Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.9]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.

After Descent, Year 975

Gertrude Lichtenberg, half-stripped down, laid in bed in a hotel room in Nichori Station.

She was afforded a very lux room due to her status.

She had large windows, broad glass panels on three sides surrounding and framing a soft and plush bed, king-size. She had her own bathroom. There was complimentary wine on a rack, and a cooler with beer and water, also a courtesy. The entire hotel had been booked for the use of the Inquisition and the Navy. Nichori was square arcology-type station– the sort that had a false steel sky and discrete buildings and streets within its interior.

When she looked out of her open windows, she could see stretching in every direction a great number and variety of buildings under a dark indigo false sky, cloudless, distant. Everything under that false sky was very real to the senses. Skyscrapers towering over pubs and shops, multi-story office buildings between, massive neon signs and holographic adverts. Entire facades of buildings with computerized paneling displaying videos, messages. In the distance, to the north, there was a patch of clear green ground, colored so by grassy hills and patches of trees broken up by lower-lying, wider buildings. Nichori University.

Her face was colored, lit up in the artificial lights that shone from outside of her windows.

Gertrude was in Nichori to put down a riot. Another of Bosporus’ many student ‘uprisings’.

But her eyes listlessly staring out the window had something atypically horrid burned in.

In her mind’s eye, was a woman’s body, one that she had seen. Seen, smelled, touched.

Mutilated, ripped open, irregularly burned, ruined with such hatred that chilled the heart.

Everything started as a routine and easily controlled protest by the student movements against the conservative-leaning educational regulators, this time over textbook revisions. Then the protests became full-blown riots after a young student movement leader, Uria Livnat, was found murdered. No– it was not just that she was murdered. She was practically defiled in death, and nobody cared– Gertrude was not there to investigate her death. She was there to investigate the rioting, to put it down, to return order and normalcy, and to arrest a few student movement ‘ringleaders’ in order to call it a day’s Inquisiting.

Gertrude had only worn the uniform of High Inquisitor for precious little time.

She had stolen this uniform from an ambitious man, a cruel man.

A man who had become too used to his invincibility and thought he wielded the Inquisition’s powers solely for himself. She wondered if Brauchitsch had come into the Inquisition a bastard sadist drunk on his power, or if seeing too much of this sort of thing ultimately perverted him. That day as she laid alone in that room after having seen that woman stripped entirely of dignity in death and came to terms that she would do nothing about it, she felt keenly the limitations placed on the seemingly powerful High Inquisitors.

High Inquisitors only had as much freedom as the Inquisition had patience to spare for it.

All of their privileges were just a result of the Inquisition’s desires. Gertrude could lay catatonic in this hotel room because the Inquisition trusted her. They trusted her to restore order to sensitive events where they had no one else as skilled or discrete as required.

Maybe they would ruin her body like that of Uria Livnat if she ever displeased them.

Gertrude had certainly put Brauchitsch through a lot of pain before he went, after all.

Everything she was doing; she was doing for Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller.

Her childhood friend; her sweetheart, one might say; her guiding light, her lodestar.

Gertrude tried to burn in her mind the divine image of Elena, so alive, holding her hand.

Excusing all of the evils she had committed with her shining smile and endless heart.

But she couldn’t get it out of her head. Uria Livnat was a constant headline in Nichori.

In all of Bosporus even. It wasn’t the only headline. Everything about this was so dark.

Would Elena have forgiven her for not playing the hero here– would she have understood?

There was something happening in the Empire of late.

The murder of Uria Livnat had to be a hate crime by a fascist group. Maybe the Blood Bund. They were in the news– there was a leak that one of the Treckow heirs had been involved with them. She imagined that grim-faced noblewoman leering over the corpse she had made after all manner of unspeakable things before riding off to a hotel room nicer than this. It was unkind of her to think something so salacious, but the nobility was not above this. Gertrude could easily believe there were peers involved in sick shit with the Volkisch Movement. Perhaps she wasn’t allowed to investigate further, to do the right thing, because of those connections, and the inconvenience it would cause to the moneyed powers.

Circular thoughts– no matter what she did she couldn’t get what she saw out of her head.

But she couldn’t do anything about it, but to break up the pickets and return to the ship.

It was the fifteenth or sixteenth time of the night that she turned over this murder when–

There was a loud and sudden knocking on her door. She ignored it for a few minutes.

Then came the voice, familiar, a bit deep, a bit nasal, rough and rich, mischievous.

“Hey ‘Trude, you done crying? Can I come in now?”


“Well fuck you. I’m coming in.”

“Ugh. It figures.”

Ingrid Jarvelainen-Kindlysong charged into the room, sans any permission but with great enthusiasm to her every movement. Gertrude would have locked the door if she had wanted to definitively keep her out– what kept anyone else from walking in was that she had told Schicksal and Vogt she was not to be disturbed. But Ingrid was not just anyone. Schicksal and Vogt could not have possibly gotten her to behave. She did not listen to anyone.

Anyone– but Gertrude herself, of course.

And then, only sometimes.

“Come on, quit your moping. Look at this swanky place we’re holed up in!” Ingrid said.

She was dressed only slightly more than Gertrude in that she had a tanktop and shorts. She got up on Gertrude’s bed and made herself comfortable, taking in the sight of the window for a few moments in stunned silence. She set down a tray of food. There was a delicate liver pate, sea urchin roe with delicate herbs, and thin slices of extremely delicate and marbled, freshly dry-brined raw beef. On the side, duck fat croutons were offered for dipping.

Ingrid reached for one of the complimentary wine racks.

Without glassware, she simply popped off the cork and drank from the bottle.

“Wine’s not my thing but even I can tell this is the quality shit.” Ingrid said, laughing and sidling up to Gertrude, offering the bottle. “I can taste the fucking manicure and nap the grapes got before they were pressed. What’s it saying here? Nutty notes?”

Gertrude took the bottle from Ingrid while she was trying to read the tasting notes.

Sighing, she took a swig from it. She was surprised at how different it was from the cheap wine they had on the ship. From the moment her nose neared the opening of the bottle, the aroma of the wine was fragrant, with an almost peppery spice to the scent alone. Its flavor was much more complicated too, though she did not know that she could describe it as nutty. She had no idea what to describe it as, in fact. It was simply rich and strong.

She took another deep draught then thrust the bottle back at Ingrid.

“There you go! Now it’s a party!” Ingrid said. With enthusiasm she resumed drinking.

Quietly, Gertrude picked up a crouton and wrapped a thin slice of beef around it.

Popping the morsel into her mouth, almost overwhelming by the richness of it.

She stole the bottle out of Ingrid’s hands for a quick drink– the beef was so unctuous.

And the croutons too– it was fat on fat on fat, her cheeks stung with the sheer flavor.

“Hey– ah, whatever, have at it. You gonna say anything to me, by the way?”

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said, handing the bottle back to her companion.

Her head began to feel a little heavier from the alcohol and exhaustion.

“There’s no use hiding it from me. What’s your problem, ‘Trude?” Ingrid asked.

“Where can I even begin? I’m at work. I have nothing but problems.” Gertrude said.

“Quit it.” Ingrid said, sighing. “That’s bullshit. Something specific has got you insane.”

“It’s really nothing. I’m just tired. I had to crack a seventeen-year-old on the head today.”

“And I had to crack ten and they were bigger. We’re bastards, it’s our job. That ain’t it.”

Gertrude averted her gaze. She reached for the bottle again, but Ingrid withheld it from her.

“Tell me what the fuck is wrong with you. Quit lying to me. Or I’m leaving.”

Her hands left hanging in the air, Gertrude felt a growing sense of exasperation.

“Alright, fine.” She grunted. “Weren’t you freaked out? That woman– that girl. We’ve seen politically motivated killing before, we’ve seen passionate killing, but it wasn’t as absurd as what we saw. It wasn’t this extreme. It fucks with my head, Ingrid. They did just enough that we could tell who it was, we could see enough of what she was like, but the rest– it was disgusting what they did to her. I can’t imagine what her final moments were like.”

“Somebody got their rocks off with that alright.” Ingrid said. “What are you gonna do?”

“What do you mean? There’s nothing I can do.” Gertrude nearly shouted.

Ingrid was unbothered. “Alright, that’s settled. You going to think about this any more?”

“Of course, I am! You’re so frustrating! How can you just ignore any of this?”

“I’m pretty skilled at not making shit my business that isn’t. I’m a Loup, ‘Trude.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Whenever Ingrid brought up her race Gertrude immediately felt a wave of guilt.

Ingrid hated when that happened.

“Ugh, come on. Come on! I’m just making a point. You’re a fucking dog too.” She said, smacking Gertrude on the shoulder. Her breath smelled of the wine’s strong aroma, and the proximity of that warmth made Gertrude’s skin shiver. Ingrid pushed herself until she was nearly nose to nose with Gertrude. “You and I both have to bite on command. Remember what you want to do! We have to tolerate this shit for now until we call the shots.”

She smacked Gertrude’s shoulder again, but this time it was gentler, in a friendlier fashion.

Picking up the bottle again she settled down against the headboard and drank.

“I look up to you; I admire you. I believe in you Gertrude.” Ingrid lifted the bottle. Her words were starting to slur a ltitle. “Someday shit will be different. You can’t save everyone. You can’t save that girl. You can’t save other girls about to be murdered like her. It’s gonna happen Gertrude. It’s been happening. It’s nothing new and it will only keep getting older with us. You can only stop it when you can stop it. You gotta get power, real power, the power not to take shit from no one. And then you can be the fucking hero.”

She tipped the bottle to Gertrude as if cheering for and then drank again. She smiled.

Gertrude was transfixed with her for a moment.

Ingrid was so strong. Of course, something like this did not bother her.

Wild and free, but bitingly cunning. More patient, more focused, than she appeared.

“I admire you too.” Gertrude said, comforted despite the chaos of Ingrid’s companionship.

“Of course, you do. I’m the fucking best.” Ingrid said. “Here, drink up. And eat more!”

Smiling for the first time that night, Gertrude took the bottle, and drank to Ingrid’s health.

