which you lack, and the pilot of that Union mecha must possess in spades. She struggled; compared to her, you know nothing.”
Selene met Norn’s eyes, her own filling with tears. Norn had a strangely soft expression.
“My greatest fear for you, Selene, is that you will actually give up. Completely. Someday.”
Norn lifted her hand and brought it back down, giving Selene a few soft pats on her skin.
In that moment, Selene could not deny that she had considered throwing her life away.
At Goryk’s Gorge, if it would have killed Sonya Shalikova, she would have given her life.
To have killed all of the enemies and completed her mission, at the cost of everything.
That was the fate of a soldier was it not? To die, to cease existing; now a shadow of glory.
Shining in memory and blasted apart in the physical world. Soldiers did not survive battles.
Because the thought of living with the ignominy, the pain, of failure– was too much.
Here she was– living, still, knowing that she was not perfect, nor destined for perfection.
Having achieved no glory and awarded no commemorations. Perhaps she should have died.
Living with failure, living after defeat– it felt so hollow, that maybe she did want to die.
Born without a past, struggling in the present, no hope of a future–
“Take a moment to breathe, center yourself, and then give that bar everything you have.”
Norn stepped away from Selene and resumed her cold watch over the bar and its weights.
“Your new target is one hundred and forty kilograms. Again.” She said.
Selene stared glumly at the bar and its ever-increasing number of weights.
Sighing, she gestured with her hands towards it.
There was a brief slashing pain in her head, like the barest contact of a blade on her brains.
For a moment, the weights stirred, but they barely lifted.
Fresh tears drew from Selene’s eyes. Even her arms had started feeling a bit sore.
Psychosomatic– her body was not immune to the ravages of her mind–
“You can do this Selene.” Norn said. “Think about what you want; your next step.”
Was this truly how Sonya Shalikova must have felt?
Had she lost herself and felt beaten down by hopelessness– and still continued on?
Pushing herself past her limits with everything she had, refusing to give up?
Selene recalled suddenly– during their skirmish at Goryk’s Gorge–
When that saw blade was just about to stop, failing to penetrate the Jagdkaiser’s armor–
I want to save you. Had she truly heard that voice? Followed by something impossible?
Words that had brought about her defeat, and Shalikova’s miracle, her hope for a new day.
Breathing deep, Selene restored her posture. Arms tight and close, chest straight.
Poring over Norn’s words like water over rock. Eroding into her stream of consciousness.
Out in the world, if ordinary people living their lives had to feel this pain every day–
And if every day just heaped even more pain on them as they struggled forward–
Then any given instant of pain, any second– was nothing compared to those lifetimes.
Divided, taken apart, each of those setbacks was fleeting in the fullness of a life lived.
Drops of water in a vast ocean that continued to move in its currents even in a dying Aer.
Like these weights– together 140 kg but apart each 20 kg that a single human could lift.
Selene amid the current and part of it; buoyed by the inertia of a still-living humanity.
And that current of her mental strength washed over the weights and lifted them up.
Holding them so the highest weight up was just about to rise over the pole.
Not falling, not stirring, lifted them as if effortlessly, without raising even a finger.
There she held them, for five seconds, ten, twenty, forty, as Norn watched silently.
Even as the pain of her exertions began to build in Selene’s mind, she held firm.
All of those instants were droplets of water in the vast ocean, in the rushing current.
They were nothing. By merely waiting, each moment was gone, and there was another.
Her hands started shaking. Blood began to trickle out of her nose. Her eye twitched.
“That’s enough.” Norn said. “You seem to understand something now. Congratulations.”
Selene eased up.
At once, the weights smashed onto the base one after another in a series of loud clangs.
Her lungs struggled for breath. Her throat was raw. She smelled and tasted iron.
Running her hand over her lips, and seeing her red fingers dripping with blood.
She put on a haughty grin even as her whole body ached and her knees shook.
“That was nothing to me.” She said. “You underestimate me constantly. I’m perfect.”
