“Descending through Upper Scattering Layer. Depth 550 meters. Depth 575 meters–”
“Reducing velocity. Thrust development capped at sixty percent due to battle damage.”
“No sign of upper level scanning from below, neither acoustic nor radiation-based.”
“No sign of Republic mines or drones, nor any leftover Grand Western Fleet ordnance.”
“Depth 600. We will soon descend into Southern Ayre, on the border with Rhinea.”
As the drones reported on the situation, the main screen showed a diagram of the water table with the four main depths that mattered to humans. Between the surface of the water and the corruption that lay beyond, and the 500-550 meter depth mark, was the Photic Zone, where the sun’s light could still penetrate the water– that is, if the rays could actually penetrate the befouled atmosphere first. From around 550 to 700 was the Upper Scattering Layer, where the most significant quantities of fish and marine life congregated. There was so much activity in this region and it was so consistent that sonar and LADAR imaging would capture it as a sort of continuous wall that received a name. Then, there was the Aphotic zone, from the end of the Scattering Layer to a depth of about 3000 meters.
This was the new home of the human species.
In certain places, called the Great Reaches, humans could live at lower depths– but the average human lived around 1000 meters below the sea, and a significant amount lived much deeper. War and intrigue; love and hope; these things moved from their birthplaces in the surface of the planet Aer, to this particular depth of its oceans. Below 3000 meters was the Hadal zone, or in the parlance of the ocean’s humans, the Abyssal zones. Utterly lightless, these depths were usually encountered only within deep wounds gouged in Aer’s crust, called Gorges or Abysses, named after the first foolhardy soul to have found them and likely died in them. To civilization writ large there was nothing there worth going so deep. But to various individuals and even some organizations, these depths held such value that it was worth the risk of never being heard from again, and dying a horrific death.
To those who truly knew, deeper than the trenches, there was a fifth depth–
But– that was not the concern of Norn von Fueller on this day.
As the Antenora breached the cloud of fish and squid and krill and other creatures, it descended into the world of humanity, where human problems awaited.
Soon, at about 800 meters depth, the ship ceased its descent. It was just over the bottom of a vast, sandy slope that led north into the heart of the Great Ayre Reach. Their destination was to the south, even deeper down the slope to the rocky, dark terrain of Eisental– but for now, they remained, sailing above the sand. Eerie waves sifted tiny particulate clouds from dunes below, the earth colored blue by the water’s consumption of the light.
Suspended in the murk above the dunes, the sleek, sword-shaped Cruiser glided through.
“Connect to the Myrkr relay and loiter. Keep an eye out for any patrols.” Norn said.
“Why are we loitering? Can I download some magazines?” Adelheid asked.
“Not now. Wait until we’re about to leave again. I have some calls to make.” Norn said.
Adelheid pouted, but Norn left her behind on the bridge without another word.
She made her way to a meeting room with a video monitor and some privacy.
Every room had a bearing monitor on the wall, a small LCD that displayed information, the same in every room, about the current situation. In battle it might have profiles of enemy ships, their positions and any damage incurred by the vessel. At rest, it would have current headings and any relevant ETAs for the ship’s current journey.
At that moment, the bearing monitor in Norn’s meeting room showed her when they would be in range of the Myrkr relay. This was one of the few data relays laid in the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Officially managed by Aachen, it could also be used to transmit to the “illegal settlement” Trelleborg in the southern Ayre trench.
Even in the current state of war, Rhinea and the Palatine had not cut these cables yet. An Empire-wide cable data network that was accessible wirelessly via the relays, was, in 979, still a relatively young piece of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things. It was one of Konstantin’s few innovations that actually bore fruit and changed the lives of his citizens for the better. Its usefulness for business and military matters alike meant that it had to continue to exist, even if in a stagnant state, as the Empire itself began to die.
So Norn could show up to her digital rendezvous with a certain Frederich Urning.
Once the Antenora was in range of the Myrkr relay, the communications drone in the bridge put out an encrypted call to the Naval HQ for the Grand Western Fleet. Using the high command’s cypher code it would indicate to the operator that this was a very high ranking officer seeking to communicate with another very high ranking officer. They would discreetly connect Norn through to the correct commander and record none of it. Within moments, that meeting room on the Antenora connected to the Naval HQ in Klagenfurt.
Across the wires, through the digital encryption, she first heard one word. “Norn.”
By way of greeting this was the only thing Admiral Frederich Urning said at first.
He appeared on the screen with a blurred backdrop, only his face and body were visible.
For someone close to Konstantin’s age (and not grown out of a vat) Frederich looked half his years. There was an onset of wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, advanced, but not widespread; his hair still had streaks of its original black color, brushed long down his back, alternating with grey; his skin was still uniformly fair. High cheekbones and deep-set eyes gave him an intense countenance. His only facial hair was a bit of grey cultivated on his chin.
While Konstantin withered, Frederich remained mountainous. Strong shoulders, broad-backed, with a wide chest and midsection and lean, muscled limbs. All now covered under silk finery, ever the nobleman-general. But through his eyes Norn could still see the killer in him. She could sense his vindictive feelings. She knew the only reason why he would have asked to speak with her alone. But she was not going to let him have his answers so easily.
“Frederich, how lovely to see you. How are you getting on? Need another loan?”
Frederich remained stoic to the provocations. “I am on the crossroads of a major decision and I wanted to seek your counsel. There are questions I have which only you can speak to.”
“You look surprisingly more sober than last I saw you.” Norn said, continuing to needle.
“Norn, you know me. Anger is the medicine that does me the most good.” He replied.
“Indeed, they call it the Vekan temperament, no?”
He had no response to that. He never confirmed nor denied that part of his heritage.
Nevertheless Norn continued to tease him about it in perpetuity for that very reason.
“Let’s get the point. Norn, were you involved in the death of Konstantin?” Frederich asked.
His voice was calm, his words direct; but she could detect a hint of that anger of his.
“Yes.” Norn said. She had no reason to lie; no fear of him nor of any consequences.
“Qualify that.” Frederich said. “Erich was part of it too, wasn’t he?”
There was no reason for Norn to lie, but neither would she give everything up to a fool.
Frederich knew her– and because he knew, he knew what to ask her that she would respect.
Had he forgotten, she would have just let him stay half-informed. But he still knew her.
“Indeed. Throw in Leda too– you never could fill the woman-shaped hole in his heart.”
That did bother him. She could tell by the vaguest twitch in his left temple.
In his aura, and in his overall expression, the anger was cleverly hidden.
Both of them knew each other too well. They were both Konstantin’s close companions.
“I do not care about your reasons. But you know what I must do now.”
“Honestly, I have no idea what you will do, except that it will be tedious, like you are.”
Frederich, who had wanted to bend the knee to Konstantin as a lover more than anything.
Right-hand man pledging as a right-hand, never turned away–
Konstantin did love him, but not as he wanted to be loved.
Even when it became sexual between them.
“I received information implicating you and the Prince in the death of the Emperor. But as a comrade-in-arms, and because you are Konstantin’s dearest sister, I wanted to confirm for myself what Code Weiss found.” Frederich said. For the first time in the conversation his expression subtly darkened, his brows furrowing slightly. His tone rose, just a hint. “Norn, I knew when I called that I would see your mocking grin. I knew you would be without sympathy. You only understand violence. It is all you propagate. You ask what I will do?”
Frederich lifted his hand so it appeared on the screen. He showed Norn his bare palm.
Then in his other hand; he held a dagger to the first. Cutting across the palm to draw blood.
“A blood feud on you Norn. I will hunt you like the animal you are. I will bleed you dry.”
“I’m so scared.” Norn mocked. “Go on. I’m practically quivering to hear the rest of this.”