After Descent, Year 979

Depth Gauge: 5040 meters

Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)

“Ingrid, can I sit here?”


“Well– alright. Nice seeing you.”


Gertrude found Ingrid in the cafeteria, put on a smile, and made her approach.

Ingrid immediately glanced from her plate with an annoyed, narrow-eyed glare.

She was dressed in her pilot’s bodysuit, with her wild, beautiful hair tied into a ponytail.

On the job, with a plate of food, alone in a table in a corner of the cafeteria.

Her expression was not any more intense or different than Gertrude knew it.

Ingrid was frequently annoyed with Gertrude. It was something Gertrude both regretted and sometimes could not help. Sometimes Ingrid had been annoyed with her because she was moody. Sometimes Ingrid was annoyed with her because Gertrude decided not to crack some criminal’s skull open since she needed to actually talk to them. Sometimes Ingrid found something funny that Gertrude did not. And sometimes– Gertrude broke her heart. It was only a few hours since, so she couldn’t be surprised that Ingrid would still be mad, but it still hurt that in addition to losing her lover she felt she also lost her best friend.

There was nobody else that she could sit with and horse around like with Ingrid.

Ingrid made things that seemed overwhelmingly important look actually trivial.

Gertrude wished dearly that Ingrid could just tell her now all her problems were something that did not bother her. That did not faze her. That she was too focused on her own shit to care that psionics were real and that monsters could put a whole ship to sleep and that an ancient civilization had locked incredible, secret technologies behind biological locks and keys, within people, and within things that looked like people.

That what she saw in her pools did not bother her one bit.

But there was no taking back how Gertrude had treated her.

If Ingrid never gave her a chance to make up for it then– that was that.

She deserved this punishment, and as much as she wanted Ingrid back, she would endure.

Because she deserved worse for treating her as so disposable when she was so special.

Sighing, Gertrude took her tray of food and scanned the room, walking a few paces–

“Oh, good timing. I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Sit wherever and I will join you.”

A small, dour voice without a hint of embellishment– it was Victoria van Veka.

Walking into the cafeteria, she found Gertrude immediately and called for her attention.

“Good morning to you too. Should I call you Commander now?” Gertrude said snidely.

“Good morning. If it will stop you acting so injured, I was excited to see you and forgot to exchange pleasantries. Now that my head’s bitten off, I will get food.” Victoria said bluntly.

Gertrude felt completely put in her place– the place of a childish idiot.

She sat in the far opposite corner from Ingrid. Victoria joined her shortly afterward.

Because of the reduced schedule, there was no one on kitchen duty. In preparation for this, self-serve machines with cold storage and heat lamps for different kinds of small, packaged dishes were set up in front of the serving counter. These were stocked in the very early morning. Gertrude had a three part lunch, consisting of a plastic container of chicken soup, a foil-wrapped egg salad sandwich on soft white bread, and a dish of mixed vegetables flavored with garlic and shallot paste. She was surprised by how warm the chicken soup was, and how savory. Though the broth was speckled with fat and stray strands peeled off the hastily cut-up chicken chunks, Gertrude preferred it this way to a cleaner broth. She liked the rustic texture of it. The sandwich was soft, with a creamy filling, the boiled egg blended perfectly with the mayonnaise to create a smooth spread. Green beans, carrots, and broccoli, tangy with garlic and shallot and perhaps a touch of vinegar, rounded out the nutrition. Not Gertrude’s favorite part of a meal, but she had no complaints.

While she and Victoria picked at the food, in between bites, they talked in relative privacy.

“I wanted to talk to you about Nile.” Victoria said.

“Are you two fighting again?” Gertrude asked.

“No. Please calm down. I am reevaluting her. I wanted you to know.” Victoria said.

“Thank you, Victoria.” Gertrude replied, sighing at her own skittishness.

Victoria’s ears folded just a bit and she narrowed her eyes a little.

“It’s not for you– she has earned it. When you disappeared, I could see how much she feared for your safety. She worked hard to comb the halls and to try to make sense of the layout of the station. She led one of the search parties, until all of us succumbed to the dream. It did not strike me as the attitude of a nefarious character who was only out for herself.”

“I had no idea I caused her that much grief. I just saw her a few hours ago.”

“If it were me I wouldn’t want you to think that way. I wouldn’t bring it up.”

“I see. Well– then I suppose I won’t know whether you were worried about me.”

“Of course I was worried about you. I’m not as cold-hearted as you paint me.”

She said this without much shifting in her tone.

Gertrude always tried to keep a close watch on Victoria’s mannerisms, since her speech was usually so balanced that it carried little implication of how she seemed to actually feel. Gertrude felt that last statement was said without negativity.

“At any rate. You were concerned that I would dispose of her, so I wanted to tell you.” Victoria said. “I am beholden to do something about Nile, but I believe that can be to leave her with you. As a ship’s doctor I think she is harmless, and she seems engaged in it.”

“You don’t think she will return to her ‘Sunlight Foundation’ as soon as she can?”

“Do you?” Victoria asked, meeting Gertrude’s eyes suddenly.

Gertrude had not meant to alarm her, but she had to be realistic.

“I would love it if she stayed aboard. She’s a fantastic doctor. I’ll certainly try to keep her.”

“But if she asks you to let her go, you will do so?”

“I don’t know if she will or won’t, and I don’t know how I’ll feel at the time.”

She knew she would hate it if Nile left her. She– she esteemed her greatly.


It was too difficult to explain those feelings to another woman she felt the same way about!

So for now she admitted to as little as she could. Victoria looked content with her words.

“Fair enough Gertrude. I’ll continue to be on my guard. But– I feel positive about her.”

“I’m glad. Do you think you’ll tell her that? So you can stop catfighting all the time?”

Victoria narrowed her eyes at Gertrude again. Her tail stood on end, in cautious alertness.

“We weren’t catfighting and we didn’t do it all the time certainly.” She mumbled.

“You’re not going to tell her anything, huh?” Gertrude grumbled.

“At the moment, no, but I told you already, I’m evaluating and feel positively.”

“You know, you can be really hard to read sometimes.”

Victoria tipped her head to one side, her ears wiggling once.

“Sorry. Nevermind.” Gertrude said. “I have something I want to talk about too.”

Since she got up in the morning, knowing the crew had a day off, she had been thinking of whom she would spend some leisure time with. Monika was still recovering in Nile’s care. Ingrid needed space. Azazil was still due to be processed into the crew and she stressed Gertrude out anyway, there was no way to relax if she kept teasing her all day.

That meant there was only one real, present choice.

“Victoria, everyone has a day off today. How were you thinking of spending it?”

“You want to ask me out.”

Gertrude should not have been surprised that Victoria would cut through the crap this fast.

Nevertheless, Victoria’s bluntness caught her out once again.

“I– I mean yes, I kinda– I wanted to ask that, but if you don’t want to you don’t–”

“Obviously I can deny any such request, you don’t have to remind me.”

“So are you saying yes or no?”

Victoria shut her eyes and crossed her arms. “I am saying ‘yes’ I suppose.”

Gertrude sat in her chair, looking across the table awkwardly.

That tortured, vague way that she asked, and the tortured vague answer she received.

All of it made her feel like her blood was curdling.

“Okay, let’s start over. Victoria, will you go out with me today?”


“Thank you.”

In order to avoid talking further for a moment Gertrude devoured the rest of her sandwich.

Her heart began to soar when she realized moments later that Victoria had accepted.

There were a few things they could do on the ship– it was a very large ship.

She had hardly planned for Victoria to acquiesce so now she had to think of what to do.

“I want to change into a lighter outfit.” Victoria said. “Let’s meet up again later.”

“That works for me.” Gertrude said. “I’ll change too. Then the crew will see me relaxing.”

“Okay. I will see you in half an hour then?”

“Got it. See you then.”

“See you.”

Both of them remained at the table for a moment, staring, before standing with their trays.

Depositing the spent plastic in the recycling bin, setting the trays in the collector.

Then they left together and walked largely together toward, basically, the same destination.

There was no other route to the officer’s lodgings, it was all in the same hallway.

Nevertheless true to their words they had departed and did not acknowledge each other.

Disappearing into their own rooms until the time appointed for them to meet.

Neither of them acknowledging the absurdity of what had transpired.

Once the door shut behind her, Gertrude took a deep breath, and then burst out laughing.

“God– well, what I am going to wear?” She said, her heart fluttering with joy.

One of the perks of a dreadnought, a regal ship that was so much larger than the Cruisers and Frigates that acted as the workhorses of any Navy– was that its spaciousness gave room for comfort and even some small luxuries. More than just the broad and tall halls with their painted walls, art pieces, smooth music and high-romantic aesthetics, the Iron Lady also had more and better amenities than other ships. Such details played a part in retaining a professional crew. They worked hard not only because of the prestige of their position but because serving on a dreadnought meant serving in a much better environment.

For the crews of Cutters, there were no provisions for communal entertainment. Very few spaces on such a ship allowed more than five or six people to congregate at a time, and the social pod was a single cushioned booth table with a few amenities.

On a Frigate, there was always an actual social pod with comfortable seating and A/V equipment, the size of a tight little bar that could fit up a bit over a dozen people people watching a movie, listening to music, reading, or relaxing. It was cozy enough.

On most Cruisers the social pod was arranged like a broad lounge just off of the hallway on the second tier. It was a clear and massive upgrade. There were couches and tables, there were a few curtained booths offering slightly more privacy; and the offerings were things like games, a small stage with audio gear for solo performances, projector movie nights. It was mainly an inviting space to get cozy and chat or read a book or listen to some music. While the social pod would be one of the largest spaces on the ship, second only to the hangar, it was still essentially the size of a single, enclosed venue.

On the Iron Lady, the social pod was significantly larger, if only marginally better stocked.

Entertainment remained limited to the things that any ship could feasibly do without any massive alterations. Even a dreadnought could not fit a grand plaza or a sports field or a high-class restaurant anywhere. However, there was much more space in which to do routine activities, and the social pod of the Iron Lady looked almost like shops, with a main thoroughfare and sectioned-off venues. Compared to other kinds of ships, the large, decorated space felt luxurious even if it offered similar amenities.