Norn grinned back at Selene’s renewed arrogance.
Before casually dropping another 20 kg weight on the bar with another loud clang.
Selene’s eyes drew wide. Incredulous. Hardly in control of her expression, nearly laughing.
“Clean up. I’ll bring you food and a drink. Then we go again.” Norn said, almost cheerful.
“Hey, big beak– how do the currents feel out there, huh?”
Hunter III’s mind reached out into the waters around the ship.
Below the Antenora, a Leviathan had been warded off by Hunter III, but it continued to follow the Antenora for some time. It was about the size of the smaller ships the Hominin used– Norn would have called it a ‘Cutter’. A cylindrical body with four hydrojets led, trailed by several dangling arms that surrounded an enormous vibro-cavitating beak.
Two remora-like Leviathan “drones” attached to its main body and provided support fire from the needle launchers on their own backs. Hunter III realized that it was not out of malice that the big beak had followed them, but a burgeoning curiosity about the world– a spark of something that, if it survived, might create a miracle for it.
A miracle that was denied to Hunter III– stolen from her. Stolen, to then be given, as a gift of beautiful, powerful chains that warped her completely. Her circumstances made her curious about the creature. She began to reach out to it psionically, probing it.
Waiting for a response. Soon she received it.
It is a soft current. It is a difficult current. It cries. Its sings. It is hungry. It is satiated.
Hunter III understood implicitly the response she had been given by the creature.
Just sitting in the back of the Antenora’s bridge, she could hold something of a dialog.
Neither of them were truly saying words as the Imbrians understood them, but they could communicate emotions even through the metal armor separating the interior of the ship from the Leviathan’s water. Because of this Hunter III could not have spoken what the Leviathan said to anyone else but she could feel the texture of what it meant to communicate. Its burgeoning realization that the world was complex.
Perhaps even an understanding of the voice far, far in the back of its own head.
“Keep away from ships, big guy. Ya don’t wanna die right? Y’still got growin’ to do.”
There was no response. But she could feel that the Leviathan began to drift farther back.
Hunter III grinned to herself a bit. Sentience was coming for it, as it nearly came to her.
When she ate hominins she was a bit more lucid for a time. As if the emotions that had made them up had become hers. She was still hungry; she was still energetic; her driving needs were the same. Inside her though, a metaphorical vacuum tube received a shot of electricity. Maybe, for Leviathans, eating each other, growing bigger, eating more, maybe it made them lucid too. Slowly, struggle after struggle, the sentience grew inside them.
Hunter III felt a certain uncharacteristic melancholy. She understood her position too well.
This Leviathan, if it survived all of the ravages of the sea, might eventually shed its form and become an Omenseer. If it achieved psionics, and then, came to understand itself, it could do this. Some Leviathans found psionics and only used this to hurl rocks. But a few, used it to learn about the world and ask questions– they found themselves buried in all that meat and burst out. Then they could lead their own lives. They might befriend some hominin, go on adventures, take them to the sunlit seas, get shinies and eat meat and become part of the great story of all hominins in the cold, cruel ocean. Stories that were sometimes remembered but oft forgotten– but stories a monster, an animal, could not have.
Hunter III could not imagine at all what that would have been like for her.
Everything that was her own, grew like a twisted plant from the seedling that the Autarch had injected into her body. Despite this, it was wrong. The Autarch was not fond of her own handiwork. She must have had no idea that Hunter III would be quite disinterested in spying on hominins, quite disinterested in stealing their things and watching them carefully and ingratiating herself within their structures– she was only interested in eating them. When a Leviathan became an Omenseer, how did they choose who to be? When the Autarch got her hands on Hunter III, why was she born only to be reprimanded and scorned?
Maybe the crying, singing voice that the big beak heard was like the Autarch’s own.
Out of control; unable to decide for herself who she was, much less who Hunter III was.
Leviathans might have been like that too. Maybe they could not choose their own selves.
Perhaps no matter what, Hunter III could have only been born to be a scorned slave.