“With blood, there is certitude.” Frederich replied. “I know what I will do; I know what I will do to you when I get my hands on you. But I don’t have even the faintest idea about whether you will speed here to try to defend Erich. Or whether you will inform him of my intention to murder you. Will you warn him what intentions I might have for him, as I require his power to satisfy the requirements of my hunt? How do you truly feel about the boy, sister?”
“Ah– I’m not in the mood to snitch. You all have your fun over there.” Norn said calmly.
“I see. Give me one final piece of tactical advice then, oathsworn sister– do I send Code Weiss after Erich, or after you? It won’t alter the final result of my intentions.” Frederich asked.
Norn shrugged. “If you send Code Weiss here I’ll send her back to you in gift wrapped pieces. Send her after Erich– well, I do not care what happens. At any rate, you have no idea who you are fucking with, Frederich.” She was starting to become just a bit annoyed at this man’s confidence in insulting her and hurling threats. “There are nowhere near enough fools in the Palatine for you to gather up and throw at me, that will stop me tearing your head off. I am not a Jager; there is no one of them, not even the whole Korps, that walks in step with me.”
“I very much know who I am ‘fucking with’, Norn.” Frederich said. “I will not underestimate you. I will make every preparation, and if you see me again, you will know it is the last time you draw breath. Should I fail, I will make sure I first drive the wedge between you and Erich. Then, should you see him again, it will be his blade that cleaves you. I will win, regardless.”
“Fascinating.” Norn laughed. “Do what you will then. But remember, if you’re coming to meet me, don’t come alone. And don’t just bring Weiss. You’ll need the entire Western Fleet.”
Frederich shut his eyes to Norn’s boasting. The connection to him cut out shortly thereafter.
Her heart remained unmoved by this display. Except, perhaps to feel a bit of pity for him.
Ultimately this would be Erich’s problem– to use any of the Palatine’s resources against her, Frederich would have to convince Erich to go after Norn, or get Erich out of the way and take over using Code Weiss. Then, even assuming the best possible scenario where the revenge killings and chaos in the political class and military remains perfectly contained, Frederich would have to cross into Eisental and fight the Volkisch Movement to even get near Norn. She could easily go to ground in Rhinea. If Erich, who was talented, and greatly respected, and young, with inherited authority, had not yet launched an invasion of Rhinea–
–then Frederich’s chances could not be any poorer.
In the grand scheme of things this was low on the list of things that concerned Norn.
Nevertheless, it was strangely gratifying to see that man again, and she wished him luck.
Maybe, if he succeeded– there would be some sort of justice in it.
For a man to kill for romantic love, in the stories of the Imbrium, was more righteous–
than for a woman to kill for justice or family– or for a son to kill for ambition.
“I’ll be expecting you then, Frederich. I hope you still fight like old times.” Norn sighed.
The Antenora continued to loiter around Myrkr relay for several days.
Anchored to the relay structure and hovering over the calm, sandy slopes of southern Ayre, it presented a more stable platform for the completion of certain crucial repairs. Anything that they could do themselves now was worth doing. Norn did not fully trust the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild. Much of it was composed of trade unionists and leftists, who did not trust her either; however her specific hosts were the rightists among the Guild, made up of imperial loyalists and pseudofascists with private holdings in Stockheim infrastructure, who only joined the Guild as necessary obeisance to carry out their own business unmolested.
While they played nice with the rest of the Guild as a kind of honor among thieves, they had a more venal impetus toward their work and customers than the unionists. They would be looking to use her for their own profit; she would be doing the same just as much.
Leftists could sometimes be comradely, but among rightists, it was always a den of snakes.
To prevent them from wringing every last pfennig out of her, she opted to have her own crew fix as much as they could in the relative calm of Southern Ayre. Due to the fact that Ayre was a constant battlefield for the Imperials and Republicans, subject to unpredictable skirmishing even between the apocalyptic all-out battles that took place in it; Ayre, for all its beauty, was largely off limits to most traffic. It was infrequently patrolled by flesh and blood humans. Instead drones and mine fields held sentinel over much of the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Murmurs of such things kept people out– there was too much risk.
Excepting the trench, where there was always a buzz of illicit activity around Trelleborg.
This meant the Antenora was likely to avoid both Volkisch and Palatine forces there.
If she ran into anybody, they were likely a Trelleborg traveler minding their own business.
Scavengers in the great fields of ruined ships, recently watered; smugglers bridging local black markets in Rhinea and the Palatine; gang bosses looking to profit off them all, jockeying for position within Trelleborg and the right to set the rules of trade. Between all of them, people who had no place to go, outlaws, mercs, victims of Imbria’s unjust laws, people who fell through gaps, human traffickers and the trafficked, information brokers and brave or foolhardy merchants for whom the den of iniquity was just one more spot on the map to hawk goods. Trelleborg was its own nation crammed into ships jammed between rock.
All this life, skirting the beautiful, calm and sunlit waters of the Reach itself, that bore witness to the unending historical hatred the Republic of Alayze held for the Imbrian Empire.
When she looked outside, Norn saw none of that romanticism in front of her eyes.
Only sand, and the blunt spire-like structure of the relay with its massive laser receptors.
She left the bridge in the hands of her adjutant and made her way to the lower deck.
In the hangar, Selene was still dressed in power armor, without a battery pack.
All manner of obscenities had been spoken in that hangar over the past day.
In the background of Selene screaming, cursing, insulting anyone close to her–
Norn spotted her most reliable standby pilot, Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.
Arms crossed, not looking at Selene but clearly amused by her predicament.
Selene was incredibly strong, but Yurii was a soldier. She took and executed orders well.
Having picked her up as a defector from the Empire of Veka, Norn had initially questioned how useful she would come to be, but the more that was thrown their way, the more she appreciated that in spite of her hedonistic behavior, Yurii did every job she was told to do. A consummate professional hid behind that devilish playboy smile.
Smiling similarly, Norn approached her.
“Yurii, I’ve been meaning to talk to you, but as you can see, I’ve been rather busy.”
“I’m at your service always, milord. I have no qualms to being on standby.”
Yurii, still smiling, put a fist to her chest and bowed on her feet.
Shimii never bowed to another, it was against their religion to bow because only God was superior to a human; Southern Loup, however, often bowed to the waist while remaining standing. Unless it was required of them to get on the ground, such as in the presence of the Emperor, it was against their culture to put their heads to the floor. Of course, depending on the circumstances, anybody of any religion could be forced to beg.
Norn understood that Yurii was truly a loup’s Loup: raised within the culture.
“Do you envision yourself remaining in my service for long, Yurii?” Norn asked.
Yurii raised herself back up.
She continued to smile, that confident little grin, a predator’s grin.
There was a lot backing that confidence up.
Yurii was a strikingly beautiful girl, youthful, athletic, well-figured, with a wild character both to her soul and flesh. Dark olive skin and earthy green eyes, her black hair falling down her shoulders and back in wild waves, stiff dark fur on her tall wolf’s ears and her long, slender tail. She had an agile body, with lean, flexible muscles, more visible in the pilot’s bodysuit she wore than in the white and purple men’s suit that she had arrived wearing.
“For as long as you’ll have me, or until I go down with this ship.” Yurii said.
“I’m curious to know your reasoning for this. Do you think you will profit here?”
“A pragmatic soldier would prefer to work for someone who is strong and connected, than for someone weaker and less influential. There is more danger, perhaps, but more resources to tackle that danger. For me, personally, I have always wanted to serve a great lord and enjoy killing, women, riches– and I have a deep respect for the way you carry yourself.”
“I am glad to have made a positive impression.” Norn said, smiling with amusement.
There was nothing facetious about the way Yurii spoke.
She was not heaping idle praise.
“I admit I was a keen liar, but around you, everyone is stripped of such pretenses. It’s not just that you are powerful. You command respect because you will not tolerate disrespect.” Yurii continued. “I have always wanted to command respect and demand my own dignity.”