There was a lounge, with the now-expected amenities but able to hold thirty people semi-comfortably; a fully stocked gym for dozens of people, where volunteers also gave fitness and wellness classes; there were six private rooms with booth seating and audio-video systems; a vending machine the size of a kiosk serving snacks and drinks; there was a little arcade with table games, video games, and a simulation pod; there was a smoking room with strong filtering and venting to prevent spreading air pollution; and there were a pair of discrete, enclosed spaces configurable as hot baths, steamy spas or cold showers, each holding up to four people at a time. All together, the pod’s individual activities could potentially host close to a hundred people, unheard of in other warship classes.

Each of these leisure facilities was fully automated and designed to allow the crew to self-service– and to bar access where appropriate. Everything in the pod was inaccessible without scanning a ship ID card at each door, wirelessly confirming person’s assigned schedule for the day. This made it impossible to unlock facilities if the cardholder was supposed to be working, preventing the extensive facilities from being exploited.

The committed professionals aboard a Dreadnought accepted that their leisure was earned.

Comforted in the knowledge that such amenities existed at all, they had ample patience.

“What do you think? Ever seen a social pod this big before?”

“Now I know why your crew hasn’t revolted against you yet.”

“What? It takes more than just a gym and a smoking lounge to stop that! It takes–”

“Private hot tubs and cheap beer one card swipe away.”

“Well– the cheap beer has to be authorized for disbursal; obviously.”

From the main hallway, Gertrude Lichtenberg escorted her date, Victoria van Veka, through the open double-bulkhead threshold into the Iron Lady’s social pod. Though the pair of them received a few mischievous looks from gossippy sailors and agents, they paid no heed to it. They were dressed up, and going together, but they weren’t even holding hands.

Though Gertrude would have liked to capture Victoria’s hand in that moment.

Victoria looked– quite ripe for the capturing in fact.

She dressed closer to how she looked when they were at school, but much more mature, ripened into a fine young lady. Rather than her vest and pants, she wore a long-sleeved and long-skirted dress, blue and white with a synthetic bodice but a top and skirt that Gertrude could have sworn were natural fabric. It was quite flattering to her slim, gentle curves. Incorporating a wide neck, the design bared her slim shoulders and collarbones. She wore a white frilly choker with it. Her hair, a rich chestnut-brown in color, was done up into two ponytails each ending in a cute little curl. Between her cat-like ears with freshly groomed white fluff, there was a little flat cap, its color and style matching her dress.

Though she did not wear makeup, Gertrude noticed her lips had a bit of colorless gloss.

Her skin looked really soft too, and she smelled nice– she took good care of herself.

There was no denying that she was absolutely gorgeous.

Even back at school Gertrude struggled not to think about the pangs she would feel for Victoria whenever she dressed up in anything but the ordinary school uniform. Even sometimes with the uniform too, as the girls got older. Back then she wanted to express utter loyalty to Elena and such thoughts felt like a horrific betrayal. Now, as her own person, and not Elena’s knight, Gertrude had no one whom she would betray by allowing herself to feel what she felt obviously– Victoria was incredibly beautiful and attractive.

Meanwhile, Gertrude herself had put together a casual outfit as best as she could.

She wore a red button-down shirt with long sleeves usually reserved to be worn with the black and gold dress coat of a High Inquisitor, on special occasions. Sans tie, or the coat, she wore the shirt untucked over black pants and black dress shoes. Her somewhat unfeminine figure was accentuated by the boyish style, and Gertrude wanted to believe she had evoked a certain bad boy handsomeness. She tied her hair up into a bun, but in a fit of sudden whimsy, she had put a skewer through her hair bun as a kind of decoration. She felt like the blaring red shirt made her skin look a bit darker, not that she minded any of it.

For something to accessorize with, she dug out a pair of thin, gold-framed sunglasses.

They had been a gift from Samoylovych-Deepestshore, her fellow High Inquisitor.

“You look incredible, Victoria. I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful dress.” Gertrude asked.

“Is it strange that I have this? It’s light and simple, I can relax in it easily.” Victoria said.

“It’s not strange. I think it really suits you. I’m just surprised you packed it at all.”

Gertrude awaited a return compliment for a moment– and then practically begged for it.

“So– what do you think Victoria? How have I turned out since school?” She asked.

Victoria glanced at her and then averted her eyes. “You haven’t changed one bit.”

“Does it irritate you?” Gertrude asked, trying to crack a grin as if she didn’t mind it.

“Not all. What I mean is, you still try too hard. Sometimes it’s charming.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt a bit of a sting and did not think to prompt any further discussion–

“It’s charming now.” Victoria finally said, before heading into the social pod proper.

Following after her, Gertrude felt a bit like she had won a round of cards just then.

They walked through the thoroughfare and Gertrude pointed out the amenities in place.

After Victoria got a chance to look at everything, Gertrude gestured vaguely at the air.

“So– what would you like to do, princess? I’ll be your escort to whatever you desire.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me princess.” Victoria said, but with a slight bit of a good humor.

Victoria and Gertrude scoped out the arcade first.

Gertrude was not a frequent visitor to these facilities, but she knew her way around them for the most part. There were a few video game machines set against the wall. There was a shooting game with a light gun, a jet-boat racing game with a seat, wheel and pedals, and a scrolling ship game where the screen was replete with projectiles to avoid. Gertrude was not interested in any of them; she sometimes showed up for a round of pool on one of the game tables, or darts at one of several boards. However, what she did enjoy most in the arcade, and wanted to show Victoria, was the simulator pod in the back.

“I don’t fancy brushing up on my piloting skills at the moment.” Victoria said.

“It’s not just a Diver simulation. Come on, you’ll see.” Gertrude replied.

From outside, the pod looked more like a novelty photo booth, a massive square brown box with a door on the side to allow entry, set against the wall. It took up a significant chunk of the back corner of the arcade. Gertrude opened the door and gestured for Victoria to walk in first. There were two small steps to climb to enter. Inside, there a few pairs of lenses on a wall rack, and several round, bracelet-like pieces of equipment, ten of each for up to two people at a time. Aside from the gear the room was seemingly empty, with reflective metal walls all around the interior.

“Clip these on, and wear this.” Gertrude said, taking off her sunglasses for the moment.

Victoria looked at the bracelets and back at Gertrude with a skeptical expression.

She did as she was instructed. Wrists, ankles, knees, elbows, one long enough to go around the waist, one around the neck worn over her choker. Gertrude also clapped on all the bracelets and then donned the special glasses. When they were both side, Gertrude touched the wall to bring up a typical contextual menu. This room was made of touch-capable display walls, but there was even more to it. Just as Victoria began to ask what about this made it a simulation, LEDs on the bracelets flashed, color-projectors emerged from the corners of the floor and ceiling, lighting up.

In an instant, the world that they viewed through the included glasses changed entirely.

Gertrude found herself and Victoria in the middle of a grassy meadow.

Perhaps reminiscent of Vogelheim. Blue sky above, trees in the distance, rolling hills.

There was birdsong, and even some birds flying overhead.

Underneath her feet, the ground was still hard, however. And the air was dry and stale.

“You’re right, it’s not just a Diver simulation.” Victoria said. “What else can it do?”

Gertrude smiled at Victoria, who looked around the meadow with a slight bashfulness.

“It’s limited to the kind of stuff predictor computers can do easily. It generates a landscape based on data that it has available. You can walk around a bit because the floor will actually slide around to keep you in place. You can look, but there’s no tactile sensation. You’ve probably already felt that the air just isn’t as moist and warm as a real green habitat.”

“It’s very high fidelity.” Victoria said. “Even if it’s just a picture– it’s very beautiful.”

“I find it relaxing. Here, I’ll show you my favorite one. It’s amazing.” Gertrude said.

She reached out her hand, and within the simulation, a contextual menu appeared.

From there, she selected “beachside evening.” Prompting the world around them to change.

Slowly it dissolved into the next world that they would come to inhabit.

Blue sky blending into orange red. Grass disappearing into sand and pebbles.

Water and waves, a tide, tongues of the ocean crashing on the dirt and spilling back away.

And in the far distance, the setting sun, a vast orange disc dipping under the horizon.

Too close to be realistic to what the surface was once like, but aesthetically pleasing.

Gertrude looked at Victoria, her soft face kissed by the gentle orange glow.

Hair blowing in a simulated breeze that neither of them felt but both of them now saw.

Even with the missing details, Gertrude found herself immersed in the picture.

Everything was so beautiful and calming, ideal, that she made herself believe in it.

“I admit, Gertrude, I’m more drawn in than I thought I would be.” Victoria said.

She put her hands behind her back, wiggled her ears slightly, and smiled back at Gertrude.

“Would you care for a little walk with me?” Gertrude asked, her disposition ever sunnier.

“For a few minutes only– I don’t want to wear out the illusion.” Victoria replied.

Gertrude reached out her hand. Victoria looked at it briefly, before taking it into her own.

Hand in hand, they set off along the simulated shore. It was something the computer could have never gotten right. That softness and warmth, the gentle grip of Victoria’s slender, smaller fingers. The way she fidgeted as she gripped with the tip of her index finger sliding across Gertrude’s knuckle. At no point did she protest, nor did she rip herself from Gertrude’s grasp. They watched the simulated sun move with them as they walked, another incongruity of this experience’s aesthetic– and Gertrude felt so serene to be in it. Her palm grew warmer, and tingled, where it brushed Victoria’s skin. Where that traveling index finger touched and rapped, unable to stay still; where palms touched, skin grazing skin.

Staring sidelong, briefly catching Victoria’s gaze. Both of them breaking that contact.

Both of them smiling, just a bit. It was a little ridiculous, to be doing this.

A High Inquisitor of a fallen regime; the Bayatar of the ascendant Vekan Empire.

And yet, they were both childhood friends who had cherished each other in their youth.

For the moment, they were allies, distant in allegiances but with a temporary ceasefire.