“Autarch– Hunter III– Hunter III never wanted to make ya angry and upset.”
Hunter III had no idea whether the Autarch was listening or whether she would care.
“If I was gonna be your lackey, I wish ya had made me a better one.” She said.
She started to grin to herself. How dumb; as if her little sadness mattered to a God.
That was why Hunter III could only be herself.
Because she was abandoned by everything.
All she could do was eat and be merry until she received her next inevitable throttling.
It could have all been so simple, if she was either an animal or a whole human.
Instead this middle ground was full of horrid feelings she wished not to have.
That Leviathan out there did not know how good it had it– someday it would have this same sad sack conversation with itself. It would think– “out there, I could have had all the meat that I wanted, and I wouldn’t even know that it tasted bad, and I would have been so happy.” Soon its brain would be strong enough to wrap around to this question and drive itself insane with it. There would be no going back to the simple days after that.
Hunter III sighed deeply.
Maybe she would be happier if Norn fed her some damn meat!
I’ll free you from her. She had said. Haunting words. Joyous words. More dualities.
Foolish and ignorant words from a hominin who truly must have meant them.
A Hominin as confusing as the crying, singing, current that the big beak so aptly described.
“What would that even feel like? Hunter III ain’t anythin’ without the Autarch.”
Hunter III was getting fed up with her runaway mind.
She could not keep moping about.
She decided there was only one solution: to go beg the cafeteria people for meat.
With a big piece of meat in her hands and her belly, her head would go completely empty.
She got up from the floor. There was nobody on the bridge, but it did not matter. Norn’s crew were all perfectly obedient and did everything really efficiently so when they were just cruising in empty waters nobody needed to be told anything. She would know if there were more Leviathans around and she could tell them off from anywhere on the ship. Probably enough of them had scarpered by now that the rest collectively understood not to mess with the Antenora. Younger and weaker ones might even sense her from afar and stay way.
Unbothered, she left the bridge, bare feet on cold metal, ambling happily down the hall.
Adelheid never understood the appeal of actual, real meat. Sausages had no texture and jerky was so tough and dry. It was not living to eat such things every day! Hunter III wanted real meat, with juices that leaked and fibers that tore between her teeth. Having recently tasted tender hominins, full of blood and muscle, it was that which Hunter III had on the mind– but she behaved. She knew hominin meals were unrealistic– she was neither completely dumb nor utterly lost in her own hedonism as to crave hominin every day.
That was special occasion sort of food.
Instead, Hunter III’s day to day craving was pork or steer.
Large animals, full of savory fat, fibrous muscles and delicous fluids.
Because these animals were bred to be eaten, they often tasted better than hominin too. Hominins had a penchant for not taking care of themselves, they were always stressed out, they drank disgusting stuff that made them dizzy and stuck around in their organs too long, they smoked weird herbs, and they ate dry food and were constantly dehydrated.
Because of this the average hominin, while a unique delicacy, were not in and of themselves a very tasty sensorial experience. Hominin were special because of the ritual of things.
And because if she did not eat them she would go crazy.
She needed Hominins, perhaps like Hominins needed their herbs and liquor.
Sometimes, she could appreciate a fish too– especially a fatty salmon.
A taste of nostalgia.
Her mind quickly filled with images of fresh-cut pieces from a slaughtered animal.
These pushed out any sort of introspection or sophisticated thinking from her cranium.
She deluded herself into thinking she would acquire such a meal, hurrying to the galley.
Past all the tables, to the kitchen desk and the automated serving machines.
“Listen, kitchen hominins! I’m here on business! Come on out, one of ya!”
She waved her hands and jumped up and down. Finally, a woman’s face peeked out.
“You can serve yourself from the machines, they are fully stocked.” She said.
“No, this ain’t about that.” Hunter III leaned in a bit. “Look, I know y’all are hidin’ the good meat back there, and Norn ain’t lettin’ you feed it to poor little Hunter III like all of ya want to do. But I’ve been preparin’. I got a bribe. Hominin love bribes right? I’ve got one for you.”