“You have potential, Yurii. You are strong, dutiful and sharp; and despite your pretensions, as a liar, a snark, and as a womanizer, you are also finally demonstrating some humility. That’s good. I knew you before; or well, I knew of you. I worked with your grandfather. He worried about you, but I believe you have turned out well enough as an adult.”
She had a small laugh at her own description of Yurii, and Yurii laughed with her.
Yurii turned out well, despite her vices. Vices were beside the point for Norn after all.
“I was aware of your involvement with my grandfather. I am thankful for your praise.”
“I accepted your defection on its own merits, of course. Not for your grandfather.”
“Of course. I would never want nor expect someone like you to be swayed by noble blood.”
“You do have a storied lineage, Yurii.”
Yurii’s grin very slightly softened. “We had an illustrious past.” She said.
Emphasis, past– but it did not need to remain that way.
Norn looked her in the eyes.
Though she spoke of completely esoteric subjects, she was serious in every word she said. “Your ancestor Samoylovych-Daybringer, was a great champion of the Nocht Loyalists who took refuge in Veka after the Fueller coup. He was a legendary warrior said to have had the knack known as Volshebstvo, granted to him by a fairy. Your grandfather, the High Inquisitor Samoylovych-Deepestshore– I can confirm he also exhibited these abilities. I want to know, Yurii, whether you were taught such things, and who taught them to you, if it is so.”
“My family never recovered its martial glory after the Fueller Reformation, milord. I have no such great powers. As you said; my grandfather worried about me. As he grew older, and deferred his retirement more and more, he distanced himself. He did not train me.”
“Truly? He was always such a family man. I thought you would have been his pride.”
Though Yurii had other family, she inherited many titles as her elders and siblings perished.
Her grandfather should have had no one else to carry on his legacy.
Norn thought Yurii sounded just a bit more bitter than before as she explained her situation.
“I was born under a bad star. Everyone could see it. The birth book assigned me the spiritual name Darkestdays– and I just grew up a bad kid. A violent kid; I loved fighting and making trouble since I was very young. Many would say, I am still a thoroughly wicked person. I think that my grandfather feared how far I might go to seek glory in bloodshed. To worsen matters, I inherited a male position as a woman, which is traditional but inauspicious.”
Norn nodded along as Yurii spoke. That certainly made sense, but made no difference.
“I am not your grandfather– I do not fear you becoming more violent nor more influential. I will grant and teach you Volshebstvo. Yurii, I believe you have the potential to be the second coming of Samoylovych-Daybringer. You are steady and ambitious. Hungry. Passionate. All good things when it comes to mastering the power your ancestors wielded half in ignorance. Once you awaken, I could confidently leave any matter in your hands. Right now, more than ever, I need someone I can trust to cut through men as Daybringer could.”
For once, Yurii’s façade of confident mockery seemed to melt into genuine surprise.
“Milord– As always I am at your service.” She said, as if not knowing how to respond.
“Good. I knew you would not deny me. I am curious to know one more thing.”
“Anything, milord.” Yurii said. She was clearly still trying to hide her emotions.
“Were I to be killed, what would you go on to do?” Norn asked.
Yurii crossed her arms. She averted her gaze for a moment, and then smiled back at Norn.
“Well, first, I would annihilate the bastard responsible. I’d try to make sure Adelheid and Selene and Hunter III are okay; any of your crew would be welcome to follow me. Then– perhaps I would return home and see if there is any opportunity left in Veka. I’m sure somebody must be plotting against that trumped-up horse breeder calling herself the Empress. I am sure I could maneuver myself into an influential position.” Yurii said.
Norn smiled. She was quite pleased with that response.
There was not a hint of a lie in what Yurii said. Good– Norn liked honest people.
“I will induct you soon. We will need privacy. You will be vulnerable for the duration.”
“I have heard tales of the grand visions that accompanied the fairy’s blessing.”
“I’m the fairy here, so your vision will be horrific. But you’ve come to expect that, right?”
Yurii blinked. “I see. Well, I am open-minded toward anything that grants me power.”
Norn turned her sight back toward the center of the hangar.
After a few more minutes of tantrums, Selene was once again quietly in concentration.
She finally managed to lift one foot, and set it down hard a few centimeters ahead.
Her power armor boot stamping on the metal with a loud thud.
“Atta girl!” Norn shouted. “Keep it up! You’ll have walked a meter in no time!”
“Fuck you! I hope your heart stops! I hate you so much!” Selene shouted back.
She could not turn her head completely to face Norn but still stuck out her tongue at her.
“Milord, I usually make a point to stay out of things.” Yurii said, also watching Selene. “But the abilities Selene possesses to link up with her machine, that’s also Volshebtsvo, isn’t it? So what she is doing now is a form of training to improve her power, isn’t she?”
“Right. You’ll have to do this too sometime.”
“Power stagnates without challenge. You know by now what kind of place this is.”
Norn reached out and patted Yurii on the shoulder.
Yurii’s ears bent slightly at the tips as she watched Selene struggle from then on.
Despite this, she never turned her eyes away, nor did she stop smiling.
When she came to, the skinny girl caught a sweet and sharp scent that wetted her nostrils.
Her vision was a little bit hazy. Her mouth tasted like blood.
It was good– there was almost a sense of euphoria. She was calm, her breathing steady.
There was a bit of weight over her body. She had to make an effort to lift her arm.
Blankets. Several layers of blankets stacked over her body.
Her nude, pale body, which would have been completely exposed without the blankets.
Sweat trickling down her neck and back, over her breasts. Her tail dangling off the other end of the bed. Between her legs, she felt hyper-aware of her dick, slightly moist, vaguely twitching. Flaccid. Her hips wanted to shake when she thought of it, and she stiffened a little. When she saw it she felt momentarily confused as to what had happened–
then it all seemed to hit her all at once.
biting down on a woman’s shoulder,
smelling her hair,
tasting her skin, her tongue, her heat,
the heft of her body, breast against breast,
feeling her from inside,
until she lost the sense of herself to the sense of her
For a moment she was stunned at the idea that she had sex with a Hominin.
Even more that she had enjoyed it.
That thinking about it made her want to get hard again.
Hunter III pulled the blankets back up over herself and looked to her right.
In the bedroom, the only source of light was a monitor brought up on the wall near a desk.
There sat Livia, fiddling with her injector in one hand, and scrolling through a document.
Her golden hair disheveled, wet, trailing down her back. Dressed in only her white coat.
Slightly falling off her fair shoulders.
Long legs bare, playfully balancing one heeled shoe on the tips of her toes.
Hunter III thought Livia must have heard her shuffling under the blankets.
But she did not turn around to acknowledge her. Was she working?
After– all of that–? How did she feel about it?
Perhaps the most complicated feelings that had ever crossed Hunter III’s brain came to her in that instant. She did not know to feel about anything. Was it special, what they had done? Was it unique? Why did she want it to be? Or was it just simple consumption–
like eating good meat?
Some part of her felt like she was in danger. Fight or flight.
It was the most proximate feeling to the mix of thrill and anxiety now swelling in her chest.
However, she was also happy– sated– contented–?
Like she had eaten something tasty. That sense of the fulfillment of her vices.
She felt like she could lay in Livia’s bed forever.
Her life, often a blur of hunger and urgency and mania– was suddenly slow and peaceful.
But there was too much on her mind for her to stay silent.
“Hey– Doctor– are you there?”
From the Desk, Livia turned around. Legs shut, but breasts completely exposed.
She really was wearing nothing but her white coat.
Her makeup was a bit smeared. She smiled like Hunter III had never seen her smile.
“Had a nice nap, little Hunter?” Livia asked. “Did you dream of being a fish?”
“No, no dreams.” Hunter III said.
