This chapter contains discussion of suicidal ideation.
It was the first living thing and therefore it was Longest Lived.
Despite its presence in an infinite space it understood only its basest of senses.
No eyes to see, no ears with which to hear. No understanding of its position.
When the sky first fell it battered its skin and the drawn blood became a world.
Longest Lived was all skin, it was all skin great and wide and millions of pinpricks upon it could not kill it. Its skin was gentle and nourishing, containing within it all substances and ultimately even coming to contain that which infinitely struck it, raining upon it, crashing into it– all of this would come to rest around and within it and on top of it in a glorious union.
It was all skin, all touch, all consumption. Perhaps this was its love.
Longest Lived, the Origin of All Living Things.
It took in the stone and it took in water and it took in warmth, ever consuming.
Upon Longest Lived, all that which it had consumed, and which returned to it–
Would constantly, cyclically, escape anew and take on new forms.
They would rise, fall and then return to Longest Lived who awaited them.
Longest Lived could not think in this way however. These were the stories of its creations.
Though it lived and consumed it never thought.
This was not a tragedy; thinking would have driven it mad and warped its selfless love.
Thinking, was a skill first refined by one of its earliest progeny.
They thought cautiously and kept in mind the love and unity in all their matters.
They too were alive, but, while they were communal in nature, they also understood their individual positions in the world. They could feel; to some extent, they could see and hear. They knew themselves to be separated even as they were together. Because they knew this, they would sing to one another, because there was one another to be sung to and to hear song from. With these understandings, they had great empathy for things which were alive and different, and wanted to encourage them to escape the skin of Longest Lived and to grow and prosper before they were inevitably swallowed back into the skin of the great being. They referred to their age of prosperity as the Time of Beautiful Songs.
In their songs, they called it Longest Lived, and themselves, The First Thinkers.
They were First to Think–
but the prodigal creatures who still heard their songs even now,
warped by ages of tragedy–
would come to be exalted as the Longest Thinkers in the world that remained.
Gertrude Lichtenberg slowly opened her eyes.
At first, in the haze of awakening, she saw a forest of vast trees with a reddening sky.
Then, in a blink, there was only the metal ceiling of her room on the Iron Lady.
She raised her hand to her forehead, pressed down against her eyes.
For a moment she looked at the hand. Fascinated by the movement of her fingers.
Gertrude flexed the invisible sinews and muscles that formed from her thoughts.
That hand grew a small additional digit next to the thumb. Moving as her other fingers did.
Just as easily, the flesh slid back into the hand as if there had been no transformation.
Gertrude sat back up in bed, against the headboard, yawning.
Pulling her blankets from herself, she found she had, in her sleep, shaken and turned enough to nearly lose her shirt off her own shoulders and to pull her own pants halfway down. Her hair was thrown into utter disarray. Her eyes wandered down from her hand to her breasts– to her own crotch. In a strange mood, she wondered something, and concentrated her new ability– and stopped immediately once she found that, if she tried, she could indeed alter parts of herself more complex and primal than just her hand. She reversed the endeavor when she felt her– alteration– stiffening and growing hot with blood unbidden.
Her lips cracked an involuntary, nervous smile.
“Maybe I shouldn’t experiment that way– at least not right now.”
She had wondered about that in the past– but she was worried about her long-term health.
Who knew whether she might go out of control? Or not be able to change things back?
Her wandering mind gifted her an image of herself as some kind of dick monster.
Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. It was the sincerest laugh she had in a long time.
“Stick to the easier stuff for now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” She told herself.
Despite all the painful things that had happened so far, her mood finally buoyed. She found that she did not feel as much of an impulse to question her sanity or the things she had seen. Her memories of that place, where she had stormed through in a consuming passion, were a bit hazy, as if the heat of that passion had partially burned the images. She remembered some shameful things reflected in the blue haze– but she let it pass over her.
She felt like she had her future back.
For now, she would let herself rest with those feelings and not force herself.
She recalled the things she needed to do with a refreshing lack of urgency.
Ingrid had broken up with her, but she was her friend; she just needed some time.
Monika was safe now– she would check up on her today and try to cheer her up.
Victoria and Nile would hopefully not be fighting. She needed to talk to them sometime.
Gertrude slumped in bed as if she had been struck in the back of the head.
Azazil could potentially be an immense headache.
Rising from her bed, Gertrude pulled off the remainder of her clothes and wandered over to the private shower in her room. While soaking under lukewarm water, she thought about her uniform. Last night she had told Dreschner she no longer wished to be called High Inquisitor. Her cape, epaulettes, coat and hat, her medals and insignias, all felt like a costume she had been desperate to force meaning on. She could no longer pretend that it gave her actions legitimacy or that it excused everything she had done in the past. Her skin, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s swarthy olive skin that was just different enough from the average Imbrian for trouble– it could no longer be covered up under the pretense of that power, for good or ill. The Inquisition could no longer elevate her from her lowly status and wretchedness.
She had more than enough of a burden with the sins she committed under its auspices.
That was a sizeable enough weight– without the heavy coat and the tall hat too.
Gertrude resolved not to wear the regalia of the High Inquisitor any longer.
From her wardrobe, she withdrew a button-down shirt and a long grey jacket instead.
Henceforth she would dress like any other officer of the ship.
Once she was clean, dressed and the morning fog had lifted from her eyes, Gertrude left her room and traveled down the main hall of the ship’s upper tier. She tied her long, dark hair in a simple ponytail, to be further dealt with some other time. She wondered how her crew was getting on after the unprecedented events of the past few days, but her confidence was buoyed immediately. People traveled the halls with their heads up and their backs straight, calm and collected. All of the crew had reduced schedules for the next day, and as Gertrude walked past and among sailors and officers, she felt a relaxed but professional energy.
Wherever she went, the crew would salute her casually, as ‘Commander’ Lichtenberg.
Dreschner must have informed everyone. Quite expeditiously too.
Gertrude smiled at the passersby, and they smiled back.
These halls and the people of this ship had been through good times and bad.
Often, they were under stress and moving with urgency, while keeping a tight hold on their emotions as warranted for the crew of a dreadnought, the elite professionals of the Imperial Navy. Gertrude was the one with the privilege to lose her mind, all of these people around her had been trained and drilled and pressured constantly to keep their emotions to themselves and in check, while doing everything she asked. Despite this, Gertrude never detected any animosity towards her. And she did not detect any animosity now.
They were proud to serve on a top-of-the-line dreadnought; to serve under Gertrude.
Even now, having surmounted a crisis and earned their leisure, they were even keeled.
Gertrude was lucky to have them. She could have done nothing without their assistance.
Life on a ship was never carried out completely off the schedule. Technically, having a day or two of leisure meant a day or two on a ‘reduced schedule’. Sailors would run still quick check-ups in the morning and at night, and never were they as efficient as they were during these times. Officers had to perform a few quick shifts on the bridge and in the hangar to insure that everything continued to run acceptably– but they had far less to do overall and far more time for relaxation in between these shifts. And of course, if anything was detected that could conceivably pose a threat or require intervention then everyone would have to return to stations quickly. Regardless, even with these duties in the back of their minds, everyone treated minimal work with the same relief as if they had none.
Arriving on the bridge, Gertrude found an immediate account of their situation on the main screen. They were descending, slowly, deeper into the abyss. Currently they were at 3840 meters of depth. Because of the Iron Lady’s size, they would have to be even more careful about their descent as they went deeper, and the trench narrowed. On the screen, there was an imaging map generated by the predictive computer, showing that at the very bottom of the trench at 5000 meters there was actually a crack in the seafloor that led even deeper down into a cave system. They had only mapped the entrance with sonar. Once they got down to it, they could send a drone inside or simply plunge deeper themselves.
Judging by current predictions, the Iron Lady could fit as far down as they had seen.
“Commander! Welcome back!”
Karen Schicksal saluted Gertrude with a smile, shortly after she quietly entered the bridge.
“At ease.” Gertrude said, smiling back.
“Greetings, Commander.” Dreschner said, from the captain’s chair.
Gertrude walked until she stood just off to the side of him, looking at the main screen.
“No time off for you?” Gertrude said, in a casual tone.
“I’m the kind of man who has never had anything but his work.” Dreschner said.
“Thinking about it, I really haven’t ever seen you take a day off.”
“I would have nothing constructive to do. It’s better that I hold the bridge, and then more of our officers can enjoy their own leisure. They would use it better than I would.”
Gertrude turned to Karen. “How about you Schicksal? Do you have any plans?”
Karen averted her gaze. She hugged her digital clipboard closer to her chest.
“I’m probably just going to man the bridge as well.” She said, a bit sheepishly.
“You don’t have to. You have been under considerable stress.” Dreschner said.
“Perhaps I am the kind of woman who has nothing but her work.” Schicksal said.
Dreschner sat back in his chair and laughed. “Don’t fancy becoming like me, Karen!”
Karen adjusted her glasses. “I aspire to the highest levels of professionalism, Captain!”
“Now I feel like I ought to stay on the bridge too.” Gertrude said.
“Absolutely not!” Karen and Dreschner both said at once.
They glanced at each other briefly and then back at Gertrude with sharp gazes.
Gertrude held up her hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I will take time to relax, I promise.”
Both Karen and Dreschner looked relieved hearing Gertrude say that.
“With all due respect, Commander– leave the bridge to us, now.” Dreschner said.
“You, more than anyone, have earned a rest. You will take that rest, Commander.”
Karen said, smiling, and then she gestured gently toward the door to the bridge.
Gertrude could not help but laugh at the sight of her officers forcing her to stop working.
“I’m going, I’m going. Thank you both.” She said. “By the way, Einz, did you tell everyone to start calling me Commander? I noticed that nobody called me High Inquisitor anymore.”
“It was in the morning minutes I drafted and sent out to everyone today. And of course, we are all professionals and read such things closely every day, even on our days off.” Karen said.
“I informed Karen of the situation.” Dreschner said. “She and the crew did the rest.”
“Got it. Thanks. I’ll be off now, and I promise I’ll try to get some rest.” Gertrude said.
Everyone was quite lively– a noticeable change from the lethargy of the past few days.
Gertrude had noticed that Karen was not as stammering and nervous as usual too.
Einz and her might have seen something in the blue pools too– she wondered what it was.
There was no sane way to ask anyone that, of course.
She thought about what to do next as she stepped out onto the hall once more.
Though she was a bit hungry, she was, more than that, worried about Monika after everything that happened. The more she saw the crew out and about the more she worried. Monika would be in Nile’s care. Gertrude headed for the clinic. She could have a chat with Nile as well and knock two things off her to-do list. Maybe she could make good on her promise to rest after all– but she was not intending to make an effort toward it.
Since she last saw it, Nile’s clinic had slightly expanded.
In addition to the meeting room with all her supplies and the meeting room in which she saw patients there was now a third meeting room on the other side of the clinic. In this room, a few plastic beds with rudimentary cushioning and blankets were set up in two opposing rows of four, for a total of eight beds. There was only one person laid up in the beds, a petite Loup woman with long, dark blond hair, sound asleep, wrapped up in blankets with a plain white gel pillow. Her breathing was steady, the curve of her chest rising and falling under the blankets. Gertrude stood at the door, given pause by the peaceful and contented expression on Monika’s face. She turned away from the beds and walked next door.
At Nile’s clinic, the door opened automatically in her presence.
Inside the room, she found Nile hunched over a table, her tail wagging and ears twitching as she used a dropper to lay tiny amounts of a clear liquid into a beaker full of murky red fluid, like a thin tomato soup. Her fingers were exactingly careful with the tool, and she watched the drops closely as she released them. Once the drops made contact with the red, the murk suddenly became active, rising and frothing as if it was suddenly being boiled.
Gertrude then stepped past the door threshold–
in the next instant Nile straightened up and looked over her shoulder, surprised.
“You’re doing an experiment here?” Gertrude asked.
More curious than she was critical, but still a touch of judgment in her voice.
“Science is the same no matter where you do it.” Nile said.
Gertrude tried to keep her eyes off Nile’s collar, its LEDs signaling a healthy green. It felt rude to worry about it– but nevertheless, she worried. So, she made an effort not to be caught staring and instead looked Nile over. She was unmasked, as it seemed to have become her habit within the Iron Lady. Dressed in a turtleneck sweater, a waist-high skirt that hugged her hips well, black tights, and her signature white coat. Her brown hair was tied up into a messy bun for work. She wore just a bit of blush and lipstick on her face.
She was gorgeous– tall, dark, curvy, Loup excellence–
Gertrude averted her gaze entirely before Nile could notice her lingering eyes.
“Don’t you need a different kind of environment to get good results?” Gertrude asked.
“Not at all. Cause-effect causality transpires regardless of how posh the surroundings are. As long as you prepare the best you can and the thinking behind your experiment is sound, the outcome can be useful for learning, whether you are in a repurposed meeting room on a ship or in the top laboratories of the Empire. Science is science. That is one of the reasons why it is so tightly controlled in the Empire– you can only control it by controlling the knowledge and materials that make it up.” Nile cracked a smile. “So– Gertrude, what ails you?”
Owing to the length of the spiel Gertrude was unprepared to be suddenly acknowledged.
Gertrude took long enough to respond, a few seconds–
That Nile simply walked up to her and stood directly before her, leaning in.
“Mind if I examine you? I’d like to check your condition after the night’s ordeal.”
“No, it’s not necessary. I’m doing fine.” Gertrude said suddenly.
Nile’s eyes trailed down Gertrude’s body and back up to her face.
“You look more energetic, but your unusually good mood might just be masking a physical issue. Adrenaline and hormones are not to be underestimated. At any rate, I won’t do anything without your consent, but you should allow me to give you a full checkup again as soon as your courage and pride can withstand the endeavor.” Nile said.
“My pride is irrelevant!” Gertrude said sharply. “I honestly haven’t felt better in weeks, I’ll have you know. I have no problems at all. Just accept what your patient tells you.”
“Hmm. I’m glad you’re still a bit surly.” Nile replied coolly. “Drastic personality changes, even positive ones, can be a sign of deeper distress. Stability and continuity are good indicators.”
“I am not being surly. You are just constantly trying to get a rise out of me for no reason.”
“My reason is that I am a concerned professional in whom you have entrusted your care.”
Gertrude sighed deeply and audibly.
Nile cracked a little grin and crossed her arms. Her ears did a little twitch.
“Forget all of that.” Gertrude said. “How is Monika doing?”
“She is just sleeping. Sleeping quite soundly in fact.” Nile said. “Thankfully before anything happened I already had permission to prepare an infirmary. Physically, Monika is unchanged from when I last examined her. I won’t be elaborating on what that means. Mentally, I can’t be sure how she fares. We’ll have to see how she acts when she awakens.”
“Thank you for taking care of her. She’s been through so much.” Gertrude said.
“My pleasure– but it is not necessary to thank me. This is my work. I would not be myself if I ignored people in need of medical help. It would be quite shameful.” Nile said. She glanced at the wall of the room. “I’m worried about her. But I’m also worried about you.”
It was not that Gertrude did not appreciate Nile’s attention.
But she had a stubborn feeling that she wanted to be treated as someone formidable.
She should have been the only one worrying– about Nile and Monika and the others.
In her mind, she had overcome her personal hurdles and deserved to be relied upon now.
“I promise, you can look after me when there’s need– but I feel perfectly fine.”
“Alright, I won’t press you any further. Just remember that I am here.” Nile said.
She turned back around to the table she had set up in the back.
“Nile, I’m curious what you’re doing to those substances?”
Gertrude pointed at the beaker, propped up on a foldable rack, and the red fluid inside.
It had done frothing and looked a bit thinner than even previously.
“I am testing Katov mass gathered from outside the ship. Preliminarily trying to figure out what happened last night.” Nile said. “I was hoping that I might be able to reproduce a fleeting effect resembling the strange aetheric phenomenon, in miniature of course. By applying a certain neurochemical to the mass, I hoped to stimulate the organisms that make it up– but it looks like it had no effect other than altering the PH to kill it.”
“I don’t follow– what led you to believe such a thing was possible?” Gertrude said.
Nile looked as if she had not understood the question. She narrowed her eyes.
“You can’t truly be this incurious about the world, Gertrude? I can’t know anything until I have tried and observed results. That is the nature of experimentation. That’s what I am doing.”
Gertrude felt like an idiot. What was it about Nile that flustered her so easily?
“I was just worried something might happen.” She said, trying to sound sensible.
“Something happening is the very point. That is how we start learning. I am working with very small amounts of katov mass and chemicals. It’s very safe.” Nile sighed. “At any rate, I now believe the mass had nothing to do it with it– it was perhaps only reacting to the phenomenon, just like us. However, I hoped to test my belief and acquire proof by actually running some experiments. I’ll keep trying over the next few days and see the results.”
“Right.” Gertrude said. There was no use continuing this topic– she had other concerns.
In a fit of pique, she locked eyes with Nile, who met her gaze almost on accident.
For a moment, Nile appeared to recognize how Gertrude was looking at her.
Her eyes flashed red; just as Gertrude flexed those alien muscles in her own eyes.
Demonstrating her ability and seeing the blue and green color that collected around Nile.
Through her psionic sight she got the sense Nile’s aura was very deep and very dense.
That there was a depth to her– a depth that she did not hide but did not acknowledge.
Nile was very powerful. And her aura seemed to flicker like a candle-fire in a gust of air.
Despite her outward calm her aura gave off a feeling of volatility, or perhaps fluctuation.
However, her aura was also gentle. Her flame was wild, but it was not unforgiving.
“Nile, you know that I can do this now.” Gertrude said. “You are seeing it, right?”
Nile smiled. Despite her almost proud-seeming expression her aura remained the same.
“I do. I told you my suspicions last night, didn’t I? I was too vague perhaps.”
“Nile, can you tell me what you know about this power?” Gertrude said.
To Gertrude’s surprise, there was no hesitation or reticence from her doctor.
She simply took in a breath and began to speak candidly.
“I must preface by saying that everything I know, I learned from others who have studied this phenomenon more closely than me. I possess the ability myself, but I am not as versed as my colleagues. We call the power, Psionics. It is a word that feels right does it not? Different cultures had different concepts of it– any kind of ‘magic’ like volshebstvo or sihr is actually an expression of this power understood through cultural myth.” Nile spoke in a confident manner, as if giving a rehearsed lecture. Had she said this same thing to others before? Or had she perhaps prepared to give this explanation to Gertrude? She continued. “Psionics is the power of the human mind and our conception of the world, influenced by our emotions. Or at least, my colleagues and I hope that is accurate, after our experimentation.”
“In other words, in my case it is the power of my anger made manifest.” Gertrude said.
In the liminal space with the blue pools, Gertrude’s red passion and anger had broken the blue walls of the phenomenon and allowed her to finally move past the maze in which she had been trapped. In that moment, she had come to understand that blue was the source of her lethargy, and that red was her spiraling passions, covering her like an armor. When she saw blue in Nile’s aura, however, she felt different toward it– she was not alarmed. It was the same color, but the intention of Nile was not to ‘sleep eternally’ as Monika once desired. It seemed much less urgent. In fact, Monika also had a quiet and gently blue aura.
Nile was quick to rebut what Gertrude thought was an ironclad assertion, however.
“That is your current conception of the power based on what you have experienced. Different people with different experiences develop different systems of intellectual decryption. This can help you control the power through conceptual associations. It is the power of your mind, after all, it is a bit abstract. But also, I must stress that your conception of the power can change as much as your conception of the world can change. Your mind and emotions are not rigid, Gertrude. You do have an effect on how you feel and what you think; it is possible to change your mind, after all. I would strongly advise you not to think of psionics as a phenomenon that intersects solely with your anger. It is limiting to you.”
Gertrude responded at first with a short, bitter chuckle at the idea of changing herself.
“I wish everything were as easy as just convincing myself out of my habits.” She said.
She could change the meat on her bones, now– in all kinds of ways.
But her mind still felt like something far less forgiving of alteration.
“I never said it was easy. But my assertion is still correct, Gertrude.” Nile said.
“That sounds like something Victoria would say.”
“Then she would be correct also. Rhetoric is another thing that is the same anywhere.”
“I don’t mean– nevermind.” Gertrude grunted. “Can you teach me to control my psionics?”
Nile averted her eyes in response. Her expression was suddenly glum and conflicted.
Gertrude noticed that her aura shimmered, as if the candlefire withstood a stiff wind.
“I– well, I mean– it presents a certain challenge– I am not opposed–” Nile was tongue-tied, “as much as I have managed to hang on to my patience with you, because you are my patient and deserve the best of me even when I see the worst of you so frequently–”
“–Hey, c’mon…” Gertrude mumbled at the off-handed insult. What was her problem?
“–I am not actually very good at controlling my emotions either.” Nile sighed.
She crossed her arms and shut her eyes, wracked by a quiet consternation.
So that was the issue– she must have been dreading this moment, anticipating the request.
“I understand. But you can still teach me what you know, can’t you?” Gertrude said.
“To be frank, I have never taught anyone psionics. I can try, for you.” Nile said.
“But you had that whole spiel in the back of your head for when I asked?” Gertrude said.
“Correct. That spiel is something I have been preparing. I knew from the moment I saw you that you had the potential to employ psionics. You just needed a push; either to discover it on your terms or to be influenced by an outside force. I was conflicted about whether I should give you that push– but I knew by accepting your offer I had to be ready to consult for you regardless of what happened. I knew that, because we were now heading into extreme conditions, you would be much more likely to discover your abilities here.”
“Then, hardship plays a part in achieving psionics?” Gertrude asked. “That means you knew that I would be under so much stress in the abyss that I would eventually awaken?”
“Correct again. Any sufficiently heightened emotion, in the right circumstances, might cause a person with potential to discover and achieve control of their psionics, to some extent.” Nile said. She crossed her arms. “Take for example the legendary Loup warrior Samoylovych-Daybringer. The stories had it that the young Daybringer, during the war with Hanwa in the late 910s, fought to the brink of death against a powerful Hanwan warrior to hold a station landing. In that state, the stories say a fairy visited him, and taught him volshebtsvo. Daybringer’s feats after that were not exaggerated– he had achieved the power to kill scores of men. I suspect a near-death experience jogged Daybringer’s dormant power.”
“That’s a lot to take in.” Gertrude said, sighing. She felt unsettled by the example and by the idea that this could happen to anyone. “I can’t help but think that despite his efforts, we lost that war with Hanwa. The Imbrian Empire was not able to expand into the Mare Crisium even with a psionic warrior on our side. Or who knows how many more of them there were.”
“Psionics can be very powerful, but it is still impossible to win a war by oneself.” Nile said.
“Some part of me hoped I would be able to use this power to do just that.” Gertrude said.
“That hubristic and whimsical part of you is very charming, indeed.” Nile smiled warmly.
Gertrude averted her gaze. “That’s all you’re going to say to me about that, huh?”
“Yes. There is no consoling you on that score, it is simply the hard truth of things. In fact, Samoylovych-Daybringer, older but still in his prime, was ultimately slain by an ordinary man. You will be similarly vulnerable and limited– but nevertheless, psionics is a useful tool to have. Especially if you are flexible in your conception and development of it.”
Of course, common sense dictated that no individual was ever completely invincible.
For a moment, however, Gertrude in her passions had truly wanted to believe she was.
That achieving this power was an enormous breakthrough that would settle everything.
There was something unsettling about it being only a tool that might help her going forward.
Arvokas Jarvelainen, Ingrid’s ancestor, had ultimately killed the legendary Daybringer.
For Arvokas there were no fairy stories or mythical deeds. He was just a kin-slayer.
Gertrude was still vulnerable, and she was not by herself suddenly an earth-shaking titan.
She looked at Nile, hands in her coat pockets, who looked back with quiet consideration.
Sighing deeply, Gertrude tried to look positively upon things. It was good to accept reality.
She was not invincible, even with her psionics, but she was also not alone either.
There was an entire ship of people who had her back. Advising her, fighting with her.
And even in this very room there was someone who had agreed to lend her assistance.
“Nile, thank you for giving me your perspective. I– I do really appreciate it.” She said.
Nile nodded her head. “I assume that at this point– you’ll want to know more about me personally, right? That is also another conversation that I foresaw and prepared for.”
Gertrude shook her head in return.
“Honestly I have lost the zest for it. I had it in mind to interrogate you at any cost about the Sunlight Foundation and what you truly knew about the world. I know you still must have all manner of secrets. But those things feel petty now. You’re right, none of us are one-man islands. I have no cause to doubt your allegiance. You’ve done nothing but help me even when I’ve been stubborn as a rock wall.” Gertrude said. Her voice was turning soft and fond of the mysterious Loup. She felt comforted by this discussion. She wanted to feel formidable, yes– but she also had to accept the reality of her vulnerability.
Hubris had already done a lot of damage to her. She had to try her best to temper it.
Thinking she could squeeze everything out of Nile, thinking it would help anything.
Both were notions that made sense before and did not make sense now.
Like Nile said– maybe her mind was something she could, slowly, deliberately, change.
“Thank you. I am willing to answer your questions, for what it’s worth.” Nile said.
She gestured toward a pair of seats– they had both been speaking standing up and close.
Gertrude shook her head. She suddenly felt very thankful to be in Nile’s ‘care.’
“I think I just want to sit by Monika’s side and see if she wakes.” Gertrude said.
“Of course. Feel free to avail yourself of anything in the infirmary.” Nile said.
She did have one question– it arrived at her quite suddenly.
One curiosity about Nile. She would allow herself to sate a single one.
“Actually– I do have one question, before I go.” Gertrude said.
Nile nodded. “Like I said, I’ve been preparing. What do you want to know?”
“How do you feel about your former allegiances? Do you have regrets?” Gertrude asked.
For a moment, a surprised Nile was pulled into her thoughts, with a melancholy expression.
“What a cruel question to ask, fittingly for you.” She tried to smile and to sound good humored. It was forced. “Of course, I have regrets. We disagreed on many things. But it was the only place I ever felt accepted and treated as a peer. I had no other home and I wanted none– they were my colleagues. We esteemed each other, motivated each other. We were flawed and arrogant and made horrible mistakes, but I would rather deal with cracked glass as long as it can keep the oxygen in. I had hope; some part of me still does.”
“Thank you.” Gertrude said. She reached out a hand to Nile’s shoulder, to comfort her.
Nile allowed it. Perhaps she even welcomed it.
She was just as vulnerable as Gertrude was. Nile, too, was not an invincible threat.
Time passed as Gertrude sat on the empty bed adjacent to Monika’s in the infirmary. She looked at the sleeping beauty’s face periodically. It was a relief; though she was still asleep, she looked peaceful. Her breathing was steady, she did not seem to be in pain. After everything she had been through, Gertrude hoped that she could have a moment’s relaxation before she resumed her activities. She deserved so much more– but at least that much. Gertrude waited at her side, hoping she might wake in a few hours more.
After about thirty minutes, Nile walked in through the door as well.
She had a cup of coffee and a handful of unsalted crackers and handed them to Gertrude.
“You should have something in your stomach.” Nile said.
“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “Can I call you when she wakes up?”
“I am planning to stay here actually, unless something drags me away.” Nile said.
She sat on the bed beside Gertrude and sipped her own cup of coffee.
Gertrude dipped one of the crackers in the coffee and ate it.
Together they watched over Monika’s bedside.
As she did so, Gertrude began to ponder the mysterious phenomenon that transpired last night. That maze of blue pools and the things they reflected; Monika claiming she wanted to invite Gertrude and the rest of the crew to an ‘eternal sleep’; and the Drowning Prophecy, the monstrous entity in Monika’s false church; did everyone experience visions in the blue pools? Victoria had confirmed she saw the pools, and that she saw events within them, lives she had not led. Gertrude likened it to a dream and Victoria agreed– but it was not an ordinary dream, concocted purely by her exhausted mind. It had felt so real, and the fact that she could still use psionics proved it. Gertrude had been there to see all of it.
Dreams often felt like being carried away to a different place and ended upon waking.
For Gertrude, the experience of the liminal pools, and her current state, felt like they were entirely contiguous events. Her memories were a bit hazy, but not gone. If Monika had put them all to sleep and beckoned them to remain sleeping, it was not a usual sleep. Gertrude wondered if everyone could remember the things they saw in the pools, if the people with less understanding were trying to puzzle out the haunting sensation that they felt from becoming trapped in that space and seeing impossible sights. Or if different people had gone to entirely different places and seen different things entirely than her.
Eventually, Gertrude got it into mind to put that question to Nile as well–
“Nile– during the mysterious ‘event’ last night, did you see a maze of blue pools?”
Nile took a long sip of her coffee, nodding her head slightly while drinking.
“Yes. With my psionics I understood it as a supernatural event, but I couldn’t escape.”
“What did you see in the pools?” Gertrude asked.
Nile scoffed. She averted her gaze. “You’re terribly nosy, did you know that?”
Gertrude smiled a bit. “It served me well in the Inquisition at least.”
Glancing back at Gertrude’s gentle expression, Nile breathed deeply and put down her cup.
“Fine. But you must tell your doctor about your own dreams, first.” She said.
“All of them were about Elena von Fueller.” Gertrude said. “We built many lives together in those pools. I was her servant, and I was her lover. She gave me meaning.”
Nile looked surprised– she must not have expected Gertrude to be so forthcoming.
To people like Nile and Victoria, Gertrude had nothing to hide about that affair anymore.
“I was Elena von Fueller’s lover– surprise? I squandered everything though.” Gertrude said.
In response to Gertrude’s honesty, Nile looked exasperated, and seemed to resign herself.
“Fine, fine. I saw similar things in the pools. Some of them represented things I knew could be possible– different decision points in my life. But there were some that were fabrications. I saw myself as some kind of horrid queen of a disease-infested flesh castle that resembled Heitzing; I saw myself as a member of the Pythian Black Legion nerve-gassing an entire station. But the worst one–” Nile paused and looked down at her cup for a moment.
Gertrude raised a hand and waved, interposing it between herself and Nile to stop her.
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to keep going. I know now that we saw similar visions.”
Nile looked in that moment as Gertrude had never seen her before, but the expression was familiar because she had seen it in herself. Pain and frustration, an internal conflict, reticence that fought with passion and quaked under her skin. Gertrude thought she might hear her scream any moment; she looked that bound up in herself. She tried to reassure Nile that she did not need to say anything, but she knew, because she had been there herself, that the emotions were too hot. She had been in that exact position far too many times.
“No. I want to tell someone. Even if you might not understand– almost certainly you won’t understand it. But I’ll get it off my chest and then I can put it away forever.” Nile said. Her voice rose– she was taken by a sudden passion. “Gertrude, I saw the Northern Host of the Loup being completely wiped out by Mehmed Khalifa. Somehow, he detonated the North Imbrian Agarthic Vein– what’s known as one of the ‘Ley-Lines’. You do not know how close this came to actually happening, Gertrude. In that vision I just stood there and watched him do it. Watched him kill half of the Loup, and scores of Imbrians. He devastated the Palatine and ended the Empire.” Nile’s fingers tightened their grip on the cup, nearly shaking. Her eyes looked like they would tear up. “I– I did not want his blood on my hands.”
“Nile– I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. It was hard to muster any words in response.
Mehmed Khalifa, better known as Mehmed the Tyrant or Mehmed the Sorcerer, had declared an organized, armed religious struggle known to the Shimii as a ‘jihad’. He mustered scores of mainly Mahdist Shimii fighters in improvised and stolen crafts. Using his limited resources he inflicted embarrassing defeats on the Empire in the early to middle 930s, slowly building his arsenal. The official narrative was that the Inquisition tracked him down to Bad Ischl and killed him, but Gertrude knew one better– she knew that one of the Inquisition’s secrets was that the Agarthicite veins in the area had a dangerous event that inflicted damage on the Imperial siege fleet but also scattered the jihadists. An act of God ended the Jihad.
Now she knew two better– not an act of God, but Nile and her ‘colleagues’ instead. Had they truly ended the Jihad? Why? Given the resources Victoria claimed they possessed, and Nile’s own abilities, Gertrude could believe that if they became involved in such an event, that they could have brought it to a conclusion. But why interfere against someone as formidable as the self-crowned king of the Shimii’s Age of Heroes? Had they become involved in any other events, Gertrude wondered? Had any other acts of God been instead the meddling of the Sunlight Foundation in the background of what had become accepted history?
Seeing how distressed Nile had become, Gertrude could not possibly ask for more context.
Despite her curiosity, the Jihad was over– and Mehmed was dead.
And it did not matter to her and her life what or who did it. It was in the past and Gertrude had no reason to litigate it. But it clearly caused Nile a lot of pain. In those blue pools she saw a world in which she never got her hands dirty, and allowed an atrocity to pass. Gertrude had thought of the pools as amoral, showing her things that were in some sense real, without judgment. She had only seen events that reflected her warped desires and horrible mistakes. To show Nile something that horrid, however, Gertrude began to wonder if perhaps the visions in the blue pools had been guided by an active malevolence.
Rather than say anything more, she gingerly sidled closer to Nile and tried to comfort her.
Nile raised a hand to gently prevent this, keeping her away, and another to wipe her eyes.
“Thank you, but– it’s fine–” She kept a hand over her eyes. “I’m sorry for losing myself.”
“No apology necessary. It’s only human. I would know.” Gertrude said, smiling.
“I appreciate your understanding. If I broke down anywhere, then at least it was with you.”
Nile must have meant that because of their similarities they could have a unique solidarity.
However, Gertrude’s heart was quick to accelerate, and her face felt a bit warm.
At the thought of Nile wanting to confer her vulnerability only to her.
“You don’t have to tell me anything. I am sorry for prying.” Gertrude said. “But– if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you. I understand what it feels like carrying a burden. God knows, I’ve made so many mistakes that perhaps no one would understand. My pool rooms were full of my stupid obsession, devoid of any of the people I care about or even people that I hurt. I am ashamed of that single-mindedness– it wiped out even the recognition of my mistakes from my psyche. This– it demonstrates you’re better than that.”
Nile lifted her hand from over her eyes, her tears wiped but clearly still a bit agitated.
She nodded in response, and quietly finished off the last of her coffee.
Gertrude took a sip too and began to calm her thrashing her heart.
“Gertrude, would you accept a chaste and professional hug?” Nile asked suddenly.
“Any time.” Gertrude quickly replied.
Nile sidled close to Gertrude, and extended an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close.
Gertrude accepted it and reciprocated. She could feel Nile’s tail thumping the bed.
For a while, they shared this quiet physical comfort before gently separating.
Going back to looking over Monika but with calmer hearts and minds than before.
After a few hours of staring in a silence only broken by Nile getting more coffee–
Monika turned in bed, once, twice– she tightened her eyes, and pulled her blankets.
Gertrude and Nile nearly jumped with surprise as if the floors and walls had moved instead.
Finally, Monika began to open her eyes. She opened them halfway, shut them.
She began to blink. She saw up in bed, dressed in only a patient’s gown. Her hair fell over her eyes partially and behind her back. Monika pulled her bangs to the sides of her face and let out a yawn. Without speaking a word, she continued to stare at Gertrude and Nile, who stared back. For a moment the trio traded stares at one another.
One of Monika’s furry ears began to twitch.
“Gertrude?” Monika asked, when she finally spoke. “Have I been dreaming?”
“Maybe. Did you happen to dream about a maze of blue pools?” Gertrude asked.
“Don’t tell her that so quickly– let her acclimate first!” Nile protested.
“Blue pools?” Monika’s eyes opened wide. She hugged herself. “Oh my god.”
“Let me handle the talking.” Nile said. “Monika, how many fingers am I holding up?”
She held up her index and middle fingers, making a ‘V’ sign in front of Monika.
In response, Monika made two ‘V’ signs with her own hands, blinking her eyes slowly.
Nile ran her fingers idly through her hair, seemingly thinking of what to say.
“She looks awake and aware to me.” Gertrude said. “Monika, how are you feeling?”
“Confused. Horrible. And– oh my god–!” Monika narrowed her eyes. Her tail extended.
Then with barely any warning she sprang from her bed and leaped over to the one adjacent.
Throwing her arms around Gertrude and nearly tackling her off and onto the ground.
Thankfully they both fell over on top of the bed instead, nearly kicking Nile aside.
“Hey!” Nile cried out. “Calm down! You’ll hurt yourself! We need to–!”
“Gertrude!” Monika cried out. “I’m so sorry! I can’t– I’m so ashamed– you saved me–!”
Between the gratitude and contrition all screamed in interwoven hysterics, Gertrude could not muster an answer. Despite her petite stature Monika in that moment had the force of a leviathan as she hugged Gertrude down against the bed, her tail drumming against the plastic headboard. Monika cried and screamed into Gertrude’s chest, her gown nearly pulling apart with her thrashing. She hugged her so close, kicking her legs, arms tight.
“Monika! It’s okay! Please calm down! Listen to the doctor!” Gertrude struggled to say.
Monika pressed herself tightly against Gertrude’s chest while Nile looked on with worry.
Then Monika raised her head and met Gertrude’s eyes, ears running down her cheeks.
With a smile on her face.
“Gertrude– I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I’m alive.” She said.
Gertrude felt an enormous sense of relief.
She let herself fall back on the bed without resistance.
Letting out a breath that felt long held.
“I’m so happy you’re here, Monika.” Gertrude replied, stroking Monika’s hair.
With some gentle coaxing from the doctor, Monika returned to her bed and sat upright.
Nile handed her a cup of water and some crackers. Monika took a few bites.
Gertrude sat across and observed her while Nile tested her faculties.
“Monika Erke-Tendercloud,” Nile said, “That is your name, correct?”
Monika nodded her head.
“Thank you– but can you speak your answer clearly? For the sake of the test.”
“Yes, it is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”
“I am going to ask you to do something that might seem silly. Can you extend your right arm over the left side of your body, with your thumb up, and stick out your tongue?” Nile asked.
“Yes.” Monika followed the instructions without hesitation.
Gertrude looked over at the wall to prevent herself laughing– Monika was rather cute.
“Can you name this object that I am holding?” Nile said. It was her digital pen.
“It’s a pen.” Monika said.
“What am I doing with it?” Nile scribbled on the screen of her digital clipboard.
“You’re writing. It’s a digital pen and you have a digital clipboard.”
“Do you remember the small talk we had when you came in for a checkup?”
“I think you asked me about the food on board. We talked about liking the liver pate.”
“It’s a bit gritty but nutritionally excellent– lots of what kind of Vitamin?”
“Vitamin A if I am remembering correctly.”
“You are correct. One last question– where is the consortium Reschold-Kolt located?”
“They’re in the Bureni Republic. It’s one of my many misfortunes recently, hah!”
Monika spoke candidly and cheerfully and seemed to be full of energy.
Nile smiled and put her clipboard at her side on the bed.
“I believe you have all of your faculties about you. This isn’t a comprehensive test, but you are aware, your coordination is good, and you can recall details. I don’t believe that I will need to hold you here for long, but I would like to observe you awake for an hour.”
“I was going to spend the day loafing around anyway.” Monika said. “Thank you, doctor.”
She turned to face Gertrude again and pointed at her. “How is she doing?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential patient information.” Nile said gently.
Putting it like that made it sound like something was going on!
“C’mon. I’m fine!” Gertrude said, slightly irritated. “Don’t worry about me, Monika.”
“Don’t put up an act. You got stabbed in the gut– I saw it! I was terrified!” Monika said.
“Wait– what?” Nile looked at Gertrude with wide eyes, staring down at her abdomen.
Gertrude raised her hands as if to shield herself from the concerns of the two women.
“Everything grew back. Would I be walking around if I got stabbed in the stomach?”
“What do you mean everything grew back?” Nile said. “I’m going to need an explanation!”
“Calm down and I’ll give you one. I’ve been wanting to talk about this with you anyway.”
Gertrude put her hands on the bed, reared back a bit, sighed, and then launched into her story of what happened yesterday. She went through everything but embellished or glossed over a few details– Monika did not need to know about what she saw in the pools. But she explained becoming lost in the primary edifice due to Azazil An-Nur’s cries for help; being attacked by the strange blue creatures and her experience of falling asleep; waking up in the blue pools, and breaking through them; Eris and her ambitions to recover her–
She did not mention Eris. That was still for herself only. She was still processing that.
Finally, breaking the maze, the church, the abomination and her newfound power.
“And then she rescued me.” Monika said. “That part I can corroborate, doctor.”
Gertrude nodded her head. “I killed the creature that captured Monika. Then I woke up again and I wasn’t in the blue pools anymore. I carried Monika back to the ship. You were all there to greet me– and from what I can gather, all of us saw the blue pools too. Victoria confirmed that she did, and Nile, you saw them too. So– we all had this strange dream.”
“A collective psychic phenomenon.” Nile lifted a hand to her forehead. “Ya allah.”
“I take it this isn’t something you have experience with?” Gertrude asked.
“This specific incident is magnitudes stranger than anything I’ve heard or seen happen. I could not have predicted it.” Nile said. “I knew, and I attempted to communicate to you, that the abyssal ‘aetheric weather’ would affect us. I do not know the origin of the color weather, but the abyss has been observed by my colleagues to affect the auras of people, it causes our emotions to unbalance. Most people, most of the time, have a balance of stress and tranquility and other emotional states– the aetheric weather causes one of the states of our aura to expand at the expense of this balance. I knew this and I tried to tell you.”
“You tried to tell me once, in my room at midnight, when I was dead tired.” Gertrude said.
“Huh?” Monika said. Looking a bit red. “She was in your room at midnight?”
“I broke in.” Nile said as if it explained anything.
Monika blinked. “You broke into her room at midnight?”
“Nevermind that, nothing happened!” Gertrude waved her hands rapidly.
Nile shrugged her shoulders innocently. Monika glanced between the two of them.
“Unfortunately, the weather had begun to have its effect on me also and impaired my judgment. I was also tired and unbalanced. I should have kept pushing you on that subject, even as stubborn as you were. But I did not want to deal with it.” Nile said. “The past few days I had a lot to do and did the best I could despite the creeping exhaustion, but I had limited headspace and I put off important things. I only vaguely recognized that this was the doing of the ‘aetheric weather’ but I felt that we could do nothing but ride it out.”
“We were all acting a bit more foolish than usual.” Gertrude said, sighing.
“For you such a thing is much more in-character.” Monika said.
Gertrude frowned, and Monika smile back, having successfully caused her grief.
“Doctor,” Monika turned to Nile, “I– I think the strange stuff that happened is my fault.”
“It’s not your fault at all.” Gertrude was quick to say.
“I agree with Gertrude. Nobody is blaming you, Monika.” Nile said.
Monika sat back against the bed, crossing her arms and breathing out.
“It’s difficult– but can I try to explain to you what happened? Even if it sounds crazy?”
“Of course. Listening to my patients is the very least I can do.” Nile said.
Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling as if to avoid their eyes–
Monika recounted her experiences.
She confessed to Nile and Gertrude that she had been dealing with suicidal thoughts for a very long time. Monika grew up in a deeply religious household and she referred to the Loup culture as anti-intellectual– Nile could relate to this. After escaping from her abusive family, Monika had managed to get her thoughts more under control– but she knew there was a stigma against feeling such a way. She did not want to be seen as insane or as a ticking time-bomb, so she told nobody about it. Her despair sat quietly in her and she drowned it in various achievements. In the world of the Imbrians she could do everything her family barred her from. Completed her education, found a job that allowed her to express her interest in technology, sciences and industry. Finally she accomplished the aspirational feat of any military engineer– she was chose to serve aboard a glorious, high-tech Dreadnought.
Recent events had shaken her confidence in herself. She began to struggle with work and thought about how helpless she was to influence the events happening around her– such as Imbria’s dissolution, or the battles against the Brigand. She took it hard when the machine she had worked on, was defeated in battle and then stolen– she took it harder when she struggled to repair the Magellan that Gertrude got to keep. It wasn’t for lack of materials or time, but she felt, it was a limit in herself. In her usefulness to the world around her.
She confessed that in her mind, if she failed, then– there was no reason to keep on living.
“I started to have those feelings about myself again. Every little thing triggered them.” Monika said. “If I didn’t finish this or that, or if I couldn’t figure something out– even minor everyday tasks or things like how to set up my tools so I can reach them more efficiently. Any little thing started to feel like something I ought to have stopped living over. That negotiation with myself about whether it was worth living or not felt like it was taking a life of its own. Like I was really talking with death itself about living on or dying, any time that anything happened. Then, things started to move really quickly, it felt like– at one point I found myself almost worshiping death– thinking that everyone must have felt like me and we could all die together. That’s when I found that church, and that abomination.”
“Monika–” Gertrude began. It took everything not to cry. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She reached out her hands and took Monika’s, caressing her, hoping to comfort her.
Monika reciprocated, taking Gertrude’s hands and squeezing them in hers.
“It’s alright. I decided I want to live Gertrude. I’m going to try. I know I will probably have these thoughts again– but I will fight to live. And I will also ask for help if I need it.”
“Monika, whatever you need, you can come to me. I’ll always listen.” Gertrude said.
It wasn’t that she was completely unfamiliar with the kind of feelings Monika had felt.
Gertrude had more than once felt utter hopelessness, and all of its most dire results.
However, she never suspected that Monika was dealing with such feelings herself.
That frightened Gertrude– she could have lost Monika forever and never realized it.
She had been so self-centered and oblivious to her pain despite thinking she knew her well.
Conscious of this, Gertrude did not want to turn the conversation to her own failings.
Monika had already gotten angry at her once for drowning in self-pity.
In her mind however she told herself, and she knew, that she had to do better by Monika.
Nile also reached out and laid her hand over Monika’s with a gentle demeanor and speech.
“For as long as I am your doctor, I will support you, Monika. And everything you have told us will stay in this room. It is confidential patient information. So do not worry.” She said.
“Thank you.” Monika said. She sat back up and stopped looking at the roof. Her eyes were glistening. She wiped them on the sleeve of her hospital gown. “Doctor, during my experiences last night– I felt like understood implicitly that there was a supernatural power in my self. My mind was a mess– so I didn’t care then. I understand that you have power too, and Gertrude too. You know about all of this– and you must know more than I do.”
“I am not all-knowing. But I know some things.” Nile said. “Psionics, the power you feel that you now have, is as deep and as fluid as the human experience itself. I’ve lived for longer than you might imagine, and I will never observe and examine everything related to psionics. It’s like myths, or miracles; I’m sure it will always change to elude our reckoning.”
“I understand, doctor, but could you try to explain what might have happened?”
Nile’s expression was familiar– as exasperated as when Gertrude asked about psionics.
She nodded her assent but paused for a moment clearly gathering her thoughts.
Her ears folded and rose, and she ran her fingers through some of her hair.
“As it stands, this is conjecture– and barely educated conjecture at that. During the blue weather event, Monika, you were fatigued and beset by feelings of frustration and hopelessness. These feelings were amplified by the blue weather, sabotaging your mental stability until it crossed a certain emotional threshold. It led to your psionics awakening, and you lost control over them. This may have had a synergistic effect with the blue weather, which we were all experiencing, that led to us having a collective event. Of course, I vehemently reject blaming you for this– I believe you were a victim of circumstance.”
“Monika, do you agree with this? How did you feel?” Gertrude asked.
Monike crossed her arms. Her own ears folded and rose as she thought it over.
“I think it’s mostly right, but– I feel that I was not the one who created that abomination that Gertrude and I saw. I felt that it had been speaking to me for a long time, ever since we got down here– I tried to ignore it, but looking back, at a certain point, I embraced it.”
Gertrude supported Monika’s deliberation.
“Nile, inside the blue rooms, I felt like I understood what Monika’s feelings were with great certainty. I can’t explain it, but I just knew, like I could hear a voice in my head that explained everything. But the monster always felt apart from her. Like an invader into her mind. Those were not explicitly her feelings alone, they felt like feelings anyone could have. Like mine also. It was called ‘the Drowning Prophecy’– and I think Monika knows that name too.”
“Yes, I felt just like Gertrude. Like someone was telling me about its name for certain.”
Nile paused and crossed her arms. She sighed. “You don’t say. Anyone’s feelings, huh?”
“Would you happen to have any explanation for that phenomenon?” Gertrude asked.
“Yes and no.” Nile said. She sighed again. “Like I’ve said before, I am a medical doctor, not a pseudophysicist or a parapsychiatrist. However, one of my colleagues, Euphrates, theorized that it should be possible to create constructs with psionics that anyone would recognize as real entities despite their aetheric origin. Perhaps this entity you both saw was created out of collective emotions. Maybe its reach over Monika was a result of how many tired and hopeless people were aboard the ship– in the blue weather that would mean all of us.”
“I guess it makes as much sense as anything.” Gertrude said, feeling a bit helpless.
“I still feel like ‘The Drowning Prophecy’ was something else entirely.” Monika said. “Not just our feelings, but something older and bigger than that. It was like it had been ready to communicate with me at the earliest time I was able to see it. Like it was leading me to the blue church– just waiting all of this time to talk to anyone who would listen to it. I don’t believe in God, but thinking back, it almost felt like a horrible, sublime revelation.”
“Well, I can’t know more until I see this happen myself– and I don’t want to.” Nile said.
“Right. I’d also prefer never to have that experience again.” Monika said.
She and Nile tried to smile but the topic was heavy, and clearly weighing on their minds.
Nile probably felt frustrated with her lack of answers. Her body language had grown tense.
When it came to medical problems she always had a solution– this was beyond her.
Gertrude wondered if for a genius intellect like her, uncertainty was uniquely frustrating.
“So, if this all had to do with our emotions– were we in physical danger?” Gertrude asked.
“If this was related to psionics in some way, then yes. You were in danger.” Nile said.
“Can you elaborate how? Do you think the monster could have really killed us?”
In the moment, Gertrude’s sense of pain was dull despite the horrible attack she suffered.
That monster ran her through with its tentacle, and there was blood and she screamed.
There was not the level of acute, shattering pain she would have associated with that.
Perhaps it was the red passion cloaking her in power, and the certainty she felt back then.
Or perhaps it just had not been physical, and it actually was closer to a dream than reality.
“Normally,” Nile said, “it is very difficult to use psionics to coerce someone into harming themselves– it’s an action that is too atypical for the subject’s internality to accept. But it’s not impossible and we have no idea what a psionic construct is capable of doing, whether they follow our observations. Had you and Monika faltered, I imagine you would have indeed slept eternally. However that felt to you in the moment– your body was suffering.”
Not necessarily that being stabbed by the monster would have killed Gertrude, but rather, that it would have convinced them to pursue its ‘eternal sleep.’ Everyone would have chosen to die by never waking up from the dream until they passed. Mass psychogenic suicide.
Probably Nile would not have characterized it this way, but it got Gertrude thinking about the dangers that psionics might pose. She had been thinking about it exclusively in the way her body became a weapon when imbued with her psionics– but in reality, it was farther reaching and much more dangerous than that. Psionics was much more insidious.
Gertrude recalled all the strange abilities Norn seemed to possess. The incredible control over her troops, her ability to move extremely quickly and strike someone in a blink.
There was a larger and more terrifying world opening up before Gertrude’s own eyes.
“Nile, could you help Monika to understand and control her psionics too?” Gertrude asked.
Upon hearing that request, Monika looked down at her hands with a quiet concern.
Gertrude must have had that exact same expression on her face last night too.
That dire contemplation of becoming irreversibly different than before.
“I will do the best I can.” Nile sighed. “It’s– I guess it’s my duty as a doctor, after all.”
“Vogt, nobody roughed her up, right? And she’s been behaving well?”
“Indeed High– Commander.” Vogt caught himself. “She has been quietly waiting for you.”
“Any observations?” She ignored his struggle with her rank.
“One observation. When you first brought her here, she seemed almost– giggly. Energetic. Kind of fawning over you. At some point, and probably if I went through the camera footage I could probably scrobble to the exact second– she stopped smiling, Commander. She has this very neutral expression now. Her voice feels different too. When we brought her food, she spoke to us in a weird language– the translator tool said it is High Gallic. When we asked her to speak in Low Imbrian she teased us about our lack of culture. It was strange.”
Gertrude grunted, annoyed. “What the hell is she up to now– let me in to see her.”
After making sure Monika was okay and grabbing more coffee from Nile, Gertrude had set out to tackle her least anticipated errand of the day. It would have been callous of her to continue to subject Azazil An-Nur to captivity when she had wanted to cooperate before. But Gertrude had to know more about her and had to better understand her disposition. So she traveled to the Iron Lady’s containment rooms. She would converse with her in the interrogation cell she was being kept in, and she would decide then what to do.
“She has not been aggressive, Commander. I think she will cooperate.” Vogt said.
“I’m hoping as much too, but I’m always prepared for the worst.” Gertrude said.
Things she said to reassure her troops, without always meaning them.
In fact, she knew precious little about Azazil An-Nur and had no idea how she would act.
Vogt nodded and showed Gertrude he had brought a folding vibroblade on his person.
“I, too, am prepared for the worst. So you can be at ease, Commander.” He said.
Azazil was being kept confined in a glass-walled interrogation cell, one-way viewable.
Inside the cell she had a desk and a chair, both made of soft rubber-padded plastic.
Outside, there was a media room where recordings and observations were being made.
Gertrude passed through that room, out into a connecting rear room and then into the cell.
Azazil An-Nur lifted her eyes from the table briefly and smiled a very small, slight smile.
Her expression appeared much more reserved. When Gertrude had last seen her, she was gently smiling and cooing at her, like a motherly type of woman who wanted to impress her affection and comfort upon Gertrude. Now, she had a very specific sort of neutral expression, of the sort that Gertrude associated with noblewomen. Adelheid van Mueller had this sort of haughty non-smile that she would put on for people who were beneath her notice but not worth her disrespect. A noblewoman’s smile– put on for appearances, so perfectly practiced it managed to mean something while conveying nothing.
“Azazil, how have you been getting on?” Gertrude asked, sitting down across the table.
“In my appraisal, I have been diligently cooperative in my captivity.” Azazil said.
Vogt had been right– her voice was deeper, smoother. She had changed it somehow.
Could she change her body like Gertrude could? Could Gertrude change her own voice?
Azazil sat with her fingers steepled. Her gaze felt eerily penetrating.
That presence she now had– was she always so intense?
Everything else about Azazil looked familiar.
Her sleek, long black dress still hugged her perfect figure and looked almost brand new despite the scuffles of the past night. In the haze of the terrible events in which they had met, Gertrude had not noticed how well-made that dress was. It did not appear to be natural fibers, and it glistened, but it had a very soft look. Could it have been silk? In terms of facial features, she was without fault, with a gentle and regal beauty, soft red lips, small eyes slightly angled, her countenance mature but umblemished; her silver hair long and perfectly tended; her Shimii-like ears tall, black-furred, and sharp and fluffy; and her figure, ample in the right places and sleek in the rest. She was like a sculpture given life, a living artwork.
Gertrude felt that the more she observed her the more she found her gaze ensnared.
“After acquiring more data, I altered myself to better suit your tastes.” Azazil said.
“To better suit me?” Gertrude asked. She felt almost offended. What did that mean?
“As a biomechanoid servant I can serve better with more data. Upon close examination of all of our exchanges, I calculated that your nervous energy, inquisitiveness and spiraling passion are better matched by a woman who is more collected, distant and mature in appearance, mannerisms and personality. You are titillated by the mystery and taboo of women that feel out of your reach. You respond poorly when you receive too much open affection.”
“That is enough of that.” Gertrude said. She gestured for the recording to be cut.
“You want women to vex and challenge you at least a little. You are enriched by conquest.”
“That is– you think I find this attractive? I am terribly annoyed with you is what I am!”
“Perhaps– but I can tell you are already intrigued. I made a correct assessment.”
Gertrude had broken out into a bit of a sweat, and her face felt a little bit hot.
It was less what Azazil was doing or saying and more how she was doing it and saying it.
Her deep, sultry voice that felt like it was holding everything back while pulling her close. Precise mannerisms, like the brief flutter of her steepled fingers, or the ephemeral flitting of her eyelashes or the minute changes in her expression. She was like a silk-draped, full-figured puzzle box beckoning Gertrude to probe deeper and more forcefully.
Azazil was right, and Gertrude felt like a complete idiot.
She was manipulated– she had to stop fixating on Azazil.
Or she would be made a fool of.
It’s not easy to tear my eyes away from her– she is drop-dead gorgeous.
Maybe she could instead try to play it against her somehow.
“You said you were created to take care of humans, and you must follow my commands.”
“Correct. You are the owner of this body now, Master. It is yours however you desire.”
“What if I make you do something undignified? That breaks this façade you’re creating?”
“You can degrade me as a woman if you like. I’m sure it’s part of the fantasy for you.”
Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t care what data you think you have collected on me! You do not know me, and I won’t have you typecasting me as some kind of pervert!” She hesitated briefly, a quivering in her chest working itself out as she then spoke. “I’m– I’m heterosexual!”
An interesting and hasty gambit that immediately faltered on all merits.
Azazil crossed her arms and grinned, just a little. “I know what you are.”
Suddenly Gertrude turned to what should have been a wall. “Get out! All of you! Now!”
She could not know whether or nor the recording and monitoring team vacated the room.
But they must have– they always followed her orders. They stopped recording and left.
Azazil waited obediently until the cell felt emptier. She continued. “My data is not wrong. From observing your interactions with me, and also the composition of your crew, which I also had a chance to observe. There are several women who have forged close emotional connections to you, and no men who have a relationship to you that is anything above strictly professional. No, my master, Lady Lichtenberg– you are absolutely a homosexual.”
Gertrude was nearly speechless. Azazil was correct, but it was utterly ridiculous to hear it.
“What if I ordered you to become a man?” Gertrude said, in a near-hysteric voice.
“You wouldn’t seriously do that.” Azazil said. “Master, there is no need to be distressed.”
Gertrude had completely lost it. Azazil had twirled her around like synthetic twine.
“I am not distressed! I am furious! Aren’t you supposed to ‘take care’ of me? What is this?”
Azazil wore that noblewoman’s smile again, but Gertrude could read the implicit malice. “I am indeed your servant, and it is indeed my duty to take care of your needs. I am presenting in a way which is the most suitable for your pleasure. However, I assure you I am not here to interfere with your daily life and your real relationships. I am an appliance that you can use as you need– has it not always been this way between masters and servants?”
She was stunned. It was stunning. Gertrude was left reeling by those words.
“What– what kind of perverted society– how the hell are you an ‘appliance’?!”
Even if Gertrude had entertained the desire to be able to keep more than one woman–
Nobody could possibly have been an ‘appliance’ to her!
And even worse for such a use!
“This– this situation— I’m disgusted! I don’t want anyone to take care of me like this!”
“Do you feel that it is ingenuine of me to try to please you in this way?”
“You are not pleasing me!”
“Would you find it more honest if I acted as I did before I had any data?”
Gertrude was given pause. Back then, last night– was she just acting then too?
Of course, she must have been. After all– she was an ‘appliance’ back then too.
Azazil An-Nur was a ‘biomechanoid’ that was ‘created to take care of humans’.
Thinking over this, Gertrude felt progressively conflicted and disturbed.
She did not know what to say to someone who had been created to serve her.
Gertrude had coerced and misled many people over the years. She was High Inquisitor.
Through honeyed words, through the truncheon, through legal threats–
She knew something about forcing people to bend to her will when necessary.
That coercion didn’t change them as people. Their bodies didn’t react to suit her needs.
Azazil’s comfort with changing pieces of herself to suit Gertrude–
She had conflicting feelings about it.
“When we first met, Master, I had an unclear profile of your personality, mannerisms, and your desires and needs as a person. After observing you for long enough, I developed the correct predictions, and I am better suited to serving you in a comfortable and tailored fashion. Humans do this too– but less efficiently. You are welcome to delete the profile I have generated but I doubt your needs will change much. In my view, I have optimized our relationship and am better able to serve you– why don’t you allow me to demonstrate as such for a few days? You will find I am a much better product now than before.”
“You call yourself a ‘product’ and an ‘appliance’– I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“Master, would it bring you relief to know a mop or a broom enjoyed the act of cleaning?”
Gertrude had no answer to that. She felt her heart and head grow heavy at the thought.
It was not possible that Azazil was a mop or a broom. She was a human, like Gertrude.
There was no way in hell that any society made people that were reduced to this!
That was her thinking– she could not, in her privilege, connect this behavior to anything.
Azazil smiled, more than she had before.
“I was created to take care of human beings. For so long, I have not had any people to take care of. They were all gone. Before I met you, I only had contact with an overbearing neural model and belligerent biomechanoids. I might not look like it, but I am pleased with the prospect of being able to take care of Genuine Human Beings again. It is not in my nature to make requests– but I strongly believe I can improve your quality of life if you will allow it.”
Gertrude was helpless. She did not know the correct or moral answer in this situation.
Insisting on Azazil’s humanity might go nowhere; would accepting this make her happy?
Could Azazil feel happy? What had they done to ‘create’ her? She looked human–
Now she was really second-guessing herself– was this all encoded in Azazil’s biology?
Was it STEM? Could she somehow alter Azazil’s STEM to free her from this condition?
To alleviate her own guilt and shame about all of this, Gertrude settled on that fantasy.
Perhaps if she discovered more about the mysterious STEM system–
She could turn Azazil from an ‘appliance’ and back into an independent human being.
It was this distant hope that allowed Gertrude to take a deep breath and speak again.
“I’ll accept you as you are, for now. I will accept that you are acting this way. But listen up and listen well, Azazil An-Nur– I don’t need your services in whatever perverse way you are implying. I need you to prove to me that you are able to act independently, that you can freely make your own choices as a person. Everyone on my ship agreed to be here. I am– I am adamantly against slavery. I will not so much as touch you until I am sure.”
“Adamantly against slavery– how curious. I’ll make a note of this.” Azazil said. “However, my condition is not slavery. Humans can be coerced into slavery. I was created to serve a purpose. I want to serve that purpose and I am happy to be given the opportunity.”
“If there is some way to free you from this condition, I will find it.” Gertrude said sharply.
For a moment, Gertrude caught what seemed like a twitch of Azazil’s eye.
However– it was so quick that it seemed like only her imagination.
Maybe she only wanted to see some kind of response.
“Very well, master. In such a matter and any others, of course, I will assist you.”
Gertrude sighed and slumped forward on the table. What an exhausting conversation!
After venting through a series of noises, she looked back at Azazil again.
“You have psionics, right? You understand your abilities to be psionic?” Gertrude asked.
“Correct.” Azazil replied.
“How can I know you are not controlling me using psionics?”
“If I have been doing that, do you believe it has been effective up to this point?”
“I can’t argue with that.” Gertrude said, with a grunt. “So–were you created to be psionic?”
“No.” Azazil said. She offered no candid asides nor any rhetoric to support her answer.
“What do you mean, no?” Gertrude asked, with mild but growing outrage.
“I was not created with psionic ability. That is not possible, as far as I know.”
“Where were you– created? Who created you? Elaborate a bit wouldn’t you?”
Azazil, with her small, wry, smile, answered the question exactly.
“I was created in Hephaestus Innovations Inc., Exafactory No. 4, in Turkiye, the seat of the Aer Federation. Turkiye is part of the internal polity known as the Nobilis Community. I was designed by Margery Balyaeva, with patented technology from Rita Angermeyer.”
That meant absolutely nothing to Gertrude. Just nothing but mush in the shape of words.
It was finally dawning on her that she was dealing with a relic from a lost civilization.
A perverse and horrid civilization that she was nevertheless now committed to chasing after.
Part of that chase would have to entail keeping Azazil aboard and enduring this for now.
Gertrude’s mind wandered to that hexagon of hexagons flag– what was she getting into?
And if she was committed to finding Eris at the bottom of all of this–
In what condition would she even find her?
Depth Gauge: 4581 meters
Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)
The Iron Lady descended, farther and deeper and darker into the abyss.
As its enormous hull navigated the encroaching spaces around it, all manner of creatures were disturbed, awakened, and scattered. Many of them were natural denizens of these lightless depths who knew to flee even the barest of hint of pursuit from something larger. Crustaceans on the cliffs scurried into holes only they knew of; slow-moving fish began to drift away from the steel leviathan; glowing jellies flexed their bells and jetted away.
Then– there were the creatures that could have been called unnatural denizens.
These continued to watch the descending ship with great interest.
Crab-like things with bubble-like missile packs on their backs readying to intercept.
Clusters of eyeballs trailed by tentacles, gathering and transmitting data.
Sentries with sleek, predatory bodies wolf-like and shark-like, larger than a power-armored human being, equipped with vibrating tungsten teeth and claws ready to charge.
Stand down and hibernate.
At once, the handful of drones in this abyss retreated to their hidden places once more.
Given psychic command by a superior with an actual will to determine fate.
From the barren cliffsides she watched the ship descend.
Casually resisting four hundred atmospheres of pressure, as if she had the Ocean’s mercy.
With a temporary body that was half aquatic, with a tail, hydrojets, fins.
And an upper body that was human, feminine, substantial in its musculature.
Grinning to herself, crossing her arms, narrowing eyes that could see clearly in the water.
I’m so curious, hominin. What are you doing here? In this mausoleum?
Watching them with the patience of a hunter amused at the sight of a coming sport.
Enforcer V of the Syzygy, The Wrath, referred to by her colleagues as ‘Ira.’
Unstimulated for an amount of years so great as to be a burden to recall.
Practically salivating at the prospect of the hominin diving into Aer’s own skin.
Let them enter the Great Tree Holy Land and see for themselves what Mnar holds!
I want to see their faces; I’m so curious what they will do with their final hours.
Will they find something that surprises me, before they die— or I kill them?
Surreptitiously, so as to avoid detection, Ira followed after the Iron Lady.
Toward the Agartha, and what little remained of the civilizations that preceded them.