From the pocket of her long, hooded coat, Hunter III produced a little blue box.
When she opened it, inside, there was a ring with an enormous diamond.
“One of the hominin that I ate back at the pepper place had this with ’em. Isn’t it big? Isn’t it shiny? It’s one of the biggest shinies anyone has ever seen. You can have this shiny, and then, you’ll give Hunter III a big, juicy piece of meat. She’s not even askin’ for all of the meat! Just one big piece! This is the best deal ever– and it is only a deal for you!”
Hunter III laid the diamond-studded wedding ring in its box on the counter.
The eyes of the servant-hominin looked down at the box, and then back at Hunter III.
She took the box into the shadows behind the counter.
“We’re confiscating this and informing Lord von Fueller. Please eat from the machines.”
Then a pair of steel shutters enclosed the serving personnel.
Hunter III stood speechless.
“HEY! That ain’t how it works! Ya can’t just take the bribe and not give me anythin’!”
Hunter III jumped up and down, struck her fists on the steel shutters and the counter.
Wailing and gnashing her teeth and kicking the wall–
“Oh dear? Has the little Hunter finally lost her mind, perhaps?”
Behind her, someone stepped up and held her by the shoulders, squeezing them.
“Huh? Oh– it’s you.”
A hominin, taller than Hunter III, and unlike the drones, with a glint in her eyes and a smile on her face. A familiar face, pretty and a bit funny. She wore a lot of makeup, had a lot of brightly blond hair, and wore her clothes a bit looser than everyone else. Hunter III could see her bra. Livia Van Der Meer, the ship doctor– Hunter III had thought about biting her a few times, sometimes out of hunger, sometimes out of fleshier feelings than that. She was the person who maybe got the most out of hand with Hunter III out of anyone on the ship.
However, she could also be– interesting. Like Norn, but in a very different way.
So despite sometimes being irritating, Hunter III was always initially welcoming of her.
“I see you’re having trouble acquiring meat again.” Livia said.
She lowered her head a little to Hunter III’s eye level. Hunter III met her eyes, unmoved.
“Yeah– the serving hominins took my bribe but didn’t get me any meat!”
“Oh dear! Whatever shall you do?”
“I know! Isn’t that against everything hominin stand for?”
“Indeed. Contracts, like medical consent, must be absolutely ironclad.”
Hunter III blinked. She was mentioning the medical thing again.
A lot of the time that preceded her injecting Hunter III and writing a bunch of notes.
“Little Hunter– what if I got you some meat?” Livia said, smiling cheerfully.
With her hands behind her back, and her large chest close to Hunter III’s own.
Hunter III returned her gaze appraisingly, stroking her own chin.
“Meat, you say? Hmm. Keep talkin’.” She said, her tail swishing behind her back.
“You weren’t the only one who got her hands on some goodies in Serrano.” Livia said. “I managed to snag a few things myself, to save for a rainy day. As a doctor I have all kinds of storage capabilities. I would be happy to share my loot with you. Norn would never have to hear about it either. She’s busy with Selene at the moment, and Adelheid is taking inventory. It’s the perfect opportunity to be a little naughty, don’t you think?”
“What’s the catch?” Hunter III asked.
Livia smiled. “No catch. I’m simply quite bored, and you’re the most interesting one here.”
“Huh. I dunno that I believe that doc. No one just gives out free meat around here.”
“Call it a date– what do you say? You’ll get to eat. I’ll get to chat. It’ll be nice.”
“A date, huh?”
Hunter III felt conflicted. She understood what ‘dates’ were quite well.
Those were the special times when hominin bit and smacked and fucked each other.
Not to procreate but for fun. They just liked doing this, like Hunter III enjoyed eating.
She had seen hominin doing these kinds of things.
She had thought about them before too.
It was in this sort of way that she had come to think Livia was interesting.
So she knew Livia’s objective may well have been this, especially if she was bored.
She also did not believe Livia would actually give her any meat.