“I’ll have to write that down. How do you feel?” Livia asked.
“I feel really weird.” Hunter III said.
For a moment Hunter III felt an intense and sudden sense of anxiety about Livia’s words.
“Were– were you just toyin’ with me? Like a test?” Hunter III asked dejectedly.
“Oh no, I greatly enjoyed myself. It was an experiment, but not a frivolous one.”
“Not like the kind when you stick me with stuff?”
“Absolutely not.” Livia said. “I hope I gave you as good a time as I received.”
“I felt real good.” Hunter III said. She smiled back, bearing her teeth.
Livia laughed. “I will write that down as well then.”
“How would you feel about another round? I can make more time for you.”
Hunter III’s eyes drew open and she felt a tightening sensation between her legs.
“Eh– No– I think I oughta be watchin’ out for Leviathans.”
“So you can’t do that during sex? I’ll write that down.”
“Are you sure you didn’t do this just to write down stuff about me.” Hunter III mumbled.
“My priorities were pleasure first. Yours and mine.” Livia said gently.
“But you’re still writin’ stuff down.”
“I am always writing stuff down, little Hunter. But I did not sleep with you just for that.”
“Okay. I guess– that makes me feel some kinda way.”
“A better way?”
“I’m glad. I really don’t want you to feel like I used you. I think we both stood to gain.”
“I guess so, huh?”
Hunter III laid back in bed, sighing, swinging her tail.
They had done this, so, would things change? Were they like Norn and Adelheid now?
This was an aspect of humanity she only really understood in relation to examples.
She had observed Hominin, spied on them, watched their cultural products.
So she was not entirely alien to these concepts, but she still did not understand them well.
Her feelings were so much more complicated than she could explain.
“So– do ya want me to do anythin’ now?” She asked.
“Just be yourself. Continue to serve in your capacities.” Livia said.
“That’s it? You’re really not gonna ask me anythin’ more?”
“Yes. I do not want to interfere with your life, and Norn would be displeased if I asked for your exclusivity or loyalty.” Livia raised a finger to her lips, wearing a coquettish grin. “Of course, if you could devote time and visit my clinic more often, I would be ecstatic at the prospect. I am– intrigued with you. I would love to– understand you better.”
She hesitated a few times.
Hunter III could see in her aura that Livia’s feelings were complicated as well.
She did not push her to say anything. She didn’t even know what she’d want to hear.
That they loved each other, or whatever? Hunter III hardly understood what that meant.
She did know that she would look forward to fucking her again. She enjoyed it.
Livia tasted good. Her skin, her sweat, her blood– suddenly, Hunter III felt anxious again.
“Hey, uh– you don’t seem like you have a good sense of like, keepin’ alive. I feel like oughta say. Someday, if I get too outta hand– I could end up eatin’ more than y’bargained for. I could bite down, and keep bitin’, and not stop until I’ve bitten through everythin’. I would feel really bad if that happened– I don’t wanna eat any of Norn’s friends! I really don’t wanna. But if we keep doing this it could happen! I can’t say that it never won’t, do you get it?!”
She was so distressed. Her head was full of conflicting emotions.
Who cares if one hominin went missing?! What kind of omenseer would bother?
Who cares– she was so delicious, even! Maybe Livia was more delicious than anyone!
And yet, in that moment, this was also bound up in a grave and painful feeling.
In any context– not being able to see Livia again would really hurt her.
Livia had given her meat, and taken an interest in her, and said nice things–
(They had explored each other’s flesh as never before– more intimate than eating–)
–there was no replacing her, she was not just any hominin anymore.
It would hurt Hunter III if she ate her, and she was gone and would never come back.
(It would hurt Hunter III if Livia could discard her as easily as Hunter III could kill her.)
“I’m not completely helpless. Nor suicidal.” Livia said. “But I’ll keep it in mind and take appropriate precautions, for both of our sakes. I admit, being eaten by you would be such a fascinating biological experience in its own right– but I know it would distress you.”
“You’re so weird.” Hunter III said, averting her gaze. Feeling embarrassed.
“Do you want to know why I became a doctor, Hunter III?” Livia asked, grinning again.
“It’s because you’re kinda crazy.” Hunter III said meekly.
Livia laughed. She crossed one bare leg over the other.
“Because the human body fascinates me.” She hugged her arms around herself. “I want to feel the thrill of biology, to touch the source of being alive. Taking care of patients ended up being something of its own reward, sometimes– but I purely, selfishly wanted the chance to influence my own body and those of others in every possible, available way. To study every surgery, to learn every drug, to know every chemical, to observe every protein.”
Her slender fingers slid along the exterior of the injector she was fidgeting with.
Hunter III thought that this woman sounded insane.
However, she had to admit also, she was fascinated by her too.
Yurii might have wanted to eat her, but Livia wanted to be eaten. That was appealing.
“So you did all this because you like injectin’ yourself for fun huh?” Hunter III said.
“An efficient way to put it.” Livia said, spinning the injector in her fingers.
“Well. I like you so I’m glad you’re here, I guess.” Hunter III said. Averting her eyes again.
“I like you quite a bit as well, little Hunter.” Livia said. She smiled. Hunter III felt calm.
Casually and calmly, Livia then turned around to her computer, nonchalantly back to work.
Hunter III simply watched her silently from the bed.
Contentedly demanding nothing.
“I’m back in the same meeting room. Spin up the line to Trelleborg.”
From the bridge, the Antenora reconnected to the relay and contacted Trelleborg.
Trelleborg continued to be connected to the laser relay network because it technically used a relay set up by the defunct Imperial Petroleum Company. It was one of the earliest cable relays, running between Rhinea, Palatine and the Great Ayre Trench. With the entry of Bosporus, Veka and Sverland into the Empire, the supply of petroleum increased to such a degree it bloated the reserves, and therefore, the price of petroleum collapsed so deeply that even the poor could drink some with every meal– if they had peculiar tastes.
The Imperial Patroleum Company abandoned its now meager extraction operations in Ayre and the Palatine, and the earliest Trelleborg outlaws converted much of their infrastructure– including taking over data communications themselves for clandestine purposes.
After the Fueller Reformation, when the network was revamped and wireless capabilities were added, the Trelleborgeans added laser and acoustic capacities to their own relay. It could not be reached automatically by Imperial computers, but with knowledge of Trelleborg’s data address there was nothing to stop communication with them.
They were never blocked, and the cables were working as they always had. Much like other illicit operations in the Empire, they were unacknowledged and unthought of, and this was enough. Those who wanted to make use of Trelleborg still could. That was that.
So long as they were discrete, anyone with wealth and connections could play with fire.
This time, rather than connecting to the Naval HQ operators at Klagenfurt, the Antenora connected to an automated system ran on the Trelleborg mainframe whose only function was to receive the appropriate data address and connect the requester to it. There was no human element. If you knew the address, you could input it and reach someone. If you did not, and you guessed wrong, you were kicked out for some amount of real time. The Antenora knew exactly who it was trying to reach, so it was soon connected.
“So I’m allowed to watch this one? How gracious of you.”
Norn was accompanied in the private meeting room by Adelheid.
She was annoyed at being left out of other business, so Norn mollified her for once.
On the screen, a metal wall came into view first. Bare, nothing in it.
However, Norn could see the blurring edges near the bottom and center of the image. There was something being censored so that there was only the bare wall visible. There was no sound for a few moments– then, suddenly, the screen flashed, and there was an inversion of white and black. Adelheid nearly jumped, frightened by the sudden shift.
A pencil-scrawled smiley face appeared.
“How did you get your hands on this address? State your business!”
As a distorted voice came through the screen, the childishly-drawn smiley face flapped its scrawled lips in turn with the voice. Mentally, Norn overlayed the familiar voice she remembered of this character, over that which was being broadcast.