In this simulation of an impossible place, which had been annihilated long before either of their times– perhaps it was also part of the fantasy to be able to put everything out of their minds and simply walk with their hands held, their heads high and their hearts warm. Feeling living pulse transfer through their skin and deferring yet another day the argument and departures soon to come. In this world, they could just be friends–

(and in another, perhaps, they might have been lovers–)

Gertrude wished that the moment along that false shore could somehow last forever.

Because for once– she felt like she had recovered someone she thought lost forever.

She could almost have wept for the fleeting, almost irrational joy that beset her.

After losing so much, she had gained back something.

In that moment it felt like more than enough to raise the tally to positive.

Victoria looked overhead, shielding her eyes. The corners of her lips moved slightly.

“Gertrude, look.”

Soaring across the sky was a group of birds– several four-winged, manta ray-like birds with short, almost flat beaks. Arrayed in tight formation and moving fluidly, despite themselves.

“Predictor computers.” Gertrude said, as if amused by the antics of a child.

After sighting the predictor inaccuracy, the pair decided to end their walk on a high note.

From the contextual menu, they chose to dissolve the projections, and the world they had been enjoying melted back into the metal walls of the simulator pod. Gertrude took off the AR glasses and withdrew her sunglasses to wear instead– when she noticed, rather than the dozen or so minutes she thought their excursion had lasted, they had actually been in the simulation for over thirty minutes. She was surprised and turned to Victoria, amused.

Victoria in turn simply shrugged. “It was a nice time. Thank you for bringing me here.”

Gertrude thought she might have to cloak her enjoyment in humor to get it past her.

Some part of her was still hesitant and maybe even ashamed to be enjoying this ‘date’.

But Victoria had few secrets where it pertained to her emotions. She said what she meant.

“Where would you like to go next?” Gertrude said. “We’ve got all evening after all.”

“I want to sit down somewhere for a while. Maybe have a snack.” Victoria replied.

Settled on their next destination, the pair left the arcade. People filtering in and out of the venue noticed the two and their eyes lingered as long as they felt they could get away with, afraid they might suffer retribution. Gertrude was not going to punish anyone for gawking– though it did remind her why she made infrequent use of these facilities. She put it out of her mind. At her side, Victoria either did not seem to notice anyone, or she did not care.

Her eyes never wandered.

From the arcade, they walked a few meters down the thoroughfare to the auto-vendor.

King of all vending machines, the auto-vendor was perhaps half size of the simulator pod they had been using, glossy and dark blue, a very serious machine.

Enclosed save for the stocking hatch on its side, locked for use only by the victualers. It had refrigeration, as well as a microwave function, and could vend hot drinks as well. It was stocked with stackable, recyclable plastic snack trays, with a few hot and cold offerings. On the front, its wares were displayed on a touch-capable screen. Crew members would swipe their cards and could then make their selections via touch control.

Gertrude chose a can of dark beer and a tray of crackers, hard cheese and cured meat.

Since leisure time and alcohol were both permissible, and the machine knew, it vended.

Victoria chose a can of lemon seltzer water and a tray of crudite and spicy mustard spread.

Even though she never practiced her religion overtly due to her family’s situation, she was still avoiding alcohol and adhering to the restrictions where she could. Gertrude had known since they were young that this was a sensitive issue for her– so she said nothing of it, did not make any comments as to whether she might or might not drink.

Instead she pointed out the private rooms.

“There’ll be a table in there and some ambiance controls. We can sit down, eat and chat.”

“That sounds lovely. I have been wanting to catch up a bit.” Victoria said.

“Me too. Things just kept getting in the way.” Gertrude said, leading the way.

Each of the private rooms had one long booth seat, cushioned black, a half-table made of carbon-fiber extending from the wall toward the occupants. It could be folded away to give a bit more interior room if it would not be used, but Victoria and Gertrude both set their trays and drinks upon it and kept it raised. Touching the wall brought up the contextual menu for the movie and music player which would project in front of the participants.

There was also a slot on the far wall of the booth seat that contained some towels, a pair of working headphones, a salt and pepper shaker– and a packet of condoms.

Victoria glanced at the condoms and then at Gertrude in a way that seemed accusatory.

On the foil wrappers for the condoms there was a little sun-disc logo Gertrude recognized.

“When did she have time to do this? She better not be encouraging sexual behavior.”

After Gertrude spoke Victoria’s gaze drifted from her, in a way that seemed judgmental.

But Gertrude wouldn’t ask for clarification. She left the condoms where they were found.

Grunting, she reached out to the wall and queued up some slow but jazzy music.

She set the volume down so it would provide ambiance but not interrupt the two of them.

Then she sat back against the booth seat, trying to loosen up. Cracking open her beer can.

“So– what do you think of the ship so far?” Gertrude asked.

Not knowing what to say first– not knowing where to even begin with Victoria.

To begin anew, after years, after throwing away their first friendship.

Victoria peeled the foil off her tray and picked up a celery stick, swirling it in the mustard.

“The Irmingard class continues to impress.” She said, simple and curt as was her habit.

Celery stick lifted from the mustard. Victoria took a bite. She opened her can of seltzer.

“Did you really kill Ludwig von Brauchitsch?” She asked, in a too-casual voice.

Gertrude blinked. She peeled the foil off her own tray while responding.

“This is rather sudden.” She said, putting slice of hard sausage into her mouth.

“You are welcome to withhold an answer. I’m just curious about your current position.”

With her connections in Veka, she must have known something about that situation.

Did she just want to hear it from Gertrude herself?

“Yes, I killed him. I hope you’re not imagining anything grand.” Gertrude smiled, feeling embittered to recall the memory of that pitiful encounter. “It wasn’t an epic showdown or anything– we didn’t have a huge duel; he was just an old man and I had the advantage. It was the opportunity I was given by Norn and Inquisitor Samoylovych that counted.”

Victoria swirled another celery stick in the mustard, winding a circle in the tray.

“You shouldn’t put yourself down too much.” Victoria said. “There are people who would have lapsed in that moment, when they realized the transgression they were about to commit. Our society revolves around an unspoken acceptance that hierarchy can never be overturned. To strike a blow with your own hands against an authority figure is utterly out of the question for most. But you accepted everything that came with that murder.”

“I don’t know that I understood it.” Gertrude said. “I was barely thinking about what it meant to take power from Brauchitsch. I was just desperate. Brauchitsch was going after loose ends from the fall of Schwerin Isle. Ingrid and I were being targeted by a High Inquisitor. It felt like my life was over. I had no rights as a human being anymore. He could do whatever he wanted to me or anyone I cared about with impunity. I was lucky– that Norn was there, that I managed to reach her, that she saw something in me and took me under her wing.”

“It’s not just luck, Gertrude.” Victoria said. “Again, I can’t help but point out that it would be unconscionable for almost anyone to approach Norn the Praetorian, let alone beg of her. While it might seem pathetic, you did something uniquely foolhardy and brave. It’s– something I admired about you– that brazen desire of yours to subvert the norms.”

Victoria had paused in the middle of her sentence. Her expression did not change, however.

“I wish you’d have been there to gas me up in the moment like this.” Gertrude said.

She laughed a little bit. Hoping Victoria might join in.

Trying to restrain herself from seeming too comfortable with the notion of that.

How different would have things been if they had remained friends?

Victoria rewarded her with the tiniest of smiles– but it was more than enough.

“I’m sure you had plenty of people to help inflate your head to its current size.” She said.

“Hey, come on, don’t suddenly turn on me.” Gertrude said.

Both of them laughed, just a little bit, together.

Victoria turned from her tray of food to look Gertrude in the eyes.

“I ask that question, because I also had to kill someone powerful. Becoming Bayatar was no easy thing– and the Empress was not in a position to help.” Victoria said. “Gertrude, after we left each other’s acquaintance, we both committed our first murders. We overturned institutions and took power for ourselves. I– I want to know how you felt about it.”

“Back then? I was terrified. After I put on the uniform Brauchitsch lost, I was still terrified.”

“Yes.” Victoria said. “And you realized power didn’t bring the freedom you hoped for.”

“Exactly. It wasn’t even guaranteed that I’d see Elena again and that was the entire point of everything I was doing. But I lived at the Inquisition’s whim. I realized over time that they got sick of Brauchitch’s arrogance and greed. It became convenient to let him die.”

Victoria nodded and seemed almost excited about that answer when she next spoke.

“You realized that transgression went both ways. I realized the same. In that same way that I killed, I had to accept that I could be killed. Someone could engineer everything perfectly to murder me. It would be tolerated or even praised in the right circumstances.” Victoria said. “Both of us made these covenants, to take power, to take life; and to accept the consequences of both. We are those rare few who overturned power only to see the next set of chains that power would clap on us. We both saw the limitations of our transgressions.”

They locked eyes, and Gertrude felt a warm fondness for her Shimii companion.

She felt foolish too. Because she had never imagined they could have so much in common.

They could understand in each other something they could hardly speak of to anyone else.

“Right.” Gertrude said. “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you? I was unaware.”

“High Inquisitors are normally appointed; but to be honored as Bayatar, you must kill.”

Victoria did not look nor sound like she wanted anyone’s pity, so Gertrude did not offer it.

“You’ll have to tell me the whole story there sometime,” was her response.

“And you’ll have to tell me about the end of Ludwig von Brauchitch.” Victoria said.

“Sure. I don’t think we have the time or mood to go into everything now.”

“I agree. It is the same with my story. But I do want to tell someone, sometime.”

“I’ll be elated to hear it. I’ll hang on every word.”

“You’ll be an acceptable audience for it.”

Was she teasing her now? Gertrude averted her gaze for a moment.

From that dire starting point, their conversation soon both settled down and livened up.

They were able to talk about their lives as if the events were trivial, just like old friends.

Victoria told her some things about her time in the Vekan court.

As Bayatar, she was kind of like a bodyguard and kind of like a royal guard captain without a retinue. Sometimes she had to control access to the Empress, sometimes she was sent out to complete a task, sometimes she had ceremonial duties. She told of how she had to field a few stupid duels on Carmilla’s behalf and thankfully managed to intimidate the challengers into backing down each time– and then Carmilla spared their lives each time.