Though it would have been a pleasant surprise. Hunter III was growing skeptical.
However– Hunter III also thought, maybe she could see herself enjoying the whole thing.
“Alright. Ya got yourself a deal– but y’better not be lyin’!” Hunter III cried out.
Livia smiled placidly. “Of course not, of course not. Never.”
Heels clacking on the floor the entire way, Livia led Hunter III out to her clinic.
It was not every far down the way from the galley.
There was a separate medbay with enough beds care for a few dozen people at a time if needed, but Livia’s office and clinic was a smaller space, and doubled as her bedroom. She had a desk, a few cabinets with medicines she kept on hand, her favorite injector that had marked her neck a few times; a small bed and gurney; a few testing instruments and other such medical machines; and the door to the backroom where she slept.
Everything smelled like plastic and chemicals.
As Hunter III crossed the threshold, the door closed behind her but did not lock.
So she could leave if she wanted to. She was not trapped with Livia– but she stayed.
Livia ambled toward the bedroom, and knelt down next to her bed.
Tongues of cool gas escaped from a compartment.
With a gloved hand she withdrew–
“You weren’t lyin’! It’s really meat! You’re my savior Livia!”
“You’re calling me by name? Interesting. Very interesting indeed.”
In her fingers, Livia returned with a frozen cut of steak and a grin on her face.
She put it on a metal sample plate, and put that plate on a frame over a burner on her desk.
“This is inefficient, but it will cook eventually.” Livia said. “Please, sit down and rest.”
Hunter III obediently pulled up a plastic chair and sat close, watching the meat cook.
Livia sat on another chair and sat next to Hunter III.
Taking her medicine injector from atop the desk, pulling back some of her hair.
Sticking herself in the neck, in a spot that had a three-pronged bruise like the injector.
“Ah, now we can relax and enjoy. Well– you can enjoy. Once it’s less frozen.”
She flipped the steak over on the plate. Slowly thawing, softening, cooking at high heat.
It wouldn’t cook evenly, but Hunter III loved meat no matter what.
Frozen meat was not particularly enjoyable however, so she appreciated Livia’s effort.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Hunter III’s tail smacked against the ground over and over and over in anticipation.
“Is it a correct assumption that you grow a tail to store your extra biomass?” Livia asked.
“Oh, uh huh.” Hunter III said cheerfully. “It’s a special trick that helps in a pinch.”
“Clever indeed. Did someone teach you that? About your powers?” Livia asked.
“Um, not really, I just kinda knew it?”
“Hereditary memories perhaps? Or maybe even– DNA-based data encoding?”
“I dunno. Both of those sound good to me?”
Hunter III was essentially just trying to please Livia by saying literally anything.
Livia seemed pleased, so everything was working accordingly.
Once more, she turned over the steak.
“What good fortune to have found this while robbing the substation supplies.” Livia said.
“Yeah! You’re so smart Livia! You’re smart and pretty and you are so good at robbin’!”
“All too true. You know, to meet you– it was worth it losing my medical license.”
Her words were starting to slur just a little bit. Hunter III did not pay it any mind.
“Uh huh! Norn is sooooo lucky to have such a fancy and good doctor!” Hunter III said.
Livia turned over the steak one more time.
Then, with the scalpels she had been using to move the steak around on the sample plate, she cut a piece. Juices were flowing. Hunter III’s eyes drew wide. She could smell it, even through the chemically smell of the room and the alcohol fire. Her jaw hung open, her nostrils wetted, her mouth grew slick with saliva. Her face went hotter.
“That is so nice of you to say. Open up. I will feed you by hand.” Livia said.
Hunter III obediently awaited the piece of steak, tongue nearly out of her mouth.
Livia took the piece of meat, pierced on a scalpel, and fed it gingerly to her date.
Instantly– the taste, the chew. Juices, fibers, the resistance of real red meat.
Her cheeks contracted from the savory taste. She shut her eyes and lavished in it.
Hunter III practically shook with pleasure. For a moment she felt like a king.