Before Norn could speak up, the voice resumed with greater intensity.
“Don’t even think about trying anything– I can easily take advantage of the direct connection to fuck with you in ways you can’t even imagine! I’ll lock you out of everything!”
“I don’t doubt it, Amur.” Norn said. “But I would find some way to go wring your neck for it.”
When the distorted voice next sounded, it took on a more emphatic tone.
“Huh?! Cocytus?! Cocytus is that you?”
“Indeed– but henceforth, call me Norn, or our business is concluded.”
“Oh! Indeed! Indeed– for one so great as you–! I– W-w-wait one moment please.”
Audio and video both briefly cut, but the connection remained stable on both ends.
“Hmph. Are all people from Trelleborg this far up their own crevices?”
Adelheid stared at the screen with an aggrieved expression, arms crossed.
“It was a cheap scare, you don’t have to be embarrassed.” Norn replied.
Narrowed eyes and a turned cheek. Adelheid refused to look at the screen again.
Her cheeks soon glowed with the light of the LCD as the picture resumed.
Now they were clearly looking at someone’s office.
There was a desk, a big chair with leather backing and barely any of that bare metal wall from before. Most importantly, there was now someone occupying the desk. Gloved hands briefly steepled in front of her face before laying on the desktop to unveil grinning lips. A fair and girlish and pretty face– belonging to the excommunicated Sunlight Foundation Immortal once known as Amur, and apparently still going by that codename.
Amur seemed to be doing well for herself, judging by her clothing. A gold-trimmed purple sportcoat buttoned over what appeared to be a ruffled silk shirt, hugging her thin frame close; gold cufflinks, dark wine-colored gloves; resting lightly atop her head was a purple kepi military cap with a golden badge in front depicting what seemed to be a waveform graph. Out from under her kepi, a wavy bob of silky, light blueish hair fell neatly to just over her small shoulders, with swept, sleek bangs over her forehead. Her eyes were clearly cybernetic, blue with subtle but visible rings of millions of photoreceptors.
Norn could also see the vague impression of her antennae, which were very thin, neon-blue and semi-circular, jutting out of where her ears would have been. Only the vaguest impression of their existence was perceptible beneath her hair, but Norn had known her when these antennae were larger and more obvious and far less aesthetically pleasing. Given the upgrade, Norn surmised Amur had access to a laboratory. Or was still friends with people on the bleeding edge of cybernetic research– but very few people other than herself would be doing such advanced research into new gear for Hartz syndrome victims.
“Greetings, Co– ahem, Norn! Norn the Praetorian! Of course, I knew this already. You quite liked that story of the fate-spinning Norn that Ganges told you– so when I heard that an Imperial operative by the name of Norn was making waves, I knew it had to be you. I’m glad that you were able to escape Yangtze’s clutches. And ecstatic that we can do business!”
An enormous sunshine-y smile appeared on her face, and she raised V-signs in both hands.
“I am also glad Yangtze did not keep me sedated and preserved in a jar forever.” Norn said.
“Of course, what an unreasonable and evil woman. Did you know that vile Yangtze IX tried to contact me to repair our relationship? Hah! I told her where to stick it! Never again!” Amur said. She put on an expression of exaggerated and fake pity and sympathy, pouting almost as childishly as Adelheid. When she spoke again, she talked so fast. Her nasally voice and conceited tone were just as annoying as Norn remembered them. “You know Norn, I would have absolutely resisted such actions being taken against you, but I did not know until Yangtze VIII was dead and the Alamos facility imploded. By that point I had been kicked out by Yangtze too, that bitch! She accused me of running away when we fought Mehmed, like I didn’t do my best?! Like it mattered against that monster?! At any rate Norn–”
“Amur, I don’t care.” Norn said. “You are on my shitlist just the same as the rest.”
Amur’s eyes drew wide and she froze with an index finger in the air, mid-sentence.
“Huh?! So you did mean it when you talked about my wringing my neck–?”
She looked suddenly frightened as if Norn was in the room and able to wring her neck.
“Amur, I am here because I want to put you, specifically, off my shitlist.” Norn said.
Amur just suddenly put her hands back down, crossed her arms, and looked smug again.
“You do?! I mean– of course you do. You always had a fantastic eye for a talent and such a good head on your shoulders, Norn! Yangtze and Euphrates and all those fuddy-duddies were just holding you back! Keeping you down! You were always destined for bigger and better–”
Adelheid narrowed her eyes. “How do you stand this woman always lying to you?”
“I make an exception because clearly something is wrong with her.” Norn replied.
Amur continued talking and gesticulating without acknowledging the interruption.
“–as always, dear Norn, you may consider the door to my humble shoppe open–”
Norn sighed. “Fantastic. Shut up now and listen to me.” Amur stopped in her tracks, and began staring nervously at the screen. Norn continued. “I am headed into Rhinea to refit my vessel. I need a few things from you. Primarily, I want to purchase your services as a crew member. I will need electronic support in Aachen. I am limited in what information I can gather, and I am walking into a pit full of vipers with very little intelligence. I cannot rely on the Fueller family or the military anymore, and I burnt my bridge to the Inquisition. It has to be you. You can work from Trelleborg if you can’t make it to Aachen. I’ll go pick you up later. Secondly– What’s with the gesticulation? Are you not able to deliver, Amur?”
“No, no, no!” Amur said. She had been waving her hands defensively. “Not at all, dearest Norn! I would be thrilled to work for you and of course I have the capability you need and more! A genius such as myself would be running digital laps around anyone in the City of Currents!” She put on a little smile again and gestured to herself with her hand. “It’s just, my services are generally paid through a flexible package deal, sliding scale, based on the task, and you know, my costs and fees and deductibles and hazard insurance and such–”
“I’ll pay you in Palladium reserve bars. Guaranteed pure by Fueller treasurers. Doesn’t that sound more appealing than bullshit Imperial marks? I bet your buddies in Trelleborg would love it. And, I’ll throw in something you’ll find even more valuable.” Norn said.
Amur’s eyes lit up at the word ‘Palladium’ and her mouth opened slightly for the rest.
Adelheid glanced at Norn with a skeptical expression on her face.
Norn pulled out a portable she had laid on the desk in the meeting room beforehand.
Switching it on, a wireframe model of a Diver and its various parts appeared.
For a moment Adelheid looked a bit scandalized, but quickly hid her expression.
“Yangtze has a fascinating new toy.” Norn said. “I will give you all the data I have on what she calls the Jagdkaiser type I, including field testing and maintenance data, machine logs, and any blueprint and stitcher data Yangtze offered to support operations. You can keep the data, but I want you to analyze everything, and create a machine on this basis. I know of your interest in prosthetics– you have just enough materials science pedigree for this, don’t you? I’m sure your renowned genius can fill in the rest of the blanks– what do you say?”
Amur’s eyes drew bigger and wider with each additional clause.
She blinked, seemingly realizing her mouth was hanging open.
Quite suddenly, she smiled and shut her eyes and put her hands behind her back.
Leaning forward, sticking out her skinny chest.
“Consider yourself the new employer of a renowned genius, indeed! Indeed! It can only be Amur, the trickster goddess of cyberspace!” She said. Pausing for a laugh that made her voice sound even more nasal for a moment. “I will make sail for Aachen posthaste– until I get there, I will work remotely in whatever capacity you need. Digital intelligence? Electronic warfare? Signals? I can do it all!” For a moment there was a bit of a glow underneath her hair– she had increased the power to her antennae as a demonstration. “Norn, I am so looking forward to our partnership. I haven’t been this excited to work in decades!”
“I knew you would come around.” Norn said. Grinning to herself.
Amur had an– excitable– personality, but she was potentially incredibly useful.
Especially her connection to Trelleborg. Having access to a Host was valuable.
Norn might need a place to run to in the future, if nothing went well.