“There are several traditions Carmilla chooses to retain that are pointlessly divisive.”

“Well, look at it this way– she looks brave for letting anyone challenge her, and she looks magnanimous for letting cowards who shamed themselves leave with their lives, when you could have just cut them down easily. It’s the kind of thing I associate with ‘Veka’.”

“Perhaps, but there’s more to us than the stereotype of barbarity.” Victoria said.

“I know. But you retain certain traditions to look more intimidating.” Gertrude said.

Victoria did not respond to that but did not seem to hold it against Gertrude either.

Gertrude asked her about horses, and how prevalent they were in the Vekan territory– a curiosity she had always had. Horses were exceedingly rare and valuable in the core of Imbria. There was a stereotype that in Veka, horses were much more accessible. Their culture had a lot of horse iconography, and the horse was a legendary animal to them, widely depicted in their arts. So that must have meant there were more horses there.

“Horses are indeed admired in Veka. They are seen as a symbol of wild, natural power. In fact the House of Veka were first notable in history as a horse-breeding clan.” Victoria said. “They took advantage of the Imbrian conquest to become the appointed duchal family, but the horse-breeding has remained an enterprise of theirs. Basically nobody owns horses– in ceremonies where a horse is involved in something, that animal was bred by the House of Veka and leased. They also produce any horse meat and blood that is eaten.”

“You had to drink horse blood to become a Bayatar right?” Gertrude said.

“Yes. Blood from Carmilla’s own horse, a child of her birth horse.”

“Huh. So the Empress has a specific lineage of signature horses.”

“When she was born, a horse born the same day was gifted to her. They grew up together, but a human lives longer than a horse obviously. So her horse sires or births a descendant that is also bound to her. This continues for as long as she lives. When she dies, her heir will inherit this family of horses. However, if she dies without an heir then the horses must be extinguished with her. Much worse than that will transpire afterward.”

“That’s– pretty incredible.” Gertrude grimaced. “How did the horse blood taste?”

Victoria’s ears folded. “Iron-like and salty, obviously. How does any blood taste?”

“How much did you have to drink?”

“You’ve become too interested in this. I refuse to discuss it any further.”

Gertrude laughed gently at Victoria’s expense.

They were having a good time. Victoria seemed healthy, positive and in good spirits.

Gertrude told a few of her own stories.

About Ingrid, her closest, abrasive companion through her years in the Inquisition; about Konstantinople, the lavish and beautiful seat of the Inquisition that formed part of the Fueller family’s purchase of loyalty from that venal institution; about travelling in the Iron Lady, some surreptitious meetings with Elena at various functions she was allowed to leave Vogelheim for; and finally a few little things that happened in Goryk’s Gorge.

Without yielding too much about each other, both seemed satisfied with what they learned.

Both of them had been through a lot; they had suffered more than the other knew.

And they had suffered similar things and felt familiar conflicts and catharsis.

Somehow after separating they had become more kindred than when together.

Bayatar and (ex-)High Inquisitor, trading stories, barbs and fond looks for several hours.

After talking for what felt like hours, the pair left their private room without words.

Gertrude was sure that they would go their separate ways after leaving the social pod, but to her surprise, Victoria both acknowledged nothing of the sort and also began to follow her closely and quietly back up the hall to the officer’s quarters. She was sure this just meant Victoria was tired and would turn in, but she followed Gertrude past her own door without so much as a glance at it. It felt too good to be true. Gertrude did not ask anything. In turn, Victoria did not say anything or act with anything but her casual confidence.

Without questions, Gertrude opened her door, and walked in, leaving it open–

Thereby allowing Victoria to quietly follow her inside and close it behind her.

Her expression was difficult to read. She looked– tired, perhaps? Wistful?

Victoria walked the length of Gertrude’s room, looking over the space.

“It’s a bit bare, isn’t it?” She asked, breaking the silence.

“I don’t have a lot to put in it. Or that I even wanted to put in it.” Gertrude said.

Perhaps this room was as bare as her personhood had been all these years.

Even after all her years in the Iron Lady, the Commander’s room was still laid out as it was first furnished for her. There was a bed, which was large and made of luxurious materials, with comfortable sheets and a good quality gel inside the mattress, stiff when needed and soft when wanted. There was enough storage for her uniforms and few casual and formal outfits. There were end tables, and she had access to a personal shower–

that was it.

There was not much else to it.

She used to have up a few things from the Inquisition, or Elena– but she put them away.

Maybe someday she would feel comfortable looking at them again– but not now.

“It could use more color.” Victoria said. “Even if just your characteristic red.”

“I didn’t realize red was characteristic of me.” Gertrude said, smiling a little at the attention.

Victoria glanced at her, and pushed on Gertrude’s bed, testing its stiffness.

“You know, I didn’t expect you to agree to go out with me today.” Gertrude said.

“I’ve started reevaluating my attitude on some things.” Victoria said, still poking the bed.

“Because of what happened yesterday?” Gertrude asked.

Victoria shook her head. “Not any one thing. I have been thinking.”

She left the side of the bed and got to walking again. She had a restless energy to her.

“Victoria– can you tell me how you feel about her? About Empress von Veka?”

Gertrude asked, as she watched Victoria pace along the edge of the bed.

It was the shadow which loomed over all their conversations of their past and future.

“You already have a preconception of it. Do you need to know more?” She asked.

“I want to know how my friend is doing and what she is feeling.” Gertrude said.

“Are you worried about me? Do you think I was groomed?” Victoria said, calmly.

“I’m just catching up.” Gertrude said, gesturing gently. “No judgment here.”

Victoria’s ears folded slightly, and her tail moved more stiffly, but she spoke.

“Carmilla is an incredible presence. I admire and esteem her. She makes me feel at ease and comforted. I love her and would kill anyone on Aer for her if she asked.” Victoria said.

Her voice was still her same dispassionate self, but Gertrude could see the admiration.

In her eyes– when Victoria looked far away she was looking at Carmilla.

She felt almost jealous– surely nobody talked about her in such a glowing way.

“But–” her old friend paused her pacing, hands behind her back.

Victoria looked over her shoulder at Gertrude with cold eyes, colder than usual.

Her turn was so sudden that her gaze almost felt like a physical impact on Gertrude.

“It’s not like you and Elena, Gertrude.” Victoria said bluntly.

“I never said it was!” Gertrude said, a bit amused at the comparison.

“You’re thinking it, you must be. Because of our social positions. You think it’s the same.”

“Victoria, I don’t know what your relationship is like, I don’t know the first thing, okay!”

“Then I will explain, because you’re so thick. I’m just her servant, even if she loves me.”

“Setting everything else aside. Let me ask you this: are you okay with it?” Gertrude said.

“Yes. It’s a tolerable situation because it is non-political. To take me as more than a servant-lover would threaten the order of things in Veka. She must continue her dynasty– so she must have a husband. I accepted this, Gertrude.” Victoria turned her gaze away and stared into the distance, toward the shower. She paced. Gertrude did not disabuse her of the notion she had brought up. She wanted to let her speak. It was the most she had said about herself and the most she had said with feeling in a long time. “Even if I was a man it would have to be this way. She can never be exclusive to me– it goes against the political order.”

When she thought she had a chance to interject, Gertrude did so, speaking her mind.

“I also understood that about Elena, but I still wanted her to be mine.” Gertrude said.

“That hubristic side of you can be charming sometimes.” Victoria said. Facing away, it was not possible to tell what sort of expression accompanied this statement. “Someday I will also raise children, as a Bayatar, and swear them to Carmilla’s children. That is the way of the warrior who drinks the blood of her liege’s horse. It is just how things are done in Veka.”

That way in which she spoke– it was impossible to tell whether it was fierce or resigned.

Why was she being so candid about this? She had been more distant about her other stories.

Did she want Gertrude to know all of this? For what purpose? Just as friends?

Maybe– she never had anyone she could ever tell these feelings to.

She could not tell the Empress von Veka, who obviously knew the state of affairs.

Had Victoria been holding this in her heart, all alone, for as long as they had been apart?

“Is it how things always have to be? Is it just an immutable fact that Veka will be this way?” Gertrude asked. “Wouldn’t you be upset to see her with a man when she could be yours?”

“I’m not as possessive as you.” Victoria said. Gertrude felt that her tone had gotten sharper but maybe it was just projecting on her part. Her back remained turned. “Someday I’ll find someone I can love outside of my love for Carmilla. I’ll love them differently but no less. They will be my partner in matters of the home and family in Vekan culture. Carmilla will find a man whom she trusts to support her, and they will have their family. Carmilla will still love me, and she will continue to use me as she has. I am already prepared for this.”

Her delivery was so matter-of-fact– had she really internalized and accepted all of this?

After she had told Gertrude she admired her for subverting authority–?

Curious, Gertrude briefly tapped into the muscles that allowed her eyes to see beyond.

What did she expect to see? Anger? Anxiety? Longing? What she did see, surprised her.

Victoria’s aura was gentle, like a breeze that kissed her skin, calm and stable in its rhythm.

To speak of sacrificing for her love’s sake with such surety, it was almost inspiring.

“I’m honestly kind of speechless. You’re so strong, Victoria.” Gertrude said.

Victoria finally turned around. Her face registered a mild surprise at her friend’s words.

Gertrude looked upon her, looked her in the eyes, feeling such fondness for her old friend.

She remembered the kind of blunt lectures Victoria would give to Sawyer, Elena or herself.

Out of all of them Victoria was always the smartest, but quietly, she was always the bravest.

That sharp tongue didn’t come from nothing– that was her strength speaking.

It was why Sawyer hated it so much. It was everything she herself lacked.

Victoria was free from their pretensions.

In her own way Victoria was freer than all of them. In her own way she had more power.

More power than Gertrude could have ever had– over herself, over her desires.

“You really were the best of us. I wish I had been more mature toward you.” Gertrude said.

Victoria looked, for the first time, openly conflicted. Her voice was a bit– exasperated.