“You’re so interesting, little Hunter.” Livia said. “Beautiful, alien, unbound.”
Her hand reached for her own collar, which was already opened and unbuttoned.
“Lacking our inhibitions; master of your biology. On the cusp of nature and civilization.”
Livia cut another slice of meat; immediately Hunter III positioned herself to receive it.
It was so luxurious– Hunter III had always just bitten into bigger pieces of meat. Cut across the grain by Livia’s deft scalpel hand; still warm from the hot metal plate; it was amazing. Hunter III believed meat needed nothing, no cooking, no seasoning–
but maybe Livia’s hand helped the taste.
Each piece was slowly, deliberately enjoyed. Livia cut a smaller piece, pierced it.
Hunter III closed her eyes and leaned forward, her mind soaring with bliss.
Then she felt Livia’s hand take her hood by the neck. Pull her forward, suddenly, forcefully.
Her eyes drew wide as Livia drew her into a kiss, feeding her the meat mouth to mouth.
Their tongues entwined, the meat partially chewed– tasting the wax in Livia’s lipstick.
Livia briefly pulled back. “I wish I could taste humanity like you, little Hunter.”
Her tongue and lips parted but still connected to Hunter III’s by spittle and meat juices.
With a sudden surge of strange passion, the Omenseer pushed forward and kissed her back.
Wanting to taste Livia’s lips and tongue as much as the meat.
In the middle of the hangar, while the crew went about their tasks around her, Selene was completely clad in power armor and standing across a series of ruler marks that Norn had projected onto the floor. The girl had been equipped with the chestplate, arms and legs of an Imbrian power armor, its battery installed on her lower back. Everything sans helmet. She looked quite disgruntled, but Norn rarely saw a contented face from her anyway.
Norn had a very specific reason for setting all of this up. She walked up to Selene.
“Alright Selene, your task will be to step forward with your back straight.” She said.
“Is this a joke?” Selene said. “How does walking around in power armor help me–?”
Before Selene could complete her sentence, Norn pulled the battery out of the armor.
Selene stared at it, suddenly incredulous.
Various LED lights on the armor’s limbs and chest suddenly went dark.
“Norn– I can’t move!” She shouted. Her arms were at her sides, her legs standing.
However, judging by her head and neck, she was struggling, trying to pull her weight.
“I’m well aware.” Norn said. “Without the energy pack, the locomotion assistance on the power armor will not work. A Katarran or a strong Loup could still move, but I know you cannot. You’ll just be wearing an enormous suit of hydraulics and electric muscles and other complicated and pretty heavy gear. All of it dead weight. And your task remains– to move forward. Each fall is a demerit; every step you can take a new horizon for you.”
“How the hell am I supposed to move even one step like this?” Selene shouted.
“You just demonstrated you can lift almost 200 kg.” Norn said. She then shrugged with a grin on her face. “Put some of that prodigious genetic brainpower to good use.”
“Norn!” Selene shouted, gritting her teeth and shaking and whining ever more irascibly.
“I’ll give you a tip. Use kinesis on your arms and legs. Move with your entire body and focus on moving your entire body, not just one body part at a time. Develop a rhythm.”
Selene looked to have tired herself out with fruitless struggle, panting with her head down.
Norn was about to mock her again, when a drone stepped up to her from the sidelines.
“Milord, the bridge has decrypted an Extreme Low Frequency message for you.” He said.
“From whom?” Norn asked. Nobody should have been sending her ELF messages.
“The text purports its sender as Admiral of the Fleet Frederich Urning.” Said the drone.
“Huh? Truly. Well, hand it over– we can set up a video call once we’re at depth again.”
Norn absentmindedly took the printed ELF message, less interested in the content than the sender. He had gone behind Erich’s back to contact her, using clandestine means like the ELF. Konstantin’s biggest fan– she wondered, truly wondered. Was he up to something?
Her mind was afire, her curiosity piqued.
What was happening in the Palatine? How was Urning getting on after his idol’s death?