“In fact, let our partnership bear fruit right away.” Amur said. A conspiratorial gaze and a mysterious grin appeared on her face. She closed in on the screen as if whispering. “Norn, I have connections in the Sunlight Foundation still. There’s been juicy drama recently– the rest of the Immortals are quarreling! Even Yangtze and Euphrates are not getting on–”
“I was aware of this.” Norn said, interrupting. “I appreciate you telling me all the same.”
“Oh! I must give you something to prove my worthiness though, on my own honor.” Amur said. “Did you know then, that Hudson has apparently relocated to Rhinea? Several cargo ships from Theseus Applied Cybernetics, her front company, left Bosporus and the Palatine for Rhinea with significant loads. At the same time as the Volkisch Movement in Eisental is debuting a Shimii brigade under the influence of the Nasser family– don’t you think it’s a big coincidence? Could Hudson be a Shimii nationalist, perhaps? A crypto-nasserite?”
“Now that is something I did not know. Something juicy, too– let’s keep an eye on it.”
“Aye, aye! Captain!” Amur made a mock salute. “Say, may I ask a– clarifying question?”
“Of course. No need to be so stuffy– aren’t we old war buddies?” Norn replied.
Amur looked briefly uncomfortable. She tapped two index fingers together.
“It is about that actually– am I off your ‘shitlist’ as you say, now?” Amur asked sheepishly.
Norn smiled. “Completely. I would not think of touching a hair on your head– that is to say, I will not seek vengeance for past slights. You know how things work of course– if you make poor decisions on this job, your neck will quickly become imperiled again. So rest easy, knowing you will render excellent service and not piss me off so monumentally. Right?”
Continuing to twiddle the same two index fingers, Amur averted her gaze, smiling.
“Of course. I would not dare think of it. I will be a real MVP on your team!”
“That’s the spirit. Start making preparations. I’ll give you bearing data periodically.”
Amur turned back to the screen. She smiled, again– but it was a different kind of smile.
Gentler and much less conceited.
“Norn, I wanted to say– business and profits aside– it is actually nice seeing ‘Cocytus’ again. I– I am truly sorry for what happened. I know– It’s been decades.” Her voice sounded pained. “This must seem like a joke to you, but I think, all of us held you in high esteem.”
Anyone else, Norn would have just cut off and told to fuck themselves. How dare they?!
Euphrates, Ganges, Yangtze, any of them, the pathetic ringleaders of that horrific circus.
However, seeing Amur break her pretense gave Norn just a bit more patience.
She would not give an answer to it. There was no answer to it. It was too painful to touch.
Because Norn recalled the joy she felt in the presence of the Immortal’s “esteem.”
And it was a void in her heart that nothing would ever fill.
Like family she wouldn’t have again. They destroyed it; she destroyed it. It was gone now.
“Let’s talk business later, Amur. I have preparations to make. Good luck; and be cautious.”
Amur nodded solemnly in acknowledgment. Norn shut off the monitor. Her hand lingered.
“I think she turned sincere at the end, Norn.” Adelheid said. A bit of unearned melancholy.
Normally Norn would have told Adelheid to mind her own god damned business–
“I know. But it doesn’t matter. Let’s check up on Selene again and get this boat moving.”
–but her heart had softened a bit, and the only defense against more was to keep moving.
The Antenora soon resumed its journey from Southern Ayre, skirting the Aachen Massif and the Ayre slope down to almost 2800 meters deep in the Northern Eisental plain and hooking west-bound to the other side of the mountains, heading for the station itself.
Along the way the floodlights and cameras caught glimpses of the eerie, alien and desolate landscape of the deep plains. Long stretches of barren, rocky ground or mounds of sand. Life gathered around the dunes, where marine snow collected on solid ground for detritivores to consume; around hydrothermal vents where tube worms fed on minerals surging out of the earth in great billowing gas jets; around red coral born of agglomerated katov mass, eerie tumors on the cracked skin of the planet; and it teemed on the corpses of large animals, like whales and collossal squids, edible to masses of worms, abyssal crabs, and small, bony, blind fish. All of that life, hiding until the death of something made them alive anew.
Through small gatherings of abyssal fish; crabs flitting across the sand; undersea clouds of drifting jellyfish passing through the empty water like their own storm, their very life the thunders; and the glowing circles of beautiful death represented by massive siphonophores, colony organisms lashing out at the little lives around them with neurotoxin-filled stingers. It was so difficult for humans to see such things, for the dark depths of the ocean battled their comparatively weak electric lights to the bitter end. Viewed only through the cameras, the world seemed to empty. But with all of a ship’s sensors, it was possible, at times, and across the spans of days and weeks of sailing, to connect many lives together and see the Ocean still not dead. Perhaps impossible on a station, where lives were stationary.
Out on a ship, however, the instruments awaiting death caught these glimpses of life.
“Siphonophore– 30 meters long– attaching the picture– ahh! A lovely little addition!”
Using pictures from the ship’s navigation cameras, Petra Chorniy-Sunnysea filled a digital scrapbook page with an image of the siphonophore they passed by and her thoughts on it. It was very long, and it was shiny, and it looked blue, when it was lit up by the Antenora’s spotlights. She thought its enormous size and colors were impressive. She had filled the pages with pictures, observations and little lessons she picked up. Her portable computer, with her diary and scrapbook, were Petra’s only valuable possession aside from her weapons and armor, which her lord, Yurii Samoylovych, had taught her to hold dear.
Petra eagerly catalogued the many animals the Antenora went past, as well as the sights.
In her heart, and in her pages, there was a journey through a world teeming with life.
Some people thought her behavior was childish and hypocritical for a murderous knight.
However, Petra had an enthusiasm for all things. She was alive and she loved living.
Her heart was simple and untroubled. She did her tasks with a clear head and good humor.
Petra did not think that her relationship toward death precluded her interest in life.
Whalefalls begot new life; assassinations and assaults created new political possibilities.
Some things died so others could live. Her master lived; her enemies would die.
There were many wicked people in the world; Petra thought Yurii was a very virtuous lady.
Yurii loved life; Petra loved life too. So aligned, master and servant remained in harmony.
Petra killed to live; for her master to live; and so they could enjoy the beautiful world.
“Alright, we’re commencing the briefing. Everybody sit down and shut up.”
Next to the Antenora’s bridge there was a specific meeting room used for debrief and for strategic planning with large gatherings. There was a monitor at the end of the room that could be divided into eight discrete cells with different videos, and desk-chairs in six rows of four. Normally there was a podium but Norn had moved it to the side. In attendance were Norn’s trusted officers, including Adelheid, a tired-looking Selene in a pilot’s bodysuit, a very bored-looking Hunter III, and the working regulars like Livia, Yurii, and Petra.
Neretva had also been summoned, along with three drone managers, one representing the security team, a second representing the sailors and a third representing the bridge. They would relay the information to the rest of the drones and create work schedules.
“I’ll begin by stating that while our objective for the foreseeable future will not be combat, there may well be outbreaks of violence so we need to be prepared.” Norn said. “Part of avoiding combat is knowing where we stand, who to distrust, and having plans laid down.”
She gestured toward one of the divisions on the main monitor.
Then, a logo with a scrawled smiling face wearing a kepi cap appeared on every cell.
“We will be receiving electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and signals support from Amur. She will deliver the rest of the briefing on Aachen. Take it away.” Norn said.
She stepped away from the center cells of the divided monitor so Amur could claim them.
Her real face briefly appeared, greeted everyone, and then a diagram of Aachen appeared.
Including its sub-structures, like the interiors of the Aachen Massif, Stockheim, and so on.
In the audience, Neretva was suddenly scandalized and stood up with a nervous expression.
“Milord, that woman is an excommunicated member of the Sunlight Foundation.” She said.