“Back in school? Gertrude, I was never even angry with you. I wanted to help you.”

“But what I did was still awful– we could have kept up as friends if I hadn’t hit you.”

“It was awful, but I was never angry at you. I was upset with myself for losing my cool.”

“No. Victoria, you gave me a kick I really needed. I should have thanked you for that.”

Elena was in her final year of secondary schooling; they were going to lose her.

Victoria wanted Gertrude to consider how she could remain with Elena in the future.

Gertrude hated those words and attacked Victoria for uttering them so bluntly.

Just as Sawyer had done for much more petty and less meaningful words Victoria said.

But she did heed them– Gertrude also left their little garden of noble lillies after that.

To seek power, in the only place she knew she could find it– the power to take lives.

“Then was this cruel trajectory of our lives always inevitable?” Victoria said.

Her words trembled ever so slightly, for perhaps the first time in a long time.

Gertrude’s heart quavered and lost a beat looking at her face.

Perhaps she was imagining it, but Victoria looked to be on the verge of tears.

Yet she did not actually cry. It was just a subtle shift toward a more open sadness.

“Gertrude– I really wish I was more like you. You must think I’m insane.” Victoria said.

“Well– I don’t know that it would fit you– and you wouldn’t enjoy it.” Gertrude said.

“My own condition is not so blessed either. I don’t want to be admired. I am not so strong.”

Gertrude averted her own gaze, involuntarily, as that sharpness returned to Victoria’s eyes.

In hindsight, she was putting Victoria on a pedestal.

“We’ve both experienced a lot of cruelty that neither of us deserve.” Gertrude said.

Sighing, Victoria sat on the bed, her legs off it, leaning back with her hands on the sheets.

“No argument from me.” She said. “I just wanted you to know, Gertrude. I– I do wish it had gone differently. I do wish we could have remained friends. I wish you could have visited me like you visited Elena.” Gertrude was surprised. She wondered if Victoria had any ideas about what those visits had as their aim– she never considered Elena to be just her friend, after all.

“It can still be different.” Gertrude said. “We had fun today. I consider you my friend.”

“I wish our circumstances were not so complicated, Gertrude, I really do.” Victoria said.

Gertrude had already made her determination of this when they reunited.

It was easy to smile, put her hand to her chest and say it with conviction.

“If Veka asks you to kill me, I’ll resist– but I’m not going to hurt you again, Victoria.”

Victoria sat up straighter and looked down at her feet in response to that.

Her hands balled up into fists against her skirt. She shut her eyes.

“Gertrude– I was at Vogelheim on the day of the attack. I helped Elena escape from Sawyer. It was cruel to leave you ignorant of what happened. I knew exactly how much she meant to you. I could have informed you. But I did not. I thought badly of you– I wanted to hurt you or mock you. I hardened my heart and wanted to hate you– I’m sorry.” She said suddenly. “That day was such a mess for me. After seeing Sawyer again, I did not know I felt anymore.”

Though surprised, there was nothing for Gertrude to get either too upset about.

She knew Elena was alive. She had her own opportunity and used it to hurt her too.

And whatever pain Victoria had wanted to inflict on her, was in the past, and recovered.

So, there was no passionate reaction from her. She approached the bed and sat down.

Beside Victoria, as close as she felt was appropriate. She looked her friend in the eyes.

For a moment Victoria looked relieved. Perhaps she expected to be approached with anger.

“Do you still like Elena?” Gertrude said. Deliberately ambiguous in her choice of words.

“Yes.” Victoria said bluntly. Whether the esteem of a friend or something else, unknown.

“If it weren’t for that bastard Sawyer, we could have had a proper little reunion someday.”

They met eyes again. Victoria looked surprised at Gertrude’s calm demeanor.

After a moment, Victoria’s eyes wandered back to her lap. Another treasured little smile.

“Maybe if we capture Sawyer we can have a tea party and she can attend in a cage.”

Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. Victoria had a bit of a relaxed chuckle herself.

“Gertrude–” Victoria looked, to Gertrude’s surprise, quite openly happy. “I– I enjoyed myself today. Thank you. One thing that my life is missing, that I do miss, is that sort of spontainety that– that friendship brings. Friendship– it tugs at your heart’s strings when you least expect it. It makes you act differently. Changes the ruts that you have fallen into.”

As she spoke, Gertrude wondered if what her life really lacked was just friendship.

Her slight stuttering was very cute. She really was struggling with her feelings.

Not that Gertrude could tease for it– she herself had no idea how she would respond.

After all, what she wanted to say was perhaps far too scandalous for Victoria to accept.

So she sat next to Victoria on the bed, quiet for a moment, staring forward.

“Do you remember how we first met?” Victoria asked, breaking the silence.

“How could I ever forget?” Gertrude said.

The Luxembourg School for Girls had a tradition on its Inauguration Day, the time when new students were welcomed into the student body. Girls from the new classes would be paired together based on their IDs by the school computer and they would meet up and exchange ice breaker questions. For many of the girls this was a very serious ritual that they had already been preparing for. Aristocratic culture emphasized conversational skills and etiquette as something uniquely valuable to a woman, and Luxembourg served as a multi-year theater for such skills to be demonstrated and honed. The ideal girl raised by the school was supposed to be demure and beautiful but also literate and interesting.

Out in the flower garden, the girls in their uniforms, question cards in hand–

Little chattering voices, well-practiced smiles and just-so polite giggles–

And in the middle of all that, Victoria had been paired up with Sawyer on opening day.

Between Victoria’s terseness and Sawyer’s penchant to take offense, it was a disaster.

Gertrude had been feeling a bit foul about not getting Elena in the blind draw, as she had put a ridiculous amount of stock in being fated to be chosen to talk to Elena, like a sign from God that they were meant to be together. When she failed to get her way she got quite moody. Disinterested in her actual discussion partner, Gertrude could not help but notice Victoria and Sawyer’s intensifying awkwardness– and when Sawyer finally snapped for the very first time, Gertrude took her down to the ground for the very first time.

Sawyer, Gertrude and Victoria ended up in a counseling session.

Elena had to run in to try to convince the administrators of Gertrude’s good character.

Eventually, all three were released and made their acquaintance.

Gertrude even tried to make peace with Sawyer, though that was always very tenuous.

Yes– she could not have possibly forgotten. It had been such a pain in the ass, that day.

But also a fond memory, of her little group of outcasts who made sure she was never alone.

“Why do you ask?” Gertrude replied. “Feeling nostalgic?”

“Well– I never seriously asked you about it. Why did you intervene?” Victoria asked.

“Sawyer looked like she might hit you. You were smaller than her.” Gertrude said.

“It was that simple?”

“I consider myself something of a knight to defenseless, endangered girls.”

Victoria laughed.

“I’d have probably been friendless at school if you weren’t such a presumptuous rake.”

“Mysterious forces at work.” Gertrude said, suppressing offense at this description.

Again they fell into a silence. A longer silence. Punctuated by the turning of Victoria’s tail.

Suddenly, Victoria sidled a bit closer to Gertrude, until their hips touched.

She tipped her head so that it laid on Gertrude’s shoulder. Without any solicitation.

In the process Gertrude was completely stunned and paralyzed, her head spinning.

Victoria was so soft, and so warm– and her ears felt divine to even brush up against.

“Gertrude, would you scritch my ears? It’s been so long since anyone did.” Victoria asked.

Without a word, Gertrude’s hand tentatively lifted to the base of one of Victoria’s ears.

Her fingers traced where the soft cartilage rose up from beneath the head of hair. Following the slight arch, pressing with the pad, scraping gently with a blunt nail. Index finger acting as the main tool; while her thumb pressed the rim of the ear, or touched the pure white fluff that covered the opening of the ear. Victoria’s breathing and heartbeat transferred into Gertrude’s skin, her body nestling closer as her fingers worked her ethereally soft skin.

As if matching her rhythm, Gertrude felt a vibration coming from Victoria–

She was purring– Gertrude had never felt a Shimii purring right on top of her.

Her own heartbeat quickened as she realized the intimacy of what they were sharing.

And her mind, too, sped up in its desires and intentions.

Was this a dream? She felt emboldened to test the limit of the moment.

While the one hand had Victoria’s ear–

her other shifted the girl, pulled Victoria up straighter,

and closer,

tighter against her body,

by the hip,

There was no resistance from the softly flushed, gently breathing Shimii to this act.

Gertrude took one of Victoria’s hands into her own, gripping her fingers, stroking.

Leaning until her face was cheek to cheek with Victoria, just barely touching.

Nuzzling her, tentatively, sparingly.

Hovering under the jaw, lips brushing silken neck.

Leaving a brief, careful kiss–

awaiting a reaction.

“Nnh.” Victoria made a little noise, near indistinguishable from her purring.

Gertrude stroked her fingers, scraped the base of her cat-like ears a bit rougher.

And laid lips on Victoria’s fair, slim shoulder, savoring this kiss just a bit longer.

Gauging the reaction. Finding herself still in control of her contented friend.

Even as she left a red mark where the skin was once honeyed-fair.

Her free hand lifted from Victoria’s own, and climbed to her waist, up her flank.

Taking in Victoria’s little blue and white dress and the gentle curve of her chest.

Settling with a firm grip over Victoria’s breast, so perfectly fit to her greedy palm.

Pliant flesh beneath a thin, strapless brassiere. Gertrude kneaded, eliciting a little gasp.

Heart thrashing, she was afraid to say anything and therefore acknowledged nothing.

As her hand squeezed Victoria’s breast, her lips laid deep, sucking kisses on her neck.

Losing herself, drunk on the taste of skin and the touch transferring, on the pulse.

Victoria pressed her body tighter up against Gertrude, her back tensing.

Raising her head in response to the kissing, gently moving her hips on Gertrude’s lap.

Gertrude felt her vision waver as if in a heat haze, but she wouldn’t question it.

If this was a dream she would melt into Victoria’s body until she awakened.

Slowly, the hand which had been on Victoria’s ear traced down, brushing her cheek.

Gliding down the sides of her hips, luxuriating in her control of those slim contours.