“So?” Norn asked. “That’s my problem, not yours. Sit back down.”
Neretva’s voice trembled. “But– what if she steals data? You don’t know what she’s–”
“You continue to involve yourself in matters above your station at your own peril.”
At Norn’s warning, Neretva froze up. Selene reached up and pulled her down by her shirt.
Successfully getting Neretva to sit, her hands on her lap and her eyes down at the floor.
Amur’s face appeared on one of the monitor’s next to the diagrams, smiling cheerfully.
“Milord, that Neretva is one of Hudson’s direct apprentices. She might be a liability.”
“No she won’t.” Selene spoke up suddenly. “She’s too much of a wimp to do anything.”
Norn found that assertion a bit more defensive than she would like– but she ignored it.
“I am the only one here who needs to be worried about personnel decisions. I will not hear a word more of this from any of you. Continue with the briefing, now.” Norn said sharply.
“Absolutely, milord! I was merely serving my advisory capacity! Your wisdom and charisma are, as always, deeply impressive and worthy of your grand legend.” Amur averted her gaze as soon as Norn threw her a sharp glance for her flattery. She then cleared her throat and finally commence with the actual meat of the briefing. “At any rate– welcome, ladies and gentleladies, to Aachen Station. Our present objective is to dock at Stockheim and begin the Antenora’s refit. We will also resupply the Antenora, and secure the continuing cooperation of Fueller family loyalists within Aachen to ensure a smooth journey onward.”
Amur extended a hand to her left, where one of the monitors displayed the Stockheim port.
“We will be staying with the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild, under the auspices of a private ship repair and luxury ship design company, Quicksilver Cruising Limited. These guys have a pretty dodgy history within Aachen, but they pay off the Shipbuilder’s Guild for the badge, so they look legit to the untrained eye. Somehow they finagled an exclusive contract for luxury craft to the Matternich family, who are aligned with the Fueller family– so in essence, they are our allies once removed. They have been accused of supporting organized crime, but that’s common for port companies. Nevertheless, we should not rely on them for anything more than discretion and exterior retrofit work. Limit contact with Quicksilver Limited and its employees as much as possible. I’ll keep an eye on them too.”
With another wave of her hands, as if performing a magic trick, Amur dispersed the wireframe diagram of Stockheim and brought up one of the main tower. Its interior was made up of ringed walkways encircling different multi-story atrium spaces each of which hosted something different, like central hanging gardens and sculptures.
Superimposed on the main tower was a logo of a knight’s helmet with two wings growing out of it, one black and one silver and gold, all surrounded by flourishes of cloth.
“Security in Aachen is provided under contract by Rhineametalle’s exclusive subsidiary and military contractor, the Uhlankorp. Specifically,” an orgchart briefly appeared, but Amur quickly selected one particular part and zoomed in on it without heed for the rest, “by the Third Regiment of the Uhlankorp, which operates as a service called On-Site Security Outcomes or OSSO. None of the Uhlankorp has ever seen battle, but the OSSO are especially just trumped up Patrol with the least restrictive recruiting policies. That being said, it would be annoying to get in trouble with them, so just do your best to keep things above board. However– Norn, it does appear someone actually got to them before us.”
Once more, the screen shifted, now showing a picture of Aachen’s surroundings.
Several dozen kilometers south of Aachen, Amur pointed out a circular area.
Itself encompassing a few kilometers of empty wilderness.
“OSSO kept it on the DL, but a ship full of body armor and heavy weapons sent from Stralsund to Aachen went missing recently and they have no idea what happened.” Amur said. “Rhineametalle wanted to stock up OSSO as a precaution owing to recent events in the region. They saw what befell a certain group of thugs called the KPSD in Kreuzung when things got out of control over there. It would be embarrassing if a certified regiment of the Uhlankorp failed to protect their station from a terror attack, right? So who took the guns then? Well, I can come up with a quick list of likely suspects for you–”
Three more organizations’ names appeared over the diagram of the main tower.
“The Nationale Volksarmee, Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and Eisern Front. Three leftist terror groups now rumored to be joining forces– with Aachen as the negotiating table.”
All three of the organization flags melded into a red, black and yellow flag, labeled,
Eisental United Front.
“We’ll be walking into a fairly volatile situation in Aachen! All we want to do is resupply and refit, but it looks like we’ve been assigned a hell of a place to do it!” Amur said, sounding quite amused. “Eisental’s political situation is tense enough as it is. The liberal government in Aachen is on the cusp of being replaced by a Volkisch Gau, and who knows what they’ll be scheming. Now the United Front will be sniffing around too, sizing each other and the Uhlankorp up while they work out this rumored alliance. And who knows whether their members will be able to maintain basic discipline? There could well be an unforeseen incident. And that shipment of missing Uhlankorp guns might just be the dynamite waiting to be lit up and thrown. On top of all that, there’s the Mycenae Military Commission in Stralsund, and then the Shimii post-jihad groups simmering in the background–!”
“Yes, it’s a very fertile ground for trouble.” Norn said, interrupting Amur’s excitable rant. “Which is why everyone needs to be on guard and on their best behavior. I want daily activity reports from anyone who left the port, and before you leave, you’ll be submitting a shore leave request. Unless I personally go with you, nobody leaves Stockheim without submitting a strict timetable. If you are even a second later than written, I will make you regret it.”
Norn cast eyes around the room but most prominently cast them at Selene.
“Huh?” Selene responded near immediately. “What are you looking at me for?”
“You will control your volatile moods in the station. Are we clear?” Norn said.
“Of course we are!” Selene said. “I’m not fucking insane I have tact, you know!”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll be expecting those forms soon if you want to go goof off.”
Selene turned her cheek with a pout. Adelheid patted her on the shoulder.
Norn then turned to Hunter III, who had been mostly staring at her own hands or at Livia.
“Hunter III. You will also be under strict scrutiny. I will have work for you, but it must be conducted exactingly.” She said. Hunter III pointed at herself as if she was confused about who was being yelled at. “There’s no other numbered little cannibal here is there? I will be using you for what you were allegedly made for– infiltration, asset retrieval, maybe even assassination. When I give you a target, you will meet it, without deviation. Are clear?”
“Technicwise y’all aren’t the same thing as me, so it’s not cannibalism.” Hunter III said.
“Are we clear?” Norn asked again. This was her final but foremost concern.
Hunter III grumbled in response, crossing her arms and hiding her face with her hood.
“I know how to follow orders! I’m not dumb! Just tell me what the heck to do!” She said.
“If necessary I can always apply certain drugs to make her compliant.” Livia suddenly said.
Hunter III nearly jumped with surprised. Norn looked at Livia briefly then grinned.
Weeks removed from Goryk’s Gorge, the slightly less damaged Antenora finally docked in the Stockheim port in the row of berths that was administered by Quicksilver Limited.
The Antenora’s first day at port was taxing– a flurry of calls, payments, accommodations for the ship. Veiled threats leveled at Quicksilver orderlies to mind sensitive information when dealing with Fueller family property; reservations made with various people and venues; gathering the permits they needed through the liberal government or the grey market.
Owing to this chaos, everything that needed to be done in Aachen was briefly deferred.
In a rare turn, Adelheid was almost as busy as Norn, having been the one to take inventory and so now assisting in victualing and resupply by contacting various wholesalers and brokerages in Aachen. There were a few notable shortages plaguing Aachen, such as fresh spicy peppers and coffee beans, and so Adelheid ended up chasing as many tails throughout the day as Norn had to and put in a very remarkable effort. She was ordered to rest and relax the following morning and stayed in Norn’s own room after a night spent de-stressing.
On the second day, a drone informed Norn that an ‘enemy vessel’ had docked beside them.
“Clear the target paint, it’s nonsense. What vessel could it be?” Norn said.
“The computer has identified it as the Pandora’s Box at a 68% confidence.”
“What? Let me see.”
On the bridge, Norn watched the cameras pan over to the neighboring berth.
Her smile then stretched slowly from ear to ear–
–at the sight of that very slightly refined but still quite unseemly olive-colored hauler.
“I’ll be stepping outside for a moment. Tell Adelheid I’m greeting some old friends.”
Alone, Norn left the ship through the boarding chute connected to the station berth.
She found herself in a tube-like hallway of steel and glass, elevators connecting it to lower floors, conveyors connecting deeper into the actual port infrastructure of Stockheim. One continuous hall, sparse in decoration, connected every ship in this particular level. Norn’s berth and every vertical row beneath and above it was owned by Quicksilver but right next door there was a berth owned by a league of leftist trade unionists instead.
And in that berth, they had a clandestine guest, the same as she was.
When she exited out onto the hallway, she turned quickly to the bulkhead for her neighbor.
Both ships had pointed their cameras at each other, so they both likely flashed warnings.
Norn waited with amused expectation, hoping to see a certain conceited blond captain–
And found herself more surprised and amused when the bulkhead door finally opened.
Not Ulyana Korabiskaya, not Euphrates, not Elena– nobody she expected aboard.
Instead, a Katarran woman and an equally Katarran companion walked out onto the hall.
From their differing modes of dress, Norn could derive the hierarchy quite quickly. To her the woman with the long red coat and matching military cap, with the button down shirt, pencil skirt and tights– she gave off the energy of someone almost a Katarran warlord. Her dark blue hair falling down her back, heeled shoes, the sword at her hip, and the quiet confidence with which she carried herself, the beauty and grace evident in her every movement.
She was someone who was groomed for command.
Meanwhile the pale-haired girl in the hoodie and pants was just some punk she hired.
“Is that ship under new management?” Norn asked, grinning all the while.
Her appraising red eyes met the wayward, mismatched eyes of the Katarran leader.
“Norn the Praetorian is carrying out ship inspections far from home, it seems.”
The woman responded. They walked to within a few meters of each other.
Close to the bulkhead leading to the Pandora’s Box.
“You know me, of course– but may I have the pleasure of an introduction?” Norn asked.
“My name is Erika. I am an independent security contractor.” Erika said. “This is my ship.”
Erika– she felt like someone familiar. Norn almost had the connection made.
“You were sold a strange bill of goods, lady.” She said. “I’ve had trouble with that ship.”
“Have you any trouble with it today? Consider its business to be my own business.”
“I am merely curious. I hope those bastard cutthroats are still doing alright.” Norn said.
Erika smiled. “All of them are whole and hale, and rendering excellent service.”
“Now I know who you remind me of.” Norn said. “Ever since I saw you, I was thinking.”
“Indeed?” Erika said.
Norn gestured toward Erika’s coat with an even more self-satisfied expression.
“You’re the mercenary who fulfilled that suicidal contract put on Admiral Model’s head. Mismatched eyes, blue hair, horns, and running around Rhinea.” Norn said. Erika blinked her eyes and drew them a bit wider, for just an instant– recognizing that she had been correctly identified, not just as a Katarran or a mercenary, but for that specific deed. Norn saw her hand come to settle on her hip just over the pommel of her sword, but remain there.
“Have you come to settle the grudges of the defunct Rhinean navy, Lord Praetorian? Or have you only come to settle your own?” Erika said. To her credit, her determination held firm.
Norn could not see a shred of fear or hesitation in her aura. She was standing her ground.
And yet, she was also not making any overt aggression. She had a very cool head.
“Neither.” Norn said. “Model would have been an enemy now, so you did me a favor. And you gave Rhineametalle a black eye in the process too, from what I’ve heard. I’m surprised that you are able to continue operating in Rhinea after such brazen deeds. I respect it.”
“I am able to continue operating precisely because of my brazen deeds. Mercenaries who take no risks may not die, but they are unable to live. By risking my life for something I may lose my life, but my convictions earn me comrades and benefactors.” Erika said. “Killing Model made me more allies than enemies. I would hope to count you in neither group.”
Norn grinned at her after her little story. “Truly? You don’t desire to court my favor?”
Erika’s expression remained perfectly dispassionate and neutral.
“If you’ve a job, I will evaluate it like any other, and if accepted, I will carry it out.”
“Ah, so you’re not above working for me.”
“No, but I am above coming into your debt, and seeking to put you in mine.”
“How honest. I am fond of honest people.”
“I am simply keeping cautious of the fire which I recognize now burns in front of me.”
“Well, enough flattery.” Norn said. “I feel I’ve taken the measure of you, Erika Kairos.”
Erika reached out a hand to offer Norn a shake.
“No flattery. You are known to be a woman of great pragmatism, with an agenda of your own. I think neither of us need to stand in each other’s way. In this time of chaos we don’t need to fight hard to accrue new enemies. So we should not make them casually.”
Norn took her hand and gave it a firm shake.
“How is Elena von Fueller? What if I wanted her back?” Norn asked in a hushed tone.
For a moment she saw Erika’s aura shift. She wondered how this woman would respond.
“She is a civilian free to do as she wishes. And I will protect that freedom.” Erika said.
She meant every word she said. There was no lie from those lightly red-painted lips.
“I am glad to hear that. That foolish little girl is luckier than she appreciates.”
Norn let go of Erika’s hand and turned around with a dismissive air, showing her back.
Of course, Erika would do nothing with that opportunity, nor take offense.
There was not another word for her as Norn casually returned to her ship.
For the Pandora’s Box to be under Katarran management made no ordinary sense.
Erika Kairos must have had something to do with the leftists in Aachen.
And she had augmented her strength with the Union-backed troops in the Pandora’s Box.
Things in Aachen were about to get very interesting. Look at what the currents swept up!
“Pandora’s Box– I don’t know whether you are cursed or blessed anymore.” She laughed.
As soon as Norn disappeared from her sight, Erika’s solid purple aura turned a deep green.
Wafting up from her shoulders as if no longer anchored to her body. Broken, suddenly.
Her breathing grew more labored, and she felt discomfort in her tightened chest.
“You did really well, Erika.” Olga said. “I was surprised at how cool you kept during that.”
“I used Saint’s Skin to smooth over my emotions for a while. I was terrified.” Erika said.
Her voice was chattering. Repressed fears began to pour out of her mind.
Norn the Praetorian– even just her presence seemed to stir the world around her.
All of the legends of her brutal power swirled in Erika’s mind.
When she laid on the pressure, even subtly, it was so difficult to retain one’s peace of mind.
Had she been trying, or had ill intentions, who knows what could have happened?
Maybe Erika and Olga could have matched her if their meeting came to blows.
Maybe. None of them would have walked out of it unscathed.
Thankfully, she suspected Norn would not have picked such a pointless fight.
“I am glad I took the initiative on this.” Erika sighed. “I feared Ulyana saying something out of hand, or worse, actually exposing someone like Elena to Norn. Now that we have satisfied her curiosity, I think she will carry on with her own business. She is powerful enough that she could have had any opportunity she wants to attack us– I don’t believe she is interested.”
“I’ll have people patrol here to keep an eye out nevertheless.” Olga said. She sighed. “We just touched down and we already have to have security at the port. We’ll never have peace huh?”
“We’re not in the business of peace, I’m afraid.” Erika said. “It’ll only get harder for us.”
Both of them cast eyes at the conveyor that would take them deeper into Aachen proper.
They had finally arrived, where the currents of their own war had taken them.
Past and present converged on the City of Currents; and may well decide their future.
Inside that shell of metal and humanity, the United Front would begin its ordeal.
☭Eisental United Front Status☭
Nationale Volksarmee (Provisional)
Reichsbanner Schwarzrot (Provisional)
Eisern Front (Unknown)