Fingers exploring Victoria’s thigh, lifting up her skirt, pausing, with each transgression.

Feeling out the signals. Neither spoke. No adverse reactions. Gertrude took it as a sign.

Head lost in her own hungry passions; she traced the inner thigh to its terminus–

“Gertrude.” Victoria said, quick and near-breathless, as if all one syllable.

“Too much?” Gertrude said, struggling for breath herself, her chest pounding.

“No– I–” Victoria tried to look over her shoulder, Gertrude lifting from the marks she laid. Because of their positions they could only barely see each other’s faces. “Gertrude, I- I’m–”

For a moment she was lost for words. Barely able to speak between little gasps.

With Gertrude’s hands still on her breasts, between her legs.

“I want to look at you. I want to look you in the eyes.” Victoria finally said.

“I’d love that.” Gertrude said. Her head rushed with satisfaction.

She picked Victoria up with all her strength, causing her to make a little cry.

And brought her further onto the bed, dropping her in the middle. Looming over her with a contented grin on her lips. One hand supporting herself, another still teasing her inner thigh.

“You look dangerous. Have you been imagining doing this to me all along?” Victoria said.

“What if I have?” Gertrude asked.

Victoria turned her head, suddenly bashful. “It makes no difference. I want it anyway.”

Gertrude’s fingers took Victoria’s chin and gently guided her eyes back.

Looking deep and directly into them as if by sight alone she could devour her.

Slowly, savoring the moment, Gertrude drew closer to Victoria and kissed her.

At first an almost clumsy brushing of the lips, as if there was not yet reciprocation.

Then, when Gertrude thought to pull back, Victoria followed her and locked lips.

Now there was ardor, now there was a partner dance.

Victoria’s arms wrapped one around her back, one behind her shoulders.

Pulling her closer as they kissed, as Gertrude forced her tongue into Victoria’s mouth, as breaths that escaped from one entered the other. Drawing closer, Gertrude’s body on Victoria’s open legs, pushing her deeper into the bed gel. Between each taste of her lips Gertrude’s pulled on Victoria’s dress in fits and starts, peeling the fabric deeper below shoulder, over the chest to expose her brassiere, to the belly and below.

One of Victoria’s twintails came undone in the tearing fever that took them both.

Pausing for breath. Gertrude surprised at how vigorously her passion was returned.

Victoria pulled the other undone, letting her hair loose. Gazes joined, gasping for breath.

“Can I take the rest of this off you?” Gertrude broke the brief silence.

“Do whatever you want to with me.” Victoria replied in a near whimper.

Gertrude could not help but grin as those words made her body reach a boil.

Her eyes which had held Victoria’s own so devoutedly, wandered to the thin, rose-lace bra.

She peeled the rest of Victoria’s dress off, while Victoria clumsily undid her shirt buttons.

And hooked her fingers around the belt, unbuckling, zipping down her pants.

In the midst of her attempts to undress her, Gertrude slowly descended back close to her.

Biting one of her ears and then whispering while Victoria drew a sharp breath.

“I’m not the one who needs to strip down.” She said, while unhooking Victoria’s bra.

Layer by layer removed; Victoria looked suddenly so much smaller than Gertrude.

Shorter stature, thin waist, the slight curve of her hips, breasts almost as small as her own. There was leanness to her limbs, thin, flexible muscle, but in that supine position they were soft as the rest of her body. Exposing a delectable weakness that was driving Gertrude mad with lust. She ran fingers between Victoria’s breasts, down her belly and navel.

Victoria like the fair, moist nymph of some inexorably beautiful creature,

ripped from its cocoon.

Lying in bed with Gertrude over her, shadowing her, as if predator over prey.

That seeming vulnerability turned Gertrude on even more.

Made her want to be aggressive.

In that moment, she thought she would cum solely from the thrill of cornering her.

With carte blanche to do anything she wanted– what she wanted was to see more.

To prod more of Victoria, to explore her body, to touch every spot that made her quiver.

To catch up and sate the longing she never could as a hormonal teenager.

Tracing deep, sucking, marking kisses on Victoria’s neck, on her shoulder, collarbones.

All her soft, vulnerable, vital places, places that looked softest, most inviting, exposed.


Her delectable whimpering voice as teeth narrowly pulled on the tip of one breast.

Chest rising and falling, Victoria repositioned herself again, grabbing hold of Gertrude.

Pulling herself up to meet her eyes closely.

“I said– I– I want to see you–” She demanded. Retaining some of her bluntness.

“Right. I got carried away. For you, princess. My eyes will never leave you.”

“Ugh– Don’t call me–”

Gertrude suddenly took Victoria and pushed her up against the headboard.

Controlling her body like the weight was insubstantial.

She drew closer, gaze unmoving, not even blinking in the midst.

As her hands traced Victoria’s belly, forced her legs spread, slowly, deliberately.

Savoring the subtle shifts, the tensing shoulders, the wandering, incoherent expression.

Arching back, the way her core pushed up against Gertrude in need, her quivering thighs.

Her little moans, the vibrations of her purring–

As Gertrude’s fingers entered her wet cunt and worked her into a steady rhythm.

Looking into those beautiful, cloudy eyes, into that flushing face lost in passion.

Maintaining a confident satisfaction in herself even as her own breath trembled with desire.

Caught up in the heat, they began to slide back from the headboard onto lying positions.

Gertrude readjusting, her fingers slipping from inside Victoria–

Barely allowing a second to pass before her fingers began kneading her clit.

Victoria’s body squirming beneath her, her hips pushing, her back rising and falling–

Squeezing her fingers hard against Gertrude’s back as if wanting to tear into her.

Victoria was no longer capable of a gaze, lost in the involuntary spasms of pleasure.

Her chest heaved with the need of breath and the harsh satisfaction of carnal needing.

Moaning, gasping, and purring all seemed to melt into tiny and broken vocalizations.

And yet, Gertrude’s eyes never left even as Victoria was wracked with climax.

Her hips shuddered, her grip slackened, her body falling back from Gertrude weak–

“Gertrude– hold me– please–”

“Anything you desire, my dame.”

Taking hold of the shaking girl about to fall from her, tattered breath and shaking legs.

Gertrude curled up with Victoria’s back against her chest, close and tightly.

Those remaining clothes which she had been wearing through the act, Gertrude stripped.

Before returning her full attention to her lover.

Gentle kisses dotting her cheek, her neck and shoulders.

One hand to hold her, another up over her hair, stroking her head, and scritching her ears.

She could feel Victoria’s tail gently sliding over her sweat-soaked core and hips.

Tying around her leg, curling softly. Her breathing slowly settling into normalcy.

“How are you feeling?” Gertrude asked, whispering as she comforted those cat-like ears.

“Satisfied.” Victoria replied, slowing, steadying into Gertrude’s arms. “How about you?”

“Trying not to say something too greedy.”


Victoria pushed herself back further against Gertrude, nestling even more tightly.

“I’m not trying to take Elena’s place.” Victoria said.

“Elena doesn’t have a ‘place’– I’ve changed a bit, Victoria.” Gertrude replied.

“Right.” Victoria said. “You know– I never imagined you would be so eager with me.”

Gertrude had a short laugh. “I needed this pretty badly.” She said.

Victoria breathed deep. “I needed it too. I’m– I’m also greedy. I also want– everything.”

Prompted by Victoria’s stammering, Gertrude tightened her arms around her, kissed her.

Neither of them seemed to want to presume on what their relationship could become now.

Nevertheless, Gertrude was happy. Whether it was just a fling or not– she was happy.

They could talk later. For now their skin and flesh had all the conversation.

The Iron Lady breached the immediate seafloor and slid further down the cavernous maw at the bottom of the trench. Sonar and LADAR scanning as well as a drone had uncovered that the layout was strangely uniform and did not veer much, and the Iron Lady still had some room clear of the walls in its descent. Surprisingly, there were no readings of any threatening life forms. Abyss expedition survivors had historically claimed to have ran into eccentric leviathans and unverifiable megafauna in the extreme depths, so the ship had been cautious to scan frequently for anything incoming. All was silent around them.

This was taken as a positive sign by the crew, and the depth gauge continued to count.

Everyone assembled for a long day. They had a fully crewed bridge to attend to the descent.

Between 5000 and 6000 meters, there was nothing but rock and empty water around them.

Katov levels continued to rise, and the mass, when properly lit, had turned purple.

Strangely enough, however, the salinity of the Katov mass had begun to reduce.

“Um, Captain.” A crew member looked up from her instruments in disbelief and turned to Captain Dreschner. “Maybe this is a mistake, I do not know for certain– but if this is correct, salinity is continuously dropping as we descend. I– I don’t believe it’s possible but– if salinity drops below average for salt-water, we may start to descend faster than we expected.”

The After Descent civilization was aware of the concept of “fresh water.” On the continent, in the past, possibly even now, there was natural water without salt. However, no ship was designed to move in such water. It was impossible to encounter it. The difference was not vast– but for a massive ship moving precisely in extreme depths, it was noticeable.

They would have to be careful of this fact.

Captain Dreschner looked at the main screen, hosting a 3D diagram of the surroundings.

Since the cameras had become mostly useless, they navigated using this kind of data.

If the instruments were incorrect, they could be in more danger than they knew.

“We can send the drone out, if its instruments confirm the same, then we must accept it.”

Within ten minutes, a small drone laden with oceanography instruments left the ship.

As soon as it was in the water, it began to read exactly what the ship’s instruments did.

Salinity was dropping below saltwater level. Average Imbrium salinity was around 3.7%.

Meanwhile, the average salinity in the Crisium was 4.0%, and 3.8% in the Cogitum.

In their current position salinity had dropped to 3.3%– lower than any of Aer’s oceans.

And it was still dropping, steadily declining. 3.0%, 2.7%, 2.4%–

“Are we dumping anything from the ship? Any chemicals?” Dreschner asked.

“No sir.” Said a crew member, monitoring from their station.

Karen Schicksal soon received word from forensics about a quick analysis of the water.

“Sir, there’s– there’s not any strange chemicals in the water.” Karen said, stuttering once.

“Issue an Alert VALERIE to the crew.” Captain Dreschner ordered.

KONRAD was the full-on combat alert, but VALERIE just meant ‘proceed cautiously’.

They had to ready for a foreseeable raise of the alert level and sudden shifts in direction or acceleration. Rough waters ahead. Under Alert VALERIE, the crew should try to complete their assigned tasks expeditiously, to secure their tools and instruments whenever not in use, keep to designated secure areas as much as possible, and generally act as if they might be brought into danger at any moment. Strange situations often warranted this alert.

Whenever the Captain was not certain of an outcome, it was best to sound this alert.

After the issuing of Alert VALERIE, Gertrude Lichtenberg and Victoria van Veka arrived on the bridge together, both in their respective uniforms. Captain Dreschner brought them up to speed on what was transpiring. They were both confused. It was natural for salinity to shift very minimally in each ocean, and it was a historical fact that the Imbrium had gotten saltier across the hundreds of years of the After Descent era. However, such changes happened incrementally, infinitesimally small. In a matter of hours they found themselves staring at water that was approaching 2.0% salinity– incredibly low.

“Are we sure the instruments are correct? Maybe it’s some electrical phenomenon?”

Victoria crossed her arms, trying to find a logical solution. Gertrude shook her head.

“If it was that, we would seeing more weirdness with the instruments.”

“This isn’t a disconnected water system, it’s still just the Imbrium Ocean.”

“I know, but we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Maybe I should get Nile up here.”

“She would probably insist that she’s only a medical doctor– and it would be fair, I think.”

At 6000 meters depth, one of the sonar operators took off her headset, groaning.

“I– I need to rotate out, Captain. I feel like I’m hearing an audio anomaly. I must be tired.”

“Of course, go on.” Dreschner said.

Dreadnoughts had enough crew to rotate full bridges in and out if necessary.

Another perk of working on the most elite class of ship. Having top talent– and a lot of it.

By the time the sonar operator protested she had already been working several hours.

It was not a privilege that could be abused, as her fellow operators would hate her for it.

But any given officer was willing to take their station to relieve an ailing compatriot.

In this case it seemed the audio devices continually registered a strange, whispered, almost mournful noise, as if human in origin. It was no wonder that the previous sonar operator was so stressed out as to rotate. Dreschner had the station checked out by an engineer– but the noise somehow could not be attenuated digitally, at least not completely.

When the new sonar operator arrived and took her place, she, too, was unnerved.

However, as an elite member of a Dreadnought crew, she shrugged it off.

Sitting miserably at her station but soldiering on through the awful, haunting noise.

“I promise, if this keeps up, we’ll rotate more quickly and consistently.” Dreschner said.

6800 meters deep. There were almost 2000 meters of cavern above and around them.

Nothing but an enormous shaft, all rock, its surrounding surfaces naturally irregular.

Water salinity had dropped to 1.2% and the Iron Lady was descending slightly faster.

“Mitigate descent. Have the computer calculate differences in buoyancy.” Dreschner said.

Everyone was a bit tense, but this was an obstacle that was solvable.

Buoyancy could be controlled and adjusted. The Iron Lady was a very high-tech ship.

Water was water and the difference between saline and clean water was not so high.

It was still a medium that they could navigate through, and all their tools still worked.

7000 meters deep.

0.9% salinity– and holding.

7100 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7110 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7120 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7130 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

“Salinity has remained stable, even at the parts per billion reading.” A crew member said.

“You know– this is the same salinity as human blood.” Another crew member remarked.

7150 meters deep.

7200 meters deep.

381731138137193619311183193861736133 meters–

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” One of the crew members cried out.

“Language.” Captain Dreschner said. “Mind your manners on this ship.”

“Sorry sir– now the depth gauges are out of it. We’re not imploding so– this isn’t right.”

Captain Dreschner cast an eye sideways as if to solicit a response.

Beside Dreschner, Gertrude looked briefly concerned, but remained resolute.

She shook her head at him. They would continue descending.

“Ignore the depth gauges.” Dreschner said. “Have the computer perform a manual count of the current depth based on the final recorded correlation between descent and depth.”

On the main screen, the predictor computer put up a big, 3D-rendered depth gauge.

7300 meters deep.

7400 meters deep.

7500 meters deep.

7600 meters deep–

“We are not going that fast are we?” Captain Dreschner asked.

“It must be hallucinating.” Gertrude grumbled.

Predictor Computers–

couldn’t live without them, couldn’t live with their pathetic errors.

Or so everyone hoped– the amount of uncanny failures was starting to scare the crew.

Gertrude produced what looked like a pocket watch from her coat.

She put it back in her coat with a sigh.

“Anything?” Victoria asked.

“Aetherometry is stable.” Gertrude whispered. “So it’s not that.”

7700 meters deep.

7800 meters deep.

7900 meters deep.

“It’s only been a minute or two, it’s like we’re in freefall.” Victoria whispered back.

8000 meters deep.

Suddenly, a flash of an alert light.

On the 3D diagram taking up most of the main screen, a red grid overlayed the cave wall.

There was something happening– the predictor computer was drawing attention–

“Active sonar and LADAR, now.”

“Yes sir.”

From the sonar arrays, waves of noise emanated, bouncing off the cave walls.

Laser arrays around the ship flashed the surroundings, taking in the finer details.

All of this data compiled to update the diagrams in under a minute.

It appeared that the shaft went 1000 meters farther before opening up into a massive space.

Furthermore, the predictor computers hallucinated that the walls were made of flesh.

“Has it ever been this inaccurate this often before? What is going on?”

Gertrude complained, but around the bridge, the crew was growing ever more unnerved.

With a trembling voice, a different crew member spoke up then.

“Add it to the list of malfunctions, but barometry is reporting incredibly low pressure.”

“How low?” Captain Dreschner asked.

“Fifty atmospheres– and dropping?” Again, the operator was stunned by this.

“That is absolutely ridiculous. Recheck every system!” Dreschner grunted.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide. It seemed to dawn upon her how irregular this all was.

The Iron Lady was one of the most stable and gallant ships of her class.

Never had they experienced so many failures; so many bizarre, seemingly random failures.

It had to be something that the abyss was doing– but what? Would Nile even know?

At least nothing necessary for life was compromised yet. Just the data instrumentation.

“Any other data anomalies I need to be aware of?” Dreschner said.

One haggard-looking bridge officer looked over her shoulder, pointing at her screen.

“Sir– the luminosity– with that last laser scan– the surroundings might be visible.”

Everyone on the bridge seemed to develop a thick lump in their throats upon hearing this.

There were brief glances around the room. Everyone was fidgeting in some way.

Because if they turned the cameras on for visual confirmations, they might see–

“We have to straighten those spines out already!”

Gertrude shouted at the top of her lungs and stepped forward.

Standing on the center island of the bridge, raised over every other station.

“We are the crew of the Iron Lady! We have the greatest technology and firepower the Empire has ever produced! We have the finest officers that have ever climbed the ranks! All of you fought tooth and nail to make it here! If you felt fear, you overcame it! If an obstacle was put in front of you, you surmounted it! You would not be here otherwise! It is time we stop giving into fear over nothing! None of this data tells me that we are in danger! It tells me that we are pioneers, entering the unknown! Can you conquer the entire Empire in its fallen era, if a few measly readouts on your instruments put such fear into you?”

She turned to Karen Schicksal and pointed her finger like a sword at her suddenly.

“I want visual confirmation! Let’s see whether there’s nothing but katov mass!”

Everyone on the bridge stood up straighter having heard that speech.

Perhaps not any less fearful, but more cognizant of what fear was doing to them.

At the behest of the Commander, Cameras went back on across the ship, one by one.

Main screen cameras took up the prime position once occupied by the 3D diagrams.

Gertrude fought with every ounce of her being to contain her emotional reaction.

Victoria van Veka covered her mouth with a hand as if to stifle a burgeoning cry.

Across the bridge, every officer craned their head up to stare at the main screen.

All were silent. Some had a tremble in their jaw or trembling lips, shaking hands.

The Commander could not allow that silence to persist.

She had already seen horrifying sights before. Her body shook, but she put on a grin.

Perhaps, from the vantage of her crew, it appeared a grin of complete insanity.

“Hah. Nothing but– inert matter. What do we have to fear? Keep descending.” She said.

On the main screen, the main cameras, located on the forward “spoon” of the bow, caught a too-clear view of the cavern wall. Purple katov mass floated lazily in place of the marine fog, but despite the enormous katov level of the cavern’s waters, it was somehow not as viscuous and difficult as that which they found farther above. It could be seen-through, and what was seen was a slightly viscuous, weakly shivering wall of red-brown flesh. It was perfectly smooth and equidistant, unlike the ridged, irregular rock walls that preceded it.

The Iron Lady descended as if down a vast throat.

And very soon, too soon– the landscape of flesh expanded enormously all around them.

Coming out from the “throat” they entered a world that was eerily well-lit, as if kissed by an oddly angled sun, revealing a seafloor of flesh that extended into the horizon. On the fleshy roof of the cavern there were ridges and wrinkles in the flesh. Fields of yellow and red, fleshy reed-like “plants” swayed as if brushed by an impossible current. Enormous aortic strands, blue and red and purple, coiled through the flesh in the floor, the distant walls of the cavity, on the roof. This space must have extended for dozens of kilometers in every direction, it was absolutely vast. Despite the katov mass, it was possible to see

too far,

too possible–

and too much to be seen.

Gertrude stood speechless on the bridge as the cameras panned around the ship.

One landmark particularly commanded the attention of the entire area.

Over ten kilometers away was an absolutely massive silicate structure, pearlescent and murky, its milky-colored surface covered in fractures. It stood like a pillar between several knotted bundles of flesh that seemed as if they were suspending it in place.

All of the light in this cavity felt like it was coming from that structure–

which Gertrude hesitantly acknowledged, resembled a tree.

It was this sight which filled her first glimpses of the Agartha,

and the Great Tree Holy Land of Mnar